Favorite Books of 2009 (Fiction)

ForWhomTheBellTollsWeaponsOfChoice

Best Fiction Book (Literature): For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

First, I have to admit that I read only one book this year that would be considered literature.  That makes this book the best in a collection of one, which by itself is not all that impressive.  But this book is more than good enough to warrant a mention.

For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American professor fighting as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War.  He fights for what will turn out to be the losing side, crushed by Franco’s fascists.  Jordan works undercover, and his job is to link up with a guerilla group living in the hills and blow up a bridge to support a major offensive by the Republicans.  The book paints a vivid picture of war, both the actual combat and the effect on has on the people involved.  Death stalks the book like a major character- thoughts and reflections on death are everywhere.

Appropriately enough, I read the book while visiting Spain.  The book was also an insightful window into the “Spanish character.”  The Spanish characters exhibited a curious combination of hot-blooded passion and anemic lassitude that I could see reflected in the Spaniards all around me.  Passionate with their ideas and their desire to fulfill their goals, while simultaneously shrugging their shoulders at the stifling bureaucracy that stymies them at every turn.   

I finished the book during my last flight back home.  I was jet-lagged and exhausted after a punishing day of travel, and the ending of the book wrung out the rest of my emotional energy.  I had to re-read the last few pages a few times, just to convince myself that the poignancy was real.  Upon arriving home, I added the complete works of Ernest Hemingway to my reading list before unpacking my suitcase.  

Best Fiction Book (Science Fiction):  Weapons of Choice, by John Birmingham

Weapons of Choice starts in the year 2021, as a multi-national fleet gathers to free Indonesia from Islamic revolutionaries that have overthrown the legitimate government.  The fleet bristles with high-tech weaponry beyond anything we’ve experienced to date.  There’s also a research vessel as part of the fleet, there only because its naval escort was called to join the battle group.  On board, a brilliant research scientist runs a wormhole research experiment and inadvertently transports the fleet through time and space- right into the middle of the United States Navy Pacific Fleet steaming towards Midway Island.  The year is 1942.

The twenty-first century crew is unconscious as a result of the Transition, and the 1942 Americans, assuming the strange fleet is a surprise Japanese attack, opens fire.  Too bad for them- the future ships are equipped with advanced artificial “combat intelligence” systems, and a destroyer, a Japanese destroyer no less, returns fire, sinking most of the Pacific fleet.  In 6 minutes.

After everything gets sorted out, they discover that the research vessel, along with anyone even remotely capable of figuring out how to undo the effect, has been completely destroyed.  The multinational fleet from the future joins the side of the Allies fighting in World War Two.  At first glance, this would give the Allies overwhelming advantage, even with the loss of most of the United States 1942 navy.  There are a few things however, that even out the odds-

  • All that high-tech weaponry is great.  But the science and industrial base in 1942 is completely incapable of designing and building advanced composite materials and high-tech quantum computer chips.  Once the future fighters fire their missiles and run out of ammunition, there’s no chance of resupply.
  • A few ships appear in the 1942 timeline away from the main fleet, and many of these fall into the hands of the Axis powers.  In addition to weapons and ships, the Axis get a number of high-tech flexipad computers.  These computers are loaded with a cached version of the world wide web, including historical records of WWII.  What would Hitler and Stalin do if they could read about their mistakes, and correct them? 

An interesting aspect of the book is the way it looks at the cultural differences between the twenty-first century and American in 1942.  How many Asian, women, openly homosexual, and black personnel served in the American military in 1942?  Answer- none, none, none, and precious few.  Now think about what happens to the doughboy from Iowa who meets his first female black ship captain…  Fascinating stuff.

Another thing that makes the story fun is the inclusion of well-known historical characters.  FDR, Einstein- even Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe, and JFK make guest appearances.  One of the marines from the future is Harry, Prince of Windsor.  Humorous references abound, like the name of the futuristic flagship- the U.S.S. Hillary Clinton, named after “America’s greatest wartime president.”  Republicans will take some solace in reading that the Clinton is a “George Bush-class” aircraft carrier.

Weapons of Choice is the first book in a trilogy.  The second volume, Designated Targets, covers the Japanese invasions of Australia and Hawaii, and the German invasion of Britain.  I’m reading the third book now, Final Impact, which shows no signs of ending poorly.  The trilogy reads a lot like a military thriller in the same vein as Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising.  The time travel twist, including the historical cameos and subtle humorous references, combine to make them a collection of inventive, fascinating reads.