Monday, 28 February 2011

The Boys: Highland Laddie - Garth Ennis

The Boys: Highland Laddie

-Or, how I learned to stop worrying and give up The Boys.

I’m going to be honest and admit that I only paid for the first issue of the six-issue miniseries. The quality of the first issue was so appallingly bad that I cancelled my subscription for the remaining five issues and resolved to read them in my local comic book store before I committed to buying them. Five issues later, I am profoundly grateful for my wise choice and I’d like those ten minutes per comic back.

In case it isn’t obvious, I did not like the series.

For people who haven’t been following The Boys since before they grew too hot for DC Comics to handle, The Boys are a small covert team of enhanced humans charged with keeping the superheroes from getting out of hand. Wee Hughie, the highland laddie of the title, was recruited by Butcher, the team’s leader, after his girlfriend was killed by a superhero, seemingly by accident. Hughie, it should be admitted, has a good heart, but a very little brain. Suffice it to say that he is not cut out for the life of a superhero, let alone a covert operative, and at the end of the last story in The Boys, he is heading home for some R&R.

One of the problems with The Boys is that the series is both a serious look at how superheroes would function in the real world and a piss-take on the clinches of the genre. The two do not go together very well, particularly when Garth Ennis introduces other tropes like Evil Megalomaniacal Corporation – and endless disgusting concepts – into the story. Ennis, it seems, is determined to be as disgusting as possible, whatever it takes. This lets the story down badly.

It seems to me that Garth Ennis was trying to play around with dozens of different ideas and concepts when he was writing this particular script. The story is impossible, if only because of its myriad flaws, to take seriously.

To summarise: Wee Hughie takes a bus ride to his home town. On the bus, the bus driver offers him some drugs, something which – as a native of Scotland – I have never seen in real life. Hughie’s adopted mother and father – the first we, the readers, hear that he was adopted – are surprisingly normal. The same cannot be said for his old friends. One of them has something wrong with his body that condemns him to stink; the other is progressing towards becoming a transvestite. It turns out that the three of them used to be part of a junior detective league, which had exactly one successful case to its credit. For some reason, the local drug smugglers are worried about this, rather more than they are worried about the police.

In the course of the week, Hughie meets a fisherman who may be more than he seems, before Anne January – his former girlfriend, who also happens to be Starlight of the Seven, an analogue of the JLA – arrives and tells him all about her tragic past. Anne hasn’t wised up any either; even though Hughie told her that he knows that she gave head to three of the Seven, she doesn’t think to force him to tell her how he knows. It turns out that the drug smugglers are working with one of Hughie’s friends, while the other is trying to foil their plans. Oh, and we also discover that Hughie was repeatedly traumatised as a kid, in a number of unrealistic ways.

There are so many influences in this story that it is hard to count them all. Ennis was clearly referencing (and taking the piss out of) The Broons and Oor Willie, Scooby Doo, Swallows and Amazons, celebrity contests like Big Brother and The X Factor, Enid Blyton and at least a dozen others. Adding them all together merely makes for a mishmash of a story, one that isn’t even remotely grounded in reality.

Let me suggest a far superior version of the story. Hughie goes home; discovers that drugs smugglers are bringing in drugs and deals with it. Two issues; three at most.


I’m sorry, but I am not going to waste my money on this trash. Ennis just isn’t trying any more.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Countdown: The Liberators - Tom Kratman

Countdown: The Liberators
-Tom Kratman

Many years ago, I read a semi-factual novel entitled The Dogs of War, which featured an army of mercenaries being assembled to knock over a tyrannical regime in Africa and allow the backers of the plot to claim the country’s vast mineral rights. The book was long on details and short on action, something I found rather disappointing. The latter charge, at least, is not one that can be levelled at Countdown: The Liberators. There is enough action to satisfy even a hardened action-junkie like myself.

Countdown: The Liberators introduces us to a retired soldier who is bored with life, even though he has a wonderful girlfriend. Wes Stauer was pushed into retiring after an ‘incident’ in Afghanistan that embarrassed the powers-that-be, along with most of his team. One night, he is awakened by a knock at the door and encounters an old friend with a desperate message. His chief’s son has been kidnapped and he needs Wes to help him organise a rescue mission. It seems impossible at first, but Wes isn’t daunted. Recruiting many of his old friends from the military, he puts together a force that starts tracing the missing son to his prison.

