Friday, May 30, 2014

Loren Eiseley: from THE NIGHT COUNTRY

"It is frequently the tragedy of the great artist, as it is of the great scientist, that he frightens the ordinary man.  If he is more than a popular story-teller it may take humanity a generation to absorb and grow accustomed to the new geography with which that scientist or artist presents us.  Even then, perhaps only the more imaginative and literate may accept him.  Subconsciously the genius is feared as an image breaker;  frequently he does not accept the opinions of the mass, or man's opinion  of himself.  He has voiced through the ages, in one form or another, this very loneliness and detachment which Dewey saw so clearly at the outcome of our extending knowledge.  The custom-bound, uneducated, intolerant man projects his fear and hatred upon the seer.  The artist is frequently a human mirror.  If what we see there displeases us, if we see all too clearly our own insignificance and vanity, we tend to revolt, not against ourselves, but in order to martyrize the unfortunate soul who forced us into self-examination.

In short, like the herd animals we are, we sniff warily at the strange one among us.  If he is fortunate enough finally to be accepted, it is likely to be after a trial of ridicule and after the sting has been removed from his work by long familiarization and bowdlerizing, when the alien quality of his thought has been mitigated or removed.  Carl Schneer recounts that Einstein made so little impression on his superiors, it was with difficulty that he obtained even a junior clerkship in the Swiss Patents office at Bern, after having failed of consideration as a scholar of promise.  Not surprisingly, theoretical physicists favored his views before the experimentalists capitulated.  As Schneer remarks: It was not easy to have a twenty-six-year-old clerk in the Swiss Patent office explain the meaning of experiments on which one had labored for years."  Implacable hatred, as well as praise, was to be Einstein's lot.

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Night Country

I have one small quibble here with what Eiseley is arguing--he says "uneducated" as a characteristic of those who fear the genius or one who goes beyond the accepted dogma.  I would remove "uneducated" because I see many "educated" people in the ranks of those terrified by the new or the original.

Just because it is new or original or unique does not make it bad or wrong or good or right.  It is hard to judge something that is novel objectively or fairly, for our biases and prejudices immediately come into play.  For this reason, we should always wait a while before passing judgement.

Too many times those first immediate snap judgements are proved wrong later.   Some are able to  reevaluate their position and admit they were wrong, facing unfortunately, derision and even isolation from those around them--wobbling is unacceptable to many.  Others unable to admit their errors then search out evidence that appears to support their position while ignoring, avoiding, or ridiculing contrary evidence.   Mocking or ridiculing those who disagree is also a common tactic employed to protect oneself from having to admit one made an error.

It is unfortunate for a country or other political entity when the leaders, elected or appointed, are among those who are shackled by the past and unable to consider new ways of doing things or new ways of thinking, simply because they are new.  We should wait before dismissing the new, for there just might be something there worth thinking about, something better than today's universal truths.

It's been said in many ways: Yesterday's heresies are today's revelations and tomorrow's dogmatic truths.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Friedrich Nietzsche: some aphorisms

"The good four. Honest with ourselves and with whatever is friend to us; courageous toward the enemy; generous toward the vanquished;  polite--always: that is how the four cardinal virtues want us."   

I don't know what he means by "the four cardinal virtues,"  but as I was raised a Catholic, they were justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence.    Doesn't seem to be much of an overlap here, is there?
Polite?  That seems to have disappeared today or so it seems to me. 

"Against an enemy.  How good bad music and bad reasons sound when one marches against an enemy!"

I guess the mind or the reasoning faculties shut down and emotion takes over.

"Shedding one's skin.   The snake that cannot shed its skin perishes.  So do the spirits who are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be spirit."  

Didn't one of our two political parties make a virtue recently of not changing one's opinions regardless of the situation.  Those who do are accused of "wobbling."

All quotations are from
The Portable Nietzsche
Walter Kaufman:  Editor and translator

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Theodore Sturgeon: "The Heart"

Theodore Sturgeon
"The Heart"
The Ultimate Egoist
Volume I: The Complete Stories

"The Heart"  is a quiet little shocker with a warning about getting what one wants.  It's also an early tale about the power of hate.

The tale is a nested story-within-a-story.  A writer is sitting at a bar when a woman comes up to him and says she knows he's a writer and that, for a drink or two, she will tell him her story.  

