Archive for October, 2011

Survivors: A Great Concept, An Average Novel

(Warning, this review contains spoilers.)

Survivors, A Novel of the Coming Collapse, James Rawles’ sophomore fiction novel, is both better and worse than his first, Patriots.  I didn’t realize it prior to reading the book, but Survivors is a prequel to Patriots.  This seems to limit the world-state of Survivors and the ability tell a vibrant tale, as the story feels bound by the mythology of the first book.  The novel, while technically (much) better written than Patriots, suffers because of it.  For example, the climax which links the two stories is not nearly as powerful as the original.  Plus, unlike Patriots, there were many loose ends, and I had to wonder whether this was because of the author’s desire to write another novel in the series or something else, such as page limitations.  Finally, as with Patriots, Rawles’ leaves open the questions of human nature which could have provided power to the story, instead opting to go with Ayn Randian one-dimensional character models, i.e. every character is either good or bad, and no one has any inner battles or demons to conquer.

The opening of the book is similar to Patriots, with an imminent economic collapse forcing the characters to try to get to their respective home bases or bug-out-locations while collecting supplies to live on.  In Survivors, this is complicated by the fact that the main protagonist is serving in Afghanistan and will need to find his way home.  Luckily, the character is just about to leave active duty as the collapse occurs, and with the help of $20,000 in gold coins he has with him, proceeds to make his way across the globe to his home in the American southwest.  Other major and minor characters are introduced as well.  They are a decent cross-section of society and range from a southern grandmother, a trio of Hispanic orphans and one of the antagonists of the story, a mid-western gang member.

One aspect of Rawles’ writings one must get used to is his heavy use of technical and military acronyms and jargon.  While some of this is useful for those who want to reference topics after reading it, much of it is distracting.  For example, while the detailed explanations of Ham Radio usage which appear in the books could be a good jumping off point to someone interested in pursuing Ham communications, the esoteric rules and regulations of US Army discharge procedures probably has less value for most folks.  However, this technical knowledge does provide some realism to the story, and it appears that is what Rawles strives for.  Plus, the overall writing quality of the book is a vast improvement over Patriots, and Rawles  seems comfortable telling a story, something I wasn’t convinced of with his first effort.

The main failure of the novel is the same as in the prior…one-dimensional characters and storytelling.  There is no emotional component to the characters, and they are all too good to be true.  They always do the ‘right’ thing.  Their one-sidedness makes them forgettable, and in many cases, interchangeable.  All the main characters pray regularly and act with virtue; there is nothing wrong with that.  The problem is they are never put into a situation where they might have to make a decision that may be morally questionable.  For example, the character who is striving to get home from Afghanistan is lucky enough to have his tour end just as the Crunch (the apocalyptic event) occurs…meaning there was no tough moral choice as to whether he went AWOL to get back to his family, as many others in the story did (though no actual characters).  He is lucky enough to have accumulated plenty of gold coins with which he barters his way across Europe, South America and the American Southwest…bypassing the need of the character to find food and water, or heaven forbid, steal them.  After the character becomes injured, he is taken in by some random strangers who nurse him back to health…again avoiding any actual storytelling where the character may have had to make difficult choices to survive.

And it wasn’t just this character, but all of them, that seem to have providential protection which prevents them from ever having to make judgement calls.  The orphans are turned out from their orphanage with skills, guns, horses and plenty of food.  The couple that takes them in finds guns, ammunition and pounds of silver coins hidden in a barn, making their stay in the post-apocalyptic world fairly comfortable.  While every story can survive some deus ex machina and Dudley Do-Right characters, in general those are not the interesting ones.  Show us the reactions and the soul-searching of these survivors if they were bereft of their food, their guns, and their safety.  Would the main character have stowed away on a ship if he couldn’t buy passage on one?  Would the orphans have maintained their belief systems if put out with nothing but their clothes?  And if they did, how would they have survived?  Would they have become conscientious bandits, stealing only what they needed to survive day to day?

As a prepper and survivalist, I would like to see what Rawles’ thinks it would take to survive if all our preps were not available.  Would even the most devout characters turn to theft or violence to survive?  Would they try to live off the land, only to perish with their values intact?  Those are the stories begging to be told in apocalyptic fiction.  The greatest characters in the genre struggle mightily, with their consciences as well as with the outside world.  Mad Max, the father from The Road, and the struggles of those in The Walking Dead.

For all my criticism, I enjoyed the story.  Survivors was a much more human tale than Patriots.  And while the ‘love story chapter’ seemed a little forced, I appreciate that Rawles’ tried to flesh out his characters a little.  To me, that shows he is growing as a writer.  However, he still has a way to go in his world-building, particularly in regard to the forced ‘black and whiteness’ of it all.  It is easy to make good choices in comfortable situations, but it makes for poor storytelling…good fiction asks characters to make difficult choices in uncomfortable situations.

With the dearth of good survival fiction, you’ll likely want to pick up Survivors, even with its flaws.  Rawles is a mainstay of the survival community, and his contributions, especially the knowledge gathered at his blog, is considerable.  Overall, I give Survivors 3 of 5 stars.


10 2011

The Lessons of Pack Expo 2011

The trip to Pack Expo last week was amazing!  I walked over 10 miles during my time there, and said hello at at least 200 booths.  I came back with over 20 new potential vendors, a brand new vacuum sealer, and a huge amount of knowledge.  (Even if the knowledge is something simple like knowing better how to find an answer to a question) It is sometimes daunting, especially when we think we know something well, to admit that we don’t know what we don’t know.  That is a little how I felt when presented with 25,000 exhibitors, thousands of vendors, and hundreds of pieces of equipment I’ve never seen before.

The food storage/preparedness niche is a very small subset of the packaging industry, and I may well have been one of the 10 smallest business owners there.  While I have always tried to be educated about the products we offer and unlike many we do regular testing of our products in-house, (as well as regularly use the products ourselves), it is now very obvious that many of the sellers in the niche are under-informed about what they are selling.  For example, a new eBay seller who has shown up recently has a great listing presence.  Meaning, his listings look great and ‘professional’.  However, upon further examination and Googling, I noticed that he also has great listing presence for a multi-level marketing scheme, a cure-all liquid remedy, a no-money down real estate course, among other products and services.  I’ll admit it’s a little frustrating knowing that he really has very little understanding of the food storage process, but has set up shop with some information from the LDS website and tries to portray himself as the most knowledgeable seller in the niche.

I always remind myself that this is the day-to-day of running a business, so instead of worrying about what someone else is doing, I will focus on what I need to do.

So what is that?

1.  I will continue to make Advice and Beans/Discount Mylar Bags the go-to source for accurate information on food storage products and processes.  This means that like teachers and CPA’s and other industry professionals, we will adopt a policy of ongoing education.  There are several industry groups and trade associations I found at Pack Expo whose only focus is to provide non-biased, factual information about packaging, packaging best practices, manufacturing processes and dozens of other related topics.  I will work with the goal of gaining whatever industry certifications are appropriate for our business.  I don’t want to just know more than our competitors, I want to know as much or more than the experts in the industry, and I commit to my customers that I will achieve that.

2.  We will begin industry-standard testing of our products, and eventually will purchase our own testing equipment.  While we have the results of our our manufacturers’ MOCON testing for all our Mylar Bags, and we test our oxygen absorbers in-house, we are committed to random-sample testing of our entire product line, with proper record-keeping of the results.  This will ensure that whenever we provide an answer to a customer question, we have the best information available.

3.  We will begin to collate a database of all public-record studies of long-term food storage results and to have that information available for our customers.  While there is a lot of information available on the Internet and elsewhere, sometimes these studies are a little hard to find.  As I often get questions about ‘how long will this or that item store’, I would like to be able to offer referable information (assuming it is available) instead of generalizations.

4.  We will begin to add more questions and answers to our FAQ.  While I have done my best to answer the most common questions, it needs to be more in-depth and answer some of the questions customers might not even know to ask (including some I found myself at the show).  For example, why is LLDPE a better barrier layer than OPP?  What is the real difference between a 4 mil bag and a 7mil bag (you might be surprised at the answer)?  And many others.

Maybe it’s a little overkill, but as they say about small businesses, if you are not moving forward you are falling behind.  Our customers deserve to have as much information at their fingertips as I can possibly give.

As always, if there is something you think we need to do, a product line we need to carry, or general comments, good or bad, please drop me a line at admin@adviceandbeans.com.  I look forward to our next milestone, our 2nd year anniversary in April 2012!


10 2011