The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun – J.R.R. Tolkien

With the discovery of a nearby low cost used bookstore. I finally got the impetus to scratch the itch of getting all of the Tolkien books lumped together as “The History of Middle Earth“.  Well, guess what – this isn’t part of that at all.

This, instead, is a retelling/translation of some old Norse/Germanic myths that the professor had done, along with some notes on the process by his son.  So in this way they were similar to the History of Middle Earth books.

Seems pretty well done, and the volume is first class.  However, verse is not my favorite medium.

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Sauron Defeated – J.R.R. Tolkien

History of Middle Earth. Volume IX

This compilation of Tolkien’s drafts and notes finishes up the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and adds some other writings to pad out the book to a reasonable length.  I finished the first part very quickly, then ran out of steam on the new material.

The part I found hard going was “The Notion Club Papers” which seemed more like a bunch of inside jokes for his buddies at the weekly ‘literary critique” get-togethers they had.  It finally started to pick up when one of them started having visions of the fall of Numenor – tied to some Anglo Saxon root rather than Middle Earth.

Then in the last section, he lifts the good parts out of the Notion Club and drops it entirely into his Middle Earth and we see that story get fleshed out polished.

At this point I am about half through the series – I strongly prefer the ones that follow the development of the books I am familiar with to the more detached works.  If you are tempted to read these I would start with Volumes VI to IX which follow the writing of Lord of the Rings. If you don’t like those, the others are likely to be even harder to get through.

 

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.

Foundation

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.

The War of the Ring – J. R. R. Tolkien

History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Three + History of Middle Earth Volume VIII

Another of the compilations of Tolkien’s notes and drafts of the Lord of the Rings, spanning the time when Minas Tirith was under attack.  This part was started and stopped several times during the years of World War II, and there were several chronoligical shifts as Tolkien tried to get elements of the Frodo storyline and the War storyline to mesh properly.

One interesting feature was that the character of Faramir appeared late relative to the others.  Some other iconic moments, like Eowyn versus the Nazgul King were also late developments.  Otherwise, there isn’t time for the story to drift away from its origins as in the early books – matters are closer to their final form.

The Treason of Isengard – J.R.R. Tolkien

This is the second part of the History of the Lord of the Rings, and the 7th volume in the  History of Middle Earth.  Tolkien’s son is going through the original drafts and reconstructing some of the thought processes and phases in the development of the story.

What is interesting here is how some parts of the take pop up in one step, and others change over and over.  There are many alterations in the scene where the fellowship breaks up…Boromir doesn’t die in some, they are on different sides of the river at times, Merry and Pippin do not get kidnapped.

On the other hand, the scene at Cirith Ungol where the orcs grab Frodo is almost complete, long before the narrative gets there.  The pass even moves location from the Black Gate to Minas Morgul.

The book stops at the point where Gandalf reaches Rohan, more or less in the middle of the Two Towers.

Pretty interesting stuff.

The Return of the Shadow – J. R. R. Tolkien

This is volume VI in the “History of the Lord of the Rings“, compiled by Tolkien‘s son Christopher.  This book, and the next three, are about the writing of the trilogy itself.

It is pretty interesting because the development of the story is so un-uniform.  Parts spring up very early in nearly their final form, while others are entirely absent.  When he started writing, the party in Hobbiton that starts matters is all there, but much of the rest of the world is blank – Gondor, Mordor, Isengard…all missing.   In fact, for much of the book “Strider” is a hobbit!  Of course, his name was ‘Trotter’ then.

It also was probably a good thing when Frodo got his name…Bingo Bolger-Baggins might not have worked very well.

Pretty quickly, though, the tone seems to shift away from a strict second book like the Hobbit – one geared towards children – with the introduction of the Black Riders.  They reached final form very quickly, although the number of them was pretty flexible.

This volume takes the story up to the MInes of Moria.  Even at this point, what would happen on the other side of the mountains was a blank slate.

Interesting stuff, and I went through it a lot quicker than the other books in this series.  I’m already into the next one.