 She describes herself as a plain woman who buried herself in her job as a records clerk in the coroner's office.  She meets a man who has serious heart problems (this was written prior to the development of heart transplants).  They fall in love.  Since he won't, she proposes to him.  He says no because she would be a widow in a short time and he doesn't want to put her through that.  He then leaves her, saying it is for the best.

She can't let it go like that, so she decides to do something about his problem, something unique and unexpected (at least to me).  She tells the writer:

"Hate's a funny thing.  I hope you don't ever know how--how big it can be.  Use it right, and it's the most totally destructive thing in the universe.  When I realized that, my mind stopped going round and round in those small circles, and it began to drive straight ahead.  I got it all clear in my mind.  Listen now--let me tell you what happened when I got going.

I found something to hate.  Bill Llanyn's heart--the ruined, inefficient organ that was keeping us apart.  No one can ever know the crazy concentration I put into it.  No one has ever lived to describe the solidness of hate when it begins to form into something real.  I needed a miracle to make over Bill's heart, and in hate I had a power to work it.  My hate reached a greatness that nothing could withstand.  I knew it just as surely as a murderer knows what he has done when he feels his knife sink into his victim's flesh.  But I was no murderer.  Death wasn't my purpose.  I wanted my hatred to reach into his heart. sear out what was bad and let him take care of the rest.   I was doing what no one else has ever done--hating constructively.  If I hadn't been so insanely anxious to put my idea to work, I would have remembered that hate can build nothing that is not evil, cause nothing that is not evil."

In short, she attempts to use her hatred as a kind of a psychic laser which will burn out the diseased cells in his heart.

 Spoiler: discussion of the ending

A short time later, the coroner hands her notes from several port mortums he recently conducted.  One of them was for Bill Llanyn.  The diagnosis was heart failure.  The coroner tells her he can't be more specific than that.  She should just put down heart failure.  When she asks why, he replies that the man had no heart at all: there was nothing there and he wasn't going to put that on the official form.

Was it that  her control over her hate powered psychic laser was insufficient to accurately distinguish between the diseased cells and the healthy cells in his heart?  Or, were there no healthy cells at all left in his heart?  Or, did she subconsciously hate him and therefore killed him?  Perhaps she didn't know what was in her own heart at that time.   Could this explain her actions after having told her story?

"The woman got up and looked at the clock.
     'Where are you headed?'  I (the writer) asked.
     'I'm catching a train out of here,' she said.  She went to the door.  I said goodnight to her on the sidewalk.  She went down toward the station.  I headed uptown.  When the police emergency wagon screamed by me a few minutes later I didn't have to go down to the tracks to see what happened."

Guilt?  Grief?  Both?

It is said that only a thin line separates love and hate. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Robert Frost: "Into My Own"

Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e'er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I hold them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew--
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

-- Robert Frost --

This is one of his early poems, first published in A Boy's Will which first came out in 1913 and then a second edition in 1915.  For some strange reason, whenever I've opened my collection of Frost's poems, I have always skimmed by this one and never really looked closely at it, until now.  While it may be one of his early poems, it is still a classic example of Frost being his usual perverse self.

It's a growing up poem, in that the narrator hopes that the darkness of the future is ever-present: one will never know just what one will encounter, or what will encounter him.  Some of his later poems take up this issue more specifically, I think. But, here, it is enough that he realizes that he must go on, even though he may never see a clearing or "Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand."  That's a great line: I can see that wagon wheel rolling down the road, catching up and dropping the sand and dust of the road.

He sees no reason for turning back.  And, he realizes that others who miss him may wish to follow him to see if he still "hold(s) them dear."  But, the last two lines, as frequently happens in Frost's poems, turns expectancies around.  What should happen when those who have come in pursuit find him.  Why, they should find him different, for after all, people have always gone off into the wilderness to seek a vision or a new life or a new philosophy to share with others.   Aren't we products of our environment, conditioned by those around us?  Different environment = a different person,

Many psychological theories insist that there is no hard core to the personality, that there really is no "I,"  that the "I" is really a delusion, a construct of desires, momentary flitting ideas, sensory impressions, responses to our environment.  Therefore, setting off alone, without the familiar, should result in a change in the personality over a period of time as the person adjusts to the new environment and as new ideas and behaviors are incorporated.


"They would not find me changed from him they knew--
  Only more sure of all I thought was true. "

Frost disagrees for he says that they won't find him changed for this isolation, this time of separation will allow him to get a clearer view of what he is, to see himself as he really is, and, therefore, more secure in his self-image.

