Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Combination Plate 11

Pamela Dean
The Dubious Hills
A fantasy novel

This is a fantasy novel, one that really is based on fantasy and one that has an original idea, something that doesn't happen too often. It is not just another medieval romance with men in tin suits hewing away at each other in the name of the Emperor, King, Duke, Prince, Baron, or whatever, defending the realm against the invading armies of another Emperor, King, Duke, or whatever. Nor is it another Tolkien ripoff with various simple folk setting off on yet another quest for the magic sword, chalice, shield, or cummerbund in order to forestall the Necromancer or Dark Lord's attempt to rule or destroy the universe.

In fact, the country where this story takes place has been at peace for many centuries. Long ago, wizards, tiring of the constant warfare, cast a spell on the country which effectively makes the inhabitants completely dependent upon each other for survival. The people cannot learn from mundane experience the way we do. However, each has one type of inborn knowledge that few, if any others, possess. For example, one person was given the ability to know whether something is beautiful or ugly. Those who wish to know whether an object is beautiful or ugly, must bring it to this person. Another possesses geographical knowledge. Those who wish to know where someplace is located must visit this person.
One unsettling aspect of conversation among these people is their practice of attributing statements that do not fit in with their particular knowledge to the one whom they heard it from.

All skills which we take for granted are parcelled out among the people. One person knows how to fix things, including people who have something wrong with them. However, his abilities are natural, not magical. He fixes a broken bone with a splint or a rude cast, along with, perhaps, some healing herbs. Only a few people know how to grow food, and they are limited as what they can grow. For example, to prepare a meal, one must go to the person who grows vegetables, to another who bakes bread, to a sheepherder for meat, to a dairy farmer for milk, or to a brewer or vintner for beer or wine.

One of the most unusual skills belongs to Arry, who is a Physici. She alone can sense pain, not only in herself but in others also. No one else in the village can feel pain. If they cut themselves, they will notice that they are bleeding, but they feel nothing. They will come to Arry to ask if this is a problem. Arry then will send for the fixer, to take care of the wound. Curiously, Arry has problems at times with distinguishing between physical pain and psychological pain in others. They seem to same to her.

In this way, each is dependent upon the others for survival. If one doesn't share one's own expertise, then others are unlike to share theirs, which would include food, various forms of knowledge, and even a diagnosis and cure for physical ailments. They have paid a price for peace, and this price is the focus of the novel.

Halver is the teacher and in some sense the villain of the work. On a trip outside the country he was bitten by a werewolf, which of course means that he too is a werewolf. What is more important is that the spell cast many centuries ago no longer affects him now. He can learn from daily experience and other sources just as we do. He has decided that the spell was an obstacle to becoming a complete human being and is determined to spread his new-found abilities to others, whether they wish it or not.

This, then, is the conflict. Do people have the right to force others to follow their ways--even if in good faith--for their own good? Is what Halver is doing, or attempting to do, any different from what the wizards did centuries ago? Both Halver and the wizards are acting for the people's "own good." Does that justify their actions?

Arry and her brother and sister take it upon themselves to fight Halver. In their battle, they learn the same lesson that Tolkien brought out in his tales: in every battle against evil, something is lost, regardless of who wins the battle. Even those completely innocent are changed in some way by this conflict. Part of the cost of evil is the loss of innocence. And, one can't go back.

Overall rating: very good. Recommended for those looking for something different in fantasy.


Ivy Compton-Burnett
A House and Its Head
A novel

I had heard her name mentioned occasionally in grad school, but she was never on the reading lists of any of the courses I had taken. Consequently, I didn't get around to reading anything by her until this past year. So far, I've read two of her novels: Pastors and Masters and A House and Its Head. They are unlike any other novel I've ever read, and what little I've read about her suggests that all her novels are very similar in style. There are nineteen of them, beginning in 1925 with Pastors and Masters.

Some comments from an entry about her on Wikipedia:

"Of Pastors and Masters, the New Statesman wrote: "It is astonishing, amazing. It is like nothing else in the world. It is a work of genius."

In her essay collection L'Ère du soupçon (1956), an early manifesto for the French nouveau roman, Nathalie Sarraute hails Compton-Burnett as an "one of the greatest novelists England has ever had".

And today, as far as I can tell, she has been largely forgotten, at least among those I'm familiar with.

