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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 09/11/15 -- Vol. 34, No. 11, Whole Number 1875
Table of Contents
WNET (Channel Thirteen) and probably other public television stations will be running PARTICLE FEVER on Wednesday, September 16 at 10PM. Mark's review is included below.
Thirteen Top Scientists' Favorite Books and Movies:
From Huffinton Post:
Sameness in Time and Space (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
They say that time was invented to keep everything from happening at once. I am not sure about that. I think that is not serious, but I think distance really was invented with the Big Bang so that everything was not in the same place. [-mrl]
Henrique Alvim Correa Illustrations for WAR OF THE WORLDS (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The first book illustrations for WAR OF THE WORLDS were created by Henrique Alvim Correa in 1906. They are incredibly surreal in that he made the war machines look like they were creatures themselves. I have seen two or three of these illustrations before, but I never realized there was a whole set of them, most of which were were never available. A site called Monster Brains has what I think are a complete set:
Actually, the whole Monster Brains site is worth exploring for weirdly surreal art:
The Crowded Sky (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The first-released science fiction film of the 1950's science fiction boom was ROCKETSHIP XM. It is the story of what is supposed to be humanity's first spaceship and its first mission, a trip to the moon. The "XM" was a sort of an abbreviation for "Expedition Moon." Apparently someone thought the title on a marquee sounded better than ROCKETSHIP EM. The latter sounded a little too much like something out of THE WIZARD OF OZ.
[I am about to reveal a plot detail. Hopefully anyone who does not know the plot of ROCKETHIP XM and wants to see the film with the plot not spoiled would have had their whole life (or at least 65 years) to see the film. If not, you are too darn late.]
In the story of the flight of Rocketship XM, some force knocks everybody on the ship unconscious and they wake up to find themselves in orbit near Mars. This seems unexplainable in any manner that does not employ the hand of God. God has changed the meaning of the XM to "Expedition Mars." It turns out that what is presented as the most viable explanation is that God took the spaceship to Mars so the humans could see what a mess atomic war made of Mars. When the humans head for home with their God-given message they are just a bit too far from Earth to get back themselves, but they can get the message "atomic war is bad" to Earth. The medium was inelegant, but the message was what was important.
But what was told with no surprise was that the fuel to take the rocket to the moon and back was at least sufficient to take the ship from Mars to oh-so-close to Earth for the return trip. On the way to Mars they may have saved on fuel because they were unconscious and in the hand of God. But they had nearly enough to get back home from Mars entirely with fuel they had brought.
What I think sounded silly in all this was that just a small diversion was enough to get from our moon to Mars. One destination in space must have been really close to any other. Hopefully if you are reading this you know that the distance from Earth to Mars at its absolute minimum is a whole lot more than the distance to the moon. Currently it takes about three days to get to the moon and about nine months to get to Mars. Clearly the writers of ROCKETSHIP XM were just guessing.
I think the writers got their ideas of the distribution of planets much like the Navy going to ports. You go a certain route you end up in Peru. A little bit further and you are in Chile. Go to the moon takes three days. Go a little bit further and you are effectively nowhere and marooned in space. The planets are really just widely separated bits of matter swirling down a gravity well. There is nothing that says one will be any sort of convenient distance from any other.
That was a mistake they repeated over and over in 1950s SF films. FLIGHT TO MARS had Mars be a seven-day trip from Earth. WORLD WITHOUT END had a spaceship orbiting Mars when it hits a realistic glitch and finds itself suddenly orbiting Earth. The process is a lot like that in ROCKETSHIP XM, but the unpredictable hand of God is replaced by rogue relativity.
What other films seem to not understand the makeup of space? ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO MARS have the two go to Venus instead, but that probably was just that the producers might not have liked the title ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO VENUS. I am not sure their ship was ever supposed to be bound for Mars.
STAR TREK probably has a better understanding of the makeup of space, but they use tech mumbo-jumbo to explain how easily they travel between habitable planets.
