All reviews copyright 1984-2012 Evelyn C. Leeper.
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/22/2005]
After seeing the new film CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, I went home and re-watched the older WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and read the book (which I had not read before) (ISBN 0-141-30115-5). The new movie takes the name of the book and returns to some of the original ideas that the first movie changed, but also incorporates ideas from the first movie not in the book, and adds a lot of film references in general. One change from the book is that Charlie's father is still alive-- maybe Burton thought that far too many children's movies had dead parents. One restoration was that the songs in the new movie use Dahl's words, rather than being entirely new songs as they were in the older film version. I thought the new movie was much better than the old one, but probably cannot fairly judge the book--I'm well out of the target age group.
To order Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from amazon.com, click here.
THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL by Jack Dann (Bantam, ISBN 0-553-09637-0, 1995, 486pp, hardback):
This seems to have been the "Year of da Vinci," with not one but two alternate history novels about the artist and inventor. One of these is Paul J. McAuley's Pasquale's Angel, the other is Jack Dann's Memory Cathedral.
I call them alternate histories, but Dann's at least is written more as a secret history--not what might have happened but didn't, but what might have happened that we didn't hear about. In this case, it's about what might have happened during Leonardo's trip east. Frankly, I am of the opinion that it would be unlikely that the events described here happened without any record, but that is a dispute over classification, not over the book itself.
And the book itself is very good. Dann has done the research, and the life and politics of 15th Century Florence and the eastern Mediterranean come to life in his telling. He does take a few liberties (changing Machiavelli's age, and introducing Christopher Columbus into the scene), but these are minor changes which serve the literary purpose without being false to the sense of historical truth. (George MacDonald Fraser explains this idea at greater length in his book The Hollywood History of the World.)
Even with all his research, though, at least one error has crept in. On page 342, Dann describes a camel as getting up by raising first its front part, then its back. Having ridden a camel, I can assure you that camels raise their back part first. (The first thing they tell you is to lean back when the camel gets up, or you'll fall off.)
But considering the level of detail that Dann has created, this is a truly minor point. Dann does a good job of describing the jockeying for power in the eastern Mediterranean as well as giving the reader a window into Leonardo mind through the use of "the memory cathedral" he has built. This book was not marketed as science fiction, so you will probably have to seek it out in the mainstream fiction section of your bookstore. Do so, by all means--it's well worth the search.
To order The Memory Cathedral from amazon.com, click here.
REBEL by Jack Dann:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/20/2004]
Jack Dann's REBEL (ISBN 0-380-97839-3) is an alternate history: what if James Dean had not been not killed in his car crash? This didn't sound very promising to me, and indeed becomes interesting only by getting Dean involved in politics by way of Marilyn Monroe's connection with the Kennedys. I felt like I was reading a tabloid newspaper through most of it, with the bulk of the story being about Jimmy and Marilyn, and Jimmy and Pier Angeli, and Marilyn and Jack, and Marilyn and Bobby, and all sorts of other pairings. Oh, and Elvis. Even I, a cinema fan, found this uninvolving. (Contrast this with Kim Newman's or Howard Waldrop's Hollywood alternate histories--those are very engaging.)
To order Rebel from amazon.com, click here.
"Inferno" by Dante Aligheri:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/10/2010]
In addition to all the books mentioned in recent columns as preparation for our recent trip to Italy, I also read "Inferno" by Dante while in Italy. Now, I personally prefer H. R. Huse's translation (ISBN 978-0-030-08690-8) over John Ciardi's (ISBN 978-0-451-53139-1) for readability. Ciardi's translation maintains the rhyme scheme of the original, but I find it distracting, since it is not a traditional one in English. But my copy of Ciardi's translation was about half the size of my Huse, so I took that, and I will admit that poetically Ciardi is better. For example, I was struck by this description of Dante climbing a steep hill:
"And there I lay to rest from my heart's race
till calm and breath returned to me. Then rose
and pushed up that dead slope at such a pace
each footfall rose above the last." [Canto I, Lines 28-31]
But when I got home and looked it up in Huse, it was rendered as:
"After I had rested a little my weary body,
I took my way over the lonely slope
[climbing] so that the firm foot always was the lower."
[Canto I, Lines 27-29]
It is clearer, but not as poetic.
At times one hears echoes of Bible verses:
"These are the nearly soulless
whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.
They are mixed here with that despicable corps
of angels who were neither for God nor Satan,
but only for themselves."
[Canto III, Lines 32-36]
This reminds me of:
"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."
And sometimes I see something that may be Ciardi taking his inspiration from elsewhere:
"... [I] walked at his side
in silence and ashamed until we came
through the dead cavern to that sunless tide."
[Canto III, Lines 76-78]
This sounds a lot like:
"Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."
[Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Kubla Khan"]
"We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea."
[Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"]
Huse renders this:
"Then with eyes ashamed and lowered,
fearing that my words might have offended him,
I kept from speaking until we reached the stream."
[Canto III, Line 78-80]
which drops both the "dead cavern" and the "soulless tide".
The section on limbo seems to have a contradiction in it (in both translations). First Dante has Virgil say:
"And still their merits fail,
for they lacked Baptism's grace, which is the door
of the true faith you were born to. Their birth fell
before the age of the Christian mysteries,
and so they did not worship God's Trinity
in fullest duty. I am one of these."
[Canto IV, Lines 34-39]
"and by himself apart, the Saladin."
[Canto IV, Line 129]
"Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna,
and Averrhoës of the Great Commentary."
[Canto IV, Lines 146-147]
The problem is that Saladin, Galen, Avicenna, and Averrhoës all lived after "the age of Christian mysteries" and were aware of them, so it makes no sense according to what Virgil has said that they are in Limbo instead of lower down. Yes, it is possible that Virgil was not telling the whole truth, but you would think that the presence of Saladin, who fought the Crusaders, would seem a bit strange to Dante.
To order H. R. Huse's translation of Inferno from amazon.com, click here.
To order John Ciardi's translation of Inferno from amazon.com, click here.
THE DARWIN CONSPIRACY by John Darnton:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/17/2006]
The novel THE DARWIN CONSPIRACY by John Darnton (ISBN 1-4000-4137-6) sounded promising. The jacket asks, "What led Darwin to the theory of evolution? Why did he wait twenty-two years to write ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES? Why was he incapacitated by mysterious illnesses and frightened of travel? Who was his secret rival?" And the book manages to be at least moderately engrossing on some of these--right up until the end, when Darnton pulls the most bizarre rabbit out of a hat I can remember for a long time. I do not want to give too much away, in case some Darwin completist out there wants to read the book, but, trust me, it is an even less likely scenario than that of THE DA VINCI CODE. However, it has inspired me to put THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES on my reading queue. (I cannot remember if I ever read it--if so, it was probably forty years ago.)
To order The Darwin Conspiracy from amazon.com, click here.
BLACK HEART, IVORY BONES by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/30/2004]
Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling edited six anthologies of "modern fairy tales" (in the sense of traditional fairy tales either retold in a modern setting or in a traditional setting, but with a modern sensibility). And I enjoyed BLACK HEART, IVORY BONES, just as much as all the others and recommend all of them. The other five are SNOW WHITE, BLOOD RED; BLACK THORN, WHITE ROSE; BLACK SWAN, WHITE RAVEN; RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS; and SILVER BIRCH, BLOOD MOON--and, boy, is it impossible to remember which ones you have read and which you haven't!
To order Black Heart, Ivory Bones from amazon.com, click here.
OPERA FOR BEGINNERS by Ron David (illustrated by Paul Gordon):
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/22/2008]
OPERA FOR BEGINNERS by Ron David (illustrated by Paul Gordon) (ISBN-13 978-0-86316-086-7, ISBN-10 0-96316-086-7) treats opera a bit differently than other introductory books. It's not just that David takes a very "irreverent" attitude towards opera, or that David explains opera with references to rap, jazz, and other "popular" forms of music. It is that he also covers opera from multiple perspectives--not just the development of the art form, but also a discussion of the development of singing styles and the great singers of opera. He also gives some suggestions for starting to listen to opera, including the idea of not starting by listening to entire operas. While one may dispute David's aesthetic judgments, I have to say that his approach is refreshing. The real question is whether someone with no interest in opera would pick up this book to learn about it in the first place.
To order Opera for Beginners from amazon.com, click here.
ADVENTURES IN UNHISTORY by Avram Davidson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/13/2009]
Kudos to Tor--ADVENTURES IN UNHISTORY: CONJECTURES ON THE FACTUAL FOUNDATIONS OF SEVERAL ANCIENT LEGENDS by Avram Davidson (ISBN-13 978-0-765-30760-6, ISBN-10 0-765-30760-X) is a beautifully produced book. It has an index. The fore edges are trimmed, which makes it easy to flip through the pages when looking for something. And the best part is that you can tell what chapter you are in, not from page headings, but because at the top outside corner of each righthand page there is a two-inch by two-inch George Barr pen-and- ink drawing of the topic. For Sinbad, there is a dhow, for extinct birds the moa, and so on.
But what of the writing?
"That true things may be written in a book cannot make true all things written in books. Nor, to take the tally and turn it over, does one lie or a hundred lies prove King David right when he said in his sorrow, 'All men are liars.'"
Clearly Davidson is crafting his sentences. He could just say, "Just because some things in books are true does not mean everything in books is true. And one lie does not make everything a lie." But he says it so much more elegantly. Whether this is an attempt to emulate the flowery language of his sources--the 1001 Nights, Le Morte d'Arthur, and so on--or just because he wants to paint with words, I cannot say. But how much more memorable it is.