Two characteristics of her works are
probably responsible for her early acceptance, and perhaps the later disregard of her works. First, her novels are at least 95% dialogue, with minimal description of either the characters or the setting. Second, the tone of the dialogue is invariably acerbic, biting, sarcastic, and nasty, and always with an air of supercilious politeness.

She uses dialogue to allow the characters to reveal themselves. Here is a sample of a relatively benign (for her anyway) conversation that begins A House and Its Head. The dialogue is between Duncan and Ellen Edgeworth, the head of the house and his wife. It is Christmas morning.

"So the children are not down yet?' said Ellen Edgeworth.
Her husband gave her a glance, and turned his eyes towards the window.
'So the children are not down yet?' she said on a note of question.
Mr Edgeworth put his finger down his collar, and settled his neck.
'So you are down first, Duncan?' said his wife, as though putting her observation in a more acceptable form.
Duncan returned his hand to his collar with a frown."

(what follows is a brief description--two short paragraphs--of Duncan and Ellen and the setting.)

'So you are down first of all, Duncan,' said Ellen, employing a note of propitiation, as if it would serve its purpose.
Her husband implied by lifting his shoulders that he could hardly deny it.
'The children are late, are they not?' said Ellen, to whom speech clearly ranked above silence.
Duncan indicated by the same movement that his attitude was the same.
'I think there are more presents than usual. Oh, I wish they would all come down.'
'Why do you wish it?'
'Well, it is not a day when we want them to be late, is it?'
'Do we want them to be late on any day? Oh, of course, it is Christmas Day. I saw the things on the table."

Conversation in Compton-Burnett's works is actually open warfare, with characters attempting to dominate others, to retaliate for real or imagined insults, or to establish their freedom from a verbal tyrant. Many of her novels begin as this one does--at the breakfast table where the struggle for survival begins at the earliest possible moment. It is quite appropriate that Duncan, still at breakfast, takes a book from his nephew and throws it in the fire. It is "a scientific work, inimical to the faith of the day." While the title is never revealed, it could be Darwin's Origin of Species, which ironically would be most useful in describing the behavior of the characters in Compton-Burnett's novels.

In the sample conversation above, Duncan barely acknowledges his wife's existence at first. She is forced to revise her question several times and is almost reduced to begging for a response before he condescends to answer. He clearly dominates her, barely deigning to notice her until he is ready. Duncan doesn't have it completely his way though, for when Nance and Sibyl, his daughters, and Grant, his nephew and heir apparent, finally appear, we see several differing ways of dealing with Duncan--submission, defiance, and a subtle challenge to his dominance.

A House and Its Head is not just filled with talk though, for embedded within its pages are adultery, abuse, extortion, and murder. As the English novelist
Angus Wilson remarks: "No writer did more to illuminate the springs of human cruelty, suffering, and bravery."

I will read more by her, but I must admit I will wait until later in 2010. It's strong stuff.

Overall rating: Read at least one of her novels. It's a experience.


Jo Nesbo
The Devil's Star
Mystery: police procedural
A Detective Harry Hole mystery
Oslo, Norway

This is the second novel I've read in Nesbo's series featuring Detective Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Department. My first encounter was his highly acclaimed Redbreast (see August 2007, Combination Plate 7). This novel also follows the pattern I noticed in Redbreast: Nesbo uses the first part of the novel to leisurely provide background for the second part, which then becomes a tension-filled and taut race to identify and capture the killer before there are more deaths.

In Redbreast, Nesbo spends considerable time depicting the Norwegian soldiers who fought with Germany against the Russians, and this provides the backdrop for the deaths which occurred decades later.

In The Devil's Star, the focus of the first part is on Detective Harry Hole himself. He is on a downward spiral, headed for termination from the police department because of alcoholism, absenteeism, and general insubordination. All this takes place during a series of murders which suggests a serial killer is loose in Oslo. Moreover, he is assigned to work with his old enemy, Tom Waaler, whom he considers responsible for the murder of his partner (see Redbreast) but has been unable so far to prove it.

Hole's superior is on vacation but will return in three weeks, at which time he will, no doubt, sign Hole's termination notice, which is now sitting on his desk. At this point, Hole decides to go out in a blaze of glory and solve the case. He sobers up and goes to work. Once the alcoholic fumes diminish, he takes another look at the series of killings. They follow the classic serial killer pattern: murders in which the victims are presumably unrelated to each other, similar MO in all cases, lack of usual motivating factors of revenge, hate, greed, sex. However, something is wrong, and Hole alone senses it, but he's unable to figure it out, yet. This, then, is the story of the second half of the novel.

