Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Best Things I Read (and a Few Things I Watched) in 2016

Today is Thursday, December 22, 2016. We have made it past the shortest day of the year, and the days are getting longer again!

Things are getting busy as the year winds down. We have an offer in on a house in Ypsilanti, it has been accepted by the seller, and we are in the inspection phase of the home-buying process. Nothing deal-breaking has surfaced yet. If all goes well we should close the deal in January. This means we will have two mortgage payments until we can figure out how to sell our existing house. That will make our financial situation challenging for a while, but I feel good about our prospects in 2017. I am hoping that soon I will actually live full-time with my family again. It has been just over 18 months since I started commuting from Saginaw every week and it has been difficult. I have much to be grateful for, but I also will be grateful to see 2016 pass into history.

This evening I will leave for home, and I won’t be back to work until Tuesday, January 3rd. We may be making one or more trips back down to Washtenaw County next week, though — we will be packing, and I might bring more boxes of books down to our storage unit.

The day we drove down to Ypsilanti to look at the house, I managed a quick date with my wife. We had dinner at the Wooden Spoon in Brighton, and went to see movie Arrival, and so I got the chance to see it a second time. Re-watching it, after viewing the ending, helped me notice a few more details in the way the early scenes set up the ending. There weren’t any earth-shattering revelations here, but I’m still going to provide a spoiler warning: you probably shouldn’t read this part if you want to be surprised by everything in the film.

Further Comments on Arrival (Warning: Contains Possible Spoilers!)

I was able to pay closer attention to the aliens themselves, and this time I couldn’t help but notice how much they resembled giant human hands, and forearms. Their bodies even showed “knuckles.” While they are known as “heptapods” in the movie, and they move their seven legs somewhat like tentacles, these legs also sometimes bend very much like fingers. This is especially noticeable during a brief scene where Louise is teaching the aliens the meaning of the word “walk.” The heptapods look like giant seven-fingered hands “walking” on their fingers.

The resemblance to hands and fingers was too striking to be accidental. The people who designed the aliens clearly wanted to convey this similarity. The question, then, is “what did they intend to convey with this?”

They intended, I believe, to suggest that heptapods may not be as alien as they seem. We learn in the movie that the heptapods are on Earth to offer humanity a weapon, or a tool, the heptapod language. They are doing this, they say, because in 3,000 years, humans will help the heptapods. So they are “paying it forwards” — or is it backwards? — ensuring that humanity will have the tool to be able to help them. And that tool, the heptapod language, “unlocks” our perception of time.

But what if the heptapods have not traveled so much in space, but in time? Could they be a distant descendant of contemporary humans?

My wife Grace thought the portrayal of the heptapods as hands was intended to suggest a deus ex machina, that is, powerful or even godlike beings literally reaching into our world, from “above”" the stage, from a godlike perspective freed from linear time. Are the heptapods our future selves, reaching through time to enable their own existence? We see that the heptapods have long, arm-like bodies. What we see of the “heads” at the end of those arms is limited; they appear to just terminate in a featurless rounded end. Our view of them, inside the heptapod’s compartment, is the view that we might have of the arm of a scientist, from inside a glove box.

Wikipedia describes a glove box like so:

A glovebox (or glove box) is a sealed container that is designed to allow one to manipulate objects where a separate atmosphere is desired. Built into the sides of the glovebox are gloves arranged in such a way that the user can place their hands into the gloves and perform tasks inside the box without breaking containment.

Grace noted that when Louise takes her solo trip into the interior of the alien object, we learn that apparently she can breathe the atmosphere in there without harm. It somehow looks denser than air, though, as though she were breathing liquid, and the camera shows us that she is walking on a substance that seems to resemble snow. This suggests that, again, perhaps the “aliens” aren’t as alien as we imagine; the heptapods don’t seem to breathe methane, or something else that is toxic to Louise. Perhaps the sealed window and atmospheric cycling mentioned in the movie are there to protect the heptapods from contaminants in our atmosphere. Perhaps the heptapods are the “gloves,” and their sealed compartment in the alien artifact the “glove box,” the intermediate space where they can interact with us, filled with a safe atmosphere under a positive pressure, acting as an intermediate “buffer zone” between their world and ours.

