Four Book Reviews (2017Jan24)


Monday, January 23, 2017                                                9:36 PM

Of my recent readings, four books have stood out as enjoyable to the point of recognizing their worth and sharing my enjoyment with others:

“Xenophobia” by Peter Cawdron   –   “The Sculpted Ship” by K. M. O’Brien   –   “The Simpleton” by Mark Wayne McGinnis   –   “Feedback” by Peter Cawdron

Below is a re-post of my Amazon reviews for each:

“Xenophobia” by Peter Cawdron

xenophobia

[‘Super 8’ in Africa]

Do not be fooled by the generic title—this book is unique and exciting in many ways. First of all, I love it when a science fiction story starts out as a regular novel, bringing the reader into a real-world scenario both interesting and engaging—meanwhile, very slowly and subtly at first, the introduction of the strange—and the total lack of expectation of anything otherworldly on the part of the characters—adds greatly to the sense of dislocation one would feel, if confronted by, say, an alien—rather than simply reading a story that has an alien in it.

Perhaps I’m over-explaining myself—all I’m saying is that the protagonist, a young doctor working in a war-torn third-world country—and her UN-assigned military team of protectors—have more than their share of drama unfolding throughout this book. The introduction of some kind of First Contact, late in the story, was superfluous in terms of good story-telling. The woman’s struggle is as much about the human condition as anything else—quite gripping, all on its own—and, as I said, the realism of this story only adds to the sense of alienness concerning the visitors from the sky, when they finally appear.

As a child of Clarke, Asimov & Co., I have no set requirement for literary excellence in my science fiction—though when I come across it, as I have done here, I’m very appreciative. What I do demand is that there be, if not originality, at least uniqueness to the concepts or the science—and that is also here, not so much in the ingredients of the story, but in the interactions of the various players and in the frustrating of comfortable assumptions and expectations.

If a combination of the movies “Tears of the Sun”, “Rescue Dawn”, and “Super 8” sounds like something you’d enjoy, then Xenophobia is right up your alley.

 

“The Simpleton” by Mark Wayne McGinnis

simpleton

[Flowers for E.T.]

While the representation of a story through a mélange of movies is not something I’m entirely comfortable with, it sometimes seems quite apropos—and in the case of “The Simpleton” by Mark Wayne McGinnis I’m tempted to say that it is a combination of “The Lawnmower Man”, “Flowers For Algernon”, and “E.T.”—with just a hint of “Ender’s Game” thrown in for good measure, at the end.

I thoroughly enjoyed McGinnis’ take on the familiar ‘enhanced intelligence’ concept—it has always fascinated me. That the alien feels concern for enhancing the intelligence of a living thing without its consent is a great doorway to ruminations about the paradox of life being a violent exercise, yet intelligence urges us to seek peace. I appreciate writers who, like Tolstoy, take side-trips into the philosophical in the course of their story-telling.

On the down side, I’ve never been a big fan of the sci-fi trope in which the aliens are too peaceful to defend themselves and thus require us savage humans to fight their war for them. How is that not just using humans as second-hand weapons? But, whatever—it also allows for alien characters who are more savage than humans, rather than less—so balance is maintained.

Being anti-authoritarian, I’m also a big fan of stories where the security forces and the military are so paranoid and knee-jerk violent that they practically doom the planet in their narrow-minded quest to control a situation they don’t understand—so I enjoyed that aspect of this story as well.

I’m very story-oriented—when I read, it is basically just to enjoy myself. This makes it difficult for me to discuss my impressions of a book without a great deal of ‘spoilers’—but rest assured that “The Simpleton” is far less simple than the little bits I’ve given away in this review—and the whole story is complex and entrancing in the way only good sci-fi can be.

 

“The Sculpted Ship” by K. M. O’Brien

sculptedship

[A Fairy Tale of Space]

Any good adventurer needs a little luck and a few helping hands to make it through the dark forest of inexperience—that is the message of most fairy tales—and it is also the theme of this delightful sci-fi fairy tale.

A young lady who just happens to be a genius at starship engineering just happens across a very special starship that has fallen on hard times. As her quest to get the ship back into the dark parallels her coming of age, she runs into a Star Wars-like collection of good, bad, and just plain odd people—smugglers, bots, royalty, and charm-school matrons, just to name a few.

While there may be little doubt as to what happens next, the reader is diverted by the exhaustive creation of a future society, complete with political intrigue, fashion faux-pas, and space-naval traditions. There is, in some books, such a pleasure in inhabiting the story that the lack of much surprise in the plot is beside the point—we simply enjoy the work of a good story-teller.

I certainly enjoyed “The Sculpted Ship”—I dashed through it, and it ended way before I was ready to let it go. I only hope there will be sequels.

 

“Feedback” by Peter Cawdron

feedback

[Even If You Don’t Care For Time Travel]

Time Travel as premise is not something I care for, most of the time. For one thing, I dislike getting the feeling that I understand the physics better than the author—which has happened to me too many times. For another thing, many authors err either on the side of ‘Time Travel makes everything possible’ or the side of ‘Time Travel can’t change anything’—in such cases, either way, it seems an exercise in futility.

