Sunday, March 1, 2015

Gene Wolfe's NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN--First impressions

Gene Wolfe
Nightside the Long Sun

I've finally managed to get to the book and am now in Chapter 4.  These are some random impressions based on the early chapters.

This reminds me of Wolfe's earlier series,  The Book of the New Sun.  It's the language that conveys this impression.  It is archaic and very formal, with many foreign and obscure English words.
I find myself heading for the dictionary or search function on the browser.  Just now I discovered, after a number of tries (the usual response was "no such word" while the others directed me to Gene Wolfe's novels), the following definition for manteion.  And, it appears to be Greek.

Manteion:  "An oracle; either a person or a shrine but usually a title denoting a prophet and reader of the omens of sacrifice. "

The story is illustrative of the role of the augur: "he does not predict what course of action should be taken, but through his augury he finds signs on whether or not a course already decided upon meets with divine sanction and should proceed." 

Patera Silk is an auger;  in the story he is  one who  reads the will of the gods by studying the entrails of sacrificed animals. It appears as though the term in the far future has become confused with another term--haruspex--for augers observe and interpret the flight of birds while a haruspex is the one who interprets from the entrails of sacrificed animals.  Both augur and haruspex go back to the days of the Roman Empire.

As in his earlier series, Wolfe loves to show us how history and myth and legend become confused and intertwined over long periods of time.

The Christian Sign of the Cross has now become the addition sign that Patera Silk makes. 

patera probably comes from the latin "pater" which means father.

Our Father--pater noster

Pater Silk, so far, appears to be a variation of the Holy Fool, an innocent who understands little of the world about him, but is blessed with almost divine wisdom in understanding the hearts of others.
That he is first seen as playing with children is indicative of the type of person he is.  He is a strange mix of a Christian minister or priest and teacher and a Roman official who reads the will of the gods in bird flight and the entrails of sacrificial animals--two very contradictory actions.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy: March 26, 1931--Feb. 27, 2015 RIP

                                                              R. I. P.

Leonard Nimoy died this morning of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Like many others, no doubt.  I shall always remember him as Mr. Spock.  I saw him once in a play in Chicago, A Visit to a Small Planet, and while the character was nothing like Spock  (he was played by Jerry Lewis in the film version), he was still Spock to me, and perhaps to many others in the audience.

I still can't hear anybody say "fascinating" without thinking of Mr. Spock.     

I also saw him when he joined the cast of Mission Impossible, as Paris, the master of disguise.  It made no difference.  He was still a Vulcan. And, the director?, somebody? played on that also.  In one episode of MI, Nimoy was in the lobby of a large hotel.  He glances over to a stairway leading up to the next floor, and a puzzled look appears on his face.  The camera pans over to the stairs, and we see William Shatner climbing the stairs.  Then Shatner looks around and sees Nimoy, and he too looks puzzled, as if he should know him but can't quite place him.

Fortunately we have him on film, and it's been many years since I last watched Star Trek.  Perhaps now would be a good time to resurrect some happy memories.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Loren Eiseley: Coyote Country


If you should go, soft-footed and  alert,
Down the long slope of shale
Into a tumbled land of scarp and butte
Beyond the pale
Of the herding men, where water is under stone,
You would be in coyote country.  It is the place
Where tumbleweed is blown
Four ways at once, and your neighbors are not seen
Except as loping shapes
Or tangible dust.
Once, if you're lucky, something may pause and lift
One paw and two grey ears
In a moment's trust
That is gone like wind.

Coyote PhotoThis is the road.  Go down
Over the harsh way.  If you dare, go down
Into the waste, where lonely and apart
The road runs north.  Somewhere here is my heart,
If anywhere, I spy
Nothing at all--and you in turn may try
The thistle and subtle stones,
Or you may go
Southward tonight--be certain you will not know
More of  me than is found
In two poised ears
Or feet gone without sound.
-- Loren Eiseley --
All the Night Wings

I don't know where Loren Eiseley spent most of his time--out in the field or behind a desk or in a classroom--but I think I know where his heart was. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XLI, Second Edition

This quatrain, first appeared in the Second Edition, and remained in all subsequent editions.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XLI

For has not such a Story from of Old
Down Man's successive generations roll'd
   Of such a clod of saturated Earth
Cast by the Maker into Human mould? 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XXXVIII

And has not such a Story from of Old
Down Man's successive generations roll'd
   Of such a clod of saturated Earth
Cast by the Maker into Human mould? 

FitzGerald introduced only one change in the quatrain: he substituted "And" for "For."

This quatrain refers obliquely back to previous quatrains that refer to the Potter and his pots.  The story "from of Old" of course refers to Genesis in which God creates Adam out of clay.  What I find interesting is that humans were, supposedly,  created in the likeness of God while the Poet says that this clod of earth was cast "into Human mould."

