The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov

I picked up this book when I saw it at a discount at a mainline bookstore.  It is a nice leather-bound copy of the trilogy – replacing a trade paperback version that had some flaws from the start and has some repairs.  And it has been a while since I read it.

It of course, is a classic of the “Golden Age” of SF, and I think it wears its age well.   As to why it made such an impact, I think it due to its historical sense.  There’s a story about how it started.  The fairly young Asimov was on his way to a story conference with his editor, John W. Campbell, but he had a problem – no story ideas.  He had been spending his time reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, so in the  conference he started discussing Gibbon by casting it into a galactic empire.  Campbell liked the idea and Asimov ran with it.

I’ve read quite a bit of SF from that period and even the majestic series seemed more like superhero stories or Buck Rogers’ adventures than a preview of real history.  Stanley Weinbaum was a good builder of alien worlds, but he did not live long enough to produce something like this.


The book starts on Trantor, the capital of the empire, where Psychohistorian Hari Seldon is put on trial for predicting the fall of the empire.  He is a new kind of scientist that uses mathematics to predict future history by statistical means (much like how the mathematics of thermodynamics predicts the properties of gases without knowing how each individual molecule will move).  His group was formed to try and limit the effects of the fall by creating a storehouse of human knowledge.  They are sent to Terminus, a planet on the outer fringe of the galaxy to do this as the Encyclopedia Foundation.

Fifty years later, Terminus is isolated as the outer portions of the empire break away into independent states and threaten its independence.  The leadership of the Foundation wants to trust the diplomat from the empire, but (in a comical bit of science-y realism) Mayor Salvor Hardin has his words “semantically analyzed” to show that the fellow didn’t say one useful statement during the entire visit.  At this critical point, a vault placed by the founders opens and a message from Seldon is played – and the tells them that the purpose of the Foundation is not to make the encyclopedia at all, but to form the core of the Second Empire after a thousand years from this one planet.  Periodically Seldon will appear and give advice, since it is all part of his plan.

From here, it is a story of how the tiny, resourceless Foundation manages to first survive, then dominate its neighbors and form the core of the next empire.

Foundation and Empire

The second book shows the foundation facing a major threat as the Empire itself learns of them and sends a major force under a great General, Bel Riose to conquer them.  A Foundation agent is trying to undermine the action from inside while the fleets fight for survival.  Things are looking grim indeed before an unexpected, but historically inevitable conclusion saves the Foundation.

So the march to greatness seems assured for the Foundation, but the nation itself is ruled by a dictator and is oppressive to the Free Trader planets that produce much of its wealth.  The Free Traders are looking for Allies and turn to a mysterious one called ‘The Mule’ who has risen to prominence suddenly.  They abduct his clown, and discover that the Mule is a mutant, with strange powers.  The Mule declares war, just as a Seldon Crisis opens the vault.

The leaders of the Foundation are dismayed when Seldon’s message is nonsense, not applying to the current situation at all.  The Mule is outside the Seldon Plan, and suddenly they are on their own – and beaten.  The Foundation falls to the Mule.

The only hope seems to be to find the Second Foundation, which Seldon said he had set up on the other end of the Galaxy, for help.  But can they warn it before it is too late?

Second Foundation

To quote the author – “this book is about the search for the Second Foundation”.  The last book ended with the secret of the location kept from the Mule, but he is still looking.  And the Mule is sure that the Second Foundation is working against his empire.  Can he find it and destroy the Seldon Plan for good?

In the second part, it is the Foundation itself that is looking for the Second Foundation to destroy it.  After the Mule’s early death, his empire broke up and the Foundation rose again.  Some credit the Second Foundation, a world of supermen, while some deny the very existence of it.  And some fear that a dependence on the magical Second Foundation will stunt the Foundations own path to greatness.  Enter Arkady Darrell, a clever teenager who throws herself into the mix with interesting results!

Arkady is one of Asimov’s more memorable characters.  It is a great change of pace to the ‘sweep of history’ tack of the books and as a teen at the time I first read this he captured the facets of a maybe too clever girl perfectly.

Rome’s Wars in Parthia: Blood in the Sand – Rose Mary Sheldon

I was interested in this book because the campaigns of Rome in the East are often glossed over in the more general histories of the time.   I’ve also often wondered if these campaigns diverted too much attention away from the Rhine and Danube then they were worth.  I was looking for information to answer these questions.  I’m still looking.  The only thing I learned is that Rose Mary Sheldon doesn’t like George W. Bush.

I’m all for historical parallels, but Sheldon has a particular Procrustean manner of making the man fit the bed. She continually asserts about the peacefulness of the Parthians, who only wanted the Americans – oops – Romans to leave them alone.  Yet in her own text, she reveals that the Parthians started a good fraction of these wars, usually by trying to take the key client state of Armenia.  I prefer a more realistic view of ancient relations where states often seize on a real or perceived opportunity to expand without labelling one side demons or angels.  Maybe that’s just me, and I need to get the program that shows which ancient tribes and nations are nice and which are nasty.

