Education Reading: 9/25 Update

Still working my way through Parish School by Timothy Walch (1997) and The Catholic School System in the United States,  by James A. Burns, C.S.C. (1908), with an equal or greater amount of effort spent tracking down references and googling background information. Very enlightening.

Because it is a much shorter work, I’m up to rereading sections covering the late 1800s/early 1900s in Walch while still back in colonial times with Burns. Walch covers the controversies and appeals to the Pope over disagreements in the Catholic hierarchy in America. Archbishop John Ireland, classified by Walch as a liberal, dreams of a day when Catholics can just send their kids to public schools and be done with it. After all, Ireland says, (here reflecting late Brownson) Americanism is fully compatible with Catholicism in its respect for the individual and freedom. Catholics should not fear immersion in Americanism just so long as the overt anti-Catholicism is purged. He seemed confident that it had been purged by 1890, when he was writing. Other archbishops threw their arms up in despair – Ireland was throwing the entire Parish School movement under the bus in order to make nice to non-Catholic Americans. If the public schools were acceptable, what was the point of having had thousands of parishes and millions of immigrants sacrifice to build and send their kids to parish schools?

A couple of issues are touched upon lightly that seem to need further expansion, and one critical point is ignored.  Walch repeats throughout the text the idea that Catholics in general were envious of the comparatively well-funded and appointed public schools, with their trained and certified teachers, and that everybody knew attending a public school gave kids a leg up on getting ahead. Haven’t tracked down or even read through all his notes – there are many – but the quotations in the text that might support these views have so far invariably been from partisans in the disagreement, or at least clerics. We don’t hear from Paddy the cop or Hanz the baker or Gianni the line worker in the shoe factory on their views of pubic versus parish schools. They were probably too busy. But based on their works, the churches and schools they did build with their own money and sweat, one might imagine they would beg to differ.

We do know that certain *clerics* envied the public schools. Fr. Pace, Fr. Shields, Fr. Burns, Archbishop Ireland and other priests and bishops thought ‘modern’ ‘scientific’ schooling embodying the latest advances in ‘scientific’ psychology and ‘scientific’ pedagogy were marvels, and that the dedicated but untrained and uncertified sisters doing most of the teaching in Catholic schools were a bit of an embarassment.

Walch also asserts that non-Catolic Americans were consistently baffled by the Church’s resistance to public schools. Hadn’t the schools (eventually, after some bloodshed) removed the Protestant King James Bible from the curriculum? Sure, there was some dispute over history, where the influence of the likes of Francis Parkman made the Catholics in the New World buffoons on a good day and evil, conniving anti-Americans on most days. But hey, the morality presented in the readers and copybooks was almost identical! So, come on, Catholics, we’ve met you more than half way!

In other words, there was nothing but acceptance, nay, affection among Protestants for American Catholics, who wouldn’t dream of ramming their views down the throats of Catholic kids via the public schools. Too bad Al Smith was not able to tap into all this good will.

I think there might be more to it than that.

A far greater and less excusable omission is Walch’s total failure to include any *reasons* why Catholics in 1890 might be suspicious of the good intentions of those then in charge of public education. It is implied that their fears were largely anachronistic, based on an earlier time. But as readers of this blog are aware, such contemporary luminaries in education as William Torey Harris were pushing Hegelianism as the official view of the US Office of Education – you know, that Modernism stuff the popes kept going on about. Harris, who was in office as US Commissioner of Education at the time Ireland address the (secular) National Education Association with his pro-public schooling remarks, said:

“Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”

Anything there a Catholic might object to, in principle? Harris also sought to make schools sensory deprivation tanks (“The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places … It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.”). Maybe somebody attending Mass in any one of the thousands of beautiful churches built by immigrants might object to this approach as being fairly explicitly anti-Catholic? No catechism in stone, just abstract thought?

So while the public schools were being lead by people dedicated to turning them into factories producing docile robots immune to beauty, the ‘liberal’ leaders of the Catholic Church were desperate to send Catholic kids to those schools, in the name of Progress and being Good Americans, and to the obviation of parish schools. In Walch’s telling, the opposition of the bishops he calls ‘conservatives’ is just this mystery, or at most them being fuddy-duddies stuck in the past.

