Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space – John W. Young with James R. Hansen

John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.

His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.

For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.

I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.

S.P.Q.R: A History of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard

S.P.Q.R. charts the development of the Ancient Rome from the murkiest depths of its origin mythos to the grant of citizenship to all free men by the Emperor Caracalla in the year 212CE. Dr. Beard carefully parses fact from fiction, while deconstructing the Ancient Roman mythos still very much alive to this day.

Where this book shines is in its meticulous attention to evidence. While stories of what various Roman emperors and military heroes did are in wide circulation today, many are based on later writings which did not have access to primary sources. Certainly many historians from the Classical Era, whom are now viewed as reliable sources, seem to have tainted their writings to make a benefactor, or themselves, look better. Dr. Beard lays bare where there is only incomplete evidence, hints or plain myth. It is a fascinating book for the history buff, though I felt that the author’s style was perhaps a little too ironically British.

The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space – Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

On 14 December, 1973, Gene Cernan re-entered the Lunar Module Challenger after the third and final moonwalk of Apollo 17, the final Apollo Moon Mission. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s aspirations, first as a US Navy Pilot, then as an Astronaut. This is his story, told in his own words.

Mr. Cernan comes across as a straight talker with a rock-solid work ethic; a conservative in the traditional sense. When he wrote this memoir, he gave the impression of being long past any point where he needed to impress anyone.  His account is frank and does not mince words about anyone, including himself. While Cernan will never be remembered like Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 had much more value from a scientific standpoint. It had the longest stay on the surface, the longest space walks, the longest distance traversed, the heaviest load of samples and the speed record for the lunar rover (unofficial).

A great book for any fan of the space race, or even flying in general.

In a sad coincidence, Mr. Cernan passed away on 16 January of this year, while I was in the middle of reading his book.

Temple – Matthew Reilly

temple-cover-2William Race is a professor of linguistics in New York. Without warning, he is drafted to translate an ancient manuscript detailing events during the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire. Specifically, he must assist a team of military and civilian operatives in determining the location of a mythical Incan idol. This idol holds the key to building a superweapon. The adventure soon takes our characters into the depths of the unexplored Amazonian rainforest, searching for an abandoned temple.

Full disclosure: I only got about a third of the way through this book. It reads like a Hollywood action-adventure movie. The action scenes are exciting but strain suspension of disbelief in the extreme. Hollywood physics are definitely in evidence. Additionally, Mr. Reilly is not very rigorous in his research on his props, such as aircraft and weapons, not to mention the material of the superweapon itself.  The characters are cardboard cutouts and I didn’t find myself engaging in their story. The one redeeming quality of the book was the somewhat interesting parallel story set in the 16th Century.

1½Rosbochs

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe – Thomas Levenson

TheHuntforVulcanIn the centuries following Sir Isaac Newton’s publication of the Law of Gravity, scientists equipped with increasingly advanced telescopes tried worked to explain anomalies in the orbital paths of planets. “Wobbles” in the orbit of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune. Mercury also wobbles, and it was long thought that it was under the influence of a small undiscovered planet named Vulcan. This book traces the history of the search for Vulcan, and how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity finally “killed” the need for the little planet.

As history of astronomy and science, this short book is interesting. However it is not page-turning material, failing to really grip the reader.

3Rosbochs

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1) – Naomi Novik

Temeraire1HisMajestysDragonThe year is 1804. Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy and his crew capture a French warship. On board they find a dragon egg; a prize worth a princely sum to the British war effort. The egg hatches and the dragon, whom Laurence names Temeraire, imprints on him as his handler. Laurence must leave the Royal Navy to join the Flying Corps, and entirely foreign environment for him.

His Majesty’s Dragon is a delightful novel, full of whooping-out-loud-inducing adventure set in a period of gentlemen, honour and heroic deeds. There’s a Horatio Hornblower vibe over the story, which dares to be high adventure without dwelling too much over the fact that dragons do exist and are simply part of the world. A somewhat storied and mystical part, to be sure, but there is no further explanation required or necessary. Ms. Novik doesn’t bend over backwards to make the existence of these beasts plausible, but simply integrates them into history as we know it, making for some striking images. For example, dragon formations crewed with gunners and boarders striking at convoys in the English channel. The entire organization of dragons in battle as couriers, support aircraft or heavy strike beasts depending on size and ability rapidly starts to seem entirely plausible given the historical background. And so, even though it is full of dragons, the novel doesn’t feel very much like fantasy at all, keeping its thematic roots firmly in the historical novel and alternate history camps.

