Air-Minded: Bitchin’ Betty (Updated 4/25/19)

Update (Apr 25, 2019): This post originally included an embedded clip of F-16 aural warnings. The clip has been removed from YouTube. I replaced it this morning with a clip of Eurofighter Typhoon aural warnings.

Update (Feb 5, 2018): My collaboration with Joe Coles, publisher of the excellent Hush-Kit aviation blog, continues with his reprint of my article on aircraft aural warning systems, collectively referred to as “Bitchin’ Betty” by military pilots. Naturally Joe did some editing. You can click on the image below to see his version of my original post:

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In reformatting my original article, adding new images, and moving older images from my original article around, some of the links I’d embedding in the original may no longer be where readers would expect to find them, so I decided to re-run my original Bitchin’ Betty article here on Paul’s Thing, and move it back up to the top of the blog.

Here’s the original, first posted here in March 2016:

With the recent retirement of Boeing employee Leslie Shook, there have been a number of media reports about military aircraft aural cockpit warning systems. Leslie Shook was the voice behind the aural warning system in the F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft; Hornet crews affectionately call her “Bitchin’ Betty.”

Why is this newsworthy? I think it’s because the media seek any excuse to repeat mild profanities like “bitchin’.” Notice, though, that the NPR report I linked to above bleeps out the offending word. One TV news reporter I watched got such a case of the tee-hees she almost couldn’t go on, and another TV talking head actually said the words “Witchin’ Wetty” while making air quotes.

joan elmsThis is not Leslie Shook. It’s actress and singer Joan Elms, the first Bitchin’ Betty, though they didn’t call her that then: in the 1960s she was known to supersonic B-58 Hustler flight crews as “Sexy Sally.” Joan’s taped voice alerted Hustler crews to critical information and emergencies demanding immediate action: her warnings included phrases such as “weapon unlocked,” “hydraulic system failure,” “check for engine fire,” “nose too high.”

Wikipedia names Kim Crow as the first woman to provide digitized cockpit voice warnings to military aircrews. That’s true, but it’s a truth hinging on the word “digitized.” Joan Elms was of the pre-digital age, recording her warnings on old-fashioned magnetic tape. To my knowledge, the B-58 Hustler was the first military aircraft to employ aural cockpit voice warnings, and Joan Elm’s was the voice behind them.

The digitized voice of Kim Crow was my Bitchin’ Betty, the aural warning system in the F-15 Eagle. When I first flew the Eagle in 1978, Bitchin’ Betty said only a few things: “warning,” “engine fire,” “overheat.” Additional voice warnings were added over the years, and by the mid-1990s Bitchin’ Betty could recite an extensive litany of cautions and warnings. I can’t find an audio clip of my Bitchin’ Betty, but here’s a YouTube recording of Eurofighter Typhoon voice warnings (Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH uses the voice of Sue Milne, called “Nagging Nora” by the British, German, Italian, and Spanish pilots who fly the Typhoon).

When Sexy Sally started warning B-58 Hustler crews about engine fires in the 1960s, it was a major innovation, and using a woman’s voice was considered a brilliant stroke: human factors researchers thought a woman’s voice—rarely heard on the radio and never on the intercom—would cut through other chatter and get the crews’ attention. This belief prevailed in my day as well, probably because flying military fighters was still a male-only occupation.

I always had doubts about that, though. For one thing, by my time many FAA and military radar controllers, both on the ground and in the air, were women. Women flew the tankers we refueled from and the C-5s ahead of us on final, forcing us to go around to avoid wake turbulence. You heard their voices all the time; there was no longer any novelty to it. For another thing, there were times Bitchin’ Betty spoke right into my earphones and I didn’t hear her, especially in the heat of an engagement or dogfight. I didn’t know she’d spoken until I reviewed my own cockpit videotape during debrief. The times I did hear her, I’d already seen the master caution light, felt the unusual thump, or heard the strange noise that always seems to accompany a mechanical failure.

Today, I understand, some commercial and military aircraft manufacturers use male voices for aural warning systems. They probably work just as well, and I’m sure the aircrews have colorful nicknames for them as well.

