Saturday, August 28, 2010

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "For the Good of the Cause"

I've read a number of Solzhenitsyn's works, and I find this one to be the most formulaic of the ones I've read. His characters are usually mixed, in that most have good and bad characteristics, and even in his prison works, there are good guards and administrators and bad prisoners. That doesn't happen in this novella, which makes me think that Solzhenitsyn was concentrating more on the situation than on a realistic portrayal of those involved.

It becomes obvious shortly into the work that there are good guys and bad guys in this work. The good guys are the faculty, staff, and students of the college and the local party secretary--the common people in this situation--, while the bad guys are upper echelon of the Party or the faceless, unknown members of various governing commissions in a distant city.

The setting is a small technical college somewhere in Russia during the Soviet era. The present facilities are small and inappropriate for a technical school which requires labs and workshops and various types of equipment. Moreover, the school is set in an out-of-way small town, so most of the students come from elsewhere. Since there is no dorm for the students, they must be put up in various, sometimes inappropriate or uncomfortable places. And, generally the stipend awarded is insufficient to cover the rent and other expenses.

The school has been given a piece of land in the town, large enough for putting up a dorm and a building for the college. The plans were carefully drawn and the building was large enough for classrooms and various labs and workshops. The overcrowding would be eliminated. As the contractors had problems getting laborers, the faculty, staff, and students volunteered to do the unskilled labor tasks, such as clearing the area of vegetation or digging the foundations during their free time and on weekends and holidays.

It took a year and the building was now ready for the final approval. Once they received the signed contract, the school personnel could begin moving into the new classrooms and labs. However, something was wrong. It had been several weeks since the request had been submitted to Khabalygin, the factory manager and nominal "proprietor" of the technical college, for his signature, but he did nothing. No one could understand the delay.

Well, no one could understand until an investigating Commission composed of bureaucrats from various Councils and Ministries (none of which really had anything to do directly with the college), led by Khabalygin arrived on the scene, just a few days before the new term was to begin. After "investigating" the old buildings, the Commission decided that the situation really wasn't that bad and that they could manage with the facilities that they had for a little while longer. The new building was being given to a "research institute of national importance."

Some investigating and discreet phone calls established that there was no hurry in finding a place for the research institute, as the plans for it had been put off for an indefinite time more than three months ago. In addition, there were a number of buildings in the small towns and the larger cities in the area that would have been appropriate, actually more appropriate. The new building had been designed to include labs and workshops as well as classrooms. Therefore, the building now needed to be remodeled for the research institute of national importance, at a cost of almost half of the original construction cost.

What happened? Khabalygin is a empire builder. Getting the research institute would put his town on the map and being the one who brought it here would enhance his reputation. Since it was in his jurisdiction, this also would increase his power and prestige much more than a small technical college would. When others protested this outright theft and reminded Khabalygin of all the voluntary work the faculty and students had put in, his response was that they should happy to be able to make sacrifices for the good of the cause.

What I found most interesting is that while this takes place in Russia, it could and does happen elsewhere, including the US. We have local government officials and, in place of the Party, we have the Corporation. Instead of communism being the weapon used against the people, we have capitalism. Local governments now have an expanded power of eminent domain. In the past, eminent domain could be used only if the benefit was to the entire community--highways, parks, government buildings, cultural institutions. Now eminent domain can be used to remove people from their homes simply to benefit a corporation which wishes to build a factory or office space or a retail outlet.

And recently, a congressman from an oil-producing state was upset because the federal government criticized BP for the oil spill and insisted that BP pay for the damage it had caused. This congressman argued that this was extortion, therefore a criminal action, and that one shouldn't criticize corporations--that it was un-American to do so. During the Soviet era, it was a crime to criticize the Communist Party and the Government in Russia. Today, in the US, some would argue that it's wrong to criticize a corporation.

Overall Reaction: very readable and with incidents that are found in any society--be it communist or socialist or capitalist.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Favorite SF Novels

The following is a list of my fifteen favorite SF novels . All are permanently on my must reread list, even after three or four reads. This is not a list of the fifteen best SF works, although I like to think some of them might be. Time is the ultimate judge, though; those that persist in being read should be at least favorites in any Best List. (Actually, there are sixteen in the list. I came up with another that I just couldn't leave out and I couldn't decide which one to drop. So the list of fifteen of my favorites really has sixteen.)

The list is in alphabetical order, by author, and is in no way an attempt on my part to rank them.

1. Isaac Asimov: The Caves of Steel

Asimov combines two genres here, the SF story and the police procedural. It's centuries in the future and humanity has become, for the most part, agoraphobic. The thought of going outside terrifies most humans. The cities have become huge conglomerates, completely walled over. Most people spend their lives indoors, seldom even glancing out one of the rare windows that still exist. The exceptions are the Spacers, those humans who have left earth and settled on a number of planets. While they come across as being almost god-like, they also have their flaws, as serious as and in some cases more serious than the earthman's agoraphobia.

This novel could be considered an SF police procedural as the main character, Lije Baley, is the New York police officer assigned to solve the murder of one of the Spacers. He is forced to take a partner, one R Daneel Olivaw.
The problem is that the "R" stands for robot. The knowledge that a Spacer robot is loose in the corridors of the City would spark a riot. Baley now has two reasons for solving the crime quickly: his pride won't let him lose out to a robot and he needs to get the robot back to Spacetown before its identity is revealed.


2. Gregory Benford: the "Galactic Center" series.

This is a set of six novels that range in time from the 1990s to some 35,000 years in the future, from Earth to the black hole, the Eater, at the center of our galaxy. It's a grand adventure tale, along with a strong dose of astrophysics. That Benford is an astrophysicist might have had some influence here. He begins with what's known and then lets his imagination roam the galaxy. I have already posted a commentary on each of the six novels in the series: In the Ocean of Night, Across the Sea of Suns, Great Sky River, Tides of Light, Furious Gulf, and Sailing Bright Eternity.


3. Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination

Bester's novel contains one of the most interesting characters I've found in SF--Gully Foyle. At the beginning he's one of the lowest of the low on a spaceship crew--barely human--he can with extreme difficulty manage to speak somewhat coherently. At the end of the novel, he has educated himself to be able to move easily and freely in the highest social and cultural levels. However, inside he's still the brute he was at the beginning, and his one object in life is to revenge himself on those who left him to die in the cold dark reaches of the solar system. It appears to me that there's a slight flavor here of The Count of Monte Cristo here.

Bester postulates a future in which the aristocracy bases itself on its ancestry in various corporations. He has also created a world in which teleportation, moving oneself from place to place by the power of the mind, is commonplace. There are schools that will teach anyone to teleport, and only a few are unable to do this. Consider a world in which most people can transport themselves merely by thinking about it to anyplace they have once been and have studied closely. Knowing this, whom would you let into your home?


4. Alfred Bester: The Demolished Man

Just as his previously mentioned novel explored the effects of teleportation on society, this work postulates telepathy as a real possibility. What happens to a society when some of its members are able to read the minds of others? How does a society deal with that? The focus in this novel is on the legal system. One of the main characters is a police officer and a powerful telepath. What happens to the concept of privacy when some members of society are able to read minds, especially when some of those members are in law enforcement?

