Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LVII

This quatrain also touches on the theme of predestination which has appeared in several of the last five quatrains.

First Edition: Quatrain LVII

Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
     Thou wilt not with Predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXXVII

Oh, Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
     Thou wilt not with Predestined Evil round
Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXX

Oh, Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
     Thou wilt not with Predestined Evil round
Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin!

FitzGerald made several changes to the Second Edition but no more after that.  The Fifth Edition is identical to the Second.  In the first edition, "Pitfall" and "Gin" are capitalized, but he changes to lower case in subsequent editions. He has done this fairly regularly for earlier quatrains, although not consistently so, as can be seen in lines three and four in this quatrain.  He also substituted "Predestined Evil" for "Predestination." This seems to be FitzGerald's attempt to make sure that "pitfall" and "gin" were seen as evils, whereas "Predestination" is morally neutral for it simply means something was destined to happen, which could be good or evil. 

In the last line, FitzGerald changes "Enmesh me, and impute.  .  ."  to  "Enmesh, and then impute .  .  ."  I'm guessing here,  but perhaps he felt the "me" was redundant or unnecessary since later in the line it is his Fall to sin that is referred to. The last change was the substitution of the exclamation point for the question mark at the very end of the quatrain.  In the first edition, the Poet asks if he will be blamed for his sins whereas in the subsequent editions, it's a definite statement that he can't be blamed.

The Poet in this quatrain points out that the divinity is responsible for alcohol and all the sources of vice since these are all His creations.  Since these irresistible traps are put in his path, he is bound to fall, and therefore he should not be held responsible if he stumbles into the traps that were deliberately placed in his way.  After all, they were there, and he did not go out of his way to find them.

It's hard to say, for me anyway, whether the Poet is being ironic in this quatrain.  If he isn't being ironic, then he is attacking the basis for our creation on this planet--a test of our moral character that will result in eternal happiness in heaven or eternal pain and agony in hell. 


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Some Poems I've recently encountered

I seldom sit down and read a  book of poetry straight through over a period of days.  I usually pick one up and read a few poems and then put it down.  The next time I'm moved to read poetry, I may go back to that volume or I may pick up another one instead.   Why and how I got into this habit, I don't know, but I did somehow and so I do now.  These are some poems from two volumes that I've looked into most recently: Art and Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry and A Little Treasury of Haiku.

The Best

What's the best thing in the world?
June-rose, by May-dew impearl'd;
Sweet south-wind, that means no rain;
Truth, not cruel to a friend;
Pleasure, not in haste to end;
Beauty, not self-deck'd and curl'd
Till its pride is over-plain;
Light, that never makes you wink;
Memory, the gives no pain;
Love, when, so, you're loved avian;
What's the best thing in the world?
--Something out of it, I think.

                  -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning --
                       from Art and Nature

What's the best?  She answers her question but then lists a weakness:  truths that do not hurt friends or pleasures that do not end quickly or memories that do not hurt.  Sadly she concludes by thinking that whatever is the best isn't something found in this world.  All the best things have pain attached to them, even as roses have thorns.. 

-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -

 Casida of the Rose

       The rose
was not searching for the sunrise:
almost eternal on its branch,
it was searching for something else.

      The rose
was not searching for darkness or science:
borderland of flesh and dream,
it was searching for something else.

      The rose
was not searching for the rose.
Motionless in the sky
it was searching for something else.
          -- Federico Garcia Lorca --
                 from Art and Nature

Its brevity adds to its mystery.  What is the rose searching for?   Something spiritual, perhaps? 
What is the rose?  Something that is almost immortal, a borderland, and motionless in the sky?
-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -

The Act            

There were the roses, in the rain.
Don't cut them, I pleaded.
         They won't last, she said.
But they're so beautiful
       where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she
and cut them and gave them to me
       in my hand.
                -- William Carlos Williams --
                     from Art and Nature.  