In the meantime, Adam – the missing son in question – gets a harsh lesson from his kidnappers on the realities of modern Africa, realities that were ignored by his teachers at Boston, Massachusetts. He discovers that the freedom he previously enjoyed was only his because of his position in the clan; now, as a prisoner, he is no better off than anyone else in Africa. Escape seems futile and so he resigns himself to a long spell in captivity.

The action builds up as Wes and his team start moving towards their final goal, rescuing Adam. They trace his route out of America and over to Africa – his kidnappers have worked with AQ – but they are unable to locate the boy himself. Choosing to seek hostages to trade for Adam – or to kill in reprisal for his death – Wes leads his men in a massive assault. Crushing the rival tribe, they take hostages to force the kidnappers to surrender Adam back to his father. In the aftermath, Wes convinces his men to stay together for a series of future operations, fighting to hold back the darkness. There will be more stories to come.

Countdown: The Liberators can be read on three levels. The first is that of an action novel, where action and excitement is king. The second is a primer on how to organise, train and ultimately deploy a light infantry force with a small armour component. The third is a brief introduction to the realities of Modern Africa and how the oddly-aligned forces of Islamic Fundamentalism and Foreign Aid interact to make the lot of the local inhabitants much worse. Tom is good at selecting examples of the latter, remarking on how some aid is actually counter-productive and how blind-spots within the minds of those behind the aid, who have little understanding of local realities, can make matters much worse.

A good example of this can be seen in the slave auction that one of his characters witnesses. The outsiders buy the slaves and free them, outbidding the locals. The net result is that slavers kidnap more slaves to sell them to the outsiders…and so on into infinity. The solution of arming the slave tribes is rejected, as is simply shooting the slavers on sight. None of this is actually new, at least not to anyone who keeps up on the fundamental issues of the region, but Tom makes it real.

Tom also addresses the politics of both women and homosexuals in the military, refusing to shy away from many of the issues thus invoked. Personally (I think) Tom is opposed to the integration of both categories into the front-line military forces, although he also details ways to make it work. I do tend to long for the gender neutral vision of the future shown in the Honor Harrington books, although it must be pointed out that those books took place on sterile spaceships, rather than ground forces.

A point I disliked is that a single point – Western Aid to Africa does more harm than good – is hammered home time and time again. I don’t disagree with it – Tom is right on the money here. The fundamental issue here is not that the aid workers are evil, but that they are either naive or (worse) unaccountable to the locals. And, of course, cutting foreign aid is politically impossible. At the same time, the point would probably have been better saved for an afterword; it distracts from the overall story. A secondary problem is the use of a clear analogue of President Obama in commenting on problems facing the US in Afghanistan. The problems the US is facing there are daunting – I doubt that even the adoption of mass slaughter is a workable tactic.

Absent those minor quibbles, Countdown: The Liberators is definitely well worth a read, perhaps the best novel that Tom has (yet) produced. Although it bears some similarity to the earlier A Desert Called Peace, it stands up well on its own. The plot has many twists and a few major problems, but the rescuers overcome all obstacles to complete their mission. Tom is at his best when dealing with a small unit – both while under construction and in combat – and it shows.

Eight out of ten.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead – Reviewed
-Ayn Rand

I am not sure what any modern-day psychologist would make of Ayn Rand. That she was brilliant is beyond dispute. At the same time, she had gross psychological problems and suffered badly from depression and other mental disorders. She loved her husband – Frank O’Conner – but she cheated on him openly, creating a world where her demands and whims were the priority. She worshipped individualism and people who were prepared to live an individualist life, to the point where she conceived a quite unseemly admiration for William Hickman, a child kidnapper and serial killer. It is hard to understand why someone so devoted to the principles of objectivism would fail to realise that Hickman was reviled, not for being an individualist in a collective world, but for his gross criminal acts.

The Fountainhead predates Atlas Shrugged (Rand’s better known work) by several years. Rand clearly learned more about the art of writing in-between writing the two books, for The Fountainhead has a slowly meandering plot and quite a few poorly-drawn characters. It also has an ending that I was forced to disagree with, perhaps quite heavily, and that tends to let the entire book down.

