Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2020 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/03/2017]

ATHEISM: A BRIEF INSIGHT by Julian Baggini (ISBN 978-1-4027-6882-8) is a concise summary of what atheism is, its historical roots, the arguments for it, and responses to the arguments against it. For example, he makes the distinction between beliefs based on faith which are presented as evidence and beliefs based on faith which are recognized as not constituting evidence. Recommended as the best short introduction to atheism I have seen.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/18/2008]

THE PIG THAT WANTS TO BE EATEN by Julian Baggini (ISBN-13 978-0-452-28744-0, ISBN-10 0-452-28744-8) is a collection of a hundred "thought experiments". A lot of them are science fictional in nature or origin, such as "Pre-emptive justice" from Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report" and whether "human rights" extend to aliens and/or intelligent non-human Earth species. Others are more mundane--should a Prime Minister accept a ten-million-pound bribe to provide clean water for hundreds of thousands of people in Africa in exchange for a knighthood? This is the sort of book that one cannot read straight through--you want to read one "experiment", then stop and think about it for a while.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/05/2016]

THE PIG THAT WANTS TO BE EATEN: 100 EXPERIMENTS FOR THE ARMCHAIR PHILOSOPHER by Julian Baggini (ISBN 978-0-452-28744-0) is a fun book, but misnamed. Of the first ten "experiments" (thought experiments, really), one is a math problem, two are marginally philosophical, and only seven are what I would label philosophical conundrums.

Not surprisingly, many are familiar. For example, is the person who comes out of the transporter on Deneb IV the same person who went in on Rigel III? Or, if one continually repairs a wooden boat by replacing boards, at what point does it cease to be the original boat? For example, replacing one board out of a hundred would not seem to make it a "different" boat. (If it did, the replacement of molecules in our bodies would mean we would be continually becoming a different body.) Or, is a deed good because God commands it is, or does God command it because it is good? (If the latter, then apparently God is not necessary for morality.)

One might consider this as the philosopher's version of a devotional, but instead of a Bible verse each day, one can contemplate a philosophical question. (I suppose technically it should have 365 problems rather than 100.)

(One of my favorite philosophical conundrums is "the problem of induction." In science, and in general, we assume the future will be like the past (a "uniformity of nature"). Not in economics, of course, where "past results are no guarantee of future performance," but we assume that gravity will work the same tomorrow as it did yesterday, that tomorrow the second half of this candy bar will taste pretty much the same as the first half did yesterday, and so on. But why do we believe this? Because up until now, the future has always been like the past. Think about it.)

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/21/2014]

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker (ISBN 978-0-385-35123-2) is the "downstairs" version of the time period in Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. (To emphasize this, each chapter begins with a quote from the Austen novel which tells the reader during what situation described by Austen the chapter takes place.) In this, the Bennets are the supporting characters, and the servants take center stage. The main character is Sarah, housemaid to the Bennets, and the focus is on her relationships with the Bennet's new footman, James Smith, and the Bingley's footman, Ptolemy. Much has been made of how Austen wrote her novels without ever touching on the major historical events and issues of the time, and Baker makes up for this by covering the Napoleonic War, the impact of the Industrial Revolution, and slavery in the economics of the West Indies. Ptolemy is an ex-slave, which in itself says something about Bingley, because when he brought a slave with him when he returned from the West Indies, the slave was automatically freed as soon as they landed in England. But if Bingley's character is heightened by Baker's version, Wickham turns out to be even more sleazy than in Austen's book, and even Mr. Bennet turns out to have some dark secrets in his past.

Baker writes in a modern style, not the Georgian style of Austen. She also deals with matters than Austen can only allude to (e.g., Lydia's loss of virginity before marriage), or cannot even hint at (e.g., washing out menstrual rags). This may make the book more realistic, and obviously the servants deal with the realities of life more directly than the gentry, but I cannot say it makes the book more enjoyable. This is certainly worth reading once if you are a fan of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, but it does not warrant the regular re-reading that Austen's work does.

"The Empress of Mars" by Kage Baker:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/25/2004]

"The Empress of Mars" by Kage Baker is a good second choice, with more emphasis on the social and political aspects of Martian exploration and colonization than on the technological issues.

"The Women of Nell Gwynne's" by Kage Baker:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/25/2010]

"The Women of Nell Gwynne's" by Kage Baker (Subterranean) is really only marginally science fiction. The basic story is about someone in Britain trying to sell military secrets to the highest bidder (instead of giving them to Britain like a loyal subject). That this particular military secret has a science-fictional aspect, or that there are some gadgets of a steampunk/Q-out-of-James-Bond nature is really rather marginal. (I am reminded of Austin Mitchelson's THE EARTHQUAKE MACHINE and HELLBIRDS, two 1970s Sherlock Holmes adventures involving science fictional inventions that came out well before "steampunk" as a genre was invented.)

THE BOOK LOVER by James Baldwin:

I like to have a supply of "small" books on hand. These are usually older books, collections of essays or one long essay, printed a hundred years ago or so, that will fit in a pocket easily and are convenient for traveling or just carrying around. There are usually a few, on topics of literature or science, to be found for a dollar or so, at most used book stores. Admittedly, my reviewing them might seem useless, because the chances of you being able to find the same one are pretty slim. But my comments on THE BOOK LOVER by James Baldwin (not the author of FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN) are more general than a review.

Though Baldwin touches on the value of reading, the love of books, etc., his main purpose is to provide a lists (or lists) of books worthy of being read, being collected in one's library, etc. In this he predates Clifton Fadiman's "Lifetime Reading Plan", Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon", and innumerable other books. And reading Baldwin, one can see all too well why these later attempts, those diverting enough, are doomed to ultimate oblivion.

Baldwin wrote THE BOOK LOVER in 1884. (My edition is from 1897.) He can therefore be forgiven for not including works written after 1880 or so. So Mark Twain's THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (coincidentally also published in 1884) is not on the list, and Twain is represented only by THE INNOCENTS ABROAD. (At least he made the list with that.)

Baldwin has a basic list of seventy or so books for every teacher and scholar. On this list are George Herbert's poetry and John Keble's THE CHRISTIAN YEAR, but not Walt Whitman's LEAVES OF GRASS. (Indeed, Whitman is not mentioned at all, even in the extended lists.) He chooses Charles Dickens's DOMBEY AND SON over his GREAT EXPECTATIONS or A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and includes such classics as CORINNE by Madame de Stahl, HYPATIA and ALTON LOCKE by Charles Kingsley, James Fenimore Cooper's "Leather-Stocking Tales", and Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novels. Since then, Twain has pretty much demolished Cooper, and Bulwer-Lytton is known more for giving his name to a bad prose competition than for writing books worthy of being in a "core" list.

When one leaves the area of what might be generally categorized as literature, Baldwin's lists are even more dated and obsolete. Greek history has Herodotus, but no Thucydides. Roman history has Bulwer-Lytton's THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, but no Suetonius. For the period of the American Revolution, he has room for Cooper's novels, but no Thomas Paine or THE FEDERALIST PAPERS. Though he quotes Benjamin Franklin at length earlier, Franklin's AUTOBIOGRAPHY is not on the list either.

(I sent the list for the Roman Republic and early Empire to a friend who is somewhat of an expert on that era. Of the several histories listed, he recognized only one, which he hadn't read. He agreed with the choices of Livy and Plutarch, and added Polybius, who Baldwin had also ignored. On the whole, he seemed unimpressed with the list.)

Political economy has no mention of Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels. Science appears only as "natural history" and omits Charles Darwin. For geography, there is no Richard Francis Burton, though John Hanning Speke, Henry M. Stanley, and David Livingstone are all represented. (Later, Baldwin gives us the list of books Stanley took with him on his expedition. It includes Darwin. Stanley relates how he started with 180 pounds of books, but as the expedition progressed, and illness, desertion, and hunger necessitated lightening their load, he was forced to discard books until finally he was left with only the Bible, Shakespeare, Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus", Norie's Navigation, and the Nautical Almanac for 1877.)

Needless to say, the readings in religion are almost entirely Christian, and when they do include other religions, are often works written or selected by Christian authors.

Now, one must accept that Baldwin was writing in his time and for his time, and that classics, particularly those of the sciences (in which here I include history), will change. So let's look briefly at Clifton Fadiman's "Lifetime Reading Plan"--or at least the version I have, written in 1960.

On the whole, it seems to have held up well, although Fadiman felt even then that he needed to justify the inclusion of John Bunyan's PILGRIM'S PROGRESS. Is D. H. Lawrence's SONS AND LOVERS really so core these days? Or Sigrid Undset's KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER? Yes, she won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1928, but if one examines the list of Nobel prize winners up to that time, one discovers that only Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw seem to have stood the test of time.

Alfred North Whitehead's SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD has probably been superseded by other, more contemporary books. THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION by Will and Ariel Durant would probably still make the cut, because of the lack of any serious contender. (In 1960, it was still only by Will Durant, and was only six of its final eleven volumes. The projected volume 7, "The Age of Reason" ended up as volumes 7 through 10: "The Age of Reason Begins", "The Age of Louis XIV", "The Age of Voltaire", and "Rousseau and Revolution". And you thought this sort of thing happened only in epic fantasy series!)

So Fadiman holds up better, but then again, his list is only forty years old, not a hundred and twenty.

And this is precisely why reading this sort of book from decades ago serves as a cautionary tale regarding all the "hundred best," "world's classics," and other such compilations we see today. Harold Bloom may have the right idea--he limits his canon specifically to Western literature, and he makes his list so long that he is unlikely to have any major omissions. What he probably does have--in addition to a list so long as to be fairly useless in choosing core reading--are many books which will fall out of favor in another fifty or a hundred years.

As I said, these lists are interesting, and have some value in the short term. But they shouldn't be considered as set in stone, and labeling such a list as a "Lifetime Reading Plan" is probably only valid for shorter lifetimes than most of us want to contemplate.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/22/2014]

I decided that THE DROWNED WORLD by J. G. Ballard (ISBN 978-0-871-40362-9) might be a good book to read to prepare for the coming global climate change. However, I'm not sure that Ballard description of a sunken London turned to jungle matches the current predictions; for one thing, it assumes that Europe and Britain will heat up but if, as has been suggested, the warming Gulf Stream stalls, they could actually get colder. (Consider that Edinburgh and Moscow are the same latitude, as are London and Irkutsk, and Seville and Seoul.)

Ballard has also assured his acceptance into "Thog's Masterclass" with the following two entries:

"Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp." [Chapter 1]

"Kerans gripped the balcony rail, watching the disturbed restless water of the lagoon trying to re-settle itself, the giant cryptograms and scale trees along the shore tossed and flurried by the still surging air." [Chapter 7]


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/05/2004]

Jen Banbury's LIKE A HOLE IN THE HEAD is a mystery centered around a bookstore and a first edition Jack London, but the first edition is more of a Maguffin than a book--it could just as easily be a bag of flints. And I guess I prefer "cozies" to mysteries with graphic violence. (I haven't gotten to John Dunning's bookstore mysteries yet--I hope they're better.)


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/24/2008]

My regular book discussion group chose THE GIRLS' GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING by Melissa Bank (ISBN-13 978-0-140-27882-8, ISBN-10 0-140-27882-6) for this month. It is supposedly a humorous novel (or rather, a collection of related humorous stories) but I didn't find it funny at all. I just found the characters either boring or annoying.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/25/2014]

FEARING THE DARK: THE VAL LEWTON CAREER by Edmund G. Bansak (ISBN 978-0-78641-709-4) is a very thorough look at the career and legacy of Val Lewton. It combines biography with film criticism, and spends over a hundred pages discussing the later careers of the three directors Lewton worked with during his RKO period, and also of the influence Lewton's work had on the 1950s science fiction and horror cycle and later. (The book is almost 600 pages long, so this does not mean that Lewton himself gets short shrift.) The main drawback, of course, is the price--McFarland books are not cheap. But luckily McFarland publishes trade paperbacks of most of their popular culture books, so it will end up costing about the same as the "Val Lewton Horror Collection" on DVD.

One note that sums up Lewton's attitude:

George Waggner was an important producer and director at Universal Studios, and his "rules" for horror films as listed by Richard G. Hubler in "Scare 'Em to Death--and Cash In" ("The Saturday Evening Post", May 23,1942) were:

  1. They must be once-upon-a-time tales.
  2. They must be believable in characterization.
  3. They must have unusual technical effects.
  4. Besides the major monster, there must be a secondary character of weird appearance, such as Igor.
  5. They must confess right off that the show is a horror film.
  6. They must include a pish-tush character to express the normal skepticism of the audience.
  7. They must be based on some pseudoscientific premise.

Val Lewton seemed determined to break them all.

[Coincidentally, TCM seems to be having a Val Lewton film festival this Sunday, with CAT PEOPLE, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, and VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS.]

"What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear" by Bao Shu (translated by Ken Liu):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/02/2015]

That I am only now recommending the novella "What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear" by Bao Shu (translated by Ken Liu; F&SF, March/April 2015) is an indication of how far behind in my magazine reading I am. The problem in recommending this is that it is impossible to describe without taking away some of the impact. The most I can say is that it is not a time travel story, though it has some ideas in common with that genre, and it is not an alternate history, though it has some ideas in common with that genre as well. Its underlying premise has been done before, though Bao Shu has a major variation from all the examples I have read before.

In addition to being a really fascinating work in its own right, "What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear" is also a way for American readers to get some sense of what is being written in China these days (although this work "could not be published in China because of the political content," according to F&SF).


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/31/2003]

I read a humorous (but basically accurate) history of opera, WHEN THE FAT LADY SINGS by David W. Barber. For example, when he writes, "Rossini wrote his last opera, 'Guillaume Tell' ('William Tell'), in 1829," he footnotes it with, "You know: it's the one about The Lone Ranger."

ONE FOR THE MORNING GLORY by John Barnes (Tor, ISBN 0-812-55160-5, 1996, 319pp, mass market paperback):

"Drawing a pismire from his swash, he stepped over the corpse, leaned far out the window, and peered upward. A lone pigeon was still circling its way upward, as they will when they look for altitude and have a long way to go. It was barely more than a speck, and no one knew the limitations of a pismire better than Slitgizzard, but nonetheless he tested the lovelock, cocked the chutney, rested one wrist upon the other, held his breath, and squeezed the trigger very gently. The pismire spat fire. ... The pigeon hit the parataxis and bounced onto the tiled roof of the clerihew, where it lay still."

Well, I suppose one could say this takes place on an alternate world. Firstly, magic works, and secondly, the English language seems to have evolved differently. Barnes does violence to the language, yes, but measured, precise violence. If a pismire is a weapon here, it's a weapon everywhere it's mentioned. That's part of what makes this book such a pleasure to read, but there is one drawback. This is not the book to give an adolescent. It's not the violence, or the sex, but the vocabulary: it could have a permanent effect on her vocabulary, and not a good one.

The plot is a somewhat standard fantasy one of Prince Amatus and his four companions Golias, Mortis, Psyche, and the Twisted Man. They have to perform the usual sorts of tasks--fighting goblins, defeating the evil neighboring king, and so on--but have the additional problem that, as a result of a childhood accident, Prince Amatus is half invisible. Barnes knows the plot is standard. In fact, even his characters know it, and comment on it.

In spite of all this tongue-in-cheekiness, however, this is not a completely light-hearted fantasy. Good people have bad things happen to them, and good people die. Though Barnes does seem to reign back on the malapropisms during the more serious scenes, this still means the reader may at times be torn between the humorous tone and the serious content.

I am not a regular reader of fantasy, or at least not a reader of what I think of as "regular" fantasy. So when I say that One for the Morning Glory is unusual, I could be wrong. But I found it a well-crafted variation on the usual fantasy mores. Whether or not you enjoy it will depend more on what you think of the use of language, though, than what you think of the story itself. (Two other books that did different things with language are Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban and Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks. I liked the former, but not the latter.)

EALING STUDIOS by Charles Barr:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/13/2005]

Charles Barr's EALING STUDIOS (ISBN 0-520-21554-0). Okay, that doesn't seem like much of a review, but frankly, with a book like this, either the title will tell you that you want to read this book, or (more likely) have you asking, "What is Ealing Studios?" (Or perhaps even "What are Ealing Studios?") If you don't already know something about what is one of the greatest British studio, this book will probably not appeal to you. So this is more like a "Hey, this book is out there for those who are interested. You know who you are." (But be prepared for disappointments when you want to watch a lot of the films mentioned--they're not readily available in the United States. Of the sixteen I looked up in Netflix, they had only three.)

BLACKASS by A. Igoni Barrett:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/28/2019]

BLACKASS by A. Igoni Barrett (ISBN 978-1-55597-733-7) is consciously modeled after Franz Kafka's METAMORPHOSIS, even to the extent of beginning with an epigraph from Kafka's work, then starting, "Furi Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep." Wariboko has not been turned into a giant insect, though, but rather into an oyibo: a white person. In Lagos, Nigeria, this presents its own problems, especially for someone living in an African neighborhood, with an African name, and raised as an African. But Warikobo still has some of his African heritage left: his buttocks are still black, hence the title.

"No one asks to be born, to be black or white or any colour in between, and yet the person we are born into becomes the hardest to explain to the world. Furo's dilemma was this: he was born black, and had lived in that skin for thirty-odd years, only to be born again on Monday morning as white, and while he was still toddling the curves of his new existance, he realised he had been mistaken in assuming his new identity had overthrown the old. His idea of what he was, of who the world saw him as, was shaken by the blemish on his backside. He knew that so long as the vestiges of his old self remained wit him, his new self would never be safe from ridicule and incomprehension."

That he is "thirty-odd years old" when he is "reborn" is probably no accident, nor is the notion that he has two essences in a sort of hypostatic union. And the whole incomprehension thing is certainly familiar.

Later, another character (Igoni), who has also transitioned (though in gender), says, "It was early yet in my journey to the far reaches of my identity. Like those before me who had transitioned into otherness, I had found out that appearances would always be a point of conflict. Male or female, black or white, the eye of the beholder and the fashion sense of the beholden, all these feed into our desire to classify by sight. The woman and the man: stuck together in a species and yet divided by a gendered history going back to the womb. But in this war of the selves, I had switched sides. Despite the snake of maleness that still tethered me to the past, I was more than man, interrupted. I was whoever I wanted me to be."

And this is the essence of the book: within ourselves, we have both the power to remake ourselves and the weight of our past tying us down. We can change how others perceive us, but only up to a point. Some aspect of our earlier self--color, body parts, whatever--remains, both affecting our notion of ourself, and other people's perceptions.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/08/2006]

JANE AND HIS LORDSHIP'S LEGACY by Stephanie Barron (ISBN 0-553-58407-3) is another Austen biblio-mystery, but in this one it is Austen herself who is the detective, not one of her characters. This is the eighth in the series, and appears to depend a lot on at least the previous volume (where I assume Lord Harold Trowbridge was introduced). Also, Barron has an irritating habit of writing "though" as "tho'" and "although" as "altho'". I realize this is an attempt to duplicate the spelling of Austen's time, and complaining about it seems to contradict my earlier complaint about possible anachronisms in Bebris, but here it seems an affectation. (Barron does use English spelling throughout, which is certainly a point in her favour.)

FIXING MY GAZE by Susan R. Barry:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/06/2011]

FIXING MY GAZE by Susan R. Barry (ISBN 978-0-465-00913-8) is in many ways the result of a real-life experiment very similar to the thought experiment in Frank Jackson's classic work, "What Mary Didn't Know" (1986). As described in the notes in FIXING MY GAZE, "[Jackson proposed that] Mary is [a] brilliant [neuroscientist] and knows everything there is to know theoretically about color and color vision. However, she has lived all her life in a black-and-white room, her entire body covered in black-and-white clothes, so that she saw absolutely no color. Finally, Mary is let out of her room. She sees red for the first time. Is red what she imagined? Had she been able to imagine any of the colors that she now sees? Has she learned something new about the world?" (The paper is one of the most important papers in the field of the mind-body problem, along with the similarly-themed "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" by Thomas Nagel.)

As Oliver Sacks says in his introduction to FIXING MY GAZE, Barry lacked stereoscopic vision, but "she was a professor of neurobiology, and she had read plenty of papers on visual processing, binocular vision, and stereopsis. She felt this knowledge had given her some special insight into what she was missing--she knew what stereopsis must be like, even if she had never experienced it."

But (as Sacks writes), in December 2004 Barry wrote him, "You asked me if I could imagine what the world would look like when viewed with two eyes. I told you that I thought I could.... But I was wrong." Sacks continues, "She could say this with some conviction because she had suddenly, unexpected acquired stereovision herself, and the reality of this, the actual experience, was utterly beyond anything imagination could have conceived.

Barry also describes one reason that it has been so rare for people to acquire stereoscopic vision later in life: "[Many] adults with binocular vision disorders are told their deficits are permanent, so they seek no further treatment." This is almost an exact parallel to what was shown about autism in the film TEMPLE GRANDIN: everyone was told that there was no hope for people with autism to learn to cope with it, so there was very little actually done to test this hypothesis. (Ironically, when I closed the book after typing this, I noticed for the first time that the blurb on the front cover is by Temple Grandin!)


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/24/2006]

The title for EVERY BOOK ITS READER: THE POWER OF THE PRINTED WORD TO STIR THE WORLD by Nicholas A. Basbanes (ISBN-13 978-0-06-059323-0, ISBN-10 0-06-059323-7) comes from S. R. Ranganathan, who was appointed the chief librarian at the University of Madras in 1924, and who wrote "The Five Laws of Library Science":

  1. Books are for use.
  2. A reader's time is precious.
  3. Libraries are growing organisms.
  4. Every reader his book.
  5. Every book its reader.

(Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy of the complete work "The Five Laws of Library Science".)

Basbanes's book covers a variety of topics: lists and collections of "great books," censorship and book monitoring, books owned by famous people, marginalia (a term brought into English by Samuel Taylor Coleridge), translating and translations, the Bible and related works, the Library of America, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harold Bloom, the writings of physicians, and reaching the public with books. As such it is more accessible than some of Basbanes's earlier books, which focus more in depth on single topics.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/06/2004]

Nicholas A. Basbanes has finished his trilogy of books on books, following A GENTLE MADNESS and PATIENCE & FORTITUDE with A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS: THE PERMANENCE OF BOOKS IN AN IMPERMANENT WORLD. This last (as the subtitle indicates) is primarily about the survival of books and the destruction of books (which includes both the destruction of libraries as acts of war and the "de-accessioning" of books and periodicals by libraries). (Basbanes has another book, AMONG THE GENTLY MAD, which is apparently not considered part of this series, being about book collectors rather than about books.)