Two worlds colliding here?
Those who want to leave things the way they are for that is best.
Those who insist that beauty is fleeting, so we should take what we want before it's too late.

Here are several haiku that play with variations on that theme:

      Don't touch my plumtree!
Said my friend and saying so .  .  .
     Broke the branch for me
                       -- Taigi --

        My good father raged
When I snapped the peony .  .  .
           Precious memory!
                -- Tairo --

          I raised my knife to it:
Then walked empty-handed on  .  .  .
           Proud rose of Sharon
             -- Sampu --

Sadness at twilight .  .  .
Villain!  I have let my hand
Cut that peony
             -- Buson --

White chrysanthemum .  .  .
  Before that perfects flower
          Scissors hesitate
                 -- Buson --

Cut it and carry its beauty with you, for only a short time though.
But, it will die soon anyway.
Leave it so someone else can also enjoy its beauty.

Poets in Japan and the US, the East and the West:  perhaps the twain can meet, occasionally.

All haiku from A Little Treasury of Haiku,  Avenel Books
translations by Peter Beilenson

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Theodore Sturgeon: "The World Well Lost"

Theodore Sturgeon's "The World Well Lost" is an SF short story.  The title is taken from John Dryden's play, All For Love; or, The World Well Lost.  The subject of  Dryden's play is the same as Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the love between them that cost one a kingdom and the other an empire.  Love's price is high for them, but the title suggests love is worth it.  Sturgeon's short story is about another love, a different type of love that at that time had to remain hidden, for the consequences of revealing it would result also in the loss of one's position, and very likely one's family and friends.  This story was published in 1953, which makes it remarkable for being written and published at that time.

It is set far in the future when Terra (Earth) had spread its influence throughout the galaxy.  However, there were a few holdouts and the planet Dirbanu was one of them.  When the initial contact had been made by a Terran ship, Dirbanu had surrounded itself in impenetrable force fields, thus preventing any contact until an ambassador could be sent to Terra.  Once there, in spite of numerous and obvious similarities, "the ambassador .  .  . showed a most uncommon disdain of Earth and all its work, curled his lip and went wordlessly home, and ever since then Dirbanu had locked itself tight away from the questing Terrans."

So it remained until the time when Dirbanu finally slipped from Terran concerns and memory.

Then the "loverbirds" arrived.  They landed in a small spaceship, and after disembarking, the taller one of the two threw some powder on the ship, and it immediately dissolved into dust which blew away on the wind.  It was clear they planned to stay on Terra, thus giving up their home planet, possibly forever.

They were so wrapped up in each other that the Earth folk were captivated.  There were loverbird songs, trinkets, hats and pins, and jewelry.  It took a computer, however, loaded with the accumulated knowledge of Terran space exploration to discover where they came from, for they never would say.  It was Dirbanu.  It was at this time that Dirbanu sent a message, the first one in ages, to Earth.  The loverbirds were criminals and the Dirbanu would be most grateful if they were returned.

"So, from the depths of its enchantment, Terra was able to calculate a course of action.  Here at last was an opportunity to consort with Dirbanu on a friendly basis--great Dirbanu which, since it had force fields which Earth could not duplicate, must of necessity, have many other things Earth could use;  mighty Dirbanu before whom we could kneel in supplication (with purely-for-defense bombs hidden in our pockets) with lowered heads (making invisible the knife in our teeth) and ask for crumbs from their table (in order to extrapolate the location of their kitchens)."

Sturgeon does not paint a pleasing picture of the Terrans, or, at least, one that doesn't sound very pleasing to me. And later, one of the characters paints an even more dismal picture of Earth culture, which ostensibly is in the future but can be descriptive of many contemporary human cultures and groups.