Is Bitchin’ Betty any kind of big deal today? Military aircraft, ships, tanks, and for all I know trucks have had Bitchin’ Betties for decades. So have commercial airliners, and I hear some general aviation aircraft as well. Ground-pounding civilians too are used to aural warning and guidance systems, witness Siri and automotive GPS. If you tell me civilian voice systems leave military voice systems in the dust, I will not be surprised. Heck, I can select Morgan Freeman’s voice on my Garmin when I get tired of listening to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I don’t think you can do that in any military jet, not even the F-35!


A Be-No from the Boss

I doubt this entry will meet my standard for an Air-Minded post, but it relates to doings at Pima Air and Space Museum, where I work as a volunteer docent, so I’ll see where the subject leads me before deciding whether or not to add “Air-Minded” to the title.

This morning our volunteer coordinator issued an all-hands be-no* on injecting politics and personal opinion into the information we share with museum guests. Guests sometimes leave comment cards. The card that prompted the current flap was titled “Generally informative docents, albeit not shy about sharing their political bias!”

Here’s some of what our guest had to say:

The guide mentioned the excellent film about Hughes made by the brilliant director, Martin Scorsese. He made a point of stating quite boldly that Howard Hughes had been portrayed by “Leonardo Dicrappio.” Seriously? I could not help but feel that this intentional swipe at Mister DiCaprio (who was absolutely brilliant in the film, by the way) had nothing to do with artistic integrity or whether his portrayal was less than stellar. Could it be … something else?

Later, inside, I was riveted by another docent’s account of a “dog fight” over North Vietnam between an F-4 Phantom and a Russian MiG. It was after this the docent (himself a former phantom pilot in Vietnam) weighed in about how “we weren’t able to win the war” because Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara “forced the military to fight with one hand tied behind their back.” Really? That’s an opinion, and one not necessarily shared by everyone, including many historians. … It is quite possible to give the public a very informative oral history of all these amazing machines and the guys tasked to fly them without launching into political pontificating.

When asking for a recommendation of a place to eat the docent (another vet) told us about an excellent Mexican restaurant in town. He happened to mention that “President … ah … Bill Clinton (much obvious distaste mentioning his name, punctuated with eye rolling) had eaten there and that there was something on the wall over the booth he ate at (if we could stand going there presumably, after learning about this fact).

Bottom line: what is going on at Pima? Are docents vetted for their political affiliation and denied the privilege if they are deemed not “Republican enough”? Whatever it is, I wish they would realize they are not doing justice to the valuable collection they are helping their fellow Americans (and foreigners) view and understand. Their pointed and, frankly, ignorant political barbs and jabs are doing more harm than good. They should park their biases at the door and just take pride in showing what can be achieved when people focus on working together to create something that attests to human ingenuity and engineering prowess. We are all Americans. … [if] I had not experienced these unexpected and off-putting remarks, I would have rated this museum higher.

I’m surprised we don’t get more of these. I, for one, quickly learned not to discuss political or current affairs with my fellow volunteers. Many of them are old (older than me, anyway), reactionary, and racist. Most are professional enough to stay on topic when talking aircraft and aviation with guests, but some fall short. Either they can’t help themselves, or they’re unwilling to try.

In past years, the museum ran a monthly volunteer presentation program. Most of our volunteers have professional military and civil aviation backgrounds, and constitute a deep pool of expert knowledge and experience. Opportunities to share that knowledge and experience with museum visitors are scarce. The volunteer presentation program (sadly no longer offered, but maybe it’ll come back) gave us an outlet, allowing us to speak on topics of our choosing before audiences of fellow volunteers, museum staff, and invited outside guests with an interest in aviation.

Six years ago I gave a presentation on the history of the F-15 Eagle and my experiences flying it. On the day of my presentation the auditorium was filled to capacity. One of the older volunteers ran the program, and, as I expected he would, took the stage first to introduce me. What I didn’t expect was the joke he told to warm up the audience.

I don’t remember the details but it was an ugly joke about Jews and money: mean-spirited, unfunny, based on anti-Semitic stereotypes. I was stunned, and had to take a few deep breaths before starting my talk. The joke would have been a career-ender for any military officer or NCO; few politicians, business leaders, or public figures could have survived it. This guy, though, didn’t seem to have a clue how offensive his story was, and as a matter of fact many of the old folks in the audience laughed when he was done. He’s still at the museum today.

