Flotsam: A Hodgepodge Ending in Lovecraft

1. I try to hunt up simple, straightforward points where ideas make contact with reality in order to judge their truth or falseness. Preferably reality I can see for myself, or which is at least clear and concrete enough to be resistant to rhetoric.

For instance, a question that occurred to me this week: has anyone ever successfully bred a given species to the point where the new breed is unable to sire fertile offspring with the original branch, but can sire fertile offspring in its own, new branch?

If yes, then natural selection is a viable way to bring about new species, at least in principle. If no, then it isn’t and the theory of natural-selection driven macro-evolution is simply false whatever else may be said of it.

I would legitimately like to know which is the case, though I strongly suspect that if this had ever happened, the newly-created species would be as famous and talked about as Dolly the sheep. Still, I’m not well-versed in scientific literature, so it might be so.

2. Another example: What is the Earth’s climate *supposed* to be like at the moment, and how did you determine this?

3. Something occurred to me the other day:

You have a wheelchair-bound old man who, through cunning, high-position, and unscrupulousness takes advantage of the desperation and fear of people facing hard times in order to seize control of more and more of the community and ultimately re-make it in his own image. While those fighting against him use local institutions, relationships, and entrepreneurial spirit to prove they don’t need his ‘help’.

Is Mr. Potter a caricature of FDR?!

(Seriously, I highly doubt it, though both Capra and Stewart were conservatives. Especially since Potter being in a wheelchair was only due to the arthritis-stricken Lionel Barrymore being cast in the role. Still, I can’t help finding the parallels amusing)

4. Something to keep in mind when discussing how and why a given piece of work appeals to someone or doesn’t, why it’s popular or not, is that there are two sides of the equation: the content of the work and state of the audience. It’s a question of harmonizing the composition of the work with the composition of the reader / viewer: almost like getting medicine right, where you have to make sure the chemical composition of the medicine interacts with the chemical composition of the body in such a way that it will do what it’s supposed to do in most cases (though it will almost certainly not interact the same way in all cases, because everyone has different factors going into their bodily composition, which is why we have government-mandated legal shields rigorous long-term testing).

Anyway, whether a given story ‘hits a note’ with people is dependent, in part, on what the people themselves bring to the table. Something to keep in mind while writing: what kind of person would this story appeal to? What ‘elements’ are your trying to react with in a person?

5. This is also why some stories are gigantic hits when they first come out and then fade to obscurity or become punchlines later on. Their success was not due primarily to whatever merits they have as stories, but due to the surrounding cultural or social factors present in the audience. The Billy Jack films are a good example of this, becoming massive hits at the time by tapping in the youth zeitgeist of the moment, while now they’re almost forgotten because that particular geist ist abgefahren.

I think you can tell what this means for much of today’s film woke, even those that make money.

6. I think I’ve said this at some point, but any list of the greatest American writers that does not include H.P. Lovecraft is immediately suspect. Not just for his drippingly-rich prose and titanic imagination, but also just in terms of sheer influence. When you look at science-fiction horror stories that have had any kind of impact, you can see Lovecraft’s fingerprints everywhere (Alien, the works of John Carpenter, Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead, Half-Life, etc.).

The only branch of that particular tree that really evades it (sometimes) would be cyber-horror, like The Terminator (though it would not at all surprise me to find a Lovecraftian ancestor there as well). Lovecraft’s general approach is “some ancient, almost-forgotten nightmare is uncovered in the modern, scientific world, exposing an entirely new and horrible understanding of reality”. ‘Cyber-horror’ is more “we’ve created something brand new…and it’s far worse than anything that’s come before.” Past-focused versus future focused.

7. I’ve even heard rumors – though I haven’t yet been able to confirm it – that Prof. Tolkien himself was an admirer of Lovecraft’s work, and that his influence even found its way into Middle Earth: e.g. the ‘nameless things’ that gnaw the Earth in the deep places, of which Gandalf will ‘bring back no word of them to darken the light of day.’ Creatures like Shelob and Ungoliant also have a Lovecraftian tone to them, in their weird, ancient, utterly destructive and almost otherworldly nature.

I would like to find out for sure whether it’s true or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me much.

Friday Flotsam: There’s Really No Through-Line for This One

1. As I understand the matter, modern corporations are descendants of the religious orders. The idea is that property does not belong to any particular member, but rather to the imaginary ‘corporate’ self. In the religious orders, this was to allow for a vow of poverty: yes, the abbey had a lot of property, but none of the brothers owned any of it, only the order as a kind of imaginary person (not that that stopped some of the monks any more than it stops some of today’s executives). In modern corporations, this is a liability shield: if the company loses money or goes into debt, none of the actual workers or executives are personally liable for that money. This incentivizes growth and speculation, among other benefits.

I’m not sure whether this idea of the ‘corporate self’ in economic transactions was ever employed before the Christian era or outside of it (be interesting to get info on that from an actual economic historian), but at least as far as the west is concerned, that seems to me to be the lineage.

(Modern banking even has its origins with the Templars: rather than carting sacks of gold all the way to the Holy Land, pilgrims would deposit the amount with their local Templar house, who would then provide them a bill of lending which, once they got to the Holy Land, they would present to the Templar house there to draw out that same amount of gold. But note that this is itself dependent on the ‘corporate self’, as the idea is that a house in England having gold is the same as the house in Jerusalem having the gold. The Order has the gold, and so it can hold it and give it out for the pilgrim at either end of the journey).

2. Anyway, a modern corporation operates on the same principle: it is the company that owns the property, it is the company that you serve, not any particular executive, and it is the company that provides the service.

