Service Dog Down

dixie

No, the dog pictured above is not Rick Boreham’s service dog, the dog in question. It’s my dog, Dixie. She’s the reason I don’t have a service dog myself, the VA offered me one once.

Here’s the reason for this post- Rick’s dog got hurt, and he started a GoFundMe page for the operation- apparently the Australian version of the VA does not cover veterinarian costs for service animals. A shame.

Well, I chipped in a modest amount, and if you can go ahead and pitch in as well. These dogs make a difference, I see them all the time at the hospital.

Rick has gone out and done the thing for God and Country, and part of the eventual result of him doing so was receiving a Combat Stress service dog. Now she’s hurt.

I think we can extend the VA’s motto to include a worthy ally who has paid the price of admission.

“To care for him who shall have borne the battle.”

For Nomi, the service dog.

What are you, exactly?

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An answer? Zeroes and Ones.

There’s a short list of books which rank among my very favorite reads. Among these are Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, and recently The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham. Something these works have in common is the concept of eternal, or at least extended, life through digital storage. Of course, they propose different mechanisms for this to happen, but the underlying thought is the same.

One of the intriguing, exciting, thoughts that both books explore is the effect that this digitization would have on society as humanity expands to the stars. Both authors delve into the negatives of such societies, as well as the upsides. This is amazing stuff.

So imagine my excitement when the Wall Street Journal released an essay by Michael S.A. Graziano this weekend entitled “Will Your Uploaded Mind Still Be You?” Right up front I must mention that Dr. Graziano is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, and the essay is derived from a book he has coming out called “Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience.” I’ll include a link to the article, but it’s of limited value to those who are not subscribers. For obvious reasons I can’t cut and paste the article here, but there’s nothing stopping me from discussing it.

The essay is amazing, and it’s timely arrival is quite a coincidence as it dovetails with my recent deep-dive into The Cruel Stars. Dr. Graziano states that replication of the mind and memory will eventually be possible, if two conditions are met. First, a simulated mind structure must be built. Second, one would need a complete brain scan, a map of all the neurons in the brain and how they interact with one another. This scan would then be overlaid onto the artificial brain.

The good doctor states in his piece that the first condition is nearly feasible with current technology and engineering (a definite surprise to me), but the second condition is decades or possibly centuries away. He cites the fact that a complete map of a roundworm’s brain with 300 neurons was recently completed by a team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. It took ten years to complete.

The human brain has 86 billion neurons.

However, Dr. Graziano is confident that the technology to do “life transfers” will absolutely exist one day, and we should think about the ethics now.

If I was having a conversation with the Doctor, I would mention that the conversation has already started with Altered Carbon and The Cruel Stars. After all, how much of what we currently use on a routine basis started out as pie in the sky sci-fi stuff? An excellent example would be the humble smart phone. My eighteen dollar Chinese piece of junk can build an atomic bomb, given the correct inputs. Fantasy has a tendency to become reality.

And here I return to another subject that Dr. Graziano touches upon in his essay, how a human expansion into space may only be possible with a digitization of the mind. After all, we don’t do well with tedium or cosmic radiation. He proposes that “people” on the long, slow journey possible with current technology would be uploaded into an onboard cloud, free to do whatever, speak to whomever during the decades long journey.

Subjectively, they could be at Bondi Beach down in Australia while their electronic minds  travel via the slow boat to Alpha Centauri or something. When the ship arrives, they can imprint into a robot or a clone, the possibilities are endless.

The impression I got from the article was that this stuff is going to happen.

The implications are endless. Haves and have nots. Religion. Culture. Schooling. Military service.

Digital immortality?

Dr. Graziano is right. We need to think this over, because it is coming.

Morgan and Birmingham have started the conversation.

 

Exciting Mars stuff

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Image by Space X.

Some pretty cool space developments, it looks as if Space X has been requesting hi-res images on Mars for… drumroll… landing/colonization sites. Lord, these people are awesome.

Really cool article here. By all means, check it out.

These people are serious. I guess what I fear most is that our one good chance at making this work will be screwed by some horrible development, like a large rocket blowing up and frying everyone aboard (causing a predictable heavy-handed knee-jerk reaction), or some other negative development. I also wonder if maybe some malign actor from a competing company will try their hand at industrial sabotage- after all, Space X isn’t sucking as hard from the taxpayer tit as some do, to the tune of many billions for little result. I could name names, but I don’t think I have to.