Trying to stop getting sidelined and just finish these two books. Instead, I pulled down a short biography of Barnard, a contemporary and co-conspirator with Mann, because something Walch or Burns said made me think of Barnard…

Next up:


Seaton is an obvious choice. Thoroughly expect the book on the right is another cheerleading job, but true believers tend to slip up and say what they really mean from time to time. I’ve read and briefly reviewed the Holy See’s Teachings on Catholic Schoolsbut want to reread it now, as I suspect there was more than a little judicious cherry picking going on. I remember nothing in these writings that Archbishop Ireland wouldn’t be completely down with. (He wanted the State’s role in education to be on a par with the parents and the Church. No, really, he thought that was a good idea.)

I really need to get that Educational Resources page going here…


Polanyi’s Great Transformation, pt 1

(Note: I’m reading this work in preparation for reading Patrick Deenen’s Why Liberalism Failed simply because, over dinner, a friend casually mentioned that it figures into Deenan’s argument somehow. Let’s see how this goes. Kinda busy writing these days, (huzzah!) so may be a while before I get to read and report on the rest.)

A third of the way through Karl Polanyi”s the Great Transformation (That’s a .pdf. If you want other formats, here.)

The unambiguously good part: Polanyi makes near constant references to events, developments, tribes, people and so on about which I know next to nothing: 19th century English history, enclosure, the Trobriand Islanders, kula, various politicians and thinkers and on and on. I’ve spent nearly as much time on the web reading up on these topics as I’ve spent reading the book itself. As usual, I’m left shaking my head at the holes in what I know more each time I learn something new. But it’s still a good thing, and I plan to continue this practice as I go on.

Polanyi sets out to show that free markets and the thinking behind them are myths and frauds. There is no such thing as a natural and near-universal practice of truck & barter among primitive and not so primitive peoples. Such trading as did occur was generally ritualized and often symbolic. Free markets as we now understand them were a creation of the late 18th and 19th centuries, complete with a counterfactual mythology about how markets arose naturally and dated back to the earliest times when tribes traded with tribes or among themselves.

The next step – and here, I’m mixing in what the authors of the prefaces say about Polanyi with what he says himself, on the assumption that he’ll get around to it later – is to show how any economy prior to our current free markets was embedded in and a function of society in general, and then show how central management of economic activity was and remains the true ‘natural’ development, one we’ve discarded at great cost and continued peril.

Before we get into details, two asides. Can’t find the source at the moment, but Polanyi is described as having a ‘complicated’ relationship to Marxism. In my experience, that generally means he is a Marxist who picks a few nits with Marx and would like to distance himself from the atrocities of Lenin, Stalin, et al. And, sure enough, his intellectual companions are, with few exceptions, Marxists. He was ‘attracted’ to Fabianism, whatever ‘attracted’ might mean. I’m thinking, based on what the Fabian Society says about itself and its goals, that he was a Communist and a liar. But I’m harsh that way, taking what people say their motives and practices are at face value.

Be that as it may, one thing clearly evident in this book so far is what I would call a Marxist approach to history: regardless of what has happened, there are only a few acceptable explanations available, each having as its chief characteristic the dismissal of individual human actions in favor of gigantic faceless Forces. He’s gone light on Oppression so far, but big on Progress and Capitalism. I assume he’ll catch up later.

Another characteristic of the Marxist approach is to torture facts to meet the needs of theory. We’ll get to that in a minute. Suffice it to say that reading Polanyi so far reminds me of my youth when I read a couple Erich von Däniken books claiming that space aliens were responsible for much of human progress. (Hey, I was a kid, they were lying around) He had a recurring and annoying habit of employing the rhetorical flourish of concluding arguments with variations of ‘what other explanation could there be?’ Even in my youth, I’d start in with ‘I dunno, how about X, Y, and Z?’ Polanyi’s accounts of ‘primitive’ peoples are more sophisticated, but amount to the same claim: that the facts only support his conclusions. I dunno, how about X, Y and Z?