I suspect that FitzGerald added this quatrain to make more explicit the identification between God and the Potter and its creations and humanity.  While it seemed fairly clear in the First Edition, it was never stated explicitly, and perhaps FitzGerald felt it needed a clearer exposition for some readers.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Two very, very different films

Snowpiercer, an SF Film

Into Great Silence, a documentary

Several nights ago, I watched two very different films.  One was Snowpiercer, directed by the South Korean director  Bong Joon-ho.  It's a post-catastrophe or post-apocalypse film that reflects current events.

In an attempt to deal with global warning, a chemical is interjected into the upper atmosphere.  It, of course, goes wrong (otherwise there would be no film), and, instead, sends earth off into a planet-wide ice age, killing off everything.  The only survivors are the lucky ones who managed to get aboard a long, powerful, and self-sufficient supertrain created by the mysterious and wealthy Wilford.  Obsessed with trains, Wilford uses his wealth to create a world-wide railway system for his train. 

It's now seventeen years later, and a strict brutal class/caste system has evolved.  The train is a linear depiction of this system, with the train tailenders at the back living in a few overcrowded and rundown cars, on rations barely above the starvation level.   any grumbling is met with a lecture about how ungrateful they are to be allowed to live.  They are at the back end and others at the front because that's the way it is and they should know their place.  This is the natural order of things.   Sound familiar?

As we move forward, the conditions improve until we reach just behind the Eternal Engine where the rich live idle lives with a variety of rich foods, clothing, and drugs, with no concern for the less fortunate at the train's back end. At the front is the Eternal Engine compartment, occupied only by Wilford, who is seen almost as a deity at this point and visited by only a few.

However, yet another revolution by the ungrateful powerless poor is brewing.  Curtis, one of those trapped in the rear of the train, leads the poor and dispossessed through the train which provides numerous fight scenes, violence, and a high body count. 

The number of interesting characters among the rebels and the ruling elite is one of this film's strong points.

One point made by the film perhaps explains the behavior of the very rich and powerful today.  They seem unconcerned about the dangers brought about by global warming at this point, and spend millions of dollars fighting legislation that is designed to reduce the threat if that legislation reduces either their power or their profits.   The film suggests that they believe that, while global warming or any severe climate change may cause problems, they are rich enough and powerful enough to ensure their own comfortable survival. 

Into Great Silence

Fortunately that wasn't the only film I watched that  night and doubly fortunate that I watched Into Great Silence, a documentary about life in a Carthusian monastery, the Grande Chartreuse monestery in the Chartreuse Mountains of France, afterwards.   The non-stop action in Snowpiercer would have kept me awake for a long time.  Into Great Silence was the exact opposite-- almost a silent film, with only one instance of the monks engaging in conversation and that at a permitted time.  The only other examples of the human voice was the chanting during ceremonies and a formulized question-and-answer dialogue when a novice took his temporary vows.  Oh yes, one other bit of talk occurred when the monk, whose job it was to feed the monastery cats, called them for dinner.  He talked a little to them and noted that one was the big boss. 

Philip Groning, the director, had contacted the monastery in 1984, requesting permission to do the documentary.  They responded that they weren't ready yet.  Finally, 16 years later Groning was told they were ready. 

The film is a visual documentary:  there is no narrative voice explaining what is being filmed.  The viewer is forced to guess.  Groning shot the film in natural light so the viewer sees the monastery and its inhabitants going about their daily routine without any artificial lighting.

The monastery does have electricity, but its use seems to be limited to when it is absolutely necessary; for example during night time services, small lights are placed by the music stands so they can see the music.  Clearly it replaces candles.  The Carthusians do not have tonsures, but instead get all of their hair cut off regularly.  (Reminded me of my time in basic training in the USAF)  They use electric hair clippers instead of hand clippers. 

The monks were shown going about their daily lives of prayer, work, meditation, and rituals without commentary.  They never spoke, except for the examples noted above, and seemingly spent most of the day silently and solitary, at least outwardly so. 

The combination of the silence and the beautiful photography both inside the monastery and outside made this an extraordinary film.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Some Great Books Read in 2014

The following are books that I really enjoyed reading during the past year, and, if granted time, there's a good chance I will read them again. 

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time, Movements 1 and 2.
--We start with Nick Jenkins as a school boy just after WWI and follow him and his friends and acquaintances up to just before the outbreak of WWII.  A fascinating look at English life between the two world wars.
--Movements 3 and 4 will probably cover WWII and after.  I've got them and they're just waiting for some free time. 
--Link to post

 Adrian McKinty:  The Cold Cold Ground and I Hear the Sirens in the Streets
--the first two of McKinty's four mysteries set in the Time of the Troubles in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Books 3 and 4 are on my TBR list.  It's 1981, and Sean Duffy is one of the few Roman Catholics in the predominantly Protestant police force in Belfast and is viewed with suspicion by both Catholics and Protestants.  Complex plots and local color set against a background of a city at war with itself in an undeclared civil war make this a must read series.