Speaking of the government, it looks as if the USAF is expanding its famous test-pilot program for space operations. Click on this link to find out about this; you know stuff is getting serious when the guys with the guns want to expand operations into the ultimate high ground, space.

This is really an active, hopeful time for space exploration. Really the most active time since the sixties for serious efforts toward deep space exploration; I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. About damn time.

Elon Musk and others on his wavelength want to expand into space for reasons of species continuity (and a tad of the old pioneer spirit), I think that’s a really good idea. Not to mention economic exploitation of unknown assets out there- it’s hard to tell what we may come across out in the asteroid belt, on the moon, etc.

Think heavy industry. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could move the really nasty stuff off planet, and mine the minerals that are floating around out there? It would be an elegant solution. Transport, of course, is the primary obstacle. But if we could get the costs down with economies of scale it would be great. Leave the strip mining and ore processing to space. If there is no environment to begin with, then industrial plants in the hard vacuum make a lot more sense out there than say in the middle of a residential neighborhood down here.

I dunno. I’d be happy with a decent little city on Mars within my lifespan. Space travel as a boring routine. The beginnings of real economic expansion within the solar system. If I can see that, then I guess I’ll die pretty happy.

Hopefully a while from now, of course.

But I want to see this stuff before I go.

Really.

Help Wanted

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Painting by Dean Cornwell, 1924.

Hey readers.

Right now I’m in a bit of a lull between projects and I need a hand with something. Maybe I’ve put out this request before, but I don’t think so.

My beta crew is awesome, I’ve received a fair bit of feedback on my latest manuscript, the unnamed alternate history. But there’s something missing.

I’d like feedback from women. This is important to me for a number of reasons.

First, it would be stupid to ignore the feedback of a bit over half of the human race.

Second, there is a woman’s POV in the book, I’d like to get it right. She’s an important character; as I wrote I liked her more and more. Am curious if her voice, tone, is realistic.

Finally, even though this is a war novel based in an era when war was primarily a male occupation, women and thoughts of women are never far from the concerns of the Joes in the book. Let me return to the first point. I risk ignoring half of the human race at my peril.

So I won’t.

This is a specific appeal- I’d very much like to have some female betas.

If you are interested, you can reach me through the “contact” tab on this website’s main page.

J

 

Tribalism

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Photo above is me in the field with NATO allies, a currently unfashionable concept. BLUF: We abandon such friends and comrades at our hazard.

There are a lot of things going right with the world. An example would be the recent test flight of the Starhopper, a platform for experimentation on the Starship, Space X’s roll of the dice for Mars colonization. Other things are the increasing scale and marketability of green technologies, see my previous post about Harley-Davidson and their awesome electric bike. In human history there has never been such a prolonged period of rising standards and life expectancies; this is a golden age.

History teaches us that golden ages eventually get trashed.

Read an interesting article today on the Wall Street Journal, it’s an excerpt from an upcoming book by General Jim Mattis, USMC, (Ret). It’s behind a paywall, so unless you’re a subscriber, you’re out of luck. But the name of the article says a lot. It’s called “Jim Mattis: Duty, Democracy and the Threat of Tribalism.”

This, readers, is how our golden age ends. We break apart into warring factions centered around rigid tribal allegiances, ethnicity and religion. General Mattis is sounding the alarm bell, the man knows what the hell he is talking about.

We need allies. Period. When the US ducked back into its protective shell in the 1920’s, we all know what happened. Bad stuff. Why should people be so naive as to think that the same won’t happen now, with a deeply interconnected world? With enemies that can easily reach us, with threats that appear as whispers on a column of ones and zeroes? It is madness to assume a state of perpetual peace, or to wish blooming threats away.

It’s far better to have a string of friends across the globe who can give us early warning about things that go bump in the night in their neighborhoods. Things that can metastasize and blow up in our faces. Forward defense is a hell of a lot better than having to deal with a catastrophe on your own soil, I would have thought that September  11, 2001 would have taught us that.

