Heinlein Find

Somebody is cleaning up the corner house 4 houses down. The old man who lives there has hardly stepped outside – at least, I haven’t seen him – in 20 years. We never got to know him. Common suburban tragedy.

Whoever is cleaning up – I’ve never seen this person, either – keeps putting items out on the lawn under a ‘free’ sign. Things that seem too good to throw away yet few sane people would want. We’ve even picked up a few items, priming the pump for our own kids future cleanup efforts. Sigh.

BUT:

My wife walked by this morning and saw these – and snatched them up!

So my neighbor, living a couple hundred feet away, who I never go to know, seems to have been a science fiction fan, especially of Heinlein. This stack has a couple Arthur C. Clarks, one Bradbury, and one forlorn Steinbeck, but is otherwise all Heinlein. I can make all kinds of excuses, especially how busy we were with raising kids and running a school, but, in the end, I should have tried to get to know this person.

I’ve read maybe 6-8 of these already, but the pile includes a couple works off John C. Wright’s Essential Sci-Fi Library list that I have not yet read. Woohoo!

I assume the man died, or had to move to a home. Now, I’m going to keep an eye out for whoever is putting stuff out on the curb, and make a way too late effort to find out something about him.

Sci Fi Classic Book Review: Verne’s Master of the World

I like to read up on the authors as I go through these classic Sci Fi works off of John C. Wright’s Essential Sci Fi Reading List. Reading up on Jules Verne, I discovered that many of the English translation of his novels were rushed and abridged, as American and English publishers thought they could most quickly cash in on Verne as an author of children’s books. While better translations have long been available, these abridged editions seem to make up a good portion of Verne’s works available for free on the web. Now I’m left to wonder what, if any, Verne I’ve actually read, and how many watered-down and condensed English versions I’ve instead plowed through.

Book Cover

Dead give-away: the translation/condensation of Master of the World I’ve just finished lists no translator, and is only about 140 pages long. I spent a few minutes conducting a by no means thorough search for an unabridged translation for free on the web, to no avail. Serious, non-abridged English translations of Verne began shortly after his death in 1905, so they’re out there and out of copyright. Amazon offers this collection at a $1.99, which says it’s ‘unexpurgated’.

So until I get a chance to read the full novel, this review of the kiddy version will have to do.

One of the things I enjoy about Verne is that he treats Americans as the exotic species we really are. In From the Earth to the Moon, Verne gives Americans fanciful names and absurd behaviors which I imagine were very amusing to his continental readers back in 1865. The one thing he latched on to, and a thing he might well have intended as a rebuke to his countrymen, is America’s can-do attitude: a bunch of American artillery men, fresh off the ‘glories’ of the Civil War, turn their attention to firing humans to the moon out of a giant canon, because why not? Master of the World is likewise a tale of audacious Americans.

Our narrator John Strock is presented as the great detective working for the (mythical?) Federal Police, who have time, budget, and portfolio to pursue odd events in rural North Carolina. Peculiar happenings have been observed atop a lonely mountain called the Great Eyrie. This inaccessible peak is topped by a sheer 100′ cliff that completely encircles it, such that no one has ever surmounted it. Yet over the course of days, fires, lights, and noises originate from its hidden peak.

Strock gets a team together to go investigate, but they are stymied by the cliffs. He needs the funding and permission to get some more extensive climbing or tunneling equipment to access the peak. His boss isn’t ready quite yet to commit, as another series of strange phenomena have since drawn attention away from the Great Eyrie. One or more strange monsters or perhaps vehicles has been sighted in Boston Harbor as a boat, in Wisconsin as a car, in a mythical lake in Kansas as a submarine. The nation’s and eventually the world’s attention is riveted.

So Strock is sent to investigate, but not before he receives a very threatening letter telling him to back off from the Great Eyrie, or else. He takes it as a joke, and does not discuss it with his boss.

Eventually, the conviction grows that these sightings are of a single machine, an incredible contraption that is faster than any automobile, faster than any ship, and can dive as a submarine to escape any pursuers. The Government of the US, followed by the governments of all the major powers, publish offers to buy the technology from its inventor for fabulous sums. A letter is sent to the Federal Police declining the offer, taunting the world’s powers, and claiming to be impervious to any means they have of stopping him. Signed: The Master of the World.

From there, the story follows Strock and his team as they try to track down and capture, or, if necessary, destroy the inventor and his machine.

Not as scientifilicious as some of Verne’s other works. The contraptions are no more fantastic than the Nautilus, of which he conceived decades earlier. This is the earliest use of a super villain of which I am aware. His ideas about heavier than air flight are not much advanced on da Vinci’s, and had already been superseded by the Wright Brothers by the time this book went to press.

A good, entertaining story, even in its condensed form.