At the time I was team leader for the docents who led walking tours of the hangars. Most of my team members were conservative. When I took over I cautioned them not to talk politics in front of guests. That turned out not to be a problem. The problem were their constant digs (unintentional or otherwise) against women. For some reason they thought cracking jokes about female pilots was totally okay. Then, as now, visitors would notice and sometimes leave angry comment cards. I couldn’t believe I had to tell grown men to stop telling jokes like that, but I did.

It goes both ways. As a docent, I see my share of prejudice on the faces of guests taking my tram tours. Of course “both ways” doesn’t extend to me telling guests to knock it off, but I will admit that when I look in the rear-view mirror and see some old white guy (it’s always an old white guy) rolling his eyes or sharing a sneer with his seat-mates when I point out a French or Mexican airplane, I’ll go out of my way to find more French and Mexican planes to show them. And then throw in some Russian and Chinese jets as well.

Ah, well, speaking of French jets, here are some photos of the Dassault Étendard IVM the museum put on display last week. It’s a former French Navy carrier strike fighter, and flew off the Clemenceau or Foch in the 1960s and 70s. I can’t identify which French naval aviation unit used the seahorse insignia on the tail in the last photo (perhaps a reader can help?), but the dragon and spear emblem was used by Flottille 17F.

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Take that, France haters!

*”Be-no” is military shorthand for “There shall be no …” messages from on high.


Times Like These, It’s Important to Feel Clean

I’ve been clean-shaven for about two years now. I won’t say I’ve grown my last beard, but I feel better without one and at my age perhaps it’s time to make a choice and commit.


2015 me


2019 me

It’s not as simple as shaving or not shaving. Even when I wore a full beard I still used a razor to shave around the the edges, along with an electric clipper to keep from going total lumberjack. The clipper was a good investment, since I can use it to give myself crew cuts when times are hard, and it came in handy when our auxiliary dog Maxie was attacked by a hawk and we had to shave her rump to clean the wounds. But it’s razors, and shaving, I’ve been thinking about this morning.

Three years ago, wandering around the base commissary while Donna shopped for groceries, I reached for an 8-pack of multi-blade cartridges on the display rack and had to sit down and fan myself. Sticker shock isn’t just for new cars and household appliances! The next day I ordered an earlier-generation safety razor and supply of double-edged stainless steel blades from Amazon. The razor set me back $25 and will last a lifetime; 50 replacement blades (more than a year’s worth for me) are less than $12. The shave is as close as any I ever got from a Gillette Mach 3 cartridge.

Now I’m trying to settle on venues: whether to shave at the bathroom sink or in the shower. Maybe I’ll leave that up in the air, depending on how I’m feeling on any particular day. The good thing about the sink is that I can see myself clearly in the mirror. In the shower I use a small hand mirror, which fogs up. The hard thing about the sink is getting my whiskers wet enough first, then having to use shaving cream. In the shower, my face is plenty wet after shampooing and rinsing, and there’s no need for shaving cream. But as I say, I feel differently about it from day to day. Either way, a clean shave, for me, is a good start to the day.

These are the things I was thinking about this morning while listening to the bathroom radio as Attorney General Barr dissembled and misrepresented the findings in Special Counsel Mueller’s report. I thought Barr was lying his way through the press conference; a few hours later I know he was was because portions of report are now on Twitter and Google News, directly contradicting most everything he said. What we’ve learned so far today is that Mueller in fact found several instances of obstruction of justice on Trump’s part, along with several instances of attempted obstruction, and, in compliance with DOJ policy on not indicting a sitting president, intended for Congress to take the ball and decide what to do about Trump. The stark differences between what Barr said and what Mueller said will no doubt dominate the news for the next few days.

Barr said one thing that rang true, but only if you peel away the shine he tried to put on Trump’s well-documented attempt to quash the investigation by firing James Comey and attempting to fire Robert Mueller: “The president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.” Shine peeled away, what he essentially said is that Trump, in obstructing justice, can’t be held accountable for it because as we all know he’s unable to control his temper and autocratic instincts and can’t help lashing out. We elected an infant; therefore it’s okay when he behaves as one; therefore This Is Fine.