But no. Many are reverting back to the old, hoary isolationist standpoint, that we can hold off threats at our borders. That bad guys can’t possibly cross the sea and threaten us. Come on. Seriously?

Yeah, seriously.

At the same time, factions here in the ‘States are busy demonizing each other and accusing the other side of treason on a routine basis. This is hyperbole and misuse of a serious charge. If there is real treason, let it be sniffed out by the appropriate intelligence agencies and dealt with by either military law or civilian law enforcement, whichever is appropriate. And let the guilty be hung as opposed to misusing and overusing the term.

What’s really funny is when people blame immigrants, legal or illegal, for all of our ills. Curiously, I hear people carping whose direct ancestors came over on the boat within living memory. When asked about this, people say “well it was different for my (father, mother, aunt, etc.). How come? The United States was founded on legal immigration. How much poorer would we as a nation be without immigrants? Think Albert Einstein, among others. Along with your favorite aunt, or the barely remembered grandfather who gave you a dollar bill on your birthday.

Some of the trends mentioned above, and warned about by people such as General Mattis, are building into threatening clouds on the horizon.

Golden ages do not last because we wish them to last. They must be sustained, maintained and defended. Like roses or friendships. If not tended to, they die.

If a society can no longer justify its reason for being, if no one will step forward to defend it, it will perish. Either externally by aggression, or internally by strife.

The old tribes haven’t died, nor the poisonous and virulent ideologies that feed their rage.

I look forward to reading Mattis’s book.

 

 

A miracle

TCS and corn

Brisbane, Australia is 14,920km (9271mi) from the little town where I hang my hat. As you all may know, Brisbane is where the Australian author John Birmingham lives and writes.

OK, this may seem like Cruel Stars month on my website, but I’m actually going a different direction today. Before I do, though, go buy the book. It’s pretty awesome. OK, ’nuff said.

9,271 miles is a long damn way, almost as far as you can get on planet Earth without jumping on a space ship. So why do I mention this?

Easy. I had occasion this morning to visit a couple of local book shops, one small and one large. To satisfy my curiosity, I took a look at the sci-fi section and looked at “B.” Both book stores had The Cruel Stars, this thing must be literally everywhere.

Think about that. An author 9200 miles away sits down at a desk and toils. After a long period of sustained effort, he submits his work to a publisher. There is back and forth, a series of edits and adjustments spanning the Pacific Ocean and thousands of miles. Finally, a publication date is set. Printing presses in New York (?), maybe, get fired up and thousands of books are cranked out. Thousands.

This process repeats itself worldwide.

In the meanwhile, digital copy is made, along with an audio book.

A release date is set for a worldwide Time on Target of 0001 hours, 20 August 2019. This time and date rolls westward as the Earth slowly spins about its axis. The lucky people in Brisbane get it first. Unfortunates in Hawaii get it last.

On the 20th of August digital code allows pre-orders to open books on devices worldwide, all of which runs in different time zones. Large booksellers such as Barnes and Noble start to ship hardcopies, stock people in thousands upon thousands of stores place the new books on wheeled carts and stock shelves.

A book launch by a major publisher is an astonishing display of logistics, marketing, programming, and execution.

As I stood in the little book store thousands of miles away from the author, these thoughts went through my head. I picked up a copy, leafed through it, and carried it to the register. It seemed that I wanted to purchase another hardcopy as a gift to my old Team Sergeant, so this book, copy XXXX of who knows how many thousand, left the store with me.

It rode on the back seat of my car. As I drove, I marveled at all the threads that came together to make the book’s journey complete. Had the idea to write this article, put the book in front of some Indian corn and took a picture. Sent the picture via my phone to the computer. This is another technological marvel that we take for granted.

Posted picture.

It really is a miracle, if you stop to think of it. An Australian product by a talented writer lands in Appalachia, thousands of miles away.

Miracles as a routine.

I took some time today to appreciate this one.

Hope my Team Sergeant likes it; The Cruel Stars is the ripe fruit of the labor of thousands- starting with JB, 9200 miles away.

This is amazing to me.

The Cruel Stars, a review

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BLUF- Recommend. Action, solid characters, cool premise and execution.

