Friday, February 20, 2009

Greg Benford: In the Ocean of Night, Galactic Center Book I

I've just begun rereading Greg Benford's "Galactic Center" series, which I consider to be one of the best SF series ever written. Unfortunately, I find I'm pretty much alone in this as I've never heard anyone speak of the series or even of one of the books in it.

The first one in the series is In the Ocean of Night, which begins in 1999, with a classic threat to Earth--a threatened encounter with Icarus, an asteroid whose orbit approached Earth's but never posed a threat until it began emitting a plume of gas and dust, thus turning it into a cometary object and gaining considerable interest among solar system astronomers. Not only was it transformed, but its trajectory was affected and put it on a collision course with Earth. Something was going to have to be done about it, and soon.

The novel actually consists of three separate encounters within some twenty years--the abandoned asteroid ship, an AI probe that passes through the solar system gathering information about the system and life forms, and a crashed spaceship on the moon, but these are not three completely separate incidents, for several reasons.

One reason and the most obvious reason is that the Nigel Walmsley is the significant character in all three encounters. Nigel is a rather unique character; for example, he's British, and he somehow convinced NASA to accept him as an astronaut. Moreover, when Icarus' threat is discovered, he somehow ends up being chosen to approach and plant the h-bomb which is expected to destroy it. However, once there, Nigel discovers that the asteroid/comet isn't what it seems to be. It is a small rocky body that has been turned into a spaceship, one that is at least several hundred thousand years old. It is at this point that Nigel, on the scene, and Houston, back on Earth, began to differ about what to do next.

Nigel is always one to make his own decisions, regardless of what Houston Control decides. So, he's frequently on the black list at NASA, but, rather than quit as many would do, he sticks around and slowly and quietly and unobtrusively works his way back into significant positions. So, when the next encounter occurs, he's there on the spot
causing more problems for those who disagree with him, but only in a non-confrontational way, if possible (while his former enemies in the bureaucracy have long since moved up and out). What his supervisors find most irritating about Nigel is that he tends to be right, more often than not, or at least more often right than they are.

Nigel's personal life is also intriguing. He's married or at least partnered with Alexandria. Then there's Shirley, who makes up the third of the trio; she's decided that her role in the threesome is to protect Alexandria from Nigel--they make up an interesting menage-a-trois. (Correct my French, if necessary.)

Another subplot involves a religious group, the New Sons. They have gained sufficient political power that they can control or direct scientific research on the basis of their religious beliefs-- obviously a fantasy as such things could not happen here.

Almost forgot another subplot: one of Nigel's friends has a close encounter with several hairy? shaggy? furry? bipeds in Northern California.

The other reason the three incidents are closely related is not so obvious at first because the full importance of the three encounters is not fully realized on Earth until the second book, Across the Sea of Suns, which takes place some three or four decades later. At the end of In the Ocean...,
Nigel and some of his friends suspect there's a connection of some sort, but they don't have sufficient information to draw a connection.

This delayed revelation of the threat reminds me of E. E. (Doc) Smith's fabulous Lensmen series in which each novel initially gave the reader a slightly better idea of the threat looming in the background. After the series was initially published, Smith then produced the first novel which provided the necessary background, so subsequent readers all knew from the beginning who the real villains were.

In the Ocean of Night is an independent work, though, and according to the inside cover it is the first in a trilogy, which was probably Benford's thinking at that time. However, we all know what frequently happens to two or three book series. This trilogy turned into a sextet.

It's going to be a great trip.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Combination Plate 3: Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities, and A Matter of Justice by Charles Todd

Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a book discussion group selection. I had always wanted to read this novel but never got around to it. Therefore, when a book group that I belong to selected it, I was pleased. My "one of these days" list is much too long, and this would help shorten it, a bit, anyway.

Wilder doesn't squander any time in getting to the subject. The novel begins "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below. This bridge was on the highroad between Lima and Cuzco and hundreds of persons passed over it every day."

One of the witnesses was Brother Juniper who happened to be approaching the bridge as it broke.

"Anyone else would have said to himself with secret joy: 'Within ten minutes myself...!' But it was another thought that visited Brother Juniper: 'Why did this happen to those five?' If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident or we live by plan and die by plan. And on that one instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off."

The remainder of the novel tells of Brother Juniper's efforts to learn about the five victims and to see if any possible reason could be found for their deaths at that moment and place. I think this is one of the perennial problems or questions that have bothered and bewildered humans since they developed the facility for asking questions. Is there a plan or is it chance that dictates our future?