The other significant character is a man who wants to commit a murder. How can he do this with mind-reading cops around? How does one even plan a murder under these circumstances?


5. Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

Books burn at that temperature. In a not too distant future, I fear, fireman will not be those whose job it is to put out fires but will be those who upon learning of a hidden stash of books will immediately rush over there and burn them. This short work was first published in 1951, when memories of pictures of book burning events in Germany were still fresh. Recently I have seen photos of similar events in this country, held at a Christian school. I wonder if this was one of the books so honored.

Guy Montag (if I'm not mistaken, that's German for Monday) is a fireman and perfectly happy burning books and saving society from various evils. It only when he impulsively saves a book from burning and begins to read it, that his attitude begins to change.

As one of the characters in the novel says, books are dangerous and unsettling, for they give people ideas. I think that may be a quotation from Frederick Douglas' autobiography of his life as a slave. It was considered dangerous to teach slaves to read and write, for it gave them unwholesome ideas.


6. Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama

An alien space ship enters our solar system. In a short time, it will have passed through and be gone. A crew of scientists is sent to meet the ship and make contact with its crew. They rendezvous with the ship and are able to enter it, and find it empty, or so it seems anyway. The story follows the efforts of the crew to discover as much as possible about the ship and its mission and its builders.


7. Jack Finney: Time and Again

The best time travel tale I've ever read. I would say the best ever written, but I haven't read all of them.
This is one of those rare stories that, after finishing it, I sat there and wish it could be possible. The main character goes back to late 19th century New York City and solves a mystery and falls in love.

One of the strengths of the work, along with Finney's prose, is the liberal use of photographs from that period.


8. Robert Heinlein: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I suspect there may be many who think I should have selected Stranger in a Strange Land. But, while Stranger was an enjoyable read and reread, I find that given a choice between them I would choose The Moon more often.

Others have pointed out some similarities between The Moon and the US during the revolutionary period: a far distant and unsympathetic governing body, lack of representation on that body, and the use of both as penal colonies.

It's a great action oriented novel, but still filled with some of Heinlein's ideas on the nature of the evolution of the family, on politics in a superficially democratic (actually it's a republican form of government), and on the potential power of a self-aware AI that can tap into anything even remotely connected to a computer or phone line.


9. Frank Herbert: Dune

Dune is felt by many critics and commentators to be one of the two novels that broke down the walls of the SF ghetto and put made SF legitimate reading material for the general public. The other was Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

I think Dune was the first SF novel to have a fully developed, a fully realized planet with a culture that clearly was based on the environment. The planetary environment shaped the culture, attitudes, and religion of the Fremen tribes, the humans now indigenous to the planet.

In addition to the Fremen, Herbert has created a number of groups all struggling for control of Arrakis or Dune. As the Wikipedia entry on Dune puts it:

he story explores the complex and multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the forces of the Empire confront each other for control of Arrakis and its "spice".


1o. Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker

The most unique post-holocaust novel I've ever read. If you love playing with language, you'll love this one.
It's a quest tale, and the quest is Riddley Walker's as he attempts to make sense of a riddle. The language is a character in this novel:

Opening lines for Chapter One. It's a first person narrative and Riddley is speaking:

"On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he weren't all that big plus he lookit poorily. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and make his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, 'Your tern now my tern later. . ."

I think it's his matter-of-fact attitude that makes him a favorite character of mine--"Your tern now my tern later." It also suggests a realization and acceptance of the basic equality of all living creatures. It's not a bragging statement denoting his superiority over the boar, but a simple recognition that the boar's "tern" is now and his will come later.


11. Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

One I always recommend. I did a brief commentary on it here back in March 2010. Genly Ai, an ambassador from the Ekumen, arrives on Winter to arrange for diplomatic relations between the planet's inhabitants and the Ekumen. The inhabitants are completely human except for one significant difference. They are sexually neuter for about three weeks and then become either male or female for about 3-4 days. Le Guin's point here is to explore the gender behavior patterns to see which are inborn and which are learned. No lectures here, though, just an interesting plot and some good action sequences. See Ai and Estraven's journey over the glacier.


12. Walter M. Miller, Jr.: A Canticle for Leibowitz

This is another of my favorite post-holocaust novels. It is really three novellas, which focus strongly on a religious order of monks who initially were followers of Leibowitz, a scientist. Most of the few survivors of the war turned hostile to intellectuals and scientists, executing them whenever found. Eventually, in some communities, literacy became grounds for execution. Leibowitz gave his followers the task of preserving whatever scientific knowledge they could find. Like the monks of the Middle Ages, they spent their lives copying out whatever written materials they could find. The three novellas take place several hundred years apart, going from a subsistence level of existence in the first part, to a society that is now rich enough to permit some of its members to do something other than bring in food in the second section, to a society that has developed science once again to the point that they now have nuclear weapons.


13. Kim Stanley Robinson: "Three Californias" (aka The Orange County stories)

Imagine a particular place, a real place that is, and then project three different futures on this place. Kim Stanley Robinson does exactly that to a part of California, Orange County to be precise. These are not serials since they all take place at roughly the same time but in alternate universes.

The Wild Shore is a post-holocaust novel. The US has been eliminated as a world power, and isn't even a unified country. The enemy destroyed the communication and transportation systems and now uses satellites to detect and destroy any attempt to develop communities over a few thousand people and to destroy any attempt to rebuild the railway system. Robinson has created a coming-of-age story of a young man in what was once Orange County who finds himself trapped in a society that exists at a subsistence level while the rest of the world remains highly developed, for only the USA was attacked. The USA's allies were grateful they weren't attacked also and quietly accepted the situation.

The Gold Coast is also set in Orange County, but no war has taken place. It seems to be an extension of today, focusing on several young people who are trying to make their way in a world dominated by the military industrial complex, with an ever-expanding population, a California gone mad. The young people's lives seem pointless, in which cars, sex, drugs, and rock music are the main ingredients. Then, in an attempt to fight back, they get involved in industrial terrorism. Now they are going to attract the attention of society.

The Pacific Edge is probably the most unlikely of the three scenarios that Robinson has created. The world has become an ecotopia--or in today's language, it has gone green-green--green. Small is beautiful; the world has completely reversed itself. Now there are rules that prevent any organization from going beyond a certain size. Any construction deemed necessary by the ruling bodies has to be voted on by the population.

The conflict is not between those who favor this development and those opposed to it. Instead the conflict centers around the limits to growth. The conflict is between those accept the limits as reasonable and logical and those who think it's a bit too low. How would hiring one more person for a company be a threat to the world environment? Even though it is unnecessary, how could increasing the water supply to the town be a threat?

I've found three constants throughout the novels. One is that the main characters in all three are mostly young people in their late teens and early twenties. Secondly, the novels open with the young people digging up various items. Thirdly, there is an old man who remembers what it was like 50 years ago.


