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, 12/25/2015]

CLASSICS AND COMMERCIALS: A LITERARY CHRONICLE OF THE FORTIES by Edmund Wilson (ISBN 978-0-374-52667-2) is a collection of the critic's essays from that decade. Some are about people who were notable then but have since fallen from public notice, some are about people still known, and some are on specific topics which may be of interest to people here.

In "A Treatise on Tales of Horror" (1944) Wilson first reviewed the various horror anthologies that had recently appeared: THE POCKET MYSTERY READER, THE POCKET BOOK OF MYSTERY STORIES, TALES OF TERROR, CREEPS BY NIGHT, BEST GHOST STORIES OF M. R. JAMES, and GREAT TALES OF TERROR AND THE SUPERNATURAL. Then he constructed his own ideal horror anthology:

Most of these are unsurprising, but I find the Melville stories an odd choice--I do not think most modern readers would classify them as horror.

Then, in response to the letters he got about his choices, and in particular his omission of one particular author, Wilson wrote an entire column about H. P. Lovecraft: "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous". It was not a column of praise; indeed, Wilson said of Lovecraft's writing, "The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art." But he also wrote, "Lovecraft himself, however, is a little more interesting than his stories," and acknowledges, "Lovecraft's stories do show at times some traces of his more serious emotions and interests." However, his final word on Lovecraft was, "But the Lovecraft cult, I fear, is on even a more infantile level than the Baker Street Irregulars and the cult of Sherlock Holmes." Ouch. (And shouldn't that be "an even more infantile level"?)

Wilson wrote three essays on the detective story: "Why Do People Read Detective Stories", "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?", and "'Mr. Holmes, They Were the Footprints of a Gigantic Hound!'" In the first, he mentioned he had not read mystery novels since he was in his teens. He then reviewed a book from each of three well-regarded mystery writers: Rex Stout's collection of Nero Wolfe stories, NOT QUITE DEAD ENOUGH; Agatha Christie's DEATH COMES AS THE END; and Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON. And he does not like them. That is okay, but I would argue that DEATH COMES AS THE END is so atypical an Agatha Christie that it is unfair to rate her based on this one novel in particular.

The second essay was in reaction to letters after the first essay. Wilson tried Dorothy Sayers's THE NINE TAILORS--he did not like it. He read Ngaio Marsh's OVERTURE TO DEATH--he liked that even less. He read Margery Alligham's FLOWERS FOR THE JUDGE--he said he found this "completely unreadable."

He did like John Dickson Carr's THE BURNING COURT.

And in the last essay Wilson finally has found a mystery author he likes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even though Wilson finds flaws in the Sherlock Holmes stories, he feels they rise above them.

THE FIFTIES by Edmund Wilson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/09/2011]

I'm reading THE FIFTIES by Edmund Wilson (edited by Leon Edel, ISBN 978-0-374-52066-3), not so much because I'm that interested in Wilson, but because his observations about people and places are interesting and well-written. For example, he talks about Aleksandr Pushkin's great-granddaughter: "Olga Loris-Melikov, the great-granddaughter of Pushkin, said to Elena, of some novel she had been reading: 'I read through four hundred pages--it was very boring--to find that the hero has a little black blood--that's what the whole story has been about! Why should I be excited about that?"

Edel in his footnote helpfully notes, "Pushkin was said to have had an Ethiopian ancestor." Actually, I think it is more definitely established than that: Pushkin's great-grandfather was an Ethiopian named Gannibal (later Abram Petrovich Gannibal). In any case, I was reminded of someone on Usenet who talked about watching SOUTH PACIFIC when she was a teenager in the 1980s and not understanding what everyone in the film was getting so agitated about--eventually she twigged to it being that the European Emile de Becque had married a Polynesian, and his children were therefore mixed-race. At the time the musical was written, this was, if not shocking, at least somewhat disapproved of by many. Nowadays, it can be understood only as a period piece, similar to GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER or SHOW BOAT.

(In Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" (or rather, in Luigi Illica's libretto for "Madame Butterfly"), Pinkerton's wife doesn't seem to have any problems about taking and raising his child by Cho-Cho-San. I would have said that this was probably because Illica was writing for a European audience, but he based it on an American short story.)


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/12/2018]

The first book by Edmund Wilson I read was PATRIOTIC GORE, a study of the literature surrounding the Civil War. Since then, I have read several of his collections, diaries, etc., and nothing has quite lived up to it. LETTERS ON LITERATURE AND POLITICS 1912-1972 by Edmund Wilson (ISBN 0-374-18501-8) is no exception--interesting in parts, but also boring at times. Still, there are some great excerpts.