Does Wilder answer the question? I think he does since he is the one who created the lives of the five victims. If you do decide to read it, let me know if you agree that Wilder answered the question and what you think the answer is.

Overall Rating: Recommended.


Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, a book discussion group selection. I doubt there's any need to briefly bring up the plot as I suspect most are familiar with it, even if they haven't read it. It's one of Dickens' most serious novels as one doesn't find the numerous caricatures of secondary characters that enliven Dickens' novels, or at least enliven the ones I've read.

I have gained the impression over the years that most people read this in high school for the first time. In fact, the only other novel that is mentioned as frequently as being on an high school reading list is Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. I wonder if that's still true today.

This novel is unique in that it's the only one I know of that has one of the most famous and most often quoted and misquoted beginnings and endings in all of western literature. They are like bookends, as one of the discussion group members said. The novel begins with:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..."

But, most often, when it is quoted, the ending is left off or ignored, which gives it a slightly different slant:

" short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

In other words, it is just like today.

The ending is equally well-known: the narrator tells us that this would have been Sydney Carton's final thought as he awaits the guillotine:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

The one character that stands out the most for me is Madame Defarge. In Greek mythology we find the three fates: Clotho, who spins the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle; Lachesis, who measures the thread of life allotted to each person; and Atropos, who chose the mode and time of a person's death. Madame Defarge, always knitting, is a symbol of all three, but most strongly I see her as Atropos, the one who decides how and when.

Overall Rating: Recommended, especially if you want to read something by Dickens and don't have much free time. It's one of his shorter novels.


Charles Todd: A Matter of Justice, a mystery series featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard. The series is set just after the end of World War I. This novel begins on May 1920. This is the eleventh in the series by Todd, who is/are? in reality a mother-and-son writing team who live on the east coast of the US.

What makes this series stand out from others is the presence of Hamish MacLeod. Rutledge served in the British army during WWI, and his corporal was Hamish MacLeod. Rutledge was wounded in action, and in the hospital he discovered that he could hear the voice of Hamish, not saying things he remembered from the past but commenting on what was currently going on--which was impossible since MacLeod died during the war. Readers can choose to accept Hamish as a spirit/ghost occupying Rutledge's mind or see him as Rutledge's way of punishing himself for MacLeod's death. Hamish doesn't think much of Rutledge's abilities as a police officer and often offers his own interpretation of the clues and regularly delivers his own opinions about the various suspects.

A Matter of Justice is a somewhat convoluted novel in which the reader knows more from the beginning about the crime than Rutledge does for about four-fifths of the novel. The interest here is whether Rutledge, with Hamish's help (or hindrance?), will be able to overcome the hostility of the local police officer and get to the root of the crime, which actually extends back before WWI, to another war which the British might well want to forget about, the Boer War.

Overall Rating: recommended for those who enjoy police procedurals, the time and setting just after WWI in England, and a touch of the supernatural, perhaps.


Charlaine Harris: Dead Until Dark, a book discussion group selection. SGRVM says it all--Southern Gothic Romantic Vampire Mystery.

This is the novel that is the basis for the HBO series, True Blood. The heroine is a telepathic waitress named Sookie Stackhouse, who falls in love with a vampire named Bill. Her boss at the diner is Mel, who, unbeknownst to her, is a shape changer. And, then there's a serial killer running around who always drives a wooden stake into the heart of his/her victims.

Overall Rating: great book for a discussion group--excellent for comedy relief from more serious works.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain V

First Edition: Quatrain V

Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose,
And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;
But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows.

Second Edition: Quatrain V

Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose,
And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;
But still a Ruby gushes from the Vine,
And many a Garden by the Water blows.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain V

Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose
And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;
But still a Ruby kindles in the Vine,
And many a Garden by the Water blows.

This quatrain focuses on the brevity of human endeavors--the glories of the past have gone and are almost forgotten. Iram and Jamshyd are no more. Iram, a fabulously wealthy city, has disappeared, and Jamshyd, once the most powerful king in the world, is no more. His cup, the source of immortality and power, is lost. In comparison, the natural world goes on as it always has.

The three versions do differ to some extent, but the main focus is still the same--the transience of human power and glory.

FIRST LINE: The first edition refers to "with all its Rose." This is changed in all subsequent editions to "with all his Rose."