The Mucker Series – Edgar Rice Burroughs

I read these three novels on the Kindle – “The Mucker”, “The Return of the Mucker” and “The Oakdale Affair”.  Billy Byrne is, oddly, not a smart or educated fellow, but instead a small time thug.  He starts making a place for himself in the criminal gangs of Chicago.  But this happy life is aborted when he is named the killer of a shopkeeper by the police.  He’s innocent, and only a warning from a cop that he saved from a beating allows him to escape.  He flees to San Francisco, and is shanghaied onto a ship and becomes a sailor.

This is actually good for him, as the lack of drink and hard work gives him some pride.  However, the ship and crew are involved in a kidnapping conspiracy to grab the daughter of a rich man for ransom.  At first he hates and resents her, but as time goes on he begins to try to win her respect.  The escaped ship is wrecked on a Pacific Island inhabited by a tribe of strange Japanese Samurai – Headhunter crossbreeds.  When the girl is kidnapped, Billy rescues her and together they live on the island, where she teaches him to speak and behave better.  Weeks later, her father and fiancée arrive at the island and are captured too. Billy rescues them, and leads the savages off after being severely wounded.  Believing him dead, the others escape the island, leaving him behind.  But Billy does survive, and eventually makes it back to the US and becomes a fighter.  He and the girl meet and even though in love, Billy leaves her to marry the man of her class.

In the second book, Billy goes back to Chicago and is arrested.  He escapes and becomes a hobo, along with Bridge, a poetic gentleman hobo.  They drift down to Mexico, where the country is torn by criminal bands.  There they run into the girl and her father, who apparently have just as bad a selection of vacation spots as ever.  Billy has to save pretty much everybody, and get them to the US.  There, instead of being arrested he finds that the true killer has confessed and he is cleared.

The third book is only related by the character of Bridge – it is a ‘hobo chic’ story of a young girl escaping a marriage by becoming a hobo, a proto “Scooby Doo” mystery haunted house, a gypsy and a semi trained pet bear, and a couple of murders and robberies and kidnappings to solve.  If it sounds confusing, it is.  In the end, it is revealed that Bridge is a rich guy and he and the runaway girl have fallen in love.  Presumably they return to a life of status, or maybe they go on being hobos.

Like all of Burroughs’ works, these books read easily.  Billy’s personal growth in the first book is a nice change of pace.  The other two are more conventional stories with the standard hero-girl-adventure-love arc that is pretty common in stories of this era.

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.

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….

 

An Oblique Approach – Eric Flint & David Drake

I’m re-reading the Belisarius series of six books now. Belisarius was a general in the Byzantine Empire in the 500s, who is most famous for retaking Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Goths (mostly) during the reign of Justinian with absurdly small forces.  The emperor never trusted him, and mistreated him but he never turned on him.  He has been a favorite of alternate history buffs since even before there were alt-history buffs.

In this alternate history, two contending forces from the far far future have sent agents back to change the past. The bad guys have sent Link to Malwa, an Indian state, to impose caste restrictions and racial purity ideas on the past.  Rome, with its ideas of rule based on ability, is to be destroyed.  The good guys send a crystal intelligence, Aide, to Rome to help defeat them.

Aide can give visions of the future that will come if Malwa wins to help convince doubters.  When Belisarius sees his future, in the last moments before his death, he sees that an Indian refugee that he had serving him was a hero that had fled when the last princess of the dynasty he served had been killed by the Malwa.  If he can change that, and save her, then the Malwa will at least have opposition on the home front.

Belisarius has quite a few problems to solve before this – for one, he needs to defeat the Persians in the war he is in, which hasn’t been done in a century or so.  He needs to start research on gunpowder weapons to counter those the Malwa have.  And he needs to induce a paranoid Emperor to send him to India without telling him the secret!

Only then can the easy part of rescuing the princess from the middle of a 100,000 man army even begin.  It shouldn’t be too hard – there are three Roman bodyguards, five Axumite allies (from Ethiopia), and Belisarius.  And he has a plan….