Review: The Machine That Changed The World

The Machine That Changed The World

The product of a large MIT study of the auto industry, The Machine That Changed The World attempts to tell the story of “lean production”. The two other production types of motor vehicles mentioned in the book are obvious: Handmade/custom “craft production”, only used for a handful of low-unit firms, and classic assembly line “mass production”. But what is “lean production”? This was and still is a hard question to answer. But in its attempt, the book is an excellent study of the car industry.

One hand, this is a masterpiece in many ways. It’s a very technical but also very accessible study. It shows the difference between the older and newer ways of auto production very clearly. And its anecdotes are good in and of themselves.

But it also has some pretty serious flaws. This book is not only dated, but also was released at the absolute peak of the Japanese market bubble. So its veneration of Japanese production when the industry had a huge tailwind and was yet to experience a massive stress test needs to be taken with a large quantity of salt.

That being said, while not the most definitive book on auto production, it’s still a great historical resource.

Review: Where The Crawdads Sing

Where The Crawdads Sing

One of the least Fuldapocalyptic and most mainstream novels I’ve recently reviewed, Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing is a historical novel in the marsh of North Carolina. It follows the life of Catherine “Kya” Clark as she grows up in a shack, falls in love, gets smarter, gets successful, and gets accused of murder.

The prose is beautifully written and deserves all its accolades. The ping-ponging of scenes from the time of the murder to the time of Kya’s youth that eventually get closer and closer starts off somewhat awkwardly, but smooths itself out by the end. The plot works fine for moving the story along.

The biggest problem I had was Kya’s development as a character. Her transformation from illiterate bumpkin to intelligent scientist/philosopher felt too fast and not credible enough for me. But that’s not enough to break the book. This is a bestseller that deserves to be a bestseller.

Review: Wheels

Wheels

Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, published three years after Airport, turned its attention to the auto industry. While I’ve been a fairly new study to the aircraft industry, I’ve been interested in cars for much, much longer. So I knew I had to at least try this book. Especially because there are bizarrely few novels about the auto industry’s shenanigans. The biggest names are just this and The Betsy, which barely counts as a coherent book.

This is only somewhat more focused than Robbins’ scattershot, crazed novel. And it’s less focused than Airport. While that had a big broad soap opera and industry exposition that concluded with a rushed thriller plot, this is nothing but a Detroit drama. Or to be more specific, a series of Detroit dramas that range from car design to the struggles of a poor assembly line worker to the not-exactly-scintillating subject of middle class adultery.

I can respect this book for what it is-a lot of the research holds up, even if Hailey once again fell for futurist wonders being just around the corner (room-temperature superconductors in this case). It does work as a snapshot of an utterly rotten industry that was practically begging for the imports to come and whip it into shape (Published in 1971, the only reference to Japanese cars is a Subaru 360-esque “four wheeled motorcycle” that no one likes). But it doesn’t really work as a practical narrative.

A Thousand Words: Snakes On A Plane

Snakes On A Plane

One of the first “internet meme movies”, the Samuel L. Jackson epic Snakes On A Plane has a title that, like The Death Of Stalin, describes the movie perfectly. As part of a convoluted scheme to eliminate a murder witness, a crate full of crazed snakes are set loose in a 747 flying from Hawaii to Los Angeles. And that’s basically the entire plot of the movie. This is not a character drama or deep film.

Thankfully, it is an enjoyable one. It’s actually an heir to the 1970s disaster movies more than anything else, which got plenty ridiculous by themselves. Embracing the ridiculousness, it serves as a wonderfully stupid and crazy spectacle. You’re not watching this for the sake of a good movie. You’re watching this for the sake of a fun one. And it’s very, very fun.

Review: The City, The Village

The City, The Village….

Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi fancied himself a writer and authored a collection of “short stories” that were translated and complied under various names. The stories (if one can call them that) are extremely bizarre, an example of the depths to which dictators can sink in terms of writing. First, there is “The City”, a tirade against urban cities where such horrible things as music and sports interest people, as compared to the glory of “The Village” (where people are nice and so on…)

The most famous story in the collection is “The Suicide Of The Astronaut”, where an astronaut returns from a bare moon to the earth, where he cannot find a job due to not having the right skills. After trying and failing to impress a farmer with his knowledge of outer space, the astronaut kills himself (SPOILER ALERT).

The “Escape To Hell” story is only interesting in that Gaddafi seems to foreshadow his own later fate (not exactly a surprising one) by bringing up the execution of Mussolini. Other than that, it’s rambling incomprehensible gibberish, as is “The Blessed Herb and the Cursed Tree” and the navel-gazy “Death”. There’s a pseudo-environmentalist screed in “The Earth”, and finally a reversion to talking about Abrahamic figures in “The Cursed Family of Jacob and the Blessed Caravan”.

This is, well, something… It’s just not a good something. But you probably expected that.

Review: Airport

Airport

Author Arthur Hailey had a gimmick. He would find a certain field, research it massively, and then build a thriller and/or pop epic around said filed. One of his most famous and successful novels was 1968’s Airport, which inspired the movie series and the parody Airplane!. In it, an airliner is threatened by a both literal and figurative perfect storm of everything from horrible weather to a blocked runway to angry neighbors to a man determined to kill himself and blow up the plane-for the sake of insurance, nothing political.