Another example of Frost being Frost.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Some novels, stories, and poems that I revisit regularly, Pt. 2

These are stories and authors who popped up after I began the first post on works I regularly reread.  And, as I think about what I'm going to write about them, the urge to jump up, hustle over to the bookcase, and dust them off for another reread is ever present.  Oh well, it's that old "too few hours or years and too many books" problem as usual.

Herman Melville
I have a theory that every writer has a wild book tucked down deep inside somewhere.  Some manage to get it out, while others either repress it or aren't aware of it.  If it does get out, then readers and critics are confused and generally don't like it, for it's not what they want or expect from the writer.  I think Melville's wild book is Mardi.  And, in my usual contrary way, I consider it a favorite.  Mardi is satire, rather like Gulliver's Travels which was published in 1726 and revised in 1735,  whereas Melville's work was published in 1849Melville may have been influenced by Jonathan Swift, but I haven't read any scholarly commentary that suggests that.

In Mardi,  Taji, the narrator, is in pursuit of his lost love, Yillah,  a Polynesian woman whom he had  rescued from native priests who were going to sacrifice her to their gods.  She was once again kidnapped, and Taji, in a small boat, went off in search of her once again.  He is accompanied on his mission byKing Media, who was bored with his duties and looked for adventure; Babbalanja,  a philosopher;  Mohi, an historian; and Yoomy, a poet.   As you can imagine, with such a crew representing the political, the philosophical, the historical, and the poetic viewpoints, there are long and sometimes confusing discussions about the universe and everything else as they traverse the  South Seas in search of Yillah.  During their journey they visit various islands, each of which exhibits some facet of human cruelty or weakness or folly.  One of the islands is obviously Europe and another is the US in the late 1840s.

Some contemporary critics have called it an allegory and others "a mess."  Some have called it both an allegory and a mess.  It's one of those books that the reader has to go along with Melville (or Taji) and enjoy the ride and not insist on a tightly woven consistent narrative with no loose ends at the end.
Read it for fun, and whatever else you can get out of it. 

Herman Melville
The Confidence Man:  This is a short allegorical novel set on a Mississippi riverboat, the Fidele, Fidelity or Faith in English, if I'm not mistaken. It consists of a series of encounters that passengers have with various confidence men (or perhaps really only one in disguise), all "representing" various charitable organizations.  Perhaps what fascinates me the most is that I'm never quite sure what underlies the various encounters.    

Herman Melville
Moby Dick is probably considered his greatest work, if not one of the greatest novels written in the US during the nineteenth century, if not also the twentieth century.  It's too early to say anything definite about the twenty-first century, but so far I haven't seen anything to compare to it.  It's a comedy, a tragedy, a revenge play, a travelogue, a history of whaling, and a scientific treatise on cetology.  Enough said.

Greg Benford:
The Galactic Center Series
Six novels.  The first is In the Ocean of Night which was published in 1977.  It is set in the late 1990s on Earth and near-Earth space and features the adventures of Nigel Walmsley, a Brit who somehow got himself a position as an astronaut in the NASA Space Program.  He wanted to go into space and England didn't have a space program.  The sixth novel is Sailing Bright Eternity, published in 1996 and is set some 30,000+ years in the future in the vicinity of the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

In between are some of the most spectacular science fiction adventures I've ever read and that covers 60+ years of reading SF.   In volume three, Great Sky River, published in 1987, we jump ahead some 30,000 years and meet Kileen Bishop and his group of friends and relatives on the run from the mech civilization, AIs and robots who are determined to wipe out all organic life.  Bishop and the other humans are closer to being cybernetic hybrids than 100% human with their metal and plastic reinforced exoskeletons and electronically enhanced senses.  Volumes Four, Five, and Six are mostly concerned with the activities of the Bishop clan and their struggle to avoid destruction by the mechs. However, there a few surprises in store for the reader.

Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon

It's one of the great mystery novels, at least to my way of thinking.  Part of its attraction may be that when I read the novel, I always see the actors from the film playing their respective roles.  I must also admit that I've seen the film more often than I've read the novel.  Actually I saw the film first, actually long before I read the novel.  It features a tough, cynical detective, a femme fatale, sleezy villains, and, of course, the Falcon!  Great stuff.

