Sunday, May 31, 2009

"A Noiseless Patient Spider" by Walt Whitman, My nomination for The Official Internet Poem

Since Walt Whitman was born on this day in 1819, I thought it only appropriate to suggest that his poem, "A Noiseless Patient Spider," be named the Official Internet Poem. I think that if you read it, you will see why it is the poem for the inhabitants of cyberspace. Can there be another poem that expresses what so many of us do on the Internet?

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A NOISELESS patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to
connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

- Walt Whitman -

Comments, anyone?

Any other nominations?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Kurosawa's _Yojimbo_ and Dashiell Hammett's _The Red Harvest_

This commentary is the result of not following one of the most elementary rules for discussing books or films or art or any of a variety of subjects. That rule is that one should always go to the primary source whenever possible--the primary source being the item under discussion. I didn't, and so here's another commentary.

Some time ago, I briefly discussed some of the sources for Akira Kurosawa's films. One of the films was Yojimbo, the story of a lone samurai who comes to a small town, which is slowly being destroyed as two gangs struggle to determine which one will control the town. He decides to help the townspeople and adopts the strategy of "let's you and him fight." He will work to provoke the two gangs into open warfare. Then, the "winner" would be so weakened by the struggle that it too can then be destroyed.

I had come across several comments indicating that the source for this film was Dashiell Hammett's The Red Harvest, a novel about a detective who comes into a town in which two rival gangs of bootleggers were fighting for control of the distribution of alcohol. This was during Prohibition. The detective then employs the strategy mentioned above to solve the problem.

Without having read Hammett's novel, I accepted this interpretation. Recently, while poking through my stack of unread books, I discovered that I had a volume which contained Hammett's five novels, including Red Harvest (RH). So, I immediately dusted it off and read it, curious to see what similarities I can find between it and Yojimbo (Y). My conclusion? Well, judge for yourself. What do you think?

I could find only two similarities between the two works: the main character is a stranger who has just arrived in the town that is the battleground for criminal elements struggling for control, and he decides his best strategy would be to provoke the combatants into open warfare--"let's you and him fight"--in other words.

These two similarities, frankly, are not very convincing because I don't see them as being so unique that Kurosawa could only have gotten them from RH. Kurosawa was known to have to be a fan of US westerns and even borrowed elements from them--in one of his films, he had the enemy army suddenly appear on the top of a long ridge, first one, then several others, then by tens and twenties, all posed against the skyline--how many westerns include that same shot?--Clearly this is something he borrowed from the western. I won't bother to guess the number of westerns that begin with a lone rider coming into town from the wilderness.

Moreover, the strategy of provoking one's enemies into fighting among themselves is not unique to Hammett either. It goes back, I suspect, thousands of years. In fact, Tolkien employs it in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The two stories are, aside from the two points just mentioned, completely different. Sanjuro, Kurosawa's samurai, is a ronin, an unattached samurai who is looking for a job. Hammett's unnamed operative is employed by the Continental Detective Agency. He has been sent here by the Agency to work with its client, the editor of a local newspaper who is engaged in publishing a series of articles on corruption in the city. However, the editor is shot to death before they have a chance to meet. The operative then contacts the editor's father who employs him to clean up the town and identify his son's killer(s) as well.

To me anyway, this is considerably different than Kurosawa's story, in which a lone samurai wanders accidentally into town and discovers the gang warfare going on and decides to do something about it. Moreover, Kurosawa's plot is comparatively straightforward: we get almost no back story about the history of the conflict, or at least none that I can remember. It's a given that the two gangs are simply struggling to eliminate each other.

Hammett, on the other hand, provides an ironic history to the conflict. The editor's father had controlled the town, the mayor, the council, a few representatives, and the governor. The IWW, the International Workers of the World, had attempted to unionize one of his companies. The father brought in a bunch of goons and told them to do whatever was necessary to break the strike. The strike was broken, but the goons refused to leave town. There were no local organized crime groups/gangs in town, and the police department was handicapped by a corrupt police chief and a number of corrupt police officers--this is gang heaven, in other words. The father wasn't strong enough to remove the gangs by himself, so he hired the Continental Op to clean up the town after his son was killed.

The editor's son had been out of town for a number of years and had just returned to take control of his father's newspaper. He hadn't been in town long enough to discover his father's role in the town's problems.