But sometimes, as in “Feedback”, Time Travel is both taken seriously as a physics hypothesis—and is neither let loose to cover everything nor confined to where it hardly matters. In “Feedback” we are treated to a nice demonstration of how a Time-Travel premise can be tweeked into something that both preserves the past and yet allows for human determination to help shape the ultimate future.

This story gives a new level to the term flash-back, as we bounce back and forth from two different story-lines, both equally engaging and both quite distinct until nearly the end, when all things become, at last, not just tied together, but twisted into an infinite loop. And it is a rare book that saves the surprise ending for an extended epilogue—and for that new experience, for this old, old bookworm, I have to thank Mr. Cawdron.

Having just finished reading this enthralling story, I suspect that I could spend a great deal of time poking holes in it—Time-Travel tales are notoriously loose-logical. But this book keeps you moving right along—and it would take a keener mind than mine to have noticed any glaring errors during the course of my reading. And, hey, if it’s good enough to support the willing suspension of disbelief until the last page, it’s hardly fair of the reader to try and tear it apart, after the fact—we’ll leave that to the poor fool who has to write the screenplay adaptation.

I would have to give the author a nod simply for writing a Time-Travel story that I enjoyed. But “Feedback” was more than just acceptable—it was a great sci-fi ride through space, time, and science—and that’s all I ask from any book.

Reviews   (2016Oct18)


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Tuesday, October 18, 2016                                               2:14 PM

Beautiful day. Leaves is fallin. Sun is shinin. Can’t beat that. Sarah McLachlan may be an acquired taste, but her music is fantastic—what a voice. I’m making a video—I just played Bach’s keyboard arrangement of a Vivaldi Concerto in D, an early transposition from an early influence of old J. S.’s.

Then I played an improv—I don’t know what I’m doing, but it felt good. Now if it only sounds good. I called it “High-End Stroller” because that’s what baby Seneca rolls in these days. There’s a break about a minute in—the camera does that every twenty minutes, making a new file, but it loses a second or two of recording. I took too long with the Bach, I guess—it’s not usually a problem because I rarely play piano for more than twenty minutes—and I often restart the camera recording when playing for longer. What I really need is a film crew, I guess.

 

Shall we discuss politics? No! It’s far too nice a day for that—and tomorrow’s the final Shootout at the OK Corral, so let’s wait, shall we?

Autumn preys on my weakness—if anyone ever wrapped themselves up in melancholy, it’s me—and that time of year (thou may’st in me behold, when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…) sorry, Shakespeare got me—this time of year makes me dive deep into memory, loss, and the unending cycle of change that is living.

I fairly delight in depression while the summer fades, the leaves fall, and the winter looms. We must remember that ‘clinical depression’ is an imbalance, that modest, occasional depression itself is natural—a way of crawling into bed and putting the covers over our heads, while working or relaxing. Chronic Depression, the problem, is much in the news nowadays—but if you get depressed, sometimes, there’s no need to panic—it is only when it takes over your life that it becomes a problem with a capital ‘P’.

I used to prefer the grey, rainy days—but now I settle for leaves falling—the wet weather chills me to the bone, making me stiff and achy. I still enjoy breezes—you’d have to be dead not to enjoy a breezy day. But enough about the weather.

I just read a sci-fi book called “Machinations” by Hayley Stone. I was disappointed that the plot was a straight rip-off of Terminator, but it was well-written, with good characters, so I finished the book. Dear Ms. Stone: It isn’t science fiction if you don’t have a new idea—it’s just writing, however good. I took one star off of my Amazon rating—because it was a good book, but it wasn’t good science fiction. (If I finish a book, I usually give it full stars.)

I saw the “Ghostbusters” re-make—loved it—loved everyone in it. I don’t see how they could have pandered to fans of the old original any more than they did—and it was nice. Anyone who wasn’t satisfied is just too hard to please.

I enjoyed a few episodes of “Lucifer” on TV, but as with all outlandish premises, they try to ‘mealy-mouth’ it down to a drama, instead of juicing it up into a comic-book fantasy. I watched nine episodes of “Luke Cage” on Netflix, but I’m getting too old for the kid stuff. I’m having trouble with stories that contain corruption, violence, and amorality—they just upset me. My options are narrowing tightly—I’m down to mostly biopics.

I’m trying to read the new Bruce Sterling book, “Pirate Utopia”, but it’s hard—I’m sorry, I just can’t stand ‘alternate history’ sci-fi—it’s a bridge too far for me. Woulda, shoulda, coulda—that’s all it means to me. But Bruce Sterling is heavy-sledding—I’ll keep on for now, and see if I get drawn in. It might be one of those books you don’t get until you re-read it. Sometimes, they’re the best.