Nikos Kazantzakis
Zorba the Greek
This is another example of having seen the film first and then reading the novel, primarily because of the filmA young bookish intellectual attempts to escape his cloistered life by reopening a lignite mine on Crete which he has inherited.  He is aided and abetted and confused by Zorba, an adventurer, miner, soldier, and survivor.  Zorba is the exact opposite of the intellectual--earthy, practical, exuberant, almost a life force in himself.   The book is ironic in that it encourages the reader to put down the book and go out and do something in the real world.  After reading Zorba, I got so entranced by Kazantzakis' works, that I went out and read everything of his that I could find.  I think that by now I've read almost everything he's written that's been translated. 

George R. Stewart
Earth Abides
This is another of my favorite SF post-holocaust novels.  It's what I call a quiet novel in that it depicts the quiet day-by-day struggles of the survivors of a war that killed most of the humans on Earth.  There are no mutant, slavering monsters, semi-human or otherwise.  The threats are the typical ones of providing food and shelter, and dealing accidents and disease in a world without ERs and vaccines.  And, of course, there are some who figure taking food, etc. is easier than working.  It's also the story of how myths about the survivors or first families begin in a society that is largely illiterate and how those survivors might be viewed in the future.  One other element is that of the making of a sacred symbol purely by accident.  

Lawrence Durrell
The Alexandria Quartet
I was hooked from the first pages of Justine, the first novel in the series.  It was on the reading list of a class I took, and I immediately went out and got the next three.  I've read it at least 3 or 4 times now and had to search for the hardbound copies as the paperback ones were disintegrating.

Justine:  LGD's accounting of events of past year spent in Alexandria just before outbreak of WWII--primarily of his relationship with several women, one of whom is the enigmatic Justine. 

Balthazar: LGD sent his manuscript to Balthazar, one of his friends in Alexandria who also appears in the manuscript.  Balthzar then returns the novel with his version of those same events as seen from his perspective.  We now have two versions of what happened.

Mountolive:  a third version of that same period by Mountolive (who is mentioned in the first two books) of the same events, giving a third and  completely different version of LGD's relationship with Justine.

Clea:  this is an accounting of the events that take place when LGD returns to Alexandria in the midst of WWII, about a year or so after the events told in the first three novels.

The series really asks us if we really ever know the full story of our own history. 

 Durrell's second series, The Avignon Quintet--he sometimes referred to it as The Quincunx and consists of the following five novels: Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian, and Quinx.

 This is a strange series of novels in which Durrell creates an Author who creates a character who writes a novel in which the Author includes a number of his friends and acquaintances, but takes "poetic" license in his creation. This is the first novel in the series--Monsieur.  

The remaining four novels are about the Author and his experiences in Egypt and France during WWII.  What is bizarre is that "fictional" characters from the first novel appear in other later four novels and interact with the Author and his friends.  In addition, several characters from "The Alexandria Quartet" also briefly appear. It's all rather confusing at times, and I had to create a diagram to keep the characters separate as many of the characters from the first novel are actually created from different friends and acquaintances of the Author. 

One of these days I will go back and reread both series for a third? fourth? time. 

Ursula Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness

This novel is one of my top ten SF novels.  If anyone ever asks me to recommend an SF novel for someone who has never read SF, I always mention this one.  It is well-written and has  an engaging main character, action, and an idea to explore.  The idea is simple.  Humans do not have sexually active periods like so many of our fellow residents here on earth. Humans are sexually active all the time.   Moreover, humans like most of our neighbors here have two genders, male and female.  Le Guin in this novel asks the question:  What if humans had specific periods in which they were sexually active and in between those periods, they were sexually neuter?

Winter or Gethen, as the inhabitants call it,   is a planet in which someone has apparently modified humans.  Humans on this planet become sexually active every three weeks and remain so for several days.  At this point they develop sexual characteristics, typically at random, so that humans on this planet can become either male or female. If a Gethen is paired with someone It (they are genderless during this period--what pronoun would you use?) likes, then the first one to go into kemmer (their term for the sexually active period) becomes by chance either male or female.  The other one then becomes the other sex.  If the one who becomes a female at that point gets pregnant, then that person will remain female and nurse the child until it is weaned.  At which point, that person then reverts to the sexually neutral state.  So, in a family pair with two children, each of the two adults could have been the mother of one of the two children.  As you can see,  this upsets all of our ideas about what males and females are like.  In fact, that's the issue Le Guin explores in this work: what are the real characteristics that belong exclusively to males and females.  If you haven't read this one yet, I strongly recommend you do so.


