The Synod: A Couple Good Things Among the Rumors, Theories, & Noise

I have, for once, followed my own advise and not followed any of the goings on at the just completed Synod on the Family. If it seems pertinent, I’ll read whatever final document, if any, the Pope cares to issue. Otherwise, odd as it seems to an American to say, it’s just none of my business. More importantly, are rumors, allegations, proof-texting of preliminary output and premature hand-wringing likely to make me any holier or help me in my feeble efforts to love my neighbor? No. So let it go – just as a sane person doesn’t read those checkout counter gossip sheets, a sane Catholic doesn’t get worked up over the alleged machinations of various parties among the bishops and Vatican personnel, let alone over how such maneuverings get reported on in the idiot press and speculated on on the web.

Not helpful. Just don’t do it.

However, I will go as far as to point to a couple good items that have recently come up that reveal how people, especially Catholics, think about issues of mercy, truth and love in difficult situations. First up, over at Darwin Catholic, is Living in Sin, which is a commentary of sorts on an article in the National Catholic Reporter, in which the author, a Jesuit Fr. Reese, says:

The problem is that conservatives do not see divorce and remarriage as simply one sin, which can be confessed and forgiven. They see it as a continuing sin each time the couple has sex. Since they will not stop having sex, they cannot go to Communion. There is no willingness to accept the first marriage as irrevocably broken and destroyed, which would allow the parties to move on with their lives.

Perhaps this is an example of what Conservatives often accuse Progressives of – projecting their own preoccupations onto their opponents. I don’t know, but if there’s a side in this discussion obsessed with sex, it’s Fr. Reese’s. If conservatives, whatever that may mean in this case, are obsessed with anything, it would be the idea that a ‘first marriage’ could be ‘irrevocably broken’. If it can – and Fr. Reese is as sure it can as Jesus is that it can’t – then all sorts of issues are in play. But if it can’t, then another set of issues must be discussed. Sex is not the primary issue, except if you refuse to see any other issues.

Be that as it may, the biggest single problem I have here is the framing of the issue: Fr. Reese and others of similar convictions, in my experience, want to invoke a certain type of first and second marriages, ones where, in the first case, the marriage is ‘irrevocably broken’ and, in the second, it’s nothing but good people doing their best to do good under difficult circumstances. This is similar to the way abortion is always portrayed – it’s always some poor woman who’s life is presumed to be ruined if she has a baby, never mind that no one knows what the outcome really will be, whether the abortion or the baby would be more devastating to – what, exactly? Some preconceived notion of what the future *should* be? We are supposed to be cruel if we’re unwilling to support granting such a woman a Mulligan, which in turn requires we assume a magical Ground Hog’s Day view of reality. There is no going back, there is only pretending.

Along those lines, Simcha Fisher wrote Not everything is fixable (God have mercy on us all), in which she tries to express the full horror of sin: every sin ‘irrevocably’ changes things, so that the sunny outcome, where everything is returned to sweetness and light, is just not possible. Sure, sometimes good outcomes are possible, but even in those cases, they are not a do-over. We are sometimes granted to perceive or even participate in how God turns all evil to good. That’s the message of the Crucifixion, which is at the same time the greatest evil man has done, and the greatest blessing God has ever granted.

But often, there is no good outcome, at least none that we humans stuck in time can ever see. Such is the case in divorce and remarriage, or, perhaps more accurately and commonly, something more like: shacking up, shacking up again, having a baby, marriage, divorce, shacking up yet again, maybe having another kid, maybe getting married again. Being completely subjective here, but in my experience, the bulk of the complications that make finding a good solution are self-inflicted. The poor woman whose philandering husband has abandoned her and their children – that’s what is put on the poster. I know personally of exactly one case like that – of a faithful Catholic woman who married a guy who turned out, four kids later, to be a cad of the lowest level and ran off with another woman. But I know personally of dozens of cases where friends and acquaintances have destroyed their marriages for reasons utterly trivial compared to the devastation their divorce visits upon their children and families.

It’s true historically in this country that the single biggest group among people who are married are those who got married and stayed married until death did them part, and the second largest group are those that got married one, divorced once, then got married and stayed married. But the trend has for years been away from marriage and toward living together. Among non-Catholics and Catholics alike, the trend of living together first, sometimes for years, and only then maybe trying out marriage, seems to have become the norm.(1)

And I do know a couple of those families where a first marriage ended in divorce, yet the second marriage lasted for decades, produced beautiful, well-loved children who, like their parents, are at mass every Sunday and active in their parishes. It happens. Not being  their pastor or confessor or their closest friend, I don’t ask if the first marriages were properly annulled. I would assume they were.