A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool – Classic SciFi Book Review

The Moon Pool is the second Abraham Merritt book I’ve read from John C. Wright’s Essential Sci Fi Library. Published in 1919, the story concerns a first-person narrator Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, a scientist/adventurer traveling about Polynesia. He runs into Throckmorton, an old friend, who is in ragged shape and whose face flashes strange signs of ecstasy mixed with profound horror. He tells Goodwin that his wife and their companions were taken by some eldritch horror while he and his team were exploring some very ancient ruins near Borneo. Classic ‘can’t get the natives to help, they all leave for 3 days around the full moon, great evil lives in those ruins! Run! Ruuuun!’ situation – but of course they don’t. They discover some ancient gateway that only opens when enough moonlight strikes it, and out from which comes the Shining Horror. On three consecutive nights, the Thing grabs a team member until only a desperate and nearly deranged Throckmorton is left.

THE MOON POOL | A. Merritt | Later edition

On board the ship Goodwin and Throckmorton are taking to Australia for supplies to help get Mrs. Throckmorton and friends back, the full moon rises over the ocean. On the first night, Throckmorton is spared by overcast skies. But eventually, the moonlight reaches the ship – and Goodwin sees sees his friend taken before his eyes!

Goodwin thinks the story is too insane to tell the crew, and has no hope of finding Throckmorton alive out in the ocean, so he keeps quiet. He gathers the equipment he needs, then gathers a set of heroes: Larry O’Keefe, the brave, dashing, handsome Irish-American aviator who happens to go down with his plane within sight of Goodwin’s ship, and Olaf, a giant Norwegian sea captain who had his wife and daughter taken by the Shining Horror and is attempting to follow them. They set out for the ruins…

Merritt has a wonderful archaic vocabulary, and loves detailed descriptions of everything. He also has an over-the-top pulp sensibility about adventures and love. Of course, there’s an evil but irresistibly beautiful priestess and a pure and valiant Handmaiden of the Silent Ones, both of whom fall madly for O’Keefe. The love triangle plays out in the most dramatic, swashbuckling way possible. Narrow escapes, betrayal, evil Russian scientist, human sacrifice, mistreated slaves, frogmen, deadly plants, poisonous jellyfish of doom – and the Shining One, a creature of unparalleled beauty – and evil!

I made the mistake of reading other people’s reviews of this book, who modern readers give 3.3 stars, on average. One even said they were repelled by the obvious racism – Merritt commits the unforgivable sins of mentioning the Chinese tend to have slanted eyes, and that Polynesians tend to be short and wide – and other such horrors. That his heroes include frogmen and some of these same Polynesians doesn’t seem to register with woke readers. Pshaw! If you get into the spirit of the thing, this book is loads of fun.

I don’t know enough to say how old or widespread or, indeed, original, the tropes found in this book are, but Merritt is the earliest stuff that I’ve read that includes many of them – anti-gravity, ancient civilizations under the earth, many different intelligent species, panspermia, the whole natives won’t go there, stupid white man thing, disintegrator rays, evil Russian scientist, spring to mind. Goodwin is always making scientific asides and footnotes to make it seem real – Merritt was as up on the ‘modern’ science of 1919 as Verne or Heinlein was on the science of their times.

Merritt had an obvious influence on Lovecraft, seems to me. While the exotic adventure story is certainly nothing unique to Merritt, I don’t recall anyone else who creates such a brooding sense of horror blended with science – until Lovecraft. Edgar Rice Burroughs definitely does the exotic setting in fine detail thing, and the over the top adventure and love story stuff, but not with the science background – at least not to the degree of Merritt. I’m sure there are a number of threads leading to and from Merritt in the world of speculative fiction – I’m not well read enough yet to point them out with any confidence.

Kindle has that wonderful lookup function, with bailed me out a number of times with Merritt’s vocabulary. I recalled ‘lambent’ and ‘ebon’ from The Metal Monster, but he had some new ones here. I like learning new words, bring ’em on!

So, 5 stars. Lots of fun. Indulge your inner Indiana Jones and just go with it, and it’s great.

Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker: Book Review

Here, I mention that I started reading Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 classic Star Maker. Just finished it up. Stapledon sets for himself the task of imaginatively describing all of creation, all of the possible universes, from, ultimately, God’s perspective. Star Maker was a very influential book – C.S. Lewis almost certainly is thinking of it in his Preface to That Hideous Strength:

I believe that one of the central ideas of this tale came into my head from conversations I had with a scientific colleague, some time before I met a rather similar suggestion in the works of Mr. Olaf Stapledon. If I am mistaken in this, Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can well afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow

After the fashion of Dante in his Paradiso, Stapledon strives to achieve an effect of awesomeness and wonder by repeated references to how indescribable, how beyond imagination, are the visions he sees. He describes things as indescribable. This devise increases in frequency and vehemence as the book progresses, following the first-person narrator as he mysteriouly tours the universe through both space and time, until he finally meets the Star Maker. The Star Maker turns out to be a catch-all God with features that, by themselves, would be at home in any number of religious imaginations, although Christian and Gnostic sources seem to dominate. In the end, this Star Maker ends up a hideous monster. C.S. Lewis commented that the book descended to mere devil-worship by the end. I agree.