14. George Stewart: Earth Abides

One of the best post-holocaust novels I've ever read. It's a quiet novel which focuses on the effects on those who survived a war in which over 90% of the human race died. The title comes from Ecclesiastes:

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities: all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh;
but the earth abideth for ever. "


15. A. E. van Vogt: The Voyage of the Space Beagle

It was by accident that I discovered that this novel was the middle link in a chain that begins with Charles Darwin and ends with Star Trek. Shortly after Charles Darwin returned home from his journey on a British exploratory vessel, he published a book about his journey. The title of the book is The Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1839. A little over a century later, van Vogt published his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. It is actually a fix-up novel, based on several shorter works, the first two actually published in SF magazines in 1939, one hundred years after Darwin. Like Darwin's Beagle, van Vogt's Beagle is an exploratory vessel, exploring the galaxy just as Darwin's Beagle explored the remote oceans and far off lands of earth.

In an interview, Gene Roddenberry said that van Vogt's novel was one of the primary sources for the development of the concept behind Star Trek and the five year mission of the Enterprise. The missions of the two Beagles and the Enterprise were essentially the same--to explore new worlds, etc. Perhaps, as a way of reminding viewers of the program's long and honorable ancestry, in one of the last Star Trek episodes, the Enterprise's mission involves locating a lost exploratory spaceship--the Beagle.


16. Gene Wolfe: "The Book of the New Sun"

This series consists of four books. Sometime later a sequel appeared. And later, a small volume with commentary on the work by Gene Wolfe, as well as a dictionary for some of the more obscure terms also showed up on the shelves.

The work is set on Earth in the very far future and is one of the SF subcategories known as a "dying earth" work. Earth is tired and worn out, her vast mineral treasures have been reduced to rust and dust. It's so far in the future that even the sun is showing its age. It's a quest, of course, and perhaps a brief review of the quest for the Holy Grail might be informative.

The main character is Severian, and he is a member (apprentice at the beginning of the first novel) of the Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, also known as the Guild of Torturers. He is a torturer and an executioner. He violates one of the rules (shows mercy to a prisoner) and is punished by being sent out to be a torturer and executioner in a land as far from the capital as can be found. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It is at this point his quest begins, and as in the quest for the Holy Grail, his task is to heal the wounded king or autarch.

The four novels in the set are The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch.

Four years later, Wolfe published a sequel to the set The Urth of the New Sun. Wolfe also published a companion work The Castle of the Otter, the title of which comes from a news item about the fourth book in the series. Whoever wrote the article got the name wrong: The Citadel of the Autarch got transformed in the reporter's mind into The Castle of the Otter. Wolfe liked the title so much that he gave it to this little volume which contains background information to the series and a vocabulary, to help the despairing reader translate some of Wolfe's obscure terms.


I have to stop here, or I will never finish. As I started to review and clean up this post, I remembered C. J. Cherryh whose action-oriented novels really do have me gasping for air at the end. How can any list exclude P. K. Dick's numerous novels, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the film Blade Runner, which is one of the best SF films I have seen. And Larry Niven's Ringworld or . . .

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ray Bradbury: August 22, 1920

Ray Bradbury

Happy 90th Birthday!

SF writers generally deny that they are prophets: they are just trying to write some stories about science and technology and people. As I have suggested before, I see two basic types of SF: the "what if" story and the "if this goes on" story. The first type occurs when the author asks "what if a giant asteroid" were to collide with the earth and tells a story that answers that question. In the second type, the author learns that the human population now takes fewer years to double its population than it has in the past: this would lead to a story that describes what might happen if this goes on for another century. In 1953, Ray Bradbury published a short story titled "The Murderer," which belongs in the "if this goes on" category, and I think he got it right--this is pure prophecy.

The murderer in the story is Albert Brock. He has just arrived at a mental institution and we sit in when he is interviewed by a psychiatrist. Brock is not a serial killer, at least not a serial killer of humans; in fact he hasn't killed a single person. He is the one who insists he is a murderer; his victims are certain types of electronic devices. Keep in mind that this was written in 1953.

His victims are radios, TVs, telephones, intercoms, phonographs, and especially the radio wrist watch, a communication device. As I read the story, my mind insisted on substituting cell phone or mobile phone for wrist radio.

". . . it was music by Mozzek in every restaurant; music and commercials on the buses I rode to work. When it wasn't music, it was interoffice communications, and my horror chamber of a radio wrist watch [cell phone] on which my friends and my wife phoned every five minutes. What is there about such 'conveniences' that makes them so temptingly convenient? The average man thinks, Here I am, time on my hands, and here on my wrist is a wrist telephone [cell phone], so why not just buzz old Joe up. eh? 'Hello, hello!' I love my friends, wife, humanity very much, but when one minute my wife calls to say, 'Where are you now, dear?' and a friend calls and says, 'got the best off-color joke to tell you. Seems there was a guy--' and a stranger calls and cries out, 'This is the Find-Fax Poll. What gum are you chewing at this very instant?' Well!"

. . . . . . . . . .

Desperate, Brock begins by destroying all of the electronic communication devices around him. And then he got his Idea:

"Why didn't I start a solitary revolution, deliver man from certain 'conveniences'? 'Convenient for who?" I cried. Convenient for friends: 'Hey, Al, thought I'd call you from the locker room out here at Green Hills. Just made a sockdolager hole in one! A hole in one, Al! A beautiful day. Having a shot of whiskey now. Thought you'd want to know, Al!' Convenient for my office, so when I'm in the field with my radio car there's no moment when I'm not in touch. In touch! There's a slimy phrase. Touch, hell. Gripped! Pawed, rather. Mauled and massaged and pounded by FM voices. . ."

The last paragraph of the story horrifies me.

The psychiatrist returns to his office. His diagnosis:

"Seems completely disoriented, but convivial. Refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them. . .

Three phones rang. A duplicate wrist radio in his desk drawer buzzed like a wounded grasshopper. The intercom flashed a pink light and click-clicked. Three phones rang. The drawer buzzed. Music blew in through the open door. The psychiatrist, humming quietly, fitted the new wrist radio to his wrist, flipped the intercom, talked a moment, picked up one telephone, talked, picked up another telephone, talked, picked up the third telephone, talked, touched the wrist-radio button, talked calmly and quietly, his face cool and serene, in the middle of the music and the lights flashing, the two phones ringing again, and his hands moving, and wrist radio buzzing, and the intercoms talking, and voices speaking from the ceiling. And he went on quietly this way through the reminder of a cool, air-conditioned, and long afternoon; telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio. . ."

Of course, there's no computer and email, Facebook and Twitter, but remember, SF writers really aren't prophets.

Something to think about

from The Importance of Living

I have always assumed that the end of living is the true enjoyment of it. It is so simply because it is so. I rather hesitate at the word "end" or "purpose." Such an end or purpose of life, consisting in its true enjoyment, is not so much a conscious purpose, as a natural attitude toward human life. The word "purpose" suggests too much contriving and endeavor. The question that faces every man born into this world is not what should be his purpose, which he should set about to achieve, but just what to do with life, a life which is given him for a period of on the average fifty or sixty years? The answer that he should order his life so that he can find the greatest happiness in it is more a practical question, similar to that of how a man should spend his weekend, than a metaphysical proposition as to what is the mystic purpose of his life in the scheme of the universe.

--Lin Yutang--

A rather relaxed and stress free attitude towards life I think--and probably not for everybody, I should think.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fred Saberhagen: Earth Descended

Fred Saberhagen's stories cover the known and possibly unknown areas of the spectrum of SF and Fantasy. He has published stories that range from sword-and sorcery to the deadly berserkers, from Dracula and Holmes to stories that play with time to excursions into his versions of some well-known myths and fairy tales. In this collection I found stories that provide examples of his wide variety of published works.