4½Rosbochs

Outlander (Outlander I) – Diana Gabaldon

Outlander1OutlanderClaire Beauchamp Fraser is a nurse who has just been through World War II. She goes on a second honeymoone to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, a man she has met for only a few days during the war years. As she touches a stone in an ancient standing stone formation, she is transported back in time to the 1740s, a time which in Scotland was characterized by the Jacobite uprisings. She finds herself abducted by a band of Highland men and taken to Castle Leoch, where the locals are highly suspicious of her claims to be a woman of fine birth who has been robbed by highwaymen.

Despite the painstaking historical detail and the romantic nature of the setting, I found myself rapidly bored with this book. The use of the first person voice only works for me if the narrator is at least somewhat self-deprecating; preferably even snarky. Claire is neither of these things, and she comes off as quite a bit too serious. The romantic bent of the novel is also too strong, with Claire almost instantly attracted to the rugged Jaime, a handsome outlaw with a quiet demeanor and a well-muscled body. I gave up after a hundred pages or so.

2Rosbochs

Playing the Enemy – Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation – John Carlin

PlayingtheEnemyThe story of how Nelson Mandela became a free man and then united South Africa with the help of rugby.

The story is fascinating, a real-life fairy tale. South Africa was on the brink of civil war but in large part through the efforts of Mandela, disaster was averted, and even turned into triumph. Perhaps this book goes too far in sanctifying Mandela, but by all accounts he was the true statesman depicted. In fact, verbatim quotes from interviews with the main characters lend veracity to the story itself. On a side note, the author’s structure was often somewhat less than smooth, with run-on sentences of ambiguous meaning.

The second half of this book was the basis for the movie Invictus, a favorite of mine.

4Rosbochs

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time – Dava Sobel

LongitudeLongitude is the story of an unlikely genius, John Harrison. Self-trained clockmaker, he solved the problem of determining longitude on ships during the second half of the 18th Century. Determining longitude is trivial today with GPS, but for hundreds of years it was a big problem and inaccurate navigation was the death of thousands of sailors. There was even a Longitude Prize to be awarded for the man who could solve the issue.

In itself, the creation of the Harrison timepieces is a fascinating bit of science history. However, the real prize here is the political backstabbing at the highest levels of the contemporary British science community. The problem at hand was that various methods for longitude determination competed for primacy. Harrison, the relatively undistinguished watchmaker, found it hard to compete with the villain of the story, or in the author’s words the anti-hero. This man was Nevil Maskelyne, who seems to have been a bit of a bastard. To be fair, however, Maskelyne made significant contributions to navigation. Luminaries like Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton also feature prominently.

I have been fascinated with geography since I was a child, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well-written and without any excessive heft from unnecessary tangents, it should be good reading for everyone, but especially those with even a passing interest in navigation and maritime history.

4Rosbochs

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond – Gene Krantz

Failure is not an Option - Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and BeyondThis non-fiction account of the NASA manned space programs from the early days of Mercury through the triumphs of Apollo was written by Gene Krantz, one of the original flight controllers in Mission Control, and probably the best known. While most accounts of the events focus on the astronauts and the spacecraft, Krantz naturally takes us into the world of Mission Control. It is a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at the people and equipment that led and supported the missions. While the astronauts got most of the glory, the truth is that Mission Control saved the day on many occasions.

This is by all accounts a geeky book. The material is often rather technical and having a prior understanding of some of the mechanics involved definitely helps. Just like the author and his former job, it is written with the precision and honesty that Krantz values.

Setting aside for a moment the spectacular achievements of the American space programs in the sixties, I was struck by Krant’s unabashed patriotism. He is a big fan of John Philip Sousa marches and feels great pride when listening to the national anthem. This is not the showy, hollow national love so prominent nowadays, but a true, deep connection. Krantz worked very hard to achieve great things, and he did it predominantly for his country. He gave to his country through blood, sweat and tears. His feelings are those characteristic of a generation past, one that did not show love of country by clicking “Like”, but actually by sacrificing. It smacks of an innocence lost in the late nineteen-sixties, when Americans stopped looking up to their politicians and when they stopped believing they could achieve great things. Krantz does indeed mention this himself in the epilogue. While reading, I found myself growing very fond of Krantz. He could by all accounts be tough as nails, but he feels an affection towards his colleagues that is very different from the empty corporate speak of many of today’s leaders. The world needs more people like Gene Krantz. People who dare to step up and doing the hard things because they feel that they need to be done.