Here’s another example of the outcomes from sins of infidelity, from a post on Dante:

…he (Dante) makes real the nature of sin – that it’s not some arbitrary concept, or mere instrument for generating guilt feelings, but a real force at work in the world, with real, horrible consequences. Paolo’s and Francesca’s ever-popular sin results in not only their own damnation (the outcome Moderns are most likely to recoil from) but in the (hinted) damnation of Francesca’s husband for murdering them, who thereby loses his wife and younger brother in a moment of passion, the loss of a mother to Giovanni’s and Francesca’s children, of a husband to Paolo’s wife, of a son to Paolo’s parents, and the probable destruction of the family and political relationship that the marriage between Francesca da Rimini and Giovanni Malatesta represented. All this, from a little private affair – and this is in the highest circle of Hell, where the least sins are punished.

What happened was that Francesca da Rimini, daughter of a powerful family, was in an arranged marriage with Giovanni Malatesta, the eldest son of a competing family. The marriage was intended to mark and strengthen the newly-established peace between the warring families. Now Giovanni was nothing to look at (he was nick-named ‘lo Sciancato’ – the lame one), while his younger brother Paolo won the looks lottery. Francesca and Paolo, who was likewise married, hit it off, and kept a running affair going for years. When, finally, Giovanni surprised them one day, he killed them both.

I wonder how Fr. Reese would counsel the families involved. Giovanni’s and Francesca’s marriage and Paolo’s marriage seem to be irrevocably broken, given that Paolo and Francesca no longer seem committed to them. Should not the Church have spared their lives by providing a means by which they could be released from their vows to their current spouses and allowed to wed each other? Would not Fr. Reese advise Giovanni to calm the heck down – he could then pursue another bride more faithful than Francesca. No need for bloodshed, and no need to stay away from Communion, either.

And I suppose he could also counsel the Malatesti and  Polenti families to just accept that some marriages get broken, and that this doesn’t mean the families have to go back to waging war on each other.

And then, counsel the children, who, after all, embody the hopes for peace between the families: sometimes, mommy and daddy fall out of love and, you know, betray their vows, but this doesn’t mean that you children are allowed to make the connection between the ending of your parents love for each other and the potential that their love for YOU may likewise end, neither are you allowed to see the casual disregard of your legitimate desire to live with both parents as just such a betrayal of their claims to love you. Nope – you’ll be Just Fine. That’s an order. No great injustice has been done to you. Those thoughts and feeling you are having are just your problems that you’ll need to get over over time….

Aaaannnd – that’s where it all breaks down. That’s why I would suppose that a Synod on the Family might not be primarily guided by a desire to make life any easier on those who would harm the family. Not that they would want to make life any harder, but rather it is a mistake to think that the hardness of the situation is somehow something the Church did to the people involved, rather than being the inescapable result of real, active sin. The sin may be their own, their spouses, or both, and may be accompanied by the sins of commission and omission of those around them – parents, friends, family, pastors, writers – who do not support the marriage. Marriages don’t just die – they are, and must be, murdered.  And that’s just the physical form – spiritually, we are taught, they never die as long as the spouses both live.

Sometimes, especially in the case of children, there are innocents who suffer. This is the tragedy of Original Sin, by which we all suffer as a group for sins we did not personally commit. This is not something the Church can change, except insofar as she is the crucified and risen Body of Christ. That sort of change is accomplished through embracing the Cross, which isn’t a very popular idea today. It’s not fair, but then again, neither is it fair that Christ should die for our sins, and that we should be saved by the Blood of Another.

The Church, like the people involved in all the divorce/remarriage permutations, is in an impossible spot: as Simcha says, not everything is fixable. Things are not going to be better for any of the parties involved if the Church were to grant, effectively, its blessings on remarried Catholics who have not honored the Church’s process or decisions via seeking annulments. We’d love to think that if the Church would just Be Nicer, everything would be Nicer. The Church is Just Mean. But those kids – and their grandparents, their uncles and aunts, their friends – will be the ones to pay a price. This is not theory – if you love the people involved, you will share in the pain. That pain is not caused by the Church, and the Church cannot make it go away, at least in this life.

I would expect the Synod to try to explain how we can love people as we would like to be loved, without enabling behaviors that tend to destroy love. Very difficult, impossible, in fact – for man. As Simcha says, may God have mercy on us all.

  1. Friends of mine who minister to the Spanish-speaking members of the local parishes have told me the young couples they work with are almost all unmarried – and these are the people who are coming to church and sign their kids up for faith formation classes! The reason they give: they associate getting married with this huge expensive party which they cannot afford – so they don’t get married. So we can fairly assume the level of catechesis is none too high. Sometimes, these friends of mine have managed to arrange group weddings followed by giant pot lucks at the parish, so that they can have their wedding and the big party without going broke. That seems very ‘pastoral’ to me!