Why the change from the neuter pronoun to the masculine escapes me.


"And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;"

No change through all five editions.

1st Edition: But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
2nd Edition: But still a Ruby gushes from the Vine,
3rd Edition: But still a Ruby kindles in the Vine.

The focus has shifted from the Vine in the first edition to the Ruby in later versions. The meaning of Ruby undergoes some subtle shifts over the various editions. In the first version, the Vine yields the Ruby, which suggests the Vine must give it up. This could suggest that the Ruby could be the grape itself, or perhaps wine.

The second version refers to the Ruby as it gushes from the Vine. The Ruby is now the active element, and it "gushes," suggesting the Vine is a pipeline only. That it "gushes" implies, to me anyway, that FitzGerald is referring to a liquid, which would be the wine, as liquids would be more likely to be seen as gushing than solid objects would be.

The final version is intriguing. The Ruby no longer is yielded by the Vine or gushes from the Vine, but it "kindles in the Vine." "Kindles" can be either active or passive. It can either cause something to break into flame or glow or it can arouse or inspire something, or, on the other hand, it can itself break into flame or glow or become aroused or inspired.

The grape can be seen as something that glows because of its reddish color or even something aflame set against the green of the vine. On the other hand, wine can be seen as glowing or aflame and also that which can inflame or arouse or inspire others.

Rather than decide between them, I shall take the cowardly way out and say that FitzGerald meant to suggest both.


1st Edition: And still a Garden by the Water blows.
2nd Edition: And many a Garden by the Water blows.
3rd Edition: And many a Garden by the Water blows.

There's clear comparison made in the first version. The past human glories are gone, but "still a garden" blooms. The second version becomes the final version also. It weakens the comparison by removing the word "still" and sort of trails off with "And many a Garden..." To say that there are many of them seems to reduce them to the level of the common and ordinary. Perhaps that was what FitzGerald had in mind, that the singular glories of human endeavors are survived by nature's ordinary and commonplace activities--a grapevine or a garden in bloom.


The following is abstracted and paraphrased from Wikipedia entries on Iram and Jamshyd.

Iram was a trading center in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. It seems to have existed from 3000 B.C. to the first century A. D. It was a very wealthy city, gaining its riches from trade between the coastal regions and population centers of the Middle-East and Europe. It was later abandoned and eventually felt to be only a myth. However, recent archeological excavations have now shown it to be a real place.

Jamshyd, according to various ancient accounts, was the fourth king of the world. He had command over all the angels and demons of the world and had become the greatest monarch the world had ever known. He was also said to have had a magical seven-ring cup, Jam-e Jam which was filled with the elixir of immortality and allowed his to observe the universe. But Jamshid's pride grew with his power, and he began to forget that all the blessings of his reign were due to God. He boasted to his people that all of the good things they had came from him alone, and demanded that he should be accorded divine honors, as if he were the Creator. That, of course, was his downfall. He lost the favor of the Creator and his power diminished and his kingdom vanished into obscurity over time.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

In the Beginning...

In a recent post I said that a novel written by Thomas H. Cook, Breakheart Hill, had a first line that reminded me of the first line of a favorite novel of mine, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. Ford began his novel with "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," while Cross started with "This is the darkest story that I ever heard."

Several days later, I turned to the first page of another novel and found awaiting me the following: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." Of course, Dickens' Tale of Two Cities is a unique novel in that it is the only one that I am aware of that not only has one of the most famous opening sentences in literature, but also one of the most famous endings in literature: it is Sidney Carton's soliloquy that ends the novel: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

This set me off thinking about well-known beginnings; just hearing them brings back memories of the works involved. I suspect many of them would be recognized even by people who had never read the texts.

Part of the popularity of these openings is the relationship to the novel. For example, Ford's narrator, Dowell, and Cook's narrator, Ben, tell us that this story is one that they heard. It's as if they also are readers, and not participants as we would expect. What's intriguing about this is the puzzle creates for the reader--just why do Dowell and Ben tell us this is a story they heard?

Another well-known opening, perhaps, some might argue, the most famous in English literature, is "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." I suspect this is more "universally acknowledged" among mothers of marriageable young ladies than it is among single men with good fortunes. And, in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, we see how this works out, with three marriages taking place between the covers of the book. A careful reading will show that actually only one of the single men involved was in want of a wife, and he was the one without a fortune. Perhaps Bingley and Darcy didn't know they were wanting a wife, in the beginning anyway.