Kim Stanley Robinson
Three Californias:  Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge
When first published, they were known as the Orange County Trilogy, but the series title was changed when the trade paperback edition was issued.  My own name for these three is The California Troika.  A troika is a Russian horse-drawn vehicle in which the three horses are side-by-side, so there is no lead horse.  The three novels in this series all take place in the Orange County area at approximately the same time, some years in the future. But, this is an alternate universe series like no other I have read.  I have made several posts on these works, and clicking on the label Three Californias or The California Trioka will take you to them.  If you decide to read them, it makes no difference with which one you start.

The Wild Shore is set some half century or so after the US was destroyed by a sneak nuclear attack.  It is the story of a young male, late teens, and his experiences during one year in a small village that has grown up after the bombing.  In that respect, it is somewhat similar to another of my favorite post-holocaust novels, Earth Abides by George Stewart. 

The Gold Coast is set some years in the future and is an extrapolation of what life would be like if there were no dramatic changes.  The main character, again, is a young male, whose father is an engineer in the military-industrial complex--he works for a company that strives to get contracts to build hardware for the US military.  Like most of his friends, our hero is mildly opposed to what his father does for a living, and he is mostly concerned about the latest designer drugs, sex, and the contemporary music scene.  The novel is the story of events in this person's life that change him.

If the others can be classified as SF, then Pacific Edge is clearly a fantasy.  It is set some years in the future, again in Orange County,  in a world that has gone green.  Large corporations and nation states have been broken up all over the world.  Small is beautiful.  Recycling has become an important activity.  Cars are a rarity and most people get around a bicycles.  The main character is a young man, possibly in his early20s who has become the local expert in remodeling and fixing up abandoned houses. Local politics features strongly in the novel. 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
"Notes from the Underground"
This is almost impossible for me to describe.  The first part is a philosophical rant against those who think that human behavior will eventually be completely predictable and explainable by the immutable laws of science.  In addition the narrator contends that there are two types of people:  the doers and the thinkers or the intellectuals.   Everything that is accomplished is done only by the doers, because the thinkers are paralyzed when they attempt to handle all the ramifications of acting.

The second part shows our reclusive narrator in action and supports both of the arguments put forth in the first part.  In one sense, the work is an essay and an example of many of Dostoyevsky's themes that he depicts in his novels.

There are others, of course, but I have resolutely refused to think about them for fear that what was supposed to be one post will expand to a trilogy, or even worse.  Some may find it hard to believe that I actually do so much rereading, but I do and this explains why I really am decades behind in my knowledge of contemporary literature.  But, that's a decision I made long ago.  I'm sure you made your own and very likely it's not the one I made.  Be that as it may, there's room for both of us, isn't there?

I just realized that the title of the posts includes poems, and I haven't mentioned any at all.  Oh well, maybe some time in the not too distant future. . .

I hope you consider reading some of these. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Gregory Benford: The Galactic Center Companion, an ebook

First things first:  truth in advertising or full disclosure or whatever it's called.  First, I received a free copy of The Galactic Center Companion.  Since I don't have an eBook reader,  Gregory Benford sent it to me by way of a link in an email.  Second, I am one of the contributors to the book. A series of posts I made in this blog were combined into an article for the New York Review of Science Fiction which Benford included in this  eBook.  It is included in the last section, titled "Perspectives."  I do not receive any financial remuneration from the sale of the work.  My sole reward, therefore, is being included in the work and being associated in some small way with what I consider to be the most imaginative hard SF series ever written.



A Bit of History

A brief history of the sequence of the creation of the Galactic Center series during the years 1972 to 1995


"Hunger for the Infinite" is a novella written for Robert Silverberg's  Far Horizons, a collection of short works set in an author's universe.  The collection includes short works by Ursula Le Guin,  Anne McCaffrey, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, Dan Simmons and others.

This story tells of an attempt by the Mantis (a recurring character in the last four of the six novels in the series) to gain a fuller and deeper understanding of the way organic beings think. One of the mysteries which the Mantis and all the higher intelligences of the mech civilization can not crack is that of art.   Mechs can do just about everything humans can do, but art is something that puzzles the Mantis.  Is art something that could enhance mech survival?   In "A Hunger for the Infinite,"  the Mantis interacts with a human in an attempt to discover the nature of art and its significance to humans.


An accounting of the various life forms at the galactic center that Benford created for the series.


An extensive account by Benford of the growth of the series from 1972-1995.

ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL, 1988: An Electrodynamic Model of the Galactic Center: my first published paper on the physics of the galactic center.