To order Adventures in Unhistory from amazon.com, click here.
THE AVRAM DAVIDSON TREASURY by Avram Davidson (edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis):
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/07/2007]
THE AVRAM DAVIDSON TREASURY by Avram Davidson (edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis) (ISBN-13 978-0-312-86731-7, ISBN-10 0-312-86731-X) is a collection of some of Davidson's best work, arranged chronologically with introductions by Silverberg and Davis. I would swear that Davidson's story "Or the Grasses Grow" had been made into a "Twilight Zone" episode, but thorough checking tells me I would be wrong. And in his introduction to the story, Gardner Dozois acknowledges that "Full Chicken Richness" is one of only two stories on its particular topic. Since the other came out just three years earlier and was even nominated for a Hugo, I suspect that Davidson may have been influenced by it.
To order The Avram Davidson Treasury from amazon.com, click here.
AFTER THE FACT: THE ART OF HISTORICAL DETECTION by James West Davidson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/22/2003]
AFTER THE FACT: THE ART OF HISTORICAL DETECTION (Vol. 1) is about the sort of historical detection that Simon Worrall was doing (and, for that matter, the sort that Mark Hofmann had done to do his forgeries). This volume has a prologue about selecting evidence, using as its topic the death of an American diplomat soon after the American Revolution. The seven sections that follow (in the third edition) include a study of indentured servitude and slavery in early Virginia, Jackson's frontier versus Turner's, the "psychohistory" of John Brown, and the difficulties in getting an accurate view of slavery through oral histories. ("Psychohistory" here refers to determining Brown's psychological state, not the predictive science of Isaac Asimov's works.) Of interest to historians (professional and amateur), I suspect this book is a bit too dry for the general public. (And priced as a textbook, it's also a bit expensive. I found it at the local thrift shop.)
And tying in with the idea of historical evidence, I recently watched the film TWELVE ANGRY MEN. If you are unfamiliar with the film, you should see it, so I will not describe it too much. The setting is a jury room for a trial where the verdict seems obvious at first but .... What is interesting is that every time I watch this now, it occurs to me that the same people who like this film also have definite opinions of the O. J. Simpson trial which are almost diametrically opposed to their views here.
To order After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (both volumes combined) from amazon.com, click here.
THE EXPLOSIONIST by Jenny Davidson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/13/2009]
THE EXPLOSIONIST by Jenny Davidson (ISBN-13 978-0-06-123975-5, ISBN-10 0-06-123975-5) is a young adult alternate history set in Scotland in the early 20th century in a world where Wellington lost and Napoleon was victorious at Waterloo. Europe is divided between the Hanseatic League and everyone else. Spiritualism is a real science, and terrorism is a problem. The last part is where the parallels to our world become a little less subtle (though still more subtle than some other alternate histories I have read recently). The big problem is that the book is very open-ended--I am sure there is a sequel coming down the line if this is successful.
What is interesting is that this--like a lot of young adult novels--is written as well as many "adult" novels, yet priced at about two-thirds the cost ($17.99 versus $24.95). On the one hand, one wishes the author would be paid comparably whether the novel is young adult or not. On the other hand, I suppose the assumption is that young adults have less discretionary income
To order The Explosionist from amazon.com, click here.
THE SHADOWS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES edited by David Stuart Davies:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/03/2004]
THE SHADOWS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES edited by David Stuart Davies (ISBN 1-85326-744-9) is a perfect example of Barnes's quote--but then, that's true of most mystery stories. One of the major differences between science fiction and mysteries, in fact, has been described as science fiction being an "open" form (lots of questions remain at the end about what comes next, and so on), and mysteries as a "closed" form (all the loose ends are wrapped up and explained). Davies here has collected a wonderful anthology of mystery stories from roughly the same era as Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" (well, Poe's "The Purloined Letter" is a little bit earlier). They all have that wonderful "gaslight" feel, even if some occur after the advent of electricity, yet are a varied collection, with some serious, some humorous, some written from the point of view of the detective, some from that of the perpetrator, and so on. There is Bret Harte's "The Stolen Cigar Case", one of Ernest Bramah's stories about blind detective Max Carrados, one of E. W. Hornung's Raffles story, a Jacques Futrelle "Thinking Machine" story, and a Sexton Blake. Alas, it seems to have been published only in Britain (though I bought my copy here). It is, however, still in print in its home country. [While reading this, I discovered that Hornung was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brother-in-law!]
To order The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes from amazon.com, click here.
INTRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY by Merryl Wyn Davies (with illustrations by Piero):
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/15/2005]
INTRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY by Merryl Wyn Davies (with illustrations by Piero) (ISBN 1-840-46663-4) was a disappointment. First, I found the book to be much sketchier in its coverage than other books in this series. For example, the book says that some anthropologists study kinship structures, and gives the reader a lot of terms used in this area, but doesn't say anything about what different structures might mean. And in general, Davies just tells the reader that anthropologists look at this or that, and what that sub-field is called, rather than attempting to talk about what has been discovered in these fields. It's possible that one is not supposed to expect any sort of conclusions or even theories from anthropology (and indeed, Davies spends a lot of time attacking earlier styles of anthropology that presented conclusions like "Englishmen are superior to everyone else"). But if this is the case, Davies doesn't make it clear. And I found Piero's style of art annoying. It seemed overly political (though that could be the captions Davies placed on it), but also seemed to try to make people, well, ugly. I've liked most of this series, but this one didn't work for me.
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/29/2005]
Update: I had written my comments on Merryl Wyn Davies and Piero's INTRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY before completely finishing it, so I have an addendum. Page 151 of the book talks about how Margaret Mead's writings influenced Dr. Benjamin Spock and his theories about how to raise children. Page 152 then reveals how her "discoveries" were discredited when it was revealed that her descriptions of how children and adolescents acted in Samoa were actually based on talking to four adolescent girls who, it turns out, were talking about their sexual fantasies rather than than sexual experiences. And page 153 talks about her defenders and has one character saying, "But, we argue, she nevertheless gained into American culture through her studies." I assume Piero was making a pun when he drew this character to look like Mr. Spock from "Star Trek"--either that, or he was confused between Dr. Spock and Mr. Spock.
To order Introducing Anthropology from amazon.com, click here.
COLLABORATOR by Murray Davies:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/11/2004]
Murray Davies's COLLABORATOR (Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-90844-9, #16.99) is a fine work in what seemed to have been an overly-mined area: what if the Germans won in World War II? This, admittedly, isn't quite that sweeping--it is focused on what might have happened if a German invasion of England succeeded. It is a very British look--much more downbeat than most American authors would write, and not relying on the Yanks rushing in to save the day. Instead, it looks at the reactions of a variety of Britishers to an invasion and occupation, as well as the possible progression of actions by the Germans during such an occupation. It reminds me of Kevin Brownlow's IT HAPPENED HERE and other well- written, low-key speculations. I can only hope that some American publisher will decide to pick it up in spite of all the "flaws" I mentioned.
To order Collaborator from amazon.com, click here.
THE ANCESTOR'S TALE by Richard Dawkins:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/30/2005]
THE ANCESTOR'S TALE by Richard Dawkins (ISBN 0-618-61916-X) works its way back through evolution, seeing it as a pilgrimage in which we meet up with our "distant cousins" as we all march back to the beginnings of life. Dawkins sticks fairly closely to his rule of not including species whose descendants have not survived until the present, though he admits to cheating a bit to include Homo habilis, Neanderthals, and the dodo. His initial discussion of "most recent common ancestor" (and how someone could be the most recent common ancestor of everyone on earth and still have none of his genes surviving in anyone) provides a very good lesson in basic genetics and evolution. My one complaint is Dawkins's tendency to throw in political asides that have nothing to do with his subject. One might argue, for example, that the claims of creationists have something to do with evolution, but snide remarks about how the Baghdad museum was looted because the American "invaders" were guarding the Oil Ministry instead really are completely off-topic. Still, there are only a smattering of them throughout this large book, and the rest is fascinating. The pattern here reminds me of Matt Ridley's GENOME, where each chapter was about a different gene on a different chromosome. Here it is about a different current species and how they derived their current characteristics from their earlier origins. And each tale illustrates a different principle of evolutionary biology--sensory perception for duck-billed platypuses, sexual selection for peacocks, the definition of species for salamander, the defintion (and purpose) of race for grasshoppers, and so on-- so by the end of the book you have a very good grounding in the subject.
To order The Ancestor's Tale from amazon.com, click here.
"The Jaguar House, in Shadow" by Aliette de Bodard:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/15/2011]
"The Jaguar House, in Shadow" by Aliette de Bodard (in ASIMOV'S 07/10) is another in her series in which the Azteca are not conquered by the Spanish. This is a very self-contained story, with little connection to the world outside the Azteca, and as such does not use the alternate history aspect as strongly as some of her others. The result is a story than seems to lack much science fictional content.
HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE by Alain De Botton:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/13/2003]
I plan to read all of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" (or "In Search of Lost Time", as it's now called), and have read the first book (SWANN'S WAY) already. So when I heard about Alain De Botton's book HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE, I thought, "Well, that should be helpful as a study guide." Eventually, I found a copy in a library, and what I discovered was that it was full of "pop philosophy" (which is at least a level above pop psychology) on ideas that could be found in a lot of other books besides Proust as well. While I don't discount it completely as an annotation to Proust, it isn't really about how Proust is so different from any other author. (It also assumes that the details of Proust's life are valuable in understanding the book, which is a theory I subscribe to, but not universal.) Also on my stack is Phyllis Rose's A YEAR OF READING PROUST, so I'll have to read that and compare it.