Latest Home Improvement Project: Patio Table

In the story Johnny Mnemonic (not the execrable movie, but the excellent short story) Johnny walks into a tense and dangerous meeting packing a sawed-off shotgun in a gym bag. He knows he can’t out high-tech his adversary, so he goes low-tech. He states as accepted street wisdom that, if they go low, you go high; if they go high, you go low.

It doesn’t work out – they went a little too high – but fortunately, Trinity is there to bail out Neo – I mean, Molly Millions is there to bail out Johnny. Same difference.

This has nothing to do with my latest home improvement project, except that last time, for the triple bunk bed, I went high, with nice materials and high-quality finishes, brass and maple highlights, that sort of thing. So, this time, I went low: scrap and salvaged lumber, minimum sanding, no finish (although I probably throw some wood sealer on it, just in case – it is sitting outside, after all).

About 19 years ago, the company I was working for at the time bought the adjoining property in order to expand. On the couple acre plot were a couple old houses and a number of out buildings, all that was left of a farm that had once been there. The property manager was a friend of mine, and her knew that the wrecking crew was just going to reduce the houses to splinters and throw everything out, so he invited me to scavenge.

The house was about 90 years old, and so was built for the most part out of old-growth lumber. If I’d had a month and yard to stor it in, I’d have taken that house apart. As it were, we triaged: he grabbed some beautiful wainscoting and some built-in cabinets; I snagged a small pile of ancient Douglas fir T&G subflooring planks, maybe 4″ wide and 16′ long – straight, tight grained, not a knot in sight. These have now been waiting patiently for almost 2 decades for me to make the wall-mounted computer desk/tech center I’ve designed in my head….

And so on. As for today’s project, I also salvaged a couple work benches from one of the outbuildings – one about 10′ long, one about 5′. They consisted of 4 redwood 5/4 planks glued and tied together with some smaller pieces, and painted industrial green, with galvanized threaded pipe legs. I stuck them against the wall in the garage for a decade or so, then set one up to use as an outside table – but it was way too wobbly for any real use.

But not any more!

I’m going to leave the top more or less as is, as it’s kind of junk-chic. A little light sanding and maybe some penetrating sealer.

As is my habit, wildly over-engineered this, with way-sturdy legs:

Legs are old treated 4x4s from some old planters. Everything came from the scrap pile except that one 2×4, which was left over from another project, and the large dowels, which, along with a couple boxes of screws, were the only things purchased for this project.
Did I mention I wanted stable? The four corner legs are tied to two center legs by high runners and 5/4 dowels; the center legs are tied to the high runners and to low runners. It ain’t going anywhere.
Since we’re talking old pressure treated lumber, which very likely contains arsenic, one wants to keep the sawing and sanding down to an absolute minimum. Here, I cut slots to tie the cross pieces to the legs. Other than cutting the legs to length, that’s about the extent of the cutting.

Finished just in time for it to start raining! Soooo – we’re ready to rumble next summer.

Mini-Review: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon

In 1865 at the end of the American Civil War, Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moonone of the earliest Sci Fi novels and an utter scream of a satire of Americans, all in one book. He imagines a Baltimore Gun Club, with 30K+ members, who devote themselves to designing and perfecting big guns. I can imagine his French readers practically rolling on the floor at passages like:

It is but fair to add that these Yankees, brave as they have ever proved themselves to be, did not confine themselves to theories and formulae, but that they paid heavily, in propria persona, for their inventions. Among them were to be counted officers of all ranks, from lieutenants to generals; military men of every age, from those who were just making their debut in the profession of arms up to those who had grown old in the gun-carriage. Many had found their rest on the field of battle whose names figured in the “Book of Honor” of the Gun Club; and of those who made good their return the greater proportion bore the marks of their indisputable valor. Crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc jaws, silver craniums, platinum noses, were all to be found in the collection; and it was calculated by the great statistician Pitcairn that throughout the Gun Club there was not quite one arm between four persons and two legs between six.

Nevertheless, these valiant artillerists took no particular account of these little facts, and felt justly proud when the despatches of a battle returned the number of victims at ten-fold the quantity of projectiles expended.

And then peace breaks out all over:

“This is horrible!” said Tom Hunter one evening, while rapidly carbonizing his wooden legs in the fireplace of the smoking-room; “nothing to do! nothing to look forward to! what a loathsome existence! When again shall the guns arouse us in the morning with their delightful reports?”