Hailey spent a gargantuan amount of time on research, and it shows. I’ve always wondered if him being around in the age of the internet would have made his endeavours quicker and easier, or if it would have just prompted him to go even further down the rabbit hole. My hunch is the latter. There’s a lot of well-done and accurate depictions of airport operations (and a lot of weird-in-hindsight 1960s futurism, such as talk of superlifter cargo planes being thought of as something that would render sea freighters as obsolete as ocean liners and passenger pods being loaded into civilian C-5s).

The biggest issue is that the pacing is incredibly slow and lethargic for about four fifths of the book, then it hurriedly sprints to its conclusion. Maybe it was deliberate to try and be suspenseful, but if so, it didn’t work. The second biggest issue is that the characters are dull and dated-most obviously shown in a subplot where one of the main characters gets a flight attendant pregnant and the resulting drama.

This is a decent product of its time, but it’s still a product of its time and not the most recommended for later readers. It comes from an age when air travel was still something novel, and where readers would be less familiar with it. It’s not Hailey’s fault, but the book has aged terribly in that regard. Now it just comes across as 80% Herman Melville’s Airport Tales and 20% A Brief Disaster Novella, neither of which can really stand up.

Review: Sunrising

Sunrising

The wide and ever-expanding amount of genres covered by Fuldapocalypse has now extended to “Zimbabwean Historical Fiction” with Susan Hubert’s Sunrising. Openly inspired by the author’s own background, this is the story of a turn-of-the-century Englishwoman settling in Bulawayo. It’s not the type of fiction I normally read and review, so that might explain a lot of my lukewarm attitude towards it.

But I also think that it’s just too slow and relies too much on the self-proclaimed wonders of seeing Southern Africa as a way to attract attention. To me, I get the impression that the intent was “look at the train disrupted by elephants, wow!” but what came across to me was “I get it. Elephants exist.” That’s an example from one scene in the book and I could easily give more.

I don’t consider this a bad book, and am willing to accept that it being not my usual novel genre may explain my comparative lack of interest. But it feels like the kind of pre-widespread visual media novel that leans massively on its setting. It was published in 2020 but the style feels like a book made fifty years earlier. That’s not a bad thing, but it does make the book feel a little strange to me.

Review: Marque And Reprisal

Marque and Reprisal

I eagerly awaited the newest Brannigan’s Blackhearts book, Marque and Reprisal. After devouring it, I figured I had to review it. And it’s slightly disappointing. But only slightly. The issue isn’t the action or plotting (even if one “twist” of them getting betrayed is rather obvious). The issue is the setting.

Without going into spoiler-ish details, the villains feel like well, how do I put it? They feel like the kind of antagonists a mainstream action thriller would have. Which means the book fails to take advantage of both ends the series can go to-either gritty third-world mud fights or giant spectacles. They’re too out-there for the former and too mundane for the latter.

This is still my favorite thriller series ever, and it’s only a “disappointment” by the previous books massively high standards. But a part of it felt lacking nonetheless.

Review: Confrontation

Confrontation: The War With Indonesia 1962-1966

Peter van der Bijl’s Confrontation is a military history of the four-year small war known as the Konfrontasi. It goes into extremely military detail. What’s not to like? The answer is, surprisingly, a lot. This isn’t really a bad book, but it is a flawed one.

The first flaw comes from the nature of the war: It really wasn’t much of one. It was more a political stunt by Sukarno than anything else, and the actual service chiefs did the bare minimum to support it. This isn’t the author’s fault, but his priorities are. There’s less of the politics (though they’re still present) and more of firefights in the jungle that blend together (almost always ending with “better-trained Commonwealth troops get the better of worse Indonesians”).

The second comes from the author’s biases. There are a lot of rants about journalists, especially journalists covering the Troubles, which feel kind of out of place. Worse is the absolute fawning hagiography of the British and Commonwealth armies. This is accurate in terms of specifics vis a vis the Indonesians, but still gets annoying, as does the very British slant of “unlike you knuckle-dragging Yanks, we won our jungle war” without noticing the very different context of Malaya. Finally, there’s no real attempt to explore escalation counterfactuals beyond just “The Indonesian air force and navy wasn’t very good”.

This ultimately comes across as just a series of jungle warfare vignettes. It’s not the worst book about its conflict, but it’s not the best and could be much more.

Review: PROMIS

PROMIS

Jack Murphy’s PROMIS series tells the story of wandering mercenary Sean Deckard as he makes his way around Cold War battlefields. A collection of short, action-packed novellas, it kind of reminded me of, well, Barry Sadler’s Casca of all things. Just replace the immortality curse with a super-prediction computer equation thingy in the background (the titular PROMIS system) and you have these books-kind of.

It’s like Casca in that it was created and written by a genuine special forces veteran, and like Casca in that it sets out a justification to plop the main character in action set pieces. The three published locations are Vietnam, Rhodesia, and South Africa. Not that it’s much worse than any other cheap thriller in practice, but I’d prefer a slightly less iffy location than both of those two. Even Central America would be better…

…Especially because, unlike Casca, there’s no real attempt at creating the surrounding scene outside of action sequences at all. While Casca had theme parks and parades of famous historical figures, this doesn’t even have that. Even by cheap thriller standards the characterization is really, really, really bare. The action is at least decent, even if it has the “try to have its cake and eat it too by trying to be both semi-grounded and spectacular” problem. But that’s not enough to raise the series to even a “51%” level.

Thankfully, I know that Murphy can do a lot better. Go read the far superior and awesomely titled Gray Matter Splatter instead of these.