Book Review: The Night Land

Night Land CoverWilliam Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land is a brilliant, moving and weird book. Published in 1912 by a former sailor and health club entrepreneur turned writer, this book is a pinnacle of imagination and speculation – the world Hodgson creates is unique, awesome, terrible, fantastic and yet believable. While usually classified as Horror, it nonetheless fits well within the Speculative Fiction category under both Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is often called a flawed classic (by me, for example), yet the very real flaws are dwarfed by the magnificence of the Hodgson’s vision, which gave birth to an entire genre of ‘Dying Earth’ fiction.

First, let’s get something out of the way: there are several conceits Hodgson uses to tell his story that are features, not bugs, despite them rubbing some readers very much the wrong way (I did diligent research on this – I surfed the Web for maybe an hour or two). First is an opening chapter set somewhere in an idealized England of maybe 200-300 years ago, a chapter that seems at first to have little to do with the rest of the book. In it, Hodgson tells the tragic love story of our unnamed narrator and Mirdath the Beautiful. That chapter ends with the death of Mine Own, Mirdath, after but a few years of marriage.

It is often advised to skip this chapter – but don’t. In it, Hodgson establishes the personalities of the protagonists, and the epic nature of their love, and of the narrator’s sorrow.

Then there’s the stilted, contrived language, some sort of weird post Shakespearean pidgen, in which word forms are used that I doubt even existed in English. Further, very little dialogue is permitted, and constant addresses to the reader are made, and constant apologies for failure to properly describe something, or appeals to sympathy – the valid complaint is that he overdoes it. However, these devises in and of themselves serve to engage us constantly in the life and struggles of the protagonists while at the same time emphasizing the weirdness of the Night Land.

Finally, much is made of the relationship between the hyper-masculine narrator and the hyper-feminine Naani/Mirdath, and the supposed paleolithic nature of their sex roles. I’ll let the master, John C. Wright, correct this misunderstanding. (And do go read that essay – good stuff.)

These stylistic choices are all defensible and, what’s more important, effective. What is less effective, past the point of distraction, to the point of skimming paragraphs, is the level of detail Hodgson applies to the relationship of the Narrator and the Lady Naani. Wright, in the above linked essay, ably and convincingly explains how the needs of the story demand an explication of the archetypal relationship between the protagonists. (Did I just write that? And I’ve never taken a Comp Lit or Jungian Psych class in my life!) Continue reading “Book Review: The Night Land”

Brain Vacation

Couldn’t really think above room temperature this past week. Too much going on, too much emotion. The strong silent type I’m not, rather, weak and noisy is closer.

But! Now, back in the saddle:

– Just finished Pope Benedict’s Spirit of the Liturgy.Wow. Always loved that guy. But it’s going to take, you know, thought to write on it. Maybe later this year.

– Had this great idea: since John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Lands is in the queue, thought I’d better read William Hope Hodges 1912 original, The Night Land. Well, after about 40-50 Kindle pages, I noticed that the percent indicator said, like, 3%. This is 200,000 word novel. It is both brilliant and in dire need of an editor – there’s a 100,000 word deathless  classic hiding in there somewhere, instead of another flawed, much praised, rarely read book. Half way through, and it’s worth the trouble, but – man. It wouldn’t even be hard to edit 50% of it away without doing any damage to the story at all.

I’ll review ASAP.

– in the earlier post about probabilistic versus deterministic descriptions of subatomic events, Dr. Bob Kurland made some excellent comments. Unfortunately, my brain was set to ‘warm’ this week, So, I hope to get back to that soon, too.

– Science Marches On! I’m continually struck by how little claim on our loyalty, as in the sense of ‘none’, psychology, sociology and related fields have. The syllogism runs something like this:

  1. Results achieved by rigorous and reviewed application of the Scientific Method as exemplified in physics and chemistry demand a reasonable and honest man’s acknowledgement as science;
  2. Psychology sociology and related fields never achieve and rarely aspire to the rigorous and reviewed application of the Scientific Method as exemplified in physics and chemistry;
  3. Therefore, psychology sociology and related fields do not demand a reasonable and honest man’s acknowledgement as science.