On a side note, it was nice to see the footnotes in line with the text instead of at the end. On a Kindle, following a link to the footnotes is an annoyance.

4Rosbochs

Beyond Lion Rock – The Story of Cathay Pacific Airways – Gavin Young

BeyondLionRockTheStoryofCathayPacificAirwaysThis history tackles both strands that begat Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s de facto “national carrier”. One side is the pioneering work of founders Roy Farrell and Syd de Kantzow, both ex-military transport pilots and veterans of the treacherous “Hump” route over the Himalayas during World War II. Farrell bought a military surplus DC-3, the now famous Betsy, and started an airline from nothing before he was soon joined by de Kantzow. The other side is more establishment, with trading and shipping conglomerate Swire, led by Jock Swire, seeking to “get into Air” to further interests in the Far Eastern trade. Swire acquired Cathay Pacific a few years after the founding of the airline and still owns it today.

The book is very well researched, and the author has interviewed dozens of the major and minor players of the airline’s interesting history. It is interesting not only from the point of view of the aviation enthusiast, but very much also for its fascinating glimpses into Hong Kong immediately post war, through recovery and finally into the uncertain future of Chinese rule (the book was published in 1989, eight years before the handover). The author freely admits that he hasn’t bothered much with incidents of drunken pilots, pilots sleeping with stewardesses (or wifes with pilots out flying) or any such since these incidents are hardly peculiar to Cathay Pacific. Mr. Young focuses instead on defining events such as new aircraft types, new routes, scandals and accidents, viewed through the lens of regional history. The brief snippets from interviews with former and (then) current staff, as well as affiliated officials and businessmen, bring vividness and immediacy to the story.

My criticism, or shall we say niggle, with this book is that perhaps Mr. Young seems a touch too enamored with Cathay Pacific and the romance of the Far Eastern trade. But then again who can blame him? Even in the eighties, times were different. Certainly when the airline was started, Hong Kong was a remote and romantic place in the eyes of Westerners. A frontier where fortunes could be made and lost by those bold enough to take the often harrowing risks required.

4Rosbochs

11/22/63 – Stephen King

11-22-63In a small town in Maine, High School teacher Jake Epping is asked by his acquaintance, diner owner Al, to come to the diner. When he arrives, Al has aged years and has gone from healthy to terminally ill in cancer. It turns out that Al has found a sort of time portal in his pantry. The portal leads to 1958. Al’s plan was to live in the past until 1963, and then kill Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin. Al believes this would change history in important ways, preventing the Vietnam war and other horrors. Unfortunately Al contracts cancer and cannot complete his mission. Is the past pushing back against those who try to change history? Al returns back to 2011. Things have changed, but not enough, and when the portal is used again, the past resets to how things were. Before dying, Al dragoons Jake into completing the mission. He cannot just kill Oswald a few years before the assassination attempt, however. He must be sure that the man is acting alone, and not part of one of the many purported conspiracies surrounding the Kennedy assassination. Thus starts Jake’s adventure in the past, where many things are different, yet many things are the same.

Mr. King’s research into the late fifties and early sixties is extensive and meticulous. The fact that people smoked constantly and everywhere is an obvious factoid, but the differences go much deeper. From food prices to idioms to the fact that bathrooms in the American south were still segregated, it is fascinating to discover how very unfamiliar current Americans would be with society and its mores in “The Land of Ago”.  Jake’s quest takes him on many side tracks as he must become an inhabitant of the era. He makes friends and even falls in love, but he cannot reveal his true purpose. He must be careful lest his use of modern idiom mark him as strange. He must also keep his focus on the objective through five years of “ordinary” life peppered with research and the intermittent stalking of Oswald.

King’s mastery of style, pacing and character building shines in the prose. Despite its considerable length (eight hundred and forty-nine pages for those who still read on paper) it is not a slog to read through. Even trivial adventures become interesting when written so well. I did feel, however, that the book had perhaps been unnecessarily padded, or more accurately insufficiently cut to size. While many events serve to build the character of Jake, they might have been excised without hurting the story, and perhaps things would have moved forward a bit faster. Having said that, the many vignettes of life in the past are fascinating, often funny and as often horrifying to more modern sensibilities.

