This Week’s Book Review – Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Lady Death’ the story of a successful sniper

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 12, 2019

“Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper,” by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Greenhill Books, 2018, 272 pages, $32.95

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the Soviet Army’s most successful female sniper during World War II. A fourth-year history student when Hitler invaded Russia, she quit school to enlist as a sniper. In 1941 and 1942 she racked up 309 kills.

“Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper,” by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, is an English translation of her memoirs. She died in 1974, leaving a manuscript copy of her memoirs, which remained unpublished until this century.

In it she recounts her life, with a primary emphasis on her wartime experiences. She shows how she became an expert marksman before the war, joining shooting teams at work and in school, becoming fascinated with both the machinery of the rifle and the art of shooting.

She put those skills to good use when Russia was invaded. Enlisting as a private, she served as a sniper in the 25th Rifle Division. She recounts her experiences during the summer of 1941 through the spring of 1942. She fought at the sieges of Odessa and Sevastopol, was wounded several times, promoted to lieutenant (and command of a sniper platoon), married a husband and saw him die in combat. These experiences are described in the chapters covering her combat career.

Wounded near the end of the latter siege, she was evacuated before Sevastopol fell. She had become famous, the subject of several published Soviet “histories” she states invented exploits for dramatic purposes.

Against her objections (she had a husband to avenge) she was sent to the United States on Stalin’s orders as a Soviet student representative to an international youth conference. There she met and was befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is as fascinating an account as her combat recollections. The United States, Canada, and Britain were environments to which she had never been exposed.

Pavlichenko was an unapologetic communist, who grew up a privileged member of the nomenclature, the Soviet elite. This colors her history of events. She mentions Hitler invading Poland, but fails to mention the Soviets aided Hitler.

Regardless, “Lady Death,” is fascinating, and Pavlichenko’s beliefs don’t change her real accomplishments. This is a book worth reading.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Stanley Marcus

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Stanley Marcus’ highly entertaining and informative

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 5, 2019

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, State House Press, 2018, 280 pages,$19.95

Neiman Marcus is Texas’ signature department store. It was the first place where Texas and high fashion converged. It remained the Texas arbiter of fashion throughout the 20th century.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, is a biography of the man who turned Neiman Marcus into the aristocrat of department stores.

Stanley Marcus did not found Neiman Marcus. His father and uncle did. They, along with Stanley’s aunt, made Neiman Marcus into Dallas’s leading store. Herbert Marcus’ salesmanship and insistence on customer satisfaction, Carrie Neiman’s (nee Marcus) fashion sense and Al Neiman’s shrewd management of expenses proved a perfect fit for a Dallas growing wealthy through then-new oil money. The new-money rich could go to Neiman Marcus, get dressed right without feeling condescended to.

Stanley Marcus became the prince inheriting this kingdom because he was Herbert’s oldest son (Al and Carrie had none). That was how family businesses ran back then. But, as in a fairy tale, he had a magic touch when it came to retailing luxury goods.

Alexander’s biography shows how Stanley Marcus transformed Neiman Marcus from Dallas’ leading department store to an American fashion icon. Alexander shows how in the 1930s Marcus managed to make Dallas a fashion center by a combination of fashion sense, marketing and exclusivity. Neiman Marcus was the first fashion store outside of New York City advertising nationally, creating a national identity.

The book is told from an insider’s perspective. Alexander became Neiman Marcus’ sales promotion director in 1970. He worked directly with Stanley Marcus for decades, becoming close friends with Marcus. Alexander’s accounts of the store’s fashion “fortnights” (two- and later three-week marketing extravaganzas focusing on fashions of a country) are often personal recollections. He recounts the successes, failures and challenges met. A similar approach frames his accounts of the company’s expansion to other cities.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince” is a book praising a respected friend who has passed. It’s also a highly entertaining and informative look at a great store and the man most responsible for its greatness.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Arkad’s World

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

“Arkad’s World” is like a curio museum

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 29, 2019

“Arkad’s World,” by James L. Cambias, Baen, 2019, 304 pages, $24

Arkad is the only human on the distant planet of Syavusa. In his mid-teens, he makes a rough existence on the streets of the town of Ayaviz.

This is “Arkad’s World,” a science fiction novel by James L. Cambias.

He has lived on the streets almost as long as he can remember; ever since his mother died when he was a child. His possessions comprise of a blanket he wears, a knife, a data unit retained from his youth, and whatever else he can carry. Then Arkad’s existence suddenly changes.

Three other humans arrive in Ayaviz. Arkad seeks them out. Maybe they will take him to other humans.

They seek Rosetta, a spaceship that left Earth just before the planet was conquered by the Elmisthorn. They’re now domesticating its remaining human inhabitants. Rosetta contains the cultural treasures of Earth, spirited away to preserve them.

Arkad had memories of Rosetta, from when he was a youth. He offers to guide the three humans there. His price is a ticket off Syavusa. The problems are that Rosetta is literally halfway around the world, and Arkad doesn’t remember exactly where it is. Or really even sort of where it is. He doesn’t tell the other humans that.

The four set out to find the spaceship. Their trip becomes an epic worthy of Marco Polo. Syavusa is an odd world, one that doesn’t fit the template of any other inhabited planet. It’s peopled by a weird assemblage of different sentient races. Moreover, those on the planet are the cranks and misfits of their own societies. The planet is like a curio museum.

It has no central government; only individual local societies. Some groups came fleeing the Elmisthorn. The trip is fraught with challenges and dangers. The three off-planet humans don’t know how the Elmithorn will react to the reappearance of Rosetta, which left Earth 50 years earlier, but they suspect it will be hostile.

“Arkad’s World” is a delightful story. It will remind readers of a mix of “Kim,” “Treasure Island,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” in a new and original setting.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Ganges

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Ganges’ offers insight into the forces that shaped modern India

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 22, 2019

“Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River,” by Sudipta Sen, Yale University Press, 2018, 464 pages, $30

The Ganges is one of the world’s great rivers, and India’s most sacred river.

“Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River,” by Sudipta Sen, is a study of the river.

The book is part history, part meditation, and part religious study. Sen looks at the history of the Ganges River basin and explores the river’s impact on India’s culture. He examines how three of the world’s major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam — affected those living in the Ganges River basin, and were in turn affected by the Ganges.

The river emerges from the Himalayas gathering size and strength until it empties into a wide delta at the Bay of Bengal’s northern coast. The river is considered sacred; fed by other sacred rivers. Its waters are considered healing.

Ironically, despite today’s contamination, Sen reveals there may be rational basis for the belief. Trace chemicals from the river’s sources and a bacteria-eating virus inhabiting the river’s banks clean the water of harmful diseases — given enough time. Sailing-era British ships filled water casks from the Ganges because the water stayed drinkable longer.

Sen starts at the beginning and goes to the end. The book’s opening chapters start at the river’s sources and cover the ancient pre-history of the river. Subsequent chapters move downstream and later in history. The book concludes at the river’s mouth, during the opening years of the British Raj, ending in the late 19th century.

Sen reveals the central role the Ganges basin played in India’s history. Indian civilization grew among the fertile soils of Northern India’s plains through which the river and its tributaries flow. He catches the ebb and flow of the indigenous empires that grew there, and shows how they confronted outsiders.

Northern India was part of a greater Eurasian culture. It was located on caravan routes linking China with Europe. Trade always played an important part of life in the Ganges basin. Sen shows how this region confronted waves of would-be conquerors, from Alexandrian Greeks through sailing-era Europeans.