This, I think, is precisely why the corporate experience is so miserable. You’re following a pattern that was created for the sake of subordinating the self to the Divine, and instead you’re subordinating the self to something thoroughly material and even mercenary. Of course it’s a dreary, soul-sucking experience. When someone says “I gave my heart and my soul to this company!” I just feel a great sense of pity for him.

On top of it all, we also don’t have nearly the same job security that the lay brothers (serfs) did. At least, as far as I can tell, they never got turned off their land in order to raise the stock price a few percent.

“Sorry Francis the Miller’s Son, but I’m afraid we’re gonna have to let you go….”

3. By the way, this is what I consider probably the stupidest point of Marxism, especially contemporary Marxists: “Corporations have too much power. The solution is to give absolute power to one corporation. That’ll fix everything!”

4. As both politics and the entertainment industry amply demonstrate, the advantage of having a majority population of amoral monsters is that any time someone ceases to be useful, it’s really easy to destroy him by hypocritically exposing one or two of his crimes and lamenting about how terrible it all is.

Another advantage is that it’s good practice for the members’ post-mortal experience.

5. I’ve started watching Cowboy Bebop. You know, a corgi in zero gravity is one of those things you don’t realize you needed to see until you’ve seen it. I now think that the entire space program will have been wasted if we fail to send at least one corgi to the ISS and just let it float around for a bit, trying to walk on air with its stubby little legs and getting nowhere….

“There are three things I hate: kids, animals, and women with attitude. So tell me, why do we have all three on the ship?!
“And we didn’t even get the bounty….”
(Few shows summarize themselves so well in a single exchange, at least so far as I’ve gone).

6. I’ve also begun reading Ivanhoe for the first time. Sir Walter Scott’s style of storytelling definitely takes some getting used to for a modern reader, as he will preface nearly every scene or even every part of a scene with long, precise descriptions of the setting, dress, and historical context of just about everything and every person he mentions. They’re good descriptions, but they do drag on and tend to bring the story to a screeching halt.

His depiction of the period is definitely mixed in terms of historical accuracy (he didn’t have very many good sources to work off of at the time), but in any case he’s clearly doing the best he can and one can see that a good deal of our concept of the Middle Ages proceeds from or at least through Sir Walter (the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood especially draws a lot from this novel).

In any case, barriers to entry aside, it’s a good story and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Besides which, of course, Sir Walter is an English writer of the old school and his style is as far in advance of the bulk of modern authors as the medieval mail-clad knight was in advance of his barbarian war-chief forbearer. Keep in mind that Sir Walter was a favorite of St. John Henry Newman, who developed his own style off of his, so that should tell you something.

7. And diverting into the completely frivolous and slightly obscure: one ‘Versus’ matchup or ‘Death Battle’ I’d like to see would be Saitama vs. Maple, One Punch Man vs. Bofuri, Unstoppable Force against Immovable Object. Of course you’d have to cheat a bit to get him into the game world with powers intact somehow, but it’d be worth it.

Honestly, I think I’d peg Saitama to win easy. Maple’s ridiculously powerful, but she isn’t invincible. Sooner or later, I figure he’d wear her down, 5-digit vitality or not. Though if I were writing it for my own amusement I’d probably try to find a way to give it to Maple nonetheless, because that would be funnier (of course I’d play fair: no random new abilities that she got just that morning and happen to be exactly what she needs. Canon skills only).

And the best part is that it’d all be inside a video game, so no one really gets hurt! I can just picture her inviting Saitama over to party at her guild house afterwards, and he’d be happy to do it because someone finally gave him a good fight….

Flotsam: New Apartment, No Internet, and Rabbits

1. Last week I realized a nearly five-year goal and finally moved back out into my own apartment. I’ve been too busy setting up to settle in yet, but already I feel the enormous relief and joy of having my own space once again.

2. The chief downside, at present, is that I don’t have any internet. My provider sent a router and set up instructions, but after wrestling with it a bit I got a connection…and found it directing me to a different provider. Two different tech support conversations later (one on the phone, one over a live chat at a nearby coffee shop) yielded the information that the wiring in the junction box was overriding the signal with the previous occupant’s provider. So now they’ll be sending someone out in the middle of the week to perform the necessary offices. Until then, I’m down to using coffee shops and other people’s homes (with the owners’ permission, of course; I’m almost sure that’s what they’re trying to say behind their gags).

3. I’m actually rather glad to have taken a break from internet. I’d been far too attached to it lately and an enforced fast is a bit of a relief, particularly with so much else to be done.

4. During and before the move, I read through an old favorite: Watership Down, the epic adventure novel about the founding of a rabbit warren. I was struck even more this time by the military imagery and tone often employed: at times you could almost lift passages out, tell someone they’re from a WWII novel, and no one would be the wiser. At one point, Holly, the upright veteran, ends up escorting Clover, a freed pet rabbit, out onto the grass to feed, appearing for all the world like a well-bred British officer taking charge of a nervous refugee (she ends up as his mate).

5. Which, incidentally, points to another clever touch. Mr. Adams knows and reminds the reader that rabbit breeding is not like human romance: survival and propagation is the main point, and males will fight over available females. When Clover becomes ‘ready for mudder’ (as Kehaar the seagull puts it), we’re told that the bucks in the warren are all fighting over her, but at that point the narrative has moved elsewhere and so we don’t actually see it (Hazel, our protagonist, upon learning of it, simply comments “I suppose it’ll work itself out” and moves on).