"A filthy place, Terra.  There is nothing, he thought, like the conservatism of license.  Given a culture of sybaritics, with an endless choice of mechanical titillations, and you have a people of unbreakable and hidebound formality, a people with few but massive taboos, a shockable, narrow, prissy people obeying the rules--even the rules of their calculated depravities--and protecting their treasured, specialized pruderies.  In such a group there are words one may not use for fear of their fanged laughter, colors one may not wear, gestures and intonations one must forego, on pain of being torn to pieces.  The rules are complex and absolute, and in such a place one's heart may not sing lest, through its warm free joyousness, it betray one."

The subject, a taboo one when this story was written, and although more acceptable today, but still considered with loathing and fear by various groups for various reasons, is homosexual love.   It is one of the first stories I read that portrayed homosexual love as being something other than a perversion or a defiance of natural law.   Though it might be banned by various groups today, it still doesn't have the effect it had when it was first published in the early '50s. 

Highly recommended:  it is a story that makes its point without preaching.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Basho: a haiku or two or maybe . . .

Some time ago I bought a collection of haiku by poets the editor called Haiku Masters.  When I opened it, I was surprised to find that it had no haiku by Basho.  In the Introduction, the editor explained that he hadn't included any by Basho because Basho was the Haiku Poet, and therefore superior to the Haiku Masters.

While I don't think every haiku by Basho is a gem, as some editors and commentators claim, I do think he has more gems than any other haiku poet and I can't argue when he's called the Haiku Poet..

Here are some:

          For a lovely bowl
Let us arrange these flowers .  .  .
       Since there is no rice

Opportunities to create beauty are everywhere.

-   -   -   -   -   -

        April's air stirs in
Willow-leaves .  .  .a butterfly
      Floats and balances.

My favorite haiku.  I've posted this one before and I'll probably post it again.

-   -   -   -   -   -

          White cloud of mist
Above white cherry-blossoms .  .  .
      Dawn-shining mountains

Sheer imagery

-   -   -   -   -   -

  Twilight whippoorwill .  .  .
Whistle on, sweet deepener
       Of dark loneliness

This goes straight to the heart: 
"sweet deepener
       Of dark loneliness"

All haiku are taken from A Little Treasury of Haiku, Avenel Books.
Translations by Peter Beilenson

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Recent Viewings

This is a mixed bag of recent DVDs I've watched in the past few weeks.  Some were disappointments while others surprised me.  One was a dramatization based on a short story that greatly expanded on the short story, adding a new element, along with the usual special effects, that reminded me of another film.



Casablanca had to be one of the two best films I've seen recently.  It is the classic with Bogart, Bergman, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid and everybody's favorite German officer, Conrad Veidt.  It has a great cast, a great script, and a story that has everything--romance, adventure, danger, and patriotism.  The specific reason for seeing it this time was a fear that a recent viewing of the Neil Simon effort, The Cheap Detective, spoiled the film for me.  Sometimes images from a pastiche can interfere with the original.  In this case, there was no problem.

If you haven't seen it, go see it.  If it's been awhile, see it again. 


The Maltese Falcon

The other film which occupied the top spot was The Maltese Falcon, which was the second part of Neil  Simon's The Cheap Detective, in which the Peter Falk character played the role of Bogart's Sam Spade who occasionally wandered onto the set of Casablanca.   Like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon also had a great cast:  Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre, Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, and Elisha Cook, Jr., in the only role I can remember him, as the Gunsel or the Kid.  The weak link was Mary Astor, as Brigid O'Shaughnessy.  The specific reason for watching this film is the same as for Casablanca.  I was curious to see if I could watch it and not have my enjoyment spoiled by Simon's pastiche.  Again, I found no problems. 

My recommendation is the same as for Casablanca--see it soon.


Aftermath: Population Zero

Aftermath:  Population Zero is a very different film.  It is a National Geographic special that predicts what would happen on Earth if the human race suddenly vanished.  It doesn't explain why or how this happened, just that all humans vanished at the same time.  The immediate effect was a lot of auto crashes and eventually plane crashes.  It took a bit longer for ships to collide or run aground or just lose power and become just another bit of flotsam.