The cake-taker is SPACE 1999. Made from 1975 through 1977 its premise is that the moon has been blasted out of its orbit and every week it passes by some human-habitable planet, presumably after having crossed interstellar distances. In their universe there are a lot of earth-like planets, so numerous that if you just shoot off in any direction you will pass by earth-like planets wherever you go.
So what is my point in all this?
The generation that grew up watching these science fiction movies and TV shows that got the science so far wrong was also the generation that got their science right enough to put a man on the moon. Clearly good science would be better than bad science. But bad science in science fiction is more inspirational than no science fiction at all. The science in "Commando Cody: Sky Martial of the Galaxy" was pretty hokey. I was way too young to realize that. But it had enough flash and pizzazz to make me a science fiction and science fact buff for the rest of my life. [-mrl]
Ace Doubles, Donald Wollheim, and Harlan Ellison (letters of comment by Fred Lerner and Allan Maurer):
In response to Mark's comments on Ace Doubles in the 09/04/15 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:
When I was in library school at Columbia at the end of the 1960s I took the late Susan Thompson's great course on The History of Books and Printing. When she happened to mention tete-beche as an obsolete form of book production I made a point of bringing an Ace double to the next class meeting.
Professor Thompson was greatly supportive of my interest in science fiction (as were the other members of the faculty, who let me do all my term papers on topics related to SF) and when I returned to the School of Library Service for my doctorate she served as advisor for my dissertation on the changing reputation of modern American science fiction. [-fl]
Indeed, it is from you that I first learned the term "tete-beche", which I can recognize and type even if I can't pronounce it properly. [-ecl]
And Allan Maurer writes:
I just thought I'd note that Don Wollheim was also largely responsible for both the renewal of interest in the Edgar Rice Burroughs series, which he reissued in Ace paperback, and also the Tolkien craze, which he started with the unauthorized Ace paperbacks. In addition, he edited the first paperback anthology of SF, and the ground-breaking portable novels of SF. On top of all of that, he created many fannish traditions (and disputes) prior to his pro career. Someone should write a bio of the man. He had a tremendous effect on the pop culture of our era. [-am]
THE FUTURIANS by Damon Knight and THE IMMORTAL STORM by Sam Moskowitz certainly cover some of Wollheim's life, but I agree--a full biograohy would be wonderful. I assume by "portable novels of SF" you really mean the Viking Press omnibus PORTABLE NOVELS OF SCIENCE [no "fiction" in the title]. [-ecl]
I agree. John Campbell gets a lot of credit for what he did for science fiction. I have heard not so much about Wollheim and his influence is probably just as much. [-mrl]
Allan also writes:
Re: Ellison--I think Ellison is right to classify his mature work as magic realism. It's certainly richer than his earlier pulp SF, mystery, suspense and other genre work. Occasionally though, he dives off the deep end and comes up with a Howdy Doody button. [-am]
THE HARD WAY by Lee Child (letter of comment by Jim Susky):
In response to Dale Skran's review of THE HARD WAY in the 09/04/15 issue of the MT VOID, Jim Susky writes:
Dale Skran's notice of "Reacher" #10 aroused the Lee Child fan in me. I binged on most of the novels in about 18 years and continue to enjoy them as they come out about once per year.
Dale has gleaned the essence of Reacher's MO as a detective and alluded to his not quite superhuman skills. I'd like to add a biography and speak to his consistent, if unconventional, morals.
"Reacher", as his French mother called him because Jack didn't seem to fit, lived at many different Marine bases, mostly overseas. He enlisted in the Army and served on missions only hazily alluded to with hazily alluded killings. During the latter part of his service he was an MP.
To police hard men the cop must be harder. Child does not belabor this bit of exposition because it is plain from Reacher's size (6-6 and variously 230-260 pounds) and superior hand-to-hand dirty- fighting ability. Four-to-one, four ordinary brawlers to one Reacher, only begins to constitute an even fight (he learned to fight dirty as a child, defending his older, not-ruthless brother). His worst injuries were suffered in prison as he dealt worse injuries to two or three others (and the rest backed off).