This is a good way to present something that you know the reader won’t like to see. No one wants to watch these characters that we’ve been traveling with and cheering on for half the book getting into a petty squabble over who gets to breed with their one available female. That’s something humans, or at least civilized, western humans of the sort likely to be reading the book, would find repulsive, even granting that the characters are explicitly not human. It’s a point where our sympathy for these animals, as animals, simply will not go beyond. So Adams tactfully keeps it off stage, letting us know that it is happening, but not rubbing our faces in it. We are thus allowed to pass it over as another element of the ‘rabbitness’ of the story without being forced to emotionally engage with it.

See, some things have to happen in a story that would be tonally at odds with the emotions we want the audience to experience, or which would be so alien to their experience as to rip them right out of sympathy, even they are necessary for the setting. One solution, therefore, is to simply allude to it, but not to show it in any kind of detail or dwell upon it. The audience thus gets the information they need, but aren’t forced to navigate delicate and disturbing emotional territory unrelated to the main thrust of the story.

The fact that rabbits fight over mates is part of the setting and premise, but has no real relevance to the real point of the narrative, which is the courage, devotion, and selfless loyalty of the heroes. Therefore, the fact is passed over with a nod, while scenes and incidents relative to the real narrative are depicted with great emphasis and feeling.

You don’t have to show everything or give everything equal weight. Keeping irrelevant or off-tone notes out of sight and out of mind is as important a skill as any other.

Friday Flotsam: Mostly Alice

1. This week, as a much-needed relaxation (and to help with a ‘Batman’ fan-fiction I was writing), I revisited the Alice books. I’d almost forgotten how delightful they are. Just a wonderful romp of satirical nonsense, done in that delightful Victorian way. They’re also one of the best examples of capturing the feel of a dream that I’ve encountered: everything is linked through a kind of illogical logic, the environment and the people change depending on what the protagonist is thinking about, seemingly simple tasks simply will not come off, there’s a lot of repetition, and so on.

And ultimately, they’re just wonderfully charming, light fare. Alice doesn’t have a grand plan or goal she’s working towards, there’s no plot to speak of, and the characters for the most part just come and go as the story wants them. The story is just a means to go to weird places and talk to strange people and hear ridiculous things. They’re a creative writing teacher’s worst nightmare.

2. Reading them, I remembered what I’d heard and seen of Tim Burton’s…ah, versions of them from a few years back (I don’t think I can call them ‘adaptations’). Full disclosure; I haven’t seen the films, but I have seen clips and ‘run-throughs’ of them, so I have a pretty good idea of at least the plot. Burton’s Alice re-imagines it as a Narnia-like epic fantasy, where the now-adult Alice gets cast as a hero of legend destined to slay the Jabberwock(y) and defeat the Red Queen to free Wonderland from tyranny, with lots of feminist talking points and ‘oh, weren’t the Victorians just horrible to women?’ stuff (it then ends with Alice becoming a ship captain or something).

So you have things like the Mad Hatter nobly advocating a cause, the Dormouse swinging a sword around, Tweedledee and Tweedledum going to war, the Chesire Cat getting a big heroic moment, and so on, all in world with politics and magic rules and armies and battles and stuff. Gag.

Honestly, that all just makes me rather sad. One of the crowning examples of pure imagination in the English canon and all these morons can think to do with it is ‘epic fantasy, prophecies, girl power’. What a pathetic bore! You call it Alice in Wonderland, but you’ve made it ‘generic fantasy plot no. 2’.

This is the same thing I noticed re-watching 101 Dalmations: movies today feel much more ‘samey’ than movies of the past did. There’s a lot more formula, a lot more of forcing things into familiar plot beats and an ever-decreasing cycle of themes (“Be yourself.” “Girl power”. “Prejudice is bad.” “Our ancestors sucked”, Etc.). I doubt whether any studio today – least of all Disney – would be capable of adapting a story like Alice in Wonderland in any recognizable way.

Trouble is, I think this trickles down even into independent writers, where we’re nervous about creating things that don’t fit the ‘rules’. At least, I know I catch myself feeling like that. Because, of course, we want people to read what we write and like it, and so we get nervous about ‘well, will they read it if it doesn’t do this, that, and the other?’

It’s important to keep the free-breeze of ages flowing through our minds by frequently reading old books and watching old movies, just to remind ourselves of what we can become and how many more ‘options’ there are than we’re usually told.

3. There’s a song by the band Cruxshadows (whom I highly recommend, by the way) called Eye of the Storm that touches on this in the lyrics:

               “The pages of our history
               Are written by the hand
               With eyes and ears and prejudice
               Too far removed to understand.”

               “And so the heroes of the ages
               Are stripped of honesty and love
               To make them seem less noble
               And hide what we can become.”

4. Uncle Walt didn’t need to force a cliché plot onto things to make a classic adaptation. That film was, like the book, just a whimsical journey, where the point was going from place to place meeting crazy and weird characters and enjoying the ride (though to be fair, he wanted to have more of a plot than they ended up with, e.g. including the knight from Looking Glass as a heroic companion to Alice, and he didn’t really like the movie very much. But he at least had the sense not to force the issue in that case).

5. I think my favorite thing about the Disney adaptation, by the way, is just Alice herself. She’s trying to be sensible and polite, but is surrounded by lunatics and sometimes reacts accordingly (I love the bit at the trial when the Hatter and the March Hare start singing again and she just buries her face in her hands in exasperation). See, when you have one character who is more sensible, intelligent, and mature than everyone else, the thing to do is to make sure no one takes her seriously or pays the least attention to her, because that’s funny. 