Instead of two gangs, the Op discovered there were actually three criminal gangs, while the police chief and part of the dept. made a fourth group. He then goes to work to disturb the already uneasy and shaky truce that existed among them. After the Continental Op initiates his campaign, the four groups coalesce into two groups. The winning coalition, no doubt, would then split and try to eliminate each other.

I can find no similarities between the two, other than the main character being a stranger in town and working with the various gangs in order to provoke open warfare between them. The main character's plan in RH doesn't go awry, as it does in Yojimbo, with the result that Sanjuro is captured and badly beaten by one of the gangs. The Continental Op maintains his freedom throughout the novel. Moreover, the Continental Op is able to contact his Agency and several operatives are sent to assist him, so that he is no longer working alone at the end. Sanjuro, aside from one of the townspeople who helps him after he escapes from his captors, essentially works alone.

Could RH be a significant source for Yojimbo? It seems clear to me that this is not a situation in which Kurosawa adapted Hammett's novel for film. The differences are too many and too significant. One might think about a possible influence on the film, if one limits the significant elements to the two discussed above. But, the two elements are not unique to Hammett, and the basic plot element--the stranger who comes into town and decides to help the decent folk fight the criminal element--is actually found in numerous westerns. Could Shane or any of numerous westerns also be considered a significant source?

Without other supporting information, comments by Kurosawa himself, for example, I can't say now that Red Harvest is a significant source for Yojimbo.

Any thoughts?

Overall Rating: read the story and watch the film. Both are excellent, regardless of any linkage, or lack thereof.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dostoyevsky and Poe: Perversity

One of Dostoyevsky's most unusual works is Notes From The Underground. It was the selection for a book discussion group on Yahoo--19th Century Literature-- if I'm not mistaken. 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 format: both begin with lectures on one or more topics which are of considerable length in comparison to the work and then follow this with 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, one of which is perverseness.

The following is a quote from Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse."
He is speaking of perverseness when he says, "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, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not." In plain English, he states that we sometimes do things simply because we know that we shouldn't.

In Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, we find a similar theme. One of Dostoyevsky's first examples 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..."

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."

Poe's narrator attacks this tendency to develop laws of behavior by pointing out several examples of when he and others went against their own best interests, both by acting and by delaying to act until it was too late.

Poe's story was published in 1845 while Dostoyevsky's came out in 1864. I don't know if Dostoyevsky had ever read Poe, so I can't say he was influenced by Poe.

What I also find intriguing about them is that both authors wrote "double" stories, in which the main character discovers there is someone else who looks just like him, who even has the same name, but who acts in a way that is completely the opposite. In addition, for some inexplicable reason, no one else notices the resemblance. This forces the reader to consider the possibility that the "double" is not a real person but an hallucination.

Dostoyevsky's story is titled "The Double," while Poe's double story is "William Wilson." I wonder if there is some relationship between these two themes--perverseness within the individual on the one hand and the doppelganger on the other.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain IX

1st Edition: Quatrain IX

But come with old Khayyam, and leave the Lot
Of Kaikobad and Kaikhosru forgot:
Let Rustum lay about him as he will,
Or Hatim Tai cry Supper--heed them not.

2nd Edition: Quatrain X

Well, let it take them! What have we to do
With Kaikobad the Great, or Kaikhosru?
Let Rustum cry "To Battle!" as he likes,
Or Hatim Tai "To Supper"--heed not you.

5th Edition: Quatrain X

Well, let it take them! What have we to do
With Kaikobad the Great, or Kaikhosru?
Let Zal and Rustum bluster as they will,
Or Hatim call to Supper--heed not you.

FitzGerald changed not only the wording, but also the tone and the underlying sense of this quatrain. In the first edition, he poses an invitation--

"But come with old Khayyam, and leave the Lot"

We should go with old Khayyam and forget the past that he referred to in the previous quatrain. It is gone, and we shouldn't concern ourselves with the transitory glories of the past. The present should be our concern.

The second and fifth editions also tell us to forget the past, but the invitation to join Khayyam is gone.

"Well, let it take them! What have we to do"

Instead, there's disdain or dismissal here--let the past do what it wishes with the glories of the past--"let it take them," for it is of no concern to us. And, the reference to Rustum also changes: the first version's tone is the heroic stance of hand-to-hand combat, which changes to a war cry in the 2nd edition and finally declines to "bluster" in the fifth edition, which is quite derogatory when one considers the tone of the first version.