What this means: in no event are the claims made by sociologists, psychologists and those in related fields to be taken seriously. Only if they can survive the sort of critical scrutiny that the scientific claims of physicists and chemists are routinely subjected to should we grant them the status of science. They have yet to reach the ‘alchemy’ stage of development, whereby practitioners can at least reproduce objective results without understanding them.

Now, of course, as Aristotle said, we can’t demand more certainty from our investigations than the nature of what is being investigated admits. What is missing nowadays: the strength of our claims also drops: we can’t make claims any stronger than the inherent uncertainty of the subject matter permits – and that’s only if we’re really doing our jobs, and not just milling political propaganda.

 

Review: Sci Phi Journal, pt 1 – Overview; Domo; Ideal Machine

Short Form: Well worth a couple of bucks and your time. It’s a bit tragic that you’d need a somewhat specialized magazine to read stuff that treats Sci Fi, philosophy and Christianity seriously and with respect – but here it is. The writing is mostly quite good, even great, but uneven – hey, volume 1. Go buy and read this. 

Onward:

Here’s the Sci Phi Journal website. 

Nice evocative cover. My old school sensibilities make me wish I could hold this in my hands, rather than viewing it on my old school black & white Kindle. But hey, welcome to the 21st century.

Our culture used to be able to produce movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, where, whatever its other merits, Christianity was simply taken for granted, no apologies nor irony. There have even been times, in the misty past, when being a philosopher was considered an honorable profession. Not often, perhaps – a doom not helped by the small but noisy parade of narcissistic maniacs, political tools and empathy-free sociopaths, not to mention mere muddle-headed goofballs, who have claimed the title of ‘Philosopher’ over the centuries.

Yet – and here is a touchstone – there is and, since at least the ancient Greeks, always has been a perennial philosophy, around which serious people trying to live serious lives have gathered and studied. Any college sophomore can reach the basic conclusions of a Nietzsche or a Hume after a few beers and love affair gone bad. It takes a bit more, more skin in the game, as it were, to approach the Big Boys.

Sci Phi Journal want to get into that game, while at the same time honoring the flights of fancy, even sometimes puerile fancy, that give us Buck Rogers, Star Wars, as well as From Gustible’s Planet and Monster Hunter International. In no way am I knocking this – there were times in my life where I could quote pages of dialogue from Star Wars (I’m a little rusty in my old age) and argue the physics of Star Trek with the best of them. Serious philosophy and Sci Fi, even less than serious Sci Fi – match made in heaven. Kudos to Jason Rennie, the editor and godfather of this effort, for taking on this quest.

Almost everything in this magazine deserves a review – I’ll take a crack at several of the more memorable section. In this first review, I’ll tackle the short story Domo, by Joshua M. Young, and the novella Ideal Machine, by John C. Wright.

Domo. This story is the 1st person musings of an intelligent robot, Domo of the title, mostly centering around a weekly chess game with a retired priest. The most wonderfully sci fi aspects of the story are supposing that smart enough robots would have a social life in the cloud – that the mundane duties of ‘servitors’ would hardly engage their ‘minds’, and so much of their mental activity is networking, in both senses of the word, with other servitors. Then, the subject of re-imaging a robot is considered – what if a used robot is sold, and the buyer wants to, like Uncle Owen, wipe its memory? As the robots become more human, that act becomes more like murder. Good, well-written story.

Ideal Machine: It’s hardly surprising that John C Wright’s contribution is both the most well-written and mind-bending of the offerings here. He is a philosopher, first and foremost, and has already tried his hand at blending speculative fiction with Christianity, most brilliantly (and tear-jerkingly) in NativitySci Phi is a vehicle tailor made to his gifts, and he does not disappoint.

The story begins as a First Contact tale: a mysterious object is approaching earth, and decelerating – not a natural object. It comes to rest over an obscure country church in Maryland.  St. Ignatius Church was founded by Jesuits in 1641; in the story, it is little more than a museum, used only once a year for Mass. (As an aside, in the story it is stated as being the oldest Catholic church in America – nope – San Miguel’s was founded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1610, and is still there. East Coast people always seem to forget New Mexico even exists as part of America.)

The action centers around two military helicopter pilots, Joseph Cupertino Tyler (Ha! St. Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of aviators, and is famous for levitating at Mass, witnessed by thousands of people), and Andre Adenoid Hynkel (Double ha! Adenoid Hynkel was the Great Dictator in Chaplin’s movie; Andre means ‘man’ or manly), his copilot, and their encounter with an elderly priest in the church.