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and the endings of stories.

1. "Young Girl at an Open Half Door"
The title refers to a well-known painting by Rembrandt, which happens to be a favorite of the story's protagonist, Joe Ricci. Ricci has installed the security system for this particular art museum, and recently the system has been registering "false positives": it indicates the presence of intruders who can't be found by the museum security people. Moreover, there are no signs in any of the adjoining rooms to show how the intruders got in or how they left without being discovered. Ricci has been called in to find out what's going wrong with the security system and to do something about it.

Reaction: I'm a bit confused about this story's placement as the first story because collections usually begin with a very strong story and conclude with another. This, by no means, is the strongest story in the collection, and the mystery is not really much of a mystery as this story has been told before by others. This story has a copyright date of 1968, and the plot wasn't new then. Perhaps those who decided the story order elected to go with familiarity to get readers interested.


2. "The Adventure of the Metal Murderer"
Saberhagen blends two of his favorite themes in this story. Initially it appears to be one of his berserker tales, those of his stories that I'm most familiar with. In fact, whenever Saberhagen's name is mentioned, I immediately think of the berserker series, which I think constitute one of the largest portions of his writings.

The berserkers are killing machines, apparently created long ago by a race which was involved in a war. They devised these machines in desperation and turned them loose. They lost the war and the secret of shutting down the machines was lost. Eventually the berserkers began seeking to destroy all life forms and not just the enemies of their creators. Humans have been fighting the berserkers for many centuries now. A similar theme is the core of Greg Benford's mind bending "Galactic Center" series.

In this tale, a berserker has managed to go into earth's past, specifically the late 19th century, and an agent has been sent back after it, hoping to destroy it before it accomplishes its mission.
The agent makes it to late 19th century London and begins the search for the berserker. It was at this point that I suspected what Saberhagen was doing. I won't go any further except to say that the last words of the story are "'Elementary,' the tall man snapped."

Reaction: a lightweight but enjoyable tale.


3. "Earthshade"
This is a shared universe tale. It was originally commissioned for an anthology of short fantasy stories, The Magic May Return, edited by Larry Niven. It is set in Niven's "Warlock" universe, and the basic theme is that magic once was available to anyone long ago. However, surprisingly, magic is not a renewable energy source, for it depends upon the presence of manna to be effective. Demons and humans, not yet familiar with conservationist ethic, eventually use up all of the available manna, and magic is no longer available for the most part. The stories in this collection, I gather from the title, suggest that magic may not have been gone for good.

This story tells of the adventures of Zalazar and his young helper as they discover why magic really disappeared and what must be done to restore magic to earth. Along the way, Zalazar meets a goddess or two, and like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, he also discovers that his helper isn't exactly who he presents himself to be. There's a touch of the Greek myth here also.

It's a classic tale that shows why being too curious at times can be dangerous for one's health and longevity, as Zalazar discovers, naturally when it's too late.

Reaction: Enjoyable. More complex than the first two stories.


4. "The White Bull"

Here's another Saberhagen excursion into Greek mythology. Readers familiar with the various stories about Daedalus and Icarus, Theseus, King Minos, and the Minotaur, won't have any problem figuring out the broad plot line of this story. What makes the story interesting are the changes Saberhagen has made to the details that flesh out the bones of the plot. One is the nature of the Minotaur, who has now become an alien creature whose self-appointed task is that of educating these slow-witted humans.

Reaction: an enjoyable version of an old and familiar tale.


5. "Calendars"

This is a gentle satire poking fun at those who insist on planning out their lives weeks, months, even years, in advance. Obviously, I'm not one of those, even though I do carry my pocket calendar everywhere I go and I have a pop-up calendar program on my computer. However, I do put the pocket calendar aside and I do turn off the computer when I go to sleep.

Briefly, Martin Pandareus has decided to die. He tells his wife of some 90+ years of his decision. She thinks for a moment and then remarks that he decided the same thing some 30 years ago. Martin says he's serious now, that he thinks it's time he moved on and made room for others. So few children are seen nowadays, so he is going to make some room. At this point, his wife says,

" 'Speaking of children,' Iris interrupted. 'I don't mean to interrupt, but speaking of children, I hope you're not planning to have yourself terminated before the nineteenth.'

'Of what? This month?' Automatically he looked for a calendar but could not see one. 'Why?'

'Janet called.' His previous wife. 'I mean, she left a message while we were on vacation. Things have been so hectic I forgot to tell you. Your five-great grandson is making his bar mitzvah on that date, you're to be sure to attend.' "

"The next day in his office on the upper floor of the duplex apartment he consulted his business calendar as soon as he could find the time."

There were important business meetings on the twenty-first and twenty-second. During the following month was the antique furniture auction in Minneapolis, and "he and Iris had gone to a great deal of trouble to plan their vacation so he would be sure to be back in time for that." His lawyer advises him to wait until after the first of the year--"The tax structure . . ."

I think you can see the trend here.

Does he ever commit suicide? Well, his calendar is pretty full, and besides, he had promised his wife that they would have a child (a twenty year commitment). . . and if she became pregnant now, that would interfere with their next vacation trip and . . .

Will he ever manage to find the time? Perhaps Emily Dickinson knew better than he when she wrote--

Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--

Reaction: an entertaining little tale about how important an event becomes once it's entered into a calendar--even more important than life and death, it seems.


6. "Wilderness"

This is one of those tales that confuse readers and the characters because they don't know the full story. Once that is learned, it all becomes quite simple, mostly anyway. And Saberhagen does provide clues throughout, but it's only after the full story is revealed that the significance is known.

A man wandering through a wilderness area comes across a small commune of about ten people. The sun is setting and he asks if he could stay the night for he fears he might get lost in the dark, trying to get back to his car.

They agree, and he then begins to tell them how they should be living their lives, not wasting it out here in the wilderness like this. He can't understand why anyone would not want to live in the city where there's people and noise and all sorts of things going on. He then criticizes their way of farming as being too labor intensive. They should get farming machinery that will help them increase their productivity and begin to make money. He has some money and he will help them develop their farm. He also fears the wilderness and urges them to keep wilderness in a strong cage and control it, and not be controlled by it.

"'Yeah keep a few bits of nature in cages,' he replied at last. 'Keep trees behind big fences, t'show we're strong enough to do so. Otherwise drive the wilderness out, this is our place here, our place.' "

He seems to be just a rude, insensitive individual until he talks about fresh air. It was then that I got a clue as to what his real problem might be.

"He filled his lungs with mountain air and wood-smoke tang. 'That's fine, good air t' breathe. No one knows better'n me how fine that is. But can we trust nature to give us air? If we were smart we'd put all the good air in a big jar, and let out just a little at a time, as it was needed.'"

Rating: this is one story that I had to read several times to fully appreciate the subtlety here. And, he's not really a bad guy.


7. "Patron of the Arts"

Some of Benford's mechs in his "Galactic Center" series were fascinated by art, so much so that one of them, the Mantis, attempts its own horrific version of art. One of the subplots in the novels and a novella involved the Mantis' efforts to understand art for it had no value in its mechanistic view of the universe. In this story, Saberhagen plays with the same theme.