This is just what the title suggests: Benford's first paper on the galactic center and much of the science in the series comes from this paper. 


Reviews and commentaries

Articles by
Gary K. Wolfe
Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo
Fred Runk

Interview conducted by Paul Witcom

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ray Bradbury: "Kaleidoscope"

Spoiler Warning: I reveal the ending,

This story was an eye opener for me.  I read it back when I was very young.  Up to that time, I had read many SF short stories, most of which were problem stories.  Something dangerous was happening, there was a threat to humans in space or on other planets, but humans always were successful at the end.  When I started reading it, I assumed this would end happily, for several of the crew members anyway, and Hollis especially..  The opening lines should have prepared me for something different, but I noticed nothing.

"The first concussion cut the rocket up the side with a giant can opener.  The men were thrown into  space like a dozen wriggling silverfish.  They were scattered into a dark sea; and the ship, in a million pieces, went on, a meteor swarm seeking a lost sun.

.  .  .  .  .

They fell.  They fell as pebbles down wells.  They were scattered as jackstones are scattered from a gigantic throw.  And now instead of men there were only voices--all kinds of voices, disembodied and impassioned, in varying degrees of terror and resignation."

In the story we see Hollis and the rest of the crew attempting to come to grips with their fate.  Death is certain: unlike many SF stories I had read up to this time, it appears as though there will be no last minute rescue. 

As the story unfolds we see the way Hollis and the various crew members react to the shock of the loss of the ship and then the full realization of their situation.  All this is conveyed over the radios found in each space suit.   The captain makes an attempt to "rally" the crew but soon learns what some crew members really think of him.

Bitter antagonisms and feelings among the crew which had been repressed for so long finally emerge as various members of the crew decide now is the time to tell others what they think of them.  It is not pretty:  this is not a shining example of the stiff upper lip and heroic behavior found so often in films and stories.  As time passes, some regret their outbursts and try to make amends by taking back what they had said in panic and fear.  Eventually they do reach the point where the anger and fear has passed and they are resigned.  

As I posted the first lines of the story, it's only appropriate that I post the last lines:

"The small boy on the country road looked up and screamed, 'Look, Mom, look!  A falling star!'
The blazing white star fell down the sky of dusk in Illinois.
"Make a wish,' said his mother. 'Make a wish.'"

As so frequently happens in Bradbury's tales, the ending is ironic.  Whenever I look up at the stars at night and see a falling star, I can't help but think of "Kaleidoscope."

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Face of Another, the novel

Kobo Abe'
The Face of Another

 This is the novel that is the basis for the film of the same name which I commented on a short time ago.  While Kobo Abe' is also credited with being the screenwriter for the film, there are some differences between the film and the novel.  The anonymous narrator is a research scientist whose face has been disfigured in a laboratory accident.  When he leaves his house, he wears bandages that cover his entire head, much like the hero/villain in H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man.  He has been unable to reconcile himself to his condition and to a considerable extent takes his anger out on his wife.  He decides to create a life-like mask which will allow him to lead a more or less normal life.

The novel is a 1st person narrative, ostensibly coming from three notebooks the anonymous narrator has written for his wife in which he speaks throughout directly to her.    The three notebooks cover the time when he decides to create the mask, the period when he is involved in creating the mask, and the events that follow his creation of the mask.  In the film, the psychiatrist actually creates the mask and is a very significant character throughout, whereas in the novel, the psychiatrist plays a very minor role and the narrator is the one who creates the mask.

Since much of the novel is actually the narrator's thoughts about his situation as he considers, creates, and wears the mask, Abe' obviously decided the best way for the film to portray this would be through the interaction between the narrator and another person, the psychiatrist being the most obvious.  Another difference is that in the film, the relationship with his wife, while bad, does not seem to carry the same importance that it does in the novel.  In the novel, as I mentioned above, the three notebooks, which constitute the novel, are written for and directed to his wife.  In the notebooks, he addresses her throughout and seems totally unconcerned about any other person.  In the film it appears as though his most significant relationship is with the psychiatrist who plays only a very minor role in the novel. 

The dominant theme in the novel is the struggle within the narrator to maintain control of events and not turn it over to the mask.  He is obsessed by the thought that the mask is trying to take over his life, and this becomes especially clear in the third notebook or the last part of the novel when the mask is completed and he wears it.  At first he treats it as though it were a separate entity--when he wears the mask outside for the first time, he says he will take it for a walk, as if it's a dog.  However, this attitude changes over time until he becomes convinced that the mask is trying to control him and that he must struggle to maintain his freedom of action. 