“Those days are gone by,” said jolly Bilsby, trying to extend his missing arms. “It was delightful once upon a time! One invented a gun, and hardly was it cast, when one hastened to try it in the face of the enemy! Then one returned to camp with a word of encouragement from Sherman or a friendly shake of the hand from McClellan. But now the generals are gone back to their counters; and in place of projectiles, they despatch bales of cotton. By Jove, the future of gunnery in America is lost!”

“Ay! and no war in prospect!” continued the famous James T. Maston, scratching with his steel hook his gutta-percha cranium…

It is casually proposed that the Gun Club could stir up some war or other rather than let artillery science languish in peace, a prospect that has all the cripples in the club yearning for death. Various  scenarios are examined and rejected for one reason or another. Finally, Impey Barbicane, the President of the Gun Club, proposes, to wild cheers, that they build a cannon to shoot a projectile to the moon!

From then on, the story alternates biting and humorous portrayals of Americans with some pretty darn good science. The Gun Club announces its intentions, collects money from around the world, settles on a design (200,000 lbs of gun cotton packed into a 900′ barrel with a 9′ bore to propel a hollow aluminium sphere at an initial velocity of 12,000 yards/sec) and location (Florida, on the other side of the peninsula from Cape Canaveral) and start building. I read that Verne had underestimated the necessary initial velocity to reach the moon, but other than that, the only mistake I, the non-scientist, caught was that he assumed you could find high ground – he says 1,500′ – in Florida. There are hardly any spots more than 300′ above sea level in that state except near the Georgia border – and they’re hardly any higher.

As the gun nears completion, Michel Ardan, a wild Frenchman, shows up, to add plot complications and a European foil, and proposes to ride *in* the projectile. It is finally determined, after the plot complications, that Ardan will ride in the shell, along with Barbicane and his arch rival Nicholl . (One other science issue – pretty sure the acceleration would kill them, regardless of the elaborate efforts to defeat it. But hey, what did they know when a train was the fastest thing they’d ever ridden in?)

Fun book. It ends shortly after the successful launch. There’s a sequel I have not read yet, that treats of their adventures on the moon.

An aside: in this story, prominent Gun Club member James T. Maston is refused passage on the trip because of his missing hand and damaged skull. President Barbicane is afraid that, if there are men in the moon, they would need to explain to them how it was that Matson was so mangled, and it might set the relationship on a poor footing if earthlings had to own up to spending much of their time and wealth killing each other. Then, when Wells writes First Men in the Moon, he has Cavour explain exactly that to the Great Lunar – and that ends the communications to Earth. Finally, C.S. Lewis has Weston try to explain to the Oyarsa of Mars that it is somehow Man’s destiny to invade, subdue and colonize Mars – and gets himself and the others banished. We know Lewis was inspired by Wells, and it seems impossible now to imagine Wells was not inspired by Verne.

Mourning a Church Building

Shrine of Christ the King - Chicago, IL, United States
Sanctuary. The 300 year old statue of the Infant King survived with minimal smoke damage, even though the heat bent the cross below it and the burning ceiling collapsed all around. The tabernacle and the reserved Hosts were undamaged.

A couple weeks ago, a fire destroyed a beautiful historic church in Chicago:

An extra-alarm fire ravaged a nearly century-old landmark church in Chicago on Wednesday, causing the roof to collapse, and sending gray water streaming out the front door hours after firefighters began dousing the heavy flames.

The Fire Department first responded to the fire at Shrine of Christ The King Sovereign Priest shortly before 6 a.m., when smoke alarms went off in the neighboring priory, reports CBS Chicago. Fire officials said the fire might have burned all night, after floor varnishing work was done in the choir loft.

The priests of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (follow this link if you want to help financially) celebrate the Mass in the ordinary form in Latin as well as English, and the extraordinary form in Latin, and have chant and polyphony choirs. They serve the parish of St. Margaret Mary in nearby Oakland, where we attend mass occasionally. The liturgies are consistently beautiful and holy, and the congregation has a high percentage of families with lots of kids. Plus, they offer confession before, during and after all masses – and there are a lot of masses. I love the place.

It’s very sad the church of their US headquarters burned. The article linked above quotes parishioner Nicole Raciunas, a mother of eight, who was in tears after seeing the devastation:

“It’s worse than I imagined. I was hoping it would just have been something small,” she said. “It’s just a building, but it’s our home; but ultimately, yeah, the church is the people, not the building, so something better will come out of it, I’m sure. God wouldn’t have allowed it, right?”

She’s right, of course, and she said this in shock and with tears, so I in no way am criticizing her reaction. It is, however, OK for Catholics to mourn the loss of one of out church buildings, because they are not just buildings, but have become sacred and incarnational by the presence of the Eucharist in them. God is uniquely in our churches, just as He was uniquely present as Jesus. Mrs. Raciunas is right and meet to cry that such a thing is no more.