The period of time covered in the film went from one minute after the disappearance to twenty-five thousand years in the future when another ice age completely destroyed any remaining signs of human existence on Earth.  Ironically, the only signs that humans existed were the astronauts' footprints and discarded materials on the moon.  They might last for hundreds of thousands of years.  What surprised me the most was the speed at which the power grid shut down--a few days at most.  This of course resulted in various other failures, one of the most serious was at nuclear power plants when the cooling systems shut down and caused meltdowns.  I thought that the estimate of the damage was minimized.

The film naturally had spectacular graphics of the destruction of many buildings and landmarks.    I also found interesting the speculations regarding the fate/future of various animals which had been pets (dogs, cats, exotic birds) or domestic animals (cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, chickens) or most interesting, animals in zoos, assuming they could get out of their cages or habitats.

If you're curious about what would happen if we all disappeared one day, give this one a viewing.  I found it absorbing and enlightening.  


Nostradamus:  2012

Hoping to get some real information, free from the hype of those with an axe to grind and from those who just wanted to exploit the topic, I chose to watch The History Channel's film on Nostradamus, Nostradamus: 2012, which presumably would cover Nostradamus' predictions and the Mayan prophecies regarding events on Dec. 21, 2012.

I hadn't watched many of the offerings of this channel, so I had high expectations for the level of discussion.  I was disappointed.  It turned out to be just another exploitation film with all the usual tricks that show up.  Much of the narrative consisted of questions that later on were assumed to be answered.  Speculations later became facts.  Claims were made by "experts,"  who were never named.  These claims were followed by a statement from one or more authors who testified mostly that those statements or prophecies really existed, but nothing about the legitimacy of the prophecies.  Nothing was ever said about Nostradamus, that his prophecies had been used by numerous seers and preachers who pointed out  the relevance of those prophecies to events in every century or even almost every decade since his death in 1566, almost four hundred and fifty years ago.

The conclusion?  One of the most prominent authors on the program told us in a very confidential voice that he really didn't think that anything dramatic was going to happen on December 21, 2012--no earthquakes, no super-volcanic eruptions, no super storms .  .  .  It was going to be a normal day, just like any other day.  In other words, he just discounted everything that had just been told us.  However, forty years in the future in a world that has eliminated pollution, overpopulation, poverty, disease,  famine, war, etc., we would be able to look back and say that it all began on December 21, 2012.

No comment


The Box

The Box is a recent film based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button."   If you are not familiar with his writings, then you should take a look at his SF novel  I Am Legend, which has been made into several mediocre films.  It's a reverse spin on the traditional vampire legend.   In this tale, a normal human is seen as a monster (for good reasons) which vampire parents use to scare their children.

In "Button, Button,"  a financially struggling young couple receive a package one day.  Upon opening it, they find a box with a button on top, all covered by a plastic shield.  Later, they receive a visitor who tells them that by pushing the button they will receive fifty thousand dollars.  In addition, someone they don't know will die.  They can get the money only at the expense of someone's life. 

We then see the discussion between the husband and wife.  They need the money.  But, at the cost of a human life?  Is this a hoax?   The button is pushed, but at a price neither expected.

It's clear this is too slight of a story to be turned into a feature length film.  It was dramatized on Twilight Zone in the 80s, a version which I haven't seen.  I suspect, though, that  it would do well in a short format.

In 2009, the feature film version came out--The Box, which was loosely based on the story.  In the film, a young couple with financial problems receive a package containing a box with a button on top and covered with a plastic shield.  A visitor later that day tells that by pushing the button they will get one million dollars: 
obvious inflation here as we've gone from $50,000 in 1970 when the story was first published  to $1,000,000 in 2009.  This is followed by the discussion between the husband and the wife, and eventually the button is pushed.  In both the short story and the film, the husband is opposed to pushing the button and he leaves for work.  While he is gone, she pushes the button.