The Face of Another is an intense psychological drama in which we see the internal struggle of a damaged human being, damaged both physically and psychologically. The endings of the novel and the film are quite different;  at least that is how it appears to me.  Others may differ.

I found that watching the film and reading the novel to be rather intense experiences, but I felt that I had to continue on to see where they were going. I'm not sure that I understand the ending, if there is one.  

Friday, May 2, 2014

Some novels, stories, and poems that I revisit regularly

 The following is a short list of some novels, poems, and short stories that I reread irregularly for the most part.  There's no particular order or schedule to this.  One day I will get the urge to read something once again, and so I dig it out, settle down in my recliner, surrender to the cat's demand for some lap time, and leave this world for a while.   There are others whose names I can't come up with right now, but sometime tomorrow or the next day, week, month, year, I will see one in my bookcase or read a comment by somebody about it and that's it--time for a another visit. 

J. R. R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings   
These three books are the ones that I have read more than any other work on my reread list, which is strange because I prefer SF to fantasy.   Right now, I am slowly reading The Silmarillion and expect to get to the others this year.    

Thomas Mann
The Magic Mountain
This may be the second most reread book on my list.  I first read it while an undergraduate sometime during the years 1958-1961.  It was for a lit course, and I had to choose a novel from a list provided by the professor to write the outside paper on.  I choose this one, probably because of the title, and I haven't stopped reading it since.  I am now on my second hardbound copy as the first one is falling apart.

Life in a TB sanitarium doesn't sound that enthralling, but once begun, I found it impossible to put down.  It's partially based on a true experience.  Mann's wife went to a sanitarium for several months because of a lung complaint.  While visiting her, Mann underwent some testing and, like his hero Hans Castorp, was told that it would be a good idea if he signed himself in.  Unlike Castorp, he refused and, instead, wrote a novel about the experience.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment
I've reread this a number of times, perhaps as often as The Magic Mountain, or close to it anyway.  I consider this book a very significant work because it first introduced me to Dostoyevsky (I think I've read everything of his that's been translated into English), secondly it introduced me to Russian literature, and thirdly it was my introduction to foreign literature.  Moreover, I may not have selected Mann's The Magic Mountain a year or so later. and instead.  I might have gone with an English language work instead.

Raskolnikov believes himself to be a superior person who is not bound by the laws of human society.  The average person is someone who, if he kills someone, is caught and punished.  On the other hand, superior people, such as Napoleon, can be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and are seen as one of the Great Ones.  He kills a pawnbroker, someone useless and odious, to prove that he belongs among the elite.


Jack Finney
Time and Again
Simply the best time travel novel ever written.   Time is a mental construct, and the mind can be fooled into traveling into the past if the environment is appropriate and if the individual can be convinced that he or she is actually living at that particular time.  It's a mystery and a romance, and Finney provides sufficient information, along with appropriate photos, to make this a special work, and one that leaves me wishing this was real.

Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose
A marvelous amalgam of mystery and history and religious conflict is all that this is.  Brother William of Baskerville, a monk, has been called to the monastery to act as a mediator and a witness between two conflicting religious ideas of importance.  While there, he is persuaded to investigate a series of murders in the monastery, and his name should provide a vital clue as to his methods.  If he is unable to solve the murders, the Inquisition will be called in, and nobody wants that.  Adso or Adson of Melk is his amanuensis.  The novel is supposedly an edited copy of Adso's recounting of their stay at the monastery.

PD James
 I've read all of her mysteries a number of times, even though I have figured out the villain shortly after getting into the story.  The plots and characters are complex, carefully drawn out.  There seldom is the expected denouement at the end where Commander Adam Dalgliesh gathers all the suspects in the drawing room and slowly works his way around the room, pointing his finger at each in turn.  Instead, the process is a slow one, developing throughout the novel as each suspect is considered and then dismissed until it's a matter of uncovering the final bit of evidence rather than uncovering the identity of the guilty party. 

Jane Austen
Everything including her juvenilia.
I tried reading Pride and Prejudice several times, but I always stopped reading.  Then at age 42 I returned to graduate school in the English Department.  In the first course I took, the reading list included Sense and Sensibility.  I groaned a bit and then settled down to read it.  I loved it and then went out to read everything else by her.  I guess I had to mature a bit before I was ready for her.  If I was forced to list my favorites among her works,  I would say Persuasion would be No. 1 and Mansfield Park would be next.  The others follow closely behind.  It's been a while since I read them all, so I shall probably dust them off and settle down once again.

