With regards the reviews I write, I feel it is necessary to provide this caveat.
The initial section right up to the button that opens the full synopsis is the teaser where I try to give a look into the book without revealing too much.

The section within the button is a full synopsis. No detail will be hidden at all.

Be warned!
The final section (Food for thought) is a series of thoughts on the book. This is a personal take on the book and does mention important parts of the books. It should be considered as much of a spoiler as the previous section!

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Book Review: The Age of Odin by James Lovegrove - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the 4th Wall. Today we'll have a review of:
The Age of Odin - James Lovegrove
Cover art copyright of Solaris.

Before we start though, a brief word of warning. The book contains a large amount of profanity. This is because the main character is an ex-army soldier, and the book is told from his point of view.

'Gideon Coxall was a good soldier but bad at everything else, until a roadside explosive device leaves him with one deaf ear and a British Army half-pension. So when he hears about the Valhalla Project, it's like a dream come true. They're recruiting former service personnel for excellent pay, no questions asked, to take part in unspecified combat operations.

The last thing Gid expects is to find himself fighting alongside ancient Viking gods. The world is in the grip of one of the worst winters it has ever known, and Ragnarök- the fabled final conflict of the Sagas - is looming.' The Age of Odin - James Lovegrove 

The Age of Odin follows Gideon Coxall as he experiences the worst winters that Britain has ever known, driving through a storm towards as far north in England as you can get before 'Och-aye-the-noo' land. He travels with a stoner and ex-army friend with the unfortunate nickname "Abortion." From a modern perspective, the world setting at this time would be akin to the start of an ice age, the entire world experiencing a snowy winter. 

The entire story is set from Gideon's perspective from start to finish, giving us a very personal view of the events occuring around him. Gideon is determined to be master of his own destiny, which provides an odd contrast to the fact that we (the reader) are aware that the saga of Ragnarök is exactly that, a story with a fixed number of events that occur in sequence. However, the saga only really begins after Gideon finds himself before Asgard Hall (named after Asgard, the world of the Norse gods).

From there, Gideon finds drawn into a world of fantasy that somehow blends with the reality around him. It's a world so very different from our own that there are times that Gideon himself initially struggles to come to terms with the facts of his situation. Although part of that struggle is the struggle to accept that the world he thought he lived in was not the real world.

The Age of Odin is one of the many books written by James Lovegrove that have begun the 'Godpunk' genre. In fact, the entire collection is being referred to as the 'Age of Godpunk.' Godpunk is derived from the term 'Steampunk.' Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that refers to (most commonly) an alternate Victorian-era Earth in which steam-powered machinery represents the height of human achievement within industrialised nations (that would resemble the Western powers at their heights during the Industrial Revolutions they experienced.

Godpunk has so far referred to a curious blend of mythology and the post-modern reality (here meaning a future not too far removed from our current existence). The Age of Odin for example, sets the saga of Ragnarök as a shadow to our own world's machinations, ending with a dramatic climax that shapes the course of the otherwise ignorant world. On the other end of the spectrum though, Age of Ra and Age of Aztec (to name two of Lovegrove's other works) reveal worlds where the mythology is a fact of life, where the world is ruled by the Egyptian and Aztec gods in turn, hence Godpunk. 

Ragnarök is part of Viking mythology and depicts a series of future events that will culminate in the effective destruction of life as we know it and restart the world afresh. It's detailed in several poems and can be treated, if you will, as an event similar to the judgement day of the bible. However, unlike judgement day (which concerns mankind alone), Ragnarök involves the Norse (Norweigian) gods in a climatic battle that ends with the death of most of the Viking pantheon and the nine-worlds in which they live. In Viking mythology, Earth (called Midgard) is just one part of nine worlds that are the totality of creation.

Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):

Food for thought:

At first glance, this book appears simply to be a high-octane military thriller. However, this book is about more than that. The Age of Odin, like James Lovegrove's other books is about the power of faith, about the quandary of fate and free-will, and ironically, about the strength of humanity.

