Holiday Reading…


…has so far been weighted more towards trashy than classy.

Trashy has included Deryni Rising, by Katherine Kurtz, who is a name I’ve seen a lot, as a fan of fantasy, but have never read. It’s high fantasy in western medieval setting. A first novel (though written and published before I was born) and it shows. Characters are thinly sketched, but the potential is there. The entire novel takes place in a small geographic area and at least half of it takes place over thirty-six hours or so, which I as good sign – an attempt to do something a little different, as well as something focused on internal politics. That said, still needed some ‘seasoning.’ Also, there were characters known merely as ‘Moors’ who all work for bad guys and get exactly zero additional characterization, which I would suggest is borderline racist, if it weren’t so obviously fully racist.

Michael Moorcock has earned some literary cred, but he also wrote a lot of trash. Fun trash, but trash. Of his interlocking, slightly revisionist, high fantasy novels, the original Elric stories are, without doubt, the best. And the novels of Dorian Hawkmoon are, beyond a doubt, among the worst. Which makes the number of times I have read those novels inexplicable. And makes reading the original tetralogy again, during my holiday, incomprehensible. Hawkmoon, as a character, is boring (though on his companions, Huillam D’Averc, is, if thinly drawn, at least interesting and fun), the post-apocalyptic world of science and sorcery is not nearly as clever nor as relevant as Moorcock clearly believes.


But, at least I read the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. Too bad it was about how Trump is going to blow up the liberal order of progress and justice-based structures. So, um… yay! I read something worthwhile!

‘Hyperion’ By Dan Simmons


I swear that I didn’t know it was part of a series. I knew he wrote other books about the planet Hyperion, but I really thought this was a self-contained story. Feeling a little betrayed.

But it’s an excellent and intelligent space opera. Keats comes up a lot and he plays with Chaucer’s pilgrims (though much grimmer and with less sex and comedy).

The world is well realized (though it’s actually a vast universe) and the layers and multiplying plots are exciting rather than frustrating, overdone, or contrived. Really, if it didn’t require me to read a second book, I’d call it an unmitigated success.

I’m Back, I’m Not Back


I’ve been away, first thinking only about the election and then contemplating the aftermath.

It’s not a happy aftermath. My wife is an immigrant and a person of color. I have low income family members who depend on Obamacare. All reasons to fear for the well being of people I love.

So, in what do we take solace?

I’ve been reading Cicero’s De Officiis in a lovely little miniature hardback edition. I love those books, on a tactile level, like the original Modern Library editions from the teens, twenties and thirties. This isn’t one of those, but the same principle. Also, just reading a literate account of how to be decent person in society. While some is specific to the society of the late Republican/early Imperial Rome, most is not. And in a post-Trump world, it seems both relevant and terribly sad. But perhaps Cicero, who wrote this after being forced into a sort of exile for his support for the norms of the Republic would relate. Though I still don’t see this as the end of democracy in America. A touch of class, too, in Cicero. Not that kind of class (though he’s very classy), but socio-economic class. And jealousy. On my part. Cicero can retire to his villa, send his son to study abroad (he’s learning from a Greek philosopher in Athens), and spend his days writing awesome things like De Officiis.

I was in my study the other day. Actually, if I’m being honest, I was video chatting my way through a Dungeons & Dragons game (thankfully, we’re meeting in person next week; sometimes, technology is a hindrance to play, a statement that you should take several ways). While waiting for technology to right itself or else during lulls in the action, I found my eyes wandering around to all my books. Honestly, I’ve got some pretty awesome books.

Among them, James Lasdun’s The Horned Man, I book that I read many years and deeply enjoyed and I felt compelled to reread upon seeing it on my shelf. Like Cicero, maybe I’m looking for parallels. In this case, an unreliable narrator who quickly constructs a strange and inexplicable conspiracy. So how does this relate? Trump, the unreliable narrator spinning his improbable narratives? Me, trapped in a world created by people who see conspiracies in the quotidià of modern life? Or am I the narrator, feeling a strange noose tighten for reasons I can’t understand (bear to understand?)?

Wordworth’s The Prelude which is one of the highlights of western civilization, but which, thankfully, has nothing to with Trump. Or does it? I just called it one of the highlights of western civilization and doesn’t that relate to Trump making his closest presidential adviser a man tied to a racist, separatist, apartheidist, ethno-european nationalist movement? That doesn’t make Wordsworth particularly racist (though I’m sure he was, being a man of his erea), but am I merely taking a more highbrow kind of comfort in the same white mythologies as Trump’s supporters?

I picked up Kenneth Rexroth and Ikoko Atsumi’s translated text, Women Poets of Japan and found myself less enthralled than I remember. While waiting in line to vote, I was reading The Book Genji and the titular Prince Genji and the beau monde in which moved frequently communicated via poems, but a quick, returning glance at that once favored collection of Japanese poetry left me itchy for something else. If that something else was a white, male poet (Wordsworth), does it make my reaction more fraught?

 

 

Chessmen Of Mars


book-chessmenofmarsI’ll admit, I’ve been reading free copies of these novels on my Nook, but I think that Chessmen of Mars is the last of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars (or Barsoom) novels that’s in the public domain and while I’m sure it’s possible to find a free copy anyway, it’s a moral point no to, though that seems shallow, since I took advantage to read the others for free, isn’t it? But let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good, now shall we?