In one novel, Reacher recalled that he mostly finished near the top and once won in series of world-wide military long-range shooting competitions. This foreshadowed the rare instance in which hitting targets at 1000-yards was important to the plot. More often he makes do at seemingly "long odds" with pistols. In those cases 4- to-1 is nowhere near an even fight.
Reacher has an almost chivalrously deadly ethic and often endures hardship and mortal risk to avoid hurting the innocent.
A notable example was when he permitted himself to be captured without a fight by the bad guys as they also abducted a blond FBI agent--reason being that if they'd started shooting on that busy Chicago street others might be shot. He once took a bullet for his ex-CO's adult daughter with whom he'd been smitten for fifteen years.
He flouts the law--instead he is guided with his own moral compass- -one that is more true, more admirable than legislative bodies and regulators can usually imagine. His ultra-competence and self- control permit him to narrowly focus his aggression. This narrow focus mostly justifies his extra-legal acts. He does not imagine that aggressors need escape injury or death, therefore, he rejects much of the constraints that ruled his MP career - and which rule our police.
Because of this some readers regard his morals to be questionable at best. I find them to be consistent--almost to a fault. One critic accused him as "judge, jury, and executioner". This is true, except that most judges and juries have inferior moral judgment by comparison.
Reacher never starts fights. Many times he could walk away, except that his assailants would probably hurt him if he did so. He measures his force (and the injury he exerts) proportionally to the threat. He kills mostly to avoid being killed. Occasionally he kills the bad guys preemptively, usually when imprisoned and his captors would kill him to prevent his escape.
Once or twice he has burglarized drug dealers--taking cash, weapons, and ammunition. Lee Child apparently believes such traffickers to be fair game but stops short of harming them physically using Reacher as his proxy.
I don't read thrillers much (except The Executioner and The Destroyer as a teen), but like those pulpy thrillers, Reacher often beds an off-the-charts beautiful woman. "Spectacular" seems to be Child's favorite feminine superlative. All are uber-competent. She is often ex-military or has a current career in law enforcement.
Mere beauty does not trip Reacher's trigger. He tips waitresses. He sleeps with women who could drop you in a firefight.
Child nods to police and spycraft excellence in many guises and especially feminine excellence. Frances Neagly served under Reacher as an MP and occasionally appears in a story at his behest. He commands her loyalty and knows she is one of the few humans on the planet who could take him out one-on-one (with firearms or other deadly means). She's his superior in spycraft. An occasional joke is that he believes he has gone from points A to B to C without being watched/tailed--only to discover later that Neagley had him surveilled all along.
I can't claim to be well-read in thriller domain, but can recommend the "Jack Reacher" series almost without reservation. [-js]
Lincoln's Assassination (letter of comment by Paul Dormer):
In response to Evelyn's comment on seeing someone who had seen Abraham Lincoln assassinated in the 09/04/15 issue of the MT VOID, Paul Dormer writes:
I had said I was about ten, but I must have been about six. This may be one of my earliest distinct memories. [-ecl]
Weapons, Feuds, and the Rule of Law in the Roman Empire (comments by Mark Zenier):
In response to Evelyn's comments on weapons in ancient Rome in the 09/04/15 issue of the MT VOID, Mark Zenier writes:
[Gibbon:] "The Barbarous practice of wearing arms in the midst of peace, and the bloody maxims of honor, were unknown to the Romans; and, during the two purest ages, from the establishment of equal freedom to the end of the Punic wars, the city was never disturbed by sedition, and rarely polluted with atrocious crimes."
Evelyn: "Though Gibbon earlier seemed in favor of the Second Amendment, here he makes an important qualification. Namely, that while the people may *possess* arms, they do not wear them in everyday life, either concealed or openly."