We should go ahead and mourn when a Catholic church is destroyed. It is OK to be sad for a season. Then we buck up and build a new one.  We should not bow to the tendency, most evident at funerals now days, to try to cheer people up before they have had a chance to be sad. we can ‘celebrate his life’ later – first, we must mourn his passing. Same goes for church buildings.

Modern Schooling and the Lone Genius


Was having a interesting, as in interesting, discussion with an acquaintance of mine the other day. It was one of those discussions where my wife came from the adjoining room and politely told me shut up – she’s really good at this, having had her natural gifts honed by a bit of practice on me over the years. So we didn’t get to finish, and it was just getting good, judging by decibel level…

My interlocutor was expounding an interesting theory that boiled down to saying that if you let Da Man issue you speeding tickets for, you know, speeding, then you’ve basically submitted to slavery under a totalitarian regime. This of course managed to remove from the discussion the mundane issue of whether the speeding ticket in question was deserved, because, in the rarefied and oxygen-deprived air on the high plateau of Theory and Principle to which we ascended, it wouldn’t matter if the ticket resulted from doing 100 in a school zone during lunch hour on a school day. Nope – it’s an issue of basic freedom that the government doesn’t get to tell you how fast you can drive.

I exaggerate, and must mention that we never did get to finish the discussion, so perhaps when fully fleshed out, his theory would have convinced me.

I kind of doubt it, though.

The interesting part, such as it was, was an appeal to the nature of state power as defined someplace, and the technical legal nature of a license – we didn’t get to discus the sources of these ideas, which may be just as well. The assertion was that the state, as a corporation, only has jurisdiction over that which it incorporates (it wasn’t any clearer than that), that the acts of individuals as individuals are not necessarily part of that corporation, and that, specifically, driver’s licenses are issued and required for *commercial* activities, not, for example, drag racing through a crowd of toddlers, so long as no money is involved. I guess. Again, I exaggerate.

We’ll stop now. As I said, to be fair, I did not get to hear the entire argument, which may have worked its way back into this space-time continuum eventually, and been stone certain TRVTH. I’ll probably never know.


John C Wright posted one of my favorite Chesterton essays the other day, wherein GK propounds the good and beneficial nature of trying to get along with those people who just happen to be you family and neighbors, as opposed to only associating with people who agree with you or at least are willing to leave you alone. A recurring theme on this blog is friendship as the basis of education. You can perhaps train a stranger or enemy, but true education requires a meeting of souls as friends. Chesterton’s point is even more basic – you will have a narrow view of humanity unless you have gotten to know your neighbors and learned to get along with your family: Continue reading “Modern Schooling and the Lone Genius”

Mini-Review: Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters

I don’t remember there being any indication in the story that people *rode* the dragons, but I’ve been wrong before…

To sum up: Wow. Now THAT’s some science fiction.

Haven’t read all that much Vance, which is a little odd, as I’ve loved everything of his I’ve read. If I’d have stumbled across him in grade school like I stumbled across Bradbury and Asimov, chances are I’d have read everything of his I could get my hands on by the age of 15 or so. As it is, I somehow missed him until a few years ago, and only now, when our children are mostly grown, do I have time to read. Anyway:

The story is only about 50 pages long, and can be found here, so I’m not going to spoil it by giving much detail. Just go read it. In typical Vance style, the basic structure of the tale could be a medieval romance: two adjoining kingdoms are locked in an age-old battle, but must unite if they are to defeat an even greater invading force. The language and lives of the peoples are suitably baroque – and there are flamboyantly-named Dragons!

…rust-red Termagant; the Long-horned Murderer and its cousin the Striding Murderer; the Blue Horror; the Fiend, low to the ground, immensely strong, tail tipped with a steel barbel; the ponderous Jugger, skull-cap polished and white as an egg.

Yet it is Sci Fi to the core: these people live in some vast future, in valleys on the harsh rocky planet Aerlith under the glare of an intense sun. They share the planet with a human-like race of Sacerdotes, gaunt creatures of unknown origin who are always naked except for their extraordinarily long hair. They are vowed to non-interference, and only rarely interact with the humans, usually to trade for food.

Somehow, however the humans got there in the first place, they have lost interstellar travel. Typical Vance, as are his descriptions – or lack thereof – of the dragons: he achieves a sense of wonder by not explaining thing, just hinting. And they are preyed upon by the inhuman Basics, who visit ruin upon them from their giant black ships whenever the motions of their red star bring their planet close.

Plot twists, gradual reveals, epic battles, dragons!, evil aliens, surprise ending… And we’ll just leave it at that – go read the story!