Second, and this may be that I’m just ignorant, I do not recognize what exact argument in favor of global, self-regulating markets Polanyi is refuting. Unlike the Scholastics, he does not provide a description of his opponents views that they would accept as accurate, but simply assumes his audience knows what he’s talking about. Now, I’m only lightly read in economics – dismal science, indeed – but I’ve never heard an argument that states that free markets should be the be all and end all of all economic activity under all circumstances. In fact, what I like about the idea of free markets is that they exist among free people – and that freedom of the people is logically and practically prior to the freedom of the market. Therefore, if and when markets might act in such a way as to impinge upon the freedom of the people, for example, in creating monopolies or in the selling of uranium reserves to an at least potentially hostile party, political action could be taken to block such a sale for the common good. More fundamentally, in a free society, individual action could be taken. Don’t spend money on people who hate you, for example.

Polanyi argues instead that the logic of the free market demands that not only the market be free in some absolute sense, but that society be made to conform to the needs of the market. This is among several conclusions he leaps to so far that basically come out of left field. Then again, Marx, following Hegel, believes that truth doesn’t have to make sense. You either get it or you don’t. Law of non-contradiction be damned.

A ‘believer’ in free markets could hold many things, say God, family, country, to be more primary and important than free markets. Heck, they could even believe that free markets, in the sense of letting people keep what they work for and sell and buy what they want – subject, of course, to God, family and country, to stick with the example – falls out of the same basic understanding of human nature and reality that lead them to elevate God, family and country in the first place.

But Marxists believe that lived experience falls out from whatever huge forces History has unleashed on us at the moment. It’s the system, man. Instead of families forming communities that form governments that reflect more or less imperfectly the interests of the people in those families, History dictates Oppression of one sort or another in the form of Capitalism or Feudalism or whatever. But salvation is at hand! A Mighty Fortress is Our Socialism! For reasons neither Marx nor his sycophants have ever explained,  this time History will inflict happiness on us all by means of Socialism, if only we are sincere enough and keep watch in the pumpkin patch or something. Having learned from Hegel, they write fat books, coin lots of neologisms and throw down the big words and use other words in ways no one else ever does to cover up the fact that their ideas, when stated plainly in words everybody understands, are infantile.

By the end of the first third of the book, Polanyi makes his strongest and most important point, the one upon which he hangs the idea that free markets of necessity destroy people and nature: that the logic of free markets demands that all the components of economic activities be treated as commodities. Free markets demand that anything that can be bought and sold on the market is free to be bought and sold on the market, and that such a market be free from outside (governmental) interference. In modern free markets, this includes money, land and people. Free markets inescapably demand that labor is just another commodity, to be regulated by the dead hand, and so people having their livelihoods and lives destroyed is a logical and even desirable outcome if that’s what the markets determine should happen. Similarly, the planet will be raped, since whoever can get the most out of it with the least investment wins. He assumes that this means simple, direct and immediate destruction of the planet as a result of consuming resources.

Money, land and people do not exist to be traded on an open market. Yet they are treated as commodities. Polanyi calls them fictitious commodities.

A quibble, yet one that calls into question Polanyi’s fundamental grasp of economics: he’s wrong about money. He asserts that, just as land and people are fictitious commodities, since they were not created to be traded, money was not created to be traded. But that’s exactly what money is created for, even and especially in the sense of money markets. As discussed here, most money in free market systems is created not by government fiat, but by private lending. Because of the fractional reserve system, banks create money by lending far more of it out than they hold in reserves. Yet, the money lent is as real and valuable as money created by government fiat, and is the vast bulk of the money that’s traded on money markets.

Perhaps a distinction could be made between modern money creation via lending under a fractional reserve system and money such as wampum or gold coins or big carved rocks. Polanyi does not do this, for a very good reason from his point of view: the bulk of his examples so far would fall apart if one were allowed to question what, for example, Trobriand Islanders kula trade has to do with any analysis of modern markets (spoiler: nothing whatsoever), or how come Europeans as a whole are much better off  now even after the disaster and injustice of the Enclosure program, if the safeguards that fought and delayed enclosure were banished from the earth by free markets? In other words, making distinctions that logic and simple honesty require is not in the cards, so long as those distinctions do not support the desired conclusions. As I said, Marxist.