The book has a plot which is over-the-top. The conceptual idea is fascinating, and despite all the profanity within the novel, I felt it had captured the spirit of a 'standard' British Army soldier quite well. The profanity and snarky humour works because Gideon Coxall is exactly that, a man who has 'cocked up everything' (Coxall get it?) and is left a somewhat bitter but defiant person. He's not normal in any meaningful way because of his penchant for violence which seems at odds with our understanding of today's society. 

The trouble with Age of Odin is a simple one. Gideon. Gideon is a self-admitted 'loser' in the sense that he can't manage to hold a job, can't live a civilian life nor manage to be a good father/husband. At the same time though, if he were a classical square-chinned Hero of Hollywood movies sort, this book wouldn't work, it'd be boring. It does mean though that the reader is left with the sense that Gideon had been awkwardly shoved into his various roles in the story.

That said, I find I can forgive this because Ragnarök itself originates from a massive epic that was unrealistic anyway (as is always the trend with mythological stories). There is no way to condense it without making the story itself feel rushed and disjointed. Many of Ragnarök's monsters and villains are strange and weird but again, this is to be expected. It is a shame to see Gideon adopting such an important role in the plot but again, I understand this as a narrative necessity to ensure the reader is able to experience as much of the Ragnarök tale as possible.

However, this book has a number of interesting concepts. The best of which is Gideon questioning Odin about God (as in with a capital G, the God that Christians believe in). Most books won't touch God because of how it can be percieved. Odin merely states that he has never met God, if he exists, but then goes on to state that if he didn't exist, Odin wouldn't want to believe in him. This is a bone of contention that is often missed from the Christian perspective. God is a model citizen (and Jesus too if you will). We are expected to emulate God to be better people, that is the nature of God. 
The gods of the Viking people were attributed all sorts of powers and credited for a great many things, but they were still human and this was because Aesir (Viking gods) were flawed creatures, prone to jealousy, anger, fear, selfishness as much as any mortal was. God is not human and from the Viking perspective, God was cruel. The Viking gods are not omnipotent, nor omniscient. The flaws in the world are just as much their fault as man's. God however, is both omnipotent and omniscient. Doesn't this imply that He was well aware what would happen in the Garden of Eden? On some level, does this not imply that He in fact sets man up for their fall from grace? 

The other interesting part of the book is the question on fate and free-will. Ragnarök is a very grim time for Odin and the other gods, not because they are fighting for their lives, nor because this marks the end of days. It is grim because Odin and the other gods are constructs of mankind's faith. They are gods because they were believed to be gods. Effectively, this means that they know when and how they die, but at the same time, they cannot do anything to change that. It raises the quesiton of free-will neatly. Odin indicates in the story that the Aesir came about because people believed in them long ago, he also indicates that the gods can only die at the right time and place. For Odin it was in the belly of Fenrir, for Thor is was in the jaws of Jormungand. On the one hand, they have no free-will, their fates are already known, told and written down long before the modern era, but on the other hand, they do not see themselves as lacking free-will because their characters are such that the alternative could not be considered. This can be extended to mankind. 

Free-will is predicated on the concept of having a choice, getting to determine your own fate. However, on some level, we cannot ever be truly free because there are some things our consciousness or inner character would not let us do. Classic arguments of free-will are often extreme examples such as: "If I can guide my own fate, I can, for example, choose to jump off a bridge." But we can use a less extreme example, "If I can guide my own fate, I can, for example, choose between eating a chocolate or a fruit." In my own case, I love chocolate and nine times out of ten the answer would be: the chocolate. In which case, do I have free-will? Or merely the illusion of it? I'm not being forced to take the option I want, but I do not necessarily consider that there is an option at all. 

To use an example from the book, at any point does Gideon have any free will? The Norns state that to a Hero there are any number of paths, but Gideon is a man built by the life he has lived (as demonstrated by the Norns), and so, was there really any other path than that which he chose?