As part of his discussion of how it is not just the primary content of a book that is important, but all the other aspects, such as dust jacket and title page, Basbanes gives the example he gives is DEAD SOULS by Nikolai Gogol. If one looks at the first (Russian) edition of the book, the title page says in very small print at the top "Chichikov's Adventures", then underneath that in the smallest possible italics the word "or", then under that "Dead Souls" in big, bold letters. Why? Well, the Russian censor, a devout Christian, objected to the implication that immortal souls could die. When Gogol said that the title referred to serfs who had died, the censor decided it was an attack on the serfdom system and didn't like that either. But Gogol was a well-respected author, the censor compromised by saying Gogol could keep "Dead Souls" but only as a secondary title. Even if the full title is kept on an edition these days, the fact that "Chichikov's Adventures" was in very small print is probably not.

I was quite surprised that in all his discussion, Basbanes did not mention the National Yiddish Book Center, which has been rescuing Yiddish books for about twenty years now. They have rescued well over a million volumes and are redistributing many of them to libraries around the world. They are also digitizing them for both print-on-demand and on-line access, and deal with a lot of the issues Basbanes talks about, such as the need to destroy a book by cutting off the spine in order to scan the book in, or the question of what to do about ephemera (e.g., ticket stubs found in books, Yiddish playbills, or old letters).

I found the discussion of books on various media particularly relevant, as I am currently in a "cataloguing crisis." Well, crisis is perhaps too strong a word. But it is confusing. It used to be that a book was a book, a magazine was a magazine ("New Destinies" notwithstanding), and as far as text went, that was it. Oh, there was the occasional "spoken word" LP, but most people didn't have to worry about that.

Of course, we had lots of spoken word cassettes, but those were all old-time radio shows.

Now I find myself trying to figure out if the 23-CD unabridged audiobook of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" should be catalogued in our book catalog, or with the radio shows. And what about the CD of an abridged version of "Middlemarch" I got in England a couple of years ago? Now to mention the CD-ROM of the 1993 Hugo nominees, or an episode of a radio show included as an extra on a DVD, or a CD-ROM bound into a book, ... well, you get the idea.

"Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/15/2016]

"Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates (Astounding Science-Fiction, Oct 1940): The introductory note to it in Healy & McComas's ADVENTURES IN TIME AND SPACE says that this is the only story in which they were in perfect agreement. In my opinion, though, this is a classic more because of the film based on it (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL--the 1951 version [the less said about the 2008 version, the better]), or perhaps "inspired by it" is a better term, given how little of the one is in the other.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/02/2014]

I recently read (or skimmed) THE POSSESSED; ADVENTURES WITH RUSSIAN BOOKS AND THE PEOPLE WHO READ THEM by Elif Batuman (ISBN 978-0-374-53218-5), which turned out to be less about Russian books and more about a graduate student's adventures in Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Stanford. While she was studying Uzbek language and literature, she discovered the bizarre history of the Uzbek language. In 1921 the Soviets codified one of the regional dialects as Uzbek; in 1926 they replaced the Arabic alphabet in use with a Latin alphabet. During Stalin's time they eliminated "vowel harmony" (never explained in this book), and replaced the Latin alphabet with a Cyrillic alphabet. In 1995, the Soviets passed a bill saying that within ten years the Cyrillic alphabet would be replaced by a (new) Latin one. The same chaos reigned in the definition of Uzbek literature. As Batuman said, she felt like "a character in a Borges story, studying a literature invented by a secret cabal of academicians." Later she wrote:

"It was all just like a Borges story--except that Borges stories are always so short, whereas life in Samarkand kept dragging obscurely on and on. In Borges, the different peculiar languages yield up, in a matter of pages, some kind of interesting philosophical import: the languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlon have no nouns, a circumstance that immediately turns out to represent an extreme of Berkeleyan idealism whereby the world is perceived as a sequence of shifting shapes; the Chinese encyclopedia has different words for animals drawn with a fine camel's-hair brush and animals who have just broken a flower vase, which dramatizes the impossibility of devising any objective system of classifying. By contrast, whatever it was that you learned about Uzbeks when you studied their language, it was something lone and difficult to fathom. What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek has a hundred different words for crying?"

OZMA OF OZ by L. Frank Baum:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/06/2020]

Because of it place on Time Magazine's "100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time", I just read OZMA OF OZ by L. Frank Baum (courtesy of Project Gutenberg). I was never a big fan of the "Oz" books; in fact, I read at most the first one, and I cannot say I recall reading it--just that I figure I must have done so at some point. So I'm not sure why Time Magazine picked OZMA OF OZ over the other books in the series; one would have expected them to pick the first book, THE WIZARD OF OZ. THE WIZARD OF OZ is one of my favorite movies, though that may be from the iconic stature it achieved while I was growing up. It is well known as the film that ran every year, but only once a year, and people waited eagerly for it. (The first time I missed it from my early childhood on was in college when there was some sort of field trip that day.) OZMA OF OZ was okay, and maybe my being an adult makes my judgment less valuable for this, but I cannot see why it particularly is on the list.

THE WIZARD OF OZ by L. Frank Baum:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/12/2007]

Everyone knows the 1939 version of THE WIZARD OF OZ, but there were several others before that. (Yes, I realize these aren't books, but there is at least a literary connection.) I just watched a 1925 version, excerpts from a 1910 version, and a 1933 cartoon version. The 1925 version, co-authored by L. Frank Baum's eldest son, had Oliver Hardy before he teamed up with Stan Laurel. It also had some extremely racist views of blacks. (The mildest shows a black character eating watermelon in a field.) It also has an odd view of Kansas, with the Kansas fields surrounded by cactus! The 1925 version has very interesting set design, obviously influenced by expressionism, and heavy use of colored filters. Neither is particularly true to the story--for example, the 1910 version has Dorothy discovering on her 18th birthday that she is actually a princess from Oz left with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry as a foundling to protect her from evil-doers in Oz. The 1933 cartoon version is probably the most accurate of the lot. (The less said about THE WIZ, the better.)


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/06/2004]

Of interest to science fiction fans and film fans is John Baxter's A POUND OF PAPER: CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK ADDICT. (Yes, this is John Baxter, the film critic.) The publisher has decided to give it a Dewey Decimal classification in "Book collecting" rather than "Biography", but it is more the latter, and talks at length about Baxter's growing up in Australia, how he first discovered books, and films, and science fiction, and science fiction fandom. Baxter relates how he got started writing for the pulps, and how his attempts to craft a writer's life in Australia that matched what he saw in Hollywood films were less than entirely successful. (As he put it, "My career as Australia's answer to Noel Coward didn't last.") Baxter has all the same interests as I (and many science fiction fans) have, and I heartily recommend this book.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/04/2008]

About HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN'T READ by Pierre Bayard (ISBN-13 978-1-59691-469-8, ISBN-10 1-59691-469-6) my recommendation is to make this self-referential. The writing style seems aimed more at academics than at a popular audience, and at times seems quite divorced from the book's topic. Why, for example, does Bayard spend ten pages in this 185-page book describing the plot of GROUNDHOG DAY? It has something to do with wanting to use comments about books one hasn't read as part of a seduction, but surely that doesn't take ten pages of detailed plot synopsis to explain.

SHERLOCK HOLMES WAS WRONG by Pierre Bayard (translated by Charlotte Mandell):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/13/2009]

I picked up SHERLOCK HOLMES WAS WRONG: REOPENING THE CASE OF THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES by Pierre Bayard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) (ISBN-13 978-1-59691-605-0, ISBN-10 1-59691-605-2) at the library. More fool I--I hadn't noticed that this was by the author of HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN'T READ, about which I said, "My recommendation is to make this self-referential. The writing style seems aimed more at academics than at a popular audience, and at times seems quite divorced from the book's topic. Why, for example, does Bayard spend ten pages in this 185-page book describing the plot of GROUNDHOG DAY?"

Well, that applies to this book (except for the term "self-referential"). Bayard spends twenty-seven pages out of a hundred eighty-eight recounting the plot of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES in detail. And the writing style has the same problem: "The subjective incompleteness of the world in the work encourages us to suppose that there exists around each work, produced by the limited nature of statements and the impossibility of increasing the quantity of available information, a whole intermediate world--part of which is conscious and another part unconscious--that the reader develops by inferences so that the work, completed, can attain autonomy: a different world, a space with its own laws, more fluid and more personal than the text itself. but indispensable if the text is to achieve, in the limitless series of its encounters with the reader, a minimal coherence." (page 67)

I'm all for achieving a minimal coherence--I just don't think Bayard manages it.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/27/2013]

[As proof one's opinions can change; I present this review. I had apparently forgotten I had read this book before.]

SHERLOCK HOLMES WAS WRONG: REOPENING THE CASE OF THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES by Pierre Bayard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) (ISBN 978-1-59691-605-0) seems to be a bit of a follow-up to Bayard's WHO KILLED ROGER ACKROYD? Both are re-examinations of classic mysteries, with Bayard eventually concluding that the evidence as given in the novel leads to a very different conclusion as to the perpetrator than the author gives as the solution.

Now clearly, there are some philosophical problems in this. After all, in a real-world sense the background, characters, and plot of each novel are the creation of the author, and it is meaningless to claim that the author is wrong in his stated solution. On the other hand, one might arguably claim that the conclusions drawn in "The Final Problem" are in fact wrong--Sherlock Holmes was not in fact dead. Bayard points out that in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES the story is related by Watson (with input from Holmes), and that they could be wrong in their conclusions, just as they have been wrong other times. (I am not sure this argument transfers to THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, because in that we have an actual confession, though I suppose Bayard may argue that the person confessing may in fact be shielding someone else or some such.)

Anyway, if you find this sort of analysis interesting, you will want to give this a try.

"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/19/2006]

"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle (F&SF Oct/Nov 2005) is a well-written version of a rather basic "slaying the monster" sort of tale. It is good to see that Beagle is still writing, but it is hard to get too enthusiastic about this piece.

THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/23/2011]

The Middletown science-fiction-book-and-movie group chose THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle (ISBN 978-0-451-45052-4) for its September meeting. The book is considered a classic (it was even chosen by Lin Carter for the Ballantine "Adult Fantasy Classics" line). I found it just so-so; what seems to be the big joke--the magician being named Schmendrick--is merely puerile, and nothing else really works for me either. Even so, it is better than the movie made in 1982 based on it, which is terrible. To start with, it is a musical, and the songs are painful to listen to. I also found the animation primitive, but that may not be a valid complaint since someone said it was animation in the anime tradition (or perhaps that it was proto-anime). At any rate, nothing about it worked for me except the talking skull, which I did like.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/01/2011]

THE RISE AND THE FALL OF THE BIBLE: THE UNEXPECTED HISTORY OF AN ACCIDENTAL BOOK by Timothy Beal (ISBN 978-0-15-101358-6) is not what one might expect. It is not a book written by an atheist, or a skeptic, but by a Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve

University who is married to a minister. Yet it is not a defense of a literal interpretation of the Bible either.

For example, in writing about Kenneth N. Taylor's translation, THE WAY: THE LIVING BIBLE, Beal writes: "So for a time, THE WAY saved me, or at least distracted me, from the growing doubts about my childhood faith in the Bible. That is, it saved my iconic idea of the Bible from the disillusion that came from literally reading it. Indeed, this was the true innovation of THE WAY: it offered a reading experience of the Bible that didn't entail all the complexities and frustrations that came when I actually read the biblical text. It felt like what reading the Bible was supposed to feel like, even while it distracted me from the real ambiguities and uncertainties of the Biblical text itself."

And later he writes, "To a point, fundamentalist-leaning critics and I agree about what the Bible business is doing to the Bible. By reinventing it in an ever-widening variety of things and words, all marketed as the one and only Word of God, these publishers are devaluing the very thing they're selling."

Beal bases a lot of what he says on the premise that the Bible has become a cultural icon, but in doing so has lost its standing as a set of texts (not a single text, as Beal emphasizes) that serve to inspire religious faith and study. In support of this, Beal cites a poll that found that 78% of Americans believe that the Bible is the Word of God, 65% believe that it "answers all or most of the questions of life"--and 28% say they rarely or never read it. <> (The text is unclear on whether this is 28% of those responding positively to the other questions, or 28% of all responders. Personally, I am skeptical of any poll that indicates 72% of Americans often read the Bible. Would people lie about this? Well, the number of people who claim they attend church regularly is completely out of sync with actual church attendance figures.)


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/11/2009]

A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME: THE RISE, FALL, AND CURIOUS AFTERLIFE OF THE GREAT BOOKS by Alex Beam (ISBN-13 978-1-58648-487-3, ISBN-10 1-58648-487-7) is about the "Great Books of the Western World" set (hereafter referred to as GBWW) produced by Britannica from the early 1950s until recently. If the people who came up with the idea (and the selections) come out as less than ideal, so does Beam himself at times. On page 50, when he is reporting stories from an issue of "Life" magazine in 1935, he says that the one titled "Eleanor Roosevelt Spends a Night in the White House" is "doubtless some arcane 'in' joke." If indeed it is a joke, it is hardly arcane or "in"--Eleanor Roosevelt was known for her traveling on behalf of her husband and in general for good causes. On the topic at hand, frequently Beam admits to be unfamiliar with various works in the GBWW. (Beam admits this, though, and he is not writing about the content of the books so much as the creation and marketing of a canon.) And Beam is generally quite snarky about the people involved in the GBWW project--the book is as much, or more, about them and their foibles as it is about the GBWW.

The people involved were Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, and William Benton. Beam does occasionally (uncharacteristically) go out of his way to give them the benefit of the doubt, as when he attempts to temper the "all-white" image of the GBWW authors by describing the committee as "[having] chosen seventy-four writers, all deceased and primarily Caucasian males (St. Augustine's ethnicity is always in doubt)." But when a 1990 marketing memo for the GBWW says, "We have also answered an objection of more recency--namely, where are the women? We have come a long way, baby, and thus we have Jane and George, as well as Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf in the 20th century," what can one say? Beam gives us the answer, "To which one can only say: Ouch."

It gets worse, with Adler making pronouncements such as "[blacks] didn't write any good books" and (responding to a charge of Eurocentrism), "If [Asians] came to the West, they better learn Western culture. If they want to stay Japanese, they should stay in Japan." (A better answer would have been that the set was specifically titled "Great Books of the Western World".)

Beam takes the set to task (as did others) for including outdated works of science. Yes, Galen was important in the history of science, but it is not clear that today's readers will get any benefit from reading him--in a mediocre translation to boot. And the use of Galen as a basic text in St. John's College's curriculum defies all reason. (There are several other authors equally outdated; I chose Galen just as an example.)

Beam also attacks the translations used for the works, and rightly so. (Over half of the selections were originally written in languages other than English, including a dozen in Greek and another dozen in Latin.) The committee might have claimed to choose the best "available" translation, but "available" meant "available free". (There was a definite rift between the committee and those academicians who felt that if people were going to read the GBWW, they should do it in the original languages anyway.)

My primary objection to the GBWW set is that while it is nice as "furniture", it is expensive without being worth the price. Because Adler wanted no intermediaries between the reader and the book, there were no introductory or explanatory materials other than a one-page biographical note, no footnotes to explain arcane references to foreign phrases, and so on. In an inexpensive Dover edition, one understands that this lack is a cost-saving measure. For a set selling for $250 in 1952, this excuse won't work.

In addition, by the time I discovered the GBWW, I already owned several of the books. The big explosion of cheap mass-market paperbacks started right around the time the GBWW came out. Oh, there were paperbacks before this, but one started to see more and more, and by the 1960s, all the GBWW worth reading by the general public were available cheaply. (The scientific works are a different story.) So the target market may have owned some of the works already.

Regarding the pages themselves, Beam complains that they are hard to read because they are double-column nine-point type. Judith C. Kinney (in a review on says, "Beam measures the type at nine points. My point gauge measured it at ten points. The type seems small because the lines have no leading ... [the space between the bottom of a letter with a descender ... and the top of a letter with an ascender ... in the next line]. Most of THE NEW YORKER is set in ten-point type with two points leading. The leading makes all the difference." in addition, some volumes did have single columns, or less "packed" pages, in particular the science works. This seems like sloppy research on Beam's part, and indeed, several reviewers say Beam's knowledge of Adler, Hutchins, and Benton are based mostly on a few secondary sources.

So the GBWW is an opportunity to buy these works in bad, un-annotated, hard-to-read, expensive editions, rather than better, cheaper versions that, admittedly, would not look as uniform on the shelf. (There is an irony here, I think, that people who supposedly want to get people to learn to think for themselves about these books are promoting uniformity and conformity.)

Beam may seem too harsh on the notion of providing an opportunity for the average person to read these (or other) GBWW, but one must remember that the cost of the set did not make it readily available to the economically disadvantaged. There are two aspects here: the set as a physical object, and the set as a list of works. That the set was available in a variety of bindings, ranging in price from $225 to $1175, indicates that the physical object was considered as important, if not more so, than the list.

(Consider Clifton Fadiman's "Lifetime Reading Plan" as an alternative approach. Fadiman gave you an annotated list, and assumed you knew where the libraries and bookstores were.)

"Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/05/2009]

"Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear: People who aren't riffing on Jane Austen seem to riff on H. P. Lovecraft. This did not quite capture Lovecraft's atmosphere (at least for me), and the whole racial issue seems tacked on. I don't know--maybe it has some meaning related to the story, but if so, I missed it. In a short story (or novelette) one must exercise an economy of themes and not try to cover too much ground, and this seemed to ignore that rule.

Tideline by Elizabeth Bear:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/27/2008]

I found "Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear (ASIMOV'S Jun) a fairly bland post-holocaust story about a post-war robot and a boy. Maybe it was supposed to be touching or something, but it did nothing for me.

BLOOD MUSIC by Greg Bear:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/09/2007]

Our science fiction group read BLOOD MUSIC by Greg Bear (ISBN-10 1-596-87106-7, ISBN-13 978-1-596-87106-9) this month. This was expanded from a shorter piece, and both won Hugos. Yet I found that the basic premise required too much of a suspension of disbelief on my part, even while enjoying parts of the book quite a bit. I suppose it is a sort of alternate history now, since a good-sized chunk of it takes place in the World Trade Center towers.

DINOSAUR SUMMER by Greg Bear (Warner Aspect, ISBN 0-446-52098-5, 1998, 325pp, hardback):

This is billed as an alternate history, and it is in the sense that its premise is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's LOST WORLD was non-fiction, and dinosaurs did survive on a Venezuelan plateau. But it's not alternate history in the sense of looking at what changes there would be in society because of the change.

This is not so much a complaint as a warning. If you like alternate histories for that sociological aspect, you will be disappointed in Dinosaur Summer. It is more aimed at the person who enjoyed The Lost World and wants to read more about dinosaurs and the lost plateau. The story starts out in a dinosaur circus, but that seems mostly to allow Bear to introduce his human, reptilian, and avian characters before heading back to the plateau. Some of the latter two are real, others are fictitious, and you probably can't tell the players without a scorecard, which Bear provides in an afterword.

I was really looking forward to this book, but found it a disappointment. Perhaps I was looking for more change in society than the fact that King Kong flopped. As an adventure novel, it starts off very slowly, and doesn't offer the reader much to carry hold her interest. I suppose if you really like dinosaurs, they will carry the book, but I found Dinosaur Summer a disappointment.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/25/2008]

I really like the BBC radio adaptation (I cannot find the name of who did it) of AGATHA RAISIN AND THE QUICHE OF DEATH by M. C. Beaton (ISBN-13 978-0-312-93916-8, ISBN-10 0-312-93916-7), so I decided to read the book (and possibly the whole series of Agatha Raisin books). While the book was okay--and had I read it cold, I might even have said good--I discovered that the best parts of the radio adaptation were not in the book at all. The basic plot is there: London public relations executive Agatha Raisin retires to a cottage in the Cotswolds, where she tries to gain acceptance by entering the local quiche-baking content. Her quiche, however, is actually store-bought, and what is more, has poisoned the judge! But the adaptation has an acerbic wit that is missing from the book, where the characters are flatter and less appealing, even the ones who are supposed to like. The book is very popular--there are seventeen sequels--but not up to my expectations.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/08/2006]

PRIDE AND PRESCIENCE (OR, A TRUTH UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED) by Carrie Bebris (ISBN 0-765-35071-8) is what is called a "biblio-mystery". In specific, it is about Mr. and Mrs. Darcy solving a mystery that arises shortly after their marriage at the end of Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. It has the same flaw that the recent film version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE had (at least in the American cut)--it is far too explicit in its references to sex. Note that when I say this in reference to Jane Austen's work, what I mean is that they even acknowledge it at all. In that film, we see the Darcys in their nightclothes on their balcony. In this book, there are constant references to Elizabeth's hair getting mussed, or their being late for appointments, or whatever, with knowing innuendoes. Jane Austen would spin in her grave. I thought the mystery itself was also a bit un-Austen, with more of the paranormal that one expects in that clergyman's daughter's works (although there are some echoes of NORTHANGER ABBEY). Also, the characters did not always ring true, and I thought I detected a couple of anachronistic word choices (which, alas, I failed to note down). But there was a certain talent in the writing, and readers must have liked it--it has been followed by SUSPENSE AND SENSIBILITY (OR, FIRST IMPRESSIONS REVISITED), and NORTH BY NORTHANGER (OR, SHADES OF PEMBERLY).

WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/31/2003]

We watched the Irish television production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." This is part of the series "Becket on Film", which will do all nineteen of Beckett's plays, and is running intermittently on PBS in the United States. I think that "Waiting for Godot" is a bi-model play--you will either love it or hate it. I loved it, maybe because it sounded so much like conversations that Mark and I have. :-) (I'm not sure which of us is which, though.) If you like Tom Stoppard (especially "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"), you'll probably like this.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/10/2013]

THE PENGUIN GUIDE TO THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION (ISBN 978-0-14-311810-7) is annotated by Richard Beeman, described on the back cover as "one of the most respected constitutional scholars in the nation." Yet he makes several mistakes, not just by expressing his opinion as fact (Article IV, Section 1), but by making actual misstatements of fact (Article V), and in failing to note both the implications of parts of the Constitution, and the contradictions inherent in them.

Article IV, Section 1, is the "full faith and credit clause". Of it, Beeman says, "For example, if the state of Massachusetts recognizes the marriage of a gay couple as legally valid, then other states, even if they do not have laws permitting the marriage of a gay couple, must recognize that marriage as valid." I would also interpret it this way, but this interpretation is not as universally accepted as Beeman implies.

Article IV, Section 2, in what Beeman describes as what "may well be the most reprehensible provision in the original U.S. Constitution." It required that all citizens and states assist in the return of runaway slaves, even from those states and territories where slavery was prohibited. But really, it is just the logical continuation of Section 1 of that article. If a non-slave state has to give "full faith and credit" to the acts of a slave state, then it must, for example, recognize a contract that makes a slave the property of another person. One may argue, of course, that it seems to be only slavery that requires the active assistance of citizens in other states; nothing in the Constitution requires a state to assist in apprehending someone who has committed murder in another state. However, ultimately what is reprehensible is the Constitution's implicit acceptance of slavery (which it never even names)--all the veiled references to it are merely accessories after the fact.