On the plus side, in the latter 2/3rd of the book. Stapledon reveals a profound imagination much harder to see, I think, in the first third. Not that I’m all that well-read in the speculative fiction classics, but this book contains a number of SciFi trope firsts, for me at least:

  • multiverse
  • intelligent stars
  • group minds
  • sentient plant-things

And probably a few more I’m missing.

Alas, Stapledon’s soaring imagination, which incorporate a multiverse, a demiurge, eon-spanning visions, the accretion of multi-species group minds, sentient plant-things, symbiotic intelligences, conscious stars and nebulae, galactic and cosmos-spanning intelligences, intergalactic telepathy, and a host of further wonders, can’t imagine any other political analysis or Utopia than taught by Marx, or a theology much different than Hegel’s. The most outlandish and dazzlingly imagined races still are trapped in capitalistic decadence on the horns of a dialectical dilemma, as it were. His Star Maker is coming to know himself through his unfolding in history, more or less. Worse, his solutions to all problems are a particularly egregious sort of expertise-itis fantasies – the little people are all looking to their glorious leaders to sort things out, meekly following their lead, up to an including suicide or euthanasia, to which they enthusiastically agree.

We noted that the new world-orders were very diverse. This was, of course, to be expected, since biologically, psychologically, culturally, these worlds were very different. The perfected world-order of an Echinoderm race had of course to be different from that of the symbiotic Ichthyoids and Arachnoids; and this from that of a Nautiloid world, and so on. But we noted also in all these victorious worlds a remarkable identity. For instance, in the loosest possible sense, all were communistic; for in all of them the means of production were communally owned, and no individual could control the labor of others for private profit. Again, in a sense all these world-orders were democratic, since the final sanction of policy was world-opinion. But in many cases there was no democratic machinery, no legal channel for the expression of world-opinion. Instead, a highly specialized bureaucracy, or even a world-dictator, might carry out the business of organizing the world’s activity with legally absolute power, but under constant supervision by popular will expressed through the radio. We were amazed to find that in a truly awakened world even a dictatorship could be in essence democratic. We observed with incredulity situations in which the “absolute” world-government, faced with some exceptionally momentous and doubtful matter of policy, had made urgent appeals for a formal democratic decision, only to receive from all regions the reply, “We cannot advise. You must decide as your professional experience suggests. We will abide by your decision.”

Most of the book is concerned with the various challenges the ever-growing and merging group minds face on their Hegelian journey toward ever more enlightenment and self-realization. The goal is always idealized communism, always toward a group identity, unified group thought, and unified group action. The individual, while maybe not nothing as orthodox Marxism demands, certainly ain’t much. Stapledon repeatedly insists collective group identity is the fulfillment of all individual desires, so much so that the individual cells in the group will happily be murdered, die or even kill themselves if the group thinks it right. Only in the early, unenlightened days do individuals buck against the collective’s wisdom.

It’s tedious. Stapledon’s inventive genius is almost interesting enough to carry the reader through the endless barrage of one-note commie-think. This is not helped by this book being the one example I’ve ever read that goes all in on ‘tell, don’t show.’ Not 1% of the book is ‘show’ – it is just the first person narrator telling us about his adventure, with only one other named character in the entire book. That it works as well as it does is food for thought, from a writing perspective.

In the end, The Star Maker creates a series of universes, with a variety of characteristics, just to see how it works out. His multi-verses are interesting, and copied all over the place:

By the end of the story, our narrator is a part of a multi-galaxy telepathically linked group mind, containing all the accumulated wisdom to all the member races. It is in this state, as the most exalted of group minds, that he meets the Star Maker. The Star Maker creates a series of universes, with a variety of characteristics, just to see how it works out. His multi-verses are interesting, and copied all over the place:

In one inconceivably complex cosmos, whenever a creature was faced with several possible courses of action, it took them all, thereby creating many distinct temporal dimensions and distinct histories of the cosmos. Since in every evolutionary sequence of the cosmos there were very many creatures, and each was constantly faced with many possible courses, and the combinations of all their courses were innumerable, an infinity of distinct universes exfoliated from every moment of every temporal sequence in this cosmos.

After his interview with the Star Maker, the narrator finds himself back on earth, back to be an individual Englishman. He pauses to describe the world of 1937, with the perspective gained through his journeys. In case we missed it, he hammers home again how the Soviet Union and communists in general are the good guys. Here, for example:

Further on, the Spanish night was ablaze with the murder of cities. Away to the left lay Germany, with its forests and factories, its music, its steel helmets. In cathedral squares I seemed to see the young men ranked together in thousands, exalted, possessed, saluting the flood-lit Fuhrer. In Italy too, land of memories and illusions, the mob’s idol spell-bound the young.

Far left-wards again, Russia, an appreciably convex segment of our globe, snow-pale in the darkness, spread out under the stars and cloud tracts. Inevitably I saw the spires of the Kremlin, confronting the Red Square. There Lenin lay, victorious. 