The only sane girl in her natural state

I also like how, well, uncomfortable Wonderland is; the backgrounds are mostly dead black, everything is kind of shadowy, even with the bright colors, and the characters are all a little threatening and unpredictable. It’s fun to watch, but not really the kind of place you’d want to visit, which keeps you invested in Alice’s adventures. She’s a very likable character, and just about anything might happen to her at any time.

“There goes Bill!”
“Poor Bill…”

Friday Flotsam: On Professor Tolkien and Related(?) Matters

1. I have been reading the letters of Professor Tolkien lately, mostly straight through, though sometimes jumping about when I want to find his views on something specific. Mostly I read it because I enjoy his company, as it were, and I feel as though I am getting to know him personally as a man. He was, of course, a genius, but what is rather more important than that what might be called a deep soul. There are great wells of sensitivity in him. I almost wrote ‘of poetical feeling’, but that doesn’t really convey the right idea. When two people love one another very deeply, they naturally come to know one another intimately, which adds further depth to their love. Some men are like that with the works of God, able to put their hands down into creation itself as it were and perceive the startling pattern and order and beauty of all these unique natures acting out creation (for creation isn’t a moment of time long ago, it’s the unfolding process all around us: a created thing doesn’t merely ‘exist’, part of its being is to act and be acted upon).

It is the sort of thing that a modern or a scientific mind tends rather to impede than otherwise, as looking at things too mechanically: e.g. continually asking “what is the good of the thing?” what which we mean “how can this thing make someone’s life a little longer, a little more secure, and a little more comfortable?” But the thing I’m talking about is a matter of seeing the good in a thing itself, as what it is.

Of course the trouble with trying to describe this is just that it doesn’t go into scientifically precise language, or if it does I’m afraid I don’t have the vocabulary for it yet (and if I did, you the reader probably wouldn’t, rendering the whole thing a glorified glossary). My point is that Professor Tolkien had this perception in abundance. He was something of an atavism: a man whose tastes and mindset were rather more of the high Middle Ages, though flavored through with that distinct character of Victorian and early 20th-century England (which is a topic all in itself).

In any case, I’m much enjoying spending time with the Professor and basking in his rich sanity.

2. It is also quite interesting to see men from different perspectives. Professor Tolkien offers a number of insights into Professor Lewis, obviously his dear friend for many years (and even after their friendship cooled he still refers to him with great affection and admiration). Among other things he refers to Lewis’s strong anti-Catholic prejudices, something that only rarely comes out in Lewis’s own writings (as he didn’t think it his place to deal with inter-communion debates, at least not publicly). Those who say that Lewis was ‘almost a Catholic’ frankly need to read more of the man: he shared many distinctly Catholic views and was friends with many Catholics and admired nuns, but his northern-Irish upbringing had left very strong roots of aversion to the Church herself (it would be an unpardonable license of me to speculate on why). That comes out even on a close reading of his religious works (e.g. his insistence that ‘the Church’ means ‘the invisible body of all believers’: one of his less coherent ideas). There’s one letter where Tolkien notes that Lewis, though otherwise as anti-Red as any man, yet had a blindspot for believing everything the papers said about Franco and the situation in Spain, refusing to hear a word in his favor or to believe the stories of priests and religious being massacred, though quick to credit tales of Protestant preachers being mistreated. He was “very quiet” after an evening with Roy Campbell, who had been in Spain and fought on Franco’s side.

It’s rather startling to find such a failing recorded, not just because it’s recorded of such an otherwise astute and good-hearted man, but also because it’s so familiar to us today. This is one of those moments where, as one of my college professors put it, the intervening years simply melt away. Though as Tolkien pointed out in commenting on the event, hatred of, or at least aversion to Rome is really the only justification for Anglicanism (St. John Henry Newman made a similar point, and it was one of the reasons he left the Anglican communion. I’d like to find Tolkien’s view on St. Newman (as an extra-extra aside, I’m finding it tricky to find a good shorthand to address this particular saint, since we also have St. John Neuman of Philadelphia. I’m reduced to addressing him by his full name every time. I rather think he finds the conundrum amusing) ).

3. I hope no one thinks I’m criticizing Professor Lewis in any of this: he’s well beyond my criticism, and as noted Professor Tolkien still fought tooth and nail against those who bad-mouthed him even after their friendship had cooled. I just think it’s interesting. We have to remember that in reading what men wrote, especially what they wrote for publication, we’re getting a very select view of them, often the very best that they have to offer, heavily polished and reflected over. That’s why, in Lewis’s own works, one is sometimes rather surprised to find him referring to his own bad temper, or to his many other, less mentionable sins. We don’t associate the erudite, warm-hearted voice of the author with the things he describes of himself. Unless, of course, we reflect on how different we are from what we ourselves write.

4. This took a different direction than I intended. I wanted to comment a bit on the Amazon ‘Lord of the Rings’ series (sic), or at least what little I’ve heard of it (i.e. that some moron wanted his own version of Game of Thrones and so appropriated Tolkien for the purposes, since the Shadow can only mock and cannot make). The most, ah, illustrative incident I’ve encountered is a tweet from whatever orc now runs ‘theonering.net’ justifying their desecration of the Professor’s work by claiming that Tolkien was ‘woke’.

Yes, the most prominent reactionary author of the 20th century, the devout Roman Catholic and Medievalist who despised ‘progress’ and who described himself as possibly “a non-constitutional monarchist” is claimed for the anti-reality brigade. May them and all their works be thrown down and forgotten.

(He also justifies the race-swapping on hand by claiming Tolkien ‘never described his character’s color’, indicating the idiot never actually read the books, given the number of times the descriptors ‘fair’, ‘swarthy’, and so on are used).

I think Professor Tolkien himself expressed my feelings best (writing of Prof. Lewis’s death): “I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him.”