Philosophical & moral question: if you had a devise with which you could save the world or gratify your every desire or anything in between, what would you do with it? What kind of a man should hold such power? Tyler, Hynkel and the priest take a crack at answering this question. The climactic scene called to mind the Simplification in Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz – a good thing to be reminded of.

The priest’s interaction with the aliens takes place off camera, but provides some of the more mind-bending speculation in the story when recounted to the pilots.

Conclusion: Hey, under $4 on Amazon! What are you waiting for? The stories are well worth it, and we need to encourage this sort of thing.

 

Book Review: Judge of Ages

Just finished the Judge of Ages, the third of 6 books in John C. Wright’s epic Count to a Trillion space opera.

Short form: This book ends well, but, even though the pages kept turning, was less satisfying in the middle sections. Still, there’s enough momentum to keep me eager for book 4. 

When we last left our intrepid hero Menelaus Montrose, he is witnessing the destruction of one of his carefully guarded cryogenic tombs, in which are stored members of each of the races of men that have inhabited the earth over the past 8,000 years. Everything seems wrong – all the elaborate defenses, both machine and human, that have guarded his tombs for millennia are failing. Worse, his careful interventions in human history, in which he counters every move of Blackie del Azarchel and his henchmen, seem to have  failed and left a dead, frozen world.

Through enhanced human and computer intelligence, and the bioengineering and gadgets such genius produces, Blackie is trying to manipulate mankind into becoming perfect slaves for the alien from Hyades, who are due to arrive in 400 years. Menelaus wants men to be free, and wants to fight the Hyades. And he wants to survive the 60K+ years it will take to get his wife back, the wife Blackie thinks he stole from him.

The book opens with Menelaus, captured, being  lead down into the tombs. in the hands of Moreaus, enhanced dog-based near human guards. Can he somehow get free, defeat the tomb robbers, and face Blackie in the gun duel for all the marbles?

In the Hermetic Millennia, we got the back stories on all the races created by Blackie’s henchmen, which were interesting and inventive. However, in this book, a hundred plus pages are spent in a fight scene that read like I imagine the climax of a really huge and imaginative RPG would come down. I myself have never played, but my kids do, and I’ve heard them in their sometimes hours long set up, where characters and powers and weapons and vulnerabilities are chosen, a setting is created – and then, eventually, a battle takes place where a skillful dungeon master uses all the set up to create as epic a battle as possible, wherein the players get to use all that cool stuff. Maybe that’;s totally wrong, but that’s how both RPGs and huge part of this book appear to me.

It was interesting enough that I read right through it, but I was less than fascinated or thrilled. From a moving the story forward perspective, it could have 1/10th as long. Then comes some very dramatic plot twists – and another 50 pages of people standing around talking, then we get more plot twists and another cliff hanger.

Now, I *like* the philosophical digressions and reveals. I liked all the back story stuff in Hermetic Millennia.  But here, riding on the heels of the long battle scenes, it was a bit much.

None the less, by the end, Wright had recaptured the sense of wonder and surprise that is so much on display in this series. He has a wonderful talent for leaving enough clues that the reader can figure out some of what’s coming next, yet he always adds a twist or 6 – fun.

Conclusion: worth reading, and didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the next book, but not as good as the previous 2 installments.

Book Review: The Wreck of the River of Stars

The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn

Short Form: Excellent book. Go read it now.

It took me a long time to read this book – about three weeks, which might usually lead one to think it wasn’t gripping or was a chore. Not true, for two reasons related to the reader, not the book. I have a flaw as a consumer of entertainment – I get too emotionally attached, sometimes, to characters, and find it hard to just keep reading when it’s pretty clear there’s an unpleasant doom coming – and, in a story about a shipwreck in space, that’s going to happen. (Heck, I never actually finished East of Eden, even though I love Steinbeck – the sense of doom was just too much. Yea, I’m a wimp.) So, I needed to put down the book more than once. This is a tribute, rather, to Flynn’s ability to create characters a reader can love.

Second, during those weeks, a dear young man, a friend and friend of the family, died suddenly and unexpectedly.  So a story that puts a bunch of young adults in mortal danger was just too much, from time to time. Anyway, on to the book!