Spoiler warning:  I have brought out some significant plot elements here.

Up to this point, the film has been very close to the story, but once the button is pushed, the short story is forgotten.  All sort of special effects and strange events take place.  There is a group behind the box who seem to be running some sort of experiment.  In the back ground are aliens who have come to test humanity for the virtues of compassion and empathy.  If humanity loses, it will be destroyed--a bit reminiscent of a much earlier classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.  In addition, at the end the husband is forced to choose between his son and his wife.  This is a reversal of sorts of the end of the short story.

Recommendation:  give it a viewing.  I doubt if it will be a classic, but it does pose some questions regarding morality which are frequently ignored in many SF films.   And, these questions should also be turned back on the aliens as well.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias (California Troika)

While Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias occupy differing universes, there still are some interesting links drawing them together.   A brief reminder:  Wild Shore (WS) is the post-holocaust novel about life in what was once Orange County; The Gold Coast (GC) tells of life in a Orange County which has become completely covered over with expressways, condos, and shopping malls; and Pacific Edge (PE) relates of life in a world that takes the future of humanity, the environment, and our fellow creature into account.

All three novels open with a similar event or adventure, depending upon the novel--digging up the past.  In WS, Henry and his friends engage in a midnight raid on a graveyard located in one of the mostly deserted urban areas in the vicinity.  They are looking for the silver trimmings (silver is especially valuable as a trade item at the swap meets) from the caskets.  The problem is that these are considered to be their property by the scavengers who live there and have been known to kill trespassers.  They find that the silver trimmings are not really silver and barely escape the scavengers who have come across them..

The past again  becomes important in GC for Jim has persuaded his friends to dig up a parking lot which has paved over an old school, according to maps that Jim has found. He hopes to find a souvenir of that past time before the auto took over the county.   In this case, the police take a dim view of the destruction of the parking lot and Jim and his friends barely escape them.  One of his friends does manage to escape with a piece of  wood.

In PE, Kevin and others in his town are engaged in town work.  All residents must donate ten hours a week to doing work needed by the town, which has very few employees, part of the new legislation setting maximum levels of number of employees.  Aside from this which is a distinct break from our world, is another even more startling:  all governments must obey the same rules. They are busy digging up an old part of the town and putting aside for future use all the items made of metal with copper wiring and actually anything that can be reused.

Digging up the past is obviously an important element in all three novels, but this serves a different purpose in each.  In WS it's for  something that could be valuable as a bargaining/trading item,  in GC, it's for a souvenir of the long ago dead past, while in PE, it's for recyclable items.

A second link uniting the three is the main character's love life, and the course is unfortunately consistent across the three universes.  Henry, in WS, falls in love with the sexy daughter of a man who lives on the outskirts of the tiny settlement.  He is viewed with suspicion by the others for he seems to have considerable wealth, but from where no one can say.  It's a short brief but passionate affair (at least on Henry's side) that ends when Henry discovers the truth behind her sudden passion for him.

In GC,  Jim has a short, brief passionate affair with a woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend, or perhaps he has dumped her.  In any case, Jim is the lucky recipient of her affection, for a short time, that is.

Kevin, in PE, has been going with a woman for several years now, but it's clearly not going anywhere, and he's losing interest.  Then he discovers that his long ago secret love has broken up with her boyfriend after living together for more than a decade.  He finds that she suddenly discovers him, and he is ecstatic, until the sad end.  He then decides that his old girlfriend is his true love but soon learns that in the interim she has found a new boyfriend.

The path of true love does not run smoothly, regardless of the universe.