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I don’t know. Maybe I should start a new beard after all. Any opinions?


Tuesday Bag o’ Crossed Lines

IMG_8746Monday last I had to haul my miserable hacking feverish runny-nosed voiceless self home from Pima Air and Space Museum after the first tram tour of the day, leaving my co-volunteers in the lurch. I made up for it yesterday with four nearly back-to-back tours, one every other hour, from the first tour of the day to the last.

Oh, I’m not firing on all cylinders yet: I had to hold the microphone off to the side for the occasional cough and blowing of the nose, but I was feeling much better (and am better yet today). If I look a little pasty in the selfie, driving an empty tram to the loading area to pick up a troop of Boy Scouts for a special tour, it’s because I’m slathered with industrial-strength sunblock.

It was a good day at the museum. The special Boy Scout tour, with a tram full of well-informed and enthusiastic young men who enjoyed my war stories, was tons of fun. Later in the day regular visitors and I got to watch restoration tow two new exhibits out into the yard and set them up on display: a French Navy Dassault Étendard IVM strike fighter and a US Navy Beechcraft TC-12 Huron transport. I’m wondering about the second designation, since the stenciling on the aircraft identifies it as a UC-12. T stands for trainer, which it is plainly not; U stands for utility, which it plainly is. That said, maybe the Navy used that particular UC-12 as a trainer. I’m not going to second-guess the museum (yes I am).


Dassault Étendard IVM


Beechcraft TC-12 Huron

The US Air Force operates a fleet of C-12s (no T or U prefix for us), and I logged many hours of bag-dragging time on older versions in Alaska and Japan. The civilian equivalents are the Beechcraft King Air/1900-series twin-turboprop transports, very nice aircraft indeed, pressurized, comfortable, fast enough if you’re not in a pants-on-fire hurry.

We’re in a period of alternating 70- and 90-degree days. We open up the house in the morning; if it stays in the 70s we leave it open, if it starts to get hotter we close the house back up to trap the cool air inside. It won’t be long before we’re running the air conditioner 24/7.

So how about that Notre Dame? I saw a quick reference to the cathedral, but not the fire, early yesterday morning on Twitter. It stood out from the other tweets, if only because the mention of Notre Dame seemed out of left field. Internet & cell phone reception at the museum is very poor (the museum sits on the edge of coverage, and the staff won’t share its wi-fi password with visitors or volunteers), and while I was later able to learn of the fire (and the fact it was on-going and getting worse), none of the photos or videos would come through. I didn’t learn the full extent of the damage until I got home and had access again.

I dunno, it may be nihilistically fashionable to say easy come, easy go, but that particular pile of stones means something to Western civilization. Imagine embarking on a massive building project that won’t be completed for generations. Who even does that any more? Here in Tucson, a major surface street intersection with the Union Pacific railroad tracks and Interstate 10 was closed for reconstruction for two years, finally opening again yesterday evening, and that seemed like forever. What are we, here in the USA (or anywhere else for that matter), building now that won’t be completed within the lifetime of the generation that started it?

People are saying we’ve crossed a line with the Trump administration’s flouting of congressional demands for tax returns and the Mueller report. Congress is constitutionally entitled to those documents, and we’re supposed to be a nation of laws, but if the executive branch decides to ignore those laws and the legislative branch doesn’t have the courage to do anything about it, it’s all over but the Nazi salutes.

But wait. Trump ignored laws regarding fundraising and accounting for money spent on his own inauguration, and we let him get away with that. Trump ignored the law on emoluments and we let him get away with that. I could go on, but the fact is Trump’s been crossing lines from the beginning. Congress not only tolerates his autocratic behavior, it doesn’t seem the least interested in trying to check him. I’m not even sure that if there’s another large-scale terrorist attack on the US, a second 9/11, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi won’t line up to declare him King Donald the First. Know-nothing Republicans on one side, do-nothing Democrats on the other.

Well, hell. Here’s a photo of Mister B sniffing daisies out front. He’d have been a great hippie dog, that one. He cheers me up as the world burns.