This is also what leads to a contradiction. If all states must give "full faith and credit ... to the Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State" then we have the situation where a non-slave state must recognize the acts of a slave state in creating and maintaining slaves, but the slave state must also recognize the acts of a non-slave state in declaring all people within their borders free. Clearly, both cannot be the case.

Article IV, Section 3, sets down the rules for creating new states, and in particular, "no new State shall be formed or erected in the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any state formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned." There is some question as to whether the last clause even applies to dividing a state, given that the two cases (division and union) are separated by a semi-colon, while the last clause is set off with only a comma. If it does not apply, there is no way to divide a state. If it does apply, the legislature of that state has to agree. Somehow, I don't think that the Virginia legislature agreed to have West Virginia split off.

Article V lists three sections of the Constitution that cannot be amended. But it does not list itself, meaning that theoretically an amendment could be passed deleting the limitations of Article V, and then another amendment could be passed changed those other sections.

For Article VI, Beeman observes it was modified by the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which said that for all citizens eighteen years of age or older, the right to vote shall not be denied on the basis of age. Beeman, however, expresses this as "guaranteeing all American citizens eighteen years or older the right to vote." Given that a twenty-year-old America citizen living in Puerto Rico cannot vote for President, Beeman's statement is misleading at best and just plain wrong at worst.

It would seem that the Fourteenth Amendment would grant all persons born (or naturalized) in the United Sates the same privileges. In particular, it would seem as though it would grant the vote to women and Native Americans. Then again, carried to its limit, it would also seem to remove all age restrictions from voting. Apparently, it was not so interpreted. (For that matter, it would seem as though it made the Fifteenth Amendment unnecessary.)

The idea of amending the "un-amendable" parts of the Constitution by first amending the part that makes them "un-amendable" reminds me of Kurt Godel's citizenship hearing. Godel claimed to have discovered a loophole in the United States Constitution that would allow a dictatorship here, and although he apparently never specified what it was, the consensus seems to be that it involved amending away the parts of the Constitution that prevented it.

  • Richard Beeman's The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution

    "Imaginary Books in Speculative Fiction" by Robert Bee:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/05/2008]

    For book-lovers, I have to recommend "Imaginary Books in Speculative Fiction" by Robert Bee ("New York Review of Science Fiction", June 2008). Jorge Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, and H. P. Lovecraft are the obvious authors to cover, but Bee covers many others as well.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/02/2011]

    THE WHOLE FIVE FEET: WHAT THE GREAT BOOKS TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIFE, DEATH, AND PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING ELSE by Christopher R. Beha (ISBN 978-0-8021-4485-0) is about Beha's quest to read the "Harvard Classics" (a.k.a. the "Five-Foot Shelf") in a year. (Though he sometimes refers to these as the "Great Books", the Harvard Classics are distinct from the "Great Books of the Western World" produced by Britannica in the early 1950s.)

    In an appendix, Beha talks about what he calls "A-Year-of-Riding-the-Unicycle" memoirs--memoirs of a year of doing some specified activity--of which I have read (and reviewed) several, including:

    The "Great Books of the Western World" also have a book about them: A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME: THE RISE, FALL, AND CURIOUS AFTERLIFE OF THE GREAT BOOKS by Alex Beam (978-1-58648-487-3), which I previously reviewed. But Beam writes entirely about the concept, development, and marketing of the "Great Books of the Western World" rather than about the contents of them (other than the point size used, and the translations).

    The "Harvard Classics" seems a better choice for people who are looking to avoid overlap with their existing books, since it relies more on shorter works (letters, essays, and so on) and less on book-length works. The "Great Books" includes six novels, the "Harvard Classics" only one (DON QUIXOTE). To make up for this, there was later published a "Harvard Classics of Fiction" which comprises twenty volumes of long and short fiction. But more than just omitting novels, the "Harvard Classics" will have a volume that includes plays by half a dozen dramatists, or essays by three different authors, while the "Great Books" seems to try to cover fewer authors but with more from each. The "Harvard Classics" also includes a few non-Western works ("The Thousand and One Nights", "The Sayings of Confucius", Buddhist writings, "The Bhagavad-Gita", and chapters from the Koran), though these hardly constitute broad exposure to non-Western literature.

    One major drawback to the "Harvard Classics" might be the cost--I just saw a set in a used bookstore for $2450.

    As alternatives to either, there is Clifton Fadiman's "Lifetime Reading Plan". Fadiman gave you an annotated list, and assumed you knew where the libraries and bookstores were. For a much longer, but purely Western, curriculum, there is always Harold Bloom's THE WESTERN CANON.

    MEN OF MATHEMATICS by Eric Temple Bell:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/01/2005]

    Eric Temple Bell's MEN OF MATHEMATICS (ISBN 0-671-62818-6) was the book for our general discussion group this month. I believe that this is considered the classic work of mathematical biography, but its age--and at times lack of scholarship--is showing. For example, no one today would write, "It was the wrong time of the month and Napoleon was enjoying one of his womanish tantrums." [page 244] And Bell first insists that Georg Cantor was "of pure Jewish descent on both sides" [page 558], and later says, "The aggressive clannishness of Jews has often been remarked, sometimes as an argument against employing them in academic work, but it has not been no generally observed that there is no more vicious academic hatred than that of one Jew for another when they disagree on purely scientific matters or when one is jealous or afraid of another. Gentiles either laugh these hatreds off or go at them in an efficient, underhand way which often enables them to accomplish their spiteful ends under the guise of sincere friendship. When two intellectual Jews fall out they disagree all over, throw reserve to the dogs, and do everything in their power to cut one anothers' throats or stab one another in the back."!) [page 562] Amazing today, yet apparently in 1937 the publisher saw no problem with that claim.

    [Georg Cantor is the mathematician who found proof that there are precisely as many integers as even integers or rational numbers, but there are actually a lot more real numbers. -mrl]

    If you don't recall reading this, or can't find it in your copy, that's because current editions (since about 1965) have been bowdlerized to change this to "When two academic specialists disagree violently on purely scientific matters, they have a choice, if discretion seems the better part of valor, of laughing their hatreds off and not making a fuss about them, or of acting in any of the number of belligerant ways that other people resort to when confronted with situations of antagonism. One way is to go at the other in an efficient, underhand manner, which often enables one to gain his spiteful end under the guise of sincere friendship. Nothing of the sort here! When Cantor and Kronecker fell out, they disagreed all over, threw reserve to the dogs, and do everything but slit the other's throat." Note that whoever changed this removed all references to religion. You can even tell what was changed, because the font for that part of the paragraph that was replaced has noticeably thinner lines than the rest!

    In fact, searching for other changes based on ink color turns up two more. On page 559, Bell had referred to Cantor's brother's becoming a German army officer, saying "what a career for a Jew!" This has been changed to "very few Jews ever did." And on page 560, the editor was unable to come up with something that would take up exactly the same (or slightly less) space as the original, and has the change sticking out into the margin! The original reads, "Cantor could not see that the old man [his father] was merely rationalizing his own greed for money." The changed text says, " Cantor could not see that the old man [his father] was merely rationalizing his own absurd ambition."

    The whole question of Cantor's Jewishness has been a subject for debate. For quite a while, it seemed as though Bell had made this up. However, in footnote 3 on the web page , it says, "In MEN OF MATHEMATICS, Eric Temple Bell described Cantor as being 'of pure Jewish descent on both sides,' although both parents were baptized. In a 1971 article entitled 'Towards a Biography of George Cantor,' the British historian of mathematics Ivor Grattan-Guinness claimed (ANNALS OF SCIENCE 27, pp. 345-391, 1971) to be unable to find any evidence of Jewish ancestry (although he conceded that Cantor's wife, Vally Guttmann, was Jewish). However, a letter written by Georg Cantor to Paul Tannery in 1896 (Paul Tannery, MEMOIRES SCIENTIFIQUE 13, CORRESPONDANCE, Gauthier-Villars, Paris, 1934, p. 306) explicitly acknowledges that Cantor's paternal grandparents were members of the Sephardic community of Copenhagen. In a recent book, THE MYSTERY OF THE ALEPH: MATHEMATICS, THE KABBALAH, AND THE SEARCH FOR INFINITY (Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 2000, pp. 94, 144), Amir Aczel provides new evidence in the form of a letter, recently uncovered by Nathalie Charraud, that was written by Georg Cantor's brother Louis to their mother. This letter seems to indicate that she was also of Jewish descent, as Bell had claimed originally."

    However, in any case, Bell agrees that Cantor's mother was born a Roman Catholic, which would make Cantor non-Jewish by Jewish law. One suspects Cantor is using the definitions of the Nuremberg Laws instead. Bell's description of Galois's life is also considerably off the mark--see for a refutation.

    Still, Bell's off-hand remarks are sometimes quite on the mark. On page 221, he says, "Shortly after his seventh birthday [1784] Gauss entered his first school, a squalid relic of the Middle Ages run by a vile brute . . . whose idea of teaching the hundred or so boys in his charge was to thrash them into such a state of terrified stupidity that they forgot their own names. More of the good old days for which sentimental reactionaries long."

    Bell's explanations of the mathematics is not as clear as other have been. (Mark recommends William Dunham's JOURNEY THROUGH GENIUS [ISBN 0-140-14739-X] as a better alternative.) I actually skipped a lot of the mathematics while reading Bell (and we also read only selected chapters); I was reading more for the external forces on these mathematicians. (For example, Queen Christina may have had many good qualities, but she basically killed Rene Descartes by insisting he tutor her at five in the morning in an unheated room.) This may still be the classic work, but if you are going to read only one such work, it may not be the best one.

    [See my comments on the modifications made to TEN LITTLE INDIANS for more on removing ethnic slurs from older works of literature. (.]

    LOOKING BACKWARD by Edward Bellamy (Signet, CT339, 1887 [1960], 222+xxii pp):

    I have a special connection with this book, since Edward Bellamy was born in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, which was incorporated into my high school home town of Chicopee. (Chicopee's other claim to fame is that it is the home of the friction match. It is not, as Mark sometimes asserts, the home of the self-starting hamster.) And Bellamy was the editor of the Massachusetts newspaper where my brother is currently working as a sportswriter.

    LOOKING BACKWARD is subtitled "2000-1887," which makes it especially topical this year. As to its accuracy, or even plausibility . . . well, we'll see.

    Bellamy has a very optimistic view of people and their reaction to all the rules of this new society. He claims, for example, that "the fact that the stronger are selected for the leaders is in no way a reflection on the weaker, but in the interest of the common weal." But since Bellamy later has Dr. Leete admit, "A man able to duty, and persistently refusing, is sentenced to solitary imprisonment on bread and water until he consents," there is apparently some dissension in this "perfect" society.

    There are other imperfections as well, though I suspect Bellamy did not even realize them. Dr. Leete says, "The great nations of Europe, as well as Australia, Mexico, and parts of South America, are now organized industrially like the United States. . . . An international council regulates . . . their joint policy toward the more backward races, which are gradually being educated up to civilized institutions." And no one that Bellamy meets is anything but white, or Christian. (One wonders if the fact that the narrator was found entombed on a Friday and fully awoke on a Sunday has additional meaning.) This easy racism probably went completely unnoticed in 1887; it is more obvious now.

    Throughout the book, there are all sorts of "predictions" which are off. One obvious one is that people listen to live music by telephone, but there are no recording devices. On a larger scale, everything operates smoothly under a planned economy, and we've seen that that doesn't work that way either. But the interesting part is how all this is related.

    Virginia Postrel's article in the "Wall Street Journal" ( SB944517208522468175.htm) sums it up in one sentence: "The future, in fact, is made of surprise." Futurists, including Bellamy, "didn't factor in the power of vanity, self-expression, chance, novelty, or fun." In Bellamy's 2000, nothing is produced unless people have asked for it, and guaranteed a certian level of consumption. But, as Postrel notes, "no one fills out a request for rock music, Jacuzzis, or Vidal Sassoon-style blunt haircuts." Bellamy's characters can choose between listening to a waltz or organ music, but there are no Beatles, Philip Glass, or Ice T, nor are the inhabitants of Bellamy's 2000 likely to wait up one day and request them. (No one in 1900 was likely to request Van Gogh or Stravinsky either.)

    (I will note that Bellamy has his narrator write on December 26, 2000, "Living as we do in the closing year of the twentieth century," indicating that he knew when centuries started and ended.)

    The particular edition I read is no longer available, but this is available in a bunch of editions, including a "Dover Thrift Edition" and on-line at


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/09/2012]

    A RANDOM WALK IN SCIENCE FICTION by Antonio Bellomi (translators unlisted, special Chicon 7 edition) consists of twelve stories by Bellomi (one co-authored with Walther Bellomi), all previously published in English. "The Bonfire" is one of that rare sub-genre of science fiction, mathematical science fiction (though just barely so). Several are "gimmick" or "puzzle" stories that reminded me of many of Isaac Asimov's "Wendell Urth" stories or Arthur C. Clarke's "Tales from the White Hart". (And as a further similarity, two of the stories in this volume are from a series that features a lunar-based crime solver named Uriel Qeta.) Unfortunately, the stories suffer from the problem of a lot of puzzle stories: the solution depends on some completely unlikely circumstance. For example, years ago there was an Ellery Queen story with five suspects, and the victim had dialed a seemingly random phone number as he was dying. The solution depended on there being one and only one name that could be translated into a phone number on an alphanumeric dial. Or the victim grabs a bottle of wine which just happens to be the translation in English of the killer's German name. And so on.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/20/2012]

    IS THAT A FISH IN YOUR EAR?: TRANSLATION AND THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING by David Bellos (ISBN 978-0-86547-857-2) covers a lot of familiar ground. Bellos's contention is that it is wrong to say that "poetry is what is lost in translation" or that "a translation is no substitute for the original." His complaint about the latter statement seems to be based on a literal meaning of the statement--as he points out, a translation is precisely a substitute for the original. But even he admits that what is usually meant is that a translation is not as good as the original, so why does he spend so much time quibbling over the literal meaning? This is particularly ironic when he spends so much time explaining why literal word-for-word translations are often the worst.

    But Bellos also ventures into areas not usually discussed in books about languages and translations. For example, Bellos spends more time than most authors on the question of translating films. One fascinating example of the problems of translation that he discussed was the film THE GREAT ESCAPE. A key moment is when someone trying to pass as German is tricked into speaking English when a German officer speaks English to him. What they say is not important--how they says it is what counts. So a subtitle would have to say "The German is speaking English" and "The Scot responds in English." But if you are dubbing the movie, you have a real problem.

    Bellos also discusses subtitling, citing accepted rules such as:

    According to Bellos, the result is that films for foreign audiences tend to have less dialogue and longer shots. As he says, "Ingmar Bergman made two quite different kinds of films--jolly comedies with lots of words for Swedish consumption, and tight-lipped, moody dramas for the rest of the world."

    Bellos does make an egregious mathematical error, though. He gives the number of books translated between all pairs of seven different languages (English, Chinese, Hindi, French, German, Arabic, and Swedish) between 2000 and 2009. He notes that "nearly 80 percent of all translations done in all directions between these seven languages ... are translations from English. ... Translations from English are all over the place; translations into English are as rare as hen's teeth." What he does not give are the number of books actually published in each language. To give an extreme example, if the other six languages each have one hundred books published each year, and English has ten thousand, it would not be surprising that there would be far more translations from English than into it. The total numbers are more even than that, I suspect, but Bellos gives no information on them at all. (All his numbers are based only on books that have been translated.) Instead he makes reference to the number of people who speak the various languages, hardly a meaningful figure in this context.

    Coincidentally, the Johnson blog on language (named for Samuel Johnson and written by the staff of "The Economist"), recently dedicated an entry to "true untranslatability".

    Johnson begins by summarizing: "Roman Jakobson, a linguist, is credited with the notion that languages differ not so much in what they can express as what they must express. The common trope that language X has no word for Y is usually useless (it usually means language X uses several words instead of one for Y). But languages do differ significantly in what they force speakers to express."

    The problem I have is that Johnson's examples also seem more in the category of "needs more words to express" than "cannot be expressed."

    For example, Johnson cites the sentence "I am loved." In Spanish and other Latinate languages, Johnson says, the speaker must declare their sex: "You soy amado" or "Yo soy amada." (One comment said that in written Spanish one is starting to see sentences like this rendered as "Yo soy amad@" (unpronouncible, apparently).

    However, "Me amada" (or "Me amadan") seems a perfectly viable alternative: "He (or she) loves me" or "They love me". Lest you argue that this is too different, this is a whole series of buttons saying "I am loved" in various languages, and the Russian is "Menya lyubyat"--"They love me."

    Then Johnson says that the common Russian verb of motion "requires you to express whether you're going by vehicle or foot, one-direction or multidirectionally, and in the past tense, makes you include an ending for your own gender. So 'I went' would, in one Russian word (khodila, say), express 'I [a female] went [by foot] [and I came back].'" Therefore, Johnson concludes, "I went" is untranslatable into Russian.

    I don't know Russian, but I would bet there is some way to express "I went" without most of those specifics. (The gender of the speaker may be the biggest obstacle.) "I was in this place and then I wasn't", for example, seems to mean something very close to "I went".

    Someone in the comments gave the example of Chinese relationship words--he can say "elder brother" or "younger brother", but not just "brother". But can he say "male offspring of my parents"?

    I will agree that some of the translations might be awkward, but that is not quite the same as untranslatable, so in that I guess I agree with Bellos.

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/12/2019]

    IS THAT A FISH IN YOUR EAR? TRANSLATION AND THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING by David Bellos (ISBN 978-0-86547-857-2) covers the basic question of what constitutes a good translation, but also the more basic one of what constitutes a translation at all. Along the way, He discusses at length the balance between retaining some level of "literalness" while not making the translation sound stunted, and while making the content understandable. (Someone at a convention once said their Japanese translator called them up to ask what he meant by saying some people were "like Unitarians on Quaaludes.")

    Bellos also looks at some of the more specialized and constrained areas of translation. For example, subtitling movies requires that all dialogue fit into sequences of two lines of no more than 32 characters each which stay on the screen long enough to be read, and not slop over into the next scene. Graphic novel and comic strip translations must fit into the same "balloons" as the original. And simultaneous translation needs to manage to deal with different grammar and sentence structure. e.g., translating a long sentence from a language where the verb appears late in the sentence to one in which it appears earlier, or expressing formal versus informal "you" in a language that does not make the distinction. (Or perhaps even more difficult, knowing which one to choose when going in the other direction.)

    If you are interested in languages, or even if you are not but read a lot of works in translation, I recommend this book.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/28/2017]

    THE NOVEL OF THE CENTURY: THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURE OF LES MISERABLES by David Bellos (ISBN 978-0-374-22323-6) covers not only the story of the writing of the novel, but the history of France that shaped it, as well as explanations of monetary units, clothing, names, and other details that readers may miss or misunderstand. In particular, Bellos discusses why the title is one of only a handful of foreign titles not translated into English when their books are.

    Bellos has one rather strange writing quirk: he sometimes uses the first person singular. Obviously, a biographical work describing, for example, searching for a lost manuscript would have more use of the first person singular but usually a writer of non-biographical non-fiction writes in the third person. For example, he says "many people doubt this is what Hugo intended" (if he does not necessarily agree) or "it is doubtful that this is what Hugo intended" (if he does). But Bellos will write, "I doubt this is what Hugo intended." I am not saying there is anything wrong with this, but it is a much more informal style than one usually finds in such works.

    THE UNCOMMON READER by Alan Bennett:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/04/2008]

    THE UNCOMMON READER by Alan Bennett (ISBN-13 978-0-374-28096-3, ISBN-10 0-374-28096-7) is a wonderful book. I love Bennett's writing in general, and he is at the top of his form here. This book postdates the film THE QUEEN, and seems to have taken some inspiration from it, though it may be that those elements I recognize are things the British already took for granted. The Queen is the eponymous character, one day coming upon a bookmobile outside one of the palace gates and feeling obliged to check out a book. She soon discovers that she likes reading, and finds her attitudes (toward everything) slowly changing. Bennett also observes that her position affects her reading in odd ways. For example, "`... she had handicaps as a reader of Jane Austen that were peculiarly her own. The essence of Jane Austen lies in minute social distinctions, distinctions which the Queen's unique position made it difficult for her to grasp. There was such a chasm between the monarch and even her grandest subject that the social differences beyond that were somewhat telescoped. So the social distinctions of which Jane Austen made so much seemed of even less consequence to the Queen than they did to the ordinary reader, thus making the novels much harder going." Highly recommended for those who love reading, books, libraries, and plain old good writing.

    THE COMPANY MAN by Robert Jackson Bennett:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/30/2012]

    THE COMPANY MAN by Robert Jackson Bennett (ISBN 978-0-316-05470-6) is basically steampunk, which means it can be seen as alternate history, but not very effectively--alternate history requires more actual history, while steampunk emphasizes the technology without spending more time on politics, or sociology, or other aspects. (Which is not to say that steampunk ignores the alternate history aspects, but it does not focus on them.) So while Bennett does have some geopolitical changes (without McNaughton, he writes, "the German Crisis might never have been averted"), he does not spend a lot of time on them, and in fact makes the error of referring to "Pakistan" in the world of 1920 [page 216]. The name "Pakstan" was coined by Choudhary Rahmat Ali in 1933 as an acronym of Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh and the suffix -stan from Balochistan. The "i" was added later to ease pronunciation. (A variety of other acronymic break-downs were created later to use all the letters.) Its use by someone in 1920 is completely anachronistic.

    THE COMPANY MAN is okay as a noir steampunk, but if you are looking for alternate history, you will be disappointed.

    WHY TRUTH MATTERS by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/02/2007]

    WHY TRUTH MATTERS by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom (ISBN-10 0-8264-7608-2, ISBN-13 978-0-826-47608-1) has what they claim as the answer on the back: "Truth matters because we are the only species we know of that has the ability to find it out." This is clarified inside as "we have the kind of brain that can conceptualize reality as existing independent of us." But first of all, whether we are the only species who can do this is certainly arguable, and second, having said this on page 21, the authors are left with the rest of the book to discuss the various ways in which people marginalize truth (e.g., wishful thinking, cultural relativism, etc.). It is all a bit unstructured, and with a lot of mentions of modern philosophers, scientists, and events that assume the reader is familiar with them. Continuum Press seems to publish books on philosophy, but I would say they are aimed more at the serious student of philosophy than at the general public.

    TRENT'S LAST CASE by E. C. Bentley:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/28/2005]

    TRENT'S LAST CASE by E. C. Bentley (0-06-080440-8) is one of the classics that Thompson discusses. Bentley was tired of the "infallible detective", so his Trent is definitely not infallible. And as part of my on-going cataloguing of anti-Semitism in early twentieth century English mysteries, I'll cite one sentence from this 1913 novel: "In Paris a well-known banker walked quietly out of the Bourse and fell dead upon the broad steps among the raving crowd of Jews, a phial crushed in his hand."