M John Harrison:  Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space: A Haunting,  the Kefahuchi trilogy
--a space adventure that ranges from the late 20th century to the 25th century.  Strange things happen, and some of them never get explained, especially those involving aliens.
--The three novels  are relatively independent of each other, but I would recommend reading them in the published order.
--Humans in space, in Harrison's trilogy (in fact in most of his novels), encounter aliens that are truly alien, not just humans in Halloween costumes, as are so many in other works involving aliens.  Some are harmless, some helpful, some dangerous (some deliberately and some ??), and many inexplicable.
If you're looking for something different, try this series.

Michael Stanley:  Death of the Mantis and Deadly Harvest.
--Books 3 and 4 of the cases of Detective "Kubu" of the Botswana Police. Good mysteries, good plots, interesting characters, and fascinating lore about the people of Botswana and southern Africa in general.  Waiting now for Book 5.  The novels are independent of each other, so they can be read out of order.  If you can read only one, then choose Death of the Mantis

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House
--the best haunted house novel I have ever read.  
--see post on Oct. 31, 2010, made the first time I read it.  The post also contains some comments about the 1963 film.

Gregory Benford: Anomalies
--a great collection of short stories, covering a wide variety of topics: adventures involving time travel, black holes, cryogenics, high tech warfare, a mix of science and religion, and several cosmological theories.
Link to a number of posts about the stories.

David Brin:  Existence
--Brin's most recent novel.  A new look at the First Contact theme and its possible threats.
--he uses multiple narrators to provide a variety of viewpoints responding to the first contact.
--link to post

Loren Eiseley:  The Night Country
--I joined the Time Reading Program after seeing an ad about the program which featured one paragraph from another of his books.  After reading that one, The Immense Journey, I searched for everything and anything written by him.
--See link to various posts about this work.

Kobo Abe':  The Face of Another
--a man whose face is terribly scarred from an industrial accident creates a lifelike mask, that seems to take on a life of its own when he wears it.
The following link leads to posts about the novel and the film

Franz Werfel:  Star of the Unborn
--little known and mostly ignored SF novel about a man who dies and is resurrected 100.000 years in the future and presented as a wedding gift.
--fascinating picture of future humans and their culture
--stuffy and somewhat pompous narrator adds to the fun.  He reminds me of the narrator in Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus.
--link to posts about the novel

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Russell Hoban: Feb 4, 1925 -- December 13, 2011

"The Slickman A4 Quotation Event takes place on 4th February each year, to commemorate Russell Hoban's birth in 1925. Each year his readers from around the world share their favourite quotations from his books by leaving them in public places, invariably written on yellow A4 paper (the sort he used). Fans also post photos of their quotations on this site, and these are gathered under"  (from the Official  Russell Hoban Web Site)

Since I won't be going anyplace appropriate to drop off a quotation, I decided to leave one here instead.

   "My desk is a clutter of stones written upon and not; seashells, acorns and oak leaves, china mermaids from long-gone aquaria, postcards of medieval carven lions, clockwork frogs and photographs of distant moments.  It's a good desk, there's a lot of action even when I'm not there.  Propped up amongst the stones and clutter are two books open at colour plates of Vermeer's Head of a Young Girl; there are also a postcard of it stuck on the edge of the monitor screen and a large print over the fireplace.  Night and day in all weathers she looks out at me from her hereness and her goneness.  Even the ageing of the painting seems organic to it;  one can see in the reproductions how the reticulation of fine cracks in the paint follows lovingly from light into shadow the curve of her cheek, the softness of her mouth, the glisten of her eyes, the fineness of brow and nose, the delicacy of her chin."

The  quotation is from The Medusa Frequency and purports to be a description of the narrator's desk.  I wonder if the description might also resemble Hoban's own desk. I once saw a photo of his office, and clutter might a close and accurate adjective;  some of the items mentioned seem familiar, as if I had encountered them in one or more of his novels.

If you haven't read anything by Russell Hoban, yet, then I would encourage you to pick one up.  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Harper Lee--Great News

Harper Lee to Publish Sequel to 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

"To Kill a Mockingbird  will not be Harper Lee's only published book after all.  Publisher Harper announced Tuesday that "Go Set a Watchman," a novel the Pulitzer Prize-winning author completed in the 1950s and put aside, will be released July 14. Rediscovered last fall, "Go Set a Watchman" is essentially a sequel to  To Kill a Mockingbird," although it was finished earlier. The 304-page book will be Lee's second, and the first new work in more than 50 years."

Link to complete article:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dostoyevsky: Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Notes from Underground

I found that I had posted several entries about The Notes from Underground in association with other works, but I had never given this work its own posting.  So, I decided (being lazy) to gather together the various comments I had made to see if I could make something coherent about this very complex work.

The first part consists of an extended passage in which the underground man (UM) reveals himself. He is a civil servant who has come into a small inheritance and has retired. He is an outsider with no friends or relatives. He lives in isolation. He sneers at society, but at the same time longs to join them, to be one of them.  It is also a philosophical rant against those who think that human behavior will eventually be completely explainable and predictable by the immutable laws of science.  In addition the narrator contends that there are two types of people:  the doers and the thinkers or the intellectuals.   Everything that is accomplished is done by the doers, because the thinkers are paralyzed when they attempt to handle all the ramifications of acting.