“Ganges” is a book which works on many levels, offering insight into the forces that shaped modern India.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Texas Calaboose’ a study of small lockups

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 15, 2019

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 344 pages, $35

“Locked up in the calaboose” sounds like a line from a cheesy Western. It was reality for thousands in 19th and 20th century Texas.

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore is the definitive study on Texas’ small lockups.

Moore defines a calaboose as a small jail, typically less than 300-square-feet, with one or two cells. They were intended to house lawbreakers for short stretches; overnight or until they could be transported to the county jail.

Most small Texas towns had one. Usually one of the first buildings constructed after a town incorporated, it was almost always the sturdiest. They were austere: bare walls, minimal amenities, no electricity and no heating or cooling system. A night in the calaboose didn’t coddle, nor was intended to.

They were also homespun, built by locals with materials at hand, and for a minimal cost. Wood, brick, stone, concrete or iron and steel were used depending on availability. Some were simple cages, open to the elements. No two were alike.

Moore became fascinated with small jails, viewing them as markers of Texas society. They were tenanted by the more eccentric members of small-town society. Occasionally, a famous name occupied a calaboose. Bonnie Parker spent a night in the Kemp lockup.

These small jails passed out of use starting in the 1950s. The automobile and better roads made it easier to take lawbreakers to the county jail, eliminating the need for local lockups. Yet because they were sturdy buildings, many survive today. Most are used for storage. Others have become museums. Some are neglected and will disappear. A few have (or had) more eccentric uses, such as a chicken coop and an upscale room for rent.

Moore’s book catalogs all surviving calabooses, small jails and cages in Texas. This includes details and descriptions of their construction: size, footprint, materials used, location, current owner and (when known) date built. He includes photos of every specimen; illustrating these building ran from basic concrete cubes to elaborate crenelated castles.

“The Texas Calaboose” captures Texas’ past in a new and entertaining way.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Thomas Cromwell

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Thomas Cromwell, from commoner to Britain’s principal nobleman

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 8, 2019

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Viking, 2018, 752 pages, $40

Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch is a biography of Cromwell who, when remembered is credited with the dissolution of church properties and, along with Thomas Cramner, as one of the twin pillars of Britain’s Protestant Reformation.

MacCulloch provides a fresh appraisal of Cromwell in this book, a man more nuanced than Sansom’s bully, and as significant as Oliver Cromwell. MacCulloch reveals Cromwell receives too much credit for monastic dissolution, and was more equivocal about introducing Protestantism than commonly believed.

McCulloch spends considerable time on Cromwell’s early life, before his meteoric rise in the 1530s from an obscure lawyer to Henry VIII’s chief minister. This is valuable because it puts Cromwell’s actions in context.

A yeoman’s son, Cromwell left to make his fortune on the continent, returning after several years in Italy. On the strength of his Italian connections, Cromwell entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey, who was then Henry’s leading minister. Through sheer ability Cromwell rose to become Wolsey’s chief deputy, playing a leading role in dissolving dysfunctional monasteries (experience he used later for Henry). Wolsey was tolerant of religious dissent, including that of Cromwell who already favored evangelism (the precursor of Protestantism).

Cromwell attracted Henry’s attention and transferred to Henry’s service, when Cromwell could further his religious beliefs. He maintained Wolsey’s tradition of toleration, initially remaining cordial to Catholics and friend to Princess Mary.

Henry advanced Cromwell, but at the price of Cromwell serving Henry’s whims, eventually forcing Cromwell to adopt positions he disliked. Yet Cromwell was well rewarded — rising from a commoner to Britain’s principal nobleman in just six years.

His fall was even swifter. When he displeased Henry (chiefly over promoting Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves) Cromwell was attainted, convicted of treason, and executed within one year.

MacCulloch’s biography is long, but rewarding. He brings Cromwell to life, stripping away myth to reveal a great, but flawed man.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – A Star-Wheeled Sky

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘A Star-Wheeled Sky’ marvelous sci-fi entertainment

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 1, 2019

A Star-Wheeled Sky,” by Brad R. Torgersen, Baen Books, 2018, 384 pages, $16

Second novels are frequently worse than the first. It happens so frequently that it’s called the second-novel curse. Brad R. Torgersen defies this curse.

“A Star-Wheeled Sky,” by Brad R. Torgersen, a science fiction novel, the author’s second, offers a fresh take on interstellar conflict.

A millennium before this story takes place, humanity fled a war-ravaged Earth in slower-than-light colony ships. A few reached star systems connected by a faster-than-light transportation network, the Waywork. Node points, called Waypoints, offer instantaneous transportation to another star system in the network. The builders, the Waymakers, abandoned the network long before humans arrived. They remain unknown.

Since human arrival in the Waywork, starstates have emerged. Humanity has filled the once-empty planets. With no other way to grow, one starstate, Nautilian, has set out to conquer the Waywork. Nautilian is totalitarian on a scale that makes Stalin’s Russia seem amateuristic. Its policy if a conquered planet resists is to kill off the entire population and resettle it with inhabitants loyal to Nautilian.

Opposing them is the starstate Constellar. Constellar is an oligarchy, but it has a representative assembly and more freedoms than Nautilian. But, Constellar is slowly losing to Nautilian. Ultimate defeat seems inevitable.

Then a new factor enters the equation: a new waypoint suddenly appears near the boundary of Nautilian and Constellar space. It’s the first new Waypoint to appear, and whomever gets to the new system first can control the Waypoint and own the new system.

Both starstates hastily assemble fleets to explore the new Waypoint. Or rather, since this is a remote boundary for both starstates, they grab whatever they can in order to get their first. After both forces arrive, they discover the system contains a clement planet, one humans can live on without life-support systems. The Waywork has only seven clement planets. Additionally, the planet has a Waymaker artifact which is broadcasting.

Torgersen provides a fast-paced, exciting adventure, pitting two determined and capable opponents against each other. Controlling the system becomes critical, promising victory to anyone who unlocks the Waymakers’ secrets. “A Star-Wheeled Sky” is marvelous science fiction entertainment.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Dive into the historical background of the legend of King Arthur

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 25, 2018

“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend,” by Nicholas J. Higham, Yale University Press, 2018, 392 pages $32.50

King Arthur is probably the world’s best-known fictional character. Writers from the 11th century’s Chrétien de Troyes to Bernard Cornwall in the 21st century have written stories about him. And the King Arthur’s legend keeps growing. A story this well-known must have a historical basis.

“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend,” by Nicholas J. Higham examines that issue. It’s a search for the source of the Arthur legend.

Arthur’s Britain, when and where a historical King Arthur could’ve existed, belonged to a chaotic and obscure corner of history. The Romans had retreated from Britannia. The island was being invaded by barbarians, and de-civilizing as it broke into a constellation of petty and competing kingdoms. Written accounts were spotty, and most history fell under oral tradition.

Higham sifts through all of this in a quest to track down the original sources creating the Arthur legend, including proposed foreign sources. Few verifiable records from the period exist indicating a historical basis for Arthur. Some researchers concluded the historical Arthur, if he did exist, came from outside Britain, with the story somehow transplanted into an obscure island in Europe’s northwest corner.

There are surprisingly many proposed “foreign” Arthurs. They include a Dalmatian centurion, Sarmatian horsemen, Georgian warriors, and stepp tribesmen. Others speculate Arthur was a Roman or Greek legend recast, Arthur as a British Hercules. Higham picks through all these theories, revealing few strengths and many weaknesses in these candidates.