    WHEN LIFE NEARLY DIED by Michael J. Benton:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/07/2004]

    Michael J. Benton's WHEN LIFE NEARLY DIED is a rather dry discussion of mass extinctions in general and the Permian extinction in particular. I could never figure out how the information was arranged. Just when I had decided he was tracing the history of our understanding of extinctions chronologically, there would be a digression that threw off the continuity. Intriguing stuff, but hard to read.

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/21/2004]

    Two weeks ago, I wrote about Michael J. Benton's book about the Permian mass extinction, WHEN LIFE NEARLY DIED. In the book, he attributed the extinction to volcanic eruptions, but new evidence may indicate that it was caused by an asteroid impact instead. See for more details. For an article disputing the new evidence, see


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/21/2017]

    EL LIBRO DE LOS SALMOS: LIBRO PRIMERO (SALMOS I--XLI) by Jacob Benzaquen (ISBN 980-265-781-6) is Benzaquen annotations on the Psalms, along with excerpts from other rabbis through the ages. I'm a sucker for annotated books, so in spite of the fact that this is mostly in Spanish, although with many (transliterated) Hebrew phrases thrown in, I decided to give it a try. One thing to keep in mind while reading it is that Benzaquen seems to have a very traditional approach. (I'm not sure if "orthodox" or "fundamentalist" are quite the words I am looking for, but they are close.) So, for example, he describes Psalm VI as a prayer for recovery from illness, and then says, "If one wants to pray for recovery from an illness, that is an opportunity to recite this psalm, preferably in it original version. One can use a phonetic transcription [transliteration] if one does not know the Hebrew idiom [language/alphabet]." (He does not actually provide such a transliteration.] Saying that "reciting" this psalm in the original language, even if one cannot understand it, is more efficacious than reading it in translation into one's own language, seems to make it into a mere magic spell of specific syllables rather than a heartfelt wish for health.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/07/2007]

    Before seeing the film BEOWULF, I decided to re-read the poem BEOWULF. I read the translation by Burton Raffel, because that was one of the ones in the house, but I would recommend a more recent translation: Seamus Heaney's is highly recommended (ISBN-13 978-0-393-32097-8, ISBN-10 0-393-32097-0). Mark has reviewed the film in the 11/23/07 issue of the MT VOID, but I wanted to comment on the similarities and differences between the two. At first, I was reasonably impressed with how the film stuck to the poem. The arrival of the Geats was pretty much as written, and the swimming competition included, even though it was not critical to the main plot. It was, in fact, fairly faithful up until the moment that Beowulf walks into the cave to kill Grendel's mother. Well, except for adding a fair amount of sex, and having Beowulf completely naked during the fight with Grendel. The latter change resulted in a lot of austin-power-izing, with strategically placed elbows, tankards, and so on. And the original had no hint of Beowulf and Hrothgar's wife being interested in each other. But from the point Beowulf enters the cave, it all falls apart (from the point of view of faithfulness). Grendel's mother did not look like Angelina Jolie, and the various connections with Hrothgar, Beowulf, and her were non-existent in the poem. And the dragon episode in the poem was a completely separate episode that took place back in Sweden, not in Denmark, and was completely independent of the Grendel story.

    Also, they changed the "attitude" of the story. In the original poem, Beowulf and others are boastful, but this is considered a good thing. Modesty was not prized in Beowulf's society. But in the film, after Beowulf recounts the story of the swimming competition, one of his warriors says to another something to the effect that the last time Beowulf told the story, he had killed three sea monsters, and this time he claimed nine--a very unlikely thing for a fellow warrior to do in Beowulf's time.

    The film--with its special effects--is entertaining, but I felt that all the added love interests detracted from the epic nature of the tale.

    LITTLE BIG MAN by Thomas Berger:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/07/2014]

    Something I read made me decide to read LITTLE BIG MAN by Thomas Berger (ISBN 978-0-385-29829-2). I have seen the movie, of course, but had never read the book. It is clearly Berger's best-known work, since the back blurb of the 1989 "Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition" listing Berger's works lists only works much less well-known than this. Such is the effect of Hollywood.

    The description of life in the West during the second half of the 19th century are well-researched and reasonably accurate. However, Berger does "shrink" the West, or at least rely on a lot of coincidences, to have the protagonist not only repeatedly run into people from his past, but also meet just about everyone well-known in the West: Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and George Armstrong Custer, among others. (I am reminded of alternate history novels, where we keep running into characters who are the analogues of famous people from our world. But in the alternate history novels, it is clearly the author's choice to include these people, while in LITTLE BIG MAN, the conceit is that the protagonist is actually meeting all these people.)

    Undoubtedly some will say that Berger is too politically correct in praising the Indians and criticizing the white people, but in fact both sides come in for a lot of criticism and only some faint praise. Berger seems to take a somewhat relativistic view, that each side is doing right based on their perceptions of the universe.

    THE MANUAL OF DETECTION by Jedediah Berry:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/11/2009]

    THE MANUAL OF DETECTION by Jedediah Berry (ISBN-13 978-1-59420-211-7) is described as Borgesian, but is more Kafka-esque in its portrayal of the Agency as the all-seeing, never-sleeping watchdog of society. But there is also a heavy layer of noir, the question of what is reality and what is dream, and a use of carnivals--one carnival owner is named Caligari, and there are similarities to Ray Bradbury's carnivals as well. If I had to pick the strongest similarity, though, it would be to Alex Proyer's film DARK CITY, even to the significance of the beach.

    Berry's protagonist is a clerk in the Agency, and the case names he has chosen for his files--the Oldest Murdered Man, the Three Deaths of Colonel Baker, and the Man Who Stole November 12th--give the reader a feel for the strangeness, while also evoking the traditional detective story. (The name "The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker" sounds like something from Arthur Conan Doyle, but the explanation is more Agatha Christie.) And Berry's character names are always notable, perhaps too much so. From the detective

    Charles Unwin, to his predecessor Travis T. Sivart (a palindrome and a pun), to his secretary Emily Doppel, to Hoffman and Caligari and all the rest of them, Berry has tried to make his characters' names meaningful, but there are times that he seems to be pushing too hard. Still, the novel is captivating, and almost hypnotic at times, and so I recommend it.

    THE DEMOLISHED MAN by Alfred Bester:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/01/2014]

    Our discussion book for this month was THE DEMOLISHED MAN by Alfred Bester (ISBN 978-1-596-87988-1). I know it is a classic, but I could barely follow it. We had earlier read Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION, and while I was not wild about that either, it was considerably better than this one.

    "Hell is Forever" by Alfred Bester:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/11/2018]

    "Hell is Forever", by Alfred Bester (Unknown Worlds, August 1942): I read this in the Bester collection STARLIGHT: THE GREAT SHORT FICTION OF ALFRED BESTER, and found two mathematical errors. When I went to show them to Mark, I pulled up the original publication in "Unknown Worlds" and discovered that they were not in that version. One seemed to be a typo of sorts:

    "Unknown Worlds": "Ha!" cried Dagon. "Onomancy -- C, third letter -- H, eighth letter -- and so on. Take total sum. Double it and add ten. Divide by two, then sub-tract original total -- "

    STARLIGHT: "Let's try Onomancy," Dagon said. "C, third letter, H, eighth letter, R, eighteenth letter, and so on. It's all right, Belial; spelling isn't the same as saying. Take total sum. Double it and add ten. Divide by two and a half, then sub-tract original total.

    In both cases, after some calculations, another demon says, "I can't understand it. We always get five."

    Well, in the original, that is true. X doubled, plus 10, halved, with X subtracted, is 5. But the rewrite/reprint divides by two and a half rather than two, and this breaks everything.

    Similarly, we have:

    "Unknown Worlds": "Do you want to probe the emotions in classical order? I can take you to a dimension of twenty-seven planes where one by one, seriatim et privatim, you may exhaust the intricate nuances of the twenty-seven primary emotions -- and thence go on to infinite combinations and permutations. Come, which will you take?"

    STARLIGHT: "Do you want to probe the emotions in classical order? I can take you to a world of n-dimensions where one by one, you may exhaust the intricate nuances of the twenty-seven primary emotions -- and thence go on to combinations and permutations to the amount of twenty-seven raised to the power of twenty-seven. Mathematicians would say: 27 x 10^27. Come, which will you enjoy?"

    While it is good that he corrected the claim of infinite combinations and permutations, twenty-seven raised to the power of twenty-seven is 27^27. And the number of possible combinations would be 2^27 (that is, each of the twenty-seven can have two states, present or not present). Permutations are more complicated, and I would need to know what was meant by the word in this context.

    I have no idea when or why the text was changed, or how much of the rest of it was changed, but in these two instances, it was not for the better. One conclusion a voter could draw is that reading the Retro Hugo finalists in reprint collections or anthologies may not be the same as reading the original. I admit that the re-writing of stories is not common, but it is something to be aware of. (Both these changes were retained in the 2000 collection REDEMOLISHED, probably because Bester was no longer around to approve any further corrections.)

    As a novella, this is really five short stories with a framing sequence (like Dan Simmons's HYPERION or several of James Michener's works). One does not see this often in works shorter than novels, but the framing story is substantial enough to make it a unified whole. It reads a bit like a "Twilight Zone" episode (this is not a bad thing).


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/05/2007]

    I was reading a "New Yorker" article on Bible publishing (< which said "ninety-one per cent of American households own at least one Bible--the average household owns four." Well, we are not an average household: we have eleven--or so. "Or so" because I am not sure how to count partial Bibles. Does one copy of the Tanakh (Old Testament) and one copy of the New Testament count as one Bible or two? How do I count an abridged version? Does the Apocrypha count?

    Okay, since you are probably wondering, the various versions are the King James Version, King James Version (Canongate, only some books), New King James Version (Extreme Word Study Bible), New International Version (travel edition), New International Version (Study Bible), New English Bible (New Testament only), Douai (Old Testament only, abridged), Jewish Translation Society (1917 and 1985 translations), U. S. Army Jewish Scriptures (abridged), and the "Black Bible Chronicles". Also the Apocrypha (Modern Library), and an interlinear New Testament.

    "Extreme Word" edition of the Bible:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/07/2007]

    A few weeks ago, in the 11/02/07 issue of the MT VOID, I talked about how Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch explains the problems in reading the Bible as literature. Among other problems, he says that poetry is printed as prose, paragraphs and even sentences are broken into short verses, and then we "pepper the result all over with italics and numerals, print it in double columns, with a marginal gutter on each side, each gutter pouring down an inky flow of references and cross-references." Well, in pulling out books to read along with this course, I ran across the "Extreme Word" edition of the Bible, which attempts to address at least some of these problems. It reduces the chapter numbers to a light blue background design at the start of the chapter, and verse numbers to very small, faintly printed numbers. While it does have two columns, paragraphs look like paragraphs, and there are even topic heading (e.g. "Jeroboam II Reigns in Israel"). The marginal gutters are a function of trying to get an enormous book into a single volume (hence the tissue-thin paper in most editions as well), but footnotes have taken the place of marginal notes. The footnotes are no worse than a lot of non-fiction books these days, and the sidebars are presented in the same way that one finds in news magazines, etc. There are still some random italics, though.

    FANTASTIC FABLES by Ambrose Bierce:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/17/2005]

    Ambrose Bierce's FANTASTIC FABLES (ISBN 0-486-22225-X) is full of cynical fables. A sample: "A Man Running for Office was overtaken by Lightning. "'You see,' said the Lightning, as it crept by him inch by inch, 'I can travel considerably faster than you.' 'Yes,' the Man Running for Office replied, 'but think how much longer I keep going.'"

    There is also "Aesopus Emendatus", a collection of twists on Aesop's fables, such as: "A fox, seeing some sour grapes hanging within an inch of his nose, and being unwilling to admit that there was anything he would not eat, solemnly declared that they were out of his reach."

    As noted, there is a very strong thread of cynicism in this collection. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Bierce ended up so disillusioned with humanity that he went off to Mexico with a death wish.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/27/2013]

    SIX MONTHS IN THE SANDWICH ISLANDS by Isabella L. Bird (ISBN 0-8048-1112-1) describes the voyage that made Bird into the renowned Victorian explorer she was. During her stay in the Sandwich Islands (now called Hawaii), she "caught the travel bug" and eventually became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. Her descriptions (at least for the Sandwich Islands) run more to the geological and botanical than the ethnographic, but that may be due to the low population density in much of the islands, and the high proportion of Americans, English, Chinese, and others.

    WEAPONS OF CHOICE by John Birmingham:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/11/2005]

    Most of what I said about Charles Stross's THE FAMILY TRADE goes for John Brimingham's WEAPONS OF CHOICE (ISBN 0-345-45712-9) as well. At least WEAPONS OF CHOICE is in trade paperback rather than hardback, but it is book one of a trilogy, so it's still $48 for the whole story. However, the Stross has "Book One of The Merchant Princes" right on the front in fairly large print; WEAPONS OF CHOICE has "The first novel in a three-book epic, the Axis of Time trilogy" in much smaller print on the back. The premise is that part of a multi-national naval task force from 2021 gets transmitted back to 1942 Midway. (Yes, it sounds a lot like THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT.) The reaction of the 1942 military to the diverse make-up of their 2021 counterparts is worth investigating up to a point, but Birmingham seems to want to deal with every possible permutation of problem and reaction, and it becomes repetitive after a while. In addition to the usual American "types", the multi-national aspect lets Birmingham have Japanese, Asians, and Russians as well. (I find it interesting that his 2021 military team has a high-ranking lesbian, but apparently no gay male personnel. I still haven't decided if 1942 personnel should have more problems dealing with a black lesbian commander or a gay male sailor.) One reason the story is/will be so long is that Birmingham is spening at least a novel's worth of exposition on the inter-personal relationships, at least another novel's worth of exposition on the military strategy, and another large chunk on the aspect of having the 2021 folks trying to 1) convince the 1942 folks that they really are from 2021, and 2) explain what will happen in the war, all the secret details the 1942 people don't know, etc. The problem is that my inter-weaving them, the whole thing seems stretched thin.

    AT THE CITY LIMITS OF FATE by Michael Bishop (Edgewood Press, ISBN 0-9629066-6-2, 1996, 328p):

    Michael Bishop holds the somewhat ambiguous honor of having the most Hugo nominations without a win of any author (nine). But although three of his nominated short fiction pieces are in the time span covered by this book, none of them are included here. On the other hand, the book has a central theme of religion that, while not completely absent from any of Bishop's work (no pun intended), is better represented by the lesser-known works featured here.

    The book starts out aptly enough with "Beginnings," with two thieves hanging on either side of Yeshua on Golgotha. It ends with the modern-day trial of Judas Iscariot in "I, Iscariot" (a concept echoed strangely in James Morrow's Blameless in Abaddon, where it is God on trial instead).

    In between, Bishop looks at a snake-handling cult in "Among the Handlers," introduces Saint Augustine to a traveler who tells him about the science and technology to come in "For Thus Do I Remember Carthage," and combines God and the mass media in "God's Hour."

    In addition to the theme of religion, Bishop also has a Japanese undercurrent to his work, from a discussion of Japanese Zeros in "000-00-0000" to Yukio Mishima in "At the City Limits of Fate" to "Reading the Silks." Yet although certain theme recur, each story is an individual. Unlike many authors, Bishop seems to produce something fresh each time. Well, okay, two of his Hugo-nominated works are sequels to other works--"The White Otters of Childhood" and Brittle Innings--but they are sequels to two classics in the field, and Bishop definitely gives each of them it a fresh viewpoint. Bishop can write derivative works that are not derivative, while most authors seem to write "new" works that are derivative.

    Bishop uses a variety of styles here, a variety of voices, and a variety of techniques, and they all work. Again, I am reminded of the two very different styles he maintained throughout Brittle Innings. In any case, Bishop is living proof that in the battle of form versus substance, they can both be winners. I highly recommend this book (and indeed any of Bishop's work). Unless you live near a science fiction specialty shop, you will probably have to have it special-ordered. It's worth it.

    (In case you're wondering, Bishop's nominated stories are "Death and Designation Among the Asadi" [1973], "The White Otters of Childhood" [1973], "Cathadonian Odyssey" [1974], "Rogue Tomato" [1975], "The Samurai and the Willows" [1976], "The Quickening" [1981], "A Gift from the Graylanders" [1985], "Cri de Coeur" [1994], and Brittle Innings [1994]. Now wouldn't that make a hell of a collection!]

    A CROSS OF CENTURIES edited by Michael Bishop:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/12/2007]

    A CROSS OF CENTURIES edited by Michael Bishop (ISBN-13 978-1-56025-926-8, ISBN-10 1-56025-926-4) is a collection of stories, mostly reprints, dealing with Jesus in some form or other. This is a collection that may appeal more to believers (although too specific a belief may also be an obstacle). Worth noting is that Bishop says in his introduction, "Finally, I want to acknowledge contributor Barry Malzberg's insightful objection to any and all theme anthologies: the loss of surprise and so of pleasure attending readers' awareness that at some point, in some way, the tale before them absolutely must deal with an aspect of that theme." (But this did not stop Malzberg from allowing the inclusion of his own story "Understanding Entropy"--nor is there any reason why it should.)

    EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS by Peter Biskind:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/30/2004]

    Peter Biskind's EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS was recommended as a good summary of the 1970s in Hollywood. However, it seemed to spend more time on all the scandal and gossip than I was interested. Also Biskind has an annoying habit of referring to people sometimes by their first names and sometimes by their last, often in the same paragraph. This made it hard to keep track of what was going on. ("Who the heck is this 'Bob' he's talking about here?") (I found out later it was put together from a lot of articles which Biskind wrote for "Premiere" magazine, which would explain some of the inconsistencies in name references, as well as the very jerky writing style, where one feels one is being whipsawed around.)

    DEBT-FREE U by Zac Bissonnette:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/20/2012]

    DEBT-FREE U by Zac Bissonnette (ISBN 978-1-59184-298-9) is an explanation of how you (or your child) can go to college without ending up with massive loan debt or bankrupting your family. Many of his suggestions seem reasonable, but I cannot say I agree with all of them. (Disclaimer: I went to college from 1968 to 1972, when in-state tuition at the University of Massachusetts was $100 a semester, and the most expensive textbook was a forestry text for $23. Coincidentally, Bissonnette is also going to the University of Massachusetts.)

    For example, Bissonnette talks about how to improve your chances for merit scholarships and grants, which are outright gifts, not loans. He explains the formulas used for various financial aid applications--for example, why using your liquid assets to pay down your mortgage might make more sense than holding onto the cash. He feels that campus tours are (at best) a waste of time and money. And so on. His basic message is that you should go to a school you can afford (which may mean working part- or even full-time) rather than take out a lot of loans that will take the rest of your life to pay off.

    His major contention is that going to college is more important than going to any particular college, and he spends a lot of time doing marginal cost and marginal return calculations on public state colleges versus Ivy League colleges.

    But Bissonnette makes a few claims that I do not think are true, or certainly not universally true. For example, he claims that there is no reason for students not to take their core requirements (English, history, French, etc.) at a community college and then go to a four-year (state) college for the courses in their major. But another book I read recently, IN THE BASEMENT OF THE IVORY TOWER: CONFESSIONS OF AN ACCIDENTAL ACADEMIC by Professor X, the author describes his experiences as a teacher at a community college. Bissonnette claims that while at four-year colleges, students are likely to find themselves taught by graduate students, at community colleges they will be taught by real professors. "Professor X" (that's a pseudonym, not a real title) says that most of the courses are taught by "adjuncts", or low-paid part-timers. Bissonnette claims that the quality of learning at a community college is equal to that at a four-year college. Professor X describes composition classes where students are barely literate, cannot write a real sentence, and are totally unprepared for any sort of college-level work. I defy Bissonnette to get a college-level education in a class like that.

    He also seems to think that a full-time college student can work full-time (or close to it) as well. For example, he claims that the average college student spends 24 hours per week watching television, 10.2 hours drinking, and 4.1 hours on video games. He then says that these hours could be spent on a job. Well, yes, but he does not take into account that this results in no "de-compression" time--the student ends up running on high all day. (He also does not figure out how much time will be required to get to and from a job.) I do not disagree with the notion of working to earn money for college, but I think suggesting that students can carry a full course load (actually he recommends an over-full load so you can graduate faster) and a full-time job is a way to end up with more students dropping out.

    And although Bissonnette keeps talking about how great an education one can get at a public university, when he describes astronaut Sally Ride as "the first woman in space", he does not help his credibility.

    "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/16/2004]

    The short stories nominated for the Retro Hugo for Short Story were all of high-quality, and all award-worthy, but I would pick "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby, and not just because it was made into a "Twilight Zone" story. It is a very effective horror piece on its own.

    YEAR OF THE HANGMAN by Gary Blackwood:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/22/2003]

    Gary Blackwood's YEAR OF THE HANGMAN is a very well-done alternate history about a failed American Revolution. In fact, though it is a young adult book, it is still one of the best alternate histories I've read this year, in part because it deals with society and isn't just a sequence of alternate battle maneuvers.


    Everett F. Bleiler's THREE VICTORIAN DETECTIVE NOVELS is a real bargain, with three for the price of one: Andrew Forrester's "The Unknown Weapon", Wilkie Collins's "My Lady's Money", and Israel Zangwill's "The Big Bow Mystery". "The Unknown Weapon" (1864) is probably the first modern detective story to have a female detective. Unfortunately, the denouement seems too much like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, although that may be a function of the more modern policy of providing all the necessary clues to the reader. "My Lady's Money" (1877) is a very early "drawing room" mystery, and more satisfying. And "The Big Bow Mystery" (1891) is the first real "locked room" mystery, and handles that aspect in a very deft manner. I will point out that although "The Big Bow Mystery" has its share of lower-class characters, it is not set in the London-Jewish milieu that Zangwill is best known for.

    "A Case of Conscience" by James Blish:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/02/2004]

    My first choice for the Novella Retro Hugo is the novella "A Case of Conscience" by James Blish, which forms the first part of the novel A CASE OF CONSCIENCE. I will admit a predilection for theological science fiction. I realize this seems to contradict my complaint about Connie Willis's Christmas fantasies last week, but theological discussion is not the same as religious content. And Blish leaves his readers to draw their own conclusions, rather than dictating a set explanation. Certainly the question of whether one can have a completely moral society without religion (or more specifically, at least in the story, without God) is still a topic of discussion.

    "Earthman, Come Home" by James Blish:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/16/2004]

    James Blish's novelette "Earthman, Come Home" suffered by being a part of a larger cycle--it ended up as the last two chapters of the last book of CITIES IN FLIGHT. Since I was not familiar with what led up to it, I found it flat. (I still think, though, that the scene in DARK CITY when the city is revealed is the ultimate Blishian moment.)

    "Yours Truly - Jack the Ripper" by Robert Bloch:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/31/2019]

    "Yours Truly - Jack the Ripper" by Robert Bloch was well-written but, like so many of the Retro Hugo finalists, has not aged well. More than that I do not want to say.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/13/2005]

    Harold Bloom's CLASSIC HORROR WRITERS (ISBN 0-7910-2201-3) has chapters on Ambrose Bierce, Charles Brockden Brown, Henry James, J. Sheridan LeFanu, "Monk" Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and Horace Walpole. Each chapter has a brief biography, "critical extracts", and a bibliography. The critics' comments are obviously more meaningful if you are familiar with the authors and their major works, so this is more for someone who is already somewhat knowledgeable about 18th and 19th century horror fiction than for someone looking for an introductory work.

    THE WESTERN CANON by Harold Bloom:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/29/2019]

    I recently listed to an episode of the (highly recommended) podcast "Classical Stuff You Should Know" which discussed the work and philosophy of the recently deceased Harold Bloom. Naturally, a large part of the discussion was about Bloom's book THE WESTERN CANON.

    As part of this, the podcasters (A. J. Hananberg, Thomas Magbee, and Graeme Donaldson) ask the question, "Why do people continue to write books when they realize they will never measure up to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Whitman?" Their answer is that there are many things not covered in the existing canon. The Iliad was a great work, but it said little or nothing about love and marriage. Genesis is great poetry about the Creation, but it left large gaps that Milton felt obliged to fill.

    And that is precisely why the "Western Canon" is not enough. For example, Chinua Achebe's THINGS FALL APART is considered one of the world's great novels, and tells a story not covered in the "Western canon". Similarly, Murasaki Shikibu's TALE OF GENJI is another classic omitted from the traditional canon. Interestingly, Bloom's list of the "Western Canon" includes the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and such Sanskrit works as the RAMAYANA, neither of which seem "Western".

    But what does "Western" mean in the con text of "the Western Canon" or "Western Civilization"? The Greeks thought anyone outside of ancient Greece barbarians, the Romans thought most of the Europeans they encountered barbarians, and I'm pretty sure the (Eastern) Roman Empire of its time would have thought BEOWULF totally unworthy of consideration. Edward Gibbon in his DECLINE AND FALL writes of "the nations of Europe, the most distinguished portion of human kind in arts and learning as well as in arms." And so on, even through the present-day, and slopping over into the whole immigration debate. But there we shall not go.

    At any rate, this is something I have thought about quite a bit, and the fact is that while Bloom may have tried to pin down some sort of "Western Canon", his list is neither entirely Western, nor (probably) entirely canonical. When Wikipedia (okay, not the unimpeachable source of wisdom some may think) says, "Since the 1960s the Western literary canon has been expanded to include writers from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East," the adjective "Western" seems to lose most of its meaning.

    (It's like trying to define "Spanish", "Hispanic", and "Latino/Latina"; or "Latin America", "Ibero-America", and "Hispanic America". But that's a different rabbit hole.)

    And regarding SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN, another book by Bloom, one is tempted to place it in the same category as Julian Jaynes's THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND, that is, a book that proposes a fascinating theory that could be used as the basis of a great novel (in the case of Jaynes, SNOW CRASH) but one that probably does not stand up to serious examination.


    POSTVILLE, U.S.A.: SURVIVING DIVERSITY IN SMALL-TOWN AMERICA by Mark Grey, Michele Devlin, and Aaron Goldsmith:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/22/2013]

    POSTVILLE: A CLASH OF CULTURES IN HEARTLAND AMERICA by Stephen G. Bloom (ISBN 978-0-156-01336-9) was released in 2001 and told the story of Postville, Iowa, a small homogeneous farming town which suddenly found itself with a large Hasidic population and a large Latino population when the Rubashkin family bought an old meat processing plant and revived it as the largest kosher meat-processing plant in the United States. There were some rocky moments but things seemed to be working out.

    Then the roof caved in (figuratively speaking). Immigration and Customs Enforcement swooped down on May 12, 2008, and arrested 378 illegal workers as well as several company officials. The result was that the main employer of the town was shuttered, and many of the illegal immigrants who were not arrested were ordered to remain in Postville as witnesses, but forbidden to work. Thus they became a drain on the community, which was given no state or Federal assistance in feeding or housing these people. The plant tried to stay open, hiring a series of groups of people who could work legally: released convicts, homeless men and women, Palauans, and so on. Not surprisingly, this merely exacerbated the situation.

    POSTVILLE, U.S.A.: SURVIVING DIVERSITY IN SMALL-TOWN AMERICA by Mark Grey, Michele Devlin, and Aaron Goldsmith (ISBN 978-1-934848-64-7) is in some sense a follow-up look at Postville. Grey et al are somewhat dismissive of earlier studies of Postville, including Bloom's, because the authors and commentators did not have the academic credentials that they do. However, the fact that this book lacks an index does not fill me with confidence in their attention to detail either. In any case, I think the earlier book, while it has its flaws, was reasonable at the time. No one could predict the immigration problems would be as severe as they were, and Grey et al try to analyze why that was the case. They dismiss the notion of anti-Semitism, and note that other raids on meat-processing plants are on large corporations where the managers can reasonably claim ignorance of corporate policy, rather than a family-owned business where they cannot. I am not sure this is entirely plausible, since there are plenty of smaller companies that also get raided.

    In fact, most of what Grey et al have to say is fairly obvious, e.g., as long as people want cheap meat, companies will not pay their workers enough. And that if a company in a small town hires people from seven different ethnic groups with seven different languages and expects the town to provide interpreters for them in schools and hospitals and government offices, the town is going to go broke. And that a town that relies on a single employer to keep it afloat and pay for all the civic improvements is putting way too many eggs in one basket.

    Then again, like Michael Apted's "Up" series, there is something fascinating about revisiting Postville every few years to see how it is doing.

    THE MUSEUM OF HOAXES by Alex Boese:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/18/2006]

    When I buy books, they go on my "to-read" queue, which is mostly a "first-in-first-out" queue. But there are really three kinds of books in it--"obligation" books, regular books, and "popcorn" books. The obligation books get read early because I have to review them, vote on them, or return their to the library by a certain date. The regular books get read more or less in sequence. But the popcorn books get read whenever I just want to enjoy myself. THE MUSEUM OF HOAXES by Alex Boese (ISBN 0-452-28465-1) is a popcorn book. This does not mean it is not well-researched, or well-written. It just means that I had a lot of fun reading it.

    "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" by Brooke Bolander:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/30/2017]

    "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016): Okay, a short story doesn't give you much room to develop a story, but surely one could develop more than this, which is little more than "boy kills girl, girl takes revenge", although "girl" is not entirely accurate).

    "The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat" by Brooke Bolander:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/21/2019]

    "The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat" by Brooke Bolander struck me as a rather run-of-the-mill feminist fantasy story--okay, but not Hugo-worthy.

    A YEAR WITHOUT MADE IN CHINA by Sara Bongiorni:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/17/2009]

    A YEAR WITHOUT MADE IN CHINA by Sara Bongiorni (ISBN-13 978-0-470-11613-5, ISBN-10 0-470-11613-7) is Bongiorni's description of trying to go an entire year without buying anything made in China. Her reasons seem a bit vague--she claims not to be opposed to Chinese goods per se, and was willing accept them as gifts. Indeed, at times she basically asked people to give her children specific things that they wanted that were made in China. And she spent a lot of time explaining to her children, and friends, and us, that it was not that she disliked China, or that China was bad. Also, her efforts were mostly at the end-product level, because it became obvious that one could not always tell where the parts for something were made (though she did try). Bongiorni seems to vacillate between spending a lot more money to avoid something made in China and conniving to get as a gift something she (or more often, her son) wants that is made in China. It is also not clear how much buy-in she had from her family on this project that they were involved in. While there are interesting anecdotes about trying to find children's shoes or sunglasses, it mostly seems like an undirected experiment, sort of like deciding not to buy anything made with plastic. (Or perhaps even less directed than deciding not to buy anything made with plastic.)

    HIDDEN HISTORY by Daniel J. Boorstin:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/07/2003]

    I recently read Edward Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Why? Because I read Daniel J. Boorstin's HIDDEN HISTORY, and he praised Gibbon, along with explaining why Americans have a sense of community not found in Europe, and why the Adams family went into rapid decline after its early prominence.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/03/2009]

    A few years ago, Baker Street Studios published a series of short collections of Sherlock Holmes pastiches. In 2008, these were picked up by F. A. Thorpe for its "Large Print Linford Mystery Library" (under the auspices of The Ulverscroft Foundation, which deals with research and treatment of eye diseases). The first of these that I read was SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE GIANT'S HAND by Matthew Booth (ISBN-13 978-1-84782-142-3, ISBN-10 1-84782-142-1), originally published in 2004. It contains three stories: "The Adventure of the Giant's Hand", "The Adventure of the York Place Prophecy", and "The Adventure of the Hollow Bank". These are based on the following off-hand references in actual Doyle stories:

    "As I turn over the pages, I see my notes upon the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby, the banker. Here also I find an account of the Addleton tragedy, and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow." ["The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez"]

    "Of all the problems which have been submitted to my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, for solution during the years of our intimacy, there were only two which I was the means of introducing to his notice--that of Mr. Hatherley's thumb, and that of Colonel Warburton's madness. Of these the latter may have afforded a finer field for an acute and original observer, but the other was so strange in its inception and so dramatic in its details that it may be the more worthy of being placed upon record, even if it gave my friend fewer openings for those deductive methods of reasoning by which he achieved such remarkable results." ["The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"]

    "You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day. I can't afford, therefore, to smile at your three broken busts, Lestrade, and I shall be very much obliged to you if you will let me hear of any fresh development of so singular a chain of events." ["The Adventure of the Six Napoleons"]

    Booth does an excellent job--he maintains the Victorian-era atmosphere and does not encumber his stories with feminists, sexual adventures, or any other "updating". The only problem for Americans is that these British imports may seem a bit pricey, running about US$20 each for about 35,000 words. If each volume were a single story, it would be novella-length rather than novel-length.

    (The same day I read the parsley story, I also ran across the parsley quote in a completely different context!)

    ENTER DR. NIKOLA! by Guy Boothby:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/27/2005]

    Guy Boothby's ENTER DR. NIKOLA! (ISBN 0-87877-032-1) has a copyright date of 1975 for Newcastle Publishing. Although there is a note on the cover that says "former title: A BID FOR FORTUNE", there is no real indication that the book was actually about eighty years old even in 1975 (it was written in 1895), or that it is the first book of a series and does not have a real ending. As an example of the genre of "super-villain" story that pre-dated Sax Rohmer's "Fu Manchu" (who first appeared in 1912) and similar works, it is of some historical interest, but not very satisfying for general readers.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/07/2008]

    FREE FOR ALL: ODDBALLS, GEEKS, AND GANSTAS IN THE PUBLIC LIBRARY by Don Borchert (ISBN-13 978-1-9052-6412-4, ISBN-10 1-9052-6412-7) is an anecdotal account of Borchert's experiences in a public library in the Los Angeles area. He does not tell us the actual city, but instead refers to it as "Bay City". Fans of Raymond Chandler will recognize this as the city that Philip Marlowe had the most problems with, because the police there 1) thought they were a law unto themselves, and 2) hated private detectives (along with minorities, the poor, and anyone else who did not fit their notion of who should be allowed in Bay City). Borchert's description of the police in his city seems somewhat similar, though in a much toned-down fashion. It is more like what an Indian friend of ours described around here. This friend was stopped for some sort of traffic violation and was addressed rather rudely by the policeman when he asked for his license. When our friend opened his wallet to take out his license, his Bell Labs ID was facing it. Suddenly the policeman became much more polite, with "Mr." this and "Mr." that. (Chandler's Bay City was actually Santa Monica, but that does not mean Borchert's is.)

    GRAVEN IMAGES by Ronald V. Borst:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/02/2003]

    GRAVEN IMAGES by Ronald V. Borst is basically a picture book of classic (and not so classic) posters and publicity materials for science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, starting from the silent era up through the 1960s. There are long essays on each decade written by well-known authors such as Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison (the former was more interesting than the latter), but one gets this book for the illustrations.

    FROM HOLMES TO SHERLOCK by Matthias Boström:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/08/2017]

    FROM HOLMES TO SHERLOCK by Matthias Boström (ISBN 978-0-8021-2660-3) is a history of Sherlock Holmes from the original conception of the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the present portrayals in film, television, and other popular media, along with the creation and growth of organized Sherlock Holmes scholarship and fandom. But it is more a series of anecdotes than a continuous history, and Boström has a distinctive writing "trick": he will introduce a famous character giving just his first name or nickname), write two or three pages about him, and then reveal his full name. (E.g., "George loved working outside. He was always chopping wood, ..." and then two pages later, "Even though he told a lie, George Washington was praised by his father.") It is clever the first one or two times we see it, but does become tedious after a while.

    Boström has included a lot of information about the publication and portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on the Continent, which most histories ignore. On the other hand, he mentions Clive Merrison's achievement only in passing. Merrison is the only actor to have portrayed Holmes in a dramatization of every one of the canonical stories, as well as several newly written ones, yet it is mentioned only as a contrast to Jeremy Brett's (failed) attempt to do so. (And a word for Michael Williams, who played Watson in all of these.)

    Because this traces so much of the previously undocumented history of the scholarship and fandom, as well as of the copyright status, disputes, and machinations which have impacted everything Sherlockian, it is a must for the serious Holmes fan.

    "The Compleat Werewolf" by Anthony Boucher:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/11/2018]

    "The Compleat Werewolf", by Anthony Boucher (Unknown Worlds, April 1942): This is a fun piece. There is not a lot of philosophy or social commentary or complicated science, but rather an enjoyable and entertaining work. One wonders why this was never made into a film.

    "We Print the Truth" by Anthony Boucher:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/17/2019]

    "We Print the Truth" by Anthony Boucher is a clever idea, perhaps dragged out a little too long, but definitely enjoyable. If the idea of a supernatural wish that makes everything a newspaper prints comes true sounds familiar, it may be because the "Twilight Zone" episode "Printer's Devil" had the same plot, although that was credited as being based on a story by Charles Beaumont titled "The Devil, You Say". Maybe it is just a very common idea. Or maybe not. At any rate, Boucher seems to have gotten there first.

    "Q.U.R." by H. H. Holmes (Anthony Boucher):

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/31/2019]

    "Q.U.R." by H. H. Holmes (Anthony Boucher) is of interest mainly in how off-base its assumptions are. In particular, Holmes/Boucher seems to assume that robots will start out as humanoid in form, and only later become more specialized. In reality, robots started out entirely "usuform" (e.g., robots on automobile assembly lines), with any humanoid robots merely gimmicks that barely worked. One need only watch the M.I.T. robot competition for robots that need to climb stairs and do other specific tasks to see why insisting on a humanoid robot is a foolish requirement. Of course, there is also the same emphasis on drinking that one found in "The Proud Robot". (Other stories on the Retro Hugo ballot have everyone smoking as well.) There is also a not-so-subtle parallel to the racism of the time. It is ironic that some stories have this sort of parallel as a negative comment on the attitudes of the time, while others seem to unconsciously reflect them. Should I add then women rarely appear in these stories at all?

    PLANET OF THE APES by Pierre Boulle:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/20/2009]

    The Middletown science fiction discussion group chose PLANET OF THE APES by Pierre Boulle (translated by Xan Fielding (ISBN-13 978-0-345-44798-2, ISBN-10 0-345-44798-0) for March. Now, I recently read a book (to be reviewed in a future issue) in which the author seemed unfamiliar with Newton's Laws of Thermodynamics. Boulle seems to be similarly unacquainted with Newton's Laws of Motion. On page 4, he describes a solar sail: "Thus, when Jinn wanted to increase his speed, he gave [his spherical sail] the biggest diameter possible. It would then take the blasts of radiation on an enormous surface and the vessel would hurtle through space at a furious velocity.... When, on the other hand, they wanted to slow down, Jinn pressed a button. The sail would shrink until it became a sphere just big enough to contain them both, packed tightly together. The effect of the light became negligible, and this minute bubble, reduced to nothing more than its own inertia, seemed motionless, as though suspended in the void by an invisible thread." No, its own inertia would keep it moving at that "furious velocity." Boulle, I believe, confused inertia with friction, and forgot that the spaceship was traveling in a vacuum.

    It is true that Boulle is writing social satire, not "hard science fiction." But he seems to forget his characters are on another planet when the narrator describes the humans as being perfectly human, even saying, "I saw she belonged to the white race," [page 29] and having the gorillas wear shirts and jackets "which seemed to be made by the best Paris tailor" [page 60].

    I commented in my review of Leopoldo Lugones's "Yzur" that in Spanish there is only a single word which encompasses both monkeys and apes ("mono"), and the translator chose to use "monkey" when "ape" would have been correct. Well, here too, one finds Fielding using "ape" and "monkey" interchangeably as a translation of the French word "singe" (I assume--I don't have a copy of the novel in French).

    Boulle also writes something that may have been scientific belief in 1963, but has since been discredited. "He told me there were learned scientists who spent a large part of their time trying to teach primates to talk. They claimed that there was nothing in the conformation of these animals to prevent it." [page 79] As it happens, I read PLANET OF THE APES during the same period I was listening to the Teaching Company course "The Story of Human Language", and the first lecture discusses the impossibility of speech in non-human primates because of the lack of a gene named FOXP2, which is necessary for the development of language skills. And then I also read a "National Geographic" article on Neanderthals which also discussed gene FOXP2, and its presence in Neanderthals!

    A big problem with the movie is that, due to limitations in prosthetics, special effects, etc., in 1968, we are presented with apes who are shaped like humans with ape heads. In the book, the apes are apes, down to the detail of wearing gloves rather than shoes on their feet. In the movie, their skeletal structure is clearly human, and their feet have boots on them. In addition, in the movie, the ladders, stairs, etc., are clearly designed for humans, and the apes are no better at climbing a ladder than a human would be. (The more recent film was able to use digital effects to somewhat overcome this problem.)

    BLACK MAGIC by Marjorie Bowen:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/11/2003]

    Another novel from James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock's list [of hundred best fantasy books in English] was Marjorie Bowen's BLACK MAGIC. This is an historical romance involving black magic and the Anti-Christ. (I suppose it's sort of alternate history, because it has a Pope Michael II following a Pope Sylvester, and there was no such succession in our history, and indeed, all the Sylvesters seem to be much earlier than the time period of the novel.) One problem seems to be that Bowen has a major revelation towards the end that should be obvious to readers in the first fifty pages or so. My guess is that readers of the time (Bowen wrote BLACK MAGIC in 1909) might have been less familiar with such tricks. Or maybe it's not supposed to be a surprise. Even given all that, however, it holds up well.

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/23/05]

    For those of you attracted to old classic horror novels, but put off by the exorbitant prices these out-of-print works garner at antiquarian books stores, good news: Matthew Lewis's THE MONK is now available in a Dover Thrift Edition (ISBN 0-486-43214-9). And Marjorie Bowen's BLACK MAGIC (reviewed in the 04/11/03 issue of the MT VOID) is available as an Adobe download through


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/27/2006]

    Another book I looked at but did not read: FROM THE FILES OF THE TIME RANGERS by Richard Bowes (ISBN 1-930846-35-5) looked like it would be similar to Poul Anderson's "Time Patrol" series, but by the time Bowes has added the Greek pantheon (among other things) there is not much resemblance. This is a "mosaic novel" (a.k.a. "integrated collection", a.k.a. "fix-up novel"), but with the components much more interleaved than one usually finds. It is possible I would have liked the individual pieces more; I may go back and see.

    KALLOCAIN by Karin Boye:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/08/2016]

    KALLOCAIN by Karin Boye (Bonnier): This is a Swedish novel, not translated into English until 1956, so technically the form that is the finalist is the Swedish-language version. Most votes, though, will be reading the English translation. How did such an odd choice make the final ballot? Well, the nominating pool consists of the members of the previous, current, and next Worldcons. The next Worldcon is being held in Finland, right next door to Sweden, and many Finns are fluent in Swedish, so this work is probably well-known to the Finnish members, who may have thought it would be nice to have something of the literature of their region represented. However, since only members of this year's Worldcon can vote on the final ballot, I suspect this will not do very well. (It is available free, in English, online, so diligent voters can at least give it a fair chance--although I feel obliged to note that it is Swedish version that was nominated, not the translation.)

    The book itself is about a dystopia--common enough now, but people often think it started in 1948 with George Orwell and 1984. Of course, Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD dates back to 1932, but even that was not the first--Yevgeny Zamyatin's WE (1921) is often cited as the ur-dystopia, and given that Boye visited the Soviet Union in 1928, it is possible that she was familiar with Zamyatin's work, or perhaps she drew her ideas from the society itself. "Kallocain" is a truth drug developed by the narrator that will let the authoritarian state control its citizens even more closely. While Boye does not achieve the level of realism in characterization that Orwell does, KALLOCAIN is certainly a worthy addition to the dystopian genre. If I rank it a smidge below THE ILL-MADE KNIGHT, it's that White has a very poetic style that adds to the enjoyment of the work, while Boye's work (or at least the English translation) is flatter. One might argue that is in part the nature of the subject, but there it is.

    TREKS NOT TAKEN by Steven R. Boyett (Sneaker Press/Midnight Graffiti, ISBN 1-882813-05-7, 1996):

    "Call me irresponsible. Some years ago--the stardate is unimportant now--the irresistible motivation of several outstanding warrants and the certainty of my impecunious nature, caused me to enlist about a Federation starship, for just as some men hold the briny Sea in their hearts, I have empty Space in my head."

    That's just one sample from this book of twenty selections, showing how some famous authors might have written Star Trek: The Next Generation, had Hollywood waved the money in front of them.

    My only real complaint with this is that Boyett concentrated more on modern authors than on the authors of the so-called Western Canon. I would have liked to see Shakespeare's "Merry Ensigns of Windsor," or Jane Austen's "Mansfield Trek" or Charles Dickens's "Data Copperfield" or even George Eliot's "Romulan." (And I would have thought that "The Brothers Data" by Dostoyevsky was an obvious entry.) But we do have Melville, Joyce, Hemingway, and Conrad. We also have Rice, Clancy, Vonnegut, and Dr. Seuss.

    I read only the stories for those authors with whom I had some familiarity (which was about three-quarters of them). And for these Boyett captured the style remarkably well, considering the wide range they cover. For anyone who enjoys reading a wide variety of authors and styles, I highly recommend this book. If you can't find it in your local bookstore, it can be ordered from Mark Ziesing (P. O. Box 76, Shingletown CA 96088,

    And as Boyett himself said, "I don't think [these] make any less sense than last year's Star Trek season."


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/11/2004]

    The stories in the anthology PRIME MINISTER PORTILLO AND OTHER THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED edited by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale (Politico's, ISBN 1-84275-069-0, #16.99), on the other hand, are almost all about speculations in British politics of the sort that hardly anyone in the United States will follow them. (One is about economic goings-on in the 1970s and led me to observe that had it been about American economics of that time period, it still would have been mostly incomprehensible to me.) They may be well-written, but I can't tell. They are even more incomprehensible than the more obscure episodes of "The Goon Show" or "I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again".

    "Citadel of Lost Ships" by Leigh Brackett:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/24/2019]

    "Citadel of Lost Ships" by Leigh Brackett is one of those stories that was based on the planetary knowledge of the time, particularly of Venus, but now is woefully outdated. However, that aspect of it is not the main story, merely the background for the characters, so it doesn't intrude enough to cause problems. What is more problematic is the lack of subtlety in its essentially libertarian message dressed up in science fiction trappings.

    "The Halfling" by Leigh Brackett:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/24/2019]

    "The Halfling" by Leigh Brackett is another story with outdated planetary science. But it is basically a horror story with science fiction trappings, and so the science is again not a major problem.

    "The Jewel of Bas" by Leigh Brackett:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/29/2020]

    "The Jewel of Bas", Leigh Brackett: The writing here is of a much higher level than some of the novelettes that I discussed last week. But then I hit the following: "[Children's] imaginations were still elastic enough not to see the ridiculous side. He always gave the Distance Cycle a lot of schmaltz." Schmaltz? Really? Yes, it's a perfectly good word, but totally wrong for this story of, if not strictly sword and sorcery, then something very close. It is as if in the middle of an Arthurian tale someone said to another, "Hey, dude, what's with the new threads?" In spite of that, it is quite good, and I find myself wondering if Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser did not owe some of their names and characters to Ciaran and Mouse.

    "Martian Quest" by Leigh Brackett:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/22/2016]

    "Martian Quest" by Leigh Brackett (Astounding Science-Fiction, Feb 1940): This is the sort of quintessential "we-have-a-problem-and-we-solve-it-with-science" story one expected of ASTOUNDING in the Golden Days. (These days, I guess we would call it a "science-the-sh*t-out-of-it" story.) Why Terra assumes that a chemist can solve any sort of science problem is not clear but even in Leigh Brackett stories, women were supposed to be more decorative and clinging than brilliant and clever. And of course it is dated in other ways, including the descriptions of Mars and of Venus.

    SHADOW OVER MARS (a.k.a. NEMESIS FROM TERRA) by Leigh Brackett:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/08/2020]

    SHADOW OVER MARS (a.k.a. NEMESIS FROM TERRA), Leigh Brackett: The finalists seem divided into two groups: the pulp stories and the "literary" stories. Graves and Stapledon were writing for a more general audience who expected style and characterization aimed at an older audience, while Brackett, Burroughs, and Mayne and Van Vogt were writing for a younger one. This shows in sentence structure and length, word choice, and so on. (If one were to assign reading levels to these, the Brackett et al stories might be 10-14 years old, while the Graves and Stapledon would be more like 14-adult.) This is not to say that the pulp stories cannot be exciting or enjoyable, but the others offer a deeper experience, and are (in my opinion) more Hugo material.

    "The Stellar Legion" by Leigh Brackett:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/22/2016]

    "The Stellar Legion" by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, Winter 1940): Just as "The Roads Must Roll" was a labor dispute dressed up in futuristic terms, this is a French Foreign Legion tale dressed up in planetary colonization terms.

    BOOKS AND READING: A BOOK OF QUOTATIONS edited by Bill Bradfield:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2004]

    "I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else along the way." --Franklin P. Adams

    Dover Thrift Books started out as classics old enough to be in the public domain. Sometimes this took the form of new poetry anthologies, but containing entirely public-domain material. A second form has been added, the anthology of quotations. One advantage of the latter is that you can include quotations from current authors and personalities without having to pay royalties. I just finished BOOKS AND READING: A BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, edited by Bill Bradfield (ISBN 0-486-42463-4), and you will be seeing many of the quotations in weeks to come leading this column.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/01/2013]

    And speaking of screenwriting, in THE CRAFT OF THE SCREENWRITER by John Brady (ISBN 978-0-671-25230-4) Ernest Lehman complains about how reviewers seem to assume that there is no screenwriter. He quotes a review of EXECUTIVE SUITE as saying, "Director Robert Wise then moves his drama to the boardroom for the final sequence," and then continues, "No. The director doesn't move the drama to the boardroom; the screenwriter moves it to the boardroom because that's where he and/or the novelist thinks it should be."

    (The classic story along these lines is how screenwriter Robert Riskin got tired of reading about how the director Frank Capra gave all his movies "the famous Capra touch," so he sent in a sheaf of blank paper for his next screenplay and said, "Let's see you give that the famous Capra touch!")

    But perhaps the best exchange in the 1981 book is from the interview with Paddy Chayevsky:

    Brady: Do you think your films will work ten years from now?

    Chayevesky: Sure, they'll hold up. Those are well-made movies, so they'll hold up well.

    Brady: I think of NETWORK, for example, a movie about television here and now, and I wonder if ten years from now...

    Chayevsky: NETWORK will hold up very well; NETWORK is a good picture. A good picture always holds up. I looked at my old TV shows; they hold up. They're period pieces. They deal with a world that is almost gone. But they hold up as statements of their time.

    Brady was clearly way off-track on doubting NETWORK's staying power, but Chayevsky was also wrong if he thought that ten years later it would be a period piece. It has now been over thirty-five years and it seems just as fresh as when Chayevsky wrote it. (I just re-watched it, and the only part that did not ring true was that there were only four networks.)

    Oh, well, as William Goldman (another interviewee) famously said, "Nobody [in Hollywood] knows anything."

    FATHER OF FRANKENSTEIN by Christopher Bram:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/05/2004]

    Another book made into a film was Christopher Bram's FATHER OF FRANKENSTEIN (made into GODS AND MONSTERS). As is often the case, I wish I had read the book first, as I found myself watching the movie in my head while I was reading it. This was pretty easy, as the book seemed to have been written very "cinematically" and the movie stuck closely to it. The book does have more background information about the making of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN that the movie was forced to leave out (for time reasons), so I would definitely recommend the book if you are a student of old films.

    THE CAT WHO COULD READ BACKWARDS by Lilian Jackson Braun:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/20/2004]

    My mystery discussion group chose Lilian Jackson Braun's THE CAT WHO COULD READ BACKWARDS (ISBN 0-515-09017-4) as this month's selection. It may be good for cat lovers, but I found it rather ho-hum, with the art milieu not really working very well for me either. I think with mysteries what appeals to someone is often very specific. Some authors have wide appeal (e.g., Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie), but there are a lot of authors--and series--that have a much more focused target audience. I wrote a while ago about Peter Tremayne's "Sister Fidelma" series (06/04/04), and Beth Sherman's "Jersey Shore" books (07/23/04). This is probably in that category.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/24/2003]

    I finished the third book of the new "Foundation" trilogy, which comprises FOUNDATION'S FEAR by Gregory Benford, FOUNDATION AND CHAOS by Greg Bear, and FOUNDATION'S TRIUMPH by David Brin. Of the three, Bear's book captures the feel of the original trilogy the best, and hence was the one I liked the most. I had some problems/complaints with the structure of the Benford, and while it could be that Brin's was more accomplished than Bear's, my feeling is that the goal should be to "mimic" Asimov more closely. (Which is not to say I didn't like Donald Kingsbury's PSYCHOHISTORIC CRISIS, but that was doing something else. Insert obligatory Walt Whitman quote here.)

    KILN PEOPLE by David Brin (Tor, ISBN 0-765-30355-8, 2002, 460pp, $25.95):

    I started my Hugo nominee reading with David Brin's KILN PEOPLE. (*) Now, a few months ago, I reviewed Frances Sherwood's THE BOOK OF SPLENDOR, featuring the Golem of Prague. And that it in turn was very similar to Lisa Goldstein's THE ALCHEMIST'S DOOR (which I had read a couple of weeks previously). And I added that apparently when it's time to golem, we golem. Well, evidently Brin had also decided it was time to golem. His premise is that in the future, people will be able to transfer their minds/personalities/souls (take your pick) into clay copies of themselves. These clay creatures do have the power of speech, but are called "golems" (as well as "dittos"). They also last only a day. There is a murder mystery involving the head of Universal Kilns. Their logo is a "U" and a "K", each in its own circle. Cute, right? But wait, there's more. The head of UK is Yosil Maharal, and other characters are named James Gadarene and Aeneas Kaolin. (There are competing golem producers named Tetragram Limited and Fabrique Chelm as well.) All this is very distracting, particularly when it turns out that Yosil Maharal chose that name for its connections, but (apparently) Kaolin and Gadarene did not.

    The main character is a detective, who uses this new technology to create copies of himself that can go off and work for/as him, returning to "inload" their memories of the day into him before collapsing into a lifeless heap of clay. There would seem to be all sorts of philosophical questions that these copies might ask--let's start with, "Why should I go off and investigate this crime instead of sitting in the sun all day?" (This is especially true for those copies created which end up with no chance of inloading their memories.) But instead we get four points-of-view investigating a murder mystery, and the points-of-view are the detectives and three copies of the detective. It's different, but I found it ultimately too confusing, and also eventually boring--somewhere about three-quarters of the way through the book, I didn't care what the big secret was, or who committed which crime, or how to manipulate the "Standing Wave" that was apparently one's consciousness. There seemed to be some good ideas here, but they were ignored or downplayed to make room for the mystery and the whole multiple point-of-view technique.

    So I have to say that while Brin raises some interesting questions, he doesn't deal with them well enough to suit my tastes.

    (*) Well, actually I had already read THE SCAR by China Mieville. Or rather, I had started it, but gave up partway through because it was not my cup of tea. And I had read Kim Stanley Robinson's THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT, which I did enjoy and think worthwhile. It is an alternate history, though frankly, its virtues are not that of alternate history per se. [-ecl]

    THE DA VINCI COD by Don Brine:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/30/2005]

    As Adam Roberts, he was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. As A3R, he wrote STAR WARPED. As A. R. R. R. Roberts, he wrote THE SODDIT and THE SELLAMILLION. As the Robertski Brothers, he wrote THE MCATRIX DERIDED. And now as Don Brine, he has written THE DA VINCI COD (ISBN 0-06-084807-3, or 978-0-06-084807-3). I haven't read the others (though THE SODDIT is on my shelf), but I suspect they are of similar style and quality to THE DA VINCI COD. Two things I'll say about that book--it's much shorter than THE DA VINCI CODE, and the conspiracy in it is almost as convincing. (The one problem is that it ultimately relies on a hitherto-unknown painting, while THE DA VINCI CODE relies on existing works of art, albeit often mis-described.) Brine/Roberts carries the parody through to every part of the book, including the disclaimer, the prologue, and so on. (I was reminded of Robert Sobel's alternate history FOR WANT OF A NAIL, which had a supporting bibliography and even a copyright page maintaining the alternate world.) I suspect people who found THE DA VINCI CODE convincing won't find this as amusing as I did.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/13/2015]

    THE ANATOMY OF REVOLUTION by Crane Brinton (ISBN 978-0-394-70044-1) was written in 1938 and revised in 1965. Whether in it originally, or added later, a lot of negative sentiments are expressed about the oppressive dictatorship in the Soviet Union, e.g., "Certainly the Russian peasants in 1917 wanted the land--but for themselves, not for a Marxist proletarian dictatorship." Reading this makes it feel, therefore, very much a book of the 1950s.

    Brinton claims, "... though the scientist is very careful indeed about matters of definition, and is as disdainful of sloppiness as any historian and of bad thinking as any logician, he distrusts rigidity and attempts at perfection. He is interested less in beauty and neatness of definition than in having his definitions fit not his sentiments and aspirations, but the facts. Above all he does not dispute over words. He is less interested in the accurate theoretical distinction between a mountain and a hill than he is in making sure that he is dealing with concrete elevations of this earth."

    Yeah, and Pluto is a planet.

    (And there are plenty of hills and mountains we talk about that are not on this earth.)

    Brinton also claims that before the American Revolution, "There were economic stresses and strains in colonial America, as we shall soon see, but no class ground down with poverty." Apparently, slaves do not even count as a class with him. (Indeed, slavery and serfdom are not even mentioned in the index.) One wonders how his theses about the anatomy of revolution would hold true if he included the Haitian Revolution as well as the English, American, French, and Russian. (He mentions the Haitian Revolution only as an anomaly, "one of the few examples of successful slave revolutions," meaning that it does not follow his rules, so does not really count. In fact, even he says that everything on his long list of "causes" of revolutions is present to some degree in all modern socieites, so that attempting to predict precisely when a revolution is brewing is a futile effort.

    TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/15/2017]

    When I was young, we watched WHAT'S MY LINE?, and at some point I asked my mother what Dorothy Kilgallen was known for. The answer basically, seemed to be that she was known for being Dorothy Kilgallen. Similarly, Vera Brittain seems to be best known for being Vera Brittain. She was a feminist, a pacificist, and a novelist, yet is best known now for her memoir TESTAMENT OF YOUTH (ISBN 978-0-143-03923-5), recounting her life before, during, and after World War I. Before the war, she managed to get accepted to Cambridge, and attended for a year. During the war, she served as a volunteer nurse. Hers is the major--perhaps only--memoir of World War I from a woman's point of view.

    [Spoilers ahead.]

    In THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, Josephine Tey's narrator is reading an historical novel(*) and relates its account of the scene of Cecily Nevill (the mother of Richard III) watching her husband, her brother, and her eldest son going off to war: "And Cicely, who in her time had seen so many men, and so many of her family, go off to war, went back to the house with an unaccustomed weight at her bosom. Which of them, said the voice in her unwilling mind, which of them was it who was not coming back? Her imagination did not compass anything so horrible as the fact that none of them was coming back again. That she would never see any one of them again."

    Brittain saw her fiance Roland Leighton off to war, then her brother Edward Brittain, and their two close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. None of them was coming back again; she would never see any one of them again. Leighton was shot December 23, 1915, and died the next day--the day that was supposed to be the first day of his leave and for which Brittain was cheerfully making preparations in England. Word arrived Christmas night. Her brother was the last of the four to die, in June 1918.

    Brittain served as a nurse in London, Malta, and France, and her descriptions of her work are enlightening. For example, the volunteer nurses received very little training or instruction from the registered professional nurses, because the latter feared the volunteers would be job competition after the war. (Brittain thought the concept that the volunteers would actually want to continue this work in any substantial numbers was ridiculous.) In London, the nurses were billeted quite a distance from the hospital and no transport was provided, so they often arrived at work drenched by rain. And in general, Brittain criticized the total lack of planning or thought that went into much of what she saw--and by extension, much of the execution of the war in general.

    One passage often quoted (at least by Americans) is her description of the arrival of American troops in France:

    Only a day or two afterwards I was leaving quarters to go back to my ward, when I had to wait to let a large contingent of troops march past me along the main road that ran through our camp. They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigour in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest.

    They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the under-sized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed. At first I thought their spruce, clean uniforms were those of officers, yet obviously they could not be officers, for there were too many of them; they seemed, as it were, Tommies in heaven. Had yet another regiment been conjured from our depleted Dominions? I wondered, watching them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect. But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent. Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of Sisters behind me.

    Look! Look! Here are the Americans!

    I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so God-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine! There seemed to be hundreds of them, and in the fearless swagger of their proud strength they looked a formidable bulwark against the peril looming from Amiens.

    An uncontrollable emotion seized me as such emotions often seized us in those days of insufficient sleep; my eyeballs pricked, my throat ached, and a mist swam over the confident Americans going to the front. The coming of relief made me realise all at once how long and how intolerable had been the tension, and with the knowledge that we were not, after all, defeated, I found myself beginning to cry.

    Brittain always argued against the rules placed on her as a female that would not apply to males. One example she wrote about happened during the war was when she was serving in a hospital in France and her father wrote to her, "As your mother and I can no longer manage without you, it is now your duty to leave France immediately and return to Kensington." Brittain wrote, "I read those words with real dismay, for my father's interpretation of my duty was not, I knew only too well, in the least likely to agree with that of the Army, which had always been singularly unmoved by the worries of relatives. ... I only knew that no one in France would believe a domestic difficulty to be so insoluble; if I were dead, or a male, it would have to be settled without me." She further wrote, "I find myself still hoping that if ... war breaks out on a scale comparable to that of 1914, the organisers of the machine will not hesitate to conscript all women under fifty for service at home or abroad. In the long run, an irrevocable allegiance in a time of emergency makes decision easier for the older as well as for the younger generation."

    (She wrote this well before World War II. Her hopes were not borne out, though I suspect whatever women were serving or volunteering in that war were not so cavalierly called home to tend to relatives.)

    Though her experiences during the war and with the League of Nations afterwards eliminated much of her provincialism, she was still able to write in 1933 of having acquaintances of "every shade of religious conviction from Roman Catholicism to Christian Science." From the diversity of today's world, this seems very narrow indeed, and reminds one of the famous comment by Dorothy Parker that Katherine Hepburn "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."

    Some things seem bizarrely topical today. Brittain writes of the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which raised the age of consent from 13 to 16, and removed "from the defense permitted to the assaulter the plea of 'reasonable cause to believe' that the child was over sixteen. This passed over strong opposition, and she rejoices, "I was conscious of quite a ferocious satisfaction because the plea made by a few gallant Englishmen that our liberties would be curtailed if the opportunities for attacking female children were made more difficult had not succeeded."

    [Note: Both the novel Tey mentions, THE ROSE OF RABY, and the author, "Evelyn Payne-Ellis" are figments of Tey's imagination. This makes me wonder how many of the sources cited in DAUGHTER OF TIME were also fictional. Most of the history books seem to be described rather than defined by title and author, though the descriptions and citations are fairly generic for the sort of book Tey is describing. Robert Piepenbrink says that the quotes attributed to Sir Cuthbert Oliphant are "word for word from Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman, a very distinguished historian of the period."]


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/08/2016]

    WHAT TO THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK edited by John Brockman (ISBN 978-0-06-242565-2) is a collection of almost 200 short essays on the title topic. It is apparently part of a series in which each volume is just such a collection on a topic chosen by the editors of

    Not surprisingly, there is a wide variety of opinions, and even of aspects, in the essays. Some seem more concerned about discussing the possibilities and probabilities of machines that think. Others are more concerned with what exactly we would consider a "machine that thinks." Still others discuss what the role of these machines would be. Needless to say, with such a wide range of approaches and opinions, there is something for everyone to agree with--and something for everyone to disagree with.

    The disagreement that I will mention here, though, is with something Brockman says in his introduction. He writes, "This year's contributors to the 'Edge' question are a grown-up bunch and have eschewed mention of all that science fiction and all those movies: STAR MAKER, FORBIDDEN PLANET, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, BLADE RUNNER, 2001, HER, THE MATRIX, 'The Borg.'" The implication that science fiction is not something "grown-ups" bother themselves with is insulting enough, but Brockman's claim is just wrong. John C. Mather writes that there is no guarantee that robots will follow Isaac Asimov's three Laws of Robotics" (also referenced by Brian Knutson, William Poundstone, S. Abbas Raza, and others). George Church discusses our enhancements and asks, "Should we disable or kill Harrison Bergeron?" Keith Devlin refers to "HAL-like devices that will eventually rule us." Anthony Garrett Lisi's essay is titled "I, for One, Welcome Our Machine Overlords". Rodney A. Brooks mentions warp drives. Several refer to Frankenstein's monster. Venturing into fantasy, Paul Saffo references Lord Dunsany. Moshe Hoffman and Chris Dibona even wrote what could be considered science fiction stories. And while Gregory Benford's piece is not science fiction, he has been known to write science fiction in the past while still remaining a grown-up.

    I can only conclude that Brockman does not recognize references to science fiction when he sees them, perhaps because science fiction has so infiltrated our common cultural heritage that they are not even noticed as science fiction (although I was somewhat surprised to see such an offhand, unexplained reference to Harrison Bergeron.)

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/14/2020]

    WHAT TO THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-242565-2) is a collection of about two hundred short essays on machine intelligence. It is definitely the sort of book one reads only a bit of at a time, but I have some comments even after reading just a half dozen essays. (Quelle surprise!)

    For example, Murray Shanahan says, "Surely nothing would count as having human-level intelligence unless it has language, and the chief use of human language is to talk about the world." There are at least three assumptions here, all (to my mind) questionable. First, there is nothing "sure" about saying that human-level intelligence requires language, especially since Shanahan has not defined "intelligence", let alone "human-level" intelligence. Apparently he does not think that infants have human-level intelligence, so he must think intelligence is not innate, but acquired, but this is not a universal belief. Secondly, he assumes we can define language, which is notoriously hard to do, particularly when some of the people defining it seem to be trying a priori to limit language to humans. As an example, the first widely accepted definition did not consider American sign language to be language. And thirdly, he seems to feel that since "the chief use of human language is to talk about the world," we must measure all languages against that metric. Needless to say, by this point I was unlikely to find conclusions based on these assumptions convincing.

    Steve Omohundro writes, "There have been at least twenty-seven species of hominids, of which we are the only survivors. We survived because we found ways to limit our individual drives and work together cooperatively." He seems to think that if we can build machine intelligences with this ability, we will not have to worry some sort of "machine apocalypse". What he doesn't add is that after we learned to work together cooperatively, we used this ability to wipe out other hominid species, which is why we are the only survivors. The idea that merely instilling cooperation among machines is going to help humans seems unlikely.

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/24/2020]

    I first commented on WHAT TO THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-242565-2) in the 02/14/20 issue of the MT VOID, and at the time said I was reading it one or two essays at a time. There being a couple of hundred essays, this is a long-term project, and I have a comments on a couple of essays I have just read.

    In "AI/AL", Esther Dyson writes, "If you're alive, you must face the possibility of being dead. But if you're AI/AL [artificial intelligence/artificial life] in a machine, perhaps not." Later, she refers to AI/AL being immortal, alive forever, and apparently aware of this. There are a couple of problems with this. First of all, if an AI/AL has no concept of its own possible death, how would that be any different that thinking itself immortal. One could claim that current AI thinks it is immortal in that it does not think it could die. But more importantly, the AI/AL is not immortal. The sun will eventually go dark, and even if it escapes, the heat death of the universe will overtake it (Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" to the contrary notwithstanding). Or is Dyson saying that the AI/AL will falsely believe in its immortality? In "Brains and Other Thinking Machines", Tom Griffith makes a dichotomy in learning I don't recall seeing explicated before between structure and flexibility. Structure attempts to fit new data in an existing framework; flexibility attempts to build a constantly evolving structure from new data. Both have their place, but both can lead to problems. Structure, for example, is what leads to errors from false cognates--as we had to be told in Spanish class, "Sopa isn't soap, and ropa isn't ropa." Flexibility leads to finding patterns in what is actually pure chance (or misinterpreted data).