Victorious. Right. Then he describes the battle facing the world:

One antagonist appeared as the will to dare for the sake of the new, the longed for, the reasonable and joyful, world, in which every man and woman may have scope to live fully, and live in service of mankind. The other seemed essentially the myopic fear of the unknown; or was it more sinister? Was it the cunning will for private mastery, which fomented for its own ends the archaic, reason-hating, and vindictive, passion of the tribe.

“…in which every man and woman may have scope to live fully, and live in service of mankind.” Propaganda always sounds so kindly, so drenched in sympathy. The key aspect of the story, the climax, is the narrator learning that God is not bound by human ideas of love, that he is free to torture his creations if he feels like it, all in pursuit of a cosmos that adequately expresses his creative. The narrator finds himself repulsed by the evil the Star Maker does, casually and without feeling, in the name of, well, progress. But he confesses he loves him, including his evil aspects. I’m reminded of John Dewey’s defense of Trotsky, where he asserts that the only moral standard is: does it move the Revolution closer? Need to destroy worlds, murder billions, enslave billions, consign billions more to hell, in the search for a better cosmos? Who are we to judge?

Stapledon’s God is a demon, and Stapledon’s urge to worship him is diabolical.

More Micro Book Reviews: John C Wright & Starmaker

This past week, read a couple short books and waded into a SF classic:

1920 was an interesting year: the people of the West, including writers, were just coming out of the horror of WWI. Wells’ Outline of History (which I, so far, have lacked the inner strength to even try to tackle) was serialized over 1919, but published in book form in 1920. Belloc published Europe and the Faith in 1920, as the response of a real historian (and a Christian) to Wells’ rewriting of history to be more in line with his Fabian socialist fantasies. It took Chesterton until 1925 to publish his rebuttal, Everlasting Man. The problem is one still with us: serious scholars accept the validity of the criticism that history as written has the writer’s inescapable cultural and personal biases baked in. Socialists critics then feel free to rewrite history, bake in their own biases, but then reject any criticism. So serious scholars, trying to do their best and well aware of their limitations, feel the sting of criticism to which their opponents assume immunity. Thus, Wells is as insanely biased as any writer, but his history was seen as somehow more valid because it was a ‘response’ to previous writers assumed biases.

It helped that Wells’ take appealed to the fantasies of his social class, which saw the Late Unpleasantness as a repudiation of everything they had believed – God for Harry, England, and St. George, so to speak. The gross biases of the amateur Wells are preferred to the more conscious and defensible biases of a pro like Belloc. The defense deployed by the rewriters of history is to simply dismiss their critics as backwards, and never directly address the criticisms themselves. Sound familiar? The weakness of traditional historians of the time was that they took their critics seriously, more or less – a favor their critics never returned. You lose that battle before it begins.

Speculative fiction was also engaged in the battle of how we tell the story of ourselves. Voyage to Arcturus, published in 1920, is a completely nihilistic work, aiming to show the fraud and inanity of all human efforts – not surprising, given the shattering effect of the First World War.

Lord of World was published in 1907, before WWI and the Russian Revolution. Benson could assume socialism, the fad and infatuation of his age, would work just fine – except for the part about destroying the human soul, which he saw apart from that destructions physical manifestations in totalitarianism and physical suffering. Even as early as 1920, events had contradicted the airy fantasy that socialism could replace decadent capitalism (by which we mean, evidently, Russian feudalism) with a much better, *scientific* rule by experts.

The Lament of Prometheus: An Examination of David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus by [John C. Wright]

Which brings us to today’s mini-reviews: John C. Wright wrote The Lament of Prometheus: An Examination of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a short book in which he proposes to explain Lindsey’s vivid symbolism, heaps praise on his imagination, yet ultimately calls the book a failure. I suppose I should be more interested in Lindsey’s book, as it was very influential in the decades after its initial release. Voyage to Arcturus itself failed, generally, to hold my full attention – too much pointless violence, too many abrupt and complete changes in motivation, too grim a view of just about everything. It ends in defiance, I suppose, when despair would be a more obvious and truthful response. It’s just you in the void, baby, whatever you may happen to be, doomed to pain and failure, so – rock on? I guess?

Wright’s book was very helpful in getting a grasp on what Lindsey is up to. I was picking up on maybe 25% of what Wright lays out. Lindsey gives everything goofy names – Joiwind is a sort of nature-spirit, pure in love; Tormance is a planet of pain; Maskull is a mask on a skull – a sincere veneer over what is ultimately a dead man walking (I guess Everyman was taken…). And so on, virtually every name for a character or place has an over-the-top meaning, just in case you miss the point being hammered into your brain.

Wright explains that Lindsey is presenting a modernized take on classic Gnosticism, where the spirit is good, the body is evil, and the physical world is a trap and a lie. Maskull’s constant flipping from one set of beliefs and goals to another are what happens to souls that seek enlightenment in a world controlled by the Demiurge. That he’ll hate, love, then hate and murder someone he just met – hey, that’s the way things are, here in this valley of tears.