Bettie Page’s Hips


In the ninth grade, in Laramie, Wyoming, I took typing, probably the most useful class I ever took. To this day I view touch typing as an essential skill, right up there with readin’, ritin’, and rithmetic. After I learned to type, apart from filling out forms and signing my name, I avoided writing anything in longhand. Learning to type changed my life and helped define who I am today.

Now I’m trying to re-learn the art of writing by hand, in grade-school cursive yet, using a fountain pen my father gave me 29 years ago. Be patient, I tell myself. It’ll be worth it.

I don’t know anything about Julian Assange’s writing habits, but if he has a mind to work on his calligraphy he’ll soon have plenty of time to do it. I have mixed feelings about Assange being remanded to U.S. custody for prosecution, which I’m pretty sure will be the upshot of his arrest this morning in London. Yes, he did Trump a solid by publishing stolen Democratic Party emails in 2016, but muzzling the press is far more important to Trump than protecting a supporter who hasn’t done anything for him lately, and making a show of locking Assange in prison will give his administration the excuse and precedent it needs to go after media outlets who cross Trump. By, say, publishing a leaked copy of the Mueller report, or his tax returns.

Most of us have by now been exposed to the right wing claim that Hitler’s Nazis were socialists. It’s right there in the name, they say: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. “Socialist” and “Workers,” two words forever associated with Karl Marx and the Soviet Union. This in spite of the fact that the people making this claim are generally fine with anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and authoritarianism, three central features of Nazism. So how to make sense of something like this, posted to Facebook yesterday by an old friend?

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Because I can’t even. One, the Dutch resistance fought the Nazis, not “the socialists.” Two, there’s no “resurgence” of socialism there … the city of Arnhem, along with the rest of the Netherlands and other Northern European nations, has been progressively socialist since the 1950s (“failed idea,” my ass). Three, my old friend is an educated man, far too sophisticated to fall for the infantile “but it’s right there in the name” argument. He knows better.

Here’s what I think: he sees himself as a social media influencer. By pushing the Nazis=socialists/socialists=communists meme to a right wing audience, he’s helping the ideologues he supports strengthen the weapon they’ve always deployed against progressive Democratic Party candidates running for office. Kamala Harris? Beto O’Rourke? Elizabeth Warren? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Socialists! Just like Hitler! (and never you mind there are plenty of things about Hitler these people admire).

Nice touch, though, throwing in a photo of Audrey Hepburn. She sure draws the eye, doesn’t she? I wonder what she would have thought about all this. I also wonder what’s going on with her hips. Bettie Page’s hips didn’t stick out like that, is all I’m sayin’.


Tuesday Bag o’ Tissues

IMG_4293A bad cold was overdue: it’s been two years, maybe three. Last week it was a runny, drippy nose, which I chalked up to springtime pollen and combatted with Claritin. But yesterday, riding to Pima Air and Space Museum, I realized it had progressed beyond hay fever. The clear watery stuff that had been dripping from my nose was now thick and yellow. My head was stuffed, my brain felt disconnected, my throat was painfully sore, and even riding the motorcycle to work couldn’t cheer me up.

Halfway through the first tram tour my voice went on strike. And so, for the first time in the eight years I’ve been volunteering at PASM, I bailed on my co-volunteers and went home. Now it’s pseudoephedrine and Afrin, frequent naps, and gallons of water. That’s a selfie I took yesterday just before loading passengers, practicing my “Why no, I’m not sick” face.

The Air Force issued Afrin to aircrews as an emergency measure to clear our ears and sinuses during descents from high altitude. Normally you never used the stuff, equalizing pressure inside your head instead by doing valsalva maneuvers. They always cautioned us not to use Afrin unless absolutely necessary, since after only a few uses the soft tissue in your sinuses expands and now you’re in a world of hurt. But I’m old now, and grounded, and will take my chances with the side effects.

Well, enough about that.