The book is the story of five deeply flawed characters, although Rand would claim that one of them was perfect. Howard Roark, the hero of the novel, is a rugged individualist, an architect who believes in designing the buildings he wants to design and to hell with what the customer actually wants. Roark sums up his philosophy fairly early on, when he notes:

I don't intend to build in order to have clients; I intend to have clients in order to build.”

Peter Keating, like Roark, is an architect. Unlike Roark, Peter has no real talent – although he had some talent for painting – and was pushed into it by his mother. Peter’s other main talent is in manipulating people to get what he wants, something that serves him well in early life, but leaves him feeling empty later on. In many ways, Peter is the tragic hero of the story, with his genuine talent destroyed and his life rendered worthless by his own actions.

In many ways, Gail Wynand and Roark are cut from the same cloth. Gail is a newspaper mogul who climbed up from the gutter to build a powerful media empire. Gail’s weakness, however, lies in the fact that he is dependent upon public opinion; it built him and he can be brought down by it.

Ellsworth Toohey is the book’s villain, the most unredeemable of Rand’s characters. Ellsworth is the man ‘who isn’t, can never be, knows it and hates it.’ Ellsworth is driven to tear down the ones with genuine natural talent, determined to bring everyone down to ground level, and he has no qualms over how he chooses to achieve that. Ellsworth was trained for the priesthood in his early days – a comparison to Stalin – although Ellsworth is far more subtle, allowing the pretence of freedom while gathering all the power in his own hands.

And then there is Dominique Francon. Dominique is the daughter of Guy Francon, a highly successful, but creatively inhibited architect. She is a thorn in the flesh of her father and causes him much distress for her works criticizing the architectural profession's mediocrity. Her strengths – she is far more intelligent than anyone else, apart from Roark - are also what she initially lets stifle her growth and make her life miserable. She begins thinking that the world did not deserve her sincerity and intellect, because the people around her did not measure up to her standards. Of the four main male characters in the book, it is noteworthy that Dominique marries three of them and is the first to give words to the danger of being too close to the fourth.

As the story opens, Roark is being expelled from school after refusing to hew to the shared standards of acceptable designing. Roark accepts this quite calmly and goes to work for another underappreciated architect, struggling to make ends meet while Peter – who has taken refuge in mediocrity – starts climbing up the ladder towards a high position in the company. Unwilling to compromise his principles, Roark finds few clients and is forced to take up work on a quarry, during which he has a rough sexual encounter with Dominique. (This may have been rape; it is an issue that has been debated hotly over the years.) Roark returns to work, leaving Dominique without even a name.

Ellsworth Toohey has, somehow, learned about Roark and decided to tear him down to nothing. He organises for Roark to be hired as the designer of a new cathedral in New York, an enterprise that ends in disaster when Roark – having been given full creative freedom – includes a naked statue of Dominique in the building. Roark is sued, his business is destroyed, an act that depresses Dominique. She marries Peter and becomes his wife, body and soul. It brings him no happiness, however, as he is pushed into using her as a toy and a bribe. She leaves him for Gail Wynand, who has meanwhile fallen in love with Roark’s work.

Realising that he is a failure, Peter pleads with Ellsworth to gain the commission for Courtland, the most sought-after building project in New York. Knowing that he needs Roark’s help, he convinces Roark to design the building, in exchange for full creative freedom – nothing will be changed. Ellsworth, however, insists on making a minor change, an act that incenses Roark. Roark, with Dominique’s help, blows up the building project as an act of protest, something that leads to his swift arrest.

On trial, Roark makes a passionate speech defending his right to build as he sees fit and how he, not Peter, designed the housing project. He rouses the courtroom with a speech about the value of ego and the need to remain true to oneself. The jury finds him not guilty and Roark wins Dominique, as well as one last contract from her former husband. The last scene follows Dominique (now Mrs. Roark), entering the site to meet Roark atop the steel framework.

Oh, boy.