Book Review: a Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is my favorite story so far from the early days of science fiction. Two main reasons: the emotions and logic behind the actions of the protagonist do not ring false, and the ending doesn’t descend into romantic sociopathy or some flavor of Uncle Andrew’s high and lonely destiny(1). John Carter might bring about a battle wherein a million red and green Martians die to save his princess and her kingdom, but it’s safe to say he would not kill a dog for the sake of abstract progress. I can get behind a man like that.

The main virtue of a Princess of Mars is that it is a ripping good story. John Carter is gratifyingly brave, noble and humble, a true gentleman of Virginia and a fell hand in war; Dejah Thoris is wonderfully brave, noble and beautiful, what any Princess should aspire to be. The various races and cultures of Mars are developed with insight and sympathy, no matter how appalling their behavior and appearance might be. Doc Smith in Skylark, for example, would have made the green Martians mere monsters and the red Martians mere victims and heroes. But Burroughs gives even the hideous animals personality and depth.

The tragedy of a dying planet is consistently echoed in the tragedies of the red and green Martians. Even the cruel Thark lords who Carter kills are not simple monsters but are creatures of a brutal culture that arose under brutal circumstances. In the end, the better angels of the natures of all the races are revealed. Considering that Carter was a rebel soldier in the US Civil War, that’s an interesting outcome.

Onward: John Carter and James Powell, a buddy who fought with him on the losing side of the Civil War, decide to go seek their fortunes prospecting in Arizona. (Aside: Burroughs’ description of the Arizona landscape is dead on an beautiful.) They find gold, and decide Carter will guard the claim while Powell registers it and gets some men and supplies to start exploiting it.

From the claim, Carter has an excellent view through the clear Arizona air of Powell’s path – he can see for many miles his partner pick his way across the landscape. Finally, as the day wears on, Powell’s form vanishes into the shadows of distant mountains. But three ‘dots’ soon appear on his trail – Indians!

An heroic but ultimately futile rescue attempt ensues, with Carter chased by the pursuing Indians into a mysterious cave, where he prepared to make his last stand. But as the Indians find him, he is overcome by some mysterious force, and, while conscious, cannot move from his spot on the floor. But, equally mysteriously, the Indians panic and flee just as they get to the cave.

Carter, now alone, hears mysterious sound in the cave, and fears that whatever frightened off his pursuers will now do him in. With heroic effort, Carter attempts to escape, but cannot make his body move – until he finds himself standing, naked, looking down on his own body. Moments later, he finds himself on Mars!

This issue of transportation – how does somebody get to Mars in the 1860s, anyway? – is really just magic (although perhaps explained in the sequels? I kind of hope not). But that’s it – once on Mars, Burroughs sticks to speculation not at all unreasonable from the state of science at the time. That Barsoom – what the natives call Mars – is a dying yet well-populated world with several varieties of at least 2 intelligent races in near-constant war with each other provides a complicated political backdrop for our hero’s adventures.

We’ve got fights to the death, political intrigues, learning the language and customs, an opportunistic ambush, more fights to the death, a captured Princess, yet more fights to the death, escape, more political intrigue, more fights, more escapes, rescues – the action rarely pauses. Throughout, Burroughs introduces customs and creatures and a vast alien landscape – just great fun.

In the end, a whole bunch of threads need to be tied up: the heroic Tars Tarkis must claim leadership of the Tharks and be revenged upon the evil Jeddak Tal Hajus, for the torture and murder of his wife; Dejah Thoris must be freed from the clutches of the Jeddak of Zodanga and the coerced marriage to his son; the siege of the great capital of Helium must be lifted, and the animosity between green and red Martians must come to an end.

And the Hero has to get the Girl – can’t for get that. Makes for a great last few chapters.

Epic. Wonderful. Available free on the Web. Go read it now. BTW: the movie was stupid and captured virtually none of this.

  1. I assume all three of my regular readers get this, but just in case Google sends some poor lost soul here:

    “You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I’m sure, and I’m very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys – and servants – and women – and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”                  – Uncle Andrew in the Magician’s Nephew

Update: The Essential Sci Fi Library Project – Dates. Links, Format, Reviews

Just FYI – on the above mentioned page, I’m adding links to free versions of the stories when available and adding 1st publication dates, as time permits. Also will add links to reviews and related essays on this blog.

Then I’ll rearrange the list in chronological order so that we can more readily see who is inspiring/ripping off whom.

That is all.

Book Review: Skylark of Space; Observations on Early Sci Fi

Cover PageSkylark of Space, by E. E. “Doc” Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby, was originally published in 1928 in Astounding Stories as a three-part serial. I mention this because, evidently, the story was fairly extensively revised for future editions – I’m reviewing the original 3-part serial.