A particularly egregious example is her touting the revolt of Avidius Cassius in Syria as a kind of national uprising against Rome’s “Army of Occupation”.  This is a farcical portrayal of the situation, and actually contradicts her own summary of the revolt in the main text.  Cassius was a Roman officer who declared himself Emperor when he heard the rumor that Emperor Marcus Aurelius had died.  In no way can this analagous to an aspiration of the Syrians to be free of Rome.

It is also disturbing that about the only Roman act that meets with unqualified approval is Emperor Caracalla inviting Parthian notables and officers to a wedding, then executing them all an ravaging the countryside.  Way to stay classy, Rose!

There are a number of these distortions and  contradictions.  Sheldon is a professor of Military Intelligence, and you can tell because the word “Intelligence” is sprinkled through the text randomly to prove it.  The summary of Roman intelligence failures is almost amusing.  After trashing Rome for not having a general staff (something that wasn’t invented until about 1700 more years), there’s the amusing labeling of Rome’s use of non-professional generals as “Intelligence Failure”.  Sure, this trait caused problems through Rome’s history, but you can’t make it an intelligence issue just by throwing the word in front.

Even viewing this book as an indictment of US policy, it is a bad book.  The history is distorted and the parallels forced.  As a history of Rome or Parthia, it is worthless.  In places you can see a normal historical narrative peeking through the modern slant, but there’s too much chaff and too little wheat to make the effort.

Anyone know of a good book on the Parthian Wars?

Cryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold


cryoburn (Photo credit: cdrummbks)

Cryoburn is the one of the latest Vorkosigan novels…well it is the latest I’ve read.  Years and Years ago I made a rule that I would wait for the small paperback versions of fiction books to save on cost, so new offerings are delayed considerably.

Is it a good book – absolutely.  The entire series is very good, mixing action, character, humor and some anguish in a way that makes the world seem real.  Things aren’t always easy and safe in this universe.

In this book, Miles Vorkosigan, Imperial Auditor – designated trouble sniffer and fixit man for the Emperor of Barrayar – is sent off to investigate a world that is heavily into cryogenics – freezing clients long-term until medicine can fix their problems.  They are expanding into Barrayar and the Empress smells something fishy.

Well, I’m not going to tell the story here – there’s some nifty figuring out to be done and some people in trouble to be helped out.  I actually like the fact that not all of the books in the series are about world-shattering clashes of armies and fleets – this series has avoided the ‘problem’ that the Harrington series has had where character growth has led the main character into a background position.  And this series has always been more about individual characters than about the actions even when the action is furious.

In Fire Forged – David Weber et al.

This book is “Worlds of Honor #5”  which denotes that it is an anthology of stories by Weber and other authors set in the Honor Harrington universe.  The stories are all pretty good, and Weber’s own is especially welcome because it involves Honor in the past, before she became as high ranked as she is ‘now’ in the latest books.

As in real life, success brings promotion and you can’t be a ship captain or even admiral forever even if those make the best stories. The recent main books are strategic, with large casts and events taking place all over the place.  This is all well and good, but there’s still a need for the smaller stories with just a few characters facing problems that will not destroy the world.

The Land that Time Forgot (plus 2) – Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Land that Time Forgot began a series of three linked ‘Caspak’ novels set on a mysterious island in the Pacific populated by extinct species.  The sequels The People that Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss.  I obtained all three from a Kindle collection and enjoyed them all.

The start of the series is interesting because it starts on a freighter in the North Atlantic during WWI. (!)  The Hero, Bowen J. Tyler and his dog are travelling to England when the freighter is sunk.  He survives with the lovely Lys La Rue, and are rescued by an English tug.  The Tug encounters a U-boat as well and is also sunk, but the crew manages to capture the vessel.  Sadly, they still are attacked by the Royal Navy and cannot land, so they sail away from England, holding the German crew prisoner.

The Germans overcome them and sail even farther afield, into the Pacific.  (this U-Boat has a heck of a range!).  The allies manage to take the sub back, but their attempt to land on the West Coast of the US is folied by the sabotage of a Communist traitor and they are lost in the South Pacific with their supplies poisoned.  Their only hope is to land on the mysterious land they find there, only accessible by a submarine through an underground river.  There they find a land stuffed with extinct species.  Soon while the crew explores, the German crew revolts and sails away, leaving them stranded. Then primitive tribesmen attack the camp and carry off Lys, and Bowen heads off to the rescue.  He manages to do so, and tosses the manuscript into a bottle in the sea.