I exchange letters with a friend in Virginia. He writes his longhand, using a fountain pen. Writing by hand has always been a struggle for me, so I type mine on the desktop and print them. I remembered my father giving me a gold Cross fountain pen several years back and with surprisingly little effort found it. I remembered also a note Dad included with the pen, and happily it was still in the case, neatly folded and dated “Christmas, 1990”:

Upon graduation from college the Caldwells [my mom’s parents] presented me with a pen and pencil set. At the time I remember thinking that I could have used the gift while I was still in college instead of afterwards. I am surprised at how much I used that set – the pencil no longer works but I still keep it. The pen has had some repairs over the years but it still serves me faithfully – it lies within reach on my desk and I use it several times a week. Inasmuch as I love my pen, I thought you might like to have a fountain pen too. Of course a fountain pen isn’t nearly as functional or versatile or convenient as a ball point – a fountain pen is sometimes messy and bothersome when you have to fill it – they aren’t much good for carbons either. Be that as it may, you (as a literary man) know that a fountain pen is civilized and has a cachet that a ball point will never have. I hope this gift brings you years of service.

I must have used the pen a few times. I say so because the pen came with six ink cartridges and one is missing (the others long since dried up). There’s also what Cross calls a converter, a different type of cartridge you dip into a bottle of ink and fill by twisting the other end. I resolved to, if not write an entire letter with the pen, at least use it to sign future letters, and ordered new cartridges and a bottle of ink from Amazon. They came last night and I’ll practice fountain-penmanship later today.

Long before my friend and I began exchanging letters, my Dad and I were regular correspondents. From the time I married and left home until his death in 2007, we exchanged letters at least monthly, sometimes more often than that. I saved all the letters he wrote to me, and he saved all my letters to him. I have them all now. Blogging is an extension of my lifelong habit of letter-writing, but I’m thankful there’s at least one friend today with whom I can exchange actual, old-fashioned letters.

More on writing: my Paulgrams, little newsletters delivered to subscribers by email. I haven’t written one in a long time, and every time I try to start a new one I ask myself why I’m doing it. I blog fairly regularly, after all, and what do those Paulgrams have to say that isn’t already here on Paul’s Thing? Up in the air for now, those Paulgrams.

My job today is to get better. Gotta go work on that. More soon.


Paul’s Book Reviews: Historical Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

“The future was coming nearer, one relentless goose step after the next. Juliet could still remember when Hitler had seemed like a harmless clown. No one was amused now. (“The clowns are the dangerous ones,” Perry said.)”
—Kate Atkinson, Transcription

by Kate Atkinson

I first read about this novel on the literary website The Millions. The description intrigued me and I immediately put a copy on hold at the library.

“Transcription” is a historical novel set in London during a span of time I never tire of visiting, jumping between the lead-up to World War II and the immediate post-war years. Part of what attracted me to it is my fondness for the wartime noir novels of Alan Furst and the spy novels of John Le Carré. There are plenty of echoes in this novel: Hitler’s invasions of European countries, the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, the flourishing of homegrown fascism before the Blitz, the busy machinations of British intelligence. It is a serious novel about a most serious time, leavened with British wit, and parts of it read like a comic novel.

Juliet Armstrong is a memorable character, an innocent with a dry sense of humor and the capability of questioning herself, whose wartime work leads to an assignment transcribing conversations between an agent of MI5 and a group of domestic fascists who believe they’re delivering important information about British war preparations to Germany. This assignment, over time, leads to a more active, albeit casual, role as a spy herself, monitoring the comings and goings of the MI5 agent, whose other activities are suspicious at best.

The more I learned about Juliet, particularly the most memorable and dramatic incident from her year transcribing conversations recorded in an adjoining room, the more intrigued I became. I was somewhat flummoxed by a twist Atkinson introduced at the end, revealing a side of Juliet I had not anticipated, and wonder if it was necessary, if the story would have unfolded the way it did without the twist.

The bit of confusion at the end notwithstanding, “Transcription” pulled me in from the first page and didn’t let me go until I finished the acknowledgements at the end.

city in the middleThe City in the Middle of the Night
by Charlie Jane Anders

Few reviewers classify this science fiction novel as “young adult,” which surprises me. It feels solidly YA to me: the primary human characters are teenagers (and possibly some of the Gelet, though it’s hard to tell with them), the bond Sophie and Bianca form in school, the themes of abandonment and finding oneself, the interesting notion of sleeping pressed up against a partner but without sex, the idealism of Sophie and Bianca (and later of Alyssa and Mouth) … all this set against the backdrop of human colonists on tidally-locked January, a planet with a narrow habitable zone in the ring between eternal daylight and eternal night. Good stuff, and a rousing story to boot.