The first chapters concern themselves with Enclosure and the so-called Tragedy of the Commons. Here Polanyi follows the well-worn track of every Marxist I’ve ever read: start by describing a tragedy caused by Capitalism or greed, in order to position yourself as the defender of the oppressed and all opponents as heartless reactionaries. Those of us who are not proponents of a flat moral universe might point out that, yes, people can be greedy, heartless and petty, and that such lamentable characteristic exist prior to any economic or political system. We might even point out that not only does Socialism in the real world fail to mitigate these behaviors, their grandest flowerings have taken place under socialist regimes.  Those who take other people’s stuff are thieves, after all – unless they are socialists, in which case they are merely the instruments of History’s inexorable march of Progress. The more equal need their dachas to keep their revolutionary edge, I suppose.

Next, we hear about the Trobriand Islanders and their kula trade. Here Polanyi insists that the ritualized exchange of ritual gifts used to reinforce social relationships among  8,000 isolated islanders with nothing else to trade must be accepted as an example of – what, exactly? Had fun reading up these folks, how pretty much the only resources they have are yams, fish and palm fronds. Anybody can clear a little jungle and grow yams with minimal effort. They developed a system by which the village chief causes a yam house to be built and the villagers hand over their yams to be handed out as the chief decides.  Also, if a man wants sex and/or marriage, he need to show the object of his desire some nice yams, to demonstrate that he’s the kind of guy who can really grow them yams! (The Margaret Mead flavored claim that the islanders don’t think sex and babies are necessarily connected is more easily and believably explained as people pulling gullible Europeans’ legs with a cabbage-patch story. But we’d reveal ourselves as rubes were we to laugh at the people in lab coats.)

In other words, these are subsistence farmers who do a little fishing. They have nothing to trade in the economic sense, and nothing to gain from putting in extra hours working. Instead, their biggest problem – hope you’re sitting down – is acting out the occasional urge to kill each other. War, in other words. The Europeans forbade war, leading to the development of a unique and highly ritualized from of cricket, where they islanders can act out their aggression without (usually) killing each other.

The kula trade is how the islanders confirm their kinship and peaceful relationships with the nearby villages. Ritual objects are given is such a way that, in a decade or so, each object makes its way around the loop of the islands back to the original village.

This, Polanyi assures us, is an example of trade, of a market. We are to learn from this example that markets aren’t free, but are embedded in the culture in which the trading takes place. This lesson will come in very handy next time I’m required to give a ritual object to my neighbors to reinforce our mutual agreement that we won’t kill each other.

The next section is about commodities fictitious or otherwise discussed above.

The writers of the introduction and preface try mightily to show how recent history has proven Polanyi prophetic. Despite a precipitous drop in poverty along with a more than tripling of the world’s population, we are to believe the capital markets are so evil that we need to go back to swapping trinkets and growing yams, to save the planet and ourselves. Seriously, Polanyi and his followers points and arguments dissolve like so much flushable kitty litter when exposed to the least bit of analysis. Once you’re convinced that you’re on the Right Side of History, the only explanations left in your toolbox are systemic oppression of some sort. Just as we’ll get those new soviet men, free from greed and violence, from whom the endless supply of virtuous bureaucrats needed to run all our lives will come, if we only will close and wish real hard, we’ll get the new reality we need, one that, instead of putting all our pet theories to the lie, confirm them!

Very busy these days. Will try to finish this up soon.


Book Review – Hidden Truth: A Science Fiction Techno-Thriller

Stayed up late to finish The Hidden Truth: A Science Fiction Techno-Thriller by Hans G. Schantz because I had to – this is not the kind of book you stop with only 20% left to read. Nope, gotta see what happens. Short and sweet: a very good read, very much old school pulp, early Heinlein hard science + heroic heroes and derring-do. The story opens with some almost bucolic high school stuff, and establishes the main characters as believable denizens of a small country town. Then it adds electromagnetism and science history, mystery, conspiracy, and murder! Good stuff, good Sci Fi.  

The Hidden Truth: A Science Fiction Techno-Thriller by [Schantz, Hans G.]I had to laugh out loud at all the points in the story where a poor sensitivity reader’s head would gratifyingly explode. Schantz keeps a completely straight face about it all, which only makes it funnier. Stuff like a most motherly mom who also can put a bullet between your eyes if you need it; free-market patriots armed to the teeth who the author of  “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” would no doubt call rednecks are the *heroes*; a slightly alternative history in which Gore won, was killed when the 9-11 attacks succeeded in hitting the White House, and Lieberman (his vice president: McCain) got a bunch of carbon taxes through and is now taking credit for the last 20 years of flat temperatures even as atmospheric carbon keeps rising. The easily recognizable bad guys, they who are hiding the Hidden Truth, all have our best interests at heart, like a rancher has his cattles best interests at heart. 