Flynn builds a world of interplanetary commerce in the late 21st century. There are settlements and outposts in earth orbit, on the moon and Mars, on the moons or in orbit of Jupiter and Saturn. It’s a time like the last half of the 19th century, of bustling exploration and commerce, when steam engines were added to wooden sailing ships, creating short-lived hybrids, destined to be obsoleted by iron and diesel. The River of Stars, the greatest solar sail ever built, is such a hybrid, only in 21st century space.

In Flynn’s future world, the ocean deep of space was first breached by solar sailing ships, huge vessels with even huger superconducting sails many kilometers across, that took great skill to fly. The early astronauts (Planetnauts? Solarsystemnauts?) developed a culture much like the one among the sailors of the 19th century – great honor is given to the masters of the craft, the captains and sailing masters, with crews of mates under them. On board, your social position is largely determined by your rank and berth. Core people – the sailmaster, the navigator – have more prestige than more peripheral crew – the doctor, the cook. Civilians, on the other hand, are a sort of separate species. This is a dynamic known to all highly specialized teams with concrete goals to achieve.

Vast crews are required to sail these ships. As in the great sails of the 19th century, a ship needed to have on board everything it might take to keep her afloat for months without putting into port. So, in addition to food and water and air, you have machine shops and raw materials for building replacement parts. Like the ships carpenter of olden times, the crew of a solar sail must be able to effect repairs in isolation.

The steam engine equivalent is the Farnsworth cage drive: a fusion drive that generates more power than the sails and requires a much smaller crew. The River of Stars, once the greatest and most prestigious ship of all, on which flew the mighty and famous, has been reduced to a tramp hauler by the introduction of Farnsworth cages. Retrofitted with 4 cages, and stripped of most of its luxury fittings, the ship is classified as a hybrid – the sails remain, but have not been unfurled in 20 years. However, the laws require that the ship maintain a nominal sailing master and crew, more for form’s sake than anything real.

This is the background. The story revolves around the current crew of 14 misfits, put together by Captain Evan Dodge Hand, and one last passenger, for a trip out to Jupiter. Disaster strikes – and the passenger and crew need to pull together if they are to survive.

The first 1/3 of the book seemed a little slow, but that may have been just me, for the reasons described above. Flynn has to introduce us to a large cast of characters, and lay the groundwork for their interactions and, ultimately, their fates. “Ship”, the AI designed to manage all the routine reads and adjustments during flight, becomes yet another character.

All the characters are loveable in some way, even those who seem harsh or cruel. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and many hold grudges or other hurts. These are revealed over time and become factors in the ultimate fate of the ship and its crew. Moments of great beauty and heroism, of the least likely coming through big, of tragic loss – it’s a modern Greek tragedy.

The deftness and poetry with which Flynn unfolds the tragedy is beautiful, and reminded me of Steinbeck in many places. When reviewing Eifelheim, I referred to Flynn’s characters as ‘warty’ – that’s about right. Nobody is a goody-goody, and nobody turns out to have a heart of gold in a sappy way. But some do find unexpected goodness in themselves, and rise to occasions in both surprising yet fitting ways.

BTW: if I ever get cats, Ratline and Satterwaithe are in play as names.

Flynn has mentioned a couple times on his blog that this book was more a critical than a financial success. I can kind of see that. It was not an entirely easy read, but required a bit of reader investment. I suppose he can take comfort in how Melville was eventually vindicated for Moby Dick (talk about requiring reader investment). Well, I guess that Herman having been dead for a while when that happened could be seen as a downside…

All in all, the book is a masterpiece. It’s a sad masterpiece, a Greek tragedy, but ultimately beautiful and moving. That Flynn achieves all this in a hard science fiction setting is remarkable. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.

Book Review: Hermetic Millennia & Status Report

Not only do I have a week at least to wait until Amazon delivers The Judge of Ages, the third book in John C. Wright’s epic space opera and the resolution of yet another brutal cliff-hanger, I seem to have picked up a late summer cold, so I’m not firing on all cylinders. (To my cold-enshrouded mind, ‘cylinders’ is the most non-word-looking word I’ve ever seen.)

On the bright side, I do have some other books to read:

Sci Fi
The Sci Fi corner of the Main Book Array in the Great Books Man Cave. About 50% read. This is the the working queue.