What's also interesting about the first version is that Khayyam issues an invitation to go with him, but he does not say where. Up to this point, the quatrains have been relatively independent, even though there is some carryover of theme and reference from one to another. This quatrain, to me anyway, doesn't seem to stand alone; something is missing--an invitation to go where?

My thinking is that, particularly in the first edition, Quatrains IX, X, and XI really are one unit and should be read together. Q IX poses an invitation to go somewhere with old Khayyam, Q X tells us Khayyam's destination, and Q XI explains what we will do when we arrive there.

In the second and fifth editions, the link between X and XI is not nearly as strong as is the link between Qs IX and X in the first edition. However, the link between the second and third quatrains in this group are equally strong in all three versions.

My preference is once again for the first edition as it seems to flow much more smoothly from the first to the fourth line of the quatrain. Khayyam invites us to go with him and forget the past in the first--a sense of "do this" and "not do this"-- while the later two versions suggest irritation and dismissal only--"Well, let it take them..." In addition, the first version leaves me unsatisfied with an unanswered question about where Khayyam wishes to go. This pulls me to the next quatrain, hoping the question will be answered. The second and fifth versions suggest a dead end--forget one's concern with the past without hinting at something better to replace it.

It's too bad we can't find out why FitzGerald made these changes; it would be interesting to read about the changes in his thinking that produced the revisions.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gene Wolfe: May 7, 1931---

Gene Wolfe, fortunately for us, is still writing. I consider him one of the best writers working today--sometimes in SF, sometimes in Fantasy, and frequently in that blurry zone that overlaps SF, Fantasy, and everyday reality.

Following is the introductory paragraph to what many, and that includes me also, consider his best work and one of the best SF series ever written. It should be considered in any discussion that includes Asimov's "Foundation'' series and Greg Benford's "Galactic Center' series. The quote is from The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume in "The Book of the New Sun."

"Chapter 1
Resurrection and Death"

"It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer's apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned."

So begins a series with one of the most unusual heroes in SF, and one who works in one of the most unpleasant occupations one can think of. Severian is a member of "the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence." In other words, he belongs to a quasi-religious order whose members are the government's torturers and executioners.

The story takes place on an Earth that is so far in the future that the Sun is beginning to age. The planet is old and tired, a dying earth. Strange beasts and sentient beings that are obviously alien have been on the planet for so long that they are considered native to the planet.

Severian has committed a serious infraction of the Order's rules, so he is sent off to fulfill the position of a traveling torturer and executioner in far distant lands; he is in exile. It is a bizarre landscape that he travels in his wanderings that eventually will lead him back to the Citadel of the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. Unaware of his future, he does not know that part of his quest will be to find a way to restore the sun's power--"The Book of the New Sun."

One suggestion I have for those who are interested would be to read Jessie Weston's short work on the Fisher King in the search for the Holy Grail in the Arthurian romances. The title of her work is From Ritual to Romance, and while it no longer is considered of interest to scholars, it makes fascinating reading for the rest of us as it provides us with insight into Wolfe's hero as he searches for his own Holy Grail.

The official listing of titles in "The Book of the New Sun" includes the following:

The Shadow of the Torturer
The Claw of the Conciliator
The Sword of the Lictor
The Citadel of the Autarch

There is a fifth novel, The Urth of the New Sun, which takes place after the events of "The Book of the New Sun." A sixth book, The Castle of the Otter, contains essays by Wolfe, a vocabulary for the series, and other bits of information and background to the series. For those curious about the title, Wolfe explains that Locus, the SF newspaper, reported that the title of the 4th volume was The Castle of the Otter, an obvious misreading or mishearing? of the true title, The Citadel of the Autarch. Wolfe says that he liked the title so much that he decided to give the name to this work.

This is only a brief glance at one of Gene Wolfe's tales. He has at least four more series and a number of novels, as well as numerous short story collections. For a more extensive look at Gene Wolfe and his work, I have provided a link to a fan site devoted to him and his works.

Overall Comment: one of the most innovative and interesting writers publishing today.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Greg Benford: Great Sky River, Galactic Center 3

Great Sky River is the third book in Benford's Galactic Center series. The first two novels, see earlier posts on In The Ocean Of Night and Across The Sea Of Suns, took place in the years between 1999 and 2064. Nigel Walmsley played a leading role in both works, and events on Earth were highly significant, although in the second work, it had to share the focus with events on the exploratory asteroid ship.