Book Report: “The Jennifer Project” by Larry Enright (2016Jul24)


Sunday, July 24, 2016                                              2:59 PM

(NOTE: This review was previously posted to amazon.com)

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I’m sad to have just read the last page of “The Jennifer Project” by Larry Enright—check that box on the good-read checklist. This is a light-hearted romp—the dated nerd vernacular of the hero is almost embarrassingly comforting, like listening to your old stoner uncle. Jennifer herself shows some nerdy wit—and super-intelligence that acts more like magic than tech. Still, there is enough tech-speak and buzz-word scientifical-ness to help the willing suspension. Thrilling concepts are explored as if they wouldn’t need a book-shelf’s worth of ground-breaking new physics to implement—something I truly enjoy in my science fiction.

Terribly fast-paced—I read this book the same way I eat potato chips when I get the munchies—it must do without any tremendous amount of depth. The characters are what one would expect them to be—and we know little about them beyond their actions in advancing the story. The story’s ending might be too obvious to the experienced fan, but with the rush of words, one reaches the end before it becomes irritating. As with the better science-fiction, if you’re paying too much attention to the people and not enough to the ideas, you’re missing all the fun.

Larry Enright is a consummate speculator on future possibilities—and he knows how to entertain his readers. He’s sort of a cross between Harry Harrison and Michael Crichton. I will be reading as many more books like this as he cares to write—don’t miss out.

Logos and the Summer Reading List (2016Jul05)


Tuesday, July 05, 2016                                             1:03 PM

Kindle Purchases as of July 5, 2016:

Title    Author

Super Extra Grande                                                         Yoss

Infomocracy: A Novel                                                    Malka Older

Mechanical Failure (Epic Failure Book 1)                 Joe Zieja

Illuminae (The Illuminae Files)                                   Amie Kaufman

Porgy                                                                                 Dubose Heyward

Shakespeare’s Sonnets                                                     William Shakespeare

Wandering Stars                                                              Sholem Aleichem

The Noise of Time: A novel                                           Julian Barnes

Into Everywhere                                                              Paul McAuley

Something Coming Through                                         Paul McAuley

Little Machines                                                                Paul McAuley

Insistence of Vision: Stories                                          David Brin

The Technician (A Novel of Polity)                             Neal Asher

Dark Intelligence (Transformations)                           Neal Asher

Not Alone                                                                          Craig A. Falconer

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories                     Ken Liu

Ruined (TCG Edition)                                                     Lynn Nottage

As Good as New: A Tor.Com Original                        Charlie Jane Anders

Six Months, Three Days: A Tor.Com Original           Charlie Jane Anders

The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model                Charlie Jane Anders

Hello World                                                                     Peter Cawdron

This Long Vigil (A Short Story)                                     Rhett C Bruno

Saturn Run                                                                        John Sandford

Against a Dark Background                                           Iain M. Banks

Excession                                                                           Iain M. Banks

The State of the Art                                                          Iain M. Banks

Use of Weapons (A Culture Novel Book 3)                Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games (A Culture Novel Book 2)       Iain M. Banks

Been There, Run That                                                     Koplovitz

Apex: Nexus Trilogy Book 3 (Nexus Arc)                   Ramez Naam

The Artificial Kid                                                            Bruce Sterling

Seeds of a New Birth (Kindred Series Book 1)           Orrin Jason Bradford

The End of All Things (Old Man’s War Book 6)       John Scalzi

The Dark Forest (Remembrance of Earth’s Past)      Cixin Liu

Among Others (Hugo Award -Best Novel) Jo Walton

101 Great American Poems(Dover Thrift Eds)         Am.Poetry&Lit Project

Armada: A novel                                                              Ernest Cline

The Golden Transcendence (Golden Age Book 3)    John C. Wright

The Phoenix Exultant: (Golden Age, Book 2)            John C. Wright

The Golden Age                                                               John C. Wright

Idempotency                                                                    Joshua Wright

To Stand or Fall: The End of All Things #4                John Scalzi

Can Long Endure: The End of All Things #3              John Scalzi

This Hollow Union: The End of All Things #2          John Scalzi

The Life of the Mind: The End of All Things #1        John Scalzi

Mysterium                                                                        Robert Charles Wilson

A Bridge of Years                                                             Robert Charles Wilson

Pandora’s Brain                                                                Calum Chace

Schild’s Ladder                                                                 Greg Egan

The Girl With All the Gifts                                            M. R. Carey

The Turing Exception (Singularity Series Book 4)    William Hertling

The Last Firewall (Singularity Series Book 3)            William Hertling

A.I. Apocalypse (Singularity Series Book 2)              William Hertling

Avogadro Corp: TS.. (Singularity Series Book 1)       William Hertling

Nexus (The Nexus Trilogy Book 1)                              Ramez Naam

Crux (The Nexus Trilogy Book 2)                                 Ramez Naam

Cards of Grief                                                                   Jane Yolen