So I’m starting on the Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn which I hope to review by the end of the week. I fear I might next need to go to:

008
The Education History/Theory working corner. And a stray cigar. I don’t smoke. Unfortunately, not finished consolidating yet – there are a bunch more some  place, and I’ve got a bunch of Fichte and Pestalozzi on my Kindle. I’m reading this crap so you don’t have to. Years off Purgatory. That’s the plan, anyway.

On to the Hermetic Millennia.

Whoa.

I will assume you’ve read the first book here, so, if not, there are minor spoilers ahead.

Menelaus Montrose survives his duel with Blackie – sorry for the spoiler, there, but c’mon – and has retreated to the lair of cryonic tombs spread around the globe  he was building in Count to a Trillion. The Hyades aliens are coming in 10,500 years to enslave the earth. Montrose, true American cowboy and superlative genius that he is, figures humanity must stand and fight. The Hermeticists  merely want to engineer races of men worthy of being enslaved, for the Monument says that an enslaved race will eventually be freed if it turns out to have made it worth the trouble of travelling for 10 millennia to enslave.

In the same way as in that first book, the story is told mostly inside-out: As on his round-trip to V-886 Centari, Menelaus has been sleeping the centuries away, and so every new awakening is a mystery story where he has to catch up on what’s been happening.

Pellucid, his global AI,  hidden and distributed deep in the earth, has algorithms for waking him up: when events have reached a point where his personal touch is requires to set them straight. The Hermeticists, lead by Blackie Del Azarchel, have retreated to the far side of the moon, where they brood and plan and manipulate the races of man to their purposes. Through the centuries, Menelaus must awaken once in a while and have a classic Western showdown with a Hermeticist. So far, so good.

But something has gone very, very wrong.

Only 400 years remain until the enslaving aliens are to arrive, and the earth is a mess: an ice age has gripped the planet, and, except for some bald blue grave robbers who have inexplicably gotten past Montrose’s layers and layers of defenses to rob the tombs, no one seems to be around.  By some miracle,  no one recognizes him – he’s pretending to be a Beta Chimera, one of the past races of men. It is only a matter of time before he and the other Thaws are of no use to the robbers – and Motrose has to figure out what to do and how to do it before they are all murdered.

The chief ‘whoa’ of this book: Montrose has a standing offer to all the intelligent life on earth: come to the Tombs, and ride out the manipulations of the Hermeticists, to be thawed at some future date. This offer has resulted in the Tombs containing a collection of humanoid life forms that make the bar crowd at Mos Eisley look like a drill team. Each form, from Giants to Sylphs to Nymphs to Chimerae to Witches to Savants to Hormagaunts and so on, is the result of one or another of the Hermeticist’s attempts to control human development, and reflect the plans, biases and flaws of their creators. Each subspecies has its own languages and customs, and hatreds based on what prior species they conquered and what subsequent subspecies supplanted them. The Thaws awakened by the tomb robbers are a mix of these races. Montrose has managed to become the main translator for the Blue Men, who are apparently in charge of the tomb raiding. Thus, he gets to interview the various races, and we hear their stories. Wright is both playful and humorous as well as serious and scary in his incorporation of ideas current now and his extrapolation to where those ideas might lead, if the whole world were to commit to them.

In order to save them, Montrose has got to get them to pull together. He is honor bound to protect anyone who voluntarily entered the Tombs. Co-conspirators are recruited and schemes are hatched….

Of course, after the manner of its kind, we have another cliff hanger. And I only have to wait a week or three to see how it comes out.

So, go read Count to a Trillion and Hermetic Millennia! What are you waiting for?

 

 

SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER!

 

You’ ve been warned!

 

Continue reading “Book Review: Hermetic Millennia & Status Report”

Book Review: Count to a Trillion

Do yourself a favor, get the hard cover.

Nutshell: This is a good book. Go buy it now, and get a couple copies to give to unsuspecting friends.

The large pile of books I bought last year has been barely touched – I did get to read Mike Flynn’s excellent Eifelheim, reviewed here, as well as some Gene Wolf that crept into the pile of its own volition, and several good books for a Catholic reading group I’m in. But wasn’t making much of a dent.