Overall Rating: recommended--Nesbo can write action-oriented stuff with the best of them, once he gets the backdrop out of the way.


Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Last Rituals
Mystery: talented amateur
A Thora Gudmundsdottir mystery
Reykjavik, Iceland

This is the first in a series of novels featuring Thora Gudmundsdottir, an attorney in private practice. A young German student at the university has been murdered, his body mutilated, and strange symbols carved on his chest. The police quickly make an arrest, but the victim's family isn't satisfied that the police have the right man. They hire Thora to investigate and also include a partner for her, Matthew Reich, who is in charge of security for the family-owned bank. Thora's not happy with the situation, but she, a single mother of two, does need the work.

The symbols soon are identified as being associated with witchcraft, and the victim's intense interest in Iceland's own history of witchcraft, torture, execution, and witch hunts provides the setting for this tale. Also adding to the fun are ancient books, missing? or stolen? letters, and perhaps a revival of Satanic worship.

Overall Rating: recommended. This is the first mystery I've read that is set in Iceland. Yrsa is a skilled writer: she is the award-winning author of a number of children's novels. She is on my list of authors for further reading.


Plan 9 from Outer Space
An SF film

To refer to Plan 9 from Outer Space simply as an SF film really doesn't do justice to this work. Perhaps I should add that this is one of the most famous SF films ever produced. Some consider it the No. 1 cult film of all time. Others have called it the worst film ever made, regardless of genre. One critic said that it is so bad that it is sublime. It is the "two-time winner of the Golden Turkey Award for Worst Film and Worst Director of all time." Surely, these are accolades not to be despised.

I hadn't seen it in a number of years, but I did remember its laughable dialogue ("Idiot Earthmen. . .Stupid, stupid, stupid. . .") , its unbelievably incomprehensible plot, and its disjointed continuity for there were scenes that just seemed to be dropped in from nowhere with characters wandering around aimlessly.

This version, however, is restored and remastered and provides some surprises. First, the continuity is much tighter and consistent than I remember, leading me to wonder if the problems were really caused by poor and incomplete copies of the film. Unfortunately, the remastering did not improve the dialogue and the acting skills of a considerable part of the cast.

The director is Ed Wood, whose directing career is so unique that a film was made of his life. The most famous member of the cast is Bela Lugosi. Others are Vampira, sometimes hostess of late night horror shows or creature features, and Tor Johnson, frequently cast as a monster, a torturer, a brutal guard, and any number of unpleasant characters. And, of course, one can't forget the inexplicably wobbly flying saucers.

The Special Features section corrects several myths that have grown up around the film. In one case the truth is stranger than the myth. One myth is that Bela Lugosi died during the making of the film. This is not true. One day Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi went out with a camera. Wood then had Lugosi act out several scenes. Wood had nothing in mind at that time. Shortly afterwards, Lugosi died. Wood then decided to make a film which would incorporate those scenes, thus Plan 9 from Outer Space. In the film, the scenes that supposedly show Lugosi with his face covered by his cloak were shot after Lugosi's death, and his part is played by Wood's chiropractor, not Wood's dentist as is frequently claimed.

Another myth is that Ed Wood was a cross-dresser and directed his films in women's garb. This is not true and probably stems from another of Wood's films--Glen or Glenda? Wood was a cross-dresser and played that role in that film. Therefore, there were times when Wood was dressed as a woman while directing a scene. This apparently was the only time Wood directed in women's clothing and it was required by the situation, not Wood's preference.

The plot? Oh yes, I forgot. Well, aliens in flying saucers have been unsuccessfully trying to contact governments on Earth. They fear humans will develop the ultimate weapon and destroy the entire universe. The aliens then decide to resurrect the dead in countries all over the world and march them to the various capitols in order to get the governments' attention. This is Plan 9 we are told. Unfortunately we never find out what the first eight plans were.

Overall Rating: highly recommended for those who enjoy watching extremely bad films and best viewed in the company of other like-minded individuals.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Winter Solstice: December 21, 2009

While this poem was dated by Hardy, on December 31, 1900, I think it serves equally well for a poem set on the Winter's Solstice, the shortest day of the year, when Night has achieved its greatest victory over Day and it seems as though the days of the sun and warmth shall never return.