Doesn't honor play a large part here, too? Did the Romans rely on intimidation and extended feuds to maintain their reputations, or did they rely on the rule of law? [-mz]
I don't recall anything about blood feuds in the eras Gibbon is writing about, and certainly there was nothing like the situation in Scandinavia, where feuds were the norm. However, Gibbon certainly would be inclined to emphasize the rule of law as being uppermost in the "purest ages" and then gradually declining along with the rest of Roman culture. [-ecl]
PARTICLE FEVER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[This review first ran in the 07/18/14 issue of the MT VOID.]
CAPSULE: Back in the 1960s people could appreciate and enjoy scientific accounts of the space program even if they did not understand all the technicalities. PARTICLE FEVER is a science documentary for our time. The viewer does not need to have a scientific background to appreciate and enjoy this account of scientists trying to uncover the secrets of fundamental particles that could lead to a better understanding of the universe and its origins. The film follows six of the 10,000 scientists working for several years at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. They are trying to capture and find the mass of the Higgs Boson particle. For once we have a rarity, a documentary that is not depressing and not even overly political. Instead it suggests looking at the universe with a real sense of wonder. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
The Large Hadron Collider is the center of the largest, most expensive scientific project with the greatest number of people participating of any scientific endeavor in history. The experiment is going on at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). The particle collider it has built is underground right under the border between France and Switzerland not far from Geneva. More than 10,000 scientists and engineers were required to design, build, and interpret output from it. This staff came from more than 100 different countries. The collider itself is a circle as near perfect as it is possible to make it, and it is a circle 17 miles in circumference. Particles going clockwise and counterclockwise are accelerated to near the speed of light and then directed in each others path to collide shattering each other breaking into many smaller particles so the contents of the larger particles can be analyzed better understood. By colliding these particles the accelerator somehow (I admit I am not sure how) recreates conditions just after the Big Bang.
Director Mark Levinson, once himself a particle physicist at Berkeley and now a filmmaker tells the story of five years at CERN as few filmmakers have the background, the understanding, and the clarity to tell. The film covers the years from 2008 when the collider was first turned on to 2012 when the Higgs Boson was finally isolated and its mass found. The Higgs Boson is believed to be the particle that holds matter together and that gives other particles mass. Knowing the mass of the Higgs Boson may tell us whether a multiverse model of the universe is true or if the competing supersymmetry model is correct. Each theory predicts a different mass for the Higgs Boson, so it would be extremely valuable to isolate one in order to observe the mass.
Levinson's film follows six scientists and the ups and downs of the huge job of preparing for the experiment and then collecting an analyzing the data from the experiment. With frequent interviews in a variety of accents they tell the viewer what they are doing. One gets the feeling that particle physicists are people much like us except that they seem to drink more coffee. To keep this story moving apace the editor is Walter Murch who edited films like GHOST (1990), the 1998 re-edit of TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), and THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (1999). Here he gives the film pacing and creates genuine suspense even in viewers who cannot appreciate the implications of the results.
So what does all this effort add up to? What will understanding the Higgs Boson do for humanity? Nobody in the world knows. Whatever is discovered, it will have literally cosmic implications. This is pure science, not applied. One can never know what applications this sort of knowledge can lead to. But most practical science started out with just looking for scientific truth. This is a film that feeds the imagination and is the most exciting documentary so far in 2014. I rate it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. I have to say that being a lover of mathematics and science fiction the dichotomy of boson mass implications appeals to me. A multi-verse, an infinite set of parallel universes, appeals to my science fiction side. Supersymmetry appeals to the math maven in me. Either discovery would be exciting.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1385956/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/particle_fever/
For more information start with http://tinyurl.com/mrl-BigBang
THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Volume V of VI) (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
[continuing my comments from last week]
"Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the meanest believer... Notwithstanding a vulgar prejudice, the gates of heaven will be open to both sexes; but Mahomet has not specified the male companions of the female elect, lest he should either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands, or disturb the felicity, by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage." E: I love Gibbon's analysis of why the details of Paradise for women has not be specified!