The second part shows our reclusive narrator in action and supports both of the arguments put forth in the first part.  In the second part, the UM forces himself upon some former student acquaintances who are giving a going-away party for one of the students. The UM insists on attending the party, while mocking himself and eventually the others. He desires to be one with them, but actively works to make this impossible.

 The UM also meets a prostitute in the second part; the UM persuades Liza to escape from the life of a prostitute. However, when Liza appears at his apartment several days later, telling him that she wants to escape, he rejects her and sends her away.

This is one of Dostoyevsky's most unusual works.  It was while I was reading it, for the third or fourth time actually, that I began to see some similarities between Dostoyevsky's short novel and Poe's short story, "The Imp of the Perverse." "The Imp of the Perverse" is another of Poe's first person confessions--the individual attempts to explain why he committed his act from a jail cell, with a gallows outside awaiting him.

One of the similarities is the format: both begin with lectures on one or more topics which are of considerable length in comparison to the work which is then followed by an incident that exemplifies the topic(s) discussed in the first part. Poe's lecture is solely on the nature of perverseness in human behavior while Dostoyevsky's contains several themes, only one of which is perverseness.

One of Dostoyevsky's first examples of perverseness is that at times he is sick but doesn't go to the doctor out of spite. Who is he injuring--himself. He knows he should go because he is "only injuring [himself]...My liver is bad, well--- let it get worse." He is knowingly acting against his own best interests. Later he speaks of a "friend" of his:

"When he prepares for any undertaking this gentleman immediately explains to you, elegantly and clearly, exactly how he must act in accordance with the laws of reason and truth. What is more, he will talk to you with excitement and passion of the true normal interests of man; with irony he will upbraid the shortsighted fools who do not understand their own interests, nor the true significance of virtue; and within a quarter of of an hour, without any sudden outside provocation, but simply through something inside him which is stronger than all his interests, he will go off on quite a different tack--that is, act in direct opposition to what he has just been saying about himself, in opposition to the laws of reason, in opposition to his own advantage, in fact in opposition to everything..."

Poe advances a similar argument about perversity: "Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say through its promptings we act, for the reason we should not."  In other words, we act  because we know we shouldn't.

Dostoyevsky here, like Poe, argues that humans will act at times in direct conflict with what they know to be their best interests.

Dostoyevsky postulates an advance in science which might provide accurate prediction of human behavior while Poe points out a combination of phrenology and metaphysics that attempts do the same. Both then attack the possibility of a completely accurate science of predicting human behavior.

Dostoyevsky says, "science itself will teach man that he never really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano key or the stop of an organ, and that there are , besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will not longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms..."

And then, when complete rational harmony and prosperity is established, someone will stand up and say that we should "'kick over the whole show here and scatter rationalism to the winds' ... [and] he would be sure to find followers--such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning; that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated."

Again, we do things simply for the sake of  being perverse or because we know we shouldn't.

A Side Note:

There are some subtle comic comments buried within the text. The UM seems such a humorless person in much of the work, I wonder if he understands what he says here.   

". . . I began to feel an irresistible urge to plunge into society.  To me plunging into society meant paying a visit to my office chief, Anton Antonych Setochkin.  He's the only lasting acquaintance I've made during my lifetime;  I too now marvel at this circumstance.  But even then I would visit him only when my dreams had reached such a degree of happiness that it was absolutely essential for me to embrace people and all humanity at once; for that reason I needed to have at least one person on hand who actually existed.  However, one could only call upon Anton Antonych on Tuesday (his receiving day); consequently, I always had to adjust the urge to embrace all humanity so that it occurred on Tuesday. . . .The host usually sat in his study on a leather couch in front of a table together with some gray-haired guest, a civil servant either from our office or another one.  I never saw more than two or three guests there, and they were always the same ones.  They talked about excise taxes, debates in the Senate, salaries, promotions, His Excellency and how to please him,  and so on and so forth. I had the patience to sit here like a fool next to these people for four hours or so; I listened without daring to say a word to them or even knowing what to talk about.   I sat there in a stupor; several times I broke into a sweat; I felt numbed by paralysis; but it was good and useful.  Upon returning home I would postpone for some time my desire to embrace all humanity."

 Is he being ironic?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Robert Grudin: the mind's blind spot


In the same way that our eyes have blind spots in space, our minds have blind spots in time;  areas of time which we habitually or congenitally ignore.  My own blind spot is the recent past, the events of yesterday or last week.  I experience things quite fully in the present; but then they submerge, not to reappear until they are images on the flat wall of the past.  Why is this so?  Is there something uncomfortable, raw, undigested, embarrassing about the jumble of experience just behind me?  Is it ignored simply because it is too chaotic to make sense?  Look at the past day, the past hour:  their interruptions, frivolities, compromises, false startsWe may well have good reason to overlook the immediate past, for the immediate past holds the uncensored truth of the present.