Skylark is said to be the first Space Opera, and also involves a Space Princess, as the main heroine becomes, effectively, a princess by the end of the story (but not the first space princess – that would be A Princess of Mars in 1912, as far as I can tell). By all accounts (such as Wikipedia’s) this story was hugely influential.

Genius chemist and humble yet lovable manly-man Dick Seaton accidentally discovers a way to release “intra-atomic energy” and luckily fails to blow up the earth or even his lab and himself doing so. He enlists the aid of his millionaire (back when that meant something) buddy Martin Crane to use his discovery to build a spaceship.They do so, along with a bucket of other cool gadgets, including compasses that always point to whatever it is you told them to point to, and intra-atomic energy bullets for their guns, which, basically, fire little atomic bombs. These prove handy, as one can well imagine.

The evil yet equally brilliant and manly chemist Dr. Marc DuQuesne figures out what our heroes are up to, and enlists the aide of the even more evil World Steel to bump off Dick and Martin and steel their supply of X, the mysterious element that catalyzes the release of intra-atomic energy from copper. World Steel’s not quite evil enough manager refuses DuQuesne’s murderous proposal, and instead send a thug to steal the X. When this attempt largely fails, DuQuesne attempts to kidnap Dick’s betrothed, the lovely and brave Dorothy Vaneman, in his own X-powered spaceship, but Dorthy, fighter that she is, manages to kick her captors and inadvertently launch the ship straight up under constant acceleration – all, including Dot, are glued to the bottom of the ship and pass out, only to come to billions of miles from earth once the copper power source is consumed.

Also on board is the beauty Margaret “Peg” Spencer, also kidnapped by World Steel in a separate crime spree – she’s there because Martin will need a girl to fall for, otherwise that trip home from the stars with the rather cringingly in love Dick and Dot could be awkward for him.

Dick and Martin jump into their spaceship, named by Dot the Skylark, and head to the rescue. Adventures ensue. I spotted at least 3 Star Trek episodes go by – super-advanced disembodied alien considers earthlings to be insects, planet of the dinosaurs with valuable resources (or is that Avatar? Rocky and Bullwinkle?) and, finally, the planet of the two warring factions bent on exterminating each other (that’s several episodes over several series, really).

It was good. Regular interludes wherein Dick and Dot, and then Martin and Peg, make goo-goo eyes and profess their undying love with florid language and sexual tension you cut with a chain saw got more than a little old (wonder if they were inspired by Nightland?) but otherwise, rarely do more than a couple pages go by without a dramatic rescue, encounter with bizarre alien life or some battle to death or other.

Strangely, even with all the oddball science and alien planets and FTL travel (and failure to realize that enough Gs of acceleration will kill you), what really rang false in the story was the human motivations and behaviors. This contrasts mightily with the equally fantastic Princess of Mars I’m almost through (re)reading. John Carter is equally if not more heroic than Dick, but his actions and reactions make a lot more sense given the premises of the stories. Dick is remarkably casual about near-death experiences for both himself and his team, about landing on any old planet with whatever horrors may there reside, with blowing up and killing untold numbers of alien people and in handing over his knowledge and a critical supply of X to people who seemed a lot nicer than the people they will now use Dick’s gifts to exterminate. None of that seemed even a little disconcerting, or called for even a token moment of introspection? I’m not asking for an Alan Alda moment, here, just maybe some little recognition that there might be a slight shade of gray to some of these issues.

The capper: Dick and Martin casually let DuQuesne, who has murdered and kidnapped people, escape and don’t seem particularly worried about it. In modern terms,.Marc is a psycho-killer – you don’t turn him loose!

The story is delightfully politically incorrect. Men are manly, women are girls, blacks are servants, the Japanese body guard/chef dude is a ‘Jap’, and so on and so forth. Yet the heroes never fail to treat the help graciously and respectfully, and they are the epitome of enlightenment as well as upright manhood and womanhood in full vigor. Recall that in 1915, when this story was begun, Woodrow Wilson was President, he who re-segregated the federal government and despised all inferior races. Heck, this story almost could be a protest.

Now that I’ve I’ve got a fair sample of early Sci Fi classics in RAM, here’s a short preliminary list of a number of recurring themes that jump out like Cthulhu from a big dark hole in the ground:

The Goofy:

  • Heroes treat space travel like a camping trip – throw a few things in the ship, and head on out. (First Men in the Moon, Skylark)
  • Let’s just say that Picard’s sense of careful 1st contact was not inspired by these stories (First Men in the Moon, Skylark, A Martian Odyssey). More a shoot first, ask questions later approach.