Yet, as the Taoists tell us, when any particular condition (day/night, wet/dry, cold/hot) has gained its greatest extent, its eventual defeat is embedded within that victory. For while December 21, 2009, may be the shortest day of the year, December 22 shows us that all is not lost, for we are now moving towards the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
…..When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
…..The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
…..Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
…..Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
…..The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
…..The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
…..Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
…..Seemed fervorless as I.

At once a voice arose among
…..The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
…..Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small
…..In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
…..Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
…..Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
…..Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
…..His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
…..And I was unaware.

-- Thomas Hardy --

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ford Madox Ford: December 17, 1873--June 26, 1939

As I've mentioned before, Ford's The Good Soldier is one of my top ten favorite novels. I find it absorbing each time I read it, for something new always emerges. It's been awhile since I last read it, and I believe I'm due for another read. I wonder what I'll discover this time.

I really enjoy the way Ford slowly introduces information throughout the novel, very quietly and so unobtrusively that I keep missing it. This is one work that must be read slowly and alertly. Something is always going on.

One example from my last reread is the f
irst sentence of the novel: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."

This is the fourth? fifth? time that I have read this novel, and up to now I have always focused on the words "the saddest story" as being the most important. Now, I'm not so sure. The last word in the sentence, "heard," seems also to be very significant, if not even more so.

"Heard" suggests to me that this is not something that Dowell has been a part of, but a story that someone told him and now he is going to tell us what he heard. Yet, immediately afterwards, he tells us that it is the story of him, his wife Florence, and their English friends, the Ashburnhams. In fact he tells us that they had known these people with "extreme intimacy." This would seem to contradict the implication of his opening statement--that this is something he heard rather than personally experienced. Why does he say "heard" rather than "lived through" or "experienced"?

I think this poses the basic question of the novel: What kind of relationship did Dowell really have with the Ashburnhams?

Dowell is probably one of the most unique narrators I've ever encountered. He is at the same time both a reliable and an unreliable, or really a naive narrator, and this is what creates the tension in the story. The novel is a flashback in which Dowell tells us not only what he thought his life was like, but also what it really was. In doing this he poses the problem: Is what was once thought true, now no longer true?

Looking back on the past ten years, he cries out: "No, by God it is false! It wasn't a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison--a prison full of screaming hysterics, tied down so that they might not outsound the rolling of our carriage wheels as we went along the shaded avenues of the Taunus Wald.

And yet, I swear by the sacred name of my creator that it was true. It was true sunshine; the true music; the true plash of the fountains from the mouths of stone dolphins. For, if for me we were four people with the same tastes, with the same desires, acting--or no not acting--sitting here and there unanimously, isn't that the truth? If for nine years I possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core and discover its rottenness only in nine years and six months less four days, isn't it true to say that for nine years I possessed a goodly apple?"

Can one change the past?

It's definitely time to dust off The Good Soldier and move it into my queue.

Monday, December 14, 2009

IKIRU: a film by Kurosawa (1952)

Ikiru (to live) may not be the first foreign film I ever saw, but it's certainly the first one I remember seeing. I watched it over 40 years ago in a small movie theatre on the far north side of Chicago and now have viewed it twice since retiring several years ago. It was also several decades later that I discovered that it was directed by Kurosawa. Ikiru is just one of those films that I rent again and again. I'm now thinking about getting my own copy for my very small DVD collection. Christmas is coming....hmmm. Perhaps a subtle or not so subtle hint?

Watanabe learns that he has stomach cancer and might have six months to live. The shock of his impending death forces him to take a long clear look at himself. His son and daughter-in-law, who live with him, see him as someone to be used. They have decided to get their own apartment and have no qualms about asking Watanabe to deplete his retirement annuity to finance it. At work, his greatest accomplishment is having worked for almost 30 years without a taking single day of sick leave. That doesn't say much about his presence in an organization for three decades if the best one can say is that he was there every day.

Watanabe looks back and decides he hasn't lived and is going to make up for it now. He samples the night life of Tokyo and discovers this is not for him. He then tries to recapture his youth by associating with a young woman who had worked in his section, for he sees that she has youth and life. Perhaps she may influence him. This doesn't work either.