I have trouble remembering in the evening what I did that morning or afternoon.  This is why I write things down that I want to remember in a small notebook that I carry with me, wherever I go.  I call it my non-volatile memory.  Even this isn't 100% perfect for sometimes I write so hastily that I can't read my writing (too many years in school taking notes).

At other times I don't put enough information down, so when I do finally stumble across the note, I wonder what it means and why I wrote it.  For example, I will come across a note--find and email the name of the author of such-and-such book.  Unfortunately I didn't write down the name of the person I was doing the research for.

I suspect we forget a lot that happens recently because we consider it trivial and don't really focus on it long enough to be retained in memory.   Something happens and then something else happens that pushes it out of our mind, and so it goes, until a significant event occurs, which remains with us long enough to be retained. 

Any thoughts?

Do you have any mental blind spots? 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain XXXVI

This is another quatrain that first appeared in the Second Edition.  FitzGerald then included it in the following three editions.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XXXVI

Earth could not answer: nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
    Nor Heaven, with those eternal Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.

Fifth  Edition:  Quatrain XXXIII

Earth could not answer; nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
    Nor rolling Heaven, with all his Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.

Aside from a punctuation change, the most significant change occurs in the third line.  The addition of "rolling" adds a sense of movement or change to Heaven, while the removal of "eternal" suggests that those "Signs reveal'd" are no longer eternal and may be changed.

To see what Earth, the Seas, and Heaven could not answer, we must go back to Quatrain  XXXIV to discover that in spite of all his efforts, the Poet/Narrator could not unravel "the Master-knot of Human Fate."  In other quatrains, he dismisses those who claim to have the answer.  None who have left us have ever returned to tell us.

One thought that has occurred to me is that the reference to Heaven may be a subtle way of referring to astrology.  The position of the stars and planets do change, and, therefore, the reading given by an astronomical chart on one viewing may be different on another night.  Just what is signified by the Earth and the Seas that mourn escapes me. In addition, just whom the Seas are mourning-- "In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn" -- is also obscure to me.

The main point of this quatrain seems to be that there is no answer to the puzzle of human fate, but this point has already been made in several earlier quatrains. (See Quatrains XXIX, XXX,  and XXXIV)  However, it must serve some purpose for FitzGerald left the quatrain in, with that modification in line three.

I must admit this quatrain is a puzzle. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Hermann Hesse: Demian

Hermann Hesse
trans.  Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck
Bantam Books edition 

In an earlier post, Baltasar Gracian suggested that we can't tell a book by its cover.  After reading Hermann Hesse's Demian,  I wonder if we can tell a book by its title.   While Demian is in the novel, and a significant character, I think the main character is really Emil Sinclair.   In fact, inside the book, the title page reads Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth.  Well, enough quibbling, let's get to the story.

Those who have read several works by Hesse will probably recognize the basic themes of growth, the loneliness of the one who doesn't fit in, and the setbacks and obstacles along the never-ending path to enlightenment.  Beyond the mountain range, the hero of Hesse's works always finds another range to climb.  And, death seems to be the only resting place.  Those familiar with Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi, Siddhartha, and Peter Caminzind among others will recognize this work.

Various stages in Emil Sinclair's growth:

Innocence:  Sinclair's Edenic existence at home as a child

Rude Awakening: Sinclair's first sin

Rescue and the beginning of his journey: Demian and a new way of viewing the biblical story of Cain and Abel

Debauchery and Sin:  Sinclair goes to a boarding school and discovers sin and alcohol

Redemption:  Beatrice  (see Dante)

A new mentor:  Pistorius
The Return:  Demian reappears

Following is what I consider to be the core of the novel. At one point, Sinclair decides:

"I did not exist to write poems, to preach or to paint, neither I nor anyone else.  All of that was incidental.  Each man had only one genuine vocation--to find the way to himself.  He might end up as poet or madman, as prophet or criminal--that was not his affair, ultimately it was of no concern.  His task was to discover his own destiny--not an arbitrary one--and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself.  Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideas of the masses, conformity and fear of one's own inwardness.  The new vision rose up before me, glimpsed a hundred times, possibly even expressed  before but now experienced for the first time by me.  I was an experiment on the part of Nature, a gamble within the unknown, perhaps for a new purpose, perhaps for nothing , and my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine. That or nothing!"

Eastern thought is very strong in this work, as, actually, it is in many, if not most, of Hesse's works.  While I'm far, impossibly far, from being an expert in Eastern thought, I do have one strong objection here.  I see nothing wrong in the struggle for self-enlightenment, but the part that disturbs me is the acceptance of what appears to be one's destiny--"my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine."  In other words, this seems to be saying that if one discovers one's destiny is to be a murderer, then one should accept this and become the best murderer one can be. 