I appreciated Wright’s authorly analysis of Voyage‘s shortcomings as literature – how set ups must have payoffs, that themes demand a certain kind of resolution, and how Lindsey’s dazzling imagination can mask how thoroughly he fails to deliver as an author. What I experienced as frustration, Wright, as a master of the craft, sees in terms of failure at that craft. Very interesting.

If you want to read Voyage to Arcturus – I don’t regret doing so, but I doubt I’ll go back for more- do so, then read Wright’s book to fully plumb its depths.

From Barsoom to Malacandra: Musings on Things Past and Things to Come by [John C. Wright]

Next, since I was on a Wright kick anyway, and have a small pile of his books already purchased but not yet read, I went on to read a collection of his essays, From Barsoom to Malacandra. They were all good. I particularly enjoyed his two on Lewis’s Space trilogy, The Silent Planet and A Voyage to Venus. Those of us who are regular readers of his blog have come to expect the deep yet charming analysis Wright doles out on books he loves; on books he doesn’t love so much, we get honest praise and a serious breakdown of its flaws. This book is full of both. He owns up to having misunderstood Heinlein all these years, spoofs the insult that is the current round of Star Wars films by all but writing appropriate sequels himself, discusses the intrusion of political messaging in fiction (and how and how not to do it) and laments and otherwise excellent anime series that dies a stupid death right at the finish line.

Good stuff. Check it out.

Finally, a preliminary review – dipped again into the Essential SciFi list, and chose Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker. About 1/3 the way through. It has been, so far, all but impossible to read this book as anything other than 1937 vintage progressive propaganda. All the fun stuff that Woodrow Wilson supported – eugenics, euthanasia, racism, socialism, all us little people ruled by our mire enlightened brethren – for our own good, of course! – all told in a insufferably sympathetic tone: poor, poor, little people! So doomed! If only enlightenment, insight, and communism could rule them! All would be just swell!

Maybe this is just me projecting my expectations back onto poor Olaf, but: so far, in the first 3rd of the book, you could find more diverse forms of intelligent life in Queens, NY, than he ‘finds’ on a million planets. All are locked in class struggles; all hang suspended beneath inevitable economic dialectics; racism, slavery, the excesses of capitalism – everywhere! From slug-beasts and sentient ships to symbionts, it’s all Marx all the way down!

Blech. Not exactly creative. But praised! Oh, yea, all the right people love them some Starmaker!

Anyway, a more complete review once I’m done.

Micro Book Reviews (the reviews are small, not the books)

Haven’t written up any book reviews in forever. Have been doing some reading, however. Time is tight: prepping for my 8th and 9th grade history & lit classes set to start in September, trying to schedule a boatload of deferred maintenance for the house, and writing some books and composing a Mass (what’s a fellow to do, to avoid a feeling of helplessness?).

So let’s take 3:

Combat Frame XSeed, by Brian Niemeier

This is fun book. Jumps right in with dramatic escapes, last-second rescues, and battles to the death, with moral questions about exactly how far one is justified to go in war. The story features a bunch of well-drawn characters who unfold and gain depth over time. And giant punchy mechs with swords and stuff!

Niemeier creates a world of space habitats, supermen, a sort of technological tyranny, freedom fighters, genius inventors, fem fatales, and daring soldiers, with enough political intrigue and plot twists to keep the reader on his toes. I particularly liked how each of the main characters has a distinct personality and motivations. Some are loyal to a fault, some have learned to function under an oppressive regime, some are eeeevil.

And mechs! Loving attention is lavished upon them, detailed descriptions, with blow-by-blow fight scenes and epic battles against impossible odds. They punch each other, sword fight, blast each other, fly in space, cruise under water. Very cool. Reminded me of this:

Except there actually are a plot and characters and stuff in XSeed. Fun stuff, check it out.

Here’s a truly irrelevant aside: mechs, and, indeed, any sort of relatively small, heroically-piloted military equipment – fighters, tanks, Imperial Walkers, guys in armor – tend to take me out of any sci fi story, and put me into fantasy right away. 40 years ago, dogfighting was replaced with pilots firing their missiles at a blip on a screen, then turning tail and trying to outrun the missiles similarly targeted at them. Similarly, tanks have become what they originally were: rolling artolatry, not armored cavalry dueling other tanks. It can happen, but that’s not what they’re for. (I await correction by people who know what they’re talking about.)

One can come up with a theory of battle where individuals in suits of really, really cool hi-tech armor are how you need to do things. It’s not like there are rules, exactly, but it’s just another thing to account for – and, it usually isn’t accounted for in my limited experience. You have your Dune conceit, where the standard defensive measures stop all the high-tech weapons, but not swords, so people can get all Erol Flynn on each other. Something like that.

All that said, twice now in stories I’ve worked on I’ve stuck in mechs – stupid, since I don’t know the tropes and clichés. Once, I ignored the issue (to me, at least) of why there were mechs in the first place; the second time, they are part of an ancient military tradition by an alien race that hasn’t fought any real wars for millennia. I really shouldn’t go there.

A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsey.

I dunno. This is a classic, and I sort of get it, but – not my cup of tea. It sold about 600 copies back in 1920 when it was released, and only gained status as a classic after the author had died. Like a lot of modern art, it’s more interesting than good, IMHO.