The Worrisome:

  • Smart people can fix the world if we just put them in charge of everything (Ubiquitous, with the exception of Lovecraft, Burroughs and Shelly)
  • Eugenics and infanticide for the less fit will fix everything once the smart people are in charge (ditto. Slan and Flatland remarkably so)
  • There are way too many poor people around harshing my mellow! (Wells particularly, Flatland, Slan)
  • Can’t make an omelet without killing 10,000,000 or so Kulaks.(Slan most explicitly; Wells, implicitly elsewhere)

Preliminary conclusion, subject to revision: In general, with the exceptions of Shelly, Lovecraft, E.M. Forster and Edgar Rice Burroughs, everyone writing in the early days of Sci Fi was a freakin’ socialist eugenicist, at least based on the attitudes espoused in their stories. And I’m betting Shelly would have got that way, too, had the option been available. She was home wrecking Romantic nitwit.

Coastal Cities to be Destroyed by Climate Change! Panic NOW!

In this article from Quartz (whoever they are), we get a link to a cool interactive map that shows which cities will get flooded if we don’t Do Something(tm) about “pollution” by which they mean atmospheric carbon dioxide.(1)  The map is fun – it starts out with Manhattan, and shows what will happen – will, as in stone-cold certain, sun rises in the East level no hedging allowed certain – if somebody – not jet-plane-flying, stuff-shipped-in-from-all-over-the-world-eating-and-wearing, top-of-the-world-living Manhattanites, surely – doesn’t stop polluting, and, more important, make everybody else stop polluting.

You can zoom out and see much of the world. The “Unchecked Pollution” setting yields the most waterlogged results, so of course it’s the default for half the map, compared with the much less soggy but still panic-intending “Extreme Carbon Cuts” on the other side.

The most impressive thing is that Florida is half Gone! A completely plausible 15′ or so rise in sea level, and Miami is just a shallow place in the ocean. Out on the West Coast, the biggest problem by far is the ocean backing up into San Francisco Bay.(2) Sacramento will be a coastal town of sorts. Stockton is spared. My house will be a lot closer to being ocean front property, which might be good for home prices. Then again, adding apocalyptic flooding to death by earthquake as features of the neighborhood might dampen (hah!) home buying enthusiasm…

When will this happen? In the article linked above, in the third paragraph, after the lead pipe cinch certainty has been established, we find out:

The report doesn’t unearth exactly when water will begin flowing into coastal cities, but notes that our current carbon emissions will lock in changes that could start occurring in as early as 2200. (Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, carbon pollution already in the atmosphere would be high enough to register an effect for years to come.)

So, we don’t need to rush right out and get some waders, then?

But let’s just look at a couple other maps, get a little perspective:

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Here we see a situation where hundreds of coastal cities are destroyed by climate change – in this case, glaciation during an ice age. Kandla would be a hundred miles from the sea! Even worse for Singapore! Of course, over the hundreds of years over which this situation would be likely to develop, canals could be built or cities moved.(3) The big problem might be agricultural displacement, but we really don’t know. We do know that the evidence strongly suggests that CO2 levels have been pretty low during glaciations, and that plants need CO2 to grow – so feeding people could be a problem.

Next map:

18,000 years a go – a geological blink of the eye – Florida was HUGE! Maybe all those new areas would be good for growing stuff? The climate was much different as well, so hard to tell.

Finally, the one we are supposed to worry about:

Leaving aside if anyone would really miss Florida if it got flooded over the course of a few centuries (and other places inevitably get greened up and more attractive to people fleeing Manhattan, which is, of course, what this is all about), the thing here to notice, the thing studiously avoided, is that, geologically speaking, THIS IS NORMAL. Today, and for the last few thousand years, we’ve been living on a knife-edge, climatologically speaking. Over the last couple billion years, almost certainly over the last couple hundred million, as far as we can tell, the earth more often than not did not have ice caps – the sea level, therefore, was much higher. Only once in great while did glaciation happen, with much lower sea levels – off and on for the last 3 million years, for example.

BUT – the state we’re in now, with comparatively small glaciers confined almost entirely to Greenland and Antarctica? That’s freakishly rare, in the big picture.

Climate change is inevitable. It is over-the-top hubris or religious fanaticism to imagine we can do much of anything about it one way or the other.

How about we focus on keeping the world tidy and setting aside places for critters to live – because we like a tidy planet, and we like our critters?

  1. Using similar logic, one might assert that the human body is polluted by blood if one gets a transfusion, or the sea is polluted by fish when there’s a plankton bloom.
  2. Because that’s where I live. See? It’s a simple matter of perspective.
  3. Happens all the time – Greek cities are often not where they were 2,000 or even 100 years ago. Many large cities are only a few centuries old. Anything that takes more than a lifetime to occur is outside the common notice of human beings.