His third idea is to do something that would make a difference, one that would say he really had existed. It was then that he decided that he could make a difference--not by trying to become what he wasn't but by becoming what he was to the fullest extent possible. He was a public servant, but he had never really served the public. He had been a time-server, one who spent his days, like so many of his colleagues, doing his best to avoid doing anything but the minimum required to keep his position.

He remembered a problem brought to his section by a neighborhood group. There was an empty lot that was being used as a trash dump. It was unhealthy and dangerous for the children who played there for they had nowhere else to go. All that the people wanted was to have the place cleaned up and kept safe for the children. They had been getting the usual runaround--it was a problem for the parks dept--see engineering--see the health dept--see their local city council representative. Watanabe now decides to do something about it.

Warning: I will bring up important plot elements and the endings for both the film and Tolstoy's novella.

The second part of the film takes us forward to shortly after Watanabe's death. It takes place at the memorial for Watanabe, at which we see the deputy mayor, various members of the city government, the employees in Watanabe's section, and his son and daughter-in-law. We learn that, in spite of all opposition and with no help from any others, Watanabe not only succeeded in getting the empty lot cleaned up but also in having it turned into a park with playground equipment for the children.

The park has been so successful and popular with the people that everybody is now busy scurrying about, claiming credit for it, and dismissing Watanabe's own role. At the opening ceremony for the park, Watanabe had sat in the back row of the section for city employees and wasn't even mentioned by any of the speakers. All, including the deputy mayor, have forgotten their own initial rejection of Watanabe's plans and now insist that only the parks dept., the engineering dept., the health dept., or the deputy mayor's office could have been responsible for the park.

Kurosawa, in a stroke of genius, then brings in the people of the neighborhood, and their honest grief and respect for Watanabe provides the great possible contrast between them and the hypocrisy of the self-serving city officials and politicians. When I first watched the film, I focused, of course, on Watanabe and his struggles and accomplishments. It was only while watching it several days ago that I realized that Kurosawa had also strongly and effectively indicted the wastefulness and the indifference of the city government employees and officials.

Kurosawa had commented in an interview that Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilych" was the inspiration for the film. "Inspiration" is probably the best term for it certainly is not an attempt to transfer Tolstoy's novella to film. There are similarities: both Ivan Ilych and Watanabe Kanji are government employees--Ilych in the Russian judicial system and Watanabe in city government in Japan. Both learn that they have a short time to live, even though both are lied to by their physicians. Moreover, both are perceived by their respective families as obstacles to their families' happiness. And, both are forced to face the truth about themselves: they have wasted their lives in trivialities and the deadening routine of work.

However, there is a most significant difference between the two, one that may reflect differences between the East and the West.

Ilych's struggles after he realizes that he is dying are singular and solitary. He must accept that his life has not been a good life. His salvation comes at the end when he finally admits to himself that his life has essentially been a failure. Once he accepts this, he is able to die at peace with himself. His insight is singular, known only to himself, and affects no one else. On the other hand, Watanabe's salvation comes through helping others, by standing up for the people and getting the park built. His salvation benefits not only him but also the neighborhood residents and their children.

Does this difference suggest the more individualistic aspect of Western society and the group oriented Eastern society?

I'm not certain about this, for I sometimes wonder if Kurosawa had been "inspired" by two of Tolstoy's works--"The Death of Ivan Ilych" and Resurrection.

If one puts together the two stories, one then gets a much closer approximation of Ikiru. In Resurrection, Nekhlyudov, a nobleman, decides to help a woman whom he had, years ago, seduced and abandoned. She is in prison awaiting transportation to Siberia. He visits her, and, while there, is asked for help by another prisoner. He agrees and visits various government agencies where he is shocked to learn of the cruelty and indifference of the officials. On each subsequent visit to the prison, another prisoner asks for help, and much of the novel is spent following Nekhlyudov as he visits various government officials and discovers the extent of corruption and cruelty and indifference that exists. This is similar to the way Kurosawa portrays Watanabe as he goes from office to office and encounters, and therefore exposes, the same attitudes among various city officials.

I wonder if Kurosawa combined the death sentence and struggle for salvation found in Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych" and the attempt to right a wrong which results in exposing the indifference and corruption of high officials in various governmental agencies in Tolstoy's novel, Resurrection.