5. On the other hand, I’ve also seen defenders of Tolkien claim him for the Libertarian camp, which is equally absurd. The trouble, I think, is that we today have a very limited idea of politics and worldviews: we misunderstand things because most of us only have two or three categories in which to put them (we always like to say “there are two kinds of people in the world….” Makes things so much simpler). Partly this is a consequence of our liberal heritage: liberalism always presented itself as the great foe of tyranny, which basically meant that anything not liberal was tyrannical and anything liberal was freedom (e.g. King Louis trying to enforce the established rules of the Estates General is tyranny. Confiscating the property of the Church and giving it to rich industrialists and landowners is freedom).

This tendency is reinforced by the American tradition of having two viable political parties, the platforms of which are an absurd hodgepodge of mostly unrelated positions.

The idea that someone can stand at right angles to both sides, or dispute the fundamental principles at work in both, never really enters our heads. So we try to squeeze all varieties of Monarchists (and there are probably at least as many varieties of Monarchism as there are of Liberalism, just that Monarchists tend not to feel obligated to impose their own version upon the rest of the world as the only means to liberty) or other reactionaries into the liberal-made boxes, with the result that their actual positions fly over our heads.

6. I think most people today, even those who love his work, don’t really grasp what Tolkien’s position was. They know it appeals strongly to them, and so they hunt out and focus on whatever is closest to their own point of view.

But the common appeal, I think, is the aforementioned ‘depth of soul’, which is so rare today and was never common to the degree that Tolkien had it and combined it with genius. Most examples of it are behind difficult, archaic language and obviously alien (to us) points of view, but Tolkien is a near contemporary of ours who brings all that sort of thing forward in an almost familiar way.

Basically, moderns are starved for real myth and depth and Tolkien is one of the few places they find it (his many imitators, even the talented ones, I think grasp at something they lack the background or ‘content’ to create).

All this sort of thing ought to be found in the Church, and still can be for those willing to look, but alas, the majority of the stewards of the Church are as orcish, small-minded, and materialistic (in assumption if not in belief) as most of their contemporaries and so tuck away the really appealing elements that people are starving for into the backroom as something shameful while emphasizing the same shallow, boring junk that people can get everywhere else.

7. Wow, that one took some twists and turns. Probably annoyed just about everyone at some point in that.

Thoughts on ‘The Andromeda Strain’

Just finished reading Michael Crichton’s 1970 novel The Andromeda Strain (I don’t know; felt in the mood for it for some reason). It’s quite a page turner, and I heartily recommend it to anyone with a taste for hard sci-fi.

The story has a US Military satellite bring an extraterrestrial microbe back to earth as part of an effort to collect, study, and possibly weaponize microorganisms from the upper atmosphere. It lands outside of a small Arizona town, and the locals get it before the Air Force can and one of them foolishly opens the capsule, releasing the bacteria, which swiftly kills everyone in town except for a crotchety old man and a two-month-old baby. The government recovers the capsule and moves it to a top-secret bunker designed specifically to study and combat alien microbes, while the hand-picked team of doctors and scientists (four in all) set to work trying to break just what the thing is and how it works.

The best thing about Andromeda Strain is the way it presents scientific research as a kind of complex detective story. After they’ve arrived and started work on the capsule, the team first has to discover whether the organism is even still present, then whether it is alien or terrestrial, what its composition is, and how it kills. This involves a lot of very careful tests and looking for very subtle clues to follow, some (perhaps most) of which turn out to be misleading. And, of course, part of the problem is that they all know full well that the organism might not follow the normal ‘rules’ of life as they understand it at all.

Much kudos to Mr. Crichton for making the tedious scientific struggle so interesting. He fills out the pages with realistic-looking documents, print outs, and diagrams which I have no idea whether they are accurate or not, but they certainly feel legitimate. I also liked the simplicity of some of the experiments, one of which was simply putting progressively larger screens in front of a rat to test how big the organism was.

The other most interesting element was the theme of technology. In this story, as, I believe, in many of the author’s other works, the characters are surrounded by the most advanced, sophisticated technology available, yet the recurring theme is this does not put them in control. Again and again, sophisticated and carefully planned out systems fail, either because of human error or because the situation turned out to be different from what they expected or just simply from random happenstance. The brilliant scientists make mistakes from hubris, embarrassment, or simply because they’re tired. At one point crucial information gets missed because the ultra-powerful computer had a bit of paper stuck in it that prevented the ringer from going off.

Crichton seems to have had a consistent theme in his work that all of man’s technological prowess and intelligence ultimately can never shield him from the vagaries of fate, nor make him the master of his world. This, of course, is a common theme in science fiction, though I find, from what little I’ve read of him, that Crichton seems to push it more than most. His driving thought seems to be less that man will destroy himself, or that there are things that man is not meant to know, but that at the end of the day you are never going to engineer your way to anything like paradise or even safety.

I don’t know what Crichton’s religious views were, thought I doubt they were favorable (“grouchy, independent materialist” is the tone I get from what I’ve read), but this attitude is certainly fitting from a Christian point of view. Eden’s gone and we’re not going to get it back through technology. Almost all technological advancement is a double-edged sword that leaves us, at best, in much the same position we were before, just with different variables. Bad things happen, and will continue to happen to the end of time, whatever defenses we put.

I’ll leave you, the reader, to draw any topical conclusions from that.

The ideas and plot of the book are its main point: I didn’t get much from the characters one way or another (the crotchety old man survivor was my favorite). I also will say that, without going into spoilers, I thought the ending was a bit of an anti-climax; even a cop-out. But your mileage may vary, and the rest of the book is interesting enough that it doesn’t really matter. I also like that we don’t get answers to some of the questions the book raises, such as why the satellite went off course in the first place, much less where the Andromeda Strain came from.