"Among the Arabian philosophers, Averroes has been accused of despising the religions of the Jews, the Christians, and the Mahometans... Each of these sects would agree, that in two instances out of three, his contempt was reasonable."
E: This sounds like some odd vote distribution used to prove some paradoxical result in a particular vote-counting system.
"... the absolute prohibition of divorce, concubinage, and interest for money, enslaves the freedom of trade and the happiness of private life."
E: While most people today would agree with Gibbon on divorce and the lending of money, his argument that concubinage is necessary for the happiness of private life would likely get far less support.
"From the age of Charlemagne to that of the Crusades, the world (for I overlook the remote monarchy of China) was occupied and disputed by the three great empires or nations of the Greeks, the Saracens, and the Franks."
E: It is not at all clear why Gibbon decided to ignore China, unless he is implying by "remote" that China had no interaction with the other empires. But that is not true; China was interacting with the Saracens. And he completely omits the Maya Empire. (The Aztecs and Incas considerably postdate the Crusades to which Gibbon is referring.)
"In the system of modern Europe, the power of the sword is possessed, at least in fact, by five or six mighty potentates; their operations are conducted on a distant frontier, by an order of men who devote their lives to the study and practice of the military art: the rest of the country and community enjoys in the midst of war the tranquility of peace, and is only made sensible of the change by the aggravation or decrease of the public taxes. In the disorders of the tenth and eleventh centuries, every peasant was a soldier, and every village a fortification; each wood or valley was a scene of murder and rapine; and the lords of each castle were compelled to assume the characters of princes and warriors."
E: This is quite the reverse of how we usually perceive warfare. We look upon "total war" as an invention of the twentieth century, but it was certainly common in the Bronze Age and, as Gibbon indicates, recurred intermittently since then. (The Mongols are another example.) One might claim that the period that Gibbon lived in was merely a brief respite from the more common model of warfare as total warfare.
"The poets and orators were long imprisoned in the barbarous dialects of our Western ancestors, devoid of harmony and grace; and their genius, without precept or example, was abandoned to the rule and native powers of their judgment and fancy."
E: Gibbon has clearly been co-opted by the common prejudice of his time that Latin and Greek were beautiful languages, designed for poetry and rhetoric, while Anglo-Saxon, the Celtic languages, and so on were only slightly better than the grunts of a gorilla. The fact that he liberally footnotes his work with passages in Latin and Greek indicates that he assumes any educated person will know those, while the knowledge of those "barbarous dialects" was unknown to him or most of his readers. Strangely, almost any human language is quite suitable for poetry and rhetoric.
"But these advantages [if returning to a purer form of the Greek language] only tend to aggravate the reproach and shame of a degenerate people."
E: Okay, we can tell that Gibbon does not think much of the "Eastern Christians" or "Byzantines" or whatever term one wishes to apply to them.
"[The Latin Christians'] sole use of the gospel was to sanctify an oath, that the lawful owners had now secreted any relic of their inheritance or industry."
E: On the other hand, he does not think much of the "Western Christians" either. Indeed, the attitude of the Western Christians in general, and the Crusaders in particular, seemed to be that their religion was a good excuse for attacking and pillaging the Holy Land, while not following any of the less convenient precepts of their religion.
"[The Muslims attacked a temple of Ganesha in India] ... the walls were scaled; the sanctuary was profaned; and the conqueror aimed a blow of his iron mace at the head of the idol. The trembling Brahmins are said to have offered ten millions sterling for his ransom; and its was urged by the wisest counsellors, that the destruction of a stone image would not change the hearts of the Gentoos; and that such a sum might be dedicated to the relief of the true believers. 'Your reasons,' replied the sultan, 'are specious and strong; but never in the eyes of posterity shall Mahmud appear as a merchant of idols.' He repeated his blows, and a treasure of pearls and rubies, concealed in the belly of the statue, explained in some degree the devout prodigality of the Brahmins."