The final food for thought is this concept of the strength of humanity. This book involves gods of all shapes and sizes, but is ultimately about mankind. Here, Odin has revealed that effectively, mankind is the ones who create gods, mankind fashions them in our image. The turning point of Ragnarök is not the gods themselves but the humans serving under them. When Loki needed to bring the tools of Ragnarök to bear, he did not take the real Fenrir, Jormungand or Nagelfar, he instead preferred to use their man-made mimics. To quote Shakespeare:
'All the world's a stage, 
And all the men and women merely players.'

The whole story works as a play on that concept. Ragnarök is almost literally a stage, it's a Viking myth with a set of pre-conceived events. The players on the stage (here the Aesir) have no choice regardless of how they feel, but to act out the play to its fulfilment, and on some base level, it implies that gods and devils arrange themselves for our (mankind's) sole amusement. 

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Book Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein - 4thwallfly

The film left me terrified as a child, the book was nonetheless enjoyable. Welcome to the Fly on the 4th Wall where we shall review one of the 'classic' science fiction books:
Starship Troopers - Robert A. Heinlein
Cover art copyright of James Warhola

 "Join the army and see the universe! In one of Robert Heinlein's most controversial bestsellers, a recruit of the future goes through the toughest boot camp in the Universe - and into battle with the Terran Mobile Infantry against mankind's most alarming enemy!" - Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein [1959]

The story follows Juan Rico (or "Johnnie") through his career within the Terran Mobile Infantry from a fresh faced recruit to the veteran and officer he later becomes. His career is set against mankind's struggle with the dangerous 'Pseudo-Arachnids', a race of insectile aliens. Alien here is for once the right word, since the Pseudo-Arachnids (or "bugs") have a completely non-human existence. This does make them hard to empathise with, but the narrative tells the story only from Rico's perspective so it isn't long before the bug becomes 'the enemy' to the reader. The story is told strictly in a 'flashback' method, frequently revealing exposition of the world, society and Rico's own life, through events in his life. 

Rico lives in what would be considered a dystopian future. His world is a society where the ruling party are formed solely of "Sky Marshals" (the highest rank of the armed forces which combines the disciplines of both the Infantry and Navy). The novel mentions that to be a citizen of this future every man or woman must complete a term of service in the armed forces.

It lends itself to an almost Roman society. The Roman Empire was famous for granting land and citizenship to those who were not born Roman citizens but had undergone terms of service within the Roman army. 
However, non-citizens of the Federation do benefit from a number of rights (such as freedom of speech and political assembly), but only citizens ('veterans') were entitled to vote and hold public office.

Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):

Food for thought:
Starship Troopers is a book that skirts around fascism through most of the story. Certain topics in schools can only be taught by citizens for example (this meaning 'military veterans').
Heinlein is considered to channel much of his own personality and opinions through Dubois (Rico's teacher) and expounds heavily on the concept of violence as a necessary part of mankind's existence, though this is nothing too surprising as this was written in the 1960s, when war with the Soviet Union was a very real threat. The idea of channeling aggressive impulses into sacrifice for 'good' ideals is not entirely shocking in this respect. "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." - Thomas Jefferson

However, the film (called the same name) attempted to satirise the underlying fascism in the book's setting through an overly obvious link to the Nazi Party. Officers in the film wore black leather trenchcoats (of the sort commonly associated with the Nazi SS), Rico and the recruits swearing the oath of allegiance wore SA uniforms (Sturmabteilung), a vaguely eagle shaped motif was selected as the Federation's logo (to represent the twin-headed eagle) and the film was cast as if it were a propaganda film with the frequent allusions to the Federation's control of broadcasting.

This does raise my final food for thought. In the film, we see the Arachnids as monsters. Giant insects who rather messily disassemble people in various ways. But perhaps that is the point of the film (and in some respects the book too). By portraying an enemy repulsive and impossible to empathise with, we the reader (and audience of the film) are drawn into supporting the 'good guys' who are the product of a fascist state.
An argument could be made that it is easy for people to support fascist principles and see it as 'good' provided we are convinced the other, the alien, is not something to be understood but an enemy to be destroyed.

And yet... we know they can be understood. The Pseudo-Arachnid was an ally of the Skinnies after all.