I'm guess I'm too much of a Westerner to accept this.  I do feel that I have responsibility for my actions.   I may have only a limited control over my environment and the things that fate has in store for me, but I do have considerable control over my actions.  Many times I do have choices, choices beyond that of resignation and acquiescence to fate.  Sometimes acceptance may be the best choice, but not always.

And your thoughts?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gregory Benford: the last of the Anomalies

These are the last stories from Greg Benford's latest collection of short stories,  Anomalies.

"Gravity's Whispers"
A CETI Tale:   A scientist with LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory--a real institution sponsored by CalTech and MIT) has detected a gravity wave fluctuation and sent it to a mathematician to see if there's something there.  There is, but it's an artificial pattern, obviously created by someone?  And, there's a problem.  To be able to create a gravitational wave with a signal requires the ability to "sling around neutron stars and make them sing in code." Do we really want to open communication with a race so powerful?

"Ol' Gator"
 Evolution seems to be the focus of this strange little story.  It's a narrative told by a GI in Iraq.  He alternates between what's happening to him during the conflict with Saddam Hussein's troops and  memories of his childhood days in the South.  It was that part of Iraq that had been swampland and then partially drained that brought back those memories, for the crocs in the swamp reminded him of the gators back home and his grandpa's war with the patriarch of the swamp--Ol' Gator. 

At one point in the story the narrator is separated from his unit and finds a very large contingent of Iraqi insurgents headed his way.   However he finds he's not alone, for he has some very unusual companions.  Rather than spoil the fun, I'll just quote Loren Eiseley, the eminent anthropologist and essayist:  "The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back into the water. There are things still coming ashore."  from The Immense Journey

"The Champagne Award"
According to a Note provided by Benford, this is a satiric look at the government and population control.  As the general population seems unwilling or unable to control the birth rate, the government steps in with its own program.  People are issued KidCred cards which gives each person the right to bear a child.  They can use the credit themselves or can transfer it to someone else.  Or they could offer it in a lottery in which they get the proceeds.  That could turn out to be in the millions of dollars, if offered at the right time.  The parents of children born illegally, to those without KidCred or who have used up their KidCred, are fined heavily, and the children receive no social benefits and no education.  There is even some talk about prison sentences for those who bear children without KidCred.

Inter-dimensional travel.  As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, one common theme in SF is the time travel story in which there is an attempt to go back in time to prevent some great evil or catastrophe: assassinating Hitler is a favorite among writers. This story doesn't involve time travel but a different method of preventing some evil.

Set some time in the future, Warren has become rich and uses his wealth to bring his dream to fruition.  He has hated serial killers since he first learned of them as a teenager.  It's too late to do something about those in the world in the dimension in which he resides, so he decides to do something about those in worlds in other dimensions, especially those so "close" that there's only a very small difference between them and his world.

He has the people who work for him research these other worlds for those who appear to be the counterparts of serial killers in his world.  He decides to kill them, and to kill them before they've started killing.  In other words, Warren has decided on a pre-emptive strike, since these people have not yet harmed anyone.  There's a problem though, something Warren did not take into account, but he eventually encounters it.

The moral question one might consider is Warren's justification for killing these people: they haven't harmed anyone at the point he is to kill them.  Is this justifiable? 

"Doing Lennon"
This is another cryonics tale. It was written in 1975, some five years before John Lennon was killed in 1980.  Henry Fielding has chosen "the long sleep" before he really needed it.  When he awakes in the 22nd century, he claims to be John Lennon and that he was "fleeing political persecution."  This is why he used the alias.

In his real life, Henry Fielding had been a broker who had done quite well financially, along with surreptitiously dipping into several accounts belonging to others.  He was a devoted follower of the Beatles, collecting records, memorabilia, and gossip about them, as well as memorizing the lyrics to all of their songs.  On his vacations, he haunted Liverpool, picking up the local colour and accents and visiting places important to the Beatles legend. Now he was going to put all that knowledge to work. 

Things go well for a while for him in the future: his singing and guitar playing are accepted by all.  Then things get complicated.  First, he is told that the corpsicle of Paul McCartney has been discovered, and everybody is breathlessly awaiting their reunion.  Then, he discovers Henry Fielding the Real.  Who then is he?

Brief comments by Gregory Benford about each of the stories.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Baltasar Gracian: Appearances

No. 130

Do, and exhibit your doing.  Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem: to have worth, and to know how to show it, is to be worth double; that which is not made apparent is as though it were not, for even justice is not venerated, unless it carry the face of justice; those who are fooled, outnumber those who are not: for it is sham that rules, and things are judged by what they look, even though most things are far different from what they appear; a good exterior is the best recommendation of the excellence of the interior.

-- Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom
trans. Martin Fischer

You can't tell a book by its cover.
Appearances can be deceiving.
All that glitters is not gold.

I suspect there are more of these aphorisms of conventional wisdom that warn us that things may not be what they seem to be.