But not anymore! I’ve got my Great Books man-cave set up, with all the stuff off the floor and into a bookcase atop a large desk, where a couple hundred books to be read or reread sit at approximately eye level, taunting me. So, cracked into John C. Wright’s  Count to a Trillion, the first book of an epic six book space opera.

Whoa.

First off, the experience of reading this book brought me back to my time in high school – in a good way. Back then, I didn’t give a crap about schoolwork (have I mentioned I’m a terrible student?) and so, when a book grabbed me, I’d read almost till sunrise if that’s what it took to finish it. Well, over the few days it took to read Count to a Trillion, I twice stayed up past midnight reading (I get up before 6 every day, and have a job and dependents and stuff, so the ‘read until 4:30 a.m.’ thing ain’t happening – but 1:30 is the moral equivalent at this point in my life.)  That’s a pretty gripping book to do that! AND – I picked up The Hermetic Millennia immediately upon reaching the end and its cruel cliffhanger. I’ll review volume 2 in a day or two when I’m done.

The chief characteristics of Wright’s novels that I’ve read so far:

– There’s a good to great short story idea presented in passing about every 5 -10 pages. The dude has one fertile imagination;

– You will need a dictionary. I’ve got a huge vocabulary by earthly standards, but I bow to Mr. Wright. And they’re good words, too, not just flashy junk. One is grateful to have learned them;

– He makes up words by the bushel. Of course, every sci fi classic has new words for strange races and places and such – by having so many ideas packed so densely, Wright needs a lot of such words. He has a particular affinity for long, florid names;

– He cuts you no slack. If you thought Moby Dick or Last of the Mohicans was a tough read, then you’ll likely find this a little challenging. It is not written at a 6th grade level.

– but mostly: Whoa. The cool new ideas are coming so hot and fast, sometimes I needed to slow down and ponder. You know how a good Star Trek episode will have maybe two Whoa moments? Where the set up is a whoa moment and the resolution is a second whoa? Count to a Trillion is like all of the Star Trek OS episodes compressed into one 450 page book. Whoa.

Based on this, you will have trouble with this book if USA Today strikes you as the standard of clear English, or if the occasional wild word or name disturbs you, or if you’d like your new ideas ladled out slowly. I found myself thinking of Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith, both of whom just throw you in the deep end of their stories and expect you to swim, and have great affinity for the sound of florid names and words, and have vivid and unusual ideas of grand sweep. So if you like those guys, Wright should be up your alley.

As the first book of a 6 book grand space opera, Count to a Trillion has to establish heroes and villains and set up a cosmic-level threat, and then leave you hanging so you’ll read the next book. These requirements are expertly met. Menelaus Montrose, our classically named hero, is shown to be loveable, cantankerous and heroic. Rania, our space princess, is beautiful beyond words and charming and brilliant and needs some serious rescuing. Blackie Del Azarchel is established as a suitably villainous villain, with a sympathetic back story that makes him and his hatred of Montrose real.

And there are cool weapons, an alien artifact, space ships, dramatic fight scenes, and explosions, in addition to a wonderful space princess and gun-slinging hero. But this is not Star Wars – there’s also philosophical arguments*,  plausible (more or less) technology, and a challenge that makes defeating the Empire sound like a mop-up operation.

The source of philosophical tension is that Montrose is the 23rd century manifestation of a cowboy living on the frontier, with all the independence, nobility, honor and horse sense that entails. His task is not just to defeat his enemies and their threat to the world, but to defeat their philosophies – philosophies that attempt to hide and excuse the pride, greed and brutality that drive them.

On to the actual story: Montrose, a Texan and a mathematical genius from a large poor family of ten brother and widowed mother, works as a lawyer specializing in out of court settlements – gunfight. He wins a particular duel, but is seriously wounded (the description of the duel, the weapons and armor is both very clever and amusing). A mysterious foreigner rescues him, and pays for his rehabilitation. He is sent off to California to be educated, and is selected for a space voyage based on his mathematical genius.

Every member of the crew is a genius, as one of the two main goals of the trip is to decipher the Monument, an alien artifact orbiting a nearby star, a star inexplicably made of anti-matter. Once the mission is under way, Montrose injects himself with brain-enhancement chemicals he’s concocted based on some partially deciphered portions of the Monument. It sort of works and doesn’t.