Melville's Moby Dick is longer than any of the novels I've mentioned so far, so it is only fitting that it has one of the shortest opening sentences: "Call me Ishmael!" He's being bit evasive here as he says to call him Ishmael, not that his name is Ishmael. In the Bible, Ishmael is the son of Abraham and his wife's servant Hagar. Abraham disowned him and drove both Ishmael and Hagar out into the wilderness when his wife, Sarah, gave birth to Issac. Ishmael now has the meaning of a exile or outcast. Who is Melville's Ishmael?

A opening to a work that I suspect is the most widely read and recognized would be from Genesis--

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light."

Along with being one of the most widely-known opening lines, it is no doubt one of the most influential opening lines.

Novels aren't alone in producing memorable opening statements. Beethoven's opening to his Fifth Symphony is recognized by many who have never heard the entire symphony. And, I wouldn't be surprised if hundreds of people could identify and finish the following opening to a TV show that ran more than forty years ago: "Space. The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the ..." George Lucas was also well aware of the importance of the opening statement when he began the "Star Wars" series, not with an opening action scene, but with a text message that slowly scrolled its way from the bottom to the top of the screen: "A long time ago in a galaxy far away..." That evoked memories of an opening statement that is almost a cliche: "Once upon a time...," surely the most common opening, in English anyway, for a fantasy tale.

I have a few personal favorites too:

"Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though.
He won't see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow."


"Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that put the stars to flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light."

How about you?

Any favorite openers?

Or, ones that I've forgotten?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Franz Kafka: A Hunger Artist

I have read Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" a number of times and have had difficulties in the past trying to make sense of it. However, just as I was falling asleep shortly after reading it, this idea slowly emerged. Try it on and let me know what you think.

The story is about a man who makes his living by fasting for 40 days at a time. He is on display in a cage surrounded by an audience who come to watch him. The impresario attempts to have people in the area observe him 24 hours a day and who will swear he hasn't had anything to eat. The story depicts his eventual decline as an attraction that can draw an audience.

Several critics have suggested the story is about art, whether it be literature or painting or sculpture or music. Building on that concept, I should point out that the title is, after all, "A Hunger Artist." The initial article "A" suggests that this person is not unique, but one of several, if not many.

One of the characteristics of art that I hold to is that art to be art must communicate with others. If there is no audience, there is no art. It may be a painting or a musical composition, a poem or a work of fiction, but it isn't art, not without an audience. Note that at the beginning of the story, our artist has an audience--people who come to see him, study him, and even question him. He has an audience who are interested in him.

One point that is important but gets buried is that there are limits--40 days for the performance. If it goes over 40 days, he loses his audience. Similarly, if a poet or painter or composer goes beyond certain limits then that artist loses the audience--consider the case of modern painting, poetry, literature, and music. They have lost their audience and now, for the most part, appeal mostly to specialists and experts.
It also happens that artists who realize that they are losing their audience sometimes go to extremes to the extent that they eventually lose or chase away whatever audience is left. At one point, our hunger artist goes beyond the 40 day limit and becomes so weak he cannot even sit and be seen anymore. All forget him, and he is lost.

Another point is that of fashion. Trends in the arts appear and go out of fashion. The same happened to the hunger artist. His day was over, and he was relegated to a circus, just one among many other attractions. He no longer is a headliner, able to draw an audience on his own. I am reminded of a museum where various artistic attractions are gathered so that an audience can come and browse among the many formerly powerful and influential trends, but now are just one among equals.

Something similar happens in the field of classical music. Artistic directors for orchestras are aware that if they scheduled a program of all modern music, Schoenberg or Cage, for example, they would see a much reduced audience. So, they sandwich a piece by Cage or Schoenberg in between two more traditional pieces which will bring in an audience. I heard a interview with one director who said that he always placed the modern work either first or second, because if he placed it last, after the break, he would lose a large portion of the audience. In the circus, our hunger artist is now placed in such a way that people had to pass by him to get to the wild animal cages.

The panther is the new fashion, and it is interesting to note that it is the opposite of the hunger artist. It is active and alive, and we read that the audience enjoys watching it eat. The panther is the opposite of the hunger artist; frequently, when one trend or fashion dies out, it is replaced by its opposite.