The Alien Chronicles (The Future Chronicles)          Hugh Howey

The Essence of Aptitude (CorpusChronicles Bk1)    Esha Bajaj

The Defeatist                                                                     Sophie Bowns

The Fold: A Novel                                                           Peter Clines

(R)evolution (Phoenix Horizon Book 1)                    PJ Manney

Curse 5.0 (Short Stories by Liu Cixin Book 7)            Cixin Liu

The Water Knife                                                              Paolo Bacigalupi

Taking Care of Gods (Short Stories Book 10)             Cixin Liu

The Wandering Earth (Short Stories Book 2)            Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem(Remem.of Earth’sPast)   Cixin Liu

Seveneves: A Novel                                                         Neal Stephenson

Vessel                                                                                 Andrew J. Morgan

H2O                                                                                    Irving Belateche

The book of the courtier                                                Baldassarre Castiglione

The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci Complete      da Vinci

Godless Nerdistry: Or How to be a Bag of Chem      Dale DeBakcsy

Consider Phlebas (A Culture Novel Book 1)              Iain M. Banks

Fear the Sky (The Fear Saga Book 1)                            Stephen Moss

The Lost Starship (Lost Starship Series Book 1)         Vaughn Heppner

Stars & Empire 2: 10 More Galactic Tales                 Jay Allan

Stars & Empire: 10 Galactic Tales                                Jay Allan

Fluency (Confluence Book 1)                                        Jennifer Foehner Wells

The Road to Hope                                                           Crissi Langwell

Edge of Eternity (The Century Trilogy, Book 3)       Ken Follett

Robogenesis: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries)     Daniel H. Wilson

A Burnable Book: A Novel                                            Bruce Holsinger

Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5) (Silo series)    Hugh Howey

Wool: The Graphic Novel #1 (Silo Saga)                    Hugh Howey

YES                                                                                     Leonard Chance

The Fault in Our Stars                                                     John Green

The Divergent Series Complete Collection: D,I,A     Veronica Roth

The Nostalgist: A Tor.Com Original                            Daniel H. Wilson

Electric Blues (Arty Book 1)                                         Shaun O. McCoy

Ride of the Late Rain (Vergassy Chronicles Bk 1)    James Young

The Pattern Ship (The Pattern Universe Book 1)      Tobias Roote

After Shock: (Lucy Guardino FBI Thrillers Bk 4)     CJ Lyons

The Forgotten Land                                                         Keith McArdle

The First                                                                            Kipjo Ewers

The Princess and the Goblin (Illustrated)   George MacDonald

The Water Babies [with Biographical Intro]             Charles Kingsley

The Shriver Rpt:A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back    Maria Shriver

Wicked Sci-Fi Pulp -From1954 The Real Stuff Ill   Philip K. Dick

10 Lost Vintage Sci-Fi Short-Story Masterpieces      Chet Dembeck

Linked List of over 350 Free SciFi Classics                Morris Rosenthal

Distraction                                                                        Bruce Sterling

Vege Press-Cooker-50 Recipes for Busy People      Maria Holmes

The Seventh Science Fiction MEGAPACK Robert Silverberg

The First Science Fiction MEGAPACK                       Robert Silverberg

The Second Science Fiction Megapack                       Robert Silverberg

The Third Science Fiction MEGAPACK                     Fritz Leiber

The Fourth Science Fiction MEGAPACK                   Isaac Asimov

The Fifth Science Fiction MEGAPACK                      Gardner Dozois

The Sixth Science Fiction MEGAPACK                      Johnston McCulley

Weird Science Fiction Tales: 101 Vol. 8 (civitas)     Various

Weird Science Fiction Tales: 101 Vol. 7 (civitas)     Various

Weird Science Fiction Tales: 101 Vol. 6 (civitas)     Various

Weird Science Fiction Tales: 101 Vol. 5 (civitas)     Various

Weird Science Fiction Tales: 101 Vol. 4 (civitas)     Various

Weird Science Fiction Tales: 101 Vol. 3 (civitas)     Various

Weird Science Fiction Tales: 101 Vol. 2 (civitas)     Various

Weird Science Fiction Tales: 101 Vol. 1 (civitas)     Various

The Edmond Hamilton MEGAPACK 16 Tales         Edmond Hamilton

The H. Beam Piper Megapack: 33 Stories                 H. Beam Piper

The Works of Alan E. Nourse  [Illustrated]               Alan E. Nourse

Over the last two and a half years I have read some books—not as many as I would have back in my ‘bookworm prime’, but I still enjoy reading better than almost anything else. The above list is not exact—in the sense that I have not read every book—or every word in every book—just most of them. (Let he who reads every book he buys cast the first stone.) Also, a few of these listed are just Kindle duplicates of books I read long ago, and subsequently re-read as e-books. But by and large my reading list for the past coupla years is fairly represented above.