To order How Proust Can Change Your Life from amazon.com, click here.
A WEEK AT THE AIRPORT: A HEATHROW DIARY by Alain de Botton:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/27/2012]
A WEEK AT THE AIRPORT: A HEATHROW DIARY by Alain de Botton (ISBN 978-0-307-73967-4) was written when Heathrow Airport asked him to become a writer in residence for a week. It is good to see people caring about the arts, but I am not sure that an airport needs a writer in residence.
However, de Botton does write a very poetic account of the airport, as in this extract:
"As David lifted a suitcase on the conveyor belt, he came to an unexpected and troubling realization: that he was bringing himself with him on his holiday. Whatever the qualities of the Dimitra Residence, they were going to be critically undermined by the fact he would be in the villa as well. He had booked the trip in the expectation of being able to enjoy his children, his wife, the Mediterranean, some spanokopita and the Attic skies, but it was evident that he would be forced to apprehend all of these through the distorting filter of his own being, with its debilitating levels of fear, anxiety and wayward desire. There was, of course, no official recourse available to him, whether for assistance or complaint. British Airways did, it was true, maintain a desk manned by some unusually personable employees and adorned with the message: 'We are here to help.' But the staff shied away from existential issues, seeming to restrict their insights to matters relating to the transit time to adjacent satellites and the location of the nearest toilets."
To order A Week at the Airport: Heathrow Airport from amazon.com, click here.
LEST DARKNESS FALL/TO BRING THE LIGHT by L. Sprague de Camp/David Drake (Baen, ISBN 0-671-87736-4, 1996 (1939), 336pp, mass market paperback):
Lest Darkness Fall is a classic, and justifiably so. The cover describes it as "the novel that defined a genre," and while there were earlier alternate histories, this was the first to make a major impression on the science fiction field. (Harry Turtledove in his introduction talks about how it changed his life, giving a great example of how alternate histories work: what if he hadn't read it?) It is a book that should be in print and I'm glad to see Baen has brought it back. It is interesting that it has been reissued just as de Camp was given a "Special Achievement" Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and it was cited along with his works THE WHEELS OF IF and "A Gun for Aristotle" as major seminal works in the genre.
For those who don't know, the plot is very much a "Connecticut Yankee" sort of plot: Martin Padway, walking along in 1939 Rome, is struck by lightning and wakes up in sixth century Rome. He determines to use his superior knowledge to prevent the fall of Rome, or rather the Dark Ages following it. While Twain intended A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to be a rather bitter description of how bad life--and people--were in the so-called "golden days" of Camelot, de Camp is more an engineer and hence concentrates more on just what a twentieth century man could do with his knowledge.
David Drake's novella "To Bring the Light" is very much in the same vein. (In that regard, the cover blurb that describes it as "a brand-new story that stands that genre on its head" is completely inaccurate.) In it, Flavia Herosilla, an educated woman in the Rome of 248 A.D. is hurled back to 751 B.C. Not surprisingly, she meets Romulus and Remus, and finds that the area that would be Rome is smelly, dirty, and altogether uncivilized. So she takes matters into her own hands and attempts to improve the situation.
But the novella suffers by comparison to the de Camp. In addition, there are several problems that should have been caught by the editors. I have no problem with the omniscient narrator. However, that is not the voice in which this novel was written, and even if it were, the phrase "the sun was still a finger's breadth below the eastern horizon," would still strike me as awkward. This, combined with punctuation errors, grammatical mistakes, and unfortunate word choices make me again bemoan the current state of editing.
If you haven't read Lest Darkness Fall, this is a must-buy. But if you already have that book, then the additional novella is not sufficient reason to buy this edition.
To order Lest Darkness Fall/To Bring the Light from amazon.com, click here.
SCIENCE FICTION HANDBOOK, REVISED by L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine de Camp:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/23/2004]
There was also a Retro Hugo nominee for "Best Related Book" that I read. Well, actually, I read the 1975 L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine C. de Camp, SCIENCE FICTION HANDBOOK, REVISED (ISBN 0-070-16198-4), a revision of the 1953 edition. It is still quite readable, but with flaws. For example, de Camp's summary of the history of imaginative fiction is concise, but marred with questionable claims (such as the claim that the novel originated in Alexandria under the Ptolemys). Of course, it's more than made up for by finding out that Seabury Quinn was so popular as a "Weird Tales" author that when he was taken to a New Orleans bordello, the staff offered him one on the house.
The discussion of how publishing works is, of course, very out-of- date, but the discussions of how to choose names and other technical aspects of writing are still pertinent. (I wish more people would follow his dictum: "The writer must not, however, let his linguistic enthusiasm lead him to give names too long or too difficult or too full of diacritical marks")
Of the first World Science Fiction Convention, de Camp notes, "TIME [magazine] wrote up the convention, noting its more juvenile aspects." (page 3) It's nice to see some traditions haven't changed in sixty-five years.