    BUFFALO SOLDIER by Maurice Broaddus:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/22/2019]

    BUFFALO SOLDIER by Maurice Broaddus (ISBN 978-0-765-39429-3) is set in an alternate present-day America, with what is now the United States divided into (at least) Albion, Tejas, and the Five Civilized Tribes' area. Into this comes an African-Jamaican servant with his employer's offspring. There is no explanation of where the title comes from, nor why such people as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison exist in this timeline as well. It has certain similarities with THE BLACK GOD'S DRUMS by P. Djeli Clark, but I believe that the latter is far more rewarding.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/01/2003]

    Douglas Brode's SHAKESPEARE IN THE MOVIES is worth reading, even if I disagree with him on just about every movie I was familiar with. For example, Brode thinks Laurence Olivier's RICHARD III is better than Richard Loncraine's (Ian McKellen's). Not only that, but he attributes this in part to the idea that Olivier has more sex appeal than McKellen. I find this such a bizarre notion that I'm hard-pressed to accept it as serious: Olivier is totally unappealing, while McKellen has a dangerous edginess that is strangely attractive. Brode also dislikes Julie Taymor's TITUS and likes both the recent A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and Kenneth Branagh's LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST. He also places Baz Luhrmann's ROMEO + JULIET in Miami rather than southern California. While the angle of the sunlight (and the weather) during the beach scenes would seem to support this, the desert location of Romeo trailer argues rather strongly against it, and the milieu of both the city and the beach also indicate southern California. (Yes, I know Giacomo Puccini had a desert outside of New Orleans in the opera "Manon Lescaut"; it was wrong there too.)

    INTRODUCING AMERICAN POLITICS by Patrick Brogan and Chris Garratt:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/03/2006]

    INTRODUCING AMERICAN POLITICS by Patrick Brogan and Chris Garratt (ISBN 1-840-46098-9) was written in 1999 by two Brits primarily for a British audience. It is clearly not impartial; talking about internal party divisions, they say, "This ideological woolliness never strikes Americans as in any way odd." They also say that before 1947 "black athletes [baseball players] had played only in black teams against each other." First of all, at the very beginning of baseball, there were integrated teams. And secondly, even during segregation, there were exhibition games where black teams played against white teams. I suppose it is worth reading this to see what some British think of American politics, but a bit misguided to be read as an accurate look.

    DIAMONDS IN THE SKY edited by Mike Brotherton:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/01/2019]

    DIAMONDS IN THE SKY edited by Mike Brotherton (CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1-978-23392-8) is an anthology of "fact-based" space science fiction (it was funded by the NSF). It reads like the sort of science fiction one would have found in the 1950s, and may have been intended as a young adult book. The e-book is available free online.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/09/2010]

    THE CONSUMER'S GUIDE TO EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL CHOICES: PRACTICAL ADVICE FROM THE UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS by Michael Brower, Ph.D., and Warren Leon, Ph.D. (ISBN-13 978-0-609-80281-6 has a title that is almost longer than their "Seven Rules for Responsible Consumption". Basically, their take is that you should stop worrying about the small stuff (e.g., disposable paper cups) and concentrate on the more effective items (e.g., buying an energy-efficient refrigerator).

    Their seven rules actually can be collapsed into one. The first three ("Give special attention to major purchases", "Become a weight watcher", and "Analyze your consumption quantitatively", all really say the same thing: size matters. Major purchases are going to account for more energy use/pollution than minor ones, heavy purchases more than light ones, and larger usage more than smaller. "Don't worry or feel guilty about unimportant decisions" may be good advice but it doesn't do much for the environment. "Look for opportunities to be a leader" is only effective in conjunction with the first (collapsed) rule. As they note, "Buy more of those things that help the environment" only works if you do this to substitute for a more damaging item--buying a pair of shoes recycled from old tires is only effective if you buy them instead of a pair of leather shoes. (There are some exceptions--for example, replacing a perfectly good showerhead with a water-saving one is probably a good idea.) "Think about nonenvironmental reasons for reducing consumption" is back to reducing consumption, which was the first (and now only remaining) rule.

    What it all boils down to is that you need to reduce your consumption by some non-trivial amount. When you move, it's more important to live closer to work and have low-maintenance landscaping than to avoid paper plates when you barbecue and obsess over paper vs. plastic bags.

    WHAT BECKONING GHOST by Douglas G. Browne:

    In Douglas G. Browne's WHAT BECKONING GHOST (1947) the mystery is whether the supposedly supernatural happenings are really supernatural (a mystery that to some extent implies its own answer), and a chase through the London sewers that might have inspired Graham Greene's THE THIRD MAN.

    WARRIORS OF ALAVNA by N. M. Browne:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/07/2003]

    As a judge for the Sidewise Award for alternate history, I get a lot of alternate history books. I also get some that the publisher thinks might be alternate history, or at least might be construed as such. (And, as Patrick Nielsen Hayden noted at Boskone, if a particular category is popular, publishers will do what they can to market marginal material in that category.) So I received N. M. Browne's WARRIORS OF ALAVNA as part of a three-book shipment from England's Bloomsbury Press, none of which were precisely alternate history. All were what I would describe as young adult historical fantasy. In WARRIORS OF ALAVNA, the two protagonists, teenage students on a field trip to Hastings, get drawn back in time to Roman Britain, but also over to a parallel world in which magic works, and the historical characters are slightly different (though not noticeably). As a young adult historical fantasy, it's fine for twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, though perhaps better for Britons who understand the early history of their island than for Americans. (In passing, I will note that while I find it unlikely that the female protagonist could pass herself off as male for several days while marching and camping with a half-dozen male warriors, there is at least an implied explanation of why she can carry this out for a much longer time without other feminine issues intruding.)

    MURDER IS NO MITZVAH by Abigail Browning:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/13/2005]

    MURDER IS NO MITZVAH (ISBN 0-312-32506-1) edited by Abigail Browning has twelve crime stories on Jewish themes. (The subtitle describes them as "Short Mysteries about Jewish Occasions", but that is not at all accurate.) Of these, I had already read three in MYSTERY MIDRASH edited by Lawrence W. Raphael's MYSTERY MIDRASH: "Bread of Affliction" by Michael Kahn, "Kaddish" by Batya Swift Yasgur, and "Mom Remembers" by James Yaffee. In addition, both have stories by Ronald Levitsky, although not the same one. This overlap indicates to me that either these stories are classics or that the pool of possible stories for a Jewish mystery anthology is fairly small. "Mom Remembers" is from 1967, so it may be a classic, but the other two are a bit too recent for that claim yet. The stories are generally good, which is not surprising when you realize that eleven of them were previously published in either "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" or "Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine". (The twelfth, "The Jew's Breastplate" by Arthur Conan Doyle, is apparently in public domain, not a Sherlock Holmes story, and not all that good. It is probably included on the basis of the cachet that Doyle's name has, and it is at least centered around a Jewish object.) I think that MYSTERY MIDRASH is marginally better than MURDER IS NO MITZAH, but if this is more available to you, it's a reasonable choice.

    12 BYZANTINE RULERS by Lars Brownworth::

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/01/2013]

    I listened to the podcast "12 Byzantine Rulers" by Lars Brownworth (author of LOST TO THE WEST: THE FORGOTTEN BYZANTINE EMPIRE THAT RESCUED WESTERN CIVILIZATION, which Greg Frederick reviewed in the 01/04/13 issue of the MT VOID). This podcast (which predates the book) was not as good as "The History of Rome" podcast, and Brownworth made a couple of annoying errors. He repeatedly referred to "Richard the Lion-Hearted"--the correct appelation is "Richard the Lionheart". And he claims that Voltaire said, "Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it." While it is true that no one can find a definite reference to this quote, it is almost universally attributed to George Santayana.

    It also hits only the high points. While it does cover more than twelve emperors--it includes some background for each one, which usually means discussing an emperor or two before him--it omits a lot of the "connective tissue." After all, there were eighty-eight emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire.

    But Brownworth also makes some important points in a more accessible-length podcast. This is 18 episodes; "The History of Rome" is about 200, and "The History of Byzantium" podcast (which is the sequel to "The History of Rome") will probably be closer to the latter than to the former. In particular, Brownworth notes that the conquest and sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade was probably one of the main causes that allowed the spread of Islam in the Middle East and into eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. Had Constantinople remained, it could have stopped the Muslims. As it was, it held them back for eight hundred years, making Europe vastly different today than it would have been.

    He notes in this regard that in the West we learn that the Roman Empire fell in A.D. 476, and completely ignore the Eastern Roman Empire, which continued for almost another thousand years. It was the source of 40,000 of our 55,000 ancient Greek texts. Literacy vanished from the West, but flourished in the East. Justinian preserved and codified Roman law, which forms the basis of most Western law these days. As Brownworth concludes: "Thomas Cahill was wrong. The Irish didn't save civilization; the Byzantines did."

    (Even 1453 is an inaccurate year for the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, because Trebizond held out until 1460.)

    To listen to 12 Byzantine Rulers", click here.-->

    THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER by John Brunner:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/27/2015]

    THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER by John Brunner (ISBN 978-0-345-46717-1) was written in 1975, but is remarkably prescient about what life would be like in the twenty-first century. (Brunner acknowledges Alvin Toffler's FUTURE SHOCK, so I suppose it is not entirely surprising.) For example, Brunner writes, "He laid a slip of paper in front of her. It bore a message in firm clear handwriting, unusual now that most literate kids were taught to type at seven." We are now apparently just now at the point when children will no longer be taught cursive writing (except for their own signatures--heaven only knows what is supposed to happen when someone gets married and changes their name.)

    In his Delphi counseling Brunner anticipates crowd-sourcing as used by Wikipedia and others: Ask a very large number of people a statistical question, consolidate their replies, and "they tend to cluster around the actual figure as recorded in almanacs, yearbooks and statistical returns."

    As Brunner puts it, "It's rather as though this paradox has proved true: that while nobody knows what's going on around here, everybody knows what's going on around here."

    Brunner talks about buildings being "ecofast". We do not have that term, but we do have "green", which covers the same features: heavy insulation, recycling, garden areas, etc.

    In his description of late twentieth century geo-politics, Brunner is (not surprisingly) less accurate. (Can it be that technology is driven by the Tide of History and politics by the Great Man?) However, he was pretty accurate with his first Philippine woman president, Sara Castaldo. Brunner said she cut their annual murder rate in half. After the Philippines' first actual woman president, Corazon Aquino, took office, the crime rate did in fact drop considerably.

    On the one hand, Brunner talks about "computer remotes", which sound like dumb terminals connected to a mainframe somewhere (the common set-up in the 1970s). On the other hand, it is not clear that a tablet connected to the Internet does not fit Brunner's description just as well.

    Brunner anticipates the "murse": "the list of what people felt to be indispensible had long ago reached the stage when both sexes customarily carried bulky purses when bound for any but their most regular destinations." I have talked about this in the context of traveling--these days, the electronics I carry weighs almost as much as my entire suitcase did thirty years ago. Netbook, camera, cell phone, GPS, power cables, batteries, chargers, ... the list seems endless.

    But there is more to it than that. Watch a movie from the 1930s or so. When a man gets dressed, he puts in his pockets a thin wallet, a few coins, a handkerchief, and a comb. The wallet had a few bills, and maybe a union card or (rarely) a drivers license. A wallet now contains cash, credit cards (probably at least three), ATM/debit cards, a drivers license, an auto club card, a medical insurance card, a drug insurance card, a library card, several supermarket/restaurant/cinema discount cards, business cards, business cards for other people. a couple of photos, ... And it is not just a house key that he might carry (though back in the 1930s people did not seem to lock their doors all the time)--today's man carries a house key (or two, depending on his security system), a couple of car keys, a safe deposit box key, a mailbox key, an office key, a desk key, a briefcase key, ... And that is just the wallet and keys.

    (Okay, so that was a bit of a diversion.)

    "Having been prepared with a light-writer, which unlike old-fashioned mechanical printers was not limited to any one type style--or indeed, to any one alphabet, since every single character was inscribed with a laser beam at minimum power..." Laser printers were conceived in 1969, but the first commercial implementation was not until 1976.

    Brunner seems to have bought into outdated notions of sexual orientation, with the omniscient narrator saying of Halflinger, "Having been jilted by a girl, he teetered on the verge of turning skew [gay]..." (One is forced to say that if every male jilted by a female turned gay, there would be a lot more gay men around!)

    And there is something odd about Brunner's description of the characters in the first scene: we are told one is a white man, one is a black man, one is a woman, and the man in the chair is naked and shaven. Much later we find out in a roundabout fashion that the man in the chair is also black--perhaps Brunner avoids giving this detail at the beginning to make him someone we can all identify with (gender aside). But there is something about the idea that saying one character is a woman is considered sufficient to describe her, as if no other aspect of her appearance mattered.

    The ending of THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER would seem to presage the Eric Snowden, though whether the effect of the latter will match the former is still undetermined (though I would say doubtful).

    THE SUN, THE MOON, & THE STARS by Steven Brust (Orb, ISBN 0-312-86039-0, 1996 (1987c), 210pp, trade paperback):

    I've liked everything Steven Brust has written except for what people like the most. This probably says more about me than about his writing, but his Dragaeran novels leave me cold. On the other hand I loved To Reign in Hell and Agyar, and I loved this.


    Well, for starters, it's only about two hundred pages long. Brust understands that it is possible to write a good--a very good--book without making it a doorstop requiring construction equipment to lift. For another, he uses words carefully. ("We were in one of the newer dorms, all shiny and tiny and boring and beige.") Come to think of it, the two are related. Many authors seem to use words like a blunt instrument, the more the better. Brust uses them like a rapier.

    The book itself is similar to the other books in the "Fairy Tales" series (of which it originally was a part): a retelling of an old fairy tale in a modern setting. Brust interleaves the original fairy tale with the modern one (following a pattern used by some of the other authors in the series, as well as by Cecil B. DeMille in his original silent version of The Ten Commandments). (Or perhaps setting the pattern; I'm not sure where his book falls chronologically in the series.)

    The one thing that would have helped would have been a note on Hungarian/Romany pronunciation. The fact that Csucsk ri was hyphenated two different ways (pages 23 and 143) didn't help. This is, of course, a very minor quibble.

    So bravo to Brust for writing this, and bravo to Tor for re-publishing it after its rather brief initial appearance in 1987.

    FREEDOM & NECESSITY by Steven Brust & Emma Bull (Tor, ISBN 0-312-85974-0, 1997, 444pp, ):

    I have mixed feelings about Freedom & Necessity. On the one hand, it captures very well the feel of the nineteenth century epistolary novel (or first-person narration in general). On the other, it is slow-moving and hard-to-follow, in part because the various characters who are narrating are either concealing information from each other, or are simply mistaken about what is happening.

    The story is set in England of the mid-nineteenth century. Although several reviews have hinted that this is some sort of alternate history, it really seems at most a secret history, if that. Yes, there are real historical figures interacting with the main (fictional) characters, but that does not an alternate history make. So in this historical England, we discover that James Cobham, whom his family thought drowned --in fact, saw drowned--is in fact alive, though without any memory of what has happened in the months between his "death" and his re-appearance. Though he doesn't actually re-appear in a flourish, but only in secret and to his closest friends.

    In addition to trying to solve the mystery of James's absence, and avoid a more permanent demise, the characters also discuss Kant and Hegel and the British class system.

    One might ask at this point why this book is being promoted a s science fiction (or perhaps more accurately, fantasy). The answer is--I don't know. It seems more because Brust and Bull are known as SF authors than because of any inherent SF aspect to the novel. (I suppose that in itself may constitute a bit of a spoiler.) There are certainly goings on that have fantastical origins, meanings, or referents, but they are (so far as one can tell) completely mundane in actuality.

    And while there were aspects of the plot that held my interest, the resolution is too pat, too dependent on people acting in seemingly irrational ways, too dependent on people depending on people acting in irrational ways. Or, strangely enough, on people acting rationally when one would expect them to act irrationally.

    Ultimately, I think my problem with Freedom & Necessity is that it imitates the nineteenth century style without completing achieving its content or characterization. I like authors such as the Brontes and George Eliot, but while Freedom & Necessity captures some of their style, it doesn't quite capture their essence for me. (I realize that some might say that complaining that Brust & Bull are no George Eliot is an unfair comparison, but there you have it.)


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/28/2005]

    GALLIMAUFREY TO GO by J. Bryan, III (ISBN 0-440-20775-4) is a medley (which is what "gallimaufrey" means). One chapter talks about half a dozen eccentrics, another has a set of quotations about Christmas and descriptions of various customs for it, and yet another has notes about nature. Each quotation or description is very short, making this an ideal bathroom book. There are two questions Bryan asks in the "Information, Please" chapter that I'll ask here. One is "When was the last time there was no airplane in the skies anywhere?" And the second is "Has any important invention or discovery ever come from the southern hemisphere?" [Yes, the discovery of the South Pole. -mrl] I know Sir Ernest Rutherford came from New Zealand, but he made his discoveries elsewhere, so they probably don't count. [Actually. Roald Amundsen came from Norway, but I believe he was in the Southern Hemisphere at the time he discovered the South Pole. The view of the Pole is much better from the Southern Hemisphere. -mrl] I think that Gandhi's civil disobedience in South Africa might be one (although not the type of invention/discovery that Bryan is thinking of), or the Australian boomerang. (I asked this at a discussion group meeting, and Charles Harris suggested Christian Barnard's heart transplant technique.)

    RED ALERT by Peter Bryant:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/29/2014]

    Our film-and-book discussion group chose DR. STRANGELOVE; OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB [DSOHILTSWALTB] as the August film, and RED ALERT by Peter Bryant (ISBN 978-1-596-54581-6) as the book. This book has a strange history. It was originally published in 1958 in the United Kingdom as TWO HOURS TO DOOM under the pseudonym "Peter Bryant" (the author's real name was Peter George). The French translation listed the author as Bryan Peters. George later sued Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler for their 1962 novel FAIL-SAFE, which he claimed had an almost identical premise.

    George collaborated with Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern on the script of the film, and also wrote a novelization of it, released under his real name as DR. STRANGELOVE; OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. While they were filming DSOHILTSWALTB Kubrick was worried that the film FAIL-SAFE would eclipse DSOHILTSWALTB, so he sued the filmmakers, saying that he owned the creative rights to the novel RED ALERT, from which FAIL-SAFE had been plagiarized, and this delayed the opening of FAIL-SAFE by almost a year.

    So ... three titles, three author credits, three screenwriters, and two lawsuits. Is this a record?

    It is clear this is an old book. Early on, people are called to the Pentagon at 5:30 AM, and Bryant writes, "At that time of morning traffic was light. Even those living twenty miles out, by driving at eighty or ninety on the almost deserted highways, were able to report within fifteen minutes of the summons." Today, twenty miles out is probably a minimum, not a maximum, and even at 5:30 AM the roads would scarcely be "almost deserted."

    The plot is the basic plot of the movie, but without the Dr. Strangelove character or any of the satire or black humor. Much of it seems dated at this point, not just the traffic descriptions, but the stereotypes and racism. He writes, "He thought of the Russian peasant; stubborn, obstinate, accustomed to suffering and perhaps even welcoming it. Latent in all the Slavs, he thought, is the urge for self destruction, the mute acceptance of nemesis once nemesis is seen to be at hand." And if he's negative on Slavs, he thinks the Mongolians little better than animals.

    But probably the biggest way it is dated is that our existential threats these days do not come from large stockpiles of Russian missiles, or buried cobalt doomsday machines, but from an entirely different set of weapons and strategies.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/17/2006]

    THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID by Bill Bryson (ISBN 0-767-91936-X) is Bryson's memoir of growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s and 1960s. (As someone who lived in Rantoul, Illinois, from 1959 to 1964, I find a lot of what he writes about familiar. Bryson brings his usual dry humor to this topic, which is enough of a recommendation for those familiar with his work, but for those not, I would compare this to Jean Shepard's tales of his childhood in Hammond, Indiana, of a slightly earlier time. (Bryson writes about Fig Newtons and Shepard has a book called A FISTFUL OF FIG NEWTONS, so there are definitely cultural similarities.)


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/26/2003]

    And the "something blue"? Well, Bill Bryson's A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING had a blue cover. It could equally well have been titled LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, AND EVERYTHING, since it is about how the universe and our solar system came about, and how life arose and developed. Of course, the latter title was already taken. The book lacks much of the humor of Bryson's travelogues, thought there are a few witticisms scattered throughout. Bryson spends a lot of time talking about the people who actually made the great discoveries first, but then failed to achieve recognition, either by not publishing or by publishing in the wrong place or at the wrong time. All in all, it's a very readable history of, well, nearly everything.

    THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS by John Buchan:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/16/2010]

    THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS by John Buchan (ISBN-13 978-0-199-53787-7) is a classic espionage thriller. It is also a (possible) example of one of the recurring themes of this column: anti-Semitism in English literature of the early twentieth century. I say "possible" because most of the anti-Semitism in THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS is spoken by Franklin P. Scudder early on: "Besides, the Jew behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell. Do you wonder? ... For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. ... [If] you're on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bathchair with an eye like a rattlesnake." (One reviewer notes that he has seen very few bathchairs with eyes like rattlesnakes.) But later Sir Walter says of Scudder, "But all this about war and the Black Stone--it reads like some wild melodrama. If only I had more confidence in Scudder's judgment. The trouble about him was that he was too romantic. He had the artistic temperament, and wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be. He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, make him see red. Jews and the high finance." The problem, of course, is that this doesn't come until three-fourths of the way through the novel, by which point the attitudes expressed in the first passage have become fixed in the reader's mind.

    WRY MARTINIS by Christopher Buckley:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/15/2004]

    I did manage to sandwich in Christopher Buckley's book of humorous essays, WRY MARTINIS (ISBN 0-06-097742-6). As with all humor books, this is best taken in small doses, and not every essay worked for me. But some are great reading, especially the four-essay series on Tom Clancy and Buckley's recounting of the "Lenin for Sale" fiasco. Many of the rest have a political bent, but are fairly even-handed and, more importantly, funny.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/07/2011]

    I'm reading FROM HERE TO ECONOMY: A SHORTCUT TO ECONOMIC LITERACY by Todd G. Buchholz (ISBN 978-0-452-27482-6) in short pieces and as a historical artifact. (I apologize for the non-parallel construction in that last sentence.) Why in short pieces? Well, it is divided into sections, each preceded by a question and each only a page or two long. This makes it perfect bathroom reading. (Sorry, Todd.) But it is also because Buchholz feels obliged to pepper his writing with "clever" lines, such as "[If] one cosmetic surgeon in a medical partnership messes up a nose job, every other partner's nose will be out of joint, for their personal assets are in jeopardy if the rhinoplastered patient files a lawsuit."

