HHhH

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HHhH stands for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”. A reference to the idea that Reinhard Heydrich was the brains in the SS, not Heinrich Himmler.

This book tells the story of the assassination of Heydrich in Prague in 1942. But it’s much more then a simple war novel, or spy thriller.

Reinhard Heydrich is one of the primary architects of the Holocaust. He was head of the Gestapo; he could have succeeded Hitler. What makes Heydrich so intimidating is that he was competent in sane in ways that most of the Nazi bigwigs simply where not. If you look at the top echelons of Nazis – Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Goebbles – they’re all freaks. And really not terribly competent. Heydrich combined the shameless evil of Hitler and Himmler with a bureaucratic ability and grasp on reality that most of the other potentates simply didn’t have. And while the Nazi bigwigs do not look like superior Pure Aryans, Heydrich does. Well, he does much more then the others do. It would be hard to underestimate the power that this could give him.

He’s the most dangerous Nazi. He has to die.

Laurent Binet’s book is a complex web of literary styles. It’s very postmodern. It’s part novel, part history, part personal account and part crime thriller. He breaks the Fourth Wall constantly. He swims in causality and the complexity of reality; history lies heavy in this book.

Amazingly, it succeeds in every role it takes on. It works has history, and as a thriller. The break down of the assassination attempt is riveting; the background and complexity of it all is well documented.

Binet even does an admirable job covering other books and movies about WWII; he’s a WWII fanboy and that makes this book very fun to read.

Anyone who loves history will like this book. It may not be for people who like historical fiction – Laurent Binet is a major character in this book – but it does capture the spy thriller crowd.

It’s also a surprisingly light read that manages to go very deep at the same time. Brilliant and hard to do.

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The Left Hand of Darkness

LeGuinLeftHandUrsula K. Le Guin is the fine wine of science fiction. I suppose this makes Robert Heinlein the light beer, Orson Scott Card the Shirley Temple and Frank Herbert the cheap schnapps of the SciFi universe, respectively.

I realised a few weeks ago why people love science fiction so much. Beyond the obvious reasons like escapism and fantasy; and the appeal of sheer imagination, I think that science fiction flatters your intelligence. This is why lonely, alienated young men – who may be incredibly intelligent – are attracted to it.

It’s intellectual, but lazily so. Take Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s techy and Heinlein has obviously done some homework on what the future might look and sound like. Here’s the basic situation: the Moon has been turned into a penal colony; this colony has developed it’s own culture and so the main characters with the aid of sentient computer, they revolt. Heinlein has used the setting to lay out his politics. It’s basically an exploration of the theme of artificial intelligence and revolution. There is a set-piece scene where the major characters hold a political debate. I’ll tell you right now that Heinlein has typical Tea Party-esque political beliefs. He talks “libertarian” but votes Republican. It was crap. A crap debate. Heinlein wrote the book to show how pointless the Revolution would be; his politics fail to sound any more believable than his stories.

But the very fact that there is a “debate”; the very fact that these writers are thinking about likely futures and things like artificial intelligence raise the IQ of science fiction by a lot. It keeps people coming back for more because it makes them feel smart. It’s intellectualism lite.

And this is what makes Ursula K. Le Guin so damn good. Because she puts the intellectual in science fiction with out the “lite”. Her writing is thought out and logical consistent in ways that ole Heinlein just isn’t. Le Guin should have been a philosopher or sociologist, but she choose to write instead. I would argue that her work has some serious academic gravitas. Each book is a complete thought-experiment in itself.

The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on a world where people have no gender; they become male or female and get sex drive only like once a month. It’s a hard, winter world, full of cross country skiing, intrigue, and complex social rituals. It’s as much about the main character – a normal male sent as an envoy to this planet – coming to understanding these genderless people as anything else. It’s a meditation on our sexuality and how it has shaped our society.

I didn’t like The Left Hand of Darkness as much as The Dispossessed. It didn’t have the same sweep of ideas; this book is quite insular in its way. It is interesting to read a female writing for a male character that interacts only with genderless people. You don’t read that everyday. She does a good job.

A good book from a great author.