Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/01/2015]

I started AN INQUIRY INTO THE CAUSES AND NATURE OF THE WEALTH OF NATIONS by Adam Smith (ISBN 978-0-553-58597-1), but will admit that I got bogged down in the examples being given in pre-decimal English currency, and using various obscure legal terms to boot. (I know what an entailment is, but that is probably the extent of my specialized knowledge.) However, I did have a few observations on the first part.

Speaking of each workman, Smith says, "He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him as amply with what he has occasion for, and a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of the society." This reminded me of Herman Melville's thought in MOBY DICK, "Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about--however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way--either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content."

"Nobody ever saw one animal, by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that is yours; I am willing to give this for that." Even now, 240 years later[*], this remains true. While some primates have been taught to exchange one physical object for another (apparently capuchin monkeys have even been trained to "understand and use" money), they do not come up with this idea on their own, and when they are removed from the (human) environment where they learned it, they stop doing it. (I suppose there might be any number of reasons for this that would not totally preclude its possibility.)

[*] It's easy to remember when THE WEALTH OF NATIONS was written: 1776.

"In almost every other race of animal, each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature." At first glance, this is true, since he said "almost": obvious exceptions are social insects such as ants and bees. However, in general, it seems as though while many other animals naturally live in social groups, isolated individuals can survive.

But there is a catch. Isolated modern human beings can also manage to survive, though Smith would say it was at nowhere near their normal mode of living. However, this is true of most other animals as well, because in fact, avoiding predators is something that many animals rely on "safety in numbers." A lone wildebeest may be able to find food and water, but it will not be successful in avoiding predators for long.

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/05/2014]

ALL ROADS LEAD TO AUSTEN: A YEARLONG JOURNEY WITH JANE by Amy Elizabeth Smith (ISBN 978-1-4022-6585-3) is yet another approach to Jane Austen. Smith decides to spend a year traveling through Central and South America discussing Jane Austen. More specifically, she visits Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina, and in each country organizes a book discussion of a Jane Austen novel (which everyone, herself included, reads in Spanish), which focuses not only on the novel, but on whether there is a universality to Austen's characters and situation or whether they are specific to 19th century England. The book is half travelogue and half discussion of Austen. For the book lover, I will report that she says, "In a single stretch of about eight blocks on Corrientes, heading west from the Avenida 9 de Julio, there were more than twenty bookstores. Some had only new books; others, used; and some, both. There were stores with every kind of classic you could want, translated from any language; stores focused on Latin American politics, history, and literature; stores specializing in overstock with new books for less than two dollars apiece; stores with used books stacked precariously from floor to ceiling; stores with antiquarian books guarded jealously behind glass."

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"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" by Cordwainer Smith:

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

Our science fiction book discussion group read three novellas from THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME II B: "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" by Cordwainder Smith, "The Marching Morons" by C. M. Kornbluth, and "And Baby Is Three" by Theodore Sturgeon. The first two are interesting to contrast (and actually tie in with my last comments on Cicero's fourth oration, discussed above). "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" is about how humans created "the Underpeople" by modifying animals to have human characteristics and indeed to be indistinguishable visibly from humans (called "true men" or "hominids"). C'Mell is one of the Underpeople, a "girly girl"--described as something like a geisha girl, but whether that was because sexual relations between Underpeople and hominids was forbidden, or because the magazines of the era wouldn't print stories that implied she was a prostitute, is not clear. (The story appeared in the October 1962 issue of GALAXY.)

But that's neither here nor there. The basic plot of "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" is that of an underclass which is treated as sub-human, or even non-human, trying to achieve civil equality with the overclass. It is a very straightforward transposition of the attitudes and laws that applied to African Americans in the American South (and to Jews in Nazi Europe a quarter of a century earlier), with some telepathy thrown in. Typical liberal propaganda, you might say, and you might not be far wrong.

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/30/2014]

GALACTIC PATROL by E. E. Smith (ISBN 978-1-8829-6811-4) (237 pages): This is the longest of the Retro Hugo novel nominees, and still only about two-thirds the length of the *shortest* of the regular Hugo nominees. Now described as the third book of the "Lensman" series, it was the first published.

For starters, it has more techno-babble than even "Star Trek". This is often done as footnotes, I can only presume to look more impressive and authentic (much as Smith's author credit always listed his degree). I think what really convinced me that this was written with different literary assumptions, though, was after a chase at many times the speed of light with super-advanced weapons, the actual battle at the beginning seems to be decided by someone wielding a "space-axe", which is about as low-tech as you can get (short of a rock).

