Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dies the Fire, by S. M. Stirling

Dies the Fire, by S. M. Stirling

This is a story of what happens to our contemporary world when suddenly all electricity and explosives stop working. No guns, no engines, no radio, no freezers, no flashlights, nothing. Cars and elevators crash, airliners fall out of the sky, ships are adrift at sea. Armageddon and chaos rule the day, and without modern transportation the world immediately gets much much larger. The action here is all in the Pacific Northwest, an area with enough farmland and natural resources to support a medieval lifestyle yet a small enough population density to prevent overworking the land. While a fairly ridiculous concept, it works.

Two main groups of protagonists are followed; one led by an ex-special-forces woodsman and the other by a socialist environmentalist. While most of the book is fairly predictable (both heroes manage to surround themselves with people possessing just the right skills and thrive) there were a couple of unique bits. One interesting choice the author made was not to describe at all what happened in the bigger cities and metropolitan areas. Instead of some graphic depiction of Seattle or Los Angeles ripping itself to shreds without a food distribution system, medical care, or an armed police force, vague hints from passing survivors leave the horror entirely to the reader’s imagination. Another fun fact is that the cosmic event that causes the Change is the flip side of yet another trilogy by Stirling (which I read before starting this blog). In that saga the entire island of Nantucket is transported back in time to the Stone Age. In Dies the Fire, we hear news stories about Nantucket vanishing just before everything stops working. Being able to see both sides of the mysterious event was interesting.

Considering one of the main characters is a Wiccan, religion is amazingly not a major faction in this epic. With what many would consider the end-of-the-world occurring in the first chapter, I was (pleasantly) surprised to not encounter a strong religious theme. The witchcraft stuff is heavily stressed, but not really any other belief system. There is a Catholic priest we meet for a while, but his function is mostly to froth at the mouth against pagan beliefs, making the coven seem less ridiculous. As I generally find theology very pretentious and haughty, I didn’t mind at all—if I wanted a doctrine-heavy look at Armageddon, I’d have read more than the first book in the Left Behind series.

First Sentence:
Michael Havel pulled his battered four-by-four into the employees’ parking lot, locked up and swung his just-in-case gear out of the back, the strap of the pack over one shoulder and the gun case on the other.

Bringing Down the House, by Ben Mezrich

Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, by Ben Mezrich

We’ve all heard the story about the M.I.T. blackjack team that took Vegas for millions of dollars, but until I read this I didn’t know many details. Turns out there have been students doing this for decades; when the casinos catch on and ban the kids a new batch is recruited and the cycle begins anew. This book tells of a group that worked the late 1990’s; how they worked the system and why they quit.

The system is pretty simple, actually. Card counting isn’t illegal in Vegas, but a casino can (and will) ask you to leave and not return if they think you are doing it. One of the tell-tale signs of counting is raising bets when the deck is favorable and lowering them when it isn’t. To avoid this, the M.I.T. kids work in groups: spotters and big players. A spotter sits at a table and consistently makes the minimum bet while keeping track of the deck. When the situation becomes unfavorable for the house, the spotter signals the big player (folding his arms or scratching his ear) to join the table. The spotter doesn’t change his play at all, but the big player makes huge bets with a deck tilted strongly in his favor. When the count swings back around to the house, the big player simply gets up and moves on. Simple.

The story here, though, is how the casinos caught on and what happened to the blackjack team. While nothing they did was illegal, the casinos are not very friendly to card counters. Goons were sent to roust people out of their hotel rooms, homes and apartments were broken into and ransacked, and the IRS was encouraged to launch audits. And that was just the Vegas casinos; when the group visited other institutions the welcome was even less hospitable. In the Bahamas, for instance, one player was mugged in the men’s room right in the casino. Fascinating stuff.

First Sentence:
It was ten minutes past three in the morning, and Kevin Lewis looked like he was going to pass out.

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