Earth, fearing an invasion by the berserkers, sends off as many of its artistic treasures as possible. Herron, who is considered one of Earth's finest living artists, asks for and gets permission to go along with one of the shipments. Unfortunately the ship is attacked by a berserker and the crew is killed in the ensuing battle. Herron does not fight and therefore his life is spared, temporarily.

The berserker, confused by the cargo, questions Herron about the paintings. Herron's attempts to explain art confuses the berserker even more, and this leads to an erroneous conclusion by the berserker, which actually saves Herron's life.

Reaction: An interesting story about the similarity between the berserker and humanity. I've met many people whose understanding and appreciation of the arts is even less than the berserker's.


8. "To Mark the Year on Azlaroc"

Azlaroc must be one of the strangest planets in the universe, at least in Saberhagen's universe. It's the "veils" that fall roughly once a year that make Azlaroc so unique. This story, published in 1976, became part of a novel, The Veils of Azlaroc, which was published in 1978.

According to Saberhagen, Azlaroc forms a unusual triple system with a pulsar and a black hole for its two companions. And the veils?

"The material between the stars, gathered up as this triple system advances through space. What is not sucked into the black hole is sieved through nets of the pulsar's radiation, squeezed by the black hole's hundred billion gravities, shattered and transformed in all its particles as it falls toward Azlaroc through the belts of space that starships must avoid. Once every systemic year conditions are right and a veil falls. What falls is no longer matter that men can work with, any more than they can work in the hart of a black hole."

As best as I can figure, those "covered" by a veil now are confined within their own time continuum, separated from those covered by the previous veil, and unable to leave the planet. The veil also separates them from those who come after that veil has fallen. As the years pass and the veils all, they become harder and harder to see and communicate with by those who come after.

Hagen has come to Azlaroc with Alianna, his most recent companion, ostensibly on a galactic sight-seeing tour. What he doesn't tell her is that over a century ago he had come here with another, Mira. Hagen and Mira had separated briefly after a quarrel. Then the warning went out--a veil was dropping ahead of schedule. He hurried back to the ship and escaped. It was only after they had lifted off the planet that he discovered that Mira had not made it back in time.

He wants to find Mira, so he suggests that he and Alianna separate for a while. He finds Mira and during their reunion, he sees that Alianna has accidentally come across them and when he tries to explain, she has disappeared.

History repeats itself, perhaps, and again the warning goes out about the veil dropping prematurely. He can't find Alianna at the port and wonders if she is searching frantically for him back in town. Hagen, as on his previous visit, decides to leave and save himself, for he has no desire to be trapped on Azlaroc and lose the opportunity to explore the universe. And Alianna--well, she's a good match for Hagen.

Reaction: a interesting story, really more of a vignette than a plotted tale, perhaps because Saberhagen was already working on the novel. The real interest in the story is the planet Azlaroc and its strange relationship to time.


9. "Victory"

Who won the war on the planet Lorenzoni?

Forty-six years ago Condamine initiated a first strike with nuclear missiles. Ungava suffered over 100 million casualties. There was no real retaliation by Ungava, and yet the war goes on. Condamine irregularly dispatches a nuclear missile whenever it sees what appears to be a concentration of population or some new construction taking place. Ungava strikes back with car bombs and other acts of sabotage and hit-and-run raids against Condamine's coastal towns.

Shen-yang is sent by the galactic council to see if he can act as a mediator to end the war. As he travels the main city of Condamine, he wonders at "the stores, full of good things to buy; the theaters and houses of entertainment, varied enough to suit any taste and any credit balance, doing a mass business; and by the people themselves.

The streets were full of folk who obviously enjoyed a wide choice of clothing and personal decoration and of vehicles in which to travel. They were busy, and they looked basically healthy and certainly well-fed. Just a touch glassy-eyed, perhaps--but Shen-yang saw that often enough at home, in the larger cities at any rate."

He finds the government leaders desperate to end the war, for that's what's keeping them out of the galactic council. He is also told, but can't believe, that Ungava still has its missile strike force intact, with over 1000 missiles. Nobody, he feels, could have the restraint to hold off avenging the destruction of their homeland. With the government's aid, he makes contact with Ungava and arranges to be picked up by one of their aircraft in an isolated spot.

Ungava is a mountainous country, and he sees that small isolated valleys are being farmed, but little housing is visible. Aside from the tilled valleys, ruined cities and radioactive lakes are all he sees, for the people live mostly underground. Ungava is now a dictatorship, in which all efforts are directed towards survival and defeat of Condamine. Shen-yang meets the High Leader, and realizes that all around him worship him and see him as the embodiment of Ungava.

Shen-yang asks about the missiles and the High Leader confirms what the Condamine government leaders had told him. The Leader refuses to use them because that would only strengthen the Condamine government, for the survivors would then be as tough and determined to win as are the people of Ungava. He wants peace also and is willing to negotiate with Condamine, but only if the present government is replaced. Shen-yang remarks that only the winner can dictate terms such as that.

A nuclear missile strikes the mountain hideout of the Leader, but they are so deep within that nobody is injured. Apparently, the Condamine government had placed a tracer of some sort on Shen-yang in hopes of killing the High Leader. Upon learning of its failure, Condamine informs the Ungava that it wanted to negotiate a peace and had changed its leadership.

Reaction: Interesting story about a conflict between a society that was almost destroyed but because of that now had a cause to unify the people and a society that was prosperous but lacked that unifying cause. In addition, they had much more to lose by continuing the war than did Ungava.

Who really did win the war?


10. "Birthdays"

Aboard a spaceship whose mission is to spread humanity throughout the galaxy, Bart, almost 14, is awakened and informed of the following by the ship's AI:

"The prime directives under which I operate are very clear. One human parent, adoptive or real, is necessary to the successful maturation of children; images and machines are psychologically inadequate for optimum results. Therefore, after receiving some elementary preparation for the role, you will serve as adoptive parent for the first generation of colonists."

He is brought to the nursery where he finds 24 infants. He is with them for a day and then goes to sleep. One year later, he is reawakened. He is a day older, but the infants are a year older. This pattern remains: he is awakened once a year and interacts with them, and then goes back to sleep. He ages a day and they a year. Eventually they are as old as he is and older. By the time he finally reaches his fourteenth birthday, they are in their 60s.

Every year, he awakens for one day to see them mature and then age. During that day, he learns of their struggles, their loves, their hopes, their failures, and their dreams. Then, on the 69th awakening, he leaves his room and in the corridor finds a new door has been created while the old one has been sealed. Going through the new door, Bart once again hears the Prime Directive from the AI and is now informed that the preparation for his assignment has ended. He will now be awakened at increasingly shorter intervals so he can act as parent for this new group of infants. This generation will be the first generation of colonists when they reach their destination, a planetary system that has a strong possibility of possessing earthlike planets, in about 20 years.

Reaction: one of the strongest stories in the book, as well as being the longest.


11. "Recessional"

"Recessional" is the story that puzzled me at first, and to some extent, still does as I'm not certain that I got the point. Sometimes writers provide all of the main elements and then expect the reader to assemble them properly. I wonder if this is one of them, or if I simply am missing the point.