I confess that I rather disliked The Fountainhead. Part of it was that everyone, including Roark, was unlovable. Roark himself is an arrogant conceited asshole – the later John Galt is a rather mellower version of the character – who refuses to compromise his principles, whatever the cost. Roark seems not to realise that newcomers in any field – and that includes architecture – must earn their place; success at minor commissions would lead, naturally, to greater successes and a chance to stride boldly forwards into unbroken territory. Instead, he remains a staunch individualist, even to the point where it hurts himself more than anyone else.

One of the problems lies in the fact that he – and architects in general – are hired to perform a task, not to break new ground. A client wants what he wants, not what the architect thinks he should be glad to have. Roark’s job is to give the client what he wants. He can design all he likes, but meeting the client’s requirements is the first step to actually seeing his designs produced and made real. Roark does not seem to grasp this, while Peter does – one of the few positive signs around the character.

The oddest point of the book lies in the fact that both trials in the book are gross miscarriages of judgement. In the first trial, Roark is convicted and ordered to pay damages, even though he broke no law. Roark was given full creative freedom to design and build as he liked – if the client didn’t like the result, he should have been more specific or insisted on seeing the plans before they became reality. There is also the ‘minor’ detail that most of the evidence presented against Roark was subjective – my dislike of Van Gogh’s work doesn’t make him a bad artist – and therefore inadmissible in court. If Roark had built a mosque when he had been asked to built a church, they might have had a point; as it was, Roark was innocent.

In the second trial, Roark is declared innocent – when he was unquestionably guilty. Roark didn’t own Cortland – the housing building he demolished - and thus he had no right to destroy it. It was not Roark who paid for the materials, it was not Roark who built it personally; his sole contribution was the design – which, legally, belonged to Peter. If we dismiss those facts, Roark risked lives – the building could have been inhabited – and he wasn't even striking at the true source of his torment. The innocent suffered along with the guilty at Roark’s hands.

The Fountainhead has many interesting points – I cannot deny that. Rand makes many good points – the willingness of the unloved to degenerate and bring down the achievers, the corrupt nature of newspapers, and the folly of relying on public opinion and how easily it can be shaped by people lacking scruples – and all of them deserve study. The book is definitely worthy of respect.

It is not, however, great literature. Roark’s unlovable nature brings the book down. I cannot help, but feel that if he had been able to express himself better, he would have had far less trouble. I imagine that Rand would sneer and say that I was expecting him to talk down to us.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged
–Ayn Rand

Who is John Galt?

Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and grew to maturity during the early days of the Communist Party’s regime in Russia. Understanding Atlas Shrugged – and Rand’s own political philosophy – is impossible without bearing that fact in mind. Rand’s father, a small-business owner, not only lost it to the Communists, but he found himself expected to run it on behalf of its new owners. As a teenager, she was allowed into the universities – previously closed to Jews – until she, like many other ‘bourgeois’ students was purged from the university for a short period of time. In 1925, she was allowed to leave Russia. She never returned.

It is true that outside events shape minds and, when that mind is genuinely brilliant, the shaping can be quite remarkable. Rand saw communism from the inside, both as an ordinary citizen and as one of its victims. She picked up the lingo the communists used to justify themselves to the Russian public – the idea that a person should work for themselves, instead of for society, was one they were determined to destroy – and saw through it. That wasn't difficult for anyone with reasonable intelligence, although speaking out about it in Russia would have brought destruction. Unlike most of Russia’s captive population, Rand was lucky enough to escape, bearing her tale with her. Atlas Shrugged is many things, but it is primarily her story about what communism does to people (and the kind of people who flourish under communism) and its ultimate end.

Atlas Shrugged is set in a ‘near-future’ United States. Rand cannot logically be blamed for failing to predict many of the social and technological changes that would take place between her novel being published and the present day. The US is still largely dependent upon railroads to transport goods and people from one side of the country to the other, while air travel is seemingly less vital than in our world. This alternate United States is the last free country on Earth; the remaining nations have absorbed the doctrine of communism and become ‘People’s States.’ The only thing that keeps them alive is aid shipments from the United States.