    And why as a historical artifact? Because it was written in 1995, before the Internet bubble, the housing bubble, the current recession/depression, and a whole lot of other things not hinted at in the book. And one finds a lot of statements such as, "'Blue chip' refers to firms with long track records for turning profits and paying dividends. Of course, the track could turn bumpy, but firms with household names like GM and K mart receive so much attention, investors can usually expect that there'll be plenty of notice before they skid into a crash." Right. Or, "Further, by spending so much on defense in the early 1980s, the U.S. spurred the collapse of the Soviet Union, which should reduce future outlays on defense."

    Buchholz has a definite conservative tilt. But occasionally he will surprise the reader by saying things like, "A better approach would be to require individuals to get health insurance."

    ROGUE MOON by Algis Budrys:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/24/2014]

    In the book-and-film group, we read ROGUE MOON by Algis Budrys (ISBN 978-0-575-10800-4) as the book to go with the film MOON. The book was written around 1960, so it seems very dated in spots.

    For example, these days there is something called the Bechdel Test: are there two women in the novel (or film, or whatever) who talk to each other about something other than a man? (Other variants require the characters be named characters, or that the conversation last at least 60 seconds, presumably to avoid counting something like a checkout clerk asking, "Do you really want these onions?") But ROGUE MOON does not even get up to the level of applying the Bechdel Test. There are only two women, who never meet each other. (In fairness, there are very few male characters as well.)

    What I found more striking was how the characters were referred to. For example, in the first section of chapter 4, there are three pages in which we have only two characters. The man (Edward Hawks) is referred to by last name in every paragraph in which he moves, speaks, etc., totaling twelve references by name and four by pronoun. The woman is called by her full name (Claire Pack) in the first paragraph in which she is mentioned and by pronoun every time after that (thirty references in twelve paragraphs). I am not sure which is more annoying: the referencing of Claire almost universally as just "she", or the need to use her full name. (I was reminded of THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, when Sandy is talking to Miss Brodie about another student, Mary MacGregor, "I used to wonder why you always called Mary by her full name. I think it was because you had such a hard time remembering who she was."

    And it is not just the name references that seems (to me, anyway) to treat women as stereotypical characters, but the constant descriptions of their clothing, and the adjectives and adverbs chosen to describe their clothing, their actions, and everything about them.

    HARD LANDING by Algis Budrys:

    While we are talking about a work with a great sense of place, I should mention HARD LANDING by Algis Budrys (ISBN 978-0-446-36235-1), which has a major portion of it taking place in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. It is a book of characterization rather than of events, and its structure means that you will probably be lost for quite a while before things start to make sense, but that is part of what makes it intriguing.

    WHO? by Algis Budrys:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/15/2008]

    WHO? by Algis Budrys (ISBN-13 978-1-587-76010-5, ISBN-10 1-587-76010-X) was one of the books chosen for discussion by the Worldcon this year. I have read this before, but decided to re-read it.

    It has a New Jersey connection: Lucas Martino comes from Milano, NJ, which is supposedly near Bridgetown (also spelled Bridgeton). Milano doesn't exist, but Bridgeton does, and at the location described. And because it was written in 1958 and set in the 1960s, the book has some anomalies. Martino goes to "Mass Tech" (also called MIT). More seriously, there is no Vietnam War, and the result is a very "alternate history" feel to it.

    The premise is that an American scientist has been injured in an industrial/experiment accident near the Russian border, and has been repaired by the Soviets (who were closer than the Western doctors), but now has a metal head and one metal arm. The question facing the United States government is whether the man returned to them is Lucas, or whether he has been replaced. One problem with the book is that no one seems to take into account the possibility that the man is Martino, but that he has been brainwashed. Budrys eliminates fingerprints by saying that if they could attach a metal arm to a man, they could attach another man's arm instead. I'm not sure this is true, but even so, wouldn't Martino's footprint as a baby be on file? (Maybe not--it's possible that this is a more recent procedure.)

    The real problem is that it seems as though Budrys has pre-determined that it will be impossible to tell whether the man is Martino or not. Any possibility they come up with, they also come up with a reason why it won't work. Admittedly, the metal head rules out dental matches, but what about identifying marks or scars? Nope, he doesn't have any. Memories? He could have done research. And of course this was written before DNA analysis. In fact, what Budrys has given us is an example of non-falsifiability.

    THE CIVIL WAR by Ken Burns:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/18/2010]

    Having finally treated ourselves to a DVD copy of THE CIVIL WAR, and since we were planning on a trip to Richmond, we watched the series again. We have watched it three times in the last decade, and probably a couple more the decade before that, but it is a series that bears multiple watching. A historical perspective indicates how lucky Ken Burns was in making it. Not just the little things, but some of the big decisions. Could he have known how much Shelby Foote's comments would add to the series? And without the diaries of Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins, would he have had the thread that ran through the whole series? Did Burns realize how Jay Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell" would become a minor classic? Burns's story of the filming of 103-year-old Daisy Turner reciting the poem "The Boy We Loved So Well" about a soldier's death is a perfect example of this luck/serendipity: Apparently she just started it unbidden after her interview was finished, and Burns and the cameraman were smart enough to keep filming even though they were very near the end of the reel. In fact, they barely got the whole recitation.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/13/2011]

    A HISTORY OF HISTORIES: EPICS, CHRONICLES, ROMANCES AND INQUIRIES FROM HERODOTUS AND THUCYDIDES TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by John Burrow (ISBN 978-0-375-72767-2) is interesting only to the extent that the reader is familiar with the works being discussed. So while there are a few that have achieved relatively broad appeal (Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and Prescott's CONQUEST OF MEXICO, for example) discussions of works such as Giovanni Villani's CHRONICLE (of the history of Florence, written in the mid-fourteenth century) are unlikely to have wide appeal. It is odd that this was published by Vintage for the general public; it seems much more aimed at an academic audience. (It did make me want to go back and re-read Prescott, though.)

    "Decisions" by Michael A. Burstein:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/17/2005]

    "Decisions" by Michael A. Burstein ("Analog" 01-02/04) is yet another Burstein story with memory as an important, if not central, aspect. As with many of the stories nominated this year, there was a certain self-congratulatory note (for the human race, not for Burstein personally). It does seem as though there is a bit of a formula for getting nominated for a Hugo: say something positive about readers, or writers, or humanity, and you get an extra boost. I found the ending of this a bit hard to accept, in a couple of ways.

    "Paying It Forward" by Michael Burstein:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/09/2004]

    And "Paying it Forward" by Michael A. Burstein doesn't just verge on the overly sentimental; it crosses the line. A touching tale of a budding author who gets advice from the spirit of a well-established, but recently deceased, author via the Internet, it seems designed to appeal to writers more than the general audience, and to some extent plays on the feeling of loss we have for dead authors.

    "Seventy-Five Years" by Michael A. Burstein:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/19/2006]

    "Seventy-Five Years" by Michael A. Burstein (ANALOG Jan/Feb 2005)] is another story which had (to me) a fairly obvious "twist", and was heavy on the "message" element. I liked this sort of story back when I first started reading science fiction short stories--in many ways it is reminiscent of some of Isaac Asimov's or Arthur C. Clarke's stories--but now I think I want a bit more.

    "TelePresence" by Michael A. Burstein:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/19/2006]

    "TelePresence" by Michael A. Burstein (ANALOG Jul/Aug 2005) is in many ways the quintessential ANALOG story--and why I stopped reading it. Here, technology is wonderful, in spite of a few problems, and the message is hammered home in the most obvious lecture I have seen in a science fiction story in a while.

    "Time Ablaze" by Michael A. Burstein:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/10/2005]

    "Time Ablaze" by Michael A. Burstein ("Analog" 06/04) is a competent enough story, but nothing new or special. The entire plot was predictable from the beginning, and I have no idea why this made the ballot when there are so many more original stories around. This story does continue a theme I've seen in a lot of Burstein's work, that of memory and remembrance.


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/07/2018]

    THE IDEA OF PROGRESS by J. S. Bury (ISBN 978-0-486-25421-0) was written in 1931 or so. (It was published in 1932.) The world was in the depths of the Great Depression, but Bury could still see that humanity was making progress (or maybe he made himself see it). He could see that we would pass through the economic problems and resume our progress (though I doubt he foresaw that it would take another world war to heal the economy). But he was blind-sided by his faith in something that seemed so obvious then, and so false now:

    "As time is the very condition of the possibility of Progress, it is obvious that the idea would be valueless if there were any cogent reason for supposing that the time at the disposal of humanity is likely to reach a limit in the near future. If there were good cause for believing that the earth would be uninhabitable in A.D. 2000 or 2100 the doctrine of Progress would lose its meaning and would automatically disappear. It would be a delicate question to decide what the minimum period of time which must be assured to man for his future development, in order that Progress should possess value and appeal to the emotions. The recorded history of civilization covers 6000 years or so, and the idea of our conceptions of time-distances, we might assume that if we were sure of a period ten times as long ahead of us the idea of Progress would not lose its power of appeal. Sixty thousand years of historical time, when we survey the changes which have come to pass in six thousand, opens to the imaginations a range vast enough to seem almost endless.

    "This psychological question, however, need not be decided. For science assures us that the stability of the present conditions of the solar system is certified for many myriads of years to come. Whatever gradual modifications of climate there may be, the planet will not cease to support life for a period which transcends and flouts all efforts of imagination. In short, the possibility of Progress is guaranteed by the high probability, based on astro-physical science, of an immense time to progress in."

    The fact is that in 1931, we had no concept of "nuclear winter" or how the same effect could occur from, say, a meteorite. In retrospect, it seems obvious, especially since the earth had already gone through "the Year Without a Summer" in 1816 after the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. At any rate, the threat of a meteor strike was not on people's radar then (not that they had radar). Bury's belief that all climate modifications would be gradual and not so much as to threaten life is touching, if misguided. And while it may be true that life will survive, there is no guarantee that human life would do so. In this regard, Bury seems to put humans back in that privileged role as having some special protection from a higher power, or at least so it seems now that we have experienced the extinction or near-extinction of so many species.

    So what does this do to the idea of progress (or as Bury always writes it, "the idea of Progress")? Do we return to the ancient idea of cycles: humanity rises to a Golden Age, then sinks to the depths, then rises again, and so the cycle repeats? Or do we embrace the medieval Christian idea that we have our "Golden Age" in the Garden of Eden, and have been descending ever since, getting worse and worse until God ends the (earthly) world? Or is it more a progression of waves: the dinosaurs had their rise and fall, then the mammals (including humans), and after us some other form of life will take their place? The last has echoes of LAST AND FIRST MEN by Olaf Stapledon, since the "men" that follow use are truly different species. Or of Russell Hoban's observation in PILGERMANN: "We are, for example, clever enough to know that a year is a measure of passage, not permanence; we call the seasons spring, summer, autumn, and winter, knowing that they are continually passing one into the other. We are not surprised at this but when we give to seasons of another sort the names Rome, Byzantium, Islam, or Mongol Empire we are astonished to see that each one refuses to remain what it is."

    Of course, it is not just Bury who makes statements that seem foolish in retrospect. in the late 17th century, Charles Perrault wrote, "Our age has, in some sort, arrived at the summit of perfection. And since for some years the rate of progress is much slower and appears almost insensible.--as the days seem to cease lengthening when the solstice is near-it is pleasant to think that probably there are not many things for which we need envy future generations."

    Of course, a common feeling, first expressed by Jerome Cardan in the 16th century, and promoted by Francis Bacon in the 17th century was that the three greatest inventions of the Middle Ages were the compass, the printing press, and gunpowder. These were attributed to Europeans, of course, as the "advanced" race, and it was only later (recently?) that all three (and paper, often included in a "Big Four") were invented by the Chinese.

    Bury summarizes Rene Descartes' contribution to the idea of Progress as not embodied in his mathematics, but in the two basic principles he espoused: "the supremacy of reason and the invariability of the laws of nature." The former destroyed the appeal to authority that had led "natural philosophers" to rely on Aristotle and Aquinas without question, and the latter meant that there was no room for Providence--the intervention of God--in natural events. This led to a rise in Deism, the belief that God created the Universe and its natural laws, and then stepped back from it and let the Universe run itself.

    Bury also says, "At present the [human] race is not more than seven or eight thousand years old..." It may be true that civilization is seven or eight thousand years old, but the human race is closer to 200,000 years old.

    In a theme that has been repeated, more recently by Jared Diamond, "[Rousseau] ascribed to metallurgy and agriculture the fatal resolution which brought [the original] Arcadian existence to an end. Agriculture entailed the origin of property in land. Moral and social inequality were introduced by the man who first enclosed a piece of land and said, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him. He was the founder of civil society."

    L'AN 2440 by Sebastien Mercier was published in 1770; L'AN 2000 by Restif de la Bretonne was published in 1790. Both were forerunners of Edward Bellamy's LOOKING BACKWARD, and if one considers the latter science fiction, then Mercier and Bretonne are earlier science fiction authors than Mary Shelley.

    Bury does note, "You may establish social equality by means of laws and institutions, yet the equality actually enjoyed may be very incomplete."

    Bury's condensation of Kant's thoughts seem to be quite psychohistorical (in the Asimovian sense). "Individual men do not obey a law. ... The problem for the philosopher is to discover a meaning in this senseless current of human actions, so that the history of creatures who pursue no plan of their may yet admit of a systematic form."

    And finally, Bury, weighs in on the Great Man vs. Tide of History theories, with:

    "The reader of the PHILOSOPHIE POSITIVE will also observe that Comte has not grappled with a fundamental question which has to be faced in unravelling the woof of history or seeking a law of events. I mean the question of contingency. It must be remembered that contingency does not in the least affect the doctrine of determinism; it is compatible with the strictest interpretation of the principle of causation. A particular example may be taken to show what it implies. ...

    "It may plausibly be argued that a military dictatorship was an inevitable sequence of the French Revolution. This may not be true, but let us assume it. Let us further assume that, given Napoleon, it was inevitable that he should be the dictator. But Napoleon's existence was due to an independent causal chain which had nothing whatever to do with the course of political events. He might have died in his boyhood by disease or by an accident, and the fact that he survived was due to causes which were similarly independent of the causal chain which, as we are assuming, led necessarily to an epoch of monarchical government. The existence of a man of his genius and character at the given moment was a contingency which profoundly affected the course of history. If he had not been there another dictator would have grasped the helm, but obviously would not have done what Napoleon did.

    "It is clear that the whole history of man has been modified at every stage by such contingencies, which may be defined as the collisions of two independent causal chains. Voltaire was perfectly right when he emphasised the role of chance in history, though he did not realise what it meant. This factor would explain the oscillations and deflections which Comte admits in the movement of historical progression. But the question arises whether it may not also have once and again definitely altered the direction of the movement. Can the factor be regarded as virtually negligible by those who, like Comte, are concerned with the large perspective of human development and not with the details of an episode? Or was Renouvier right in principle when he maintained 'the real possibility that the sequence of events from the Emperor Nerva to the Emperor Charlemagne might have been radically different from what it actually was'?

    "[Footnote: He illustrated this proposition by a fanciful reconstruction of European history from 100 to 800 A.D. in his UCHRONIE, 1876. He contended that there is no definite law of progress: 'The true law lies in the equal possibility of progress or regress for societies as for individuals.']"


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/28/2006]

    JULES VERNE: THE DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY by William Butcher (ISBN 978-1-56025-854-4 or 1-56025-854-3) has a definite agenda: Jules Verne has been completely misunderstood, mis-interpreted, and mis-translated by everyone except (apparently) Butcher. One point he claims is that Verne did not write science fiction. That Butcher is not clear what this means is clear from the fact that he refers to PARIS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY as an "anti-science fiction novel". Anti-science, perhaps, but then all novels are "fiction novels". No, Butcher must think that being negative on technology makes something "anti-science fiction", or "anti-science-fiction". Butcher seems to think that because rudimentary submarines existed when Verne wrote TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, that novel was not science fiction. (At least he makes no such claim about the spaceship in FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON.) A further irony is that in spite of Butcher's protestations that Verne is not a science fiction writer, the introduction for this biography is by Arthur C. Clarke, and the back blurb is by Ray Bradbury--two authors best known as science fiction authors.

    Butcher also leaves loose ends. He writes, "Verne is the most read of all writers--nine times as much as the next Frenchman." The citation for this is Charles-Noel Martin's Ph.D. thesis, but I would like to know what this statistic is based on--and who the next Frenchman is. The citations are done in an academic style that makes them hard to decipher; the index has errors. (At least one title I looked up was supposed discussed on page 225, but I cannot find anything on that page or either of the adjacent ones.) No one disagrees that most of the translations of Verne until very recently have ranged from poor to execrable. But Butcher is so adamant about how everyone was unjust to Verne that even though it is all true, it becomes tiresome. In fairness, I should add that also tells how unfair Verne was, with so many stories of plagiarism, racism, anti-Semitism, and general obstreperousness that one finds it hard to gather a lot of sympathy for Verne either.

    Butcher also spends a lot of time detailing all thirty-three addresses where Verne lived, every trip he ever took, and so on. I suppose for a Verne scholar this might be a valuable book, but for the average reader, your money would be better spent buying some of the recent, accurate translations of Verne's works from Oxford, Weslyan, and others.

    KINDRED by Octavia Butler:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/23/2015]

    KINDRED by Octavia Butler (ISBN 978-0-807-08369-7) has a premise similar to that of Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Mars" series and Richard Matheson's BID TIME RETURN: a protagonist from the present gets pulled to somewhere or somewhen else by the sheer power of mind. In the Matheson and the Burroughs, it is entirely the protagonist's will; in KINDRED, Dana's transportation is sometimes due to her will, but sometimes due to that of Rufus.

    What Mark noted, though, is that although KINDRED is almost invariably called science fiction (when it is not an African-American proto-slave narrative), it is really fantasy. The Matheson is generally called fantasy, and the Burroughs may get a pass because it does take place on Mars.

    (Wikipedia says "While most of Butler's work is classified as science-fiction", making one think it may categorize this as fantasy, they go on with "KINDRED crosses disciplinary boundaries and so is often shelved under literature or African-American literature." It does note, however, that Butler herself called it "a kind of grim fantasy.")

    What is also notable is that in an era when African-American science fiction authors were fairly scarce (and female African-American authors comprised pretty much entirely of Octavia Butler), this novel became one of the few novels of the fantastic that gained widespread popularity as the subject of book discussion groups and school reading lists.

    The book itself is considered to fall into the "realistic" (or at least "non-romantic") category of slave narratives, although Butler admits that she realized that she needed to sanitize slavery at least somewhat, or no one would read the book. Still, it is a much stronger picture of the evils of slavery than many of the books preceding it had been (it was published in 1979). For a long time, books about the South and slavery tended either to romanticize it (think GONE WITH THE WIND), or avoided being too graphic in their descriptions. While KINDRED is probably not as graphic as a novel today might be, it was still much more explicit than most popular novels had been.

    One noticeable flaw is the opening/ending, which is a classic teleportation issue, yet given no rational cause. Why that time and no others? It seems to be there merely to provide a physical manifestation of Dana's emotional state.

    STEINBECK'S GHOST by Lewis Buzbee:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/27/2009]

    This is the time of year when I find myself reading several alternate history novels as part of the Sidewise Award judging. I vow to keep up through the year, but some books don't look that good, and I hope other judges will read them first and let the rest of us know we can skip them. Others are unavailable at the library, and the publishers somehow wait until the "last call" to send copies. So here I sit with a book about dragons fighting the Napoleonic Wars (book 4 for a series), a book in which several communities are all flung back in time to the Cretaceous (obviously book 1 of a series, and distantly related to another series as well), a book about a different geography (book 2 of a series), and a few books that actually seem to stand on their own. But it's hard to bring myself to read those, when I can read a really enjoyable book like STEINBECK'S GHOST.

    STEINBECK'S GHOST by Lewis Buzbee (ISBN-13 978-0-312-37328-3, ISBN-10 0-312-37328-7) was probably inspired by the announcement in late 2004 that the Salinas Public Library was going to close because of lack of funds. Salinas was John Steinbeck's hometown, the town he wrote about the most, and for many years now has housed a very impressive John Steinbeck museum which draws a lot of tourists. So the closing of the library was not just sad, it was ironic.

    In STEINBECK'S GHOST, teenager Travis Williams has just moved to a new neighborhood, hardly sees his parents because they have started working late every night, and then discovers that they are closing his favorite place--the library. On top of all this, he starts seeing characters out of Steinbeck's stories around town, and someone--Steinbeck's ghost?--in the upper window of Steinbeck's old house.

    I would like to believe that someone who obviously loved books and libraries as much as Travis would receive the acceptance that he does rather than be considered a dork. To be fair, he at least is concerned about this, but the book does really show this as a problem. In fact, in spite of video games and cell phones, the Salinas of this book seems like a town from twenty years ago, or more. All the books that Travis loves are older books: A WRINKLE IN TIME, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, and so on. There was some mention of Harry Potter for Halloween costumes, but no one seems to be reading the "Ender" books or anything else recent.

    However, if you can exercise a willing suspension of disbelief, the book is a delight for people who love books, and writers, and readers, and libraries. (It is no coincidence that Lewis Buzbee has also written the non-fiction book THE YELLOW-LIGHTED BOOKSHOP.)

    (Oh, and not to leave you in suspense: when word of the library's imminent closing appeared in the press, Salinas was pretty much shamed into keeping it open.)


    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/07/2007]

    THE YELLOW-LIGHTED BOOKSHOP by Lewis Buzbee (ISBN-13 978-1-55597-450-3, ISBN-10 1-55597-450-3) is a paean to the bookstore, through the ages and in the present. Buzbee worked in several bookstores in the San Francisco area, and has shopped in many more. While I suspect that the description of various bookstores in the last chapter may already be out of date, the book as a whole is something all bookstore lovers will want to read.

    LITTLE AMERICA by Richard E. Byrd:

    [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/03/2012]

    LITTLE AMERICA by Richard E. Byrd (1931, no ISBN) is Byrd's account of his polar exploration expedition involving the establishment of "Little America" and the first flight over the South Pole. One interesting historical note: Byrd spends a lot of time talking about who got to which parts of Antarctica first, and in particular which countries can claim which part. The subsequent Antarctic Treaty of 1961 prohibited all new claims except by the United States or the USSR (now Russia, though one has to wonder if all the "breakaway republics" also have the right to new claims as well). The status of the previous claims is not entirely clear.

    Byrd writes about the beauty of Antarctica, and the emptiness, and the harshness. At one point during the winter it gets so cold that the kerosene lamps do not work--because the kerosene freezes! He also describes the phenomenon where the heat rising in the huts means that while at shoulder height the temperature might be 70 degrees Fahrenheit, at foot level the temperature is literally at the freezing point.

    Byrd frequently contrasts his "modern" expedition (which of course seems terribly primitive to what one sees today, such as in John Carpenter's film THE THING) with the earlier Scott and Shackleton expeditions, and how the modern miracle of aviation makes things so much easier. But the difficulties of Byrd getting his supply ships to the actual continent contrast with today's cruise ships that take tourists to spend a few hours or days there.

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