What’s interesting: Going back to Gilgamesh and Job, at least, is the problem put by Milton as the need to ‘justify the ways of God to men.’ Classic literature from the Iliad and the Old Testament, through Dante, Milton and on and on are stabs, in one way or another, at addressing this issue. It might reasonably be claimed that it’s difficult to be great literature unless it at least touches upon these themes. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and the Silmarillion are more modern examples, and the Oracle Wikipedia says that both Lewis and Tolkien were fans of Lindsey’s masterpiece. So we have here an exploration of the eternal questions about God and man explored by a very capable writer, as part of a long and noble tradition of such explorations.

Lindsey displays an amazing imagination. His planet Tormance orbiting the twin suns of Arcturus is a constant stream of dazzling images and creative flourishes. He imagines it a young world still in a sense being created, where the battle between reality and illusion is being fought out every moment in every creature and feature. It’s a bit like Gulliver’s Travels, in that every new place on Tormance presents new sights and rules. It’s a wild ride, and almost worth reading just for the fabulous craziness of it all.

What’s not so interesting: Now suppose you’re a Nihilist, as Lindsey certainly seems to be. A modern Gnostic, who picks up the task, as he sees it, of debunking all pleasure, all love, all noble feeling, indeed, all material existence, as lies and frauds.

That doesn’t make for a very attractive story. Indeed, there is no plot, no real character development except that the protagonist, Maskull, simply changes and acts under the influence of the latest ‘delusion’ he is in the process of having peeled off. He at first falls in among rather too pure and saintly aliens, who are just straw men to be blown away. Maskull’s enlightenment takes the form of murdering people – or worse. He is described as a sort of giant of a man. The people he murders are always no physical match for him, a good many are women. He leaves a trail of bodies in 5 days that would make a serial killer proud.

And, at the end, he’s a nihilist, so it all doesn’t matter.

I read this book because it is on John C. Wright’s list of essential Sci Fi. He even wrote a book about A Voyage to Arcturus, which I got from Amazon a couple hours ago. (Wright’s Eschaton Sequence may have been inspired by Lindsey’s book, and is a much better (and vastly longer) exploration of the modern philosophical ideas under which we labor. Plus, Menelaus Montrose is a much better protagonist and a gas.)

Soooo – if you want to read a book demonstrating how out there a human imagination can go, give Voyage to Arcturus a try. Otherwise, not so much.

Mentioned a while back that I was rereading Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Finished it up. Now, we’re almost done with it as family reading out loud after dinner. I want my 17 year old son, who evidently tuned it out when read out loud years ago, to hear this book.

It’s good. Buy several copies. Reread it often. With Benson’s Lord of the World, That Hideous Strength is about a timely a book as you could read.

Rereading Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength”

Some people don’t like this book, but it is my favorite Lewis after “Till We Have Faces,” which is his masterpiece and a great book by any standards. I’ve read the Space Trilogy any number of times, and, while Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra are among my favorite books, I find my thoughts most often returning to scenes in the last book of the Trilogy, what Lewis called a fairytale for grown ups.

When we headed out for our little trip mentioned a couple posts ago, I grabbed some books that happened to be lying about to take for in-car reading. Then, again almost on a whim, chose That Hideous Strength out of the pile on the drive up. Perhaps an odd choice for reading on a romantic getaway, perhaps not in our current world. So for the first hour and a half that we drove, before the weather, scenery, and winding roads required we put the top down on the car for the last half hour, my beloved read out loud.

So many quotable passages! Here’s one: Mark Studdock is told to write a piece of propaganda for Fairy Hardcastle, while trying to figure out what is going on with the N.I.C.E:

“I don’t believe you can do that,” said Mark. “Not with the papers that are read by educated people.”

“That shows you’re still in the nursery, lovey,” said Miss Hardcastle. Haven’t you yet realized that it’s the other way round ?”

“How do you mean ?”

“Why, you fool, it’s the educated readers who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers ? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the lead paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem: we have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

“As one of the class you mention,” said Mark with a smile, “I just don’t believe it.”

“Good Lord ! ” said the Fairy, “ where are your eyes ? Look at what the weeklies have got away with! Look at the Weeldy Question. There’s a paper for you. When Basic English came in simply as the invention of a free- thinking Cambridge don, nothing was too good for it; as soon as it was taken up by a Tory Prime Minister it became a menace to the purity of our language. And wasn’t the Monarchy an expensive absurdity for ten years ? And then, when the Duke of Windsor abdicated, didn’t the Question go all monarchist and legitimist for about a fortnight? Did they drop a single reader? Don’t you see that the educated reader can’t stop reading the high- brow weeklies whatever they do ? He can’t. He’s been conditioned.”

CH 5

As I’ve frequently said here: it’s not enough for the schools to render their inmates mindless, obedient sheep, they must also immunize them against ever having a thought by convincing them they are the most enlightened, intelligent, and moral people to ever walk the face of the earth.