To avoid spoilers, we’ll just say the trip has mixed results. The rest of the book concerns how those mixed results occurred, the difficulties they raise, and how Menelaus attempts to right them.

What are you waiting for? Go read it! I’m planning to pick up a couple copies of this book and Eifelheim to press upon friends who need them but don’t know they do yet. Go, and do likewise.

* no, Yoda’s passing on his “wisdom” to Luke does not qualify as philosophical argument.

Book Review: Eifelheim

Glad to say I’ve finally gotten a chance to read Michael Flynn‘s excellent book Eifelheim, which had been sitting in the pile on the floor near the bed for some number of months now.

In a nutshell: Good book. Go read it.

In addition to great storytelling and loveable, warty characters, what makes this story of alien first contact excellent is the sympathetic treatment of 2 mysterious peoples: medieval villagers and space aliens. In the hands of Carl Sagan, for example, space aliens are presented in the guise of the long-lost daddy to the now grown little girl who lost her father as a child – in other words, every emotional card is played to show the aliens in what, in retrospect, is an impossibly positive light. They exhibit a sort of perfect benevolence unknown in this space-time continuum – no religious overtones, there, uh-uh. Or, to take the other extreme, in the movie Solaris, the aliens are so alien as to be utterly incomprehensible – although they try the exact same trick of appearing as lost humans beloved by the crew.

Many other stories go the Star Trek/My Favorite Martian route, and have often avuncular aliens more like humans than most humans, caricatures of caricatures, as it were: Klingons are more Roman than the Romans; Vulcans are the French Revolutionaries scrubbed clean of all ugly reality; and Uncle Martin is, well, an uncle.

These seem to be the available flavors for aliens who are not out to destroy/enslave/eat us. Yet Flynn, while opting for the classic insectoid type alien on the physical level, manages  to come up with another type altogether: the Krenken, aliens who don’t know everything in the same way as humans don’t know everything; aliens confident in their assumptions like we humans are confident in our assumptions; aliens alternately fascinated and infuriated by challenges to those assumptions.

The trick, which Flynn pulls off  completely, is creating interesting and believable differences in knowledge and assumptions and reactions between the humans and aliens. Creating a societal structure based on the very different evolutionary origins of the aliens, Flynn helps the reader comes to both believe and understand why the aliens behave as they do, and how, over the course of the story, many of them become largely integrated into medieval village life.  Much of the subtle drama of the story hinges on why the Krenken don’t just grab their blasters and take over by force – they are both ‘superior’ and yet able to learn from and dependent upon the villagers.

Which brings us to the truly alien aliens. For the several generations now whose understanding of medieval life is based on the witch scene in Monte Python and the Holy Grail (which is evidently a step up from what you’d learn in school), Flynn’s portrayal of medieval German villagers as real people living real lives is probably a shock. They don’t burn any witches  or engage in any superstitious silliness  – at least, no more than we do today. They live their lives within a social structure that provides some degree of respect and protection to all by means of nested, carefully-delineated rights and duties. Meanwhile, the larger world roils with intrigue and war – kind of like today, like every age forever. Flynn wryly touches on the theological and liturgical battles of the day – again, not so different than now.

We get a flawed yet admirable Lord with his flawed yet admirable household, peasants who are the usual blend of saints and sinners, and Fr. Dietrich, a Thomist exile from Paris laying low as the parish priest in Oberhochwald for reasons only slowly revealed. Dietrich’s interactions with the aliens allows for two very well formed world views to interact and be expounded. The beauty of this story is how what could be dry moments of theoretical arcana jump to life as real issues with concrete bearing on the plot.

In the end, the Black Death comes to the village, putting all theory and philosophy to the test.

In parallel to the scenes unfolding in a village in the Black Forest in 1348 and 1349 are scenes of a modern couple consisting of a physicist and a ‘cliologist’ – a metrical historian, as opposed to a narrative historian. The cliologist is obsessed with the disappearance, and, more important, the failure to reappear of an obscure German village known as Eifelheim. He eventually drags his physicist partner into it as well. The story of their research is told along side the medieval story they are trying to discover. These chapters add some drive and drama to the story, as well as much of the requisite scientific veneer, as first contact stories must be supplied with either eons or a warp drive equivalent.

Very fun, very cool book. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out!