Simply, men are men. Women are women. Boys aspire to be men; girls aspire to be women. People pray before meals. The government is assumed to be of, by and for the people – or else. Somebody here didn’t learn his Crimestop. Thank goodness. BUT – I hasten to add that all this is done organically, as part of a very good story, not through  preaching or uncalled for digressions. If I were a kid reading this, I probably wouldn’t even much notice.

The protagonist and 1st person narrator (whose name I think is Peter, but his name is mentioned so rarely in the book I’m suddenly unsure) a very bright kid (comparisons with Kip from Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel are apt) stumbles across a curious passage in an old book on electromagnetism. He enlists the help of his best friend and debate partner Amit Patel, a leet computer geek and would-be lady’s man, to investigate.

They snoop around a bit, looking for other references that might explain the peculiar wave interactions described in this one dusty book from a mostly forgotten library at what used to be the local technical college. All hell breaks loose. A girl bookstore clerk who helped them out is found murdered along with her boss. Dad, mom and Uncle Rob all get involved, trying to lay low while also trying to figure our what’s going on.

And it gets more interesting from there. Schantz writes in a direct, no-nonsense style and ladles out the science in easily-digestible portions. The ending is a bit of a cliff-hanger – so, on to volume II, A Rambling Wreck. It’s like he planned it that way!

Check it out. Under 300 pages, so you can read it in a few sittings. 5 stars.

Quick Book Review: Superluminary

I think somewhere on his blog, John C. Wright mentioned that in his latest novel Superluminary: The Lords of Creation he decided to go as over-the-top cosmic pulp adventure as he could. If that’s so, the author of the Eschaton Sequence, the Golden Age series and Somewhither  has finally cut loose ? Stopped toning down the SFF crazy?

Superluminary: The Lords of Creation by [Wright, John C.]What? I would say that when it comes to piling on more wild SciFi speculation into a book or story, Mr. Wright is without conscience. And that’s a good thing. That said, this book is a wild ride.

The Lords of Creation, the first of four books that compile the weekly serial Superluminary, starts fast and never stops. Somebody wants to kill Aeneas Tell, the upstart young Lord of Creation, and very nearly succeeds. The first chapter ends with the first of many narrow, death-defying escapes, characteristically employing wild yet tethered to reality SciFi gadgets.

The extended family of an insane (or is he?) god-like ancestor have nearly limitless power due to an alien artifact that the original Lord discovered. The offspring overthrew him, and have solved all want and war, but treat mere mortals as nothing more than pets. Aeneas thinks the Lords have grown too powerful and complacent, but his plans to overthrow them and share their technology with the peons backfire. He gets assassinated, after a fashion.

Aeneas finds himself headless and freezing to death on the forbidden planet Pluto, losing precious heat through the bloody stump of his neck (he keeps a backup brain in his torso for just such contingencies), when his enhanced senses discover a gigantic tower on the horizon, which turns out to be a long-lost spaceship with an undead, life-sucking crew of 300 – you get the picture. And it never stops!

No planets get blown up in this volume, an oversight I trust Wright will remedy over the next three.

So if you’re jonesing for a rollicking good old-style space adventure with boatloads of modern tech speculation and undead spacemen and a deftly and memorably drawn cast of characters, this story is for you. 5 stars.

Got a couple more books/magazines to review when I get a minute. Also, started rereading William Brigg’s excellent Uncertainty: the Soul of Modelling, Probability and Statistics, which I never quite finished and reviewed – it’s not a light read, but a book to be pondered. Must give that a write-up as well.

Book Review: For Steam & Country

For Steam and Country, a steampunk adventure Jon Del Arroz, is a lot of fun, a fantasy with airships and steam cars, knights and mysteries, castles and kings and a war with an implacable enemy. The story is told in first person by Zaira, the 16 year old daughter of the famous hero and inventor Baron von Monocle. He has been missing since leaving in his steam-powered airship 2 years earlier. Since Zaira’s mother had died a year before then, Zaira is left to care for the family farm alone. She is aided by a friendly neighboring family and their handsome son James.

The cover catches the flavor nicely. 