Higham also examines the historical record of early dark ages France and Britain, seeking historic leaders who might have formed the basis of the Arthur myth. Higham believes clues to its origins lies in Historia Brittonum, a 9th century work, attributed to Nennius, a Welch monk.

“King Arthur: The Making of the Legend” offers some surprising conclusions. Meticulously researched, Higham takes readers through every step of the journey he took to arrive at his conclusions. It is more a scholarly examination of Arthur’s legend than popular writing. Yet for those more interested in the Arthur myth and its origins than another retelling of the Arthur story, this book should not be missed.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: Iron Sunrise

“Iron Sunrise” by Charles StrossIn Accelerando, a novel assembled from nine previously-published short stories, the author chronicles the arrival of a technological singularity on Earth: the almost-instantaneously emerging super-intellect called the Eschaton which departed the planet toward the stars. Simultaneously, nine-tenths of Earth’s population vanished overnight, and those left behind, after a period of chaos, found that with the end of scarcity brought about by “cornucopia machines” produced in the first phase of the singularity, they could dispense with anachronisms such as economic systems and government. After humans achieved faster than light travel, they began to discover that the Eschaton had relocated 90% of Earth’s population to habitable worlds around various stars and left them to develop in their own independent directions, guided only by this message from the Eschaton, inscribed on a monument on each world.

  1. I am the Eschaton. I am not your god.
  2. I am descended from you, and I exist in your future.
  3. Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.

The wormholes used by the Eschaton to relocate Earth’s population in the great Diaspora, a technology which humans had yet to understand, not only permitted instantaneous travel across interstellar distances but also in time: the more distant the planet from Earth, the longer the settlers deposited there have had to develop their own cultures and civilisations before being contacted by faster than light ships. With cornucopia machines to meet their material needs and allow them to bootstrap their technology, those that descended into barbarism or incessant warfare did so mostly due to bad ideas rather than their environment.

Rachel Mansour, secret agent for the Earth-based United Nations, operating under the cover of an entertainment officer (or, if you like, cultural attaché), who we met in the previous novel in the series, Singularity Sky, and her companion Martin Springfield, who has a back-channel to the Eschaton, serve as arms control inspectors—their primary mission to insure that nothing anybody on Earth or the worlds who have purchased technology from Earth invites the wrath of the Eschaton—remember that “Or else.”

A terrible fate has befallen the planet Moscow, a diaspora “McWorld” accomplished in technological development and trade, when its star, a G-type main sequence star like the Sun, explodes in a blast releasing a hundredth the energy of a supernova, destroying all life on planet Moscow within an instant of the wavefront reaching it, and the entire planet within an hour.

The problem is, type G stars just don’t explode on their own. Somebody did this, quite likely using technologies which risk Big E’s “or else” on whoever was responsible (or it concluded was responsible). What’s more, Moscow maintained a slower-than-light deterrent fleet with relativistic planet-buster weapons to avenge any attack on their home planet. This fleet, essentially undetectable en route, has launched against New Dresden, a planet with which Moscow had a nonviolent trade dispute. The deterrent fleet can be recalled only by coded messages from two Moscow system ambassadors who survived the attack at their postings in other systems, but can also be sent an irrevocable coercion code, which cancels the recall and causes any further messages to be ignored, by three ambassadors. And somebody seems to be killing off the remaining Moscow ambassadors: if the number falls below two, the attack will arrive at New Dresden in thirty-five years and wipe out the planet and as many of its eight hundred million inhabitants as have not been evacuated.

Victoria Strowger, who detests her name and goes by “Wednesday”, has had an invisible friend since childhood, “Herman”, who speaks to her through her implants. As she’s grown up, she has come to understand that, in some way, Herman is connected to Big E and, in return for advice and assistance she values highly, occasionally asks her for favours. Wednesday and her family were evacuated from one of Moscow’s space stations just before the deadly wavefront from the exploded star arrived, with Wednesday running a harrowing last “errand” for Herman before leaving. Later, in her new home in an asteroid in the Septagon system, she becomes the target of an attack seemingly linked to that mystery mission, and escapes only to find her family wiped out by the attackers. With Herman’s help, she flees on an interstellar liner.

While Singularity Sky was a delightful romp describing a society which had deliberately relinquished technology in order to maintain a stratified class system with the subjugated masses frozen around the Victorian era, suddenly confronted with the merry pranksters of the Festival, who inject singularity-epoch technology into its stagnant culture, Iron Sunrise is a much more conventional mystery/adventure tale about gaining control of the ambassadorial keys, figuring out who are the good and bad guys, and trying to avert a delayed but inexorably approaching genocide.

This just didn’t work for me. I never got engaged in the story, didn’t find the characters particularly interesting, nor came across any interesting ways in which the singularity came into play (and this is supposed to be the author’s “Singularity Series”). There are some intriguing concepts, for example the “causal channel”, in which quantum-entangled particles permit instantaneous communication across spacelike separations as long as the previously-prepared entangled particles have first been delivered to the communicating parties by slower than light travel. This is used in the plot to break faster than light communication where it would be inconvenient for the story line (much as all those circumstances in Star Trek where the transporter doesn’t work for one reason or another when you’re tempted to say “Why don’t they just beam up?”). The apparent villains, the ReMastered, (think Space Nazis who believe in a Tipler-like cult of Omega Point out-Eschaton-ing the Eschaton, with icky brain-sucking technology) were just over the top.

Accelerando and Singularity Sky were thought-provoking and great fun. This one doesn’t come up to that standard.

Stross, Charles. Iron Sunrise. New York: Ace, 2005. ISBN 978-0-441-01296-1.

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Book Review: Days of Rage

“Days of Rage” by Bryan BurroughIn the year 1972, there were more than 1900 domestic bombings in the United States. Think about that—that’s more than five bombings a day. In an era when the occasional terrorist act by a “lone wolf” nutcase gets round the clock coverage on cable news channels, it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago, most of these bombings and other mayhem, committed by “revolutionary” groups such as Weatherman, the Black Liberation Army, FALN, and The Family, often made only local newspapers on page B37, below the fold.

The civil rights struggle and opposition to the Vietnam war had turned out large crowds and radicalised the campuses, but in the opinion of many activists, yielded few concrete results. Indeed, in the 1968 presidential election, pro-war Democrat Humphrey had been defeated by pro-war Republican Nixon, with anti-war Democrats McCarthy marginalised and Robert Kennedy assassinated.

In this bleak environment, a group of leaders of one of the most radical campus organisations, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), gathered in Chicago to draft what became a sixteen thousand word manifesto bristling with Marxist jargon that linked the student movement in the U.S. to Third World guerrilla insurgencies around the globe. They advocated a Che Guevara-like guerrilla movement in America led, naturally, by themselves. They named the manifesto after the Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Other SDS members who thought the idea of armed rebellion in the U.S. absurd and insane quipped, “You don’t need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are.”

The Weatherman faction managed to blow up (figuratively) the SDS convention in June 1969, splitting the organisation but effectively taking control of it. They called a massive protest in Chicago for October. Dubbed the “National Action”, it would soon become known as the “Days of Rage”.