For example, it is clear that even (or perhaps especially) the intelligentsia did not understand Stalin back in the 1930s:

"And Stalin, however he may want to maintain his power, is certainly a good deal different from Napoleon. Stalin is a convinced Marxist and old Bolshevik; Napoleon cared nothing about the principles of he French Revolution and betrayed it. Also, he had megalomaniac imperialist ambitions which one can hardly imagine Stalin entertaining. Stalin, whatever his limitations, is still working for socialism in Russia." [11 Jan 1935, to John Dos Passos]

Nor did they understand Hitler:

"[Charles Rumford Walker and Adelaide Walker] had been in Russia and Germany since I'd seen them and were very interesting on the subject. They say that they got the impression in Germany that the industrials were now running things more or less openly without paying much attention to Hitler and his friends, on whom they were quietly bringing pressure to pipe down." [31 Jan 1935, to John Dos Passos]

A couple of years later they had a better, though still incomplete, picture:

"[In Russia] the gap between the well-informed and intelligent and the ignorant and dumb is still so great that the latter are always treated like children by the former. IZVESTIA and PRAVDA now--which are what the ordinary read--haven't a word of news or sense in them. They are as bad as the Nazi papers. The real papers are those of the privileged groups, like the RED ARMY STAR and the GPU bulletin--just as it is only the specially privileged people who are allowed to use the libraries." [15 Apr 1937, to Malcolm Cowley]

And by 1950 Wilson was completely disillusioned:

"When I was writing about Lenin in the FINLAND STATION, I tended to accept the memoirs published in the Soviet Union. I hadn't realized how early the deliberate mythmaking had been begun. Now I am not at all sure that some of my details of his return to Russia were not made up out of the whole cloth for the purposes of a volume of Eulogies, of the authenticity of which I was convinced by the proletarian status of the supposed witnesses, but by which I may well have been taken in. Trotsky, whose first volume of a life of a Lenin is one of the best things on the subject, does not even believe in the memoir published by Lenin's sister, which I decided to accept. ... [It] is always an awful nuisance to try to get at the truth behind conflicting accounts..." [4 Apr 1950, to Arthur Mizener]

One of the most shocking revelations of Wilson's beliefs was:

"From a non-legal point of view, though, the whole discussion of mental responsibility seems rather idle. In my opinion, the great reform needed is a law to authorize the chloroforming of imbeciles and hopeless psychiatric cases. Of course, mistakes would be made, and the people would have to be very carefully checked, but we already put a lot of other matters in the hands of Boards of Health, etc., and it would be better than shutting up such cases in miserable asylums." [17 Jan 1952, to John Biggs]

That Wilson could say this, after all that had come out about the Nazis' "euthanasia" programs, and the long history of governments deciding that certain racial groups, religious groups, socio-economic groups, or political parties were "imbeciles and hopeless psychiatric cases," indicates that he had no concept of history. And while we put lots of matters in the hands of Boards of Health, that does not include killing people on their own say-so. (Has Wilson actually read the Bill of Rights? If so, it does not appear to have sunk in.)

On another topic, Wilson had very use for fantasy. I have previously quoted him on Lovecraft; here he is on Tolkien:

"I am enclosing a review of Tolkien. Do you know his work? I think it is awful." [12 Apr 1856, to James Branch Cabell]

"I have never read THE HOBBIT, but Helen, when she was younger, read it or had it read to her innumerable times, so it must be a good children's story. I can't imagine it in an English course, though." [14 Jan 1966, to Cecelia Carroll]

He also had a strong opinion on Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln:

"But in my opinion Carl Sandburg is the worst thing that has happened to Lincoln since Booth shot him, and I can't imagine either Grant or Lee getting through JOHN BROWN'S BODY..." [30 Apr 1953, to John Dos Passos]

Regarding this, when we visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, this year, there was a list of recommended biographies; Carl Sandburg's was not on it.

However, this does not necessarily mean that Sandburg's biography is bad. If I remember correctly, all the recommended biographies were much more recent than Sandburg's, which might indicate either improved research over the years or just a tendency to prefer the new to the old. For example, reading groups seem to emphasize current or recent best sellers over classics dating back fifty years or more.

Wilson's letters, in short, have some interesting passages, but one must pick and choose, because there's a fair amount of uninteresting daily minutiae as well.

PATRIOTIC GORE by Edmund Wilson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/23/2004]

Edmund Wilson's PATRIOTIC GORE (ISBN 0-393-31256-9) is an overview of American writing connected to the Civil War--fiction, non-fiction, and poetry; before, during, and after the War. Given that it has 816 pages, I cannot even list all the authors covered, so I will just mention a couple of interesting points.