In the second book, the manuscript reaches Bowen’s family and a friend, Tom Billings, heads a rescue expedition.  Tom himself is flying a small plane over the land when it is attacked by a Pterodactyl and he crashes.  He meets up with a fully human native girl Ajor, saving her from death.  He decides to get her back to her tribe and then look for his friend.

On the way Tom finds out about the odd biological system on the island.  Every critter is more or less immortal, and evolves upward through the evolutionary stages itself.  If they live long enough they become advanced enough to give birth to regular kids rather than spawn fish eggs like most females do.  One unmentioned consequence is that in fact everyone on the island is killing and eating their own babies and relatives.  Ick.

During the adventure Tom meets several human tribesmen who wake up and realize that they belong to the next, more advanced tribe down the valley and ‘move on up’ the evolutionary chain.  Tom finds his friend and the rescue party scales the cliffs and everyone leaves – except Tom who stays with his lovely lady on the island.

The third book follows the remainder of the crew, one of whom (Bradley) is snatched by a race of winged men that have evolved on the island and are trying to perfect their race by snatching advanced humans from the regular tribe for their breeding program. There he meets a lovely human girl and rescues her from the winged men.  They meet up with the rescue party from Book 2 and escape to the outer world.

All in all a trio of pretty faced paced, interesting books.  This series has a little less of the ‘crap, Princess Dejah is in trouble again’ plot line that got a bit tiring in the second and third John Carter books.  I hadn’t read any Burroughs before these six books and I enjoyed them all.


Three John Carter Novels – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Sorry to lump The Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars all into one post, but if I don’t I may never catch up.  These were all Kindle volumes, part of an extremely large collection that Amazon sells for a dollar or two.

I’d never read these, although I had heard of them.  John Carter is a Virginian Civil War veteran, who conveniently is immortal.  After the war, out west he is trapped by hostile Indians in a strange cave, passes out and wakes up on Mars.  Mars is a dying world, full of hostile tribes and city states, with everyone at war with everyone else.

Carter’s Earth body makes him stronger than anyone on Mars, and he uses that strength to defend the oppressed, as befits the honor of a gentleman.  He rises from prisoner of the Green Martians to a leader, by right of combat.  Then the tribe captures the lovely Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, and Carter decides to help her get back to her home.  Needless to say, it is not as simple as that, and after adventures, imprisonment, escape, and a myriad of complications – which shows its origin as a serial in a magazine that needs a cliff-hanger every chapter or so – he gets her home and marries her.   After a decade of marriage, a final adventure where Carter saves the entire planet when the air plant fails, he is somehow returned to Earth, where he narrates the story to his nephew Burroughs. Ten years pass as he yearns to get back to Mars and his wife.

Well, it would be a short series if he did not, and in the second and third books he gets back.  And unsurprisingly, straight into trouble.  as he meets his Green Martian friend Tars Tarkas in a fight against impossible odds against a pack of vampire-like plant creatures and white apes.  From Tarkas, he learns that this is the Martian ‘heaven’, where custom says all go after a thousand years of life to rest and be at peace.  Being devoured by monsters is not part of the myth.  It turns out this religion is a lie, run by the evil Tharns.  To return to Dejah, Carter must escape and break the hold of the religion on the planet.

But of course, it is not that simple. For an advanced race of black skinned pirates capture him – they exploit the Tharns as the Tharns exploit the planet.  And they are ruled by another false religion, and the priests devour the captives they take.  There he meets and eventually recognizes his son, who was hatched from an egg after he left.  I guess they grow up fast, since he is a warrior second only to Carter.

They escape, and return to Helium only to find that the rightful rulers have been lost searching for Carter’s son, and Dejah herself had just left to escape the clutches of a usurper.  Soon they find that the Black Martians have her, and she will be eaten after her year is up.

…and so it goes.  They are fun books, if you don’t take them so seriously. Lots of desperate fights against impossible odds, imprisonments, escapes. sneaking into enemy camps and lairs, the whole works.  In the third book you start to wish Dejah stayed home, as she keeps getting kidnapped and re-kidnapped by evildoers over and over from one side of the planet to the other.

The Dance of Time – Eric Flint & David Drake

This is the final volume in the Belisarius series.  The Malwa empire, twisted into evil and strengthened by the evil entity Link from the far future. is finally on the ropes.  Exhausted by defeats from Axum and Rome, weakened by rebellion in India, for the moment it is on the defensive.  But the cost to bring it the rest of the way down will be high.

The cost has already been high.  The young king Eon of Axum has died in battle, leaving an infant heir and a young bride behind.  Politics and the personal combine to require a good solution to ensure Axum’s future.  Belisarius’ aide, a young officer blinded in battle has stayed on as historian and correspondent, publishing dispatches describing the war to the home front.  There is an interesting subplot of his initially embittered wife trying to travel to the front but on the way becoming an alternate Florence Nightingale with the injured and wounded along the way.  This is enthusiastically supported by Aide and Belisarius, once the situation is brought to their attention.