Almost immediately the Weatherman plans began to go awry. Their plans to rally the working class (who the Ivy League Weatherman élite mocked as “greasers”) got no traction, with some of their outrageous “actions” accomplishing little other than landing the perpetrators in the slammer. Come October, the Days of Rage ended up in farce. Thousands had been expected, ready to take the fight to the cops and “oppressors”, but come the day, no more than two hundred showed up, most SDS stalwarts who already knew one another. They charged the police and were quickly routed with six shot (none seriously), many beaten, and more than 120 arrested. Bail bonds alone added up to US$ 2.3 million. It was a humiliating defeat. The leadership decided it was time to change course.

So what did this intellectual vanguard of the masses decide to do? Well, obviously, destroy the SDS (their source of funding and pipeline of recruitment), go underground, and start blowing stuff up. This posed a problem, because these middle-class college kids had no idea where to obtain explosives (they didn’t know that at the time you could buy as much dynamite as you could afford over the counter in many rural areas with, at most, showing a driver’s license), what to do with it, and how to build an underground identity. This led to, not Keystone Kops, but Klueless Kriminal misadventures, culminating in March 1970 when they managed to blow up an entire New York townhouse where a bomb they were preparing to attack a dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey detonated prematurely, leaving three of the Weather collective dead in the rubble. In the aftermath, many Weather hangers-on melted away.

This did not deter the hard core, who resolved to learn more about their craft. They issued a communiqué declaring their solidarity with the oppressed black masses (not one of whom, oppressed or otherwise, was a member of Weatherman), and vowed to attack symbols of “Amerikan injustice”. Privately, they decided to avoid killing people, confining their attacks to property. And one of their members hit the books to become a journeyman bombmaker.

The bungling Bolsheviks of Weatherman may have had Marxist theory down pat, but they were lacking in authenticity, and acutely aware of it. It was hard for those whose addresses before going underground were élite universities to present themselves as oppressed. The best they could do was to identify themselves with the cause of those they considered victims of “the system” but who, to date, seemed little inclined to do anything about it themselves. Those who cheered on Weatherman, then, considered it significant when, in the spring of 1971, a new group calling itself the “Black Liberation Army” (BLA) burst onto the scene with two assassination-style murders of New York City policemen on routine duty. Messages delivered after each attack to Harlem radio station WLIB claimed responsibility. One declared,

Every policeman, lackey or running dog of the ruling class must make his or her choice now. Either side with the people: poor and oppressed, or die for the oppressor. Trying to stop what is going down is like trying to stop history, for as long as there are those who will dare to live for freedom there are men and women who dare to unhorse the emperor.

All power to the people.

Politicians, press, and police weren’t sure what to make of this. The politicians, worried about the opinion of their black constituents, shied away from anything which sounded like accusing black militants of targeting police. The press, although they’d never write such a thing or speak it in polite company, didn’t think it plausible that street blacks could organise a sustained revolutionary campaign: certainly that required college-educated intellectuals. The police, while threatened by these random attacks, weren’t sure there was actually any organised group behind the BLA attacks: they were inclined to believe it was a matter of random cop killers attributing their attacks to the BLA after the fact. Further, the BLA had no visible spokesperson and issued no manifestos other than the brief statements after some attacks. This contributed to the mystery, which largely persists to this day because so many participants were killed and the survivors have never spoken out.

In fact, the BLA was almost entirely composed of former members of the New York chapter of the Black Panthers, which had collapsed in the split between factions following Huey Newton and those (including New York) loyal to Eldridge Cleaver, who had fled to exile in Algeria and advocated violent confrontation with the power structure in the U.S. The BLA would perpetrate more than seventy violent attacks between 1970 and 1976 and is said to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen police officers. In 1982, they hijacked a domestic airline flight and pocketed a ransom of US$ 1 million.

Weatherman (later renamed the “Weather Underground” because the original name was deemed sexist) and the BLA represented the two poles of the violent radicals: the first, intellectual, college-educated, and mostly white, concentrated mostly on symbolic bombings against property, usually with warnings in advance to avoid human casualties. As pressure from the FBI increased upon them, they became increasingly inactive; a member of the New York police squad assigned to them quipped, “Weatherman, Weatherman, what do you do? Blow up a toilet every year or two.” They managed the escape of Timothy Leary from a minimum-security prison in California. Leary basically just walked away, with a group of Weatherman members paid by Leary supporters picking him up and arranging for he and his wife Rosemary to obtain passports under assumed names and flee the U.S. for exile in Algeria with former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.

The Black Liberation Army, being composed largely of ex-prisoners with records of violent crime, was not known for either the intelligence or impulse control of its members. On several occasions, what should have been merely tense encounters with the law turned into deadly firefights because a BLA militant opened fire for no apparent reason. Had they not been so deadly to those they attacked and innocent bystanders, the exploits of the BLA would have made a fine slapstick farce.

As the dour decade of the 1970s progressed, other violent underground groups would appear, tending to follow the model of either Weatherman or the BLA. One of the most visible, it not successful, was the “Symbionese Liberation Army” (SLA), founded by escaped convict and grandiose self-styled revolutionary Daniel DeFreeze. Calling himself “General Field Marshal Cinque”, which he pronounced “sin-kay”, and ending his fevered communications with “DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE”, this band of murderous bozos struck their first blow for black liberation by assassinating Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland, California school system for his “crimes against the people” of suggesting that police be called into deal with violence in the city’s schools and that identification cards be issued to students. Sought by the police for the murder, they struck again by kidnapping heiress, college student, and D-list celebrity Patty Hearst, whose abduction became front page news nationwide. If that wasn’t sufficiently bizarre, the abductee eventually issued a statement saying she had chosen to “stay and fight”, adopting the name “Tania”, after the nom de guerre of a Cuban revolutionary and companion of Che Guevara. She was later photographed by a surveillance camera carrying a rifle during a San Francisco bank robbery perpetrated by the SLA. Hearst then went underground and evaded capture until September 1975 after which, when being booked into jail, she gave her occupation as “Urban Guerrilla”. Hearst later claimed she had agreed to join the SLA and participate in its crimes only to protect her own life. She was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison, later reduced to 7 years. The sentence was later commuted to 22 months by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and she was released in 1979, and was the recipient of one of Bill Clinton’s last day in office pardons in January, 2001. Six members of the SLA, including DeFreeze, died in a house fire during a shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department in May, 1974.

Violence committed in the name of independence for Puerto Rico was nothing new. In 1950, two radicals tried to assassinate President Harry Truman, and in 1954, four revolutionaries shot up the U.S. House of Representatives from the visitors’ gallery, wounding five congressmen on the floor, none fatally. The Puerto Rican terrorists had the same problem as their Weatherman, BLA, or SLA bomber brethren: they lacked the support of the people. Most of the residents of Puerto Rico were perfectly happy being U.S. citizens, especially as this allowed them to migrate to the mainland to escape the endemic corruption and the poverty it engendered in the island. As the 1960s progressed, the Puerto Rico radicals increasingly identified with Castro’s Cuba (which supported them ideologically, if not financially), and promised to make a revolutionary Puerto Rico a beacon of prosperity and liberty like Cuba had become.

Starting in 1974, a new Puerto Rican terrorist group, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) launched a series of attacks in the U.S., most in the New York and Chicago areas. One bombing, that of the Fraunces Tavern in New York in January 1975, killed four people and injured more than fifty. Between 1974 and 1983, a total of more than 130 bomb attacks were attributed to the FALN, most against corporate targets. In 1975 alone, twenty-five bombs went off, around one every two weeks.

Other groups, such as the “New World Liberation Front” (NWLF) in northern California and “The Family” in the East continued the chaos. The NWLF, formed originally from remains of the SLA, detonated twice as many bombs as the Weather Underground. The Family carried out a series of robberies, including the deadly Brink’s holdup of October 1981, and jailbreaks of imprisoned radicals.