The only argument against this interpretation that I can think of involves Abbott. When Louise makes her solo return to the ship after the explosion, the single surviving heptapod, “Costello,” tells her that “Abbott is death process.” If Abbott is only a sort of “limb” of a being outside our place and time, why did the explosion kill him? Or, if these “limbs” are separate organisms, that can live and die independently, what sort of larger “body” are they part of?

I don’t think these questions are likely to have definitive answers. I think this was a somewhat subtle, and very beautiful, choice to make the film suggest these possibilities, in a mysterious way, without explaining them.

The Best Things I Read in 2016

I could write more about the home inspection process, about lead paint tests and septic tank inspections and attic insulation and ground fault circuit interruptors, but frankly I’d be boring even myself. Suffice it to say that my head has been filled with spreadsheets and forms and information sheets about easements, water softeners, shingles, sump pumps, and all the dull but very necessary stuff that goes into careful consideration of a home.

At the end of last year, I tallied up all the 54 books I read in 2016, and then on January first, published a blog post listing the dozen best. This year I’m going to plan to be busy packing in the days leading up to the new year, so I’ll list everything I read now, and also just list my favorites, and call it a year.

To the best of my recollection, and referring to my blog posts to refresh my memory, I completed the following books in 2016:

  1. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max
  2. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (bedtime story reading, and a re-read for me)
  3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (a re-read for me)
  4. The Magician King by Lev Grossman (a re-read for me)
  5. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman (a re-read for me)
  6. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (translated by Joel Martinsen)
  7. Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (unabridged audiobook)
  8. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  9. My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett)
  10. The Last Dark by Stephen R. Donaldson
  11. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (a re-read for me)
  12. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams (bedtime story reading, and a re-read for me)
  13. Light by M. John Harrison
  14. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  15. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  16. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling (bedtime story reading, and a re-read for me)
  17. The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
  18. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  19. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  20. The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  21. The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  22. Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
  23. Attempting Normal by Marc Maron
  24. Solaris (the new translation by Bill Johnston, unabridged audiobook)
  25. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
  26. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
  27. The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridge audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  28. Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
  29. The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge by Harry Harrison
  30. The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World by Harry Harrison
  31. The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You by Harry Harrison
  32. On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  33. On Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a partial re-read for me)
  34. Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski
  35. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling (bedtime reading, and a re-read for me)
  36. Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  37. Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  38. Caldé of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  39. Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
  40. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (a re-read for me)
  41. A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
  42. Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (a re-read for me)
  43. Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis (unabridged audiobook)
  44. Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (unabridged audiobook)
  45. That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (unabridged audiobook)
  46. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (not quite finished today, but I’m confident I’ll finish it by the end of the year; unabridged audiobook)
  47. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (not quite finished today, but I’m confident I’ll finish it by the end of the year; bedtime story reading)
  48. Last Call by Tim Powers (not quite finished today, but I’m confident I’ll finish it by the end of the year)

Now that I count them up, that’s not a bad number. I feared that I had done very badly compared to last year, but in fact my total count is only down by 6. I will try not to feel too badly about that, especially given that a number of them, such as Return to the Whorl, were challenging, and some, such as The Last Dark and The Dark Forest, were unusually long. I also started receiving the New Yorker magazine again in the fall of 2016, and so some of my reading time has been spent reading magazines instead of books.

I failed to note that I finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. Maybe I’ll listen to the 107 essays again in 2017; most of them struck me as worth re-reading. Hitchens also mentions a number of books that inspire me to try reading them myself, such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Thinking about Hitchens again now reminds me that I should get more essays from Hitchens in audiobook form.