The United States itself, however, is dying. Washington is controlled by ‘looters’ (a phase Rand popularised) who – in accordance with their self-justification – tax every profitable business in the country. The few remaining corporations – including the once-great Taggart Transcontinental – are on the verge of collapse, pulled down by mediocrity and government fiat. The great men who built the country are either gone or fading away, leaving nothing behind, but decay. And there is one question on everyone’s mind – who is John Galt?

Into this world comes Dagny Taggart, one of the heirs to Taggart Transcontinental. Dagny is determined to save her company, whatever it takes. Her brother, the railroad’s present, is less willing or able. He is peripherally aware of the company's troubles but will not make any difficult choices, preferring to avoid responsibility for any actions while watching his company go under. Worse, he is prepared to make irrational decisions such as preferring to buy Steel from Orren Boyle’s Associated Steel, rather than Hank Rearden's Reardon Steel, despite the former continually delaying delivery of vital rail.

To summarise a complicated plot, in the course of her struggles, Dagny realises that the ‘movers and shakers,’ the remaining great men (Prime Movers, to use Rand’s term) are disappearing, leaving their companies behind for the looters to drive into the dirt. She becomes convinced that a great destroyer is moving behind the scenes, systematically tearing the country apart, and becomes determined to stop him. The ‘great destroyer’ is none other than John Galt. Stumbling into Galt’s Gulch, a secret hideaway, Dagny discovers that the great men have gone on strike. They will no longer bow down to the looters who make it impossible, even, for them to save their lives. The looter philosophy is ultimately self-destructive because, unlike nature’s parasites, they kill their hosts and in doing so commit suicide.

Refusing to accept the destruction of everything she loves, including her beloved railroad, Dagny returns to the normal world, only to discover that things are falling apart fast. Nothing she does – nothing she is allowed to do – will stop the crash. The Head of State – one of the odd points about Atlas Shrugged is that the President is always referred to as the Head of State – intends to make a broadcast on the world crisis, but his speech is hijacked by John Galt, who speaks for three hours and tells the world what has happened – and why. Soon after, John Galt is captured by the looters, but he refuses to give in and surrender his will to be free. Dagny leads a rescue mission, saves him and they fly back to Galt’s Gulch. As the United States collapses, the strikers start preparing to reclaim the world.

There is much to admire in Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s depiction of the collapsing United States is chilling (in many ways, it was an accurate depiction of what later happened to the Soviet Union) and her perception of what went so badly wrong has many uncanny echoes today. Many of the characters are realistic, although in some cases it is necessary to understand (and acknowledge) that they are mouthing platitudes to avoid having to think, for that would mean acknowledging reality.

There is also much to dislike. The book used a ridiculous amount of verbiage to get the point across. Atlas Shrugged is not light reading. It will take the average reader a day or more to get through it. There is also nothing particularly subtle about the book’s many points. This also shows up in some of the characters, particularly John Galt himself. He is the perfect man – and, as such, is boring.

The book is also remarkably sterile. No one seemed to have children apart from a handful who are mentioned as living in Galt’s Gulch. None of the main characters (good or bad) have children. The closest thing to a father-son relationship is between Hank and the Wet Nurse, the young man who is assigned to keep an eye on him for the government and realises the truth, but even that is oddly sterile. Rand herself, of course, had no children and may not have understand that there is no virtue of selfishness when children are involved. A mother would give up her last morsel of food to feed her children, just to be rewarded by a smile.

Rand was, in many ways, right. Competition does make companies stronger and more capable of adapting to the changes in the world. (In the book, the government pushes for anti-competition laws, seemingly unwilling to realise that this kills companies and has a disastrous knock-on effect.) Excessive regulation kills pretty much anything, from businesses to teaching. Failing to teach children how to tell the difference between reality and make-believe – or hammering politically-correct platitudes into their heads – kills. And trusting people who know nothing about a certain industry to regulate it is asking for trouble.

At the same time, there are many flaws in the book. Every ‘good’ character in the book stands on the shoulders of giants. John Galt’s inventions were based on the work of earlier geniuses – this doesn’t disprove his own genius, but it does place it in context – just as a modern-day nuclear researcher would owe a debt to Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. Furthermore, the big companies like Reardon Steel have thousands of employees working under Hank – they cannot all be great men. And Dagny, perhaps Rand’s alter ego, is the worst of all when it comes to standing on the shoulders of giants. She inherits her position from her father, she builds her railroads out of Reardon Metal, produced by Hank; her one gift is the ability to see what must be done and the force of personality to push it through. Not something to sniff at, true, but not in the same category as Hank or John Galt.