The story opens with an earthquake that severely damages the farmhouse. Zaira is fretting, as she cannot both repair the house and get the next crop of vegetables ready for market. James has dropped by to help her clean up. A tall well-dressed stranger and a woman in military garb appear at the door.  They have a message for Zaira, and whisk her away in a steam car.

Adventures ensue. Derring-do is done, heroes emerge, and dreams come true.

Del Arroz creates a series of memorable characters and fun steampunk, and puts them in a fast-paced plot full of action.  I had to laugh early on at how perfectly the story followed the classic Hero’s Journey, but quickly forgot about that as the action intensified. We do have an epic here, and if you want to map the story and characters to Star Wars, you can do it pretty well. That said, reminding readers of a classic epic fantasy is hardly a bad thing.

This story is suitable for adults and children. Bad guys and couple good guys do die, but again, if your kid thought A New Hope was not too scary, they should be fine with this as well.

So, go buy and read this book! Fun, action-packed adventure. With steam-powered airships!

Short Book Review: The Ophian Rising

The 4th and final book of Brian Niemeier‘s Soul Cycle, The Ophian Rising  is I think the best of the four books – and that’s no small complement, as each book is in its own way very good to excellent. Short & sweet: if you’re a fan of mind-bending fiction, and epic tales spun out over centuries, of heroic heroes you can love and disturbingly inventive and evil monsters, then check out this book and the whole Soul Cycle series. And buckle in for the ride.

The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book 4) by [Niemeier, Brian]Throughout the series, a continuing theme is how truth and reality are not obvious to us, the readers, or to the characters in the story. The greatest heroes in this fourth book, Navkin and Astlin, are two women who at first do not even understand their own origins, eventually end up queens and builders of society, and finally are willing to die and surrender what they thought they were in order to banish evil from their worlds. Even that is not exactly what’s going on – but any more would risk spoilage.

The ending is a very cool and surprising twist. I will say that I long suspected some amazing reveal at the end. Hints are dropped. As mentioned in reviews of the earlier books in the series, Niemeier is not world building, but universe building.  What I mean: world building takes place in this universe – the worlds thus built, however wild, are posited to exist, somehow, with us here. From very early in the Soul Cycle, it’s clear Niemeier’s  universe of prana, the Cardinal Spheres, the Strata, substantial ether and techno-spiritual magic is not in this universe in any material sense. So the questions lurks: where is *our* universe in this story? Are we in this story simply in some other place entirely, where the elves are Gen and the magic is Factoring and warp drive is ether-running? But otherwise unrecognizable as home? Or is there a deeper home?

After an exhausting Sunday following an even more exhausting work week, I collapsed on my bed around 9:00 with the last 20% of the book to read. Fell asleep and woke at 11:00 – and didn’t get back to sleep until after midnight. Then, immediately upon finishing the book, reread the author’s glossary and cast of characters, because I know I missed 75% of what was going on. Then considered rereading Nethereal, the first book in the series, to see what I missed. That’s a pretty good book that makes you care enough to want to make sure you didn’t miss too much.

Because there is a lot there. Some of it is merely mechanical – dozens of characters and worlds and cities and ships and circles of Hell to keep straight. Some of it is the kind of convoluted plotting one should expect over a 4-book series. But there’s also a lot going on in the realm of ideas – right and wrong, true and false, loyalty and treachery, which are loved or rejected for about every flavor of reason one can imagine. The reader must keep it all straight or, alas!, some key action by some secondary character will cause a ‘what?!?’ moment – that then makes sense once you parse out where we last left things with that character.

But it’s worth it. Excellent read.

I read somewhere that this series had been percolating in the author’s mind for a decade or so. It does have a bit of a ‘everything & the kitchen sink’ feel to it, sometimes. I’ve found Niemeier’s shorter works, such as The Hymn of the Pearl and Elegy for the Locust from Forbidden Thought to be easier to get my brain around and so more immediately satisfying. That said, these are the first 4 novels Niemeier has written – I can only imagine with happy anticipation what the next novels will be like, given the quality already present and improvement evident over the 4 books. Bring it on!