I could not tell you what most of these books are about. I read them and forget them, as far as details go—if I retain the main concepts and story arcs, I figure I’m doing well. My memory does not work well—I often have trouble, during a big book, keeping things straight as I read—remembering stuff afterwards is a bonus for me. I can re-read a book and get a few chapters in before the sense of familiarity starts to come to me—I’m often disappointed to do that, because the more I read, the more I remember, until I give it up and go looking for a new book. Memory is weird stuff—especially when it’s as dysfunctional as mine.

You’ll notice I mostly read Sci-Fi books. Science Fiction isn’t exactly educational in the strictest sense of the word—that word ‘Fiction’ tells you why. But Sci-Fi does have the advantage of letting science-educated people play with the concepts they were taught—and there is great value in that.

Real math and science are very complex, they’re taught in school (often by uninspired teachers to unwilling students) and they tend to be thought of as rote data. But the sciences are a living thing, growing and changing with every day—and Science Fiction provides a safe space for playing with scientific concepts and ideas, clarifying their meanings and highlighting their possibilities. It can be a thrilling peek at the future or a dire warning to the present—but my favorite aspect of Science Fiction is that it can conjure fantasies about what the human race can become.

And Science Fiction has a strange habit of deciding, every once in a while, to become Fact. It is not so strange that speculation on the future can become prediction—even fortune-tellers get it right sometimes, and Sci-Fi writers have the extra advantage of not talking in general terms, but of extrapolating aspects of real science into stories about where that science might lead. Star Trek once speculated on the idea of hand-held communicators and, lo and behold, we now have I-phones (an actual improvement, since I-phones can do much more than allow conversations between two people). Arthur C. Clarke once wrote a story about a geo-synchronous satellite used for communications—and thus his name appears on the first patent for a communications satellite. I could go on—the historic connection between science and Science Fiction is long and full of anecdotes.

Science Fiction can also lead to greater interest in Science. Among the print books left off the above list are some biographies. Recently, I have read “Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel” (2006) by Rebecca Goldstein and “Joseph Henry: The Rise of an American Scientist” (1997) by Albert E. Moyer (which I’m still reading). I’ve also recently read “Henry James: A Life” (1985) by Leon Edel and “Beethoven: The Man Revealed” (2014) by John Suchet. I’ve read James, but truthfully I was intrigued to read his biography when I read, in Henry’s bio, that he was a tutor of the young Henry James in 19th-century Albany, NY. The Beethoven bio was a gift from friends who knew I liked classical music and reading.

So I do have other interests—Sci-Fi is simply my favorite genre. Biographies are great, too—but, being works of intense research, it gets tricky finding someone who can dig up the info and also write well. Biographies can be fun—some historical figures have whole bookshelves of biography written about them—I’ve read three different biographies of Einstein, for example, and learned as much from their differences as I did from their explicit writing.

Sarah Vowell, Barbara Tuchman, Jared Diamond, and Laura Hillenbrand are some of my favorite writers of general history. I’ve also read some lackluster histories by other authors, but I have found that, with biography and historical non-fiction, the lack of literary talent can be balanced out by one’s interest in the subject. I have read some terribly boring books, simply because I was fascinated with the subject matter. Plus, they help me appreciate the really good writers.

In the Gospel of John we are told “the Word was with God and the Word was God”, the word ‘Word’ having been translated from the ancient greek ‘Logos’, which means  “a ground”, “a plea”, “an opinion”, “an expectation”, “word”, “speech”, “account”, “to reason”—later becoming a philosophical term meaning ” a principle of order and knowledge”. Thus Logos has always held a fascination for modern writers and thinkers. The interface between words and meaning is a slippery one. Semiotics become complex. But the struggle between what we mean and what we say (or write) goes on—words may be amorphous, but they’re the best tools we have. And so, this summer, go and get your words on.

Book Review: “Soledad : Dark Republic Book I” by D. L. Young (2016Jun11)


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Saturday, June 11, 2016                                           2:22 PM

A near-future Texan dystopia is the setting for this tale of a young soothsaying-witch who travels the badlands in search of her lost family. Rich in detail, from the ways of the isolated bands and freelancers to the characters who accompany her in her search for the truth, this story posits a very believable, if highly unpleasant, future history for the lone star state.

D. L. Young grabs you right away and holds on pretty tight for the duration of this slim novel—but, if it seems too short, note that the title suggests more to come. I read it in one sitting and found the time flew by. And I commend the ending of this book—it leaves one thinking—and for me, that’s the best ending a book can have. It seems excellent fodder for Hollywood so I suggest you read it now, before they make the movie. Good story-telling, good writing—what’s to complain about?