One last comment about the film: the most striking scene in the film is Watanabe, sitting on a swing in the park, with the snow falling about him, quietly singing his favorite song. While one character said that it was terrible that he should die there alone like that, freezing in the snow, it seems obvious that Watanabe himself chose this death, with his monument about him.

Overall Rating: One of the best.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XIX

From the roses and hyacinths of the last quatrain, we move to another and more prosaic plant, or so it would seem, in Quatrain XIX--grass.

First Edition: Quatrain XIX

And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Second Edition: Quatrain XXV

And this delightful Herb whose living Green
Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XX

And this reviving Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River-Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

The changes, though minimal in number, all occur in the first two lines of the quatrain.

"Delightful" in the first two editions now becomes "reviving" in the final edition. The change from "delightful" to "reviving" makes grass more important in that it no longer is merely "delightful," or something pleasant to the senses, but it now has a healing role: grass is a "reviving" herb, an herb that could restore energy or even bring something back to life.

The second modification is the substitution of "living" for "tender" as a modifier of "Green" in the second edition. However, FitzGerald reverts back to "tender" by the fifth edition. "Living," to me, suggests a colder, more factual perspective whereas "tender" conveys a more positive and sensual response to this "Herb."

The third and last change is that from "River's Lip" in the first two editions to "River-Lip" by the last edition. The difference is very subtle, so subtle that I can sense something but am unable to spell it out precisely. One difference that I do note is that "River-Lip" is shorter and more abrupt than "River's Lip." Perhaps you may be able to comment on the subtle nuances of "River's Lip" and "River-Lip."

According to my dictionary, "fledges" means "to cover with or as if with feathers." This definition supports "tender" far more than "living," I should think.

The quatrain flows from the previous one which suggested flowers above the bodies of those who went before us. The first two lines bring in the idea, if I'm not mistaken, of the Islamic concept of Heaven, which is frequently portrayed as a Garden laid out along a flowing river with abundant grass and flowers, a Great Oasis in fact. The last two lines carry on the theme of a covering for those who are buried beneath.

After the flowers of the last quatrain, I was surprised to find something as common or prosaic as grass. However, after thinking about it, I realized that this wasn't the only reference to grass as a burial shroud.

Grass appears in an haiku by Basho with exactly the same connotation:

Here, where a thousand
Captains swore grand conquest...tall
Grass their monument.

This also suggests the glory and dreams of past heroes, much as did earlier quatrains (see VI, VIII, IX, and XIV example). And what remains? In the haiku, grass is the only monument to their grand ambitions.

Carl Sandburg gives us the same imagery, perhaps more brutally expressed than the others--grass that covers all.


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work--
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg.
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor;
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Perhaps to end this post a bit more gently, I will quote a short stanza from Walt Whitman's most aptly named work--Leaves of Grass. It is from "Song of Myself," Stanza 6, which begins:

"A child said What is the Grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
than he.

. . .

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breast of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out
of their mothers' laps.
And here you are the mothers' laps.

. . .

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end
to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses"

I guess I've wandered a bit from where I began, but I think that is an attribute of great poetry or great fiction or great prose--to begin at one point and end somewhere else, someplace unexpected, if one is lucky.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is his wild book. I have this theory that writers have one wild book inside them, one in which they let go and break all the rules. Frequently they aren't received well by critics and scholars, and the general reading public doesn't appreciate them to any great degree either. Melville wrote one called Mardi which only critics and scholars are aware of and generally ignore. On the other hand, Brunner's wild one seems to have been accepted to a much greater degree by critics and the reading public. While I haven't read everything by Brunner, I don't remember any of his other works resembling this one to any extent at all. If someone knows of another by him that resembles this book, please let me know. I will definitely go look for it.

To begin with, its structure is unlike anything I've seen in Brunner so far. It is closest to John Dos Passos' USA trilogy (1930-36) and Fred Pohl's Gateway (1977). Brunner, like Dos Passos and Pohl, avoids providing the setting in long narrative prose sections. Instead they use headlines, advertisements, and brief short news items to convey the significant cultural and social issues prevalent in the USA at that time. While this doesn't provide the in-depth coverage that some writers and readers feel is necessary, it does give the flavor of those times and perhaps does it in a more interesting way for those readers impatient to get on with the plot and care little if anything for the background. It's not immediately evident, but Brunner first introduces and then provides significant information about his characters, especially the secondary characters, in the inter-narrative portions of the novel.