What is frightening though is that even a good action has to take on the appearance of being good because most people are fooled by appearances--for it is sham that rules.  Therefore it's safe to commit bad acts as long as one can give it a good appearance, for that will fool most people.

We can see this today: many politicians insist they are patriots and that those who disagree with them aren't real Muricans! Real Muricans are those who are exactly like them.  Then they pass the most outrageous laws and shout that they are doing this to protect all Americans, to keep America on the one TRUE path, which only they are privy to.  They insist they are protecting the Constitution and yet, state courts and the Federal Supreme Court regularly declare their laws unconstitutional. In spite of this, voters don't see the truth and  obviously are convinced by that flag they wrap around themselves which covers the nastiness inside. 

External appearances appear to be more important than the internal reality.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year Haiku

I'm stealing this idea from Stephen Penz, over at First Known When Lost.  I hope you don't mind, Stephen.   As Stephen pointed out, there are various ways of taking haiku, so here's a few more to play with.

On jolly New Year's Day
     My last year's bills drop in
          To pay their compliments
                       -- Anon --

A cheerful way to begin the New Year.  My credit card bills won't arrive for another week, so they are a bit more considerate.

Such a fine first dream.  .  .
   But they laughed at me.  .  . they said
             I had made it up
                                     -- Takuchi --

First dream of the year.  .  .
I kept it a dark secret.  .  .
       Smiling to myself
                -- Sho-u --

A sad first dream:  compassion?
A good first dream: congratulations?
A fine first dream:  envy?

Still .  .  . I guess this year too
     Will prove only so-so.
                      -- Issa --

Pessimistic?  Or, fear of offending the gods with high expectations.  Can't remember which one, but I read that in one culture, it is dangerous to talk about how well things are going because the gods are always listening.    I think there's one brand of Christianity, one of whose main tenets is that we are not down here to be happy.

Still, with all that in mind, I do wish you all


Note from Wikipedia entry:
"Traditionally, the contents of the dream would foretell the luck of the dreamer in the ensuing year. In Japan, the night of December 31 was often passed without sleeping, thus the hatsuyume was often the dream seen the night of January 1. This explains why January 2 (the day after the night of the "first dream") is known as Hatsuyume in the traditional Japanese calendar."
" . Since 1873, the Japanese New Year has been celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, on January 1 of each year, New Year's Day."

 The haiku come from A Little Treasury of Haiku,  trans. by Peter Beilenson.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Gregory Benford: Still more from Anomalies

More stories from Gregory Benford's latest short story collection: Anomalies

Comes the Evolution"

The characters talk, endlessly, about "revolution," but the title of the story refers to evolution, a gradual change that takes place, when one species slowly becomes another.  Note the names of the characters: Lenin, Trotsky, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Emma Goldman.  She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

They see themselves as revolutionaries, but their plans show them to be something quite different.  Eventually they all come together to rejuvenate the Cause, but their plans, however, have evolved into 21st century versions whose new focus is not on changing governments but upon finding a safe haven where they can create a utopia.



Another of Benford's short stories that plays with the theme of religion and science.  An amateur astronomer has discovered that the moon is a few minutes ahead of schedule.  It's still in its proper orbit, but it appears to have somehow been transported to an advanced position.  This is impossible, of course.  Later it is discovered that several stars are also not in their proper position and appeared to have suddenly moved within an hour of the time the moon had jumped ahead.  This also was impossible.

One of the characters theorizes that the universe is a computer program and the sudden movements were the result of a bug in the program.  This, of course, brings up the question of the identity of the programmer.  Also, computer programs are normally debugged, here on earth anyway.  Will this program be debugged?  What effect will this possible bug have on earth and how will the debugging take place?  Will it also affect earth?  Eventually a new field of study emerges: one that is a combination of science, philosophy, and religion--the field of Empirical Theology. 


"Caveat Time Traveler"

This is a short story about time travel and some facts about human nature.  The title says it all:  Let Time Travelers Beware.  Human nature doesn't change.


"Lazarus Rising"
This is a tale of cryonics.  Carlos Forenza is 87 years old.  He has come in for his medical checkup.  If they find something that can't be cured or is extremely expensive to cure, they would put him into cryonic sleep and let the future decide when it was ready to deal with his problem.  They wouldn't even wake him to inform him of the situation.  But, something has gone wrong for he is awake, with his senses disconnected.  Clearly he has returned to consciousness before the process of putting him into cold sleep has been codmpleted.  Now, he has to regain control of his body and let them know that something had gone wrong.


"Isaac From The Outside"
This is a poem that brings in a number of  SF writers, one of whom, obviously, is Isaac Asimov.  The theme is simple:  one shouldn't make assumptions about a person from that person's writings.   The poem points out some inconsistencies between what these SF authors write about and how they live their own lives.

One topic covered is cryonics, about which many of these authors have written in various short stories and novels.  But, the poem goes one to ask the following: how many actually went beyond treating cryonics simply as a story element and looked into it as something they might actually consider for themselves? 