No story can be grand without a grand evil—and Mr. Young has come up with a doozy or two—though I won’t spoil it for you. While modern technology makes any near-future story a case of speculating on where existing tech will be in twenty or so years—and that can be both awe-inspiring and terrifying—I miss the old days, when a Sci-Fi story had a big idea behind it. To be fair, Sci-Fi is well-traveled territory—and big ideas aren’t just lying around like they used to be. Plus, there’s a lot more of it being published (or e-published) these days. While that ensures that the number of so-so Sci-Fi books will expand, we may still hope that the ‘good reads’ will increase, as well. This book is certainly a good read, and its writer a good find.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction—I mean a lot. At sixty, I can fairly say that I’ve obsessed over Sci-Fi for fifty years, for most of that time averaging a book a day—and a good 90% of them being Sci-Fi anthologies or novels. I’m about as familiar with story-telling as a person can be, short of actually being a fiction writer. Inevitably, nowadays, most fiction I read resonates with the echoes of the many stories where a similar idea, plot-point, character-type, etc. was used.

I never read many Westerns—but I made a point of reading “The Virginian” by Owen Wister, because I had read that it was the first book to use Western tropes such as ‘dueling at high noon’, or the ‘pretty schoolmarm’, and other such clichés that we now find re-worked in an appalling genre whose readers (and movie goers) apparently favor iconic sensationalism over originality. But not all Western writers are completely beholden to Mr. Wister. The genre has accumulated many more tropes and clichés from more original contributors. And we must accept the fact that a genre so limited in space, time, and culture can only offer so many scenarios suitable for dramatic storytelling.

I’ve always considered Science Fiction to be quite different in that respect—there are no constraints of time, space, culture—or much anything else—and that is partly the point of Sci-Fi, to begin with. Yet, like Westerns, once the mass market gets involved, there arises an audience for re-workings of the most popular and sensational set pieces—war in space, robot uprisings, alien invasions, time travel, etc. The most insipid aspect of mass market Sci-Fi is its drooling cousin, the comic-book super-hero genre—the only redeeming feature of which is that it makes me less annoyed at the conflation of Sci-Fi and Fantasy—at least Fantasy shares some of the infinite, boundless vision of Sci-Fi, even if it pollutes it with fairy dust.

All of this is a roundabout way of reaching my point—that Sci-Fi, though all about ideas, is now amenable to some mining of the past. It is still nigh onto plagiarism to write an entire ‘collage’ consisting only of the popular ideas of others—but an original work can be excused for borrowing parts and pieces. The annals of Sci-Fi contain some of the most brilliant brain-work of the last century—many of our actual technologies were invented by Science Fiction writers—so if we’re going to start pointing fingers, we’ll have to confess that we all live in somewhat of a ‘plagiarism’. Further, there are aspects of outer space survival, orbital mechanics, etc., that have left the arena of speculation—so repetition in that respect is merely an eye for realistic detail.

‘Inventing worlds’ itself was originated by Frank Herbert, just as inventing societies, cultures and languages was pioneered by Ursula Le Guin (in Sci-Fi—Tolkien, of course, did it earlier with Fantasy). But such breakthroughs are in the nature of opening a door that no one else had hitherto seen—and it is only natural that writers should jump on the band-wagon of greater possibilities—subsequent writers don’t copy them so much as learn from them. And in this respect, Sci-Fi lit has a proud heritage of conceptual plagiarism—much like literature as a whole.

So, while “Soledad” has a few bells and whistles that will seem familiar—and a discernible patina of Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Water Knife”—it is still an original story told in a unique voice. As an old salt in the sea of Sci-Fi, I’ve learned to excuse the familiar elements of the modern Sci-Fi-writer’s toolkit and embrace the newness it is used in service of. Especially when the writing is good.

 

Book Review: “The Sound of Time: A Novel” by Julian Barnes (2016Jun03)


Friday, June 03, 2016                                               11:37 PM

Friday’s here—and just as I often don’t get fully awake before noon, I feel like I’m just getting warmed up whenever the end of the week rolls around. Old and in poor health is no way to suck the marrow from life. But I find I have company, or rather, competition.

That is to say that I’ve just finished reading Julian Barnes’ excellent historical novel, “The Noise of Time: A Novel”, touching on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich—a Russian composer of the Soviet era, and a favorite of mine since my early teens. I clearly remember mentioning the name to my mother one day, mispronouncing it, and being surprised that she corrected my pronunciation of his name—firstly because I realized he was famous enough for my mother to know his name, and secondly because I had been enamored of his music for months, while saying his name wrong (I had been thinking of him as Shos-TOCK-ovich!)

The Russians take pride in their deep sadness—as an American, I’ll never get that, but I get it, kind of. Masochism, irony, and melancholy are tools I have used myself in defense against a dysfunctional reality. But my life, and my troubles, are of an American smallness, in comparison to Barnes’ description of the living hell Shostakovich found himself in. He was a sensitive composer trapped in Stalin’s Russia, forced to publicly denounce his own works, and the works of his hero, Stravinsky—and other close friends and respected musicians; in danger for years from ideologues and politicians trying to ferret out disloyalty, even in thoughts and feelings, especially among artists—and even more especially in composers who had achieved global fame.

The book reminded me of the stories I heard about Soviet Russians living in terror of anonymous squads who came and took them in the night, often never to be seen again—and about the ideological tyranny that deposed aesthetics as the yardstick against which their art was ‘measured’—and sometimes condemned, along with the artist’s life.

