Saturday, August 11, 2018

UFO Hunters, Book Two by William J. Birnes vs. A Shadow All of Light by Fred Chappell :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 7 of 8

Our seventh and penultimate first round match of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books pits UFO Hunters, Book Two by William J. Birnes against A Shadow All of Light by Fred Chappell. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

UFO Hunters, Book Two: Tor hardcover, 344 pages, January 2016, cover art from A&E Network. UFO Hunters was a show on the History Channel for three seasons in 2008 and 2009. (How can three seasons fit into two years? That's the magic of television, friends!) William J. Birnes was the host and consulting producer, and now he's converting the episodes into books. Book Two covers the second season of the show (but I have not yet seen a Book Three).

A Shadow All of Light: Tor hardcover, 383 pages, April 2016, cover art by Sam Weber. A Shadow All of Light is something of a fix-up novel, beginning with Fred Chappell's six published stories about his character Falco, most of which previously appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. These six stories fill a bit more than half of the novel. Falco is a young country bumpkin who has decided to make more of himself. So he presents himself to Maestro Astolfo, a famous shadow thief, and Astolfo surprisingly agrees to teach him the trade.

Fred Chappell is a former professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and poet laureate of North Carolina. His first book was a horror novel published, I shit you not, in 1968. The man is still writing strong at 82 years old, God bless him!

The Battle:  The Battle of the Books welcomes not only science fiction and fantasy, but any books that we think may be of interest to SF/F readers. We figure SF/F readers may harbor a secret interest in UFOs because, well, I confess that as a kid I was fascinated with UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, all of that. Also, the title UFO Hunters, Book Two, reminds me of this:

I loved that show!

Birnes cleverly taps into my nostalgia for mysteries like UFOs with a hat tip to Leonard Nimoy and the show In Search Of . . . on the very first page of his book. However, there is no getting around the fact that the years have not been kind to these weird phenomena. If any of them were true, with the technology we have today, there should by now be mountains of supporting evidence. I am old enough to remember when UFO enthusiasts assured us that the reason that aren't zillions of clear movies of UFOs is that we don't walk around with film cameras in our pockets. Well, guess what? Now we do! Show me zillions of clear videos.

So I come to this book with a skeptical outlook, but trying to keep an open mind. Thing is, Birnes doesn't expect me to be skeptical with an open mind. He expects me to be a true believer before I even start reading. This is the opening paragraph of the first substantive chapter of the book, on Roswell:
Don't you love it when the debunkers start to howl about UFO cases being simply delusions of a conspiratorial mind? Ask about a specific case and they demand proof, hard evidence, photographs, UFOs at the White House, and the like. And you, being a good UFO researcher, begin to mention a specific case, regardless of what it is, and the debunker responds, as if you've tripped his gag button, "Roswell." They'll tell you with the voice of empty authority that the case had been totally debunked over sixty-five years ago and any idiot who would still be talking about it should not pass Go, but head directly to an asylum for a long needed rest, multiple shock treatments, and a lobotomy to boot. But you know better. And so do we.
No, I don't know better, and Dude, do not start a book about a supposed real-world phenomenon with an appeal to faith!

Throughout the chapter on Roswell, Birnes fiercely interrogates the government's explanations for what happened—Crash dummies? Why, those weren't yet in use in 1947!—which is totally fine, except that he completely sets aside his skepticism when he looks at the UFO enthusiasts' evidence. For example, he repeatedly touts an affidavit of Walter Haut, the man who wrote the press release referring to a "flying disc" that first created the Roswell controversy. Released after his death, the affidavit Birnes emphasizes says Haut personally viewed bodies and spaceship debris from the crash site. Birnes never mentions, but it took me all of thirty seconds on Google to find, that Haut previously signed an affidavit and conducted an interview saying he saw nothing of the sort, that he just put together the press release at the time based on what others told him. Birnes ignores the change in stories and never asks uncomfortable questions such as: Could it be that the new affidavit helped generate business for the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, which Haut co-founded and which supported his daughter after his death?

Twenty-five pages in, Birnes has already blown his credibility with me, and I've lost interest in his book.

Meanwhile, A Shadow All of Light is off to a solid start. The story moves along crisply, and our earnest protagonist Falco plays off well against his flamboyant and conceited master Astolfo. In addition to his talent with shadows, Astolfo is a master of deduction, giving many of the conversations an entertaining Holmes-Watson flavor.

My only complaint is that the magical acquisition and use of shadows is the only fantastic element of the story, and through 25 pages, we really don't have much idea how that works. Apparently wearing someone else's shadow gives one certain abilities, such as to move more stealthily or to conceal the intentions of one's words. But we haven't seen any of that happen yet. The first chapter deals with a shadow stolen from a notorious pirate, and everyone is terrified the pirate will come looking for it. But shouldn't he be less formidable without his shadow? I suspect this issue arises because the story "Thief of Shadows" shows Falco and Astolfo meeting, so it had to come first in the novel, but it was actually the fifth Falco story published and Chappell may have assumed most of his readers had already seen this type of magic used. We'll wait to see more in the next chapter.

THE WINNER: A Shadow All of Light by Fred Chappell

A Shadow All of Light advances to the second round, to take on either 100 Ghost Soup by Robert Chansky or Merchant of Alyss by Thomas Locke.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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