Yes, it’s a short review, but I don’t want to give anything away. Well, okay, a little: Anders drops hints that the colonists’ mothership is still in orbit, possibly still manned. The humans on the surface have been there for generations and have forgotten much of the technology that got them to January. “Meteors” containing machinery and forgotten bits of technology are occasionally still found by cargo cult scavengers. Foodstuffs and native animals have old Earth names, but when Sophie sits down to eat a pheasant and has to cut the poisonous spines off first, you realize things are different on January.

And then there are the widely-divergent societies of the cities around the ring, and the fascinating civilization of January’s native inhabitants, the Gelet, known only to a few human characters (but not for long).

All these things I said I wouldn’t talk about are sequel-grist. Obviously I don’t know if Charlie Jane Anders plans to write one, but if she does I’ll read it.

calibans warCaliban’s War (The Expanse #2)
by James S.A. Corey

From my review of the first book of the Expanse series, “Leviathan Wakes”:

“I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed this example of good old-fashioned space opera. It’s set in a distant enough future that mankind has spread through the solar system, inhabiting the Moon, several asteroids, Mars and its moons, and some of the moons of the gas giant planets. There are three major political alliances, all at odds with each other: the Earth and Moon, the Belters, and the Outer Planets (led by Mars). Although Mars is being terraformed, it is centuries away from being able to sustain human life on its own, and of course inhabitants of the Belt and various moons depend on constant resupply to stay alive. The story itself is quite dramatic, involving the discovery of a hostile alien life-form capable of wiping out — or drastically changing the very cellular structure of — humanity, and a growing war between the three alliances. One plucky space freighter crew is at the center of the action, and they will remind you of the crew of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s seminal movie, Alien. Need I say more? The story will grab you by the nape of the neck and pull you along.”

I started watching the television adaption (also titled “The Expanse”) a couple of years ago and am now partway through the third (and sadly last) season. Perhaps because I read the novel years before the TV series started, the connection between “Leviathan’s Wake” and TV’s “The Expanse” didn’t register, but now that I’m into the show, it hits me that “Caliban’s War” and the show’s second (and parts of the third) season are nearly identical. The correlation between the book and the TV show is one of the closest I’ve seen. Still, the book enriches the show, with additional detail and deeper dives into the characters.

“Caliban’s War” is excellent reading. It’s everything I liked about “Leviathan’s Wake,” more so now that I’ve watched the TV series. I look forward to reading the third book, “Abbadon’s Gate.”

parable of the sowerParable of the Sower (Earthseed #1)
by Octavia E. Butler

“Parable of the Sower,” my book club selection for April 2019, is most frequently categorized by readers and reviewers as dystopian science fiction. It is, but it’s also a young adult novel. Witness:

The protagonist is a teenaged girl. The survivors who start the long trek north with her are (with one exception) likewise teens. Each of them comes of age frighteningly early, due to the collapse of the economy and society. Lauren and her Earthseed band are plucky, surviving (mostly) in the face of overwhelming odds.

“Parable of the Sower” practically defines YA dystopian SF. When I realized Octavia Butler had written it in the early 1990s (I honestly didn’t know that until I’d finished reading it), it hit me that this may be the prototypical YA dystopian SF novel, written, as it was, long before the current crop of YA dystopian SF writers came on the scene.

Octavia Butler’s depiction of a post-societal breakdown California is chilling. It is the standout reason to read the book, well thought through and with the ring of truth. Yes, you think, this is exactly how it would be. I’m willing to bet Claire Vaye Watkins, who wrote another acclaimed post-apocalyptic California novel in 2015, “Gold Fame Citrus,” is a disciple of Octavia Butler.

The teenaged Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy was nothing new to me … it’s essentially what I’ve believed since the age of 14, along with millions of others who’ve turned their backs on organized religion. Sadly, the passages where Lauren explains her beliefs to friends and potential followers are didactic and clunky … not at all like people actually talk, and the dialog falls flat.