Today is another launch day, readers, for The Cruel Stars. You can get it in Australia here, or here for the US. It’s a book I’ve been looking forward to for a couple of years. First, full disclosure. I was a beta plus reader on this work, I had the privilege of watching it unfold from the ground up. Second, let me say that I’m a huge fan of space operas. I have been since I was a kid reading Asimov. So I’m pre-disposed to like this book. Finally, I’m a dedicated reader of Birmingham’s, which long time lurkers of this site have probably picked up on.

I say all of this to alert you that it’s pretty hard for me to be neutral about this book. So I won’t even try. I really liked it, at least the beta version. There’s been a little homework on my part on the web, looking at critiques by other readers. In that regard there have been a few common threads. Allow me to give my take on these.

Some readers haven’t liked the profusion of characters; there are five or six chief POVs in this book. Well, I didn’t have any trouble switching perspectives while reading, but then again I’ve been reading a lot of Vasily Grossman’s stuff lately. Wow, talk about a bewildering cast of characters; JB’s stuff is very straightforward as opposed to a Russian novelist.

Speaking of the POVs, I enjoyed them all. They had distinct voices. There wasn’t any carbon-copy BS in there. Whether the POV belonged to McLennan the crusty scientist or Sephina the space pirate, they were crystal clear and concise. No blurring, no confusion.

Other critiques are that this is an Honor Harrington rip-off. I’ve read some Honor stuff, and I’m not seeing this comparison. Sure, both series feature a female lead in space warfare. OK, but the similarities end there, as far as I’m concerned. Lucinda, the newly-promoted officer of the line, is thrust into a situation far different from anything in the Honorverse. Also, her background is quite different from Honor, and this plays out into a particularly vicious, bitter subplot with a nobleman named Chase.

Which leads into my next point. JB has created a very distinct universe; I haven’t seen something quite the same anywhere else. Think space blitzkrieg by murderous race purists against a genetically altered humankind, an imperfect society populated by distinct layers of haves vs. have-nots. Some critics have pointed out a level of sympathy with the Sturm, Lucinda’s enemies, until certain aspects of their “liberation” are revealed.

Personally, I like shades of grey in a book. This is realism. Good people are capable of great evil, and vice versa. No one is a saint.

This is particularly true in Cruel Stars.

Which leads into another critique I’ve seen on the web; scenes of graphic violence and colorful language. Yes, it’s true. The enemy in this lead-off to the series uses a diabolical means of launching their offensive against, well, all of humanity. The result is particularly nasty, and JB faithfully describes what would happen if such an attack took place.

Well, sorry, readers, but war is gross. There’s no other way to describe it. As to the colorful language… I’ve seen some pretty God-fearing soldiers bust out f-bombs left and right when the bullets fly. This is realism, too.

Soooo, to sum up. If you like space operas, you’ll probably like this book. If you’re looking for action, this will suit. If you want to laugh one minute while sucking in your breath the next, check it out. If you want to recoil in disgust and then root for your chosen hero to prevail, press the “buy it now” button.

The Cruel Stars, a recommended late summer read.

See if you can finish before the kids start getting on their busses. I’ve bought an actual hardcover; I eagerly await the polished result of Birmingham’s long labor. Rest assured, before those yellow boxes start to roll I’ll have been through it (again) cover to cover.

Check it out!

Author John Birmingham, Interview, 12AUG19.

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Readers, it is with great pleasure that I can say that best-selling Australian author John Birmingham agreed to do a mini written interview about his latest novel, The Cruel Stars. This book will be available on the 20th of August, it’s a great read and I plan to review it soon. Without further ado, I’ll turn things over to Mr. Birmingham.

  1. What gave you the inspiration to write this book? 

    I’ve always been a huge fan of space opera and classic sci-fi, but I’ve never had the guts to write my own. I’m not sure why. But if you are asking straight up what inspired me to write The Cruel Stars, it’s the novels of Peter F Hamilton, and John Scalzi and C. J. Cherryh and Isaac Asimov and Iain M Banks. I could go on. I’m deeply invested in James SA Corey in the Expanse series, and that’s before we get anywhere near other media like TV and film. It’s just a great, almost infinite field in which to tell stories. I’ve always wanted to go there.
    What specifically inspired me to write this series? To be brutally honest, failure. The last series I did, my Dave Hooper novels, failed for a whole bunch of reasons. I loved them as books. I worked hard on them. And I’m happy with them as creative works. But for a bunch of reasons I won’t go into here, they just didn’t work as well as they should have on the shelf. So I was looking for something else. Something very different.