A second point is to note that propaganda has, as we business people like to say, a target market. Any halfway sophisticated propaganda is written and promulgated with a particular demographic in mind. Lewis, writing during the concluding years of the war, had seen it in action first hand. Propaganda appeals, fundamentally, to people’s vanity. Smart, enlightened people all believe X; only stupid, backward people believe Y. The little people, the workers and shopkeepers and so on, just want to be left alone in peace, and so are a hard target for propaganda. But people who have become convinced that they are the most enlightened, intelligent, moral people ever – and who have been conditioned away from entertaining any other view – are eager to know what the teacher wants them to parrot, lest they be cast into the outer darkness to wail and gnash their teeth with the unwashed.

Before and immediately after the Night of the Long Knives, it was not important to Goebbels and his team what the little people believed. Those little people had learned over the centuries that their leaders regularly knifed each other, and that there was little they could do about it except to keep their heads down. But it was important that no serious pushback for government-sponsored extra-legal mass executions be permitted to simmer. Thus, propaganda was aimed at judges, the police, the press, university professors, and the professional class in general, a class that, like our own, was convinced they were the best educated, most enlightened, most moral people ever to grace the planet.

It was an easy job, in other words. In 1934 Germany, the well-educated wanted to be on the winning team first of all. They were easily convinced that letting their government commit a few thousand murders to prevent what they were told was a coup attempt was not only justified, but mandated by patriotic prudence. Thus, no arrests were made, no trials held, no lectures delivered opposing the murders, no articles published questioning the government. Rule by government murder was accepted and praised by all the best people. The underclasses were hardly a concern, merely unfinished business to be mopped up later.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! While half-truths and fear are often used to soften up the target – to quash whatever residuum of thought might linger after all that schooling – the main appeal of propaganda is vanity. The Kool Kids all think A; only the losers think B. You don’t want to be a loser, do you? All the Kool Kids will look down on you.

Easy-peasy.

Anyway, half way through the reread. Fun stuff, if terrifyingly prescient and depressingly accurate accounts of current events can be called ‘fun.’

Updates: Writing, etc.

A. Novel #1 – This is the puppy I am targeting to have ‘done’ – ready for beta readers – by June. OK, getting a little fast and loose here – end of June? June-ish? On the one hand, I’m only just shy of 20K useable words; on the other, what I’m trying to do has come into much better focus. At first, 20K words seemed like all there was going to be to this story, but as I keep asking myself: why would this character do or think this or that? I discover that this or that other thing has to happen.

Vague enough? I needed an interaction between the Captain of the Guard and my protagonist so that a later interaction would carry some emotional weight. So I had the Captain discuss some history of his species and their predicament with the protagonist. I then read the resulting couple thousand words aloud to my poor alpha readers – my wife and son – who made the mistake of wandering by at the wrong time. They were good with it. It’s essentially a world building info-dump, but couched (I hope) within some more emotionally interesting activities. For example.

Working this out laid out a road map for everything else I needed to include to give this story the emotional zing I’m looking for, and suggested yet another twist at the end….

So now, even though I burned May prepping for/attending our son’s wedding on the opposite side of the country, and so am WAY behind – all I need are 2-3 thousand words a day, and I’m good. Riiiiight – I feel pretty good about it. Before, I wrote myself into corners, because I didn’t know exactly where I was going. Now, I think I’m good to go.

B. The downside of feeling my way through writing something this long: repetition and continuity errors. Twice now, I’ve jumped into scenes I left dangling when I didn’t know where to take them, got going good, only to figure out afterwards that I already wrote a bunch of the scene. In my enthusiasm, I just kept going past where I needed to stop. Oops. This leaves me with two drafts of the same scene – and, of course, I like stuff from both takes.

So what I’ve done is highlight version A and B in different colors, paste them into another doc, go paragraph by paragraph through them, then sync ’em up and paste the results back into the main draft. In these two cases, I ended up keeping most of both takes, so it worked out OK. But I’d rather not work this inefficiently.

C. Just reminding myself: over the last 5-6 years, I’ve written 25K words of flash fiction on this blog, part of the about 1.5 million words of blog posting here over the last decade. Also written 40K words worth of short stories. Fragments of novels add up to about 38K words, not counting scraps and pieces from the more distant past. And not counting all the materials I’ve assembled for the book(s) on education, and the about 10,000 works on the Understanding Science book.

Typing this out to remind myself that, for me, amateur and mostly very part-time writer, cranking out another 40K words on this novel should not really be an issue – if I just stick to it!

D. The other other plan was to assemble two collections of existing writing from the stories and flash fiction, so I could have something on offer between getting the first novel – I’m thinking Dust Machines for the title – and getting whatever rises to the top of the pile as book #2. Each would be a mix of unpublished short stories and flash fiction from this blog, and would run 40-50K words each. A lot of it is SciFi, which might naturally lend itself to a collection, and a lot isn’t. Or I could mix it up.