Balancing that out, I was intrigued by Lauren’s long-term vision that humanity’s future lies among the stars, starting over on distant planets. This is the science fiction angle of the novel, and I’m tempted to read the rest of the trilogy to see just how far Octavia Butler took it. Obviously Lauren and her original band of disciples won’t live to see it, but will their descendants? And on that note I’ll point out that the Kindle edition I read contained the first two chapters of the next novel in the series, “Parable of the Talents.”

road beyond ruinThe Road Beyond Ruin
by Gemma Liviero

I was happy to download “The Road Beyond Ruin” when it was offered as a Kindle First Read: historical fiction & WWII … what’s not to like?

The early chapters were fascinating, set in the countryside near Dresden in the days and weeks immediately after Germany surrendered to the Allies; raping and pillaging Russian soldiers, displaced persons, starvation everywhere you look. Stefano intrigued me, mainly because I’ve been exposed to so little of the Italian experience of WWII, either from the fascist or resistance side, and he seemed to reflect both.

I bogged down in the middle section as the war receded and the messy love quadrangle of Erich, Rosalind, Georg, and Monique emerged. Short chapters followed individual characters, jumping back and forth in time between the beginning, middle, and end of the war, with the outlines of a highly unlikely climax beginning to take shape.

Toward the end the revelations (now including the history of Stefano) came fast and furious. When all was revealed, I simply could not believe the story … not a bit of it. Gemma Liverio asked too much of me, and I found myself flipping through the final pages just to get to the end so I could move on to another book.

A strong start, but an equally strong letdown at the end. I can’t hate it, but I can’t recommend it either.

the testThe Test
by Sylvain Neuvel

Tor sent me a copy of this just-published novella. They didn’t ask for one, but I assume they wanted a review.

I remember a science fiction story I read as a child. I can’t remember the author or the title, but it was a classic and perhaps some of you will be able to put a name to it. In the story, a man becomes increasingly suspicious that the people around him are actors and his environment a stage set. At the end, scientists in a control room terminate the sequence he’s been living and prepare to initiate a new one. I think it was the idea behind the movie “Truman,” and while I don’t know if Sylvain Neuvel ever heard of that classic story, his own tale resembles it.

The character being tested is subjected to a sequence of horrors so beyond the pale I felt like I was being subjected to one of those pointless, increasingly dire scenarios gun nuts like to lay on you. Oh yeah, well what if they broke into your house and raped your wife? And what if they made you watch? And then what if they killed your children? But raped them first? Would you shoot them then? Would you? Well what if they …. you know what I’m talking about. That’s how I felt reading “The Test.” By the end I was exhausted. Maybe that was the test. After mulling it over a few days, I’m still unsure what I was supposed to get out of it.


Glitch in the Matrix

An odd thing happened with the blog. An automated email informed me I’d gone over my server’s disk quota. That won’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t have a website hosted on a server, but since I do it got my attention. I tried to log on to the server to see what was up but couldn’t. Then I noticed the most recent post on this blog had vanished. I sent a query to my friend Scott, who owns and operates the server, but haven’t heard back.

Meanwhile I figured out another way to log on, and I’m nowhere close to the disk quota limit. Which is what I remembered from the last time I checked, a month or so ago. I reposted the missing blog entry and now I’m writing and posting this one as a further system test.

Of course the real glitch in the matrix is Trump and the inescapable fact that a subset of the population thinks he’s the greatest. That subset includes former friends of ours, who couldn’t have shocked us more had they revealed themselves to be cannibals. “Oh, do try the braised baby,” they say, “it’s excellent today.” We are well and truly in the upside down.

Just as I predicted Mueller would deliver a nothingburger, I predict the Democratic majority in the House will pretend to act tough but ultimately back down. So they authorized a subpoena for Mueller’s report? Yawn. Let me know when they issue that subpoena. And let me know when they send the Capitol Police to arrest the attorney general after he decides to ignore it. From all I can see, they haven’t got the guts.

Moto maintenance tomorrow: I’m riding the Wing over to Ed’s place to change the oil and fix a couple of minor issues. It’s the best time of the year for riding in southern Arizona and I plan to take full advantage of it.