One is a discussion by Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens of some of the actions taken by Lincoln during the War Stephens, in his "A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States; Its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results Presented in a Series of Colloquies at Liberty Hall", quotes Supreme Court Justice Benjamin R. Curtis (of Boston) as having said, "No citizen can be insensible to the vast importance of the late proclamation and orders of the President of the United States.... It has been attempted by some partisan journalists to raise the cry of 'disloyalty' against anyone who should question these Executive acts. But the people of the United States know that loyalty is not subserviency to a man, or to a Party, or to the opinions of newspapers; but that it is an honest and wise devotion to the safety and welfare of our country, and to the great principles which our Constitution of Government embodies, by which alone that safety and welfare can be secured. And when those principles are put in jeopardy, every true loyal man must interpose according to his ability, or be an unfaithful citizen. This is not a government of men. It is a Government of laws. ... The second Proclamation, and the Orders of the Secretary of War, which follow it, place every citizen of the United States under the direct military command and control of the President. They subject all citizens to be imprisoned upon a military order, at the pleasure of the President, when, where, and so long as he, or whoever is acting for him, may choose. They hold the citizen to trial before a Military Commission appointed by the President, or his representative, for such acts or omissions as the President may think proper to decree to the offences; and they subject him to such punishment as such Military Commission may be pleased to inflict." (page 417) This still (again?) seems pertinent today.

Another was George Washington Cable's analysis (in his book "The Negro Question") of why the North, having fought to free the slaves, was so willing in the last part of the 19th century to let their condition in the South be reduced almost back to that level, and why the South, having made such a fuss about states' rights before and during the War, was so willing to rejoin the Union and cede many of those rights. Cable's answer is that the North was really fighting for Union, and that freeing the slaves was merely an excuse--they didn't care about the condition of the Negroes (to use Wilson's term). And the South was really fighting for slavery, and states' rights was merely an excuse. Whether this is actually true I don't know, but it certainly explains a lot of otherwise odd behavior. (Note: The vast majority of the Acts of Secession passed by the Southern states did in fact mention slavery as one of the reasons for their secession.)

ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/19/2013]

ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson (ISBN 978-0-8021-2020-5) is part of what seems to be a new trend of Islamic-based science fiction and fantasy. We saw THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON by Saladin Ahmed nominated for a Hugo for 2012, and Matt Ruff's THE MIRAGE is arguably of this sort, and we also have this, a combination of science fiction and fantasy set in a fictional Arabian country bordering Saudi Arabia and Qatar. There are traditional fantasy elements--jinns, effrits, and so on--but also a science-fictional computer element, with quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

ALIF THE UNSEEN is compared on the back cover to "Harry Potter" and "The Golden Compass", but what it reminded me of was the "Narnia" series. One reason is the recurring use of the term "beni adam" (plural "banu adam") to refer to a human. I do not believe it is ever translated, but it is an obvious cognate with Hebrew, and means "son [or daughter] of Adam".

But another reason it reminds me of Narnia is that some speeches by the various characters seem like they could have come from those books (or be dropped into them). For example, one jinn tells Alif, "Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out. To most of your people the jinn are paranoid fantasies who run around causing epilepsy and mental illness. Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Books. You'll be searching a long time. Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendental." I am not sure how C. S. Lewis would feel about the idea that a jinn expresses ideas that seem like they could be direct from Aslan, but there you have it.

My complaint is the convenient way Alif's problems get resolved. When he is in trouble, he gets help from what might be figuratively called a "deus ex machina", though I hesitate to use that term in a fantasy full of actual supernatural beings. (In a review, I once said the story had a "literal deus ex machina", and someone called me to task over my use of the word "literal". I explained that no, there really was a scene in which a being perceived as a god by the hero's captors came down in a spaceship and saved him.)

STILL WEIRD by Gahan Wilson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/03/2003]

I finished Gahan Wilson's STILL WEIRD, a collection of his macabre cartoons. There's no one like him. Perhaps the fact that he was born dead and is a descendent of P. T. Barnum (and Willing Jennings Bryan) has something to do with it. The only artist even close to his style is Edward Gorey, and Gorey is far more formal and restrained.

MERTON OF THE MOVIES by Harry Leon Wilson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/21/2009]

I read MERTON OF THE MOVIES by Harry Leon Wilson (ISBN-13 978-1-8907-7196-6, ISBN-10 1-8907-7196-1); a film version of it was being run on TCM and I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie. It is a satire of Hollywood in the 1920s, with our hero a gullible small-town boy who thinks that everything he sees on the screen is done with no doubles or tricks, that everything he reads in the fan magazines is true, and that everyone feels the corny emotions that so many of the films portrayed. Much of what is in the book is based on real people and events, and it is thoroughly enjoyable.

"Overrated! Top 10 Books You Don't Need to Read" by Jacke Wilson:

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

Jacke Wilson (of "The History of Literature" podcast) recently did a podcast with Mike Palindrome titled "Overrated! Top 10 Books You Don't Need to Read" (#83). In the interest of saving people time (which was one of his stated goals), here's the list:

Yes, there are more than ten books. Kerouac and Burroughs were listed as one entry, and several entries are really categories. This merely supports C. P. Snow's notion of "two cultures"--the sciences and the humanities. As long as people discussing literature, or film, or other "artistic" categories persist in putting fifteen items on a "Ten Best" list, people with backgrounds in mathematics will believe that the artists are not worth listening to. (The one allowable exception is when the "Ten Best" list is voted on and there is a tie for tenth place. You are not allowed to take a tie for, say, eighth place, label them both #8, and then list a #9 and a #10.)

A TASTE OF HONEY by Kai Ashante Wilson

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/23/2017]

A TASTE OF HONEY by Kai Ashante Wilson (ISBN 978-0-7653-9004-2): This started out as one of those fantasies patterned after our world but not in it--where the geography and ethnic groups seem to map somewhat onto those of our history, but not quite (sort of like George R. R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire"). Then it revealed itself to be more a far future version of our world (I think), but clearly with a lot of fantasy woven in, and finally one gets another jolt at the end. Oh, and it is told in non-chronological order. With all this, the actual plot seems rather thin and unoriginal. But if the setting keeps you engaged, it may be worth it for that.

BLIND LAKE by Robert Charles Wilson:

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

The "something borrowed" was Robert Charles Wilson's BLIND LAKE, which I borrowed from a friend. Somehow it's not up to his previous work, perhaps because I found the character of the ex-husband to be a bit over the top and not really necessary to the story. I would have thought the idea of a secret installation observing alien life on a planet circling a distant star enough premise for the story. I also thought the premise of the "viewer" to be a trifle too unbelievable--too much fantasy and not enough science fiction. (Of course, I have the same complaint about some of the "science" in Arthur C. Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END, about which I will say more next week. I guess it's just Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.")

BURNING PARADISE by Robert Charles Wilson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/27/2013]

BURNING PARADISE by Robert Charles Wilson (ISBN 978-0-765-33261-5) is a good novel, but a bit shaky on the extrapolation I like in an alternate history novel. With an earlier end to WWI, would Raymond Chandler have been writing such noir novels as THE LITTLE SISTER? Or are we supposed to think it is the same title but a different story? On the other hand, Wilson's plot is not predictable. I'd give this a higher rating if there was more specific about the terrestrial geopolitical situation, but the emphasis on the interactions with the Hypercolony makes me knock it down a point as alternate history (though it is very interesting from a "philosophy of consciousness" standpoint).

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

BURNING PARADISE by Robert Charles Wilson (ISBN 978-0-7653-3261-5) is an alternate history which presumes that World War I was cut short by the interference of an alien intelligence, but an alien intelligence unlike those one is used to seeing in science fiction. However, in the grand tradition of so many novels, this is not known to the vast majority of humanity, and those who are aware of it are not entirely accepting of the situation, to say the least.

Wilson uses this as a way of examining intelligence, and what an alien intelligence might be like (and for that matter, what an alien intelligence is like). I am not sure he is entirely convincing in his conclusions, but there is food for thought here. The plot, however, is not quite up to the level of the idea, being mostly a standard thriller plot.

DARWINIA by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor, ISBN 0-312-86038-2, 1998, 320pp, hardback):

In S. M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time, the island of Nantucket is hurled back to the Bronze Age via a mysterious "Event." In Greg Bear's Dinosaur Summer, the lost plateau of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World is real. In Robert Charles Wilson's previous book, Mysterium, our history took a different course and Gnosticism prevailed. Darwinia seems to be a combination of parts of all four, but ends up very different from all of them.

In 1912, the "Miracle" happens, and Europe as we know (knew) it vanishes, replaced by a primeval continent with virtually identical geography and geology, but different plant and animal life. Apparently it is from a timeline where evolution took a different path. As a result, the history of the world is very different from that point on. (For starters, it's hard to have a World War based in Europe when all the inhabitants of Europe no longer exist.).

Guilford Law signs up with the Finch Expedition to explore the neo-Europe, or Darwinia, as it is called. (This leads to some confusion, as the term "Darwinian evolution" refers specifically to the evolution of the life-forms on Darwinia, not evolution as described by Charles Darwin.) Not only does the expedition run into various dangers (natural and man-made), but several members are haunted by strange dreams that we recognize as being related to their possible lives in our timeline, and Law gradually becomes aware that the struggle is not merely global, but cosmic.

However, this is not so much an alternate history as an analysis of what might cause an alternate history, because in addition to everything else, this is connected somehow with the Archive, a record of all history created by the far future. Wilson uses interludes to try to explain this, but it is such a departure from the main action (at least at the beginning) that it feels very jarring--which is probably the idea. Even though the basic situation is mysterious, the reader thinks she understands somewhat what is going on and then Wilson pulls the rug out.

John Clute seems to feel that Darwinia (along with Wilson's other work) expresses Wilson's feeling of "apartness" that comes from Wilson's being Canadian. While there is a sense of apartness and isolation, I think it is more universal than Clute perceives it as being. There is also a thread reminiscent of Harry Turtledove's Between the Rivers and its echoes of Jaynes's bicameral mind. I realize at this point that it sounds as though Darwinia is a real hodge-podge, but it isn't. Wilson has taken several themes that have appeared elsewhere recently, but woven them into a tapestry all his own. I definitely recommend Darwinia.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/07/2006]

Our science fiction group chose DARWINIA by Robert Charles Wilson (ISBN 0-812-56662-9) for this month's selection. I reviewed this when it came out seven years ago; see for that review. Briefly, I compared it to the alternate histories of S. M. Stirling's "Island in the Sea of Time" series, Greg Bear's DINOSAUR SUMMER, and Wilson's own MYSTERIUM. Though DARWINIA starts out similarly--in 1912, the "Miracle" happens, and Europe as we know (knew) it vanishes, replaced by a primeval continent with virtually identical geography and geology, but different plant and animal life--it goes in a very different direction.

A few additional comments over what I said in that review. The phrase on page 21 describing the change as being "nothing but wilderness north from Cairo and west at least as far as the Russian steppes" has been corrected to "east at least as far as the Russian steppes." I am not convinced that William Jennings Bryan was as involved in the "age of rocks" before the Scopes Trial as the comment on page 77 would imply. And page 226 implies that the magazine "Astounding" appeared similarly in this new world--would it have?

THE DIVIDE by Robert Charles Wilson (Doubleday Foundation, 1990, ISBN 0-385-26655-3, $8.95.):

Let's clear something up right away: this book is not by the co-author of the "Illuminati" books. That is Robert Anton Wilson. No, this is by the author of A HIDDEN PLACE. MEMORY WIRE, and GYPSIES, all of which I read, liked, and recommended previously. So it should come as no surprise that I liked this book as well. (My delay in reviewing it is due to the relatively poor distribution trade paperbacks get, coupled with an apparent change of publishers--Wilson's three previous novels were with Bantam Spectra and I expected his future novels to appear under that imprint as well.)

John Shaw is the result of a government-sponsored experiment in enhancing intelligence. (The back blurb compares THE DIVIDE to FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, but there is something of FIRESTARTER here as well.) But John found that greater intelligence was a curse as well as a blessing, and so Benjamin was born. Beginning as a role that John played, Benjamin became an independent personality, a normal person who lived a normal life. And now, to complicate matters, John/Benjamin gets a message that he is dying.

It is difficult to portray convincingly a genius so that the non-genius reader (or viewer) can comprehend it. This was one of the major failings of the film LITTLE MAN TATE, for example. Wilson knows this, and even has John comment on this in regard to Olaf Stapledon's ODD JOHN, a classic work on this theme. Wilson succeeds in his portrayal by avoiding the specific--he doesn't show John solving polynomials in his head or doing esoteric scientific experiments. Rather, he is shown as subtly different in outlook, successful at anything he sets his hand to, and alone.

On the other hand, THE DIVIDE does have problems. The "psychotic boyfriend" subplot seemed unnecessary (one might almost say gratuitous), and the resolution was singularly unsatisfying--it was just too fortuitous. (This is similar to the problem that Wilson had in his second and third novels, MEMORY WIRE and GYPSIES, whose endings I felt were too predictable.) Because of these flaws I can't recommend this book as strongly as Wilson's previous works, but if you are interested in the subject of enhanced intelligence and its effects, this book is of definite interest to you.

GYPSIES by Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-37365-X, 1989):

In GYPSIES, Wilson's third novel, he returns to the realm of fantasy in our current world without totally abandoning science fiction. Karen discovers at a very young age that she can "sidestep" into other worlds, opening a window or a door into them by force of will. But it's not only she--it's her brothers also who have this talent. Where did it come from? What does it mean? And what is the meaning of the Gray Man whom she sees in these other worlds?

As in MEMORY WIRE, his second novel, Wilson eventually has the military trying to exploit these talents, and this is what Wilson uses to create the major tension at the end of the book, but that is not what I found the most memorable aspect of the novel. (In fact, in many ways the end of the novel was fairly predictable.) Rather it is his description of Karen's gradual discoveries about herself and her talents that make this a worthwhile work. GYPSIES has the same almost-mystical quality that made his first novel, A HIDDEN PLACE, a memorable debut. The prose style of GYPSIES is more polished than that of A HIDDEN PLACE, and as I have with Wilson's previous two books, I give this a strong recommendation.