Without revealing the ending, I will say that I was somewhat disappointed that King chose to reveal some part of the “inner workings” of the time travel mechanism. While as a science fiction fan, I typically want to find out about such things, perhaps in this case it would have been better if it had simply stayed a magical mystery without explanation. I did not feel that it really added to the story, and the point made through the reveal had already been made.

4Rosbochs

Train to Pakistan – Khushwant Singh

The story set in a small village in Northwestern India in 1947, during the division of India into India and Pakistan. The village is on the border with Pakistan, with both Sikh and Muslim inhabitants. The two ethnic groups have been living together in the village for centuries, but events in the wider world around them are forcing separation.

The book is rather short. More a snapshot of life during a troubled time than a story, since there is no clear beginning or end to the narrative itself. Various characters influence events in the village, such as the social worker from the big city, the chief of police, and the well-known criminal (almost a caricature of “the usual suspect”). The behavior of the characters is often absurd, and governed more by temporary feelings than by rational behavior. Many of the situations would be comical if not for their utter human tragedy. I think that Singh is trying to convey to the reader the absurdity of dividing people who have lived together for centuries in peace based on the thoughts of the rulers. In the village of Mano Majra, there is no conflict between Sikhs/Hindus and Muslims. The conflict comes to the village from the outside, forcing neighbors against each other, and resulting in displacement, despair, and finally massacre. The final sacrifice of the Sikh criminal Juggut to save his muslim lover Nooran is noble, but in the end only a drop in the ocean. Singh also shows how, despite a long history of being peaceful, a place can become the theater of bloodshed all too easily if the rulers (a purposefully vague concept in the novel) do not take care in their exercise of power.

The novel is touted as a portrait of what was actually happening during those troubled times on the Indian subcontinent. But it is not a history of rulers and armies in the traditional sense. The story revolves around simple villagers in a simple village. Villagers who, before the troubles, wanted nothing more than to live their lives in peace.

While the naif style of the prose sometimes grated on my nerves, I found that reading the novel sent a profound message about the responsibility of leadership, and the frailty of our heterogenous human society.

The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank

As is well known, Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl, hid for years in the back of a house in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. She later died in a concentration camp. This is her diary. A frightening work in many ways, but also a monument to innocence in a terrifying world. I suppose the historical significance of the work makes it an important read, but frankly I didn’t find it that interesting.

The Hornblower Series – C.S. Forester

Set during the peak of the Age of Sail in the Napoleonic era, the books detail the exploits of Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral. Full of action and adventure, they manage to include shiphandling minutiae without bogging down the story. Page turners for young and old alike. I would recommend starting with Beat to Quarters (AKA The Happy Return) since the earlier books by internal chronology (yet written later) tend to be of a slightly lesser quality.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower – This short story collection covers the early career of our young hero, from his first onboard ship experience to his two and a half years of captivity in Spain. By the end, Hornblower is promoted to Lieutenant. Even though it is a short story collection, it flows quite nicely and is more of an episodic novel.

 

Lieutenant Hornblower – The still very young Hornblower has to deal with a tyrannous and insane Captain. He then distinguishes himself by helping in the destruction of a Spanish fortress and taking prizes.

 

Hornblower and the ‘Hotspur’ – Although the action is fast and furious, this one is a mite tedious. Hornblower spends a couple of years on blockade duty off the coast of France. This sort of duty was demanding and harsh, but also monotonous and performed in cold, dreary weather for much of the year.

 

Hornblower during the Crisis – The chronologically fourth novel is unfinished due to Forester’s death. Nothing much happens since only the first 100 pages or so are written. Hornblower is about to become a spy. Also included are a two short stories, the latter showing our hero in old age.

 

Hornblower and the ‘Atropos’ – This one is very episodic in a singularly annoying way. Apart from the one ship commanded throughout, there is no single thread to pull the reader along. Disappointing.

 

Beat to Quarters (known as The Happy Return in the UK edition) – The first novel to be written, this one is a masterpiece of plotting and action. Hornblower, in command of the frigate Lydia, heads to the Pacific coast of Central America in order to make life difficult for the Spanish colonies there. He also has his first encounter with Lady Barbara. The sailing and combat action is excellent, but one should not forget the evolution of the relationship with Lady Barbara. In the beginning, Hornblower strongly dislikes her, but in the end he loves her. And we see the process every step of the way.