E: As we can see, Gibbon is pretty much an equal opportunity religion-hater: the Hindus here care about their "idol" only because it is filled with treasure. (Gentoos were residents of Madras who spoke Telugu.)
"But the triumph of the Koran is more pure and meritorious, as it was not assisted by any visible splendor of worship which might allure the Pagans by some resemblance of idolatry."
E: This is an odd claim, because although the Muslims were somewhat tolerant of Christians and Jews ("the People of the Book"), they were usually fairly relentless in "conversion by the sword" of pagans, so the notion that pagans needed to be lured inby splendor seems wrong.
"A crowd of pilgrims from the East and West continued to visit the holy sepulchre, and the adjacent sanctuaries, more especially at the festival of Easter; and the Greeks and Latins, the Nestorians and Jacobites, the Copts and Abyssinians, the Armenians and Georgians, maintained the chapels, the clergy, and the poor of their respective communions. The Harmony of prayer in so many various tongues, the worship of so many nations in the common temple of their religion, might have afforded a spectacle of edification and peace; but the zeal of the Christian sects was imbittered by hatred and revenge; and in the kingdom of a suffering Messiah, who had pardoned his enemies, they aspired to command and persecute their spiritual brethren."
E: This underlines the hostilities among the various sects within Christianity, which Gibbon returns to again and again.
"At the report of this sacrilege [the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre], the nations of Europe were astonished and afflicted: but instead of arming in the defence of the Holy Land, they contented themselves with burning, or banishing, the Jews, as the secret advisers of the impious Barbarian."
E: This is a classic example of a convenient scapegoat, although I have read elsewhere that the argument was not so much the (purported) current sins of the Jews, but the accusation that they had killed Jesus.
"[The] Crusdaers were alternately exalted by victory or sunk in despair; either swelled with plenty or emaciated with hunger. A speculative reasoner might suppose, that their faith had a strong and serious influence on their practice; and that the soldiers of the cross, the deliverers of the holy sepulchre, prepared themselves by a sober and virtuous life for the daily contemplation of martydom. Experience blows away this charitable illusion; and seldom does the history of profane war display such scenes of intemperance and prostitution as were exhibited under the walls of Antioch."
E: As noted above, Gibbon repeatedly points out the impiety of the Christians in their pursuit of their "holy" Crusade. "The emperor Alexius, who seemed to advance to the succor of the Latins, was dismayed by the assurance of this hopeless condition. They expected their fate in silent despair; oaths and punishments were tried without effect; and to rouse the soldiers to the defence of the walls, it was found necessary to set fire to their quarters."
E: This seems an extreme example of the "stick" approach of management.
[Peter Bartholemy claimed that the head of the lance that pierced Jesus's side was buried under the Church of St. Peter in Antioch.] "The ground was opened in the appointed place, but the workmen, who relieved each other, dug to the depth of twelve feet without the discovering the object of their search. In the evening, when Count Raymond had withdrawn to his post, and the weary assistants began to murmur, Bartholemy, in his shirt, and without his shows, boldly descending into the pit; the darkness of the hour and of the place enabled him to secret and deposit the head of a Saracen lance; and the first sound, the first gleam, of the steel was saluted with a devout rapture." E: Gibbon is definitely an unbeliever when it comes to miracles, relics, and all such things.
[to be continued next week]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro (ISBN 978-0-307-27103-7) is set in a post-Roman Britain. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who wish to visit their son in another village ... or is he? Their memories are fogged, but it is not just age. Everyone seems a little confused about the past, including those that they meet along the way. These include a Saxon warrior, an orphan, and a knight, and all of them have their own goals, which are at times in conflict with each other. Both the warrior and the knight, for example, want to find the dragon that lives nearby, and resent the interference of each other. There is a boatman who seems somewhat out of place, perhaps even otherworldly. And so on.