I am not sure I finished reading the last few stories in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, so I’m leaving that off the list. I’ll pick up the book over Christmas break and see where we left off, and perhaps finishing reading the stories, as bedtime stories.

Of the books listed above, my top picks are:

  1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  2. The Magician King by Lev Grossman
  3. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
  4. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  5. My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett)
  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  7. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  8. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
  9. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
  10. The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
  11. The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
  12. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (translated by Bill Johnston, unfortunately still only available as an audiobook)
  13. Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
  14. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

That’s a baker’s dozen, not a dozen, but I just couldn’t leave out any more.

While I’m at it, I want to mention a few non-books that I thought were worthy of special note in 2016.

I really enjoyed playing the computer game Human Resource Machine. Since I play so few of them, I don’t feel that I can call it the best computer game, but it must be up there somewhere, specifically in the category of educational games.

I didn’t watch very many TV shows, but my favorite was the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I also re-read the novel at some point in the last few years, although I don’t seem to have a note in my blog about exactly when I did, so it was probably before 2014.

I want to mention the first season of The Magicians because I think it represents some of the best adapation work, and also some of the worst. I wrote about this more extensively on my blog, especially in early May.

I am still talking about the movie Arrival, so I think it would only be fair to call Arrival my favorite film of 2016. I have not yet seen Rogue One. I will probably see it this weekend. I have no doubt that I will enjoy it, but I don’t think it is likely to haunt my thoughts the way Arrival did.

I want to give a few special dishonorable mentions. The television adapation of Childhood’s End gets “worst adapation.” M. John Harrison is the only author whose book I completely regret reading. If I can get through any more of Viriconium maybe I’ll re-evaluate him, but for now I think of him as, essentially, a fraud, somehow convincing some readers and reviewers that he is a good writer when in fact he is merely an imaginative sadist.

That reminds me — I think this means it’s time to re-read Jeff Noon’s Vurt in 2017, and re-evaluate him as well, since Light reminds me a bit of Vurt.

I should mention the “Most Interesting Book I Totally Failed to Finish Reading and at This Point Don’t Really Care to Try Reading Again” — S by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams.

And finally, my favorite album to listen to this year was Hamilton, the musical, original cast recording, although strictly speaking it was released in 2015. I should pick up a copy of The Hamilton Mixtape to listen to while I’m packing next week.

Have a great Christmas! And may 2017 be a damned sight better than 2016!

Ann Arbor, Michigan
December 22, 2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Read It, Early December 2016

We are winding down our house search. After viewing hundreds of houses online and maybe 40 in person (I can’t remember for sure), we have made an offer on a house. It’s somewhat small and about 25 minutes from my workplace. This is literally the only house we’ve been able to find in these two whole counties where the home is pretty much ready to move in, the building is attractive and functional, and the lot is attractive and not next to some kind of eyesore or adjacent to a major road, dump, gas plant, electrical plant, or sewage treatment plant. From what I can tell, the only reasons it is affordable is that is because it is too small and too remote to be of interest to real estate flippers, and since it has just been completely renovated there is no money to be made by putting in granite countertops and painting it beige and trying to sell it for $100,000 more.

The property line is actually the Western border of Washtenaw County, so it is literally as far away from Ann Arbor real estate prices as we could get while still being in a county where we qualify for a rural development home loan. The neighbors are cows. I don’t mean they are fat people, I mean they are domesticated ungulates of the sub-family Bovinae, so they shouldn’t complain about the noise, or bother us at all, unless their fence breaks and they come looking for handouts.

If that offer isn’t accepted, we’ll have to go with Plan B. Plan B may involve renting a home somewhere in the area, or it may involve trying to stick with my current work arrangement, commuting from Saginaw, until May or June of 2017, and take our chances again in the Washtenaw County or Livingston County housing markets. However, I don’t expect the real estate market to look better for buyers in six months. I think dramatically higher interest rates are not out of the question.

