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27th October 2017
Read: Hallowe'en Trilogy, curated by Lisa Morton (2017-58)
Three stories which, remarkably, I had not read any of before. Morton selected them not because they are _about_ Hallowe'en (though one might be), but because they hit early-for-America touches of three Hallowe'eny things: black cats, witches, and ghosts. :
"The Black Cat," by Edgar Allan Poe, touches all sorts of notes familiar from so many of his stories, notably "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." Because of this, to a reader coming across it for the first time after years of reading various Poe stories, it feels a little clichéd; it must have been rather shocking in the early 19th Century.
"Young Goodman Brown," by Nathaniel Hawthorne, survives a little better. It is mostly a satire on religious hypocrisy, and isn't really spooky, but it checks off the "witch" box nicely.
The one I'm most surprised, in retrospect, that I'd never actually read before, is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." I've seen and heard soooo many adaptations that I thought I knew the story. I didn't. It's an elegantly sarcastic tale, with only a maybe-ghost: often the best kind, as it is here.
19th October 2017
Read: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley (2017-57)
Yes, I've read it before; but not since before Brian Aldiss declared it the first true science fiction novel. Young as I was then, I read it as a horror story, for gory thrills - of which it has a few, but not actually all that gory in their execution. :
On this occasion, I had "science fiction" and "horror" both in the back of my mind, but read it, for the first time, as a novel in the narrowest sense.
Which - despite its framing story of Robert Walton's Arctic expedition - it truly is, a tale of character and the development of character. Not a _bildungsroman_, for it doesn't focus on "how Victor became the kind of man he is," but a novel of character; of, indeed, two characters, Victor and his creature.
Victor's tale is a classical tragedy, the story of how one man's "flaw" destroys him and those around him: but it is _not_ pride that brings about Victor's downfall. Nor is it scrupulosity at having done such a thing. Rather, it is a sort of squeamishness, which causes him to reject his creature as soon as it opens its yellow eyes, not because it is evil, but because it is ugly and (the word both Victor and the creature use most to describe it) misshapen. From his revulsion - or, rather, from his giving in to his revulsion - everything follows.
And the creature's story? Not a tragedy at all, though in the end it seeks its own destruction. Rather, it is a tale of hopes repeatedly dashed, a noble character perverted by others' reactions to it; indeed, a sort of dark _bildungsroman_. I have heard it called the story of a man without a God, but the creature does have a creator: Victor Frankenstein is its God, it has no other.
The creature is not only huge and hellishly strong. It is hellishly intelligent, intelligent enough to learn language, manners, and letters by watching a family through the chinks in a wall, undoubtedly more intelligent than its creator. And it has possession of Victor's notes. It could, it seems, make its own mate.
But it does not do so. Rather, it returns the notes to Victor, and demands that _he_ make it a mate. It will not usurp its God's prerogative, though it will dictate terms to God. "You are my creator, but I am your master. Obey!"
Much of religion (as it is practiced, not as it is meant to be) in a nutshell, that.
So God : Victor :: Victor : the creature. And, give Victor this, he does not blame his creator for his situation. (Does Victor _believe_ in a creator God? He at least pays lip service to one several times in the course of the novel, especially the early chapters.) He and the creature are both whiny, mopey sad sacks, but in this at least he excels the creature.
Okay, "whiny, mopey sad sacks" may be a bit much. They follow the standards of the romantic novel (the real romantic novel, not the modern romance), in which the hero is always tormented and misunderstood. If there was any doubt left by the author's hanging about with Shelley and Byron, it will be dispelled by the book from which the creature learns so much about the ways of Mankind: Goethe's "Sorrows of Young Werter," as Shelley spells it, the story of a man who commits suicide - as indeed the creature will do in the end.
It is, almost, tempting to impose existentialist values on _Frankenstein_, the inherent meaningless of blablablah, but that would be a chronological violence that I think the evidence won't support.
In the end, the book deserves its reputation, and does _not_ deserve what has been done to it by the movies. I remember seeing a TV mini-series called "Frankenstein the True Story," not long after I first read the book, and being terribly angry at it: but at that, it was no worse than anything Universal or Castle have done with Victor and his creature.
6th October 2017
Read: Northwest Smith, by C.L. Moore (2017-53)
...because, amazingly, there are still some classics of science fiction I haven't read, and this was one of them. :
Partway through I found myself wondering _why_ this was a "classic of science fiction." It has stfnal trappings, but it's basically a collection of sword-n-sorcery stories, written to a (fairly flexible, to be fair) formula.
Near the end I looked at the copyright information. With one exception (the one story that doesn't follow the formula), this stuff was written in the 1930s, before Campbell began editing _Astounding Science Fiction_. Science fiction, with rare exceptions, was pretty much like that in those days: monsters and maidens, and, often, monstrous maidens.
So this is pulp in all its glory. Given that, is it _good_ pulp?
Honestly, I have to give a mixed answer to that. Northwest Smith, the titular character, is not a very nice man; in one story, he enters service to some slavers to capture "sirens." That in and of itself is an unusual point in '30s SF; heroes of those stories were mostly pure of heart.
But the writing is pulpy and, in places, quite purple. Never so much so as to be unreadable, but enough so to be occasionally annoying to, at least, me.
I think I can no longer read (most) pre-Campbellian SF with anything like pleasure.
Owell, there's still lots of good stuff out there for me to catch up on.
5th October 2017
Happy birthday to SUPERGEE. :
That is all.
29th September 2017
Read: 999, edited by Al Sarrantonio (2017-52)
Well, this is certainly ... large. A quarter of a million words or so of new horror fiction, or at least it was new in 1999 when it was published, by most of the top writers in the genre at the time, plus some relative noobs ... though I note the absence of a few important names, and the mix slants heavily white-male. :
There isn't an unreadably bad story in the bunch. There was only one that had me squirming, not by how bad it was but by how intense it was. I've discovered a couple of new writers for my list.
There are far too many stories to comment on one-by-one, but a few stand out one way or another...
--> Joyce Carol Oates's "The Ruins of Contracoeur" is a story that I shall have to reread because I'm pretty sure I didn't get it the first time through. It's a "family in a weird old house" story, but everything is just a little off kilter (even for that sort of story), and I'm sure I missed the main point somewhere in there.
(Actually, there are a lot of "bad place" stories in here.)
--> Thomas M. Disch's "The Owl and the Pussycat" is pure Thomas M. Disch (may he rest in peace). The owl and pussycat in question are sentient stuffed toys, and the horror happens around them. Sort of.
--> Chet Williamson's "Excerpts from the Rcords of the New Zodiac and the Diaries of Henry Watson Fairfax" is the one that made me squirm. It's a political-economic satire. I think.
--> Al Sarrantonio's "The Ropy Thing" creeped me out pretty good also. It's Lovecraftian, except it isn't.
--> Gene Wolfe's "The Tree Is My Hat" is one of the two best stories in the book. It gave me goosepimples, and I've read it before. In fact, having read it before is a big part of why it gave me goosepimples. A lot of Wolfe is in the rereading.
--> Joe R. Lansdale (hisownself)'s "Mad Dog Summer" is a perfect Stephen King story, if King were a Southerner. In fact, it's a lot like _To Kill a Mockingbird_ on serious drugs.
--> And William Peter Blatty's _Elsewhere_ is a short novel about a haunted house. Or maybe it isn't about a haunted house. It's certainly about a house and a haunting. It has a twist, and I kind of anticipated the twist; its actual twist is kind of like the one I anticipated, only very satisfyingly different.
...that there was such a thing as a Jaw/Jew's Harp virtuoso? :
22nd September 2017
Read: Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff (2017-51)
This book interestingly both is and is not Lovecraftian. It is, in that it uses some of the same horrific elements used in (a very few of) Lovecraft's stories; it is not, in that (a) it does not use Lovecraft's primary material, and particularly not the Cthulhu "mythos"; and (b) it plays havoc with Lovecraft's inherent racism by telling its stories from the point of view of a pair of African-American ("Negro") families during Jim Crow days. :
Only a few pages take place in the actual Jim Crow South; the rest is in New England, Wisconsin, and especially Chicago, where the families actually reside.
A step back.
Matt Ruff is an idiosyncratic sort of a writer, who doesn't like to do the same thing twice. His _Sewer, Gas and Electric: the Public Works Trilogy_ is a deconstructive pisstake on (among other things) near-future science fiction, conspiracy theory fiction, and Ayn Rand's philosophy, while his _Bad Monkeys_ does much the same for action-adventure thrillers. Here he deconstructs Lovecraft with a sharp-but-rusty scalpel.
I've mentioned in the past that we need a word for books like Wolfe's _Fifth Head of Cerberus_, Le Guin's _Four Ways to Forgiveness_, and Robinson's _Icehenge_: things that are made of individual stories, but aren't exactly novels, but aren't fix-ups either because the stories interact in a way more complex than that of the typical series-of-stories-made-into-a-fixup-"nov
el." Well, whatever the term winds up being, _Lovecraft Country_ is one of them.
In the first story, Atticus Turner returns from service in the Korean War to find his father, Montrose, (with whom his relationship is, at best, strained) missing; the only clue he has leads him to Ardham - that's _Ardham_, with a D - Massachusetts. With his uncle George (Montrose's brother) and cousin Letitia, they head for Ardham.
Now, let us be clear. It is not as if they don't know what they're heading into here. George is the publisher of "The Safe Negro Travel Guide," an analogy of the "Green Book" African-Americans used to carry to find places where it was safe for them to travel, eat, and spend the night in what was still a _very_ overtly racist society. Because of this, George knows that Ardham is in the midst of a "sundown county," a place where African-Americans had best not let sundown catch them. And, indeed, they have a rather nasty run-in with the county's racist Sheriff, and survive only due to an unseen ally.
Arriving at Ardham, they find themselves the guests of Samuel Braithwhite, a leader of the Order of the Ancient Dawn, a gang of "natural philosophers" who want to use Atticus in a ritual that will make them all-powerful and immortal and all that there stuff. Well, Braithwhite's son Caleb sabotages the ritual, helps Atticus and company escape, and that's the end of the story.
Except it isn't; for in a series of further stories, mostly (as noted) set in Chicago, Atticus's relatives and friends undergo a series of mystical or just creepy adventures, often involving Caleb Braithwhite and Chicago's own racist police ... including the local leader of the Order of the Ancient Dawn. These adventures include haunted houses, shapeshifting, obscure ancient texts, and gateways to other worlds, one story for each of the major characters in Atticus's circle.
Several details emerge.
First, that the supernatural stuff is nowhere near as scary as the way the Braithwhites, the police, and white folks in general, treat our protagonists: at the very best, as means to their ends. Ruff - as far as is possible for a white man in the early 21st Century - has done his best to recreate what life was like for "Negroes" in that time and place; and I suspect that if he has erred, it is on the conservative side.
Second, that Ruff sees the quest for power (at least through "natural philosophy," but, I suspect, any quest for power) as inherently corruptive. Caleb Braithwhite is not exactly a _bad_ man. He betrays his father, but he has, or thinks he has, good reasons for doing so; he manipulates others, but always seems to think that his ends justify the means. While this is not Orwell's vision of power ("Imagine a boot..."), it is clear that the people who seek power are generally not the ones you want to _have_ it. Indeed, Caleb is one of those charming villains like Victor von Doom that you can't help liking even as you root for him to be defeated.
And, third, that Ruff is one hell of a writer. His characters live and breathe, sweat and bleed, love and hate, and we feel their pains and (all too few) joys.
Probably stone Lovecraft fans will hate this book. Thoughtful Lovecraft fans - hell, thoughtful people in general - will love it. I did.
21st September 2017
Gakked from Supergee
1. Who are you named after? :
I have no idea. I've never asked.
2. Last time I cried?
May of 2005, when I lost my job at Siebel Systems. I have since failed to cry at the deaths of several people very dear to me; I'm not sure why, I just seem to have a kind of emotional constipation.
3. Soda or water?
4. What's your favorite kind of pizza?
Pepperoni, bacon, pineapple, and cucumber. No, really.
5. Favorite flower?
Depending on mood, either tiger-lilies or roses.
6. Roller Coaster?
7. Favorite ice cream?
B&R's Chocolate Peanut Butter.
8. Favorite book?
Does anybody REALLY have a favorite book?
9. Shorts or jeans?
Jeans, though I prefer slacks.
10. What are you listening to right now?
"Bizarre Love Triangle" in my head.
11. Favorite color? Don't have one.
13. Favorite thing to eat?
Does anybody REALLY have one single favorite food?
14. Android or iPhone?
15. Favorite holiday?
Hallowe'en. With the apostrophe.
16. Night owl or mornings?
Neither. Like afternoons.
17. Fave day of the week?
18. Favorite season?
19. Favorite Sport?
12th September 2017
Read: Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell (2017-50)
Yes, of _course_ I've read it before. Several times, in fact, as a young'un. But it's been decades, and it seemed right appropriate for the current state of the world, what with who is running the Government and all. (Plus, my book club is doing it and I wanted it fresh in my mind...) :
What surprised me more than anything on this reread is how _clumsy_ some of it is. There are huge infodumps, especially at the end of Part II, where Winston reads a bunch of "The Book." On the other hand, there's a nice irony to the realization that, given its source, "The Book" is neither more nor less reliable than anything to come out of Minitrue.
I was fascinated as a young'un by the concept of Newspeak; as an adult, I recognize it as an application of the somewhat-discredited theory of linguistic determinism (the wrongly-named "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis"). The idea that you can make heresy literally unthinkable by limiting the linguistic tools available to think it in is basically flawed. For example, as long as it is necessary to have the concept of "ungood," which will always be necessary for purely utilitarian reasons, it is possible to think, "Big Brother ungood."
Nonetheless, and despite these flaws (which are perhaps more apparent to a 21st-Century student of science fiction than to most), _Nineteen Eighty-Four_ remains an engaging and powerful novel. Winston Smith is a perfect protagonist precisely because he is basically a middle-aged nebbish, the sort of person whose thoughtcrimes a society/system less extreme than Ingsoc/The Party would never even bother with. Julia is an even less appealing character, an amoral woman whose only motivation is her own desires.
This is important. They are not "heroes;" they are everypeople, who have the ill-luck to come to the attention of the Thought Police. (As Philip K. Dick writes, "In a police state, there is only one crime, and that is coming to the attention of the police.") Their love affair and their - mainly Smith's - attempts to conspire against the State are as fundamentally shabby as the lives they lead under Ingsoc.
That they can be broken is then not surprising. That Smith is as hard to really break as he proves says something, not about him, but about Orwell's beliefs about human nature ... which in turn makes the fact that he _is_ broken all the more dreadful, and the _nature_ of his breaking, his coming to see reality as the Party defines it, is most dreadful of all. (Surely there is no more horrifying last line in the corpus of English letters than, "He loved Big Brother.")
Only the final infodump, the Appendix on "The Principles of Newspeak," leave the reader with any hope at all - for it is written in the past, the preteritive, speaking of Newspeak and Ingsoc as something that has ceased to exist. Sentences like, "It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050," carry the clear implication that Newspeak did _not_ supersede Oldspeak in the end.
_Nineteen Eighty-Four_ is a superior novel, but, as Asimov points out, inferior by the standards of pure science fiction. Its predictions range from the non-predictive to the ludicrous; how, indeed, might anyone expect the constant-surveillance State to actually function? To watch a person 24/7 requires two or three full-time watchers; to watch the entire populace this way would require that two-thirds to three-quarters of the people be engaged in the surveillance effort.
Some attempts are made to ameliorate this. Every "normal" citizen, after all, is expected to watch their neighbors for evidence of thoughtcrime and betray them to Thinkpol without a thought. Children routinely turn in their parents. And any given telescreen may or may not be watched at any given moment. But even with these ameliorations, the percentage of the population that must be directly involved in the Inner Party (said to be less than 2%) and the Thought Police would be sufficient to make the economy - even without the burden of eternal warfare - quite unworkable, especially if, as is stated, farms are driven back to horse-and-plow technology. The hell with asking Who watches the watchers?; a better question is, Who feeds the watchers?
But to criticize it for not being "good SF" or "plausible worldbuilding" is to miss the point. What we have in hand is not a novel of realism, despite its using the tools of realism; it is a novel of satire, of exaggeration and "If this goes on..." -- which _is_ a legitimate mode of science fiction, as it is indeed a legitimate mode of "Literature," that most unrealistic of all genres.
10th September 2017
Read: Echoes in Death, by J.D. Robb (2017-49)
About 50 years from now, New York Police Services Department Lieutenant Eve Dallas catches another murderer. (Oh, come on; *that* isn't a spoiler. The detective always catches the crook. The fun is in how.)
Eve and her husband Roarke find a woman wandering naked in New York's February snow. She has been beaten and raped*, and her husband murdered. Some things have been stolen from their home, but a lot of portable valuables remain.
With the help of Roarke, her homicide squad, and two good cops who have handled similar crimes (but without the murder), she begins to find a pattern, build a case, figure out whodunit, all with the intention of getting the perp in an interrogation room and wringing an unforced confession from him - usually the best scenes in these books.
After 44 of these books, plus some novellas, I'm surprised that I still enjoy them as much as I do. They *do* get a little samey at times, but Robb always seems to realize that and change things up a bit, often enough to keep my interest.
* Robb (who is really Nora Roberts) really likes sexual violence in her books. It's a little disturbing.
3rd September 2017
Read: Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander (2017-48)
This book is fairly thick, but more than that, it's 530 pages are *dense*. :
Douglas Hofstadter, of course, is the author of GODEL ESCHER BACH and other fine meditations on the nature of mind and thought. In this collaboration with French cognitive scientist Emmanuel Sander, they propose, quite seriously and with a great deal of supporting evidence, examples, and argumentation, that the basic nature of thought - its "fuel and fire," as the subtitle would have it - is _analogy_.
Summarized in my own words, the conception might go something like this:
As babies, we have no knowledge about the world, but we have a powerful instinct to try and "make sense of" our experiences. We notice certain _patterns_ -- this experience _is like_ that experience -- and begin to build a sort of vocabulary of phenomena in our brainminds. Things that _are like_ each other become _categories_ (that's right, categories are the children of analogies), and, as we have more categories and fit more things into them, our experiences seem to make more "sense."
We build a category of causes and effects - babies discover gravity by dropping things - and one of the effects we find is response to our vocalizations. Speech begins with words like "ma ma." We make this sound and our mother responds, usually in a way we find pleasurable. We make it more often, and associate it with that person. Eventually it becomes, for us, a name for that person. Later we discover that other children have mommies too, and the concept of "mama" expands to a category with multiple examples, but one unique example which is *our* mommy.
To think about a thing is to consider it like other things. If we look at an object and call it a "table," we are saying it is _like_, in some fundamental and useful way, other things that have been called tables in our past experience.
Hofstadter and Sander say all this better, at greater length, and with much more elaboration - plus, they say a great deal more - than this brief review can do. But that's the gist of it: analogies create categories, and analogies/categories are how we perceive the world.
One important thing to understand is that "category," for the authors, is much more than "groups of concrete objects." There are abstract categories - for example, situations for which the phrase "buying a pig in a poke" is applicable. The pig is analogical, obviously; less obviously, it names a category of situations that might otherwise seem very unlike each other. "Buying a pig in a poke" might serve as a name for the category of "situations in which one makes a commitment without knowing whether what we will get in return is really worth it."
The book ends with a sort of Platonic dialogue on the analogy nature of categories -- which itself ends in a slightly surreal twist.
I can recommend this to anyone who thinks they can handle it. I'm not sure I could, but I did anyway.
22nd August 2017
Seen: X-Men Apocalypse (2016)
Okay, this isn't a _bad_ superhero movie - certainly better than the third X-Men outing - but it wasn't really a _good_ one, either. It lacks a certain heart, a certain core meaning which a good movie, even a good action/adventure popcorn flick, has. The original _Star Wars_ trilogy has one. So do the Jason Bourne and Die Hard pictures. And _most_ of the X-Men films have. :
It's hard to explain just why this outing lacks one. It has ingredients. It has characters, who are mostly pretty well motivated by the situations they find themselves in.
The film takes place ten years after the "past" events of _X-Men Days of Future Past_. Because of these events, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has been branded a hero. She is working underground to help her fellow mutants.
Meanwhile, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has been living a secret life as a Polish metalworker. He saves a coworker's life using his powers, and is of course outed. In the resulting confrontation his wife and child are killed, and he snaps, killing all his pursuers in a single attack.
Also meanwhile, young Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan)'s mutant powers emerge, and his brother Alex/Havok (Lucas Till) brings him to the school of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), where he meets Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who has in common with him the inability to control her powers. She has been having disturbing dreams...
...and, meanwhile, some cultists in Egypt have awakened an ancient being, En Sabah Nur, the "first mutant," who will be known as Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) witnesses the event and barely escapes with her life. (The cultists don't.) He recruits four "horsemen": Magneto, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), intending to tear down humanity's civilization and create a bold new world for mutants.
Well, there's a lot of plot, and eventually Storm comes over to the "good" side and Apocalypse is defeated, but it's a long haul, and, as I said, it lacks that certain heart. So I cna't really give this a great score. Maybe a C+. I blame Bryan Singer, mostly.
10th August 2017
Read: Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (2017-47)
A couple of decades ago, in the timeline of this book, aliens visited Earth. :
They didn't invade Earth.
They didn't come in peace.
They ... ignored humanity completely, stayed a short time, and left again.
The places where they stayed, the Zones, are now wastelands where weird things happen - weird things that can kill an incautious (or cautious but unlucky) visitor. But they left artifacts behind, and those artifacts are (a) scientifically advanced beyond what we can even begin to comprehend, and (b) worth a great deal of money: like the "spacells," batteries that never seem to run out of energy.
So "Stalkers" make a living by sneaking across the forbidden boundaries of the Zones, gathering artifacts, and coming out alive. (But, sometimes, _changed_.) Redrick Shuchart is a stalker, and this is his story.
Or, rather, his stories, set at intervals of several years. We meet him first as a young lab assistant at the Institute that _officially_ studies the Zones and their artifacts, helping a brilliant scientist to get the artifact he truly needs: which turns out badly. As the novel progresses, he ages, marries, has a child, and continues to Stalk - even when he doesn't need the money anymore; until he gets caught. Then, out of jail, he plans one last Stalk, for the artifact that _might_ cure his sick child.
The writing - or at least the translation, by Olena Bormashenko - is, not "beautiful," but very clean, well done prose, that grabs you and drags you along; I read _Picnic_'s 200 pages in slightly over a day, with work in between. The characters are warm and human.
The only problem, for me, is the ending. It isn't exactly ambiguous, but it is very abrupt, and I found it ... not exactly unsatisfying, but unresolved. I see what the Bros. Strugatsky were getting at, and it was well worth getting at it, but I find myself wondering about plot threads left dangling.
9th August 2017
Read: J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey (2017-46)
I really don't know why I didn't get around to this book, I don't know, maybe seventeen years ago, when it first came out. But I didn't, and now here it is, and a fine book it is, too, and I'm very glad to have read it, because it does what a *good* book of criticism does: the next time I read Tolkien, I will do so with insights I never had before, which will enrich my reading. :
Shippey's arguments are several and somewhat complex, but on reflection, I find the following relatively coherent and thoughts that linger over _this_ book - these, anyway, are the ones that can be put into fairly succinct words.
1. He argues that Tolkien's work, despite its sort-of medievalosity, could not have been written before the twentieth century.
2. Part of this, is because for it to be written, philology had to have advanced to a certain stage where certain questions were either unanswered or questionably answered.
3. More of the work than anyone would have previously thought comes from Tolkien's attempts to "reclaim" those philological puzzles, to work backward to what forgotten things the writers of these ancient texts may have meant - or, even, to what _they_ might have forgotten that left its traces in their writings.
4. Many of Tolkien's most successful effects are resolutions, or, better, _reconciliations_, between the modern and ancient worlds. (For example, Bilbo Baggins in the _Hobbit_ is undoubtedly courageous, but it proves to be a very modern kind of courage as opposed to that of the Dwarves; Tolkien shows that they are not inherently different.)
5. Tolkien's greatest project in all his writings was to imagine and reify an ancient world, with its mythology and its ancient history, which, while it was not _from_ the Catholic faith, was not inherently _incompatible with_ it.
6. Another large category of Tolkiens' most successful effects came from his close observation of nature.
Just as Tolkien's unique position in the world made him probably the only person who could ever have created Middle-earth, so too Shippey's unique position as a philologist and direct successor in many ways to Tolkien makes him uniquely suited to tease out what Tolkien was doing in many of his texts.
Insightful and readable, this may be the best book on Tolkien's work I have ever read.
2nd August 2017
Read: Dragons at Crumbling Castle and Other Tales, by Terry Pratchett (2017-45)
_Dragons at Crumbling Castle_ might also be reasonably called _The Early Pratchett_; it collects stories written (mostly) before his twentieth birthday and published in the "Children's Circle" section of the _Bucks Free Press_. :
That they are are children's stories is unquestionable; that they were written by a very young man is also clear.
This is not to say that they are not good stories. Some of them, at least, are, though none really aspire to greatness. They are entertainments, pure and simple, and they do their job well and then stop. I would have no hesitation about giving them to a young niece or nephew, assuming I had a young niece or nephew.
They are written in a simple, sometimes slightly flat, voice that reminds me more than a little of Roald Dahl in _Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_. The older Pratchett has, he says, tweaked them a little, among other things adding his trademark feetnote.
Well, then. The stories range in length from the six-page "Hunt the Snorry" to the fifty-page "Tales of the Carpet People." A few are gently satirical in tone, but never too strong for, say, an eight-year-old to enjoy. A few are, well, trivial at best. A few have moral values, and none of them have _immoral_ values, though some might be said to espouse no values at all.
I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Pratchett. For that I would probably pick his late novel _Dodger_, or, for more comic postures, _Hogfather_. I don't know if there are any more of these juvenilia kicking about. I rather hope not, for if they exist, then the law of Tolkien's Laundry Lists pretty much guarantees that they _will_ be reprinted, and a Pratchett completist like myself will feel obligated to buy them.
 A couple were written, or at least published, in 1973, when he was 25.
 Except for an eight-year-old.
1st August 2017
Read: Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix (2017-44)
Weird things are happening at the Cuyahoga Orsk store. Things break during the night. Employees - sorry, "partners" - are receiving texts on their cell phones saying, simply, "Help". The employee entrance is jammed. The escalator up to the showroom is running backwards. And last night, someone got what sure smells like poop all over a Brooka couch. :
(Orsk is explicitly not IKEA. It is explicitly a "me-too" store whose business model is based on IKEA, right down to the absolutely-necessary-and-easily-lost tool.)
So dissatisfied employee Amy, very satisfied employee Ruth Anne, and their manager Basil agree, for their various reasons, to say in the store overnight and see what is going on. Even without the giveaway title, anyone with any plot savvy is thinking _This can't end well_.
And, of course, it doesn't. First mysterious graffiti appears in the employee women's room. then Matt - another partner who isn't supposed to be there but is, as is Trinity, because they want to be famous ghost hunters - says the store is built on the site of an old prison.
It's mostly a good read. I say "mostly" because it verges a little too close to torture-porn for my tastes a couple of times. It's also a very quick read; I got through its 243 pages in an afternoon.
The formatting of the book is clever. The whole thing, other than the text, is laid out like an Orsk catalog, with diagrams of various products preceding each chapter. Needless to say, after the scary stuff starts, the diagrams get weird too. So props to illustrator Michael Rogalski and designer Andie Reid - and, hey, to cover photographer Christine Ferrara, who sets the mood quite nicely.
100 years ago today...
...six masked, uh, persons grabbed Frank Little out of his bed, beat him, dragged him (from the bumper of a car) to the outskirts of town, beat him some more, and hung him. :
His crimes? Being a labor organizer for the IWW, and pacifism during WWI.
31st July 2017
Read: The Home That Was Our Country, by Alia Malek (2017-43)
This is an intellectually and emotionally exhausting read. :
Alia Malek is the child of Syrian Christians who emigrated to America while the mother was pregnant with their first child - her. She set out to write a biography of her grandmother Salma, and this book is the result.
Much of the book's first third is, indeed, a biography of Salma. She was a strong woman in a place and times where strong women had limits put on them (not to say that there are no other such places and times...), and expressed her strength in ways consistent with those limits, while chafing at them. Malek paints her ancestors with a broad-ish brush, but, as Van Gogh proved, a broad brush can be very expressive indeed.
The book's second part, and shortest, covers with an even broader brush the time from Salma's death in 1982, to Alia Malek's own move to Damascus in April of 2011. Her intentions in moving there were, first, to renovate and live in Salma's "house" (actually an apartment she owned a building called the Tahaan), and second, to research her family's history, and especially Salma's.
Part three, about half the book, covers the time from her moving to Damascus, to her final(?) departure in May of 2013. Some of it is indeed about her researches. Some is about being an American (of Syrian descent) in Syria - and in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Armenia - during those first years of the "Arab Spring," as conditions in Syria went from _scary_ to _hellish_. And some - starting from part one, really - is about the development and decay of Syria as an independent country.
Modern Syria is a dismantled subset of the "greater Syria," _Bilad al-Sham_, which was dismantled and redistricted by the French and English during the "Mandates." (Most of modern Israel is in "historic Syria," and of course the Golan Heights are conquered Syrian territory.) Stating this baldly is not an argument against (or for) the right of the modern Israeli nation-state to exist; but every fact about the historical situation helps to understand what it is today.
After modern Syria was "granted" "independence" in the aftermath of WWII, governments came and went like the changing of underwear, usually as dirty - and usually by coup. The rise of Hafez al-Assad in 1971 was a relief to many Syrians: he brought a kind of stability, and he was not (much) worse than the governments who had preceeded him. A Ba'athist, he at first attempted a kind of socialist reform (all the while protecting his own rule), then, when the government went broke, turned to a sort of state capitalism where a business needed a "partner" in the Assad inner circles.
Bashar al-Assad was not meant to succeed his father; he studied to be an optometrist. But his older brother died in a car crash, and Bashar was quickly groomed to replace him. For whatever reason, he proved to be a more paranoid and tyrannical ruler - sorry, "President" - than his father ever was (and he was no slouch in the tyrannical department).
Malek paints the ongoing crisis/civil war/disintegration of Syria in terms that make it very clear that at least in her view - Bashar is crazy like a fox, that every act of the government is carried out with the clear-eyed purpose of not only keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, but keeping the government blameless in the crisis, painting itself as heroically keeping Syria together while "terrorists" and "foreign agitators" are to blame for all the violence. As of 2013, Malek makes clear, there were still a significant population of Damascenes who either believed it or pretended to.
Meanwhile: Alia Malek, and her father, successfully redeemed Salma's house from people who were for all purposes legally squatting, restored it, and lived in it (though her father could only stay a day before returning to America). Malek spent a little over two years mostly in Damascus, under at least some suspicion by the _mukhabarat_ (secret police) of being a spy. People she knew were "taken," some permanently, some for shorter "stays." She gathered information, not only about Syria (some of which she, a journalist, published), but about her family, its history, its friends, and so on; and finally left when pressure from her family and friends - whom her presence might endanger - led her to do so, returning to America for the launch of Al Jazeera America.
Malek writes well, clearly, and with passion. Her story, or stories, are emotionally wrenching at times.
Pray for the people of Syria.
29th July 2017
Read: Doom Patrol Silver Age Omnibus, by (mostly) Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani (2017-42)
Over a thousand pages of '60s comix goofiness, and good stuff it is (within the limits of "'60s comix"): the complete run of the original series, from the team's formation to its (apparent) death. The Doom Patrol was a small group that was promoted as "The World's Strangest Heroes!" - and they were, in their way, pretty strange, though not as strange as their villains. :
The team consisted of:
o Professor Niles "The Chief" Caulder, a genius in multiple fields of science, surgeon, and tactical mastermind. He's bound to a wheelchair, but has devised it as an "action chair" with gadgets to let him occasionally partake in the general mayhem.
o Cliff "Robotman" Steele, a race car driver whose body had been destroyed in a crash, leaving only his brain undamaged. Caulder built him a new body from "metal ceramic," and part of the fun of this character is the frequency with which his body gets destroyed and replaced - a feature that would be taken to extremes in Grant Morrison's '80s/'90s DP.
o Larry "Negative Man" Trainor, test pilot who crashed after being irradiated. His body is so radioactive that you can see his bones(?). He lives covered with radiation-proof bandages (designed by Caulder) to keep the radiation from killing everything around him. He is inhabited by the actual Negative Man, a being of pure energy who will leave his body and do his will - but if it is out for more than 60 seconds, he will die.
o Rita "Elasti-Girl" Farr, a nactress who, inhaling some "strange" volcanic vapors, gained the ability to grow and shrink at will, with her strength varying to match. Later, she learns to grow/shrink individual body parts (mostly arms) to serve special purposes.
The Chief gathers them together because they all feel like freaks; he wants them to Do Good and show that "freaks" can be a valuable part of society. (At least, that is his stated motive...) Over forty-two issues, two crossovers, and slightly over five years, the DP fought some truly strange battles, even for '60s DC comix. (To be fair, they never fell prey to the common-in-DC trend of regressing them to babies.)
Who were their villains? Their first and possibly best would be General Immortus, who is, apparently, very very old. He always had a gimmick up his sleeve and regarded the Chief as his only worthy rival.
Mr. 103 (later 104) had the power to change his body to any element - later, also compounds.
Their most frequent foes, though, would be the Brotherhood Of Evil, led by a Brain in a jar. The Brain's chief hench, uh, critter was Monsieur Mallah - a superintelligent gorilla. (Intelligent gorillas were also a DC thing in the '60s.) Then there was Madame Rouge, a shapechanger who eventually falls in love with, yes, the Chief.
Drake wrote weird stories, but he also wrote very human characters, with gripes and flaws, and their own indvidual way of speaking (though Rita's was a bit stilted and "girl-ish," and his villains often over-the-top maniacal). Bruno Premiani matched his style beautifully, with characters better and more "realistically" rendered than 90% of the comix artists of the time.
The series sold well at first. When it dropped to a "mere" quarter of a million circulation (a number most modern comix would kill to get to), DC decided to pull the plug - but they gave Drake the unique opportunity to let the Doom Patrol go out in a bang of glory, giving their lives for a good cause, and, as Drake says in his forward, "us[ing] the opportunity to tell the readers 'even superheroes die.'"
The Doom Patrol would be back, notably in the astonishingly surreal run by writers Grant Morrison and then Rachel Pollack. But for a time they stayed dead, a tribute to a comic where heroes lived, died, got married, and generally lived like _people_, even while fighting weird-ass supervillians.
21st July 2017
Read: Pushkin's Fairy Tales, by Alexander Pushkin (2017-41)
This is a weird little book. I bought it in the gift shop as we were leaving St. Petersburg, possibly because the name "Pushkin" had been ringing in my ears from our guide. :
It is lavishly illustrated by "Palekh Artists in the collections of the State Russian Museum and All-Russia Museum of Alexander Pushkin." Most of these illustrations are stunningly beautiful. Many, on the other hand, seem to have little to do with the stories they are nominally illustrating.
It is also cheaply bound.
(Yeah, DDO, but _get on with the review_...)
There are six "fairy tales" in this book, all in verse.
The first, "Ruslan and Ludmilla," is less a fairy tale than a tale of knightly romance. Young Ruslan is wedded to Princess Ludmilla, the daughter of the Tsar; but on their wedding night, she mysteriously disappears. Four knights, including Ruslan, go out to seek her, splitting up at the first crossroads. The tale from there on follows their various adventures, featuring seers, enchantresses, and the whole lot, ending with a big battle in which Ruslan reclaims his bride.
"Ruslan and Ludmilla" is by far the longest tale in the book, at 76 pages, and it is execrably translated by Jacob Krup, a translator with no sense of scansion and a rather random idea of what words rhyme and where the rhymes should be placed. It is readable, but barely.
The others are all translated by Oliver Elton. While I cannot say how accurate the translation is, I _can_ say that, at least, the English versification is harmless.
The "Tale of Tsar Saltan" is very repetitive; that is, chunks of verse are reused several times, in a rather Homeric manner. The short version: the Tsar marries a young woman whose sisters are jealous, and manage to have the bride and her newborn son stuck in a barrel and dropped in the sea. The son, mysteriously grown to manhood, rescues a swan from a kite, and she does him good turns until he is reunited with his father (along the way she turns into a princess and marries him).
"The Golden Cock" is something of a moral tale, about an aging Tsar who has been successful in defending his country, but is surrounded on all sides. A wandering eunuch gives him a golden weathercock, which crows to alert him of danger, and furthermore points out the direction. He no longer need maintain armies on all his borders, but only one to go where the Golden Cock points. But the Tsar betrays the eunuch, and as a result, dies.
"The Tale of the Pope and of his Work-Man Balda" is another straightforward moral tale. A Pope (I presume an Orthodox bishop of some sort in the original?) hires a man on the cheap, whose wages are simple: at the end of a year, he gets to strike the Pope three blows on the head. The Pope tries to weasel out of it. He dies.
The title of "The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Champions" may sound vaguely familiar; if so, it's because it's a Russian version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." (Or maybe vice versa.) The biggest difference between our version and Pushkin's are that, instead of Dwarfs, there are seven brothers, champions, and they vie for the princess's hand.
Finally, the "Tale of the Fisherman and the Little Fish" is another moral tale, againa bout ingratitude. A fisherman spares a golden fish, who promises to grant him wishes. His wife keeps sending him back for more and more grandiose wishes, until finally the fish gets sick of it and puts her back where she started.
I enjoyed this book, mostly, but. Pushkin is considered one of Russia's great poets. This is a case where poetry definitely does not translate well. I can't really recommend it.
Read: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes Vol 1 (2017-40)
Ok, I admit it: I'm a total LSH otaku. I can tell you all their names, truenames, powers, origins, and so on. But there's a huge gap in my knowledge: I lost track of them when I was in 6th grade, and only got back on the subject in the '90s, beginning with the "Great Darkness Saga," and continuing up to the "Zero Hour" Event. After that, I quit cold turkey; MY Legion was gone forever. :
So the Archives series has been a huge boon. I long since lost my '60s comix, with the stories I had loved. (The first comic I ever bought for myself was a Legion story, "The Super-Stalag of Space!" ... part 1. I had to wait a whole month, an eternity back then, to find who would live and who would die...) There are thirteen volumes of the _Legion Archives_...
...and with this volume, they're restarting the numbering and dropping the word "Archive." I don't know why, but it picks right up where the last one ended, so I'm a happy lad.
The Legion has always been a weird mix of character realism, science fictional optimism, surrealism, and just plain goofiness. All three elements are on display here, ranging from the sublime (the marriage of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl) to the ... goofy (an alien in a suit who redesigns planets for an unspecified client).
The art and writing are a long way from the first few stories, but it's still the same optimistic can-do feeling that imbued the Legion from the beginning.
So I can't make any kind of objective judgment about this. I'm just happy it's here, and hope DC continues this series for the foreseeable future...
Read: Grand Central Arena, by Ryk E. Spoor (2017-39)
This was read under less than ideal conditions: most of it on airplanes travelling from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, and from there to San Francisco; the rest was read at home, while slightly less exhausted. :
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the heck out of it. It's a hoot and a half.
Spoor wears his influences on his sleeve, naming a character Marc C. DuQuesne (and giving him an even stronger link than the name to the source character). This is old-fashioned space opera, except without any actual space battles, but let that pass.
A few centuries from now, with the solar system pretty well colonized, scientist Simon Sandrisson makes a breakthrough that may give humanity the stars - the theoretical possibility, and then an actual design, for a faster-than-light drive. Specifically, it provides access to a universe "beneath" our own, where the distances are smaller. The idea is that, to pop over there, travel a shortish distance, and pop back here, will take you a much longer distance. Furthermore, he has tested it and it works.
Some of the probes come back at random places. Some of them don't come back at all. Animal-laden probes show that the environment isn't (necessarily) deadly, so Sandrisson wants to build a manned probe. To this end he hires eight people, including the other two main (viewpoint) characters: Ariane Austin and the aforementioned Dr. DuQuesne. They travel into deep space, activate the "Sandrisson coils" --
-- and nearly die immediately. The ship is heading, *fast*, for the wall of an impossible-seeming sphere, and is damaged in landing on (the inside of) it. Inside the sphere, there is a huge model of the Solar system - sort of an orrery.
To give a sense of scale, the sphere is 20,000 Km across.
The sphere turns out to be a part of a BDO* on a scale I don't think anyone's written before: it models, in a compressed sort of way, the entire Universe. Races discovering "FTL" wind up here ... and have to fight for their right to exist. This is the Arena.
There are friends and foes. There are theories about where the Arena came from. There are religions and sciences galore. Alliances are made and broken.
Yep. Grand-scale space opera.
Spoor writes in a clean, non-spectacular style not a little remniscent of "Doc" Smith - which I presume he would take as a compliment. He is very clever at setting up impossible situations and pulling rabbits out of hats. The viewpoint characters, while not "deep," are reasonably engaging. (The other humans are actually characters from bad old sci-fi, just enough personality to get them through the novel.)
If I have a complaint, it's that the aliens aren't _alien_ enough. Most of them are "people in rubber suits," with motivations and characters so much like humans that Ariane and company might as well have stayed home. They have their factions and so on, but the reasons that they do the things they do are familiar to us...
...which, actually, may be the point; a rational being faced with this situation will have a limited set of rational responses available to it. The aliens on the Arena are _at least_ as rational as humans (a certain kind of irrational behavior is actually a weapon humans use to their advantage). Perhaps Spoor is suggesting that things like shape (and race and so on) are irrelevant to a sentient mind...
* Big Dumb Object. Examples are Larry Niven's Ringworld and Arthur C. Clarke's Rama.
Read: A Wizard of Mars, by Diane Duane (2017-38)
"Young Wizards" book 9 :
Okay, so, well.
For the past several books of this series, I admit I haven't been so much _reviewing_ as _blurbing._ This is the result of reading nine in a row, while on vacation, and not being able to write them up as I read them. Here I shall make some comments about the series as a whole, with particular application, of course, to _A Wizard of Mars_.
The tile made me somewhat suspicious. Could this be Barsoom?
Yes and no.
Kit Rodriguez, Nita Callahan's partner-in-wizardry, has become obsessed with the Red Planet. He believes (and he is not alone among wizards in believing this) that the planet once held life, possibly sentient life. (One of the clues that drives this is humanity's seeming obsession with invasion from Mars.)
A specialist in retrieving lost and endangered species, a dinosaur-like alien named Mamvish fsh Wimsih fsh Mentaff, reports that a "message in a bottle" has been found ... and Kit opens it, releasing the Lost Race of Mars. (Sorry.) The Martians, before coming forth, set Kit and his friends a series of puzzles based loosely on human ideas of Martian life.
The problem is that Kit isn't authorized to do any of this, let alone make first contact.
As with all the books, problems of ethics lie at its core. The key problem here can be framed generally as: when two entities' legitimate claims are in conflict, how can the problem be resolved?
Alas: the answer is "wizardry," as you might expect, leaving us without a neat solution for the goings-on in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
Also: Kit and Nita reach a new stage in their "relationship."
One of the best things about these books, to date, has been that Kit and Nita do not *have* a "relationship" in the sense of boyfriend-girlfriend. It's been really great to see a young man and a young woman become fast friends without "that subject" seriously interfering. (There has been some brief service to it on a couple of occasions in previous books, but nothing serious.)
This is a subject which concerns me personally; how can men and women be friends without That Subject creating tension? Obviously they can, but does it have to even be dealt with? Can we deal with each other just as *people*, ignoring matters of plumbing and such? Duane was doing a great job of that ... until now,.
Read: Wizards at War, by Diane Duane (2017-37)
"Young Wizards" book 8. :
Senior wizards were not available to help fix the Sun in book 7.
It turns out that this is because something really big is wrong with the Universe. A surge of dark matter, called the Pullulus, is distorting space. Stars are dying, and wizardry itself is being warped. Adult wizards are not only losing their power but forgetting that it was ever real.
Can this be some ploy of the Lone Power?
Nita and company determine that there is a weapon that can stop the Pullulus. But the "weapon" is neither easy to find nor easy to get once found ... it is held by an hive-insect-like people of a planet fully ruled by the Lone One, who won't make it easy. And the weapon itself has something to say about the matter...