While Pohl, in Gateway, restricts his narrative to one major character, Dos Passos has at least 3 or 4 major character lines, and Brunner has two, with several important secondary characters.
Dos Passos' structure is more traditional in that, by the end of the first novel, The 42nd Parallel, his major plot lines have converged.

Brunner attempts something different. His two major characters, Norman Niblock House and Donald Hogan, are roommates at the beginning of the novel and events conspire to force them along separate paths to very different destinies. But, in order to keep readers happy, Brunner has several significant secondary characters--Chad Mulligan and Elihu Masters--whose separate paths eventually converge. Mulligan is a best-selling, rogue sociologist who has dropped out, while Masters had been a highly respected member of the US diplomatic corps who requested a post in the small impoverished African country of Beninia. He is thought to have ended a potentially brilliant career in the State Department by his action.

In addition, Brunner also provides several sub-sub plots that involve two families who are victimized by the major problem of the day--overpopulation; another minor plot focuses on a gang of young toughs on their way down into the underworld, and yet another on a young man who has just been drafted into the US military, and even one that gives a picture of the lives of the rich and powerful, and those striving to reach that level.

Norman House is an Afram who works for General Technics (GT), one of the largest, if not the largest, corporations in the world. It is large enough and rich enough to buy up small countries if it so desires. That's the major plot line which House becomes unwittingly enmeshed in. The problem is the small African country of Beninia, which has been ruled for decades by Zadkiel F. Obomi, its only president, since it emerged from its colonial status. Obomi knew he hadn't long to live and feared what would happen when he died.

Beninia, although one of the poorest countries in Africa, has a magnificent natural harbor which his neighbors coveted. He could hear the official statements that would emerge after his death. Each of his neighbors was not invading Beninia for conquest but to "protect" it from those other greedy neighbors.

Obomi and Masters work up a scheme in which General Technics would invest heavily in Beninia to realize certain commercial objectives. The Beninian government would rely on various advisers provided by GT. The US State Department would monitor the situation to ensure that GT lived up to its promises of building the educational, medical, governmental, and transportation infrastructure that would vastly improve the lives of the citizenry of Beninia. The only real problem is Shalmaneser, the super computer that comes close to running GT and, therefore, a powerful influence in the US.

Shalmaneser can't accept that such a country as Beninia exists and rejects the plan. Beninia hasn't had a murder in over 15 years and doesn't even have a word in its vocabulary for "angry." "Insane" is the closest word it has to "angry." Beninia has barely a million inhabitants, yet it was able t0 absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees several decades ago without any conflict between the refugees and the inhabitants. Without Shalmaneser's estimate of the possibilities of success, GT will not act.

In the other plot, Donald Hogan appears to be unemployed and apparently possesses a small independent income that allows him to survive without having to work. However, he actually is an employee of an agency for the US Government. His task is to spend his time reading and absorbing information and presenting reports on what he's learned. Those familiar with van Vogt's readings might consider him a sort of a Nexialist, a generalist rather than a specialist.

Much to his dismay he gets activated and has to report for field duty. He is trained in the art of combat--martial arts and various weaponry. He is to travel to Yatakang, a country made up of numerous Pacific islands. Indonesia? Donald's two specialties are the Yatakanga language and genetics. He's called up because the Yatakanganese government has announced incredible breakthroughs in genetic engineering, both in the ability to correct genetic defects and to create "improved" humans--a superman, if you will. Hogan's task is to find out whether this is at all possible, since it is far in advance of anything anybody else on the planet can achieve.

Since my copy of the novel has approximately 650 pages, it must be obvious that I've only briefly and inadequately covered a few of the major elements and almost none of those secondary elements that create the background.

In spite of its diversity and richness and complexity and Brunner's skill in telling a story, I do not include it in my top ten SF novels. The problem is the ending. If you are the reader who wants a neat and tidy ending that wraps up the major conflict and perhaps eventually turns Earth into a peaceful paradise some time in the future, then you will love this novel. If not, then you might be disappointed, as I was. A great novel. such as this is for 99% of its length, deserves a better ending, one that fits, even if it is an ambiguous or inconclusive ending.

Overall Rating: a great novel, but one with what I consider a serious flaw. Highly recommended.