    2. The Cruel Stars was in development for a long time. What was your greatest challenge with creating it?

    I really worried, to the point of obsession at times, about getting things right. And I shouldn’t have. It’s fiction. I remember interviewing Lee Child on stage in Melbourne once about how he put his Jack Reacher novels together. I assumed they were intricately plotted and massively researched. Well there is some research, but plotting? No. That jammy bastard just drops into it and gets going. Me, I spent about two weeks try to figure out how a spiral staircase in a micro gravity environment might work. In the end I had to remind myself this was a traditional military thriller, in a science-fiction setting. I’ve written a lot of military thrillers. I just had to relax into what I already knew. Finding a way to do that, to let go of my anxiety and relax, that was the biggest challenge.

    3. As the writing unfolded, which character became your favorite, if any?

    I had always assumed that Lucinda was the main character of this story. I like strong female leads and I was very much looking forward to learning about her as I wrote the book. But strangely enough it was the foulmouthed, irascible 700 year old Scotsman, McClennan, who was the most fun to write. His relationship with the advanced combat intellect, Hero, was like a marriage. Not so much a marriage gone bad,  as one gone deeply, deeply strange. They were both enormous fun to write and I always looked forward to getting back to their storyline. A lesser character, Jaddi Coto, was also a heap of fun to write.

    4. You use the beta reading technique to help develop the raw manuscript. How useful is this?

    I love my beta readers. It’s a process I tend to use a lot more in my independently published works rather than by trade published books, because trade publishers can be a little nervous about letting the intellectual property out into the wild with so many unvetted readers. But all of my betas are longtime readers and trustworthy with it. A lot of them have some pretty arcane specialised knowledge that they bring to the gig too. Not the sort of thing that some editor in a publishing house is going to know. It’s such a useful process that I really wish I could make more use of it for my trade work.

    5. Finally, having received the final proof, what are your thoughts regarding the completed work?

    I am very, very happy with this book. I love these characters and I can’t wait to get back into harness with them.

 

Thus concludes the short interview. I’d like to thank JB for his time, and I’d like to encourage my readers to check out The Cruel Stars. I’ve been waiting for this launch for a long time, I even ordered two hardcopies of this work.

When that plain brown box from Barnes and Noble shows up, don’t bother to contact me for a day or so.

Do check it out.

Preoccupied

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Fort Sill, the home of the US Army’s artillery, also hosts a number of other training activities. For example, I did the second phase of the Basic Officer’s Leaders Course there, the infantry phase. It’s a harsh, rugged landscape with a fairly unforgiving climate. Scorching hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter with winds that cut through you like a knife. In other words, a great training environment.

Great training environment? Surely I must be kidding. No, I’m not. Misery focuses the mind, monotony and harsh conditions prepare the soldier for war. Napoleon said “The first quality of a soldier is constancy in enduring fatigue and hardship. Courage is only the second. Poverty, privation and want are the school of the good soldier.” He was right.

So at the moment a close relative is enjoying the hospitality of Fort Sill while she undergoes the US Army’s Basic Combat Training, an eleven-odd week gut-check.

Forgive me if I’m a bit distracted by this. I’ve managed a bit of writing for a friend, but I haven’t done much else. Right now she is in the communications restricted phase, the trainees typically don’t get phone privileges for several weeks after the start of the training process.

I have only vague, blurry memories of Basic. Hey, it was 27 years ago. Stuff like watching my supposedly perfect, inspection ready wall locker getting its painstakingly arranged contents dumped out into a heap on the ground. Running in the early morning. Stuffing food into my mouth faster than I thought possible. Long hours on the drill field. Learning the care and feeding of the M-16 rifle. And so on.

It is a moment of supreme disconnect for me to imagine this young soldier going through this hell, when I remember holding her as a baby. I know she will be beaten by pugil sticks. She will throw a live grenade. She will choke on riot gas… the list goes on.

So yeah, I’m a little preoccupied at the moment.