To order Science Fiction Handbook, Revised from amazon.com, click here.
CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER by Thomas De Quincey:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/27/2012]
What can you say about someone who read CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER by Thomas De Quincey (ISBN 978-0-486-28742-3) and finds the most interesting part De Quincey's description of his library? "Paint me, then, a room seventeen feet by twelve, and not more than seven and a half feet high. ... Of [books], I have about five thousand, collected gradually since my eighteenth year. Therefore, painter, put as many as you can into this room." Okay, the perimeter of the room is (17*2)+(12*2), or 58 feet. There has to be at least one door, and he mentions a fireplace, so let's assume 50 running feet for ease of computation. Seven and a half feet high is 90 inches; if we assume each shelf is 9 inches high (including the shelf itself), that leaves room for 10 shelves, giving us 500 feet of shelving at most. 5000 books in that room would imply 10 books per foot. According to a librarian friend, the rule of thumb today is 25 books for each three feet of shelving (the standard library shelf), or about 8 per foot. (For paperbacks, it is 45 per three feet, but De Quincey had no paperbacks.) I suppose it is possible that there were a higher percentage of thinner books back then, but it still seems that putting 5000 books in the space specified would be a problem.
To order Confessions of an English Opium-Eater from amazon.com, click here.
VICTORIAN INVENTIONS by Leonard De Vries:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/09/2003]
Of interest to all us technical types is Leonard De Vries's VICTORIAN INVENTIONS. This book is even older than the Roszak, having been published in 1972 by the American Heritage Press, but since it is entirely about Victorian inventions, it hasn't become any more outdated than it was. Some of these inventions eventually succeeded. The most interesting to me was the red- green eyeglass system for 3-D movies--although the version here (1890) was for stereoscopic slides in a theater instead. There was also an inner-spring mattress (1871), and a child's "Picture- Book with Animal Noises" (1898), where the sounds are generated by means of strings that the child can pull.
But others never came to fruition. In many cases, this was a good thing. Consider the "Tricycle and Printing Press Combined" (1895), which allowed one to compose "short advertisements" on the tires such that (with the aid of the ink tank mounted on the frame), "the advertisement [could be] printed on a clean background to make it legible for a prolonged period of time." Just what we need--an automated way to produce graffiti on the roads! (Although the requirement that the surface be clean probably would have made it unusable.)
There was also "A Spherical, Transparent Velocipede" (1884) which apparently operated on a method similar to an acrobat progressing on a ball, except that the operator is inside a hollow sphere which contains some sort of ball-and-socket seat arrangement to stabilize it. My favorite part, though, was what happens when the sphere arrives at a river. "The sphero-velocipedist, propelling his vehicle with the utmost possible speed, rolls down the back with sufficient momentum to bring him to the other side of the stream. For the sphere floats on the water and continues to revolve until it has reached the opposite back." Even assuming it would work this way--of which I am exceedingly skeptical--one has to assume the sphere would actually arrive at the other side of the river considerably downstream from where he started. And if he misjudges the speed necessarily, he could easily end up floating downstream all the way to the sea--or the next waterfall. (I love the way the "river" changes to a "stream" in the description.) Oh, the sphere is also described as being made up of "some transparent, solid and not too fragile material." And what, pray tell, would this have been in 1884?
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BABEL-17 by Samuel R. Delany:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/09/2010]
BABEL-17 by Samuel R. Delany is an old book (it was first published in 1966), but I had never read it before. One reason was that other Delany books I had read (DHALGREN, NOVA) had put me off Delany. Thinking about it, though, I wonder if some of that was that I had read those books when I was too young for them (NOVA when I was 22, DHALGREN when I was 25). Delany is not an easy author, and maybe one needs more maturity than I had then. At any rate, BABEL-17 when I was 59 did not seem nearly as hard to read (except maybe for Part Four, which I think is supposed to be hard to read). What made me pick it up was hearing that it was based on linguistics, and in particular on the idea of a(n artificial) language which has no first-person-singular pronouns (or first- person-plural, or second-person either). Having just finished listening to John H. McWhorter's Teaching Company course on human language, I was eager to read stories that used some of the ideas that I have just heard, and BABEL-17 did this. Delany definitely uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here--the idea that not having a first-person-singular pronoun will affect how a person regards himself (as opposed to the Sapper-Worf hypothesis, which says that Picard should transfer Worf to the bomb squad).
And consider the following passage: "I saw a bunch of the weirdest, oddest people I had ever met in my life, who thought different, and acted different, and even made love different. And they made me laugh, and get angry, and be happy, and be sad, and excited, and even fall in love a little. ... And they didn't seem to be so weird or strange anymore." The fact that this book is from 1966 means that this was written three years before Stonewall, so its lack of subtlety is understandable.