In the first half of the 1980s, the radical violence sputtered out. Most of the principals were in prison, dead, or living underground and keeping a low profile. A growing prosperity had replaced the malaise and stagflation of the 1970s and there were abundant jobs for those seeking them. The Vietnam War and draft were receding into history, leaving the campuses with little to protest, and the remaining radicals had mostly turned from violent confrontation to burrowing their way into the culture, media, administrative state, and academia as part of Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions”.

All of these groups were plagued with the “step two problem”. The agenda of Weatherman was essentially:

  1. Blow stuff up, kill cops, and rob banks.
  2. ?
  3. Proletarian revolution.

Other groups may have had different step threes: “Black liberation” for the BLA, “¡Puerto Rico libre!” for FALN, but none of them seemed to make much progress puzzling out step two. Deep thinker Bill Harris of the SLA’s best attempt was, when he advocated killing policemen at random, arguing that “If they killed enough, … the police would crack down on the oppressed minorities of the Bay Area, who would then rise up and begin the revolution.”—sure thing.

In sum, all of this violence and the suffering that resulted from it accomplished precisely none of the goals of those who perpetrated it (which is a good thing: they mostly advocated for one flavour or another of communist enslavement of the United States). All it managed to do is contribute the constriction of personal liberty in the name of “security”, with metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, X-ray machines, rent-a-cops, surveillance cameras, and the first round of airport security theatre springing up like mushrooms everywhere. The amount of societal disruption which can be caused by what amounted to around one hundred homicidal nutcases is something to behold. There were huge economic losses not just due to bombings, but by evacuations due to bomb threats, many doubtless perpetrated by copycats motivated by nothing more political than the desire for a day off from work. Violations of civil liberties by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies who carried out unauthorised wiretaps, burglaries, and other invasions of privacy and property rights not only discredited them, but resulted in many of the perpetrators of the mayhem walking away scot-free. Weatherman founders Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn would, in 1995, launch the political career of Barack Obama at a meeting in their home in Chicago, where Ayers is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ayres, who bombed the U.S. Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972, remarked in the 1980s that he was “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.”

This book is an excellent account of a largely-forgotten era in recent history. In a time when slaver radicals (a few of them the same people who set the bombs in their youth) declaim from the cultural heights of legacy media, academia, and their new strongholds in the technology firms which increasingly mediate our communications and access to information, advocate “active resistance”, “taking to the streets”, or “occupying” this or that, it’s a useful reminder of where such action leads, and that it’s wise to work out step two before embarking on step one.

Burrough, Bryan. Days of Rage. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-14-310797-2.

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This Week’s Book Review – Silver State Dreadnought

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Silver State’ looks at a forgotten veteran

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 19, 2018

“Silver State Dreadnought: The Remarkable Story of the Battleship Nevada,” by Stephen M. Younger, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 320 pages, $54

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Only one of eight battleships in the harbor raised steam and got underway. It was the battleship Nevada, the oldest dreadnought present.

“Silver State Dreadnought: The Remarkable Story of the Battleship Nevada,” by Stephen M. Younger tells the story of this ship.

The story Younger tells is remarkable. The Nevada served in two World Wars and the years between. It was continuously in commission from 1916 through 1945, except when undergoing refits, modernization, and repair. Sunk at Pearl Harbor, it was rebuilt and modernized. It provided gunnery support at the Normandy, Southern France, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa invasions. Its career terminated dramatically, being expended at the Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb test.

Younger adds much to this bare-bones recitation of the Nevada’s accomplishments. He carries readers through the ship’s history, from keel-laying to its ultimate sinking. He shows how the ship represented a new concept with U.S. battleships. It was the first to use “all or nothing” armor, with the central citadel containing the guns and engines heavily armored and the ends virtually unarmored. Younger also shows how Nevada’s first captain made the battleship the “cheer up!” ship, with an optimistic crew.

He follows the ship through World War I (where its deadliest enemy would prove influenza) and the interwar years, when it was extensively rebuilt. (Like the battleship Texas, Nevada was kept after its intended disposal date due to the 1922 Naval Limitations Treaty imposing a battleship building holiday.)

The high point of the book is Younger’s description of the Nevada’s sortie at Pearl Harbor. The ship steaming for the harbor’s exit attracted every Japanese aircraft of the last wave, damaging to where it had to be beached. Equally fascinating is the story of its repair. Younger describes how it was patched up, re-floated, and sent to the west coast, where it was almost completely rebuilt before it re-entered the war.

“Silver State Dreadnought” reminds readers of one of the forgotten veterans of World War II. Not as well-known as Texas or as well remembered as Arizona, Nevada’s story was equally compelling.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: Losing Mars

“Losing Mars” by Peter CawdronPeter Cawdron has established himself as the contemporary grandmaster of first contact science fiction. In a series of novels including Anomaly, Xenophobia, Little Green Men, Feedback, and My Sweet Satan, he has explored the first encounter of humans with extraterrestrial life in a variety of scenarios, all with twists and turns that make you question the definition of life and intelligence.

This novel is set on Mars, where a nominally international but strongly NASA-dominated station has been set up by the six-person crew first to land on the red planet. The crew of Shepard station, three married couples, bring a variety of talents to their multi-year mission of exploration: pilot, engineer, physician, and even botanist: Cory Anderson (the narrator) is responsible for the greenhouse which will feed the crew during their mission. They have a fully-fueled Mars Return Vehicle, based upon NASA’s Orion capsule, ready to go, and their ticket back to Earth, the Schiaparelli return stage, waiting in Mars orbit, but orbital mechanics dictates when they can return to Earth, based on the two-year cycle of Earth-Mars transfer opportunities. The crew is acutely aware that the future of Mars exploration rests on their shoulders: failure, whether a tragedy in which they were lost, or even cutting their mission short, might result in “losing Mars” in the same way humanity abandoned the Moon for fifty years after “flags and footprints” visits had accomplished their chest-beating goal.

The Shepard crew are confronted with a crisis not of their making when a Chinese mission, completely unrelated to theirs, attempting to do “Mars on a shoestring” by exploring its moon Phobos, faces disaster when a poorly-understood calamity kills two of its four crew and disables their spacecraft. The two surviving taikonauts show life signs on telemetry but have not communicated with their mission control and, with their ship disabled, are certain to die when their life support consumables are exhausted.

The crew, in consultation with NASA, conclude the only way to mount a rescue mission is for the pilot and Cory, the only crew member who can be spared, to launch in the return vehicle, rendezvous with the Schiaparelli, use it to match orbits with the Chinese ship, rescue the survivors, and then return to Earth with them. (The return vehicle is unable to land back on Mars, being unequipped for a descent and soft landing through its thin atmosphere.) This will leave the four remaining crew of the Shepard with no way home until NASA can send a rescue mission, which will take two years to arrive at Mars. However unappealing the prospect, they conclude that abandoning the Chinese crew to die when rescue was possible would be inhuman, and proceed with the plan.

It is only after arriving at Phobos, after the half-way point in the book, that things begin to get distinctly weird and we suddenly realise that Peter Cawdron is not writing a novelisation of a Kerbal Space Program rescue scenario but is rather up to his old tricks and there is much more going on here than you’ve imagined from the story so far.

Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but he struck out 1,330 times. For me, this story is a swing and a miss. It takes a long, long time to get going, and we must wade through a great deal of social justice virtue signalling to get there. (Lesbians in space? Who could have imagined? Oh, right….) Once we get to the “good part”, the narrative is related in a fractured manner reminiscent of Vonnegut (I’m trying to avoid spoilers—you’ll know what I’m talking about if you make it that far). And the copy editing and fact checking…oh, dear.

There are no fewer than seven idiot “it’s/its” bungles, two on one page. A solar powered aircraft is said to have “turboprop engines”. Alan Shepard’s suborbital mission is said to have been launched on a “prototype Redstone rocket” (it wasn’t), which is described as an “intercontinental ballistic missile” (it was a short range missile with a maximum range of 323 km), which subjected the astronaut to “nine g’s [sic] launching” (it was actually 6.3 g), with reentry g loads “more than that of the gas giant Saturn” (which is correct, but local gravity on Saturn is just 1.065 g, as the planet is very large and less dense than water). Military officers who defy orders are tried by a court martial, not “court marshaled”. The Mercury-Atlas 3 launch failure which Shepard witnessed at the Cape did not “[end] up in a fireball a couple of hundred feet above the concrete”: in fact it was destroyed by ground command forty-three seconds after launch at an altitude of several kilometres due to a guidance system failure, and the launch escape system saved the spacecraft and would have allowed an astronaut, had one been on board, to land safely. It’s “bungee” cord, not “Bungie”. “Navy” is not an acronym, and hence is not written “NAVY”. The Juno orbiter at Jupiter does not “broadcast with the strength of a cell phone”; it has a 25 watt transmitter which is between twelve and twenty-five times more powerful than the maximum power of a mobile phone. He confuses “ecliptic” and “elliptical”, and states that the velocity of a spacecraft decreases as it approaches closer to a body in free fall (it increases). A spacecraft is said to be “accelerating at fifteen meters per second” which is a unit of velocity, not acceleration. A daughter may be the spitting image of her mother, but not “the splitting image”. Thousands of tiny wires do not “rap” around a plastic coated core, they “wrap”, unless they are special hip-hop wires which NASA has never approved for space flight. We do not live in a “barreled galaxy”, but rather a barred spiral galaxy.

Now, you may think I’m being harsh in pointing out these goofs which are not, after all, directly relevant to the plot of the novel. But errors of this kind, all of which could be avoided by research no more involved than looking things up in Wikipedia or consulting a guide to English usage, are indicative of a lack of attention to detail which, sadly, is also manifest in the main story line. To discuss these we must step behind the curtain.

Peter Cawdron’s earlier novels have provided many hours of thought-provoking entertainment, spinning out the possibilities of first contact. The present book…didn’t, although it was good for a few laughs. I’m not going to write off a promising author due to one strike-out. I hope his next outing resumes the home run streak.

A Kindle edition is available, which is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Cawdron, Peter. Losing Mars. Brisbane, Australia: Independent, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7237-4729-8.

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This Week’s Book Review – The Valley of Shadows

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Valley of Shadows’ unconventional end-of-days novel

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 11, 2018

“The Valley of Shadows,” by John Ringo and Mike Massa, Baen, 2018, 304 pages, $25

John Ringo wrote “Under a Graveyard Sky,” the first book in the Black Tide Rising Series in 2014, which is a novel about a zombie apocalypse; since then he added three more. Then he invited his author friends to play in his world.

“The Valley of Shadows,” by John Ringo and Mike Massa is the first collaborative novel added to the series.

It takes readers back to the series’ origin. Steve Smith, the father of the family central to “Under a Graveyard Sky” had a brother, Tom. Tom Smith worked as managing director of Security and Emergency Response at Bank of the Americas, a major international bank. He provided back story and part of the action in the first book. “The Valley of Shadows” puts Tom Smith center stage, following his experiences during the opening of the crisis.

Except for the zombie apocalypse background, this isn’t really a science fiction novel. Rather it’s a novel about a business in crisis, in some ways reminiscent of Arthur Hailey’s “Hotel” or “Strong Medicine.” Tom Smith’s job is to keep the bank functioning when the four horsemen take a ride. War and famine affect a bank’s bottom line.

So can pestilence. The book opens with Tom attempting to manage the effect of a potentially disruptive influenza epidemic. These not only affect a bank’s trading; it can disrupt a bank’s ability to trade if employees get sick or quarantined. Except, this turns out not to be a routinely bad influenza epidemic — it’s soon apparent that this is a bio-engineered act of terrorism, and with potential for end-of-the-world devastation.

So Smith reacts. As the crisis jumps worst-case expectations, Smith exercises increasingly unconventional options. He goes beyond securing evacuation sites outside major cities so the bank can continue trading. He hires medical experts to develop vaccines. He enters into increasingly dodgy alliances to keep the bank open: criminal organizations and even municipal governments.

“The Valley of Shadows” is a fast-paced book, building to an exciting climax that is both predictable and unpredictable. Ringo and Massa have written an end-of-the-world novel that is unconventional and entertaining.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928

“Stalin: Paradoxes of Power” by Stephen KotkinIn a Levada Center poll in 2017, Russians who responded named Joseph Stalin the “most outstanding person” in world history. Now, you can argue about the meaning of “outstanding”, but it’s pretty remarkable that citizens of a country whose chief of government (albeit several regimes ago) presided over an entirely avoidable famine which killed millions of citizens of his country, ordered purges which executed more than 700,000 people, including senior military leadership, leaving his nation unprepared for the German attack in 1941, which would, until the final victory, claim the lives of around 27 million Soviet citizens, military and civilian, would be considered an “outstanding person” as opposed to a super-villain.

The story of Stalin’s career is even less plausible, and should give pause to those who believe history can be predicted without the contingency of things that “just happen”. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (the author uses Roman alphabet transliterations of all individuals’ names in their native languages, which can occasionally be confusing when they later Russified their names) was born in 1878 in the town of Gori in the Caucasus. Gori, part of the territory of Georgia which had long been ruled by the Ottoman Empire, had been seized by Imperial Russia in a series of bloody conflicts ending in the 1860s with complete incorporation of the territory into the Czar’s empire. Ioseb, who was called by the Georgian dimunitive “Sosa” throughout his youth, was the third son born to his parents, but, as both of his older brothers had died not long after birth, was raised as an only child.

Sosa’s father, Besarion Jughashvili (often written in the Russian form, Vissarion) was a shoemaker with his own shop in Gori but, as time passed his business fell on hard times and he closed the shop and sought other work, ending his life as a vagrant. Sosa’s mother, Ketevan “Keke” Geladze, was ambitious and wanted the best for her son, and left her husband and took a variety of jobs to support the family. She arranged for eight year old Sosa to attend Russian language lessons given to the children of a priest in whose house she was boarding. Knowledge of Russian was the key to advancement in Czarist Georgia, and he had a head start when Keke arranged for him to be enrolled in the parish school’s preparatory and four year programs. He was the first member of either side of his family to attend school and he rose to the top of his class under the patronage of a family friend, “Uncle Yakov” Egnatashvili. After graduation, his options were limited. The Russian administration, wary of the emergence of a Georgian intellectual class that might champion independence, refused to establish a university in the Caucasus. Sosa’s best option was the highly selective Theological Seminary in Tiflis where he would prepare, in a six year course, for life as a parish priest or teacher in Georgia but, for those who graduated near the top, could lead to a scholarship at a university in another part of the empire.