The stalemate is finally broken when Lord Damondara revolts, supported by Rana Sanga and his army.  Their families hidden by the devious eunuch Narses, and with Link far away at the front, they make a stab at the capital city.  Can they take it before Link returns with reinforcements?

Belisarius sees his chance when Link leaves the front facing him with a small force.  If he can trap Link, Malwa will fall to his rebelling allies.  But can they capture Link before it jumps to a new host and assure that the far future creatures that send Aide will exist?


This is a great series.  I also like the fact that the focus is increasingly on the personal rather than huge battles as in some of the middle books.  Instead of a continual ‘Can I Top This’ battle strategy narrative, events turn on Belisarius concentrating on having people act as individuals – even the traitor Narses who becomes an ally as he uses his love of plotting and ambition to serve his purposes.  When you are fighting a being that wants to end individualism forever, having the key events be the character of a few men on both sides seems very fitting.

The Tide of Victory – Eric Flint & David Drake

After the destruction of the main Malwa army in Mesopotamia and the death of Link’s avatar Great Lady Holi, Belisarius and his allies have an advantage that they have to press.  The second Malwa army in the North is recalled to fight against Princess Shakuntala in south India.

Not trusting the leaders of this army, Malwa decides to hold Prince Damondara’s family, even though he is part of the Royal Family in Malwa.  They have an even worse fate planned for Rana Sanga, the Rajput general.  To bind him closer to Malwa, they plan to secretly have his family killed and to have him marry the new Great Lady Sati.

The eunuch Narses, his ambition fired by Belisarius telling him he will live thirty years or more, has a counterplot in the works to extract the families and have Damondara rebel.  But he needs Belisarius’ bodyguards to accomplish it.

Meanwhile the army keeps up the pressure by invading the Sind and Punjab (modern-day Pakistan), aided by the worlds first steam ships.  Can they keep up the pressure long enough for Narses’ treason in their favor can start?

Fortune’s Stroke – Eric Flint & David Drake

This is the fourth book in the Belisarius Series. In it, the past is changed by a crystal entity from the future that wants to crush out individuality. It is starting by using the Indian Malwa Empire to attack towards Rome.  A second entity, Aide is sent to Belisarius, Rome’s best general, to fight it.

Having parried the last year’s campaign by destroying the Malwa supply fleet, Belisarius has a new problem.  The main army is still in Mesopotamia and ready to move out, but the second Malwa army is approaching through the mountains.  This one is smaller, but has better troops and generals.  Also, it is aided by the Roman traitor the eunuch Narses and has an excellent spy network.  A stalemate is not an option.

In other fronts, there are problems. Malwa agents kill most of the royal family of Roman ally Axum in Ethiopia, leaving young Eon, a friend of Belisarius in charge with rebellion in Arabia to quell.  And in India, Empress Shakuntala has to decide which prince to marry to gain the power to take the fight to Malwa and save Rao in the city of Deogiri.

Belisarius has a plan, though – to turn one Malwa army against them and destroy the other utterly. And will risk losing every man in his army to do it!

Destiny’s Shield – Eric Flint and David Drake

This is part three of the Belisarius alternate history series.  I finished my rereading already, but not my reporting!

The theme is that two sentient devices – or beings – arrive from the future. One, Link, is trying to enshrine racial purity and caste systems and has been giving technology to allow India’s Malwa empire to conquer the world.  In the way is the Rome of the 530’s AD, where ability counts more than birth and race. A second device – Aide – was sent to Rome’s greatest general, Belisarius, to fight back.

Although the Nika revolt was crushed, Emperor Justinian was blinded.  Unable to hold power, his wife Theodora adopts Belisarius’ stepson, Photius and makes him emperor, with Theodora as regent.  Justinian retires to follow his interest in Law, and mechanical development.  With the secret out, Rome can openly develop its countermeasures.

But time is short. Already Malwa has launched a two-pronged invasion of Persia.  The most dangerous one is the one in Mesopotamia, where the two rivers give a direct route on to Rome itself.  The main Persian army has fled into the ruined city of Babylon and is under siege.

Meanwhile in India, the revolt spreads as the Empress Shakuntala takes a port city with her refugees and links up with Rao in Maharashtra.

But Rome has troubles of their own.  A revolt in Alexandria ruins plans to make it a base to make gunpowder weapons for the army and for the Axumite and Indian allies.  Belisarius has to leave some forces for his wife, Antonia to take to break the revolt and get this into motion again.  The rest can go to Persia, but it is a pitiful force against the huge Malwa army.

After a few quick victories, Belisarius is left with a problem. Half of his Persian allies are plotting to avoid the fight to bring down the Persian Emperor.  He needs to break the siege of Babylon, but the armies are too large to fight and the supply line on the Euphrates is as sure as sure can be.

Unless Belisarius does something to the river….