Oh, and there is humor as well. One off-stage character is named Muels Aranlyne, and he had written a book titled EMPIRE STAR. Samuel R. Delany wrote a novella titled EMPIRE STAR in 1966.
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NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA by Barbara Demick:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/23/2010]
The subtitle of NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA by Barbara Demick (ISBN 978-0-385-52390-5) is not quite accurate, because the six people Demick writes about all have something that set them apart from most North Koreans--they have escaped to South Korea. However else they may be "ordinary" North Koreans, that they had the desire and initiative to flee North Korea means that they are not ordinary.
What made them defect? Demick gives a few examples of what tipped the scales. One saw an American nail clipper and thought, "If North Korea couldn't make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons?" Another was someone who accidentally heard the South Korea broadcast of a situation comedy where two young women were fighting over a parking space. It isn't clear which flummoxed him more: that young women could own private cars or that there were so many cars that there weren't enough spaces for them. But the one that rang a bell was the person who saw a photo in the official media of oppressed South Koreans picketing against their exploitation by the capitalist system. All he noticed was that the oppressed workers had jackets with zippers and ballpoint pens in their pockets--both luxury items in North Korea. This is basically the same story as what happened in Russia when they screened THE GRAPES OF WRATH to show how bad American farm workers were treated: people's reaction was "You mean that in America even the poorest families own their own car?!"
The most specific part of Demick's book, and indeed of the people's stories, is about the Great Famine. Caused in part by factors beyond the government's control (flooding and natural disasters), it was exacerbated by the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and the rise of capitalism in China, with both countries cutting back on the economic aid they gave North Korea through subsidized prices and other ways. (In particular, the loss of imported oil was a major factor, affecting not only electricity production and fuel for farm machinery, but the manufacture of fertilizer and many other products necessary to maintain a standard of living. This is worth remembering.) Add to these factors the unwillingness of North Korea to admit there was a problem and to accept humanitarian aid until the famine had gone on for several years, and you have the reason that between one and three million North Koreans died as a result of food shortages. (As one escapee put it, by 1998 the worst was over, not because anything got better, but because "everyone who was going to die was already dead.") Demick describes how the six people she describes were affected by the famine and how they dealt with it.
All in all, a very enlightening book.
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"Sergeant Chip" by Bradley Denton:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/10/2005]
"Sergeant Chip" by Bradley Denton ("Fantasy & Science Fiction" 09/04) is, on the other hand, more in the traditional style. The eponymous character is a dog, albeit a very intelligent dog who is in telepathic contact with his human master/squad captain. If the war (and general political situation) that they are in seem very current, perhaps even too topical, one has to recall that the story could be transposed back to earlier wars as well, so I don't think one can claim this is merely a screed against the current war.
"Discourse on Method" by Rene Descartes:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/02/2003 and 05/16/2003]
I'm also reading Rene Descartes's "Discourse on Method" (and other works). Of "Discourse" there is little to say that hasn't been said before, but I did find his argument for the existence of God, while not as weak as that of St. Anselm, still a bit shaky. Basically, it seems to be that when he thinks of a perfect being, this thought is more perfect than he (Descartes) is, and so he could not have originated it, hence it must have originated from this more perfect being and placed in his (Descartes's) mind.
And in his "Synopsis" to his "Meditations", Descartes writes, "For although all the accidents of the mind be changed--Although, for example, it think certain things, will others, and perceive others, the mind itself does not vary with these changes; while, on the contrary, the human body is no longer the same if a change takes place in the form of any of its parts: from which it follows that the body may, indeed, without difficulty perish, but that the mind is in its own nature immortal." One wonders if he could still say that in these days of genetic engineering, plastic surgery, artificial hearts, and general surgical advances.
He also says, "[W]e cannot conceive body unless as divisible; while, on the other hand, mind cannot be conceived unless as indivisible. For we are not able to conceive the half of a mind, as we can of any body, however small, so that the natures of these two substances are to be held, not only as diverse, but even in some measure as contraries." Again, modern discoveries of "multiple personalities" (disassociative identity disorder) would put this into question in a way that Descartes never dreamed of.
But perhaps even more basic is Descartes's famous, "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). In his first Meditation, he suggests, "For perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be." So how does he account for sleep, and his apparent continuity through it?
Also, at one point he says, "In all fraud and deceit there is a certain imperfection," while he why he claims, "It is impossible that [God] should will to deceive me." But later he says, "I am not always capable of comprehending the reasons why God acts as he does" and "God is immense, incomprehensble, and infinite, I have no longer any difficulty in discerning that there is an infinity of things in his power whose causes transcent the grasp of my mind." Therefore, it would seem that there might be some reason why God would will to deceive him that he can't comprehend.