He took the examinations and easily passed, gaining admission, petitioning and winning a partial scholarship that paid most of his fees. “Uncle Yakov” paid the rest, and he plunged into his studies. Georgia was in the midst of an intense campaign of Russification, and Sosa further perfected his skills in the Russian language. Although completely fluent in spoken and written Russian along with his native Georgian (the languages are completely unrelated, having no more in common than Finnish and Italian), he would speak Russian with a Georgian accent all his life and did not publish in the Russian language until he was twenty-nine years old.

Long a voracious reader, at the seminary Sosa joined a “forbidden literature” society which smuggled in and read works, not banned by the Russian authorities, but deemed unsuitable for priests in training. He read classics of Russian, French, English, and German literature and science, including Capital by Karl Marx. The latter would transform his view of the world and path in life. He made the acquaintance of a former seminarian and committed Marxist, Lado Ketskhoveli, who would guide his studies. In August 1898, he joined the newly formed “Third Group of Georgian Marxists”—many years later Stalin would date his “party card” to then.

Prior to 1905, imperial Russia was an absolute autocracy. The Czar ruled with no limitations on his power. What he decreed and ordered his functionaries to do was law. There was no parliament, political parties, elected officials of any kind, or permanent administrative state that did not serve at the pleasure of the monarch. Political activity and agitation were illegal, as were publishing and distributing any kind of political literature deemed to oppose imperial rule. As Sosa became increasingly radicalised, it was only a short step from devout seminarian to underground agitator. He began to neglect his studies, became increasingly disrespectful to authority figures, and, in April 1899, left the seminary before taking his final examinations.

Saddled with a large debt to the seminary for leaving without becoming a priest or teacher, he drifted into writing articles for small, underground publications associated with the Social Democrat movement, at the time the home of most Marxists. He took to public speaking and, while eschewing fancy flights of oratory, spoke directly to the meetings of workers he addressed in their own dialect and terms. Inevitably, he was arrested for “incitement to disorder and insubordination against higher authority” in April 1902 and jailed. After fifteen months in prison at Batum, he was sentenced to three years of internal exile in Siberia. In January 1904 he escaped and made it back to Tiflis, in Georgia, where he resumed his underground career. By this time the Social Democratic movement had fractured into Lenin’s Bolshevik faction and the larger Menshevik group. Sosa, who during his imprisonment had adopted the revolutionary nickname “Koba”, after the hero in a Georgian novel of revenge, continued to write and speak and, in 1905, after the Czar was compelled to cede some of his power to a parliament, organised Battle Squads which stole printing equipment, attacked government forces, and raised money through protection rackets targeting businesses.

In 1905, Koba Jughashvili was elected one of three Bolshevik delegates from Georgia to attend the Third Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in Tampere, Finland, then part of the Russian empire. It was there he first met Lenin, who had been living in exile in Switzerland. Koba had read Lenin’s prolific writings and admired his leadership of the Bolshevik cause, but was unimpressed in this first in-person encounter. He vocally took issue with Lenin’s position that Bolsheviks should seek seats in the newly-formed State Duma (parliament). When Lenin backed down in the face of opposition, he said, “I expected to see the mountain eagle of our party, a great man, not only politically but physically, for I had formed for myself a picture of Lenin as a giant, as a stately representative figure of a man. What was my disappointment when I saw the most ordinary individual, below average height, distinguished from ordinary mortals by, literally, nothing.”

Returning to Georgia, he resumed his career as an underground revolutionary including, famously, organising a robbery of the Russian State Bank in Tiflis in which three dozen people were killed and two dozen more injured, “expropriating” 250,000 rubles for the Bolshevik cause. Koba did not participate directly, but he was the mastermind of the heist. This and other banditry, criminal enterprises, and unauthorised publications resulted in multiple arrests, imprisonments, exiles to Siberia, escapes, re-captures, and life underground in the years that followed. In 1912, while living underground in Saint Petersburg after yet another escape, he was named the first editor of the Bolshevik party’s new daily newspaper, Pravda, although his name was kept secret. In 1913, with the encouragement of Lenin, he wrote an article titled “Marxism and the National Question” in which he addressed how a Bolshevik regime should approach the diverse ethnicities and national identities of the Russian Empire. As a Georgian Bolshevik, Jughashvili was seen as uniquely qualified and credible to address this thorny question. He published the article under the nom de plume “K. [for Koba] Stalin”, which literally translated, meant “Man of Steel” and paralleled Lenin’s pseudonym. He would use this name for the rest of his life, reverting to the Russified form of his given name, “Joseph” instead of the nickname Koba (by which his close associates would continue to address him informally). I shall, like the author, refer to him subsequently as “Stalin”.

When Russia entered the Great War in 1914, events were set into motion which would lead to the end of Czarist rule, but Stalin was on the sidelines: in exile in Siberia, where he spent much of his time fishing. In late 1916, as manpower shortages became acute, exiled Bolsheviks including Stalin received notices of conscription into the army, but when he appeared at the induction centre he was rejected due to a crippled left arm, the result of a childhood injury. It was only after the abdication of the Czar in the February Revolution of 1917 that he returned to Saint Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd, and resumed his work for the Bolshevik cause. In April 1917, in elections to the Bolshevik Central Committee, Stalin came in third after Lenin (who had returned from exile in Switzerland) and Zinoviev. Despite having been out of circulation for several years, Stalin’s reputation from his writings and editorship of Pravda, which he resumed, elevated him to among the top rank of the party.

As Kerensky’s Provisional Government attempted to consolidate its power and continue the costly and unpopular war, Stalin and Trotsky joined Lenin’s call for a Bolshevik coup to seize power, and Stalin was involved in all aspects of the eventual October Revolution, although often behind the scenes, while Lenin was the public face of the Bolshevik insurgency.

After seizing power, the Bolsheviks faced challenges from all directions. They had to disentangle Russia from the Great War without leaving the country open to attack and territorial conquest by Germany or Poland. Despite their ambitious name, they were a minority party and had to subdue domestic opposition. They took over a country which the debts incurred by the Czar to fund the war had effectively bankrupted. They had to exert their control over a sprawling, polyglot empire in which, outside of the big cities, their party had little or no presence. They needed to establish their authority over a military in which the officer corps largely regarded the Czar as their legitimate leader. They must restore agricultural production, severely disrupted by levies of manpower for the war, before famine brought instability and the risk of a counter-coup. And for facing these formidable problems, all at the same time, they were utterly unprepared.

The Bolsheviks were, to a man (and they were all men), professional revolutionaries. Their experience was in writing and publishing radical tracts and works of Marxist theory, agitating and organising workers in the cities, carrying out acts of terror against the regime, and funding their activities through banditry and other forms of criminality. There was not a military man, agricultural expert, banker, diplomat, logistician, transportation specialist, or administrator among them, and suddenly they needed all of these skills and more, plus the ability to recruit and staff an administration for a continent-wide empire. Further, although Lenin’s leadership was firmly established and undisputed, his subordinates were all highly ambitious men seeking to establish and increase their power in the chaotic and fluid situation.

It was in this environment that Stalin made his mark as the reliable “fixer”. Whether it was securing levies of grain from the provinces, putting down resistance from counter-revolutionary White forces, stamping out opposition from other parties, developing policies for dealing with the diverse nations incorporated into the Russian Empire (indeed, in a real sense, it was Stalin who invented the Soviet Union as a nominal federation of autonomous republics which, in fact, were subject to Party control from Moscow), or implementing Lenin’s orders, even when he disagreed with them, Stalin was on the job. Lenin recognised Stalin’s importance as his right hand man by creating the post of General Secretary of the party and appointing him to it.