Well, here are some elements that I've gotten together and I'm curious to see what some of you can make of this.

The title "Recessional" could refer to the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling which he composed on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The poem expresses pride in the British Empire, but also an underlying sadness that the Empire might go the way of all previous empires. I'm not sure what this has to do with the story, but the refrain--"Lest we forget"--is more suggestive. It is now frequently found on tombstones and often used by speakers on occasions in which we are asked to remember and honor the dead. It suggests the elements of death and memory and time.

In the story, we learn of an amazing discovery. The inner layer of the skull is actually some sort of backup memory, especially that part next to the visual cortex. With the right equipment, one can actually see what a dead person saw, probably the last things that deceased saw. The police, naturally, are very interested in this development, especially in murder cases. During the same TV show that this was explained, one of the characters mentioned a short story by Kappling which featured a similar development, only that a camera could be used to photograph the last image which remained on the retina at the person's death. The main character, who is watching the TV show, says to himself that the author is "Kipling," not Kappling, another link here to Kipling.

The main character has no name and is identified only as an SF writer. At the beginning of the story, he is attending an SF convention in Miami Beach. We are told little else about him except that he "was never going to get married again, that much he felt pretty sure about, not even when his status as a widower became finally and fully legal and official, as one of these years it would. Was it two years now or three?" We can guess from this that his wife had disappeared possibly four or five years ago and her body was never found.

The writer then decides to go on an extended driving trip, which ultimately ends up in San Diego. It is during this trip that he encounters a series of strange events, which seemingly follow a pattern.

While in Miami Beach, he hears that an unidentified woman's body was found in the water about one hundred miles south of Miami Beach. Apparently she had been in the water for possibly four or five years. When asked about the possibility of this, experts talked knowingly about deep pockets of cold water that would slow the process of disintegration.

After leaving the convention, he drives to Atlanta, Georgia. On the morning news show, he learns that the body of a young unidentified woman, possibly in her early 20s, was found in a river some 20 miles north of Atlanta. Experts said that the body might have been in the water "for as long as several months."

In Vicksburg, Mississippi, he catches a TV talk show during which he learns about the memory capacity of the inner skull. The host then asks the expert whether this device might help "the police discover, for instance, who this young woman is whose body came down the Mississippi today? They say she might have been in the water for several weeks. Wearing a yellow bikini and--"

He stops at a diner in Shreveport, Louisiana, and takes a booth next to one with two state police officers. One of the officers says to the other, "__she mighta been from any upstream somewheres. The Doc, he says days in the water. White gal. Just a lil ol bathing suit on. No wounds, nothing like that."

Near Carlsbad, New Mexico, he drives by a city park and gets a glimpse of a police officer trying to resuscitate a person with brown hair and wearing something yellow.

Reaching San Diego, he goes to his parents' house, which he inherited after their death. That night he hears the "sound of a slow Navy plane . . .One of the search and rescue craft, and it sounded like it was heading out. . . Anyway, they wouldn't be using a plane to look for her, she hadn't gone out in a boat. And if they hadn't started to look for her last night, when she walked out, they wouldn't be starting now.

He paused, trying to clear his thoughts. How could they have started any search last night? He still, up to this minute, hadn't told anyone how she had gone. Not yet . . .

If you can't stand your own life, he had said to her, then I suggest you put an end to it. I have an interesting life of my own that's going to take all my time."

Reaction: initial confusion, followed by several questions. Did his wife commit suicide by walking into the ocean? The various reports of drowned women--what is the connection to his wife?


12. "Where Thy Treasure Is"

Published in 1981, this story might be considered an early cyberpunk tale. Bernard Cunningham has an operation in which a receiving device is implanted in his brain that will allow him to get direct transmissions from the financial computerized network. He will be getting information, therefore, long before his competitors.

The operation is successful, too successful actually. He now feels completely connected to his properties, as if they were part of his body. He feels pain when one of his properties catches fire. He has to sell off the slum buildings he owns for he senses the damage to the building from various insects and rats.

Removing the device is ineffective. It makes no difference for the brain itself had taken over the functions of the device. Cunningham then decides to solve the problem by selling off all of his properties, which will then eliminate his involvement in the financial system. He tells his wife of his decision and insists he had done it all for her and the children. She argues that was nonsense, that he had done it for himself and nobody else.

The ending is ambiguous in that Saberhagen leaves it up to the reader to decide what happened.

"Meeting Shirley's angry, wondering eyes, he felt a touch of new terror. The power of self-extension was still his, in a form he had not thought of until now.

It came to him that there were treasures he had yet dreamed of knowing.

It came to him also that the cage-bars of the ledgers, the prision domains of the magnetic discs, had just this moment eased their strain."

His lawyers call, wanting his permission to sell off everything.

" 'The papers.' Cunningham's voice on the phone was impatient and happy at the same time, that of a man being disturbed while at some joyful occupation. 'Oh, the rest of the giveaway papers, yes, I think you might as well tear those up.' "

Reaction: somewhat confused. All was well until the ending. What had happened to Cunningham? What was the form of the power of self-extension that "he had not thought of until now"?

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXX

This is Quatrain XXX, from the First Edition of the Rubaiyat, as seen by Edward FitzGerald. The Second and Fifth versions of this quatrain are also presented. It is the last of a series of four linked quatrains which includes XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, and XXX, in the First Edition. The quatrain numbers are slightly different for the Second and Fifth Editions.

First Edition: Quatrain XXX

What, without asking, hither hurried whence?
And, without asking, whither hurried hence!
Another and another Cup to drown
The Memory of this Impertinence!

Second Edition: Quatrain XXXIII

What, without asking, hither hurried Whence?
And, without asking, Whither hurried hence!
Ah! contrite Heav'n endowed us with the Vine
To drug the memory of that insolence!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXX

What, without asking, hither hurried Whence?
And, without asking, Whither hurried hence!
Oh, many a Cup of this forbidden Wine
Must drown the memory of that insolence!

While it's not one of my favorite quatrains, it is one of the most intriguing, especially the last two lines which I find very startling.

The first two lines have only minimal differences: a change from a lower case "w" for whence and whither in the first edition to an upper case "W" in the second and fifth editions. In all three versions, FitzGerald links this quatrain back to the previous quatrain by playing with the words "whither" and "whence." Moreover, he brings in two new but related words simply by dropping the "w" from each of them: "whither" becomes "hither" and "whence" becomes "hence." FitzGerald then plays with the possibilities of that "w" by switching between whence and hence and whither and hither in the first two lines of the quatrain.

The first line can be read as follows: We are hurried here from some place without being asked--we are puppets. The second line follows up by pointing out that we are being hurried from here to some unknown place, again without being asked. This is very similar to the previous quatrain.

One can only wonder if our unknown destination is the same as our origin. Taoists accept the idea that our unknown place of origin is the same as our destination for it is written in the Tao Te Ching that all creatures come from the Tao and return to the Tao.

It is the last two lines of the quatrain that are the most interesting.

1st Edition
Another and another Cup to drown
The Memory of this Impertinence!

2nd Edition
Ah! contrite Heav'n endowed us with the Vine
To drug the memory of that insolence!