Recommended.

 

 

Brief Thoughts on Pickwick

Recently I listened to The Pickwick Papers on my way to and from work/class. For those who don’t know, this was Charles Dickens’s first novel, which (if I recall correctly) he was assigned to after the original author backed out, and which was intended to accompany the illustrations of a then-famous satirist, who died almost immediately into the project. The result was that Dickens had his big break and made a name for himself with a rather formless, yet very entertaining work.

Chesterton, in his summary of the book, calls it the primordial, unformed matter of Dickens, and that really is a good way to describe it. It contains just about everything we think of when we think of Dickens, to the point where you can almost see future stories slipping in and out of the proceedings. You know how movies about authors always sprinkle little lines and incidents from their books throughout the script, as if to say “that’s where that came from”? Well, The Pickwick Papers is kind of like that. I can spot definite shadows of Nicholas Nickelby, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield at the very least (which is to say, of all the Dickens novels I’ve read), while one of the many short-stories peppered throughout is sort of an embryonic version of A Christmas Carol, in which a mean old sexton is whisked away by goblins on Christmas Eve to be taught a lesson in humanity.

The premise of the book is that Mr. Pickwick, a wealthy and prominent gentleman of fashionable (and ridiculous) scholarship decides to embark upon a journey to explore England and meet its people. In this, he is accompanied by his three friends; Mr. Winkle, the young would-be sportsman, around whom no man is safe and no bird in danger when he has a gun in his hand, Mr. Snodgrass, the young would-be poet whom no one can remember actually writing anything, and middle-aged Mr. Tupman, the old would-be romantic. They soon cross paths with the fast-talking, unscrupulous Mr. Jingle, and subsequently with the eloquent, street-smart cockney, Sam Weller, whom Mr. Pickwick employs as his manservant.

The first half or so of the book is mostly a series of more or less unconnected, humorous vignettes of the characters going from place to place, encountering the usual Dickensian menagerie of colorful caricatures, and often hearing a quaint short story or poem. They take up with a good-natured gentleman farmer named Mr. Wardell, who has a good-sized family that includes an elderly and selectively deaf mother, several lovely daughters, and a very fat servant boy who falls asleep any chance he gets. They witness a parliamentary election in a small town, where the rival newspapers attack each other and each other’s candidates with unstinting vitriol while assuring their readers that the fate of the nation depends upon whether there will or will not be an increase in the turnpike toll, and their readers believe them with gusto. Sam introduces his father, who drives a stagecoach and is married to a humorless woman taken up with a temperance society headed by an extremely drunk shepherd. And Mr. Pickwick quite innocently ends up in several compromising positions with a variety of women, including being locked in a closet in a girl’s boarding school.

All this is great fun, and Sam Weller, with his endless Wellerisms (“Hoping this will be a long acquaintance, as the gentleman said to the five-pound note”), is one of the crowning achievements of the book. He and Pickwick make for one of those striking pairs of upperclass innocence and lower-class shrewdness, though with much more affection and balance than is often met with. Imagine a Jeeves and Wooster where Jeeves legitimately respected Wooster, and Wooster had a fatherly concern for Jeeves. As Chesterton noted, Dickens understood in this case that, when pairing innocence and knowledge, innocence ought to rule over knowledge.

But what struck me most was the change that comes over the course of the story. It seems that once Dickens was allowed to try his wings, he gradually abandoned the satire of the early chapters. It remains a comedy, but Pickwick is no longer the butt of the joke. Instead, he adopts the role of straight-man, especially when one of the earlier humorous incidents comes back with unexpected consequences that eventually land him in debtor’s prison.

It’s there that Pickwick begins to show that, despite his ridiculousness, he is a genuinely great man, capable of real nobility, courage, and charity. At the same time, Sam shows the depths of devotion, and the other characters shed their farcical roles as Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass both become involved in love affairs that call for courage and honor (though amid plenty of humor, of course).

As I say, I find this transformation to be the most interesting and appealing thing about the book. Accidental or not, there is a strong impact in seeing the carefree humor of the early chapters give way to serious grief and misery, with accompanying moments of heroic virtue. I don’t believe Pickwick would be nearly so stirring a hero if he hadn’t begun the story as a buffoon, and I don’t think Sam would be half so delightful if his unflappable flippancy weren’t balanced by his fervent devotion to his master.

I’m not the greatest fan of Dickens. I’ve enjoyed all the stories I read (well, listened to mostly) from him, but for me he has several great flaws. His caricatures are often too broad and his social commentary too heavy handed (for instance, I thought Wackford Squeers’s school in Nicholas Nickelby was so obviously exaggerated that it defeated its purpose. Salem House from David Copperfield was far more effectively horrible for being more restrained). Not to mention that his tragic moments tend to be painfully maudlin. To my mind, Jane Austen ranks far higher in the pantheon of great British authors. That said, Dickens is undeniably one of the greats and I’d rank Pickwick as one of his best.

Thoughts on ‘The Wind in the Willows’

Recently I had the great joy of reading The Wind in the Willows, if not quite for the first time (I had read it at least once before when I was much younger) then for the first time since I became able to fully appreciate it.

You all probably know the story, such as it is, though it’s less a straight story than a collection of vignettes centered around the protagonists Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad. Mr. Mole becomes tired of spring cleaning and tunnels up to the surface to enjoy the springtime itself, whereupon he strikes up a friendship with the hospitable Water Rat and they spend the spring and summer together, while their friend, the wealthy Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, becomes obsessed with motorcars and they, along with the authoritative Mr. Badger, attempt to bring him in line before he ruins himself.