HARVEST by Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-37110-X, 1993, $12):

What if aliens offered us the chance to live forever--if the only price we had to pay was to give up being human? That is the premise of Robert Charles Wilson's latest book, HARVEST.

As might be expected from the premise, HARVEST is more a study in characters than an action story, though there is a very impressive storm sequence. Wilson looks at the world through the eyes of those few who chose to remain human. And they are a motley crew--a doctor, a fundamentalist Christian, a car salesman, a politician, two teenagers, a farmer's wife, an Army colonel, a retired worker. They have little in common--except their decision. What makes some choose one way and some another is one of the main questions of the book, but Wilson never satisfactorily answers it, and indeed, towards the end HARVEST becomes very much like an update EARTH ABIDES, as the remaining humans cope with lack of electricity, the search for food, and so on. Wilson also makes a few flubs. He says that on election night, "a long Republican ascendancy over the White House had come to an end," obviously expecting Bush to win in 1992. (Internal evidence says the story takes place in 1996.) He also seems to think Lima is in a time zone between Los Angeles and Anchorage, while it is actually in the same time zone as New York.

In spite of these minor quibbles, however, I would still recommend HARVEST. Wilson at least touches on the nature of humanity, and his characters and their reactions to the situation and to each other may give us some clues, if not to the answer, at least to an answer.

A HIDDEN PLACE by Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam Spectra, 1989 (1986c), ISBN 0-553-26103-7):

A hobo camp during the Depression may not seem the most auspicious opening scene for a fantasy novel, but at least one has to agree that it has not been over-used and that, more than likely, the book it begins is not just another Tolkien rip-off. And A HIDDEN PLACE is most definitely a different sort of fantasy.

From the very first scene, which introduces Bone, who seems to be a cross between a psychotic and a mental defective, the reader finds herself (or himself, but hey, I'm the reviewer so I should at least get top billing) involved with a most unlikely set of characters. There's Bone, of course, but there's also Travis Fisher, who drifts into town to live with his Puritanical, Bible-Belt-religious relatives after his less-than-Puritanical mother has died. And there's Anna Blaise, a strange young woman who lives in the attic of his relatives' house and affects everyone's lives most unexpectedly.

These characters soon find themselves swept up in the bigotry and narrow-mindedness of the times, or for that matter of any time. To say what develops from this, how the characters interact, and how it is resolved, would of course be giving away too much, and I wouldn't want to do that, because (as you might have guessed) I'm going to recommend that you read this book. It probably isn't a spoiler to say that Anna and Bone are as much symbols for aspects of our own humanity as they are characters, and that this is perhaps paradoxically what makes them in turn the fleshed-out characters they are.

This is not to say that sometimes the prose isn't, well, overripe. For example, this sentence (on page 14) made me feel as if I had fallen into the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest: "Haute Montagne ('where the railroad meets the wheatfield') might once have wanted to be a city, but that ambition had died--or at least had been set aside, like the hope chest of a young woman destined for spinsterhood--in the Depression that had come like a bad cold and stayed to become something worse, some lingering if not fatal disease." (For those who don't know, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is a contest for the WORST starting sentence of a novel.) Maybe the fact that I just read the third volume of winners [?] in that contest influenced me here. On the other hand, one wonders if bad writing is not sometimes in the eye of the beholder and if some of the "bad" beginnings were presented as good beginning sentences, we wouldn't belive that as well. But now I'm drifting off into my regular rant against the Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition....

But overly florid writing notwithstanding (or perhaps even contributing), A HIDDEN PLACE is a book well worth seeking out.

Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/30/2009]

JULIAN COMSTOCK by Robert Charles Wilson (ISBN-13 978-0-7653-1971-5, ISBN-10 0-7653-1971-3) is good, but disappointing. Why disappointing? Because I have been a fan of Robert Charles Wilson from way back, and he has moved away from the very original works with which he started.

His first books included THE HIDDEN PLACE (a fantasy set in a hobo camp during the Great Depression), MEMORY WIRE (about cybernetics in 21st Century Brazil), GYPSIES (about children who can "sidestep" into other worlds), THE DIVIDE (about the experimental enhancement of intelligence), THE BRIDGE OF YEARS (about time travel), and HARVEST (about aliens who come to transform the human race into something higher).

And while JULIAN COMSTOCK is well-constructed and well-written, it covers fairly familiar territory. It's set in a post-apocalyptic future (though it is the "end-of-oil" collapse rather than plague or nuclear war), the United States has mutated into a fundamentalism totalitarian state, and we follow a simple farmboy from his small town home to the bigger world and his adventures therein. The religious element reminds me a bit of Wilson's MYSTERIUM, an alternate history in which Gnosticism has prevailed.

The religious nature is emphasized by his choice of the central character's name (Julian Comstock ... J.C. ... get it?) and his nickname "Julian the Conqueror", with its echoes of "Julian the Apostate".

LAST YEAR by Robert Charles Wilson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/02/2017]

LAST YEAR by Robert Charles Wilson (ISBN 978-0-7653-3263-9) is a time-travel novel, but with a more carefully thought-out premise than many. Given the "Grandfather Paradox", Wilson supposes that one is not traveling to the past (in this case 1876) of our world, but to a parallel world identical to ours, but running behind ours (in this case, by about 150 years). (An alternative explanation would be that the visit to our past causes another branch to sprout off, but it seems to me that Wilson explicitly specifies the first explanation.)

The "time travel" here at first seems mostly for the purposes of tourism, but it turns out that there are other motives as well, and the whole question of the ethics of time travel is raised. In a sense this is about colonialism, and Kant's categorical imperative (are the people in the past/other world "real"?).

Wilson is always engaging, and other than his one trilogy, he does not repeat a theme as do so many other authors, so his works always seem fresh.

MEMORY WIRE by Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam Spectra, 1990 (1988c), ISBN 0-553-26853-8):

Where Wilson's first novel, A HIDDEN PLACE, is a fantasy, this is science fiction. Yet both cross the boundaries between the two: A HIDDEN PLACE has elements of science fiction (especially towards the end) and MEMORY WIRE, for all its high-tech beginning, draws on the idea of dreams and visions as a part of life.

The main character in MEMORY WIRE, Raymond Keller, has implanted in his head electronics that make him the perfect reporter: they record everything he sees and hears perfectly. He is sent to Brazil, where "they" ("they" being the usual corporate and government baddies) have discovered an alien artifact that may contain the total knowledge of the aliens and hence give the holder of limitless power. The fact that it also can bring out eidetic memories makes it valuable to anyone who wants to remember or relive their past. Most of the novel is spent with characters chasing and being chased, though while this is going on we do get to see Wilson's vision of the 21st Century.

The major weakness of this novel is the ending--all the villains are too easily defeated or give up. And, needless to say, the end is very predictable. The strengths are Wilson's descriptions of 21st Century life and of the dream-like states of his characters. On the whole I found this a disappointment after Wilson's promising beginning with A HIDDEN PLACE, but not enough so that I would totally give up on him. Rather, I would hope that he would concentrate where his strength is, on fantasy rather than on science fiction.

MYSTERIUM by Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-37365-X, 1994, 288pp):

I have liked all of Robert Charles Wilson's previous books (THE HIDDEN PLACE, MEMORY WIRE, GYPSIES, THE DIVIDE, THE BRIDGE OF YEARS, and HARVEST), which is even more interesting when you consider how widely they vary. THE HIDDEN PLACE is a fantasy set in a hobo camp during the Great Depression, MEMORY WIRE is a science fiction story of cybernetics in 21st Century Brazil, GYPSIES is about the military trying to use children who can "sidestep" into other worlds, THE DIVIDE is about the experimental enhancement of intelligence, THE BRIDGE OF YEARS is about time travel, and HARVEST is about aliens who come to transform the human race into something higher. If there's a pattern here, I don't see it. (And lest there be any confusion, this book is not by the co-author of the "Illuminati" books. That is Robert Anton Wilson.)

And now we have MYSTERIUM, a book based on gnosticism. I must admit that gnosticism in the early Christian church is not one of my strong points. From a historical perspective, I know that gnosticism led inpart to Manichaeism and the religion of the Bogomils, but I am less clear on their doctrines, so I have to take MYSTERIUM based on what Wilson conveys within it. (I hope he's more accurate on gnosticism than on mathematics--where he refers to the "anthropic principle in the language of set theory"--or physics--where he describes a thirty-degree incline as "not steep.") Of course, one might claim that since one of the basic principles of gnosticism is hidden knowledge Wilson doesn't have to convey it clearly. After all, in Luke 8:10 it is said, "Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand," a very gnostic concept.

The town of Two Rivers, Michigan, is happy when the government builds a secret laboratory nearby, disappointed when they discover the employees won't be pumping money into the local economy, and surprised when they wake up one morning to discover that their entire town has been transported to a world like theirs--but different. Their country--whatever it is--seems to be at war with New Spain, and the Proctors have arrived to bring the town under control. No one is quite sure what has happened, but Howard Poole is sure it has something to do with his uncle, Alan Stern.

The three parts of MYSTERIUM are entitled "Mysterium," "Mysterium Tremendae," and "Axis Mundis" (reminiscent of the three sections of A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ). Each begins with a brief excerpt from Stern's diary, heavy on the Greek terms but somewhat helpful in understanding the religious basis not only of this new world but also of the book itself. Because gnosticism is the key to what's happened to the town of two rivers.