5th Edition
Oh, many a Cup of this forbidden Wine
Must drown the memory of that insolence!

Although the three versions are worded differently, three elements remain constant throughout. The first is the reference to wine (1), which is needed to either drown out certain memories or at least drug the memory (2) of the way humanity is treated, and the rather harsh criticism (3) of the one who is responsible for the human predicament.

In the first and fifth editions, the poet tells us that wine is necessary to drown out the memory of the way we are treated, while the second suggests that Heav'n regrets having treated us in this way and gives us wine to help us forget.

It seems surprising to find a reference to God's behavior as insolent or impertinent when one considers the way humans are treated, but I can see no other interpretation for the last two lines of the quatrain. I have heard the Deity referred to as just, merciful, kind, or compassionate, but never, up to now, as insolent or impertinent. The poet insists that something is wrong with the human situation in that we come from some unknown place and eventually leave for another unknown place, and what is worse, we are placed in this position without being asked--willy-nilly, according to the previous quatrain.

In some interpretations, the writer argues that wine is not really wine, since the Moslems cannot drink alcohol. Therefore, the wine is symbolic of God's grace or assistance. I think these three versions make that an extremely difficult interpretation to defend, especially in the 5th edition which refers clearly to "forbidden Wine." That sounds to me that Khayyam is referring to wine, which is forbidden, and not to God's grace. Why is God's grace forbidden?

From what I've read, "wine" is in original version by Khayyam and not something added by FitzGerald. All the commentaries that I've read accept the presence of wine in the text--it is the interpretation or meaning of wine that is controversial.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Something to think about.

Something to think about:

Where there are too many policemen, there is no liberty. Where there are too many soldiers, there is no peace. Where there are too many lawyers, there is no justice.

-- Lin Yutang --

What do you think? Is he overstating his case?

Do you think that perhaps Lin Yutang just doesn't understand the situation today--that we must now give up some freedoms to be safe and secure?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Walter Van Tilburg Clark: August 3, 1909--November 10, 1971

Walter Van Tilburg Clark unfortunately published very few works: three novels, about ten short stories, and some poetry. It is my opinion that it is this limited output that keeps him from being considered among the United State's best writers. I guess I'm starting to sound like a broken record as I brought up this issue in my post of August 3, 2009.

Aside from The Ox-Bow Incident, probably his most famous work, another work, a short story, has also achieved some limited fame. It can be found in introductory literature texts and frequently in SF collections that focus on post-holocaust stories. It is "The Portable Phonograph." I suspect many have read it and never realized that it was written by the author of The Ox-Bow Incident.

It is one of three of my favorite short stories that are set in a post-holocaust world. The other two are Theodore Sturgeon's "Thunder and Roses" (see January 16, 2010) " and Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" (see August 2, 2010). All three are anti-war stories, but they protest indirectly. They do not directly come out against war, especially nuclear war, but they quietly present possible outcomes.

Clark begins the story quietly:

The red sunset, with narrow, black cloud strips like threats across it, lay on the curved horizon of the prairie. The air was still and cold, and in it settled the mute darkness and greater cold of night. High in the air there was wind, for through the veil of the dusk, the clouds could be seen gliding rapidly south and changing shapes.

He gradually brings into his description of the sunset some disquieting elements.

A sensation of torment, of two-sided, unpredictable nature, arose from the stillness of the earth air beneath the violence of the upper air. Out of the sunset, through the dead , matted grass and isolated weed stalks of the prairie, crept the narrow and deeply rutted remains of a road. In the road, in places, there were crusts of shallow, brittle ice. There were little islands of an old oiled pavement in the road too, but most of it was mud, now frozen rigid.

Up to this point, we might just be looking at a typical late autumn landscape and a road that no longer goes anywhere, but Clark then shows us that, sadly, there is more, much more wrong here.

The frozen mud still bore the toothed impress of great tanks, and a wanderer on the neighboring undulations might have stumbled, in this light, into large, partially filled-in and weed-grown cavities, their banks channeled and beginning to spread into bad lands. These pits were such as might have been made by falling meteors, but they were not. They were the scars of gigantic bombs, their rawness already made a little natural by rain, seed and time. Along the road there were rakish remnants of fence. There was also, just visible, one portion of tangled and multiple barbed wire still erect, behind which was a shelving ditch with small caves, now very quiet and empty, at intervals in its back wall. Otherwise there was no structure or remnant of a structure visible over the dome of the darkling earth, but only, in sheltered hollows, the darker shadows of young trees trying again.

the toothed impress of great tanks . . . scars of gigantic bombs . . . the darker shadows of young trees trying again--I'm not sure which of those three seems the most ominous.

But, there is life here:

The creek was already silent under ice. Into the bank above it was dug a sort of cell, with a single opening, like the mouth of a mine tunnel. Within the cell there was a little red of fire, which showed dully through the opening like a reflection or a deception of the imagination. The light came from the chary burning of four blocks of poorly aged peat, which gave off a petty warmth and much acrid smoke.

Four men sit around the smoldering peat. Three are invited. The host, once a week, gives a reading from one of the four books he has managed to save, and more rarely, plays a record on his portable windup phonograph. This is what brings the four of them together: the beauty of the works he has saved--the Bible, Shakespeare, Moby Dick, and The Divine Comedy. The record that was selected that evening was one of Debussy's nocturnes. At the end, the three quietly leave, as he tells them to come again next week, when he will play Gershwin's "New York."

It's a simple little story that might encourage us by showing that, in spite of everything, people in the midst of horror can be brought together and gain solace from sharing the greatest creations of the human mind. However, the story hasn't ended yet.

After they had left, the host went to the entrance of the cave. He could hear the suppressed coughing of one of his recent visitors, but "It was not nearby, however. He believed that down against the pale alders he could see the moving shadow."

He reenters the cave and digs out a section of the wall and places the books, phonograph, and records inside. He covers it up.

He also changed his blankets, and the grass-stuffed sack which served as a pillow, so that he could lie facing the entrance . . .On the inside of the bed, next the wall, he could feel with his hand, the comfortable piece of lead pipe.

What hath war wrought?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Three by Ray Bradbury

I will discuss important plot elements and endings for the stories.

Three Short Stories by Ray Bradbury:

A poignant tale about a monster and about loneliness and even perhaps about unrequited love.

One of the gentlest post-holocaust stories I've ever read.

Another gentle horror tale: avoid those regressive tendencies!

The Fog Horn

This is a gentle monster tale, although there is some destruction in the story, seemingly the result of frustration and despair and loneliness. Briefly, a fog horn awakens a creature that has been sleeping for millions of years. It sounds like the call of one of his own kind. Lonely he swims up from the depths and finds the lighthouse. This has happened for several years now, but this time will be different.

It's a simple little tale, one that certainly doesn't deserve the treatment it got from Hollywood back in the '50s when the beast was transformed into a ravenous destroying monster that attacked NYC as
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms Beneath the Sea.

What makes this tale, aside from its theme of loneliness, is Bradbury's language. This is not a story to be raced through, paragraph to paragraph, page after page, until the end is reached and one can go on to the next story. It should be read slowly and thoughtfully in a quiet place. One should savor the language. It may take longer to finish it, but it's worth the time spent.