It is really a most wonderful little book: full to bursting with that distinctly late-Victorian, early 20th Century English charm, with remarkably deft characterization on its delightful quartet of protagonists and some truly gorgeous writing.

Let me give you an example, just from the first chapter:

“He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All as a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

To be able to write like that takes more than just talent, it takes a degree of reverence and humility; the power just to stand and listen to creation, picking up the quiet, but distinct character of each river, each meadow, each forest, and each sunrise. You’d have to have a heart open to receive the words and magic of nature spoken in its own language, not forced into a cramped, scientific or material perspective. You have to feel that every flower, every tree, every little eddy in the river is unique and placed there for its own sake. In a word, Kenneth Grahame’s writing isn’t just a matter of style, it’s a matter of heart; his descriptions can only come from a place of love and reverence.

And he doesn’t only use this to describe nature, but also things like the lure of adventure (in the chapter where Rat meets the Seafaring Rat), where the distinctive flavors of different lands and peoples are rendered with loving detail, or even numinous awe, as in the chapter where Rat and Mole have an encounter with Pan:

“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat?’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? Oh, never, never! And yet – and yet – Oh, Mole, I am afraid!'”

There is also a delightfully surreal, childlike tone to the story. The author makes no attempt to make this into a real and consistent world; the animal heroes live in burrows, but borrows stocked with shelves and cookery and little treasures that “required a lot of careful saving to purchase.” Mr. Toad is able to disguise himself as a washerwoman and combs dry leaves out of his ‘hair,’ yet of course fits into Rat’s hole and is treated as toad by the human characters. When he’s arrested, he’s thrown into a dungeon straight from the Middle Ages complete with men at arms, loose straw for bedding, and the like (and when the warden’s daughter takes pity on him, being fond of animals, he convinces himself she’s fallen in love with him and reflects with regret of the great social gap between them).

As C.S. Lewis described it, the thin disguise of the characters being animals allows the author to present the tale he wants; the characters are able to enjoy life as both children and adults: they go where they like and do what they please, while meals and clothes and household goods are simply there as if by magic. No one gives a thought to employment or jobs or bills or any other wretched thing. When Toad returns to the riverbank, there is no thought that the law will pursue him there; he’s ‘safe’ as though in a children’s game. It’s all pure imagination; allowing the characters to experience the world as we might wish it were, to enjoy their adventures and lessons and dreams, to experience the ups and downs of life without the tedious details.

And oh, what life we get! Rat’s fervent, almost familial love for the river and for boating. Mole rediscovering his beloved hole after being so long away and being driven to tears for the want of it, small though it is. The warm caroling session by field mice that greets him when he arrives. Mole’s frightening adventure in the Wild Woods (“At first, there was nothing to alarm him”) and Rat’s subsequent rescue operation. Badger’s hole in the woods, which turns out to be built into the ruins of a buried Roman city (what ideas, what dreams, what haunting meditations arise just from that image!). Rat’s encounters with the migratory creatures who tell of their alternating calls to the north and south, and of the delight of arriving in each, followed by his long talk with the Seafaring Rat. The Battle of Toad Hall, which is what ever child imagines a fight is like; everyone gets to be brave and noble, no one is seriously hurt, and we thrash the disreputable cowards soundly in a good cause and send them home to lick their wounds.  Not to mention Toad’s adventures, where he bounces back and forth between adversity and triumph, while alternately lamenting his own foolishness and singing songs to his own glory.

Of course, there is no better image for such a hilariously vain and ridiculous figure than a toad; the absurd, ugly, hopping, fat little creature with a fatuous grin permanently plastered on its face. Toad is a toad to the tee; fundamentally good-natured, but vain and foolish to any imaginable degree. 

Which brings us to the wonderful quartet at the center of the story. Little Mole, the homebody; shy, but curious, wanting to try everything but not sure he dares. He’s the kind of fellow who is generally too cautious for an adventure, but who, when he has a burst of courage, generally makes a fool of himself because he’s too sheltered to understand the dangers, yet is a loyal friend through thick and thin, and more than willing and able to pull his weight when called on. Your typical lower-middle class, sedate Englishman of a small town. 

Rat, on the other hand, is the confident one; he knows his own ground, what he wants from life, and that he’s more or less got it. He has his river, his poetry, and his cozy little whole, and he embraces all adventures and adversities that may come as a part of that life. He knows his way about, is a dab hand with a variety of weapons, and has the courage to stride into the snowy woods after Mole and the competence to know how to safely go about it. A middle-class, English countryman; a man of letters and culture, deeply in love with his own hobbies and his own home.

Toad, of course, is the irresponsible country squire who inherited his family money and estate without also getting any of the good sense that made it. Fundamentally decent, but completely out of touch with reality and having no sense of what his position means beyond an occasion for preening and getting his way. Proud of himself and his family name, but in the sense of thinking it means he doesn’t have to make any effort of his own. He expects the world to conform to his whim, though he always wishes to be well thought of and to be able to do his bit. He’s the kind of friend who will show you a wonderfully good time and then call you at three o’clock in the morning to say, “Dear Ratty, I’ve had a spot of bother with the local police. Could you possibly come down to the county jail and help sort it out?”