Like many of his novels set on the dying planet of Barsoom (known to us, as Mars), Chessmen feels like two long, connected short stories. The daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris runs away and her airship crashes among yet another previously unknown subset of Martians, the kaldane and their rykor… well, it’s complicated. The kaldane are oversized human heads that walk on little  spiders and who mount themselves on headless human bodies called rykor, seize hold of the spinal column, and use them as their bodies. Burroughs doesn’t have Lovecraft nor Carter’s feel for imparting the horror felt by a character, but he does a decent job of showing how horrified the princess is (and her lovesick rescuer who is, naturally, also a fierce and chivalrous warrior).

When the two more or less human protagonists escape (along with their new friend, one of the walking heads and his stolen rykor), they wind up in a sort of lost and primitive kingdom where a game similar to chess is played, only with… well, you can guess. Yes, the pieces are actually people, fighting on a giant board.

Will Tara of Heliun and Gahan of Gathol escape? Will they find true love together? Will the villainous king (or jeddak) be replaced by his much nicer and braver vassal? Will there be an addendum explaining the (non-fatal) rules of Martian chess?

Well, um, yeah.

‘Invasion Of The Tearling’ By Erika Johansen


9780062290410Maybe not as good as the first book in the trilogy, but still very good. The world building is nicely realized and it’s both good and important that it’s a book with a female protagonist that was written by a female author. It shouldn’t be, but I hope we can all agree that full gender equality hasn’t been reached yet, so anything that breaks up the boys club is positive.

The other week, I was visiting my new grandniece (yes, I’m old; I can already feel the icy hand of death clutching at my still, but barely beating heart; I can only pray that when the reaper comes for me, he finds wearing nothing but a pair of ruby encrusted spurs and listening to Jefferson Airplane’s classic album, Surrealistic Pillow), and my nephew-in-law showed me one of the books the infant had been given. It was an ABCs of famous American women and ‘U’ was for Ursula K. Le Guin. I explained that she was a famous and great feminist writer, best (though not exclusively) known for writing very thoughtful fantasy and science fiction.

That has nothing to do with The Invasion of the Tearling, but feminism in the genre had been on mind and that’s why.

We are in a fantasy world, with an invasion and a young queen, but the most interesting part are visions/flashbacks to how people from ‘our’ world wound up in this fantasy landscape. There’s a messianic revolutionary named William Tear and a world of corporate control created by a former president – a far right ideologue. It’s tempting to read Donald Trump into him, but he’s actually more of a Reagan-era figure. More Christian right than meandering, narcissistic fascism. The revolutionary movement grew out of the Occupy movement and it does feel real enough, but the Calvinistic, ‘chosen ones’ nature of the people who will escape to the new world (better world, they call it) is disquieting. There’s a single mention that they are not actually moving in place, but in time (to the future? the past?).

Our heroine fends off the evil queen (actually, she gets a three year truce), but quite clearly releases some more horrible evil into the world, so there’s that. I’ll check the library to see if they have the third book available.

 

‘The Riddle-Master Of Hed’ By Patricia McKillip


9780441005963This is actually a trilogy, but when I was younger, I read the first book, but a good bit of it, I didn’t quite follow, though the opening stuck with me. Then, my mother sent me up a box of my books from her home and, among them, was an aging paperback copy of the first book, which I re-read while visiting a good friend in Chicago.

As it turns out, the only way to really read it now is to buy a reprint in an omnibus volume. Of course, I’m writing this because I’ve finally finished said volume.

McKillip is lovely, delicate writer, with a soft touch that is similar to Ursula K. LeGuin. I don’t think it would surprise any reader of Riddle-Master that it feels very similar in tone to the Earthsea novels (including being more than a little feminist, even though the hero of Riddle-Master is male – though so was the protagonist of two of three original Earthsea novels).

The story, which gets too complicated to really summarize here, struggles after the first book. Things don’t feel properly explained and everything rushes towards to a conclusion that, while not exactly deus ex machina, does not feel properly earned.

The coolest idea, undoubtedly, are the importance of riddles to the culture of the world. When the story begins, magic is gone – or, at least, wizards are gone. But a connection to that former world is maintained through the study of ancient lore. These ‘riddles’ are almost never actually riddles, but more like trivia from antiquity. The theme of these riddles as being vital secrets for understanding one’s self, one’s world, and one’s predicament is consistent throughout and I never ceased to find the concept rewarding.

What I most took away is a desire to re-read another one of her books, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. I think I was living in Florida when I read it. I remember being in my mother’s car and reading it after she had bought it for me at a used bookstore.

Fifty Years Ago Today, The First Episode of ‘Star Trek’ Aired


I took that picture of Captain James Tiberius Kirk’s uniform at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum on the Mall. And no, I’m not going to get into a discussion about Kirk’s middle name. But I should note that this is a uniform worn by Chris Pine, not by the eternally awesome William Shatner, though, after watching Star Trek: Beyond, which was the best of the ‘new’ Star Trek‘s and, dare I say, in the top fifty percent of all Star Trek movies, not to mention a rollicking good time, I now have a much better appreciation of Pine as Kirk, or how he has grown into the role. Real Star Trek fans will also have realized that Shatner could never have fit into that uniform, even at his youthful and swashbuckling best.

But that original series was just… awesome. And Wrath of Khan was one of the best movies of all time (I haven’t forgiven the first reboot movie from trivializing the motives that drove Kirk to cheat on the Kobayashi Maru simulator; the reboot made it a sort of joke, but in Khan, Kirk admitted that the simulation, which was intended to be training for how to deal with failure, triggered in him a deep feeling, beyond just being unable to accept no-win situations, but a terrible fear of failure).

So, not exactly happy birthday. But happy something. And thank you, Gene Roddenberry.