Stalin’s rule, up to 1953, was so bloody that upon his death and the ascension of Khrushchev, it was said that ‘the Soviet had become vegetarian’. Although it may be more proper to say that the Soviet ceased to be cannibalistic, since Stalin’s machine had been devouring his own people. And Shostakovich was apparently a pretty nervous fellow—at the height of the pseudo-ideological criticisms of his music, he spent every night, for weeks, waiting at the elevator to be taken away by the KGB so that they wouldn’t have to burst into his apartment and drag him away in front of his wife and child. Barnes writes that Dmitri was just one of many people who observed this nighttime ritual during the terror known as Stalin’s Cult of Personality. Shostakovich’s life was one horror show after another—and it didn’t help that he was fairly well-off, compared to the average Soviet Russian—that just gave him more to lose.

As a boy, my favorite of his works was the last movement of his fifth symphony—but as I matured, I learned to prefer the rest of the symphony. According to Barnes’ story, Shostakovich was forced to add the final ‘triumphal’ movement to the symphony because the foregoing movements were so unremittingly ‘pessimistic’—and so he composed the final movement ironically. To my callow ears, and to the politburo, it sounded glorious (which saved Shostakovich’s life, and career)—but as my tastes matured I came to find the last movement somehow brash and ugly, and prefer the music that comes before—and now I know why, I suppose. Much is made in the book of the fact that when confronted with brainless tyranny, the only safe rebellion is in irony—but that irony over time gets lost in itself.

This book is no happy story, but it is something perhaps better—a fascinating story about strange and awful truths, and the horrendous lies that hide them, for a time at least. I have long since given up hope of finding in great artists’ lives any kind of reflection or explanation of the exaltation of their creations—but this book actually matches up the bleakness heard in most of his music with the day-to-day life of its composer. I read it in one sitting—something I’m only pushed into nowadays by irresistibly good writing and an enthralling story.

Barnes quotes Shakespeare at one point, mentioning that his Sonnet LXVI resonated with the artists of Soviet Russia, particularly the line, “And art made tongue-tied by authority”. I had to go look at the whole poem and I am struck, not for the first time, by how apropos Shakespeare always is, no matter how modern we think we have become:

  Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,

  As to behold desert a beggar born,

  And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,

  And purest faith unhappily forsworn,

  And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,

  And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,

  And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,

  And strength by limping sway disabled

  And art made tongue-tied by authority,

  And folly—doctor-like—controlling skill,

  And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,

  And captive good attending captain ill:

     Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,

     Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

(Shakespeare, William (2011-03-24). Shakespeare’s Sonnets (p. 132).  . Kindle Edition.)

I love that line about “And folly—doctor-like—controlling skill,”—geniuses so often appear to fools as people who need to be ‘cured’, or at the very least, ‘corrected’. The poem as a whole is fitting for a Shostakovich biographical novel—he too was often tempted by thoughts of suicide, harried by the ubiquitous surplus of malevolent injustice crowding every aspect of his life.

That’s my take on the book—-lacking a segue, here’s two improvs from earlier today–hope you like them:

 

 

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Old Books   (2016Mar13)


Sunday, March 13, 2016                                          3:13 AM

I used to burrow through the complete works of old authors—it was so comfortable in the worlds they created—a slower, more intimate and more gentle place than the present.

Just take a look at this:

“THE FOURTH CHAPTER

A MESSAGE FROM AFRICA

THAT Winter was a very cold one. And one night in December, when they were all sitting round the warm fire in the kitchen, and the Doctor was reading aloud to them out of books he had written himself in animal-language, the owl, Too-Too, suddenly said, “Sh! What’s that noise outside?”

They all listened; and presently they heard the sound of some one running. Then the door flew open and the monkey, Chee-Chee, ran in, badly out of breath.

“Doctor!” he cried, “I’ve just had a message from a cousin of mine in Africa. There is a terrible sickness among the monkeys out there. They are all catching it—and they are dying in hundreds. They have heard of you, and beg you to come to Africa to stop the sickness.”

“Who brought the message?” asked the Doctor, taking off his spectacles and laying down his book.

“A swallow,” said Chee-Chee. “She is outside on the rain-butt.”

“Bring her in by the fire,” said the Doctor. “She must be perished with the cold. The swallows flew South six weeks ago!”

So the swallow was brought in, all huddled and shivering; and although she was a little afraid at first, she soon got warmed up and sat on the edge of the mantelpiece and began to talk.”

– from: “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” by Hugh Lofting

Isn’t that delightful? Could you imagine a cozier scene? There were many things I didn’t care for in the Doctor Dolittle books—but I was hooked on the sense of contentment that radiated from each tale’s beginning and end—there were adventures—sure—but they were always bracketed by scenes of tea or a pipe-smoke, in an easy chair by a warm fireplace. It speaks perhaps more to my need for quiet and contentment than to any great skill of Mr Lofting as an author.

Or how about this fragment from an introduction to another great children’s book:

“This country is not Fairyland. What is it? ‘Tis the land of Fancy, and is of that pleasant kind that, when you tire of it—whisk!—you clap the leaves of this book together and ’tis gone, and you are ready for everyday life, with no harm done.

And now I lift the curtain that hangs between here and No-man’s-land. Will you come with me, sweet Reader? I thank you. Give me your hand.”

– from the introduction to: “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” by Howard Pyle

It seemed to me that no one could read such a preface without settling more deeply into their armchair and opening their mind to the verdant clearings about olde Nottingham Wood, busy with bold yeomen, rubicund friars, and good fellows who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

Or try this—from the introduction to a book so bound up in chivalry and honor and nobility that even the words have straight backs and stiff upper lips:

“Then to proceed forth in this said book, the which I direct unto all noble princes, lords and ladies, gentlemen or gentlewomen, that desire to read or hear read of the noble and joyous history of the great conqueror and excellent king, King Arthur, sometime king of this noble realm, then called Britain; I, William Caxton, simple person, present this book following,”

– from Will Caxton’s preface to: “Le Morte D’Arthur” (Sir Thomas Malory’s Book of King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table)

How happy I was to find, later on, that even the adult fare of long ago was couched in intimate, trusting honesty:

“This little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication. It was disposed of to a bookseller, it was even advertised, and why the business proceeded no farther, the author has never been able to learn. That any bookseller should think it worth-while to purchase what he did not think it worth-while to publish seems extraordinary. But with this, neither the author nor the public have any other concern than as some observation is necessary upon those parts of the work which thirteen years have made comparatively obsolete. The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.”

– Advertisement by the Authoress, To “Northanger Abbey” [by Jane Austen]

One of my favorite features of these older writers was their complete lack of concern with the length of their sentences—or with how long they took to make a point:

“Chapter I.

Treats of a Place Where Oliver Twist was born, and of the Circumstances Attending his Birth.

Among other public buildings in a certain town which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, it boasts of one which is common to most towns, great or small, to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born, on a day and date which I need not take upon myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events, the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.”

– from:  “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

Even in sophistication, we find cynicism and the weight of experience translated into the subtlest of sentiments:

“The Memoires of Barry Lyndon, Esq.

Chapter I. My Pedigree and Family–Undergo the Influence of the Tender Passion

Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it. Ever since ours was a family (and that must be very NEAR Adam’s time,—so old, noble, and illustrious are the Barrys, as everybody knows) women have played a mighty part with the destinies of our race.

I presume that there is no gentleman in Europe that has not heard of the house of Barry of Barryogue, of the kingdom of Ireland, than which a more famous name is not to be found in Gwillim or D’Hozier; and though, as a man of the world, I have learned to despise heartily the claims of some PRETENDERS to high birth who have no more genealogy than the lacquey who cleans my boots, and though I laugh to utter scorn the boasting of many of my countrymen, who are all for descending from kings of Ireland, and talk of a domain no bigger than would feed a pig as if it were a principality; yet truth compels me to assert that my family was the noblest of the island, and, perhaps, of the universal world; while their possessions, now insignificant and torn from us by war, by treachery, by the loss of time, by ancestral extravagance, by adhesion to the old faith and monarch, were formerly prodigious, and embraced many counties, at a time when Ireland was vastly more prosperous than now. I would assume the Irish crown over my coat-of-arms, but that there are so many silly pretenders to that distinction who bear it and render it common.”

– from: “Barry Lyndon” By William Makepeace Thackeray

I could read this syrup all day—it often made me despair of having been born too late—into a world that has no time or patience for such graceful effusion.

And I couldn’t just pick up such books and start reading them, like a magazine or a newspaper—these books were fine wines—they had to be set up for, settled in for, and my mind had to be quiet enough for their delicate traceries to take hold of my imagination—they were too quiet to break through to a mind caught up in 20th century busyness.

However, once well started, great books became another world, so distinct and real that I would hurry through whatever obstacles stood between me and a return to those pages—and once back there, I was not easily drawn back into consciousness of the world around me. I didn’t study these works as ‘classic literature’—I didn’t attend to the structure, plot, or characterizations—I simply consumed the story, swept up in a vicarious universe. I couldn’t even remember what I’d read—not in the way of a student—they were movies that played in my mind—my involvement was total.

Well, things aren’t quite like that anymore. Like many of my former pursuits, my reading has been rendered difficult, brief, and harder to get lost in. Plus, there isn’t much left, unless I start re-reading those same books (not a terrible idea). But reading remains my favorite thing to do—I’m a bookworm, tried and true. Give me a choice between a good book and a good time in real life—and I’ll retire to find my reading glasses and a comfortable chair.

All that being said, I made two videos today—the first is a brief improv, but the second is an interesting collection of seven short works by the baroque German composer, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), who was self-taught and became a musician against his parents’ wishes—two things I admire in any person.

 

 

Goodnight for now…