If this sounds a bit (or a lot) like a fantasy novel, it is. And it is by an author best known for the novel THE REMAINS OF THE DAY- -hardly a work of fantasy. Indeed, when THE BURIED GIANT came out, many genre writers assumed that Ishiguro would do what many "mainstream" authors do when they write fantasy: either deny it was fantasy, or claim to have invented a new genre. But Ishiguro surprised them by saying that of course he was writing fantasy, and fantasy in the long tradition of fantasy. (He and Neil Gaiman even had a discussion of fantasy on BBC radio.)
There is more to this than just fantasy, of course, and what Ishiguro is writing about through his premise is something that is very much applicable to the present.
Of course, this was not Ishiguro's first foray into the fantastic-- his novel NEVER LET ME GO is basically an alternate history about cloning. Both THE REMAINS OF THE DAY and NEVER LET ME GO have been made into films; one wonders if this will be also.
PLAGUE LAND by S. D. Sykes (ISBN 978-1-60598-673-9) is a murder mystery set in a village in England shortly after the Plague. The Plague has turned everything upside down, with the third son of the lord of the manor suddenly called back from his probationary period at the monastery when his father and two older brothers die of the Plague. He has to contend not only with running the manor when so many of its vassals have died, but also with someone--or something- -that has murdered two village girls. I cannot judge whether this is an accurate picture of fourteenth century life in England, but there is a lot of melodrama and soap opera laid over it. I found some of the twists and turns unlikely, but then that is true of a lot of Agatha Christie's novels as well.
DREAMERS OF THE DAY by Mary Doria Russell (ISBN 978-0-345-48555-7) is a story set primarily in Cairo during the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. Our narrator (Agnes) is a woman who at the beginning of the novel loses her entire family to the Spanish flu and decides to take the insurance payment she receives and visit Cairo and the Middle East.
The story is part travelogue, part history, and part romance. The travelogue part is very well done--Russell gives a really good feel for Egypt in the 1920s (and for that matter, even in the 1980s when we visited). The history part is a bit too much info dump about World War I, the Spanish flu, the various characters (and politics) of the Middle East, and even dachshunds' eyes. Agnes is an average tourist who somehow manages to fall in with all the famous people who are involved in the Conference. Conveniently, her sister was a friend of T. E. Lawrence, which is part of her entree into that level of society, But her involvement definitely requires some suspension of disbelief.
In addition to info dumps, the characters are all incredibly prescient about where the decisions made at the Conference will lead. This is easy for Russell, who obviously is writing in the 21st century. And she tries to justify some of it by having her character writing from a later time period than the 1920s as well. But having other characters mention all the cities of Iraq that are so much in the news now, or having the various divisions among the Muslims recognized by as many people as they are is a bit jarring.
The last chapter is particularly awkward in this regard (with a lot of explanation of "what happened to X?" in the manner of what one sees in the end credits of historical films). It also becomes far too preachy for the rest of the novel.
Russell knows how to turn a phrase--the problem is that she does it a bit too often. Lines such as, "No one at home knows where I am or what I am doing. No one knows who or what I am, or have been, or shall be," are striking at first, but there are a bit too many such aphorisms. After a while, it seems almost like an Oscar Wilde play, with the writing seeming more crafted to be striking than to be a naturalistic accounting. This is particularly ironic since her main character hears Churchill use the phrase "blood and tears" in regard to painting and observes that clearly Churchill could recognize a good phrase and was not shy about improving and re- using it.
In spite of these flaws, I did enjoy reading DREAMERS OF THE DAY, but though mostly for the travelogue aspects. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Not to be born at all would be the best thing for man, never to behold the sun's scorching rays; but if one is born, then one is to press as quickly as possible to the portals of Hades, and rest there under the earth. --ThiognisTweet
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