So, if things were to work out as planned, I’d get Dust Machines to beta readers around the end of June (ha. How bout end of July?) then maybe to a professional editor a few weeks later, then throw it up on Amazon before the end of the year. Got to get a good cover artist in there someplace. Then, a month later, throw up collection #1, heavy on the SciFi; a month after that, the other collection, and a month or two later, book #2. Now I’d be well into 2022, with 4 books out.

Concurrently, start up a new author’s blog under a pen name, start the marketing push that seems an inescapable part of all this.

It Could Work Gene Wilder GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

That’s the plan.

E. Rumor is that the state has deigned to allow us to not wear masks at mass, starting tomorrow – if we’ve been vaccinated. As my wife reminded me, we’ve both been vaccinated since childhood! Good to go!

Pump the brakes. Let off a little her, a little there, but never let it be thought that anyone but you, the masters of the state, are in charge, or that you can’t can revoke permissions or make up new rules at any time.

Owner Balancing Treat On Dog's Head Causing Untold ...

Logic

Our ordinary beliefs are adopted without any methodical examination. But it is the aim, and it is characteristic, of a rational mind to distinguish degrees of certainty, and to hold each judgment with the degree of confidence that it deserves, considering the evidence for and against it. It takes a long time, and much self-discipline, to make some progress toward rationality; for there are many causes of belief that are not good grounds for it—have no value as evidence. Evidence consists of (1) observation; (2) reasoning checked by observation and by logical principles; (3) memory—often inaccurate; (4) testimony—often untrustworthy, but indispensable, since all we learn from books or from other men is taken on testimony; (5) the agreement of all our results. On the other hand, belief is caused by many influences that are not evidence at all: such are (1) desire, which makes us believe in whatever serves our purpose; fear and suspicion, which (paradoxically) make us believe in whatever seems dangerous; (2) habit, which resists whatever disturbs our prejudices; (3) vanity, which delights to think oneself always right and consistent and disowns fallibility; (4) imitativeness, suggestibility, fashion, which carry us along with the crowd. All these, and nobler things, such as love and fidelity, fix our attention upon whatever seems to support our prejudices, and prevent our attending to any facts or arguments that threaten to overthrow them.

Carveth Read, Logic.

Review of the Introduction to a Book

No, really. I have a weird habit, at least for my household – I almost always read all the front matter in whatever books I read. (Sometimes, as in some philosophical works, I might read it after I’ve read the work itself, if I suspect it will bias my reading – but I’ll almost always read it.) My wife, who is as OK-read (well-read is maybe a stretch for me) as I am, pretty much never does this; neither do my kids, as far as I know. You guys? Skip to the good parts, or slog through the front matter first?

For my White Handled Blade series (yea, yea, gotta write Book 1 before you can have a series, I get it) I’m reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a copy of which was in the stacks. Not sure how I had not run across Burton Raffel before – or, if I did, how he failed to make an impression – but this guy, a famous translator, is a character and a half. His Introduction is about as bare-knuckles an assessment of his ‘competitors’ as I’ve ever seen. Reminded me of the old saying in academia: never is the fight more brutal than when the stakes are really low.

To sum up: he’s not real impressed by the work of other translators and commentators of Green Knight. Here are some samples, from his 31 page introduction to a 75 page poem:

It is no defense of Tolkien, Gordon, and Davis, but most literary criticism of medieval poetry suffers from just this kind of “lengthy, mostly irrelevant” insensitivity to the poem as a poem.

p. 34

Sure. A little further, Raffel goes after scholarly critics as a group, giving examples of scholarly assertions contradicted by text within a few lines of the source of the initial assertions:

But the critics’ attention span is somehow limited by their scholarship, or alternatively by their desire to assert some interpretive claim.

p. 35

He also makes charming, look how smart I am observations, such as this, after his analysis of how the Poet portrays what is going on in Gawain’s mind and soul during his temptation by the Green Knight’s wife, and how it does not admit of a simply linear understanding as we moderns might be tempted to impress on it:

The Gawain Poet plainly knows this, and just as plainly knows his Hegel-like perception of the antithesis concealed within the synthesis is the only sane way to see things. And he is phenomenally sane. He is, in fact, so powerful a literary mind that what could be a mere matter of philosophy , with a lesser writer, is transformed for him into a vital matter of literary technique.

p. 29

O, come on, Burtie, old boy, you’re just yanking chains! Don’t make me slap that smirk off your elderly (well, dead, now) face.

The whole Introduction provides the kind of background information that is reason I read introductions, so that’s good, interspersed with patches that read like Raffel getting even with people or calling them idiots. He kindly allows of one scholar’s work that “…it is not all as bad as the passages I have cited.” At another scholar’s assertions, Raffel says: “I can gape: where has the man been?” Or that the “weird” analysis of another is revealed in a passage “which speaks, unfortunately, for itself.” Did somebody steal his lunch money, or something?

The Introduction was certainly entertaining, the poem itself is wonderful, and I appreciate Raffel’s guidance in taking it seriously as a masterpiece – hard to do with the rather less structured? Logical? bits of Arthuriana I’ve read so far. Maybe I’ll review it when I’m done.