There are other, odder, points in the book. Rand’s view of nature is poor – nature exists solely to produce raw materials for her great men. Others would disagree. And then her companies would certainly pollute the area if someone didn’t stop them. Rand may be right to say that people who know nothing shouldn’t be passing judgement, but what about the people who live downwind of Reardon Steel? Her great men (and woman) perform superhuman feats of endurance, with little sleep, limited food and hundreds of cigarettes. None of them seem beaten down by anything, but the sullen pressure from the looters.

A hostile reviewer once referred to the struggle within Atlas Shrugged as one where the Children of Light face the Children of Darkness. In some ways, there is a lot of truth to that. Good characters are handsome, beautiful, intelligent, etc. Bad characters are ugly, stupid (or clever when it comes to inventing self-justifications) and so on. At the same time, some characters show unexpected depths. Hank Reardon, in many ways, funds forces that are fundamentally opposed to everything he is, while supporting moochers – his mother, his wife and his brother. It does not seem to occur to Rand that most people might like supporting their families, although Hank’s case is a bit extreme. It might explain his willingness to keep his word in business matters, but to cheerfully break his marriage vows.

I also felt an odd bit of sympathy for Jim Taggart – not, I am sure, a feeling Rand would understand or approve. The older Jim is a stupid asshole, true, but the younger one could have been something more. Everyone meets, in their time, someone who is far better at them at something they consider to be important. It takes a stronger mind than Jim Taggart to walk away unscathed when he is effortlessly outshone by his rival and excluded from children’s games. I don’t blame him for being bitter, but he goes far too far.

There are really too many points to cover in a single review, but one that it worth looking at is the aristocracy of need. Rand makes the point that many people want or need something that they have no intrinsic right to have, using a character who sues a banker because the banker refused to give him a loan. Quite reasonably; the banker saw that the man had nothing to guarantee the loan and no reasonable prospects for success. Of course, the man ‘thought’ he needed it – it wasn't a real need (like food and drink).

Where this leads is what happened to Soviet Russia. The people who believe that giving the needy what they want take power and then grow fat on the proceeds of distributing the wealth from the rich to the poor. This is, alas, a pattern that has repeated itself in our own world, both in unnecessary subsidies to various departments that have long since outlived their usefulness and in foreign aid, where far too many people do well by doing good. In the end, though, as one character points out:

So you think that money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can't exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?”

It is important to remember, when reading Atlas Shrugged, that Rand was effectively writing a book to justify her political points – and, in effect, to prove that she was right. In many ways, Atlas Shrugged lacks much of the richness of modern life – an interesting comparison is Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – because her characters have to react in certain ways. It is a tribute to Rand’s genius that she pulled it off as well as she did. At the same time, it could not be perfect.

In many ways, Rand’s philosophy – Objectivism – makes a great deal of sense. At the same time, it – like so many other political philosophies – is largely incapable of being used in the real world – which, let’s face it, is a messy place.

Atlas Shrugged is not, and never will be, great literature. As a novel, it is chunky and overblown, with sharp moral lines and few shades of grey. The technological development has not aged well. On the other hand, it is thought-provoking and generally interesting. Read, but swallow with care.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Lights Out - David Crawford

Lights Out
-David Crawford

I tend to regard survivalist books with a somewhat careful eye these days. The reason for that, I confess, is that I bought a copy of Patriots (James Wesley Rawles) at full price after reading the many favourable reviews on Amazon. In hindsight, I should have paid a lot more attention to the negative reviews. That said, people whose opinion I trusted were saying good things about Lights Out and I decided to take a chance and purchase a copy.

I shall be bluntly honest, right now, and say that Lights Out is quite a good book.