The third link is the supposed author of the works, two of which are written by the main character in each work--Henry in WS and Jim in GC. In both cases we are shown just when Henry and Jim get the idea to write down their experiences of the past months which were highly significant for them, their families, and friends.  We also hear from the author of PE, but the identify of that person is not clear.  The authorial intrusions soon make it difficult to see him as Kevin.  They live in two different universes.  Comments made by the author also suggest that this is a work of  fiction, and not autobiographical in any way.  Perhaps this is Robinson's way of suggesting that this world could never exist.  Sadly, I have to agree with Robinson that a post holocaust world is far more likely than a world that comes to realize that sheer greed and exploitation must be at least controlled, for eliminating greed and exploitation is impossible.

The last and most intriguing link is also the most direct.  In each of the three novels, there is an old man called Tom.  In WS, he is called Tom Barnard, and he is one of the few survivors from the pre-holocaust world.  He is a valuable member of the small community, for his memories of the past are highly useful.  Moreover, he is a teacher who conducts a school for the young people in the community.  Literacy among the people of his community may be his greatest contribution.  He is also a myth maker, not only telling about the pre-holocaust days but exaggerating the accomplishments of the Old Americans.  For example, Shakespeare was an American.  At one point, he becomes seriously ill and the entire community is concerned.  Existence without Tom Barnard would be unthinkable.

In PE, the old man is also called Tom Barnard.  He also lives on the outskirts of the community but is isolated from the community.  This is his choice.  He had been closely involved in the legislation that created the world as it is today in PE, and he now appears to be taking Voltaire's admonition to "tend to your own garden" quite seriously.  He is Kevin's grandfather, and Kevin attempts to get him involved in the struggle to defeat Alfredo's plans.  Tom's experience and knowledge would be very useful to those opposing Alfredo.

We find a very different situation in GC.  The old man is Jim's uncle.  I can't find any mention of him other than Uncle Tom, so I have no idea of what his last name is.  He is in a nursing home, with moments of lucidness and times of confusion;   He is mostly ignored by Jim, and by society in general, a too typical situation for many older people in our society as well.  Jim has to be nagged at by his parents to visit him once in a while.  On one visit, Tom is lucid and Jim finally realizes, much too late, that Tom has a storehouse of memories of the way Orange County was before progress took over.

In WS, the post-holocaust novel,  and PE, the fantasy universe that has gone green, Tom is a valued member of the community with close ties to both Henry and Kevin.  In GC, the universe that is closest to ours, Tom, for the most part,  is ignored by Jim and of no value to society.

Highly Recommended (naturally)

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LVI

This is another quatrain that seems difficult to interpret with a religious or a spiritual meaning.

First Edition:  Quatrain LVI

And this I know:  whether the one True Light,
Kindle to Love, or Wrath consume me quite,
    One glimpse of It within the Tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXXIII

And this I know:  whether the one True Light,
Kindle to Love, or Wrath-consume me quite,
    One flash of It within the Tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.

Fifth Edition:  LXXVII

And this I know: whether the one True Light,
Kindle to Love, or Wrath-consume me quite,
    One flash of It within the Tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.

Only one word change appears among the various editions.  "Glimpse" in the third line of the first edition is changed to "flash"  in the second and fifth editions.  The significance of the change may be that since it's a Light that the poet is speaking of, a "flash"  would be more accurate a description than a "glimpse."   The other change is an addition of a dash  between "Wrath" and "consume"  in the second and succeeding editions.  It's effect is to produce a pause after "Wrath" and and link it more closely to "Kindle to Love, or Wrath."  Now it seems as that the True Light could result in Love or Wrath, regardless of its ultimate effect.

The poet suggests that he could get a brief look at the Divinity, regardless of  whether it happens in a Temple or a Tavern--the spiritual world or the profane world.   However, it would be preferable to die from getting a glimpse of it in a Tavern than spending all one's time fruitlessly in a Temple.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Barbara Hurd: Some kind words for swamps

".  .  .We love high drama in this country, mountain peaks and soap operas.  They offer us something to tilt our lives toward--that triumph of ascent, that heart-pounding eye-to-eye intensity, that feeling of being wildly alive.  Our nature aesthetics sound like movie reviews.  We thrill to the surprising twist in the road that reveals the vast panorama, the unexpected waterfall.  We canonize beauty that can be framed on the walls, in the camera, or on the postcard.
     To love a swamp, however, is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised.  And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing.  Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs  where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight, where the imagination can mutate and mate, send tendrils into and out of the water.  It should come as no surprise that the most common carnivorous plants are found in wetlands.  Here there is room for the thought not fully formed to stretch, roll over, poke its eyes above water.  Here is the valley of split-pea soup where what floats like a chunk of ham might lift its meaty head out of the muck and haul itself onto the log next to you. blinking in the sunshine."

-- Barbara Hurd --
from Spring: A Spiritual Autobiography of the Season

I must confess that I'm one of those high drama lovers that Hurd writes of and who seldom spends any time contemplating the virtues of a bog.  And, I never thought of comparing our subconscious where those half-formed ideas germinate and play  to a swamp or bog, but it does seem to fit somehow.   Some of those ideas probably should never escape from the bog, but there are others that should be nurtured for awhile before being exposed to the harsh realities of  the outside world.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson: Pacific Edge (Three California series)

I have to resist calling Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge the third book in the Three California Series because that sounds as though it's the third book in the series.  It is, but only because it's the third book published in the series, which was originally called The Orange County Trilogy.  Wild Shore was published in 1984 (actually his first published novel), The Gold Coast in 1988, and Pacific Edge in 1990.  I published a short commentary on Wild Shore in March 2011, The Gold Coast in August 2011, and a very short summary of all three in a post titled The California Troika in January 2011.

Pacific Edge is a "what if" tale.  It answers the question of what it would be like if the world turned green and developed a concern for the environment and ecology.  It is also a fantasy whereas the first two novels are closer to SF in nature, and, frankly, I believe a nuclear war and a military-industrial takeover are far more likely than the premise in Pacific Edge.  However, regardless of the change in perspective, Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) has not created a utopia.  People are still people, and there are those who don't see why they can't use the new rules for their own purposes, including grabbing for power and wealth.

Sustainability is the rule in this society.  Excesses are eliminated, or at least, attempts are made to do so.  Corporations are limited by the number of employees, although this limit can be effectively circumvented by setting up dummy corporations, or at least circumvented until the linkage is discovered.  The growth of urban populations are controlled by the amount of water available--insufficient water results in no growth.   In Pacific Edge, we see how these issues are worked out in a small town setting.

This is not a rural fantasy, where technology has disappeared.  People are living in space habitats and there's a colony on the moon.  An expedition is now being fitted out for a trip to Mars.   KSR has not created a completely low-tech culture, but one that makes decisions about when and where to apply technology.  Cars still exist, but in Kevin's small town, people either walk or ride a bike when they move about town.   Cars are necessary only for long trips, not for short jaunts around town.  Moreover, when the novel  begins, we see the people engaged in town-work.  All able-bodied citizens have to put in ten hours a week of town work.  This reduces the need for town employees and the associated costs.  Small government comes with a cost.

Kevin, the main character,  is in his early 30s, although he seems a bit younger than that.  Perhaps this will be the summer that matures him.  It certainly will be a busy one for him, testing him in a variety of ways and providing new experiences. As to be expected in our real world, his experiences have two sides to them--good and bad.

Perhaps one of the most frivolous, frivolous perhaps to some, is his love of softball.  This summer, as in the past, he plays in a softball league.   But, this summer is different, for well into the season, he has compiled a perfect record at bat--he is batting 1.000!  All recognize that this can't last the season, but when will it end?  The attention he gets (the absolute silence, including a few hushes) from the players and spectators each time he comes up to bat is disconcerting.  At times he wishes that it will end and even considers ending it deliberately.  But, he is competitive and each hit helps his team.