Hope to get to some serious writing, beta reading, whatever, soon. These dog days of summer are eating at me pretty bad.

In other news, Space X continues to do the miraculous, they caught one of their first-stage fairings with a recovery boat lately. This will save some six million dollars per flight. Also, there’s some work going on with solar sails; people are working on proof-of-concept stuff. Pretty awesome.

My thoughts keep returning to Fort Sill like one’s tongue worrying a broken tooth, though.

Good luck, soldier.

You’ll need it.

Stalingrad, a review

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I’ve been chewing through Vasily Grossman‘s “Stalingrad”. From the first pages one can see that this book, recently published as an English translation, was a product of Stalin’s Soviet Union. When it first saw the light of day, in 1952, its name had been changed to “A Just Cause.” The new English version was given its first name back, and material was added from the original manuscript.

The heavy hand of the censor and the pervasive reach of Soviet doctrine is all-too-clear in this work. As such, this alone makes the book an interesting read; we can see into the mind of a man born into the Soviet Union, see the thought processes of the children of the Russian Revolution. Mr. Grossman speaks of “entire classes” swept from history, he paints portraits of ideal New Soviet Men. There is a “shock” coal miner, a selfless collective farm worker, scientists, industrial leaders, exemplary political officers, doctors and legions of brave Red Army soldiers. The Gulag, the secret police, the many repressive organs of the State are only obliquely referred to.

I can’t hold this against Grossman. If he was to have any chance at all of his work being published, he had to toe the party line. That there was even a passing mention of the dark underbelly of the Soviet state was almost foolishly bold in Stalin’s time. Grossman was a brave man and an excellent, analytical writer. His subsequent books were repressed for political reasons, and he died forgotten in 1964 of stomach cancer.

But what a legacy he left behind. As a reporter for the “Red Star,” he covered much of the major action on the Eastern Front in WW2. The Frontier battles and the fight for Moscow in 1941. Stalingrad. Kursk. The drive to Berlin, the liberation of death camps. Grossman was there; no wonder that his portrayal of the enemy in “Stalingrad” is damning, vitriolic, and tinged with raw hatred. After all, his own mother was killed in the war. He wanted to write his novels while the memory of the war was still fresh, and he did.

“Stalingrad” is quite a book. It starts slowly, and it takes some patience on the part of the reader to persist. There are a bewildering range of characters, I found myself getting lost in how they were all related to one another; one almost needs a flow-chart to keep them unentangled. From time to time I found myself getting thrown out of the story by statements Grossman made about the self-explanatory goodness of the Revolution and the benefits of life under the Soviet state.

Every time this happened I reminded myself of the circumstances in which he wrote this book, the frigid Cold War with a living Josef Stalin in the Kremlin. Grossman was literally one phone call away from a stretch in the camps or a bullet in the neck. He speaks repeatedly of “freedom loving Soviet men” in the book, all the while knowing, living, the lie behind the phrase.

But I digress. The book picks up the pace like a steam locomotive, we watch as the city of Stalingrad transforms from a place where kids play in the streets to a city under siege, to the worst sort of maelstrom; the deadliest place on Earth in 1942-43. All the threads come together into a city transformed into hell, a place where a soldier’s life expectancy was reduced to hours, minutes.

One passage toward the end of the book really stuck with me. Grossman describes a mortar and artillery attack in terms I’ve heard or read nowhere else; he was either a first-hand, very experienced connoisseur of death by explosives or a damn good reporter of those who had such knowledge. Me? I think he was both, and he must have written down exactly what it’s like to be “blown up” immediately after the fact. His description of the different sounds varying types of shrapnel make is accurate, harrowing.

And all too often the shrapnel found its intended target. No-one is spared in Grossman’s merciless work.

Unlike a lot of his readers, I didn’t read the follow-on novel “Life and Fate” first (it was translated and published into English earlier). I’m glad this wasn’t the case because now I can flow into book two without an issue.

At the beginning of “Stalingrad” I wasn’t sure I wanted to read “Life and Fate.”

Grossman, however, convinced me otherwise.

“Stalingrad” is essential reading for those who want to make some sense of the human condition’s unique madness- war.

A recommended reward for the patient reader.