The story opens with two men in a lighthouse:

"Out there in the cold water, far from land, we waited every night for the coming of the fog, and it came, and we oiled the brass machinery and lit the fog light up in the stone tower. Feeling like two birds in the gray sky. McDunn and I sent the light touching out, red, then white, then red again, to eye the lonely ships. And if they did not see our light, then there was always our Voice, the great deep cry of our Fog Horn shuddering through the rags of mist to startle the gulls away like decks of scattered cards and make the waves turn high and foam."

McDunn then relates a strange incident that happened years ago that tells us the sea is a place that we know little about and a place of inexplicable events. It's about the lighthouse and the possibility that other creatures may not see it as we do.

"'The mysteries of the sea,' said McDunn thoughtfully. 'You know, the ocean's the biggest damned snowflake ever? it rolls ands swells a thousand shapes and colors, no two alike. Strange. One night, years ago, I was here alone, when all of the fish of the sea surfaced out there. Something made them swim in and lie in the bay, sort of trembling and staring up at the tower light going red, white, red, white, across them so I could see their funny eyes. I turned cold. They were like a big peacock's tail, moving out there until midnight. Then, without so much as a sound, they slipped away, the million of them was gone. I kind of think maybe, in some sort of way, they came all those miles to worship. Strange. But think how the tower must look to them, standing seventy feet above the water, the God-light flashing out from it, and the tower declaring itself with a monster voice. They never came back, those fish, but don't you think for a while they thought they were in the Presence?'"

I have never lived by the sea, so a fog horn is not something that I regularly experience. However, many years ago, I went to San Francisco and there I did hear a fog horn. I had forgotten about it until I read the following passage in this story:

"One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, 'We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I'll make one. I'll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I'll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like a empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I'll make a sound that's so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I'll make me a sound and an apparatus and they'll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.' "

And now, whenever I hear a fog horn in a film, I remember that passage.

The night comes and the fog rolls in. The Fog Horn blew and the monster appears and answers.

"I saw it all. I knew it all--the million years of waiting alone, for someone to come back who never came back. The million years of isolation at the bottom of the sea, the insanity of time there, while the skies cleared of reptile-birds, the swamps dried on the continental lands, the sloths and saber-tooths had their day and sank in tar pits, and men ran like white ants upon the hills.

. . .

The monster was only a hundred yards off now, it and the Fog Horn crying at each other. As the lights hit them, the monster's eyes were fire and ice, fire and ice.

" 'That's life for you,' said McDunn. 'Someone always waiting for someone who never comes home. Always someone loving some thing more than that thing loves them.' "

This doesn't seem to me to be that beast from 20,000 fathoms that tried to destroy NYC.

Is this really a tale of unrequited love?

There Will Come Soft Rains

The main character is a house, a house of the future, with all the gadgets and gizmos dreamed up by the futurists and that appear occasionally as a feature article somewhere, usually as a filler. Actually the house strikes me as being a bit of a nag.

"In the living room the voice-clock sang, Tick-Tock, seven o'clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o'clock! as if it were afraid that nobody would. The morning house lay empty. The clock ticked on, repeating and repeating its sounds into the emptiness. Seven-nine, breakfast time, seven-nine!"

The house goes ahead and makes breakfast, but there's no one there to eat it. Obviously something is wrong and it isn't until the following passage that we get the answer.

"Ten o'clock. The sun came out from behind the rain. The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles."

The house has been doing exactly what it was programmed to do, even though its human occupants had been gone for some time. But, without humans, there are breakdowns, for this is a human invention, and eventually the house is destroyed by fire. Bradbury's description of the house's desperate efforts to save itself makes it seem alive and sentient, frantically trying to put out the fire, a beast of prey.

Recently I've seen several books, a film, and a TV series, all with a similar theme: What will happen to our cities and towns and roads and towns and buildings after we are gone? Bradbury's story was published in 1950, and it asked the same question a half century ago. The title comes from a poem by Sara Teasdale, and it sums up those books and films and the TV series:

"There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire;
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, whether bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone."

While it's clear that Teasdale may be too optimistic about the overall effects of a nuclear war, especially in the areas that have been bombed, I think the point of the story and the poem are clear, and it happens to be the same point that one of the films made--at least the one that I saw. Human artifacts will eventually disappear. We will not be missed.


The Pedestrian

Mr. Leonard Mead has a strange habit: he likes to go for walks in the city where he lives. And he has had the city streets to himself. "In ten years of walking by night or by day, for thousands of miles, he had never met another person walking, not once in all that time."

No, this is not a post-holocaust tale in which Mr. Mead is the last man on earth.

"Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls, where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomb-like building was still open."

This story has a copyright date of 1951 and it's an "if this goes on" tale. Why was nobody out on the streets anymore? TV is the villain. I saw it happening in my neighborhood. People would frequently come out on the front porches of their homes and enjoy the cooling air during the warm months. By the late 60's this had disappeared for the most part. Everybody was inside watching TV. I now live in Tucson where the weather is such that one could sit outside for most months of the year, but it seldom happens.

But this isn't just a playful exercise in human foibles. Mr Mead has had the freedom of his regular strolls for many years now, but human society, as usual, has little or no tolerance for those who are different--in any way. And we here in the land of the free are no different.

Mr Mead is confronted by the police who question him about his activities and are astounded to learn that he's just out walking--walking for the sake of walking. He is ordered to get in the back of the car, which is outfitted much as would be a cell. When he asks where he is being taken, he is told "To the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies." I fear he will be a subject of their research for the rest of his life.

Regressive tendencies--a throwback, someone who engages in activities that are out of step in today's world. I wonder what that would include today. I write with a fountain pen, whenever possible. Would that be considered a regressive tendency?

Would I be guilty of regressive tendencies because I am frequently out of touch with people? In fact, any time I leave the house I am "out of touch." No one can contact me, unless they are physically in my presence. I could be anywhere or doing anything. I don't have a cell phone (actually I prefer calling them mobile phones). Many people are surprised and some even taken aback a bit--not much, but they obviously think that something may be wrong with someone who chooses to be out of touch.

Are you guilty of any regressive tendencies? Well, perhaps you might not want to say here, for someday you may find yourself making a one-way trip t
o "the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Herman Melville: August 1, 1819--September 28, 1891

Today is Herman Melville's birthday, and I thought I would celebrate it with a quotation from one of his writings. I decided that I would try something different and not select one from Moby Dick or Billy Budd or one of his sea tales. I'm sure others will do that. So, here is a quotation from one of Melville's dry land tales, one in which the sea or a ship plays no role.

This quotation is from one of Melville's later novels and, also, one of his bleakest, if not his bleakest: Pierre: or, The Ambiguities. I think this quotation will also provide another look at Melville's writing skills. Surprisingly, at least to me anyway, Melville can pen the prose purple with the best of them (or should I say the worst of them).

Man or woman who has never loved, nor once looked deep down into their own lover's eyes, they know not the sweetest and loftiest religion of this earth. Love is both Creator's and Savior's gospel to mankind; a volume bound in roseleaves, clasped with violets, and by the beaks of humming-birds printed with peach-juice on the leaves of lilies.

-- Herman Melville --
from Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

Something a bit different from Melville.