Russell Hoban
Riddley Walker
This is one of my favorite post-holocaust novels, thanks to a Chaucer course I took a year or two prior to reading the novel.  In the Chaucer course, we had to read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English (the language it was written in).  I struggled mightily because I had always hated reading something that wasn't written in Standard English.  I really didn't want to pay attention to the language; that was too much work.  However, at the end of the course, leaving the classroom for the last time, I felt as if I had lost a world somehow that I would never return to.

A year or so later, I had to take my qualifying exams and The Tales was on the list.  I decided to  play it smart and bought a modern translation and settled down to read.  However, something important was missing, and so I got out the Middle English  text and happily reread it in Middle English.

What has this to do with Riddley Walker?  The answer is simple: Russell Hoban has written the novel in what he speculates English would be like maybe 500 years from now after a nuclear war and  during that period most people have been illiterate.  Those few who could read and write learned from their predecessors and not from teachers or texts which would have kept the language unchanged.  If I had not learned to accept non-standard English texts from the Chaucer course, I never would have finished the novel.  The following is the opening paragraph.  If you read it out loud, as you should do with poetry, you will find it much easier to read.

 "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've made some other posts about Riddley Walker and some other works by Russell Hoban.  You may want to check them out.  Russell Hoban is a unique writer, with a wild imagination.  Reading anything by him is well worth the time spent.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
This is another of my favorite post-holocaust novels.  It too is set hundreds of years after a nuclear war. The locale seems to be somewhere in New Mexico, where monks at a monastery manage to survive as monks did during the so-called Dark Ages perhaps almost 2000 years earlier.  And, along with their farm duties (they have to be completely self-sustaining) they also are dedicated to keeping records of the achievements of the past, even if they don't know what it is that they are painstakingly copying.   They have faith that some day human knowledge will increase to the point that these arcane books and schematics and diagrams will be not only intelligible but also help to spark a resurgence of human learning.

Their task is much like that of the Encyclopediasts in Isaac Asimov's "Foundation series."  However, the monks of the Order of Blessed Leibowitz do not have high tech aides and spaceships to travel about, but only sandals, and if they are lucky, a mule.  The novel is really three novellas, set roughly centuries apart, with only monastery and the monks' task of preserving knowledge to link them.  Well, there's always Benjamin, but he really can't be the Wandering Jew, several thousand years old, could he?

Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness
I'm never certain about whether this is a short novel or a long novella, so I will guess this time and call it a novel.  It's the work by Conrad that I've read most often for I find it fascinates me, both in its description of the countryside, the inhabitants, and the Europeans who plague the inhabitants.  It's a biting indictment of the treatment of the black Africans by the white Europeans who have come there supposedly to civilize and bring the benefits of European civilization  and in reality end up brutalizing them in search of profit.

The POV character is Marlow, but the center of the novel is Kurtz   Marlow has taken a job as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River.  Far up the river is a trading outpost run by Kurtz, who has been amazingly successful in obtaining ivory for the company.  Suddenly all shipments stop, and after a few months of silence, Marlow is ordered to take the steamer up the river to Kurtz's trading post.  He is accompanied by the district manager and a group of ivory hunters and treasure seekers, along with a crew consisting of a few cannibals.  Marlow becomes obsessed with the idea of Kurtz and only slowly does he realize that Kurtz is not only at the heart of darkness, but also he is the heart of darkness.

The film, Apocalypse Now, is loosely, very loosely, based on the novel--more of an adaptation than a recounting.  The film is set in Vietnam during the war.  Captain Willard, of the US Army, is sent up the Nung River into Cambodia to find Col. Kurtz and assassinate  who has set himself up as a god among the local tribes people and is conducting his own brand of guerrilla warfare against the Viet Cong.  While much of the novel has been changed for the film, I still found the film to be very close in capturing the tone or atmosphere of the novel--the absurdity and arrogance of the white invaders.

Something happened that I did not account for.  I initially said that this would be a short list, something around ten, maybe even fifteen, but the list keep growing.  I'm now at ten and I still have the same amount left.  I guess I will end this here and continue with the rest on Part Two.  I hope this doesn't turn out to be similar to those fantasy trilogies that reach double digits.