 

Ship of the Line – Hornblower takes command of the two-decker Sutherland. He carries out five daring raids against the French, but ends up a prisoner after defeat against overwhelming odds. This one ends in a cliffhanger of sorts as our hero is imprisoned in French oppupied Catalonia. Great action, perhaps even better than in Beat to Quarters.

 

Flying Colours – This picks up immediately where Ship of the Line left off. Hornblower is on his way to Paris to be tried for purported war crimes. Napoleon is trying to score some propaganda points. However he manages to escape and makes his way back to England, where he finds a hero’s welcome. This one is quite introspective in some sections, with Hornblower’s cynicism and doubts coming to the fore. He hates himself in certain ways, not daring to realize how much he means to people. He is afraid of failure despite great success. And finally he cynically realizes how the British use him for propaganda as much as the French meant to. At the end of the book, we find Hornblower widowed with a young son. But Lady Barbara is also widowed. Opportunity awaits, perhaps.

Commodore Hornblower – Our hero is now married to Barbara, and in the landed gentry. He is sent on a mission to the Baltic to ensure that the Swedes and the Russians don’t join the war on the side of Napoleon. Action as usual but not a whole lot of character development.

 

Lord Hornblower – The action moves to the English Channel as the Napoleonic era draws to a close and the French mainland can now be invaded (ahem… liberated). The last part is pretty boring as Hornblower, together with his friends from Flying Colours, fights a guerrilla action against the new Napoleonic regime during the “hundred days” following the Emperor’s escape from Elba.

Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies – A short story collection in all but name. While mildly entertaining, Forester is basically treading water here. A disappointing ending after such great novels as Beat to Quarters and Ship of the Line.

The Belisarius Series – David Drake & Eric Flint

Military SciFi/Alternate history in which an evil empire appears in India in the fifth century. Famous historical general Belisarius receives a warning from the future and must counter the threat. This series goes deeper into philosophical and poetical tangents than similar works. Eric Flint’s classic wry humour pervades the prose. The books can almost be read as historical novels and contain quite a few interesting tidbits about the period. The series consist of:

  • An Oblique Approach
  • In The Heart of Darkness
  • Destiny’s shield
  • Fortune’s Stroke
  • The Tide of Victory
  • The Dance of Time

The sixth and final book, The Dance of Time came out over two years late and seems a bit of a late addition. It tied up all the loose ends neatly, even though the actual conclusion to the conflict was foregone by this time. However, the habit of the authors to show off their characters’s cleverness, while only a minor annoyance in the first five volumes, really grated on my nerves in the sixth book. Endless uses of “Why not?” and equally endless enumerations of “how cool are we” items both in the exposition and the dialogue are just plain bad style. Still and all, a satisfying conclusion.

The Foundation Series – Isaac Asimov

The series consists of seven books. In order of internal chronology with original trilogy shown in bold.

  • Forward the Foundation
  • Prelude to Foundation
  • Foundation
  • Foundation and Empire
  • Second Foundation
  • Foundation’s Edge
  • Foundation and Earth

This is truly one of SciFi’s classics. The original trilogy (starting with Foundation) is widely considered to be one of the finest SciFi series ever written. The rest of the books are of equally high quality, except (in my opinion) for Forward the Foundation, which seems more like an attempt to tie up loose ends, something of an obsession with Asimov towards the end of his career. Interestingly enough, the man who is arguably the main character, psychohistorian Hari Seldon, is long dead in most of the books. Few series convey a sense of evolving history as this one does, and at least the original three should be a must read for any Science Fiction fan.

So why not a higher score? Well, I feel that although it is a classic and very good, it did not quite capture my imagination as much as some other books have.

Wild Blue – Steven Ambrose

The late and great Ambrose on USAAF bomber crews flying over Europe during WWII. Very well researched and focusing on the men (and their families) and how the conflict affected them. Enjoyable and worth the read even if you are not into aviation or militaria.

A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin

A simply magnificent portrayal of the Apollo program. Easily accessible even for the non-engineering inclined. Chaikin interviewed a whole host of people from engineers to administrators and of course the astronauts, thus managing to produce what many feel is the definitive account of NASA’s Moon program. A fascinating insight into what actually happened on the American side of the Moon race. Despite its heft it does not feel like a heavy read. The only caveat is that you might have to read it twice since it is packed with information and a bit much to digest in one go.