Short Book Review: The Secret Kings

The next-to-last book in Brian Niemeier’s Soul Cycle, the Secret Kings is, essentially, the continued adventures of Teg, Navkin, Elena and Astlin – and a whole bunch of other characters – as they face off with and kill, are killed and/or resurrected by an array of evil maniacs. All the Way Cool Powers ™ that the players have been picking up throughout the adventures over thee books now, the connections both mundane and eldritch, and who needs to save or revenge whom from what, are put in play.

The Secret Kings (Soul Cycle Book 3) by [Niemeier, Brian]A fun read. Check it out.

The climactic scenes are drawn in a way that defies mere cinematic imagination – and that’s a compliment, after having read stories over the years that read more like outlines for movies that actual novels. Here, Niemeier uses a device favored by Dante: paint the picture in broad strokes while having the viewpoint character recognize that what he sees is fundamental incomprehensibility. You are imagining the unimaginable. It works – the reader sees something partial, but gets the full emotional import.

For the first time in the series, I found myself caring about the characters. While normally this would sound like a fatal criticism of the earlier books, it’s weirdly not – at least in my case. Two reasons: the action and universe-building is good enough to keep my interest, and I learned the hard way (read the first book 3+ times) that I needed to approach these books as if they are works from an unfamiliar culture.

Because they are. That culture unknown to me includes role-playing games, comic books and anime. And Dune, which I could never get more than 100 pages into. John C. Wright’s books have much of the same issues for me, and he’s a great writer, so it’s not a reflection of writer’s skill by any means.

Here’s an example: role-playing games, based on what I’ve picked up from my sons, who are very much into them, have this idea of assigning roles and powers to characters that come into play and are added to over the course of adventures and quests, and that ultimately only fully reveal themselves in climactic battles. It’s the difference between Raymond Chandler’s description of Philip Marlowe:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

…and a D&D character sheet.

Now, a writer certainly can build a compelling character from a Bard with +15 Charisma – whatever the hell that means – but it seems to me that in this series the *character* character, such as understood by Chandler, is build ON the D&D-style definitions rather than the other way around. Marlowe packs a .38, and all you’ll ever find out about it is that it’s a .38. (1) Teg packs, among many other things, a Worked Rodcaster, which is lovingly described in some detail, critical to several plot points and battles, and requires the reader to keep in mind an entire system (or 2. Or 3.) of magic/science to understand. He’ll pull it out in certain exact situations where it, among all the weapons in his kit, is the one and only thing to address the exact challenge he’s facing. Which seems random UNLESS you remember all that other stuff.

Marlowe uses his .38 to put holes in people once in a while. Now the demands and expectations of Science Fantasy are way, way different than Detective Noir, but even: the reader, I think, is expected to share the author’s delight in the level of detail needed for the Rodcaster to work in the story. I am not of that culture, and so it was work.

This all no doubt seems completely normal to role playing gamers, who spend hours going over who has what powers and characteristics and what the rules of the magic system are before they ever start playing. Reading the Soul Cycle, such a one is probably making exactly the sort of mental notes the gamers are habitually taking, about who can do what and how a Nexist differs from a Factor and so on.

Me? All this stuff, with which the Soul Cycle is packed, seems like weird trivia. So I must read these tales like I’m reading Gilgamesh or something, recognizing that there are cultural considerations to be made for it to be enjoyable or even just understood.

Wow, that was waaaay heavier than I intended! Gilgamesh and Dante in a SFF novel review. Need more coffee.

By book 3, however, while I still can’t quite keep all the rules and powers straight, nor remember the exact relationships between the various factions and planets, nor even keep all the myriad players and who is betraying whom straight without considerable effort, at least by now I know and care about a few core characters, and so can sympathize when Astlin is threatened, for example, even if I’m unsure what exact power she now has to address it.

The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book 4) by [Niemeier, Brian]If your standard for complicated storytelling is, say, Vance, this is going to be a challenging read. If Tolstoy, OK, that’s better, at least for keeping vast numbers of characters straight. But ideally, you’re a reader who has played role playing games all your life, and so will take active delight in Neimeier’s  lovingly and well-thought-out details and be undaunted by how many there are.

That reader is not me – and I still enjoyed the book, and plan to start The Ophian Rising soon. So check the Soul Cycle out!

  1. In one Chandler story, a hit man’s gun is described in some detail – a .22 target pistol with the sight filed off – in order to show what a cocky SOB the dude is. But that’s it, as far as I can remember.