Here's a sample:

"A crushing weight descended upon his back, and the Patrolmen found themselves fighting for their lives. From the bare, supposedly evidently safe rack face of the cliff there had emerged rope-tentacled monstrosities in a ravenously attacking swarm. In the savage blasts of DeLameters hundreds of the gargoyle horde vanished in vivid flares of radiance, but on they came; by thousands and, it seemed, by millions. Eventually the batteries energizing the projectors became exhausted. Then flailing coil met shearing steel, fierce-driven parrot beaks clanged against space-tempered armor, bulbous heads pulped under hard-swung axes; but not for the fractional second necessary for inertialess flight could the two win clear."

As for gender roles, why is it that a man leaving a room in anger storms out, but a woman flounces? (A woman does not even show up until page 167, and then we get a full page of her physical description. Of Kimball Kinnison, we are not given a clue as to whether he looks more like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, or Peter Dinklage. All this may have been characteristic of the period, but I don't have to like it.)

It may be a classic, but as with FIRST LENSMAN (nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2001), I found GALACTIC PATROL unreadable and gave up after 89 pages.

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GRAY LENSMAN by E. E. Smith:

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

GRAY LENSMAN by E. E. "Doc" Smith (Astounding Science-Fiction, Jan 1940): It was a sign of the times that a science fiction author would use his Ph.D. to gain status among his readers, and also to give science fiction an air of respectability. Nowadays, lots of science fiction authors have Ph.D.s and do not advertise that fact on their covers.

I tried to read GRAY LENSMAN, just as I had tried to read FIRST LENSMAN in 2001 when *it* was nominated. Sorry, but they are both unreadable. And not just unreadable on a sentence-by-sentence level, but annoying--apparently everyone of any consequence in Earth's history has a western European name and background. All the important women are distinguished by their appearance ("a peculiarly spectacular shade of red-bronze-auburn hair and equally striking gold-flecked Tawny eyes"). There was no physical description of Kimball Kinnison I could find, so for all we can tell he could be five foot ten, weigh 300 pounds, and have pimples. (I had a similar complaint about ROGUE MOON by Algis Budrys, written twenty years later.)

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/28/2003]

Coincidentally (really!) to the whole theme of historian as detective that I wrote about earlier (Robin W. Winks's The Historian as Detective), I read Sarah Smith's CHASING SHAKESPEARES. The main characters are literature researchers trying to determine (you guessed it) who wrote Shakespeare's plays. For those who accuse science fiction of having too many "infodumps", I commend this work (although one might claim that it's only one giant infodump). Josephine Tey pulled this sort of thing off in THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, but I found CHASING SHAKESPEARES too confusing to follow completely.

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/27/2018]

SECOND STAGE LENSMAN by E. E. "Doc" Smith (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1941 to February 1942): I tried reading FIRST LENSMAN in 2001, GALACTIC PATROL in 2014, and GRAY LENSMAN in 2016, found them all unreadable, and gave up on them. This time, I'm saving myself the time. Its low rating is based on my reading of three other books in the series.

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TURNABOUT by Thorne Smith:

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

A while ago, I read James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock's FANTASY--THE 100 BEST BOOKS. (The title is a bit of a misnomer--it is limited to books originally written in English, so no Homer, or Dante, or Goethe.) Some of the books didn't sound all that interesting. Others I started but gave up on after a few pages. (These included Harold Walpole's CASTLE OF OTRANTO, William Beckford's VATHEK, and William Hope Hodgson's THE NIGHT LAND, though I may give the last another try.) And some were actually readable, if not necessarily great.

One of these was Thorne Smith's TURNABOUT, in which a squabbling couple finds their bodies swapped one night by Mr. Ram, an Egyptian statuette who is tired of each claiming they could do a better job in the other's place. This book (written during Prohibition) is full of cocktail parties, wife swapping, and other such goings-on, with a strange sort of earnest raciness in a very refined style. It could have been turned into a good film--and may have been, since there was a 1940 film made from it. Unlike the films based on Smith's "Topper" stories, however, it has not shown up anywhere for years, so it may not be that good. (I realize there have been a lot of other movies with similar plots. I suspect Smith may have been the first to write it, since of the sixty-two "sex-change" movies listed in the IMDB, TURNABOUT is the earliest.) In any case, as words on a page, it seems stilted. A lot of the humor will be dated--most of the women's clothing styles the husband has to contend with as a woman have been abandoned by women in the interim. (And very sensibly too, in my opinion.) Nevertheless, TURNABOUT is at least moderately enjoyable, and certainly more refined than a movie--or a book--on the topic would be nowadays. Miss Manners would probably approve.

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