This placed Stalin at the centre of the party apparatus. He controlled who was hired, fired, and promoted. He controlled access to Lenin (only Trotsky could see Lenin without going through Stalin). This was a finely-tuned machine which allowed Lenin to exercise absolute power through a party machine which Stalin had largely built and operated.

Then, in May of 1922, the unthinkable happened: Lenin was felled by a stroke which left him partially paralysed. He retreated to his dacha at Gorki to recuperate, and his communication with the other senior leadership was almost entirely through Stalin. There had been no thought of or plan for a succession after Lenin (he was only fifty-two at the time of his first stroke, although he had been unwell for much of the previous year). As Lenin’s health declined, ending in his death in January 1924, Stalin increasingly came to run the party and, through it, the government. He had appointed loyalists in key positions, who saw their own careers as linked to that of Stalin. By the end of 1924, Stalin began to move against the “Old Bolsheviks” who he saw as rivals and potential threats to his consolidation of power. When confronted with opposition, on three occasions he threatened to resign, each exercise in brinksmanship strengthening his grip on power, as the party feared the chaos that would ensue from a power struggle at the top. His status was reflected in 1925 when the city of Tsaritsyn was renamed Stalingrad.

This ascent to supreme power was not universally applauded. Felix Dzierzynski (Polish born, he is often better known by the Russian spelling of his name, Dzerzhinsky) who, as the founder of the Soviet secret police (Cheka/GPU/OGPU) knew a few things about dictatorship, warned in 1926, the year of his death, that “If we do not find the correct line and pace of development our opposition will grow and the country will get its dictator, the grave digger of the revolution irrespective of the beautiful feathers on his costume.”

With or without feathers, the dictatorship was beginning to emerge. In 1926 Stalin published “On Questions of Leninism” in which he introduced the concept of “Socialism in One Country” which, presented as orthodox Leninist doctrine (which it wasn’t), argued that world revolution was unnecessary to establish communism in a single country. This set the stage for the collectivisation of agriculture and rapid industrialisation which was to come. In 1928, what was to be the prototype of the show trials of the 1930s opened in Moscow, the Shakhty trial, complete with accusations of industrial sabotage (“wrecking”), denunciations of class enemies, and Andrei Vyshinsky presiding as chief judge. Of the fifty-three engineers accused, five were executed and forty-four imprisoned. A country desperately short on the professionals its industry needed to develop had begin to devour them.

It is a mistake to regard Stalin purely as a dictator obsessed with accumulating and exercising power and destroying rivals, real or imagined. The one consistent theme throughout Stalin’s career was that he was a true believer. He was a devout believer in the Orthodox faith while at the seminary, and he seamlessly transferred his allegiance to Marxism once he had been introduced to its doctrines. He had mastered the difficult works of Marx and could cite them from memory (as he often did spontaneously to buttress his arguments in policy disputes), and went on to similarly internalise the work of Lenin. These principles guided his actions, and motivated him to apply them rigidly, whatever the cost may be.

Starting in 1921, Lenin had introduced the New Economic Policy, which lightened state control over the economy and, in particular, introduced market reforms in the agricultural sector, resulting in a mixed economy in which socialism reigned in big city industries, but in the countryside the peasants operated under a kind of market economy. This policy had restored agricultural production to pre-revolutionary levels and largely ended food shortages in the cities and countryside. But to a doctrinaire Marxist, it seemed to risk destruction of the regime. Marx believed that the political system was determined by the means of production. Thus, accepting what was essentially a capitalist economy in the agricultural sector was to infect the socialist government with its worst enemy.

Once Stalin had completed his consolidation of power, he then proceeded as Marxist doctrine demanded: abolish the New Economic Policy and undertake the forced collectivisation of agriculture. This began in 1928.

And it is with this momentous decision that the present volume comes to an end. This massive work (976 pages in the print edition) is just the first in a planned three volume biography of Stalin. The second volume, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941, was published in 2017 and the concluding volume is not yet completed.

Reading this book, and the entire series, is a major investment of time in a single historical figure. But, as the author observes, if you’re interested in the phenomenon of twentieth century totalitarian dictatorship, Stalin is the gold standard. He amassed more power, exercised by a single person with essentially no checks or limits, over more people and a larger portion of the Earth’s surface than any individual in human history. He ruled for almost thirty years, transformed the economy of his country, presided over deliberate famines, ruthless purges, and pervasive terror that killed tens of millions, led his country to victory at enormous cost in the largest land conflict in history and ended up exercising power over half of the European continent, and built a military which rivaled that of the West in a bipolar struggle for global hegemony.

It is impossible to relate the history of Stalin without describing the context in which it occurred, and this is as much a history of the final days of imperial Russia, the revolutions of 1917, and the establishment and consolidation of Soviet power as of Stalin himself. Indeed, in this first volume, there are lengthy parts of the narrative in which Stalin is largely offstage: in prison, internal exile, or occupied with matters peripheral to the main historical events. The level of detail is breathtaking: the Bolsheviks seem to have been as compulsive record-keepers as Germans are reputed to be, and not only are the votes of seemingly every committee meeting recorded, but who voted which way and why. There are more than two hundred pages of end notes, source citations, bibliography, and index.

If you are interested in Stalin, the Soviet Union, the phenomenon of Bolshevism, totalitarian dictatorship, or how destructive madness can grip a civilised society for decades, this is an essential work. It is unlikely it will ever be equalled.

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-14-312786-4.

Here is a two part Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about the book and Stalin’s rise to power.

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This Week’s Book Review – Seapower States

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

How maritime culture affected historical events

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 4, 2018

“Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that Made the Modern World,” by Andrew Lambert, Yale University Press, 2018, 424 pages, $30

Free markets and representative government combined to create unprecedented wealth since 1800. During the 20th century, three major conflicts were won by the coalition better representing those two traits.

“Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that Made the Modern World,” by Andrew Lambert examines the roles maritime cultures play fostering progress. Lambert holds that nations depending on seapower must necessarily favor free trade and possess representative governments.

He examines five nations that became world powers through embracing maritime culture and seapower: Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Netherlands, and Britain. All five gained power through trade — and more importantly, exchange of ideas. He argues they achieved this because all five had decentralized, representative governments made up of people whose livelihood depended on trade. This allowed the best ideas and the best leaders to rise to the top.

He also examines the major rivals of each state — continental powers favoring a strong central government with a command economy set by that government: Persia and Sparta against Athens, Rome against Carthage, Imperial (and later Revolutionary) France against Venice, the Netherlands, and Britain. He explores the wars fought between the rival piers and what led to victory or defeat in each case.

Lambert differentiates between seapower (controlling the sea and trade on it) and naval power (possessing a strong navy). Continental powers can build and sustain strong navies (as did Rome and Russia in examples given in his book) and even defeat seapowers with their navies. But while seapowers use their navies to protect trade, continental powers use their navies to project land power. Rome invaded Africa, and Russia used its fleets to flank Sweden and the Ottomans.

He also examines sea states, nations which developed seapower, but didn’t become dominating nations. These include the ancient Phoenician cities of the Levant coast, Rhodes, and Genoa.

Lambert argues what makes seapower states dangerous to continental states is they foster innovation. This is destabilizing, as new technologies often undermine the authority of central governments. “Seapower States” offers insight into the direction the modern world may take due to tensions between liberty and centralization.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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