A Hunger Artist: Historical Context

One brief note--apparently Kafka did not create the hunger artist. There supposedly were such exhibitions in Europe during the early 20th century.
Breon Mitchell, in "Kafka and the Hunger Artists," tells of "a world famous hunger artist whose coverage in local newspapers may have inspired Kafka's story. Mitchell point out that 'almost every detail' of Kafka's story corresponds to 'the actual profession of fasting for pay." This is an excerpt from the article at

Unfortunately it costs $8.00 to see the complete article.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Combination Plate 2

Daniel Keyes: "Flowers for Algernon"

I just finished rereading Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon." It's s a fascinating depiction of an individual whose intellectual capacity increases from subnormal to supernormal, but who still essentially remains the same person.

He is still the kind, decent person he was prior to his newly found ability to understand the world about him. He also realizes that, in spite of his initial intellectual impairment, he had those attributes which make one human to a greater degree than did those who may have had greater intellectual capacity but who lacked the human capacity for compassion and empathy and concern for others.

This is a remarkable accomplishment for a genre that tends to downplay character and focus on science or technology. Unlike others I have read that go back a half century or so, "Flowers
for Algernon" is as good now as it was then. Perhaps it is that human element that allows it to survive over time.

I haven't read the novel version which came some five or six years later, or the film, Charley, which came out about ten years after the short story was published. After having read the original story, I'm now curious about the expanded version and the film. To be honest, I have generally found that the expanded versions or films of prize-winning novellas or short stories are seldom as good.

But, there are always exceptions.


Edith Wharton: The Glimpses of the Moon, a novel
The novel opens with very familiar characters--two young people who are bright, handsome, intelligent, well-liked but poor. They are of socially prominent families that have seen better days. Neither can afford to live much longer in the class in which they were born, and neither wants to abandon those friends and acquaintances. Nick Lansing tries to make a living as a writer, while Susy Branch lives off her friends.

Nick and Susy aren't lovers, though they are best of friends. In spite of this, they come up with a rather unique
solution--marry, combine their economic resources, and live for the day. They decide that they could probably survive for about a year, and perhaps longer, depending upon the generosity of their friends. And their friends do come through for them, allowing them to stay with them, and even opening up a home for a honeymoon in Italy that they have shut down while they lived in their US residence.

There is one more precondition: if either one of them finds a better opportunity--in other words, a suitor with money--then the other would quickly grant a divorce.

It is at this point that the novel turns absolutely, completely, wholly predictable. I'm not going to reveal the ending, save to say that all you have to do is imagine the most commonplace, ordinary, traditional plot and resolution for a romantic comedy and you have it.

The story, as are all of Wharton's works, is well-written with her usual sharp eye for the foibles and excesses of the upper classes. The characters are interesting, aside from Nick and Susy, who seem to be the typical young couple trapped in a romantic comedy--the interest is not in them, but in their situation. Nick and Susy, to be honest, seem rather bland and unremarkable, while their friends and acquaintances are far more interesting.

Overall: it's definitely not a typical Wharton work. Except for the rather banal plot, I would give it high marks for everything else.


Samuel R. Delany: Babel-17, a novel

This is early Delany, and, therefore, Delany at his best--back when he was more interested in writing to entertain than writing to insure his place in literary history.

Earth and its allies are at war with The Invaders. Just who the Invaders are is never really made clear. There are some hints that the Invaders are humans who have gone off and colonized another part of the galaxy and then have returned with malice in their hearts.

The two sides are evenly matched until the Invaders come up with an unbreakable code, or at least a code the Earth Alliance code breakers are unable to decrypt. One of the codebreakers suggests that the only person who could help decode Babel-17 is Rydra Wong, a former codebreaker who left to become a poet. She had an intuitive sense for words and patterns of words that no one else had.

The story, then, is of her quest to understand Babel-17 before it is too late. Along the way the reader will encounter individuals who have decided that they weren't happy with their appearance, so they add beaks, or claws, or inches, or bony spurs for fighting, or even wings. The body sculpters are very good at this time. Today's plastic surgeons are at the same level in comparison to the practicioners of that day as removing a splinter would be to open heart surgery today. In addition, part of her ship's crew are discorporate individuals--the dead, in other words.

Delany serves up an interesting mileu along with an interesting cast of characters and even a bit of space warfare along the way, in addition to some interesting thoughts about language and poetry.

Overall: many steps above the usual space adventure novel. If you are looking for some action and some ideas to contemplate, this is one for you.