I have a couple of minor quibbles. Given the time of the "world-split," it seems unlikely that names such as Boston and Meso-America would be use. (Wilson attempts to explain this by having Graham note, "The movements of people, the evolution of language. It's as though history wants to flow in certain channels. Broad ethnic groupings persist, and there are roughly analogous wars, at least up until the tenth or eleventh century. There are plagues, though they follow different patterns. The Black Death depopulated Europe and Asia no less than five times," but I'm not convinced.) And his science is sloppy (see my comments about set theory and thirty-degree slopes earlier). But in spite of these problems, I found MYSTERIUM to be an engrossing novel. I may not believe the religious underpinnings of it, but then the same was true of A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ and that didn't stop me from liking that. This uses religion slightly differently, of course, but read it for yourself to see how.

SPIN by Robert Charles Wilson:

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

In SPIN by Robert Charles Wilson (ISBN 0-765-30938-6), the stars don't go out slowly, one by one--one instant they are there and the next they are not. The moon is also gone, but the sun apparently is still there (though Wilson erroneously has the western horizon growing light the next morning--or maybe things are different in Canada). Soon we discover--SLIGHT SPOILERS--that Earth has been put into a stasis field with an artificial sun, and although no one can see it, the aging of the solar system continues and will destroy Earth in about forty or fifty years, Earthtime. What exactly has happened, why it has happened, and what Earth's reaction to it is form the basis of Wilson's book. Great cosmological mysteries, human reaction to change--what more could one ask for? I have recommended all of Wilson's novels up to now, so it should not surprise you that I recommend this as well.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/14/2014]

In honor of the mid-term elections, I did a little political reading. CONGRESSIONAL GOVERNMENT: A STUDY IN AMERICAN POLITICS by Woodrow Wilson (ISBN 978-0-486-44735-3) makes clear that in 1885 things were very different from now.

On the one hand, Wilson seems to feel that the two parties exercise little discipline over their members in Congress: "Our parties marshal their adherents with the strictest possible discipline for the purpose of carrying elections, but their discipline is very slack and indefinite in dealing with legislation. ... [The] legislation of a session does not represent the policy of either [the majority or the minority party]; it is simply the aggregate of the bills recommended by Committees composed of members from both sides of the House, and it is known to be usually, not the work of the majority men upon the Committees, but compromise conclusions bearing some shade or tinge of each of the variously-colored opinions and wishes of the committee-men of both parties."

On the other hand, he writes, "Any individual, or any minority of weak numbers or small influence, who has the temerity to neglect the decisions of the caucus is sure, if the offense be often repeated, or even once committed upon an important issue, to be read out of the party, almost without chance of reinstatement."

So it sounds as though the party insists on obedience from its members, but is willing to compromise or modify its position when it comes to working in committee. (Of course, these days the latter does not seem to be happening as often.)

Apparently the budget problems were very different then: "It has come to be infinitely more trouble to spend our enormous national income than to collect it."

And things have obviously changed since Wilson wrote, "But there is safety and ease in the fact that the Senate never wishes to carry it resistance to the House to the point at which resistance must stay all progress in legislation; because there is really a "latent unity" between the Senate and the House which makes continued antagonism between them next to impossible."

Some things are the same, though: "A few stubborn committee-men may be at the bottom of much of the harm that has been wrought, but they do not represent their party, and it cannot be clear to the voter how his ballot is to change the habits of Congress for the better. He distrusts Congress because he feels that he cannot control it." This is the situation we have now, where the Congresspeople the voter may see the "obstructionists" are not from his district or state, so he cannot do anything about them.

Another "eternal verity" would be that "the utterances of the Press have greater weight and are accorded greater credit, though the Press speaks entirely without authority, than the utterances of Congress, though Congress possesses all authority. ... There is no imperative demand on the part of the reading public in this country that the newspapers should report political speeches in full. On the contrary, most readers would be disgusted at finding their favorite columns so filled up. By giving even a notice of more than an item's length to such a speech, an editor runs the risk of being denounced as dull."

Wilson seemed to think our Congressional system will keep our government weak: "As at present constituted, the federal government lacks strength because its powers are divided, lacks promptness because its authorities are multiplied, lacks wieldiness because its processes are roundabout, lacks efficiency because its responsibility is indistinct and its action without competent direction." Although nothing has changed in the Constitution to modify the powers, authorities, processes, responsibility, or direction, most people would not call our Federal government weak--indeed, many would say it is far too strong.

Ultimately, Wilson seems to be saying we need more partisanship, not less (or at least more than we had in 1885), and that we should have a system more like the British parliamentary system, where the party in power drives the government, where the executive is not as independent of the legislative as here, but the two form an integrated whole. Given the current problems with partisanship in government, perhaps Wilson's recommendations are no longer advisable.

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