Finally, there’s Mr. Badger, the reclusive country gentleman of an earlier generation (he was friends with Toad’s father) who hates society, but loves his friends; an “extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness,” as Prof. Lewis put it. He commands absolute respect both for his size and strength and for his wisdom, sense, and good heart. He allows his manners to be rough and his hole untidy because he doesn’t want any visitors, yet he tends to them with his own paws when they show up. He’s sort of a Dr. Johnson or Evelyn Waugh type: the man who may be sharp with you and tolerates no nonsense, but will never let you down and whose advice and friendship you can always count on.

A large part of the delight of the book is simply the opportunity to spend time with these wonderfully good characters. I mean that not only in the sense of their being expertly sketched, thoroughly human figures (ironically enough), but that they’re good people; people you would want to know, to be friends with, to be like. Even Toad is the kind of friend who, while he’d be very tiresome, would at least be a lot of fun to have around. It’s the sort of book where, as you read it, you ask “what do I have in my life that stands in place of Rat’s river? Or Mole’s hole? Or Badger’s tunnels?” or “How snug and delightful it would be to have your own little world and to not want another; to know all its particular changes, trials, and tribulations, and to know that you accept them. But also how delightful it would be to sail the seas as a wayfarer, tasting the wine of each new land.” Above all, “how charming it is to have all these different kinds of people, with their own marvelously shaped personalities, bound tightly to their own particular loves and lives! How do I fit in to that? What is my life and my love?”

Immediately before reading The Wind in the Willows, I had just finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was rather startled to find that the former had a much more profound effect on me than the latter. Don’t get me wrong: Dostoevsky’s book is a masterpiece, but it left me rather dissatisfied, simply because it leaves so much of the story untold (Dostoevsky intended it to be the first of a series of books, but died before he could begin the sequel). There were profundities, and deeper ones there, but I found Wind in the Willows, in its quiet, innocent way, resonated more with me, or more completely. Perhaps I am closer to the English spirit than to the Russian, or perhaps it’s simply that Willows is so much more compact and accessible, but I know which one I’ll be rereading first.

I think The Wind in the Willows will be going up on my shelf next to The Lord of the Rings and Cyrano de Bergerac as an all-time favorite. The book is more than a delightful and excellently crafted piece of literature; it hits something in my own heart and soul that doesn’t get touched nearly as often as I would like, and shows me a world of peace and beauty and quiet order that I love to spend time in. It’s a work to treasure.

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A Plug for Tom Stranger

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I really love the work of Larry Correia, New York Times Bestselling Author, endlessly amusing and interesting blogger, International Lord of Hate, and man mountain. I first became familiar with him after stumbling across his opinion on gun control (summary: he has certain reservations about it). His Grimnoir Chronicles are some of my favorite recent books (and feature one of my all-time favorite heroines), and his Monster Hunter International series is great fun too. He’s also one of my writing inspirations: reading his articles was one of the key events that made me realize that I actually could be a writer for a living.

Now I want to draw your attention to his latest audiobook, which is available for free until June 21st. It is titled The Adventures of Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, and it began life as a series of goofy blog posts written for the entertainment of his fans. The premise is that every decision ever made creates a distinct dimension. Sometimes dimensions are threatened with destruction from other dimensions, which is why they take out insurance policies to protect themselves. Tom Stranger is an interdimensional insurance agent, defending covered worlds from interdimensional attack and providing excellent customer service.

Of course, to get the right idea of the story, it’s necessary to inform you that the story includes, at various times, a massive mech-suit attacking an alien armada led by “Gorblak the Deathslayer,” a gun that has a “Kill All” button that results in an explosion visible from space, an invasion of Nazi Dinosaurs led by Hitlersaurus Rex, a gratuitous cameo by Lord Humongous, a dimension where they worship the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (where even the most dastardly villain fears to tread), and a dimension in which R. Lee Ermey is the Secretary of Defense and Adam Baldwin is the President.

Did I mention that Adam Baldwin also narrates?

The author himself is present in two distinct characters: both as the unquestioned ruler of one dimension (where he is wealthy enough to have purchased both the Koreas in order to rename them so people would stop misspelling his name) and as a beleaguered science-fiction author who is imperiled when the forces of Hell invade a science fiction convention (it takes a fair amount of time for the convention goers to notice).

Basically, this book is hilarious insanity; the result of an immensely creative mind just doing whatever he wants without the slightest concern for plausibility, copyright laws, or…well, really anything at all except being thoroughly entertaining. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed this much at anything. At one point I was laughing so hard that I actually thought I might pass out.

And it’s only about two hours: the length of your average film. Plus, again, it’s voiced by Adam Baldwin: one of the coolest, most talented actors working today. And it’s Adam Baldwin voicing himself from an alternate dimension where he became President of the United States following the five-season, three film runaway success of Firefly. And, again, it’s currently free, so there’s really no excuse for not giving it a listen.

Well, maybe one. As you may have gathered from the above, Mr. Correia is, shall we say, opinionated in some respects, and he doesn’t shy away from expressing his opinions. Me, I mostly agree with him, so I went through the whole book without really being offended once, but if you are of a certain non-conservative political persuasion, you probably won’t be so lucky. You’ll most likely still laugh yourself hoarse if you have any sense of humor at all (again, Hitlersaurus Rex! What kind of person doesn’t love Hitlersaurus Rex?), but you won’t like Joe Biden’s cameo or Tom Stranger’s assessment of Gender Studies.

On the other hand, if I can love Parks and Recreation, you can certainly love Tom Stranger.

In any case, if you don’t mind some liberal-bashing jokes (and some cartoonish gore: this is a Correia book after all), you absolutely should go download this audiobook while it’s still FREE and bask in the magic of a collaboration between one of the most entertaining writers and one of the most talented actors working today.

P.S. I do not recommend eating, drinking, or driving while listening to this book.