This work is set on the planet Snowglade, location unknown except that it appears to be in orbit around a star and a black hole. Just when this takes place is not clear either, except for a brief mention that the original settlers of the planet traveled some 70, 000 years to reach this planet, and that was long ago. Earth is not even mentioned in this work, so all we know is that a nuclear war had taken place and we can only guess at what has happened since then. Were the original settlers refugees from a destroyed Earth? Or, perhaps from colonies that had been settled by humans? Moreover, several large structures are in orbit about the planet--they are called Chandeliers. Were they of human or of mech origin. Tradition says human, but if so, when were they constructed--by the original settlers? by a later group?

The humans who had initially settled this planet were technologically developed far beyond the humans of the first two books, but their descendants had lost most of it, and what little they retained was a mystery.

After having co-existed with the mechs, each ignoring the other for the most part, the humans were almost eliminated by a surprise attack by the mechs. Humans, up to a decade or so, lived in various citadels, and Killeen Bishop, the main character in this work, is now on the run with perhaps 250 other survivors of the devastating sneak attack on their citadel. Their situation is so desperate that they have shut down their sex drive and reproductive cycle because on the run, a pregnant woman is a liability and her survival chances are minimal, if not non-existent. The problem is that in each encounter with various mechs, the humans manage to destroy the mech, but usually at the cost of one or two of their own. Killeen's group, the Bishops, are slowly dwindling. They don't even know if any humans in other citadels had survived the mech attack.
It is clear that the humans are slowly losing the battle with the mech civilization.

They have come close to becoming cyborgs, as they rely on electronically enhanced senses and mechanically enhanced physical abilities. The electronic senses allow them to detect the mechs at a distance, but it also allows the mechs to use electronic measures to attack them.

Generally, most mechs were of low intelligence and were primarily workers with limited skills. They ignored humans unless humans got in their way and treated them at that point as they would any natural obstacle--go around them. More intelligent mechs, called Marauders by the humans, also ignored the humans unless its became aware of them At that point, it would attempt to destroy them.

But, recently, something new has appeared, or something that had been only the subject of rumor and considered myth by most--the Mantis. The Mantis was supposed to be designed to be a hunter, and its prey?--humans. The humans could now occasionally detect a mech of some sort following them, something that hadn't happened before. There were several encounters with it in which the humans thought they had destroyed it, but shortly afterwards, something showed up again, on their trail. Killeen began to wonder about this for it seemed as though it was herding them somewhere, as the humans would move away from it rather than risk an attack.

His suspicions increased as the Bishops encountered another group for the first time since they had been on the run. And, at the moment of the encounter, when both groups in their joy at meeting another group of surviving humans relaxed their vigilance, the mech attacked again. Eventually it was destroyed, or so they thought, but the humans lost more than 38 irreplaceable lives. And, in the distance, they could see worker mechs picking up the various parts of the mantis and carrying it off, perhaps to be reassembled again, and once again on their trail.

But, Benford has not simply created a tale of warfare between the good humans and the bad mechs. Both humans and mechs are far more complex and complicated in their actions and even their loyalties. When mechs wear out or suffer a serious malfunction, they are ordered back to a mech center to be dissembled and its parts stockpiled for other mechs. Some however rebel and turn renegade (Rennies). They exist by preying on other mechs and also by stealing parts and equipment from mech centers. Some even make deals with humans. And, the Mantis, as Killeen learns, a highly intelligent mech, is not just a hunter of humans, but an artist, or at least an artist as mechs understand the term.

Along with the humans and the mechs, Benford introduces a third entity, an entity that can use the magnetic storms that enclose the planet to communicate. It apparently lives partially in and partially outside the event horizon of the black hole. I wonder what Stephen Hawking would make of this. It seems to want to help the humans and informs them of a space ship that was buried in the vicinity. How it knew of this is unknown.

And Nigel Walmsley of the first two volumes? We left him and his fellow human crew members of the asteroid ship in control, maybe, of a mech ship. He doesn't appear in this volume, but during their wanderings, Killeen and his group came across an ancient human structure, one which the Mantis knew something about. It said that the humans had called it the Taj Mahal, and that the leader of the humans who had built the structure had put his initials on the structure: NW. If this is a replica of the Taj Mahal, or something that serves the same purpose as the Taj Mahal, then whose wife is buried here? Nigel outlived Alexandria, his first wife. Has he also outlived Nikka, his second?

Overall Rating: an excellent novel with fast-paced action and a host of ideas sufficient for three or four novels. It would be fascinating just to read a story about the Mantis.