Lights Out is, rather like the later One Second After, set in America immediately following an EMP attack that causes havoc all across the country. (The source of the EMP is never identified.) The main characters, who live near a medium-sized town in Texas, are caught completely by surprise. Some of them have more supplies than others, but they’re not perfectly equipped for the disaster. (Another flaw with Patriots.) They are, by and large, intelligent and self-sufficient folks, at least as much as one can be in this day and age. The story follows the adventures of Mark ‘Karate Man’ Turner as he struggles to keep his family and neighbours alive in the wake of the disaster.

The most important point in this book, IHMO, is that the wise man doesn’t count on the government to do anything for him. That is a fairly realistic point. The people in the novel who believe the government’s unrealistic promises that they will get the lights back on sooner or later tend to come to bad ends. The sheer scale of the disaster – as in Hurricane Katrina or, more recently, the heavy snowfall in Britain last year – makes it hard for the government, with the best will in the world, to come to grips with the problem. Mark Turner and his friends have to struggle to survive on their own.

Lights Out does not, unlike Dies the Fire or, to a lesser extent, One Second After, feature an immediate collapse of everything. Instead, there is a slow decline of national and even state governments, to the point where everything just starts fading away. That is, I suspect, considerably more realistic than earlier books, although purists may argue that the effects of the EMP are exaggerated. Truthfully, I don’t think that that matters. As I said in one of my own works, the more you expect the government to do for you, the less it will be able to do for you. Even so, I suspect that there would be much more of a die-off fairly quickly – and not just from people losing their pacemakers. The modern cities require vast amounts of food to be transhipped in each day. They will be swiftly down to eating dog food and then starving.

Mark Turner himself comes across as a fairly decent guy, although he does tend to slip towards Marty Sue levels from time to time. He makes realistic mistakes, both tactically and when it comes to dealing with people; in some ways, the chaos at the end of the book results from one of his failures. Honesty compels me to admit that I would probably have handled matters a great deal worse. The overall point, I think, of the story is that people who try to handle things alone tend to come off almost as bad as those who trust in the government. The key to survival is working in groups with people who might disagree with you on one or two points, but generally follow the same logic as you.

The book touches on many basic points, although – thankfully – the author avoids the massive information-dumping of Patriots. The characters have to work to repair older cars for use after the pulse – the newer cars are just wasted space without their computer chips – and rig up new solutions to old problems. They also touch on farming after the pulse, security issues, guard training, travel in what is effectively Bandit Country and many other issues.

Unlike the author of Patriots, the author of Lights Out has a genuine understanding of personality conflicts. Mark must deal with a dozen different conflicts that appear within their safe area, from a pigheaded moron who believes that he has the right to dictate to everyone else to a feminist who wants to take an equal role with the men. It’s worth noting that the book misses a point there; the only people who can have kids are the women, so the women have to be protected at all costs, particularly with a plague threatening from the east.

The book does have its flaws, however. One that seems to be a major issue is that it doesn’t touch much upon what makes people act in a bad way in a bad situation. Why does Jon act the way he does? Why does Connie cheat on her husband and later murder him? Normally, when someone commits adultery, it happens because they weren't getting something from the marriage. Why does Connie cheat? Mark’s wife slams Connie hard, which is odd; a woman would tend to side with another woman, unless there was a prior awareness of the woman’s character. We don’t know, however, what that awareness actually is.

Perversely, the book’s focus on one character (rather than several) is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because the reader only knows what Mark knows; it’s a weakness because we are limited and don’t always know the other side of the story. On balance, it’s a strong point; Mark has to make his decisions with what he knows at the time, not with the benefit of hindsight or alternate points of view.

A weirder point that does pop up is the odd response of the government. The USN is sending two carrier groups to China to help cope with a threatened invasion of Taiwan. That’s nice of them, but I suspect that they would be needed more desperately back home. The carriers have nuclear plants which could be used to produce electricity, while Marines have plenty of experience in carrying out disaster recovery work. If the Chinese are to blame for the EMP – or if the US had good reason to suspect they were to blame, or decided to knock the Chinese down as well – I’d expect the US to start launching nukes at them. In fact, the US might just take off the gloves and just hit out at random. Iran, North Korea, China…perhaps even Russia. The USN’s SSBN units won’t be affected by the pulse.

Overall, Lights Out is an extremely interesting read and far superior to One Second After or Patriots. It is a realistic, thought-provoking and quite chilling post-apocalyptic novel.