(Coincidentally, I have been running across a lot of articles recently discussing the differences between Descartes's view of the mind-body dichotomy and Spinoza's. Among them are http://tinyurl.com/bjtq from the New York Times and http://tinyurl.com/bjtx from the Guardian, as well as an earlier article from the New York Times that is no longer on-line.)
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THE BIG BOOK OF JEWISH CONSPIRACIES by David Deutsch and Joshua Newman:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/09/2007]
My complaint about THE BIG BOOK OF JEWISH CONSPIRACIES by David Deutsch and Joshua Newman (ISBN-10 0-312-33439-7, ISBN-13 978-0-312-33439-0) is not that it presents all the classic "Jewish conspiracies" as true. It is that the authors seemed reticent to give the writing even a smidgen of believability. (Goliath, they say, was bribed to throw the fight and used the money to open "a small bistro specializing in Meso-Mediterranean fusion." Maybe they were worried that if they had anything at all plausible, someone would use it to bolster their own claims of conspiracies. The result is something even less convincing than the parody newspaper "The Onion". Come to think of it, though, "The Onion" has managed to be taken seriously by the media in other countries, so maybe Deutsch and Neuman would be right to be concerned. Deutsch and Neuman are the editors and publisher of "Heeb: The New Review", which the "New York Post" described as "a cross between 'The Onion' and 'Vanity Fair'." Perhaps when they do not have to sustain a premise through an entire book, it works better.
To order The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies from amazon.com, click here.
THE MATH INSTINCT by Keith Devlin:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/21/2005]
THE MATH INSTINCT by Keith Devlin (ISBN 1-56025-672-9) has two "discoveries" worth noting. One is that many animals have mathematical ability, either in their apparent ability to understand basic arithmetic, or in a honeybee's "knowledge" that a hexagon is the most efficient tesselation, or in a dog's ability to determine a minimum-length path that we must use calculus to calculate. The other is that many people who do badly on arithmetic tests can apply that same arithmetic perfectly in real life. (For example, a twelve-year-old Brazilian street vendor had no problem telling a customer how much ten coconuts were if one cost thirty-five cruzeiros, the same child could not give the correct answer when asked what ten times thirty-five was.) I'm not sure all his examples count as a "math instinct" (stereo vision, for example, may have mathematical principles that explain it, but it is not an "instinct" per se), but they are thought-provoking.
To order The Math Instinct from amazon.com, click here.
THE COURSE OF EMPIRE by Bernard DeVoto:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/23/2007]
I recently finished THE COURSE OF EMPIRE by Bernard DeVoto (ISBN-13 978-0-395-92498-3, ISBN-10 0-395-92498-7). At one point during that time, I was watching an episode of Showtime's "Masters of Horror" and found myself thinking, "Why am I watching this when I could be reading THE COURSE OF EMPIRE?" Whether this says something about THE COURSE OF EMPIRE or about "Masters of Horror" (or indeed, about me) is left for you to decide.
In any case, DeVoto has a very flowery and enjoyable (to me, anyway) style. Writing of Europe in 1962, DeVoto says, "The imperial frontiers in North America were captive to the forces Louis XIV had loosed. The one last war that would master Europe exhausted Europe but settled nothing. For two years after it ended diplomacy tried to create a stable alignment of the powers. The best hope of peace lay in the fact that for half a century Spain had been falling like Lucifer son of morning and was now prostrate. Its possessions spread across Europe without logic of geography or nationality. If they could be satisfactorily distributed among the powers peace might follow like the well- being of a man who has dined well."
Or, "England raised up Pitt and Pitt was the father of victory. He organized a second war, a global one. He roused the British people to the highest pitch of patriotism they had ever known and made them--by that time they had repudiated him, which is what happens to British geniuses who win wars--the greatest commercial nation and the greatest colonial power."
DeVoto spends a couple of paragraphs discussing why the Louisiana Purchase was probably illegal. It was not that there was no provision in the Constitution to acquire more land, but rather for three other reasons. First, Napoleon did not own Louisiana when he sold it to the United States, because the "Retrocession" from Spain had not yet gone through. Second, he did not consult the Senate and Legislative Assembly of the French Republic, as he was required to do. And last, the Treaty of San Ildefonso, which was instrumental in granting Louisiana to France, also said that Louisiana would revert to Spain if there was any attempt to "cede or alienate it." So Napoleon's mere offer of Louisiana was enough to cause it to revert to Spain. Of course, this is somewhat moot, as Spain (and the Senate and Legislative Assembly) could not enforce any of this.
One problem with reading this is that DeVoto frequently uses out- moded spellings for proper names (for example, "Spanyards"). Admittedly most of this is in direct quotation, but it still brings one up short for an instant. He refers to Meriwether Lewis's dog as "Scammon" where now he is universally called "Seaman". (This probably just means that Lewis had abominable hand-writing which has recently been re-interpreted.)
To order The Course of Empire from amazon.com, click here.