He has been involved in a lukewarm relationship that's been going on for years and obviously going nowhere.  This summer, though, the word (gossip) flashes through the young folk: Ramona has broken up with Alfredo.  Ramona and Alfredo have been living together for years now, ever since high school, but they've never formalized their relationship.  Now it appears as though it's over.  Kevin has been nursing a secret (even from himself) love for her for years, but did nothing about it for there seemed to be no hope.  Now, she was free.

He unobtrusively (or so he thinks) begins to pay her some attention.  At first he has to listen to her complaints about Alfredo's faults.   Frankly, this is a bad sign, although Kevin isn't aware of it.  However, Kevin is ecstatic and their relationship flourishes during those summer months.

Kevin has also just been appointed to the town council.  Being relatively apolitical, he hasn't paid much attention to local politics, but now he will find himself immersed in political maneuvering that could affect him personally.   Kevin eventually wonders if perhaps his apolitical past is the reason why he is now on the council.  Someone as naive as he is might not notice certain actions being taken by Alfredo, who is also the mayor at this time.

However, regardless of Kevin's lack of experience, there is one thing he's learned, and that is that Alfredo can not be trusted.  Even if it's something as straightforward as giving the time of the day,  Alfredo will create some sort of plot which will benefit him. 

Therefore, at the first council meeting, Kevin discovers that one of the items on the agenda is a proposal to buy more water from the state water board.   Kevin is immediately suspicious and questions Alfred about  the reason for the proposal.  They have enough water for the present and even a bit more than they need.  Alfredo vaguely mentions that it is always good to have more water available than is necessary because something may arise requiring more water; however, he has nothing specific in mind, just thinking about the future.

Then Kevin discovers, buried at the end of the agenda, when most folks are gone and those who are left are tired and just want to go home, another innocuous proposal by Alfredo.   A small hill outside of town would be given a commercial zoning rating.  This hill, with no structures on it, is a favorite spot for picnickers and lovers  and those (Kevin, for example)  who just want to sit and be alone for awhile.  It also has the best view in the area of the valley below.

Kevin then questions this motion, and Alfredo, irritated,  insists he has nothing in mind; it's just that it's not zoned and he wanted to clear this up.  Others on the council then begin to ask questions, and Alfredo  withdraws the motion.  After the meeting, Kevin, in a discussion with some members of the council, wonders if there is a connection between the proposal to buy more water, which would allow considerable growth in the town and the zoning motion for commercial use of the hill. What is Alfredo up to?  It's time to take a closer look at Alfredo once again.    

An interesting summer for Kevin--radical changes in his life in sports, love, and politics.

However, there's one more element to the story that isn't found in the other two novels of  The Three Californias.  In the other novels, the stories are written by the two main characters. as a record of the events of the unusual events of the past six months or so.  This is made very clear in both works.  KSR has decided to do something different in this novel.  There are authorial intrusions throughout the work. The first one begins:

2 March 2012, 8 A.M. I decided that as a gesture to its spirit, I would write my book outdoors.

The author is in Zurich, Switzerland.  Is this Robinson, injecting himself into the novel as does Samuel R. Delany in The Einstein Intersection or John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman?  But, the year in the quotation is 2012 while this novel was published in 1990,  Could this be Keven himself, just as in the other two novels, writing down the events of a past summer?  The intrusions become even more bizarre as the author appears to be in conflict with a hostile US Government and even is imprisoned at one point.  The tone of these insertions is decidedly Kafkaesque, in direct contrast to the tale of  Kevin's summer.  Could Kevin's summer be some sort of idyllic escape for the author who is trapped in a world that seemingly is closer to Orwell's 1984 or Kafka's The Trial than to Kevin's world?

Or perhaps, the authorial intrusions represent a fourth California, one so much worse than even a post-holocaust world that Robinson can't quite bring himself to write about it, except in this oblique way.

Highly recommended, but then again, I'm biased.  I highly recommend anything and everything Kim Stanley Robinson writes.