The next question should be the reader's question.  I've always considered cryonics simply as a story element.  But today there are companies in existence that will perform this service.  What about you?  Are you interested?

Hmmmm.  .  . I wonder how much it costs.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thomas Hardy: "A Nightmare, And The Next Thing

A Nightmare, And The Next Thing

On this decline of  Christmas Day
The empty street is fogg4ed and blurred:
The house-fronts all seem backwise turned
As if the outer world were spurned:
Voices and songs within are heard,
Whence red rays gleam when fires are stirred,
Upon this nightmare Christmas Day.

The lamps, just lit, begin to outloom
Like dandelion-globes in the gloom;
The stonework, shop-signs, doors, look bald:
Curious crude details seem installed,
And show themselves in their degrees
As they were personalities
Never discerned when the street was bustling
With vehicles, and farmers hustling.
Three clammy casuals wend their way
To the Union House.  I hear one say:
"Jimmy, this is a treat!  Hay-hay!"

Six laughing mouths, six rows of teeth,
Six  radiant pairs of eyes, beneath
Six yellow hats, looking out at the back
Of a waggonette on its slowed-down track
Up the steep street to some gay dance,
Suddenly interrupt my glance.

They do not see a gray nightmare
Astride the day, or anywhere.

-- Thomas Hardy --
from The Works of Thomas Hardy

Strange juxtaposition here--Christmas and a nightmare.  But, the nightmare seems to be that of someone who is alone.  With no one about, the familiar houses and buildings now suddenly seem strange.  There is no nightmare inside the houses where voices and songs are heard.  The three "casuals," on their way to a free meal are joyful as are the six in the waggonette heading for a dance.  The nightmare seems to be the exclusive property of one who is alone.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wallace Stevens: The Snow Man

             The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the juniper shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-- Wallace Stevens --
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

One must be a part of nature--"One must have a mind of winter"-- to be able to look upon the winter scene and not invest it with human feelings--"and not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind."   This is the pathetic fallacy, investing nature with human emotions, and it appears frequently in literature and in poetry and in common speech--the sullen cloudy sky, the raging storm, and the cheerful little breeze.

And, any who can avoid the pathetic fallacy "beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."  In other words, this person sees only what is there and adds nothing to it.

I think this is what Emerson was saying in his essay, "Nature"  --.  .  .  nature is not always tricked  in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs is overspread with melancholy to-day.  Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.  To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire has sadness in it.  Then there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend.  The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population.

I think it is a reciprocal relationship in that we are influenced by what is about us and what we perceive is influenced by our feelings and thoughts at that moment.  Perhaps only a snow man can avoid the pathetic fallacy, "one with a mind of winter," one who is "nothing himself."   

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain XXVIII

Second Edition: Quatrain XXVIII

Another Voice, when I am sleeping, cries,
"The Flower should open with the Morning skies."
     And a retreating Whisper, as I awake--
"The Flower that once has blown forever dies."

This quatrain is yet another one that FitzGerald added to the Second Edition but then was dropped from the Third Edition.  What is also interesting is that the last line--"The Flower that once has blown forever dies"-- appears in the First Edition in Quatrain XXVI, but with three very different lines:

First Edition:  Quatrain XXVI

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
    One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

As you can see, the two quatrains have nothing in common, except for the last line.

The opening line refers to "Another Voice."  This refers us back to the previous quatrain in the second edition, Quatrain XXVII, in which a "Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries,/'Fools! your Reward is neither  Here nor There,'";  the Here and the There refers to those who work for present and future rewards.  What seems confusing is the relationship between the two Voices and also the statements by the voices  in Quatrain XXVIII. Are they the same voice, one that "cries" when he is asleep and then again "whispers" when he awakes?

              Another Voice, when I am sleeping, cries,
              "The Flower should open with the Morning skies."
                   And a retreating Whisper, as I awake--
              "The Flower that once has blown forever dies."

If he is asleep, then how does he know what this other Voice says?  Quatrain XXIX offers no help here, for it is almost identical to XXV in the First Edition in which this quatrain does not appear.
One point the quatrain seems to make is that, for flowers anyway, there is no reincarnation.  It blossoms and dies and does not return. 

This quatrain seems to have been just inserted, and it is, perhaps, for this reason that FitzGerald dropped it in later editions.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Eric Hoffer: The Passionate State of Mind

No. 10

"The dislocation involved in switching from one passion to another--even its very opposite--is less than one wold expect.  There is a basic similarity in the make-up of all passionate minds.  The sinner who turns saint undergoes no more dramatic transformation than the lecher who turns miser."

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind

Essentially it seems that people who are passionate about something are much the same, be it sports,  politics, religion, music, wine, or anything you can think of.   It's only the object that is significantly different, not the emotion or intensity, for they are quite similar.  Is a fight between the supporters of two athletic teams any different really than a fight between supporters of two political philosophies or two religions?

Or at least that's what it seems to me he's saying.