Renting would be far riskier for our finances — rents are extremely high in these counties. So we might be more inclined to try to continue the commuting arrangement.

I know that a lot of fathers have it worse, commuting even farther and spending even less time with their families in order to meet the material needs of those families. But the fact remains that my wife is stressed, and my children are stressed. For our youngest, I’ve been spending half my weeks away from home for half his life. The others are missing my attention, too. They tend to react by either clinging aggressively to me when I am home, or nearly ignoring me, on the grounds that there isn’t much point in getting to know me because I’m just going to go away again in a few days. I’m not sure which approach is worse.

If we manage to purchase the house in Grass Lake, it will not have room to hold much of our library. There won’t be space for a home office like the one I have now. The finished square footage is less than half of the space in our current home. So as soon as we can, we will try to build some sort of outbuilding; perhaps a garage with extra rooms upstairs. We will only be able to unpack a small portion of the books and other media, so we will have to put some thought into just what portions of the collection we unpack and shelve.

Meanwhile, whether we will be moving to Grass Lake or not, we are planning to move somewhere, so our packing continues. Since I started packing books in September, I’ve moved just over 100 boxes into storage. It’s startling and a little disturbing to stand in our storage unit and see over 100 cubic feet of books, CDs, and DVDs stacked up. I do want to purge some of the books. But I agree with Grace who told me that what we mostly need is a sort of “mission statement” — an actual library collection development policy. We’ve got to think about what our library is actually for. Over the last few years as I’ve acquired media, I’ve had different aims in mind, and some of them are contradictory, or at least divergent.

The Start of a Collection Development Policy

We want to collect, and continue collecting, and refine our collections of:

  • “Classics” (books that are part of the Western canon, or at least associated with the Western canon). These should be “reading copies” (that is, none of the books should be valuable or hard-to-replace artifacts per se).

We should purge from this part of the collection awkward, heavy, hard-to-read, disintegrating, or fragile volumes — basically, books that aren’t actually easy and pleasant to hold and read. Our acquisition of hardcover books from the Library of America, and trade paperback books from the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, fit in with this goal.

These books are satisfying to hold and read, not scarce, often available used, and not expensive. Purchasing copies of the Harvard Classics and Brittanica’s Great Books of the Western World series also helps us meet this goal. This part of the collection includes books about these classics, such as How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.

  • “Un-classics” — that is, books that aren’t part of the Western canon, but which seem to me to be significant and important works of literature. These include books like The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye, Stoner by John Williams, The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, novels by Haruki Murakami and stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Many of these are from the NYRB Classics series.

This category also includes older obscurities that I find in used book shops. This part of the collection will continue to undergo a fair amount of “churn” as I add and remove books. The challenge here is to avoid adding works that are odd for the sake of their oddity, and to periodically remove books that don’t look like they are going to have lasting value. I also need to force myself to purge the collection of books by authors I like that don’t represent that author’s best work. For example, I definitely want Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on the shelf. I’ve read it twice, and believe it is a masterpiece. But his later novels Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and 1Q84 never

  • “Pulps” — some of the best and most interesting pulp science fiction and fantasy mass-market paperbacks. This includes well-known novels such as the Dark Tower books by Stephen King, and less well-known novels such as John Brunner’s Born Under Mars, or Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible, which is a significant work by an important writer, but which has been out of print for forty years.

A lot of these aren’t very good, but they are often interesting. Sometimes a book from this “backlist” turns out to be an utterly fascinating work that most definitely deserves to be read, such as Christopher Priest’s Inverted World. Sometimes there is a gem that I think deserves to be better known, and I like to write about these, and advocate for bringing them back into print.

This is tied up with my interest in recording or adapting out-of-copyright work, for example the stories and novels of William Hope Hodgson. The current sad state of copyright law makes this very frustrating; many books that I read as a young child, even those published ten, twