(Note: I posted this late because I wrote it late. But I’m slipping it in like it was here all along. Rest assured that I did finish the reading on time, as you can see on my fediverse postings: @firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Summer is over, at least in the unofficial sense. We’ve still got a few days left in the actual season, but the vacation part is done, so let’s take a look at what I read.
This year was a little different, owing to my…current relationship status. I only had about a week and a half of that during last summer’s challenge, but this one has seen me interested in someone (and seen her interested in me, which is far more surprising!) for a full two months of summer. And it thus became a lot harder to complete the challenge, because I barely have any reading time as it is, and that just caused a bigger crunch. So I actually didn’t finish the third book until the last few days of August.
But that’s okay. I accomplished my goal. On time is on time, even if it’s the 11th hour. You saw the first book I read back in my midpoint update. Here are the other two.
Title: The War that Made America
Author: Fred Anderson
This was the last book I finished, but the first I started. Throughout the summer, I used it as kind of a “background” book, one I read when I had a few minutes and didn’t want to get into anything. As a general-audience history text, it’s perfect for that, divided into small chapters and littered with numerous illustrations that I mostly ignored.
The topic is the French and Indian War, and that hooked me for one reason: I like more obscure events in history. Considering how pivotal this war was for creating the United States as we know it, you wouldn’t expect it to be that obscure, but it’s a bit of a forgotten war, in much the same way as, say, the Spanish-American War. (I suspect that Korea will follow that, once it passes beyond living memory in a couple of decades.)
Mostly, the book describes how the British nearly bungled their attempt at conquering French holdings in North America. By a series of fortunate events, they got a few important victories. That, coupled with the way they were able to play the various Indian nations off one another (and the French), enabled them to take vital forts and trading posts in the modern Midwest and Pennsylvania, but at a high cost of men and honor. At the same time, they and their allies in Germany were fighting a much more “traditional” sort of conflict in Europe—the Seven Years War, of which the French and Indian was merely a theater of operations—so this could be considered, in effect, the real first world war.
Anderson does a good job of telling the tale, though he focuses more on the events leading up to the important battles than the fighting itself. Yes, there is some description of 18th-century siege warfare, as well as the way the rules of engagement differed between the Old World and the New, but this is definitely not an action-packed account of a war. Instead, it’s a higher-level view that shows why that war came about, how it almost fell apart, and what happened next.
That’s both the best and worst part of the book. George Washington had a command in the French and Indian War, and he pretty much blew it. For that effort, he becomes the “wrapper” for the text, which is an odd choice, in my opinion, as he then all but disappears from the tale until the end. Still, it’s nice to see what is, in effect, the prequel of the American Revolution.
All in all, I liked The War that Made America, but I won’t say it’s great. It’s a solid, well-researched account of an undervalued part of history, but it’s not the kind of book you want to scour for trivia. Really, it’s more a teaser than anything, because now I do want to delve more into the world circa 1760.
Title: Red Mars
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Genre: Science fiction
I don’t read a lot of science fiction. This may seem odd, considering I’m writing a novel of that genre at this very moment, but I just don’t. That, I’ve learned, is related to my depression: the future described in so many of the stories that interest me is so far away that I’ll never live to see it, and that makes me very sad for myself and for the world that, to my eyes, has all but given up on advancement and is looking instead to return to the barbaric times before the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, two of mankind’s three greatest eras.
The greatest of all, of course, is the Space Age, and that is where we have squandered our future the most. Reading Red Mars, I can’t help but think this. Written over a quarter-century ago, it shows its age mostly by referring to a present that never was.
Anyway, I’ve made it pretty clear on here that I love space exploration, and I love Mars. So this novel should be right up my alley, but I just didn’t like it that much. Maybe I’m too critical, but the whole thing felt like a scientist writing fiction, not a fiction author writing science. The prose style is grating in a way I find hard to describe. The pacing makes the novel feel more like an anthology of short stories. On the other hand, the scientific aspects are mostly impeccable. Mostly. I’m an amateur, but even I noticed a couple of errors that can’t entirely be attributed to optimistic projections. (The most egregious example is setting up solar panels at ~80°N latitude on Mars. That’s…not exactly a power move.)
Story-wise, Red Mars is all over the place. At the start, you’re unceremoniously dumped into a tense situation, with little idea of who’s who or what they’re even fighting about. But that’s a flash-forward. After this extended prologue, the story jumps back to the trip from Earth to Mars, the founding of the first human colony on another planet. Honestly, the voyage itself is underwhelming (I blame the POV character for this part). The founding of Underhill and the events of Part 3, on the other hand, contain some of the most evocative passages I’ve ever read. Then, after a large time-skip, the second half of the book seems to be a rushed mess that still somehow lasts for about 300 pages.
To sum up, I’ll say that I see Red Mars as a flawed masterpiece. In setting, it’s great. The Mars painted by Robinson is, as Buzz Aldrin said of the Moon, magnificent desolation. And a lot of the colony-building aspects are surprisingly deep. Alas, there’s just not enough time to explore, whether that’s the beautiful wasteland of the Red Planet or the inner space of the few characters who aren’t total sociopaths or misanthropes. I’ve been told that the other two entries in the trilogy make the story more complete, so I’ll give them a shot, because the setting itself is worth it.
So that’s another summer in the books. (Heh. Look at my puns.) If you played along, I hope you had fun, you achieved your goals, and you broadened your horizons. Two of my three choices—the two above, in fact—were never on my radar until the end of May, and that’s really the point of this challenge. Try something new. You won’t know what you like until you do.
Even though the Summer Reading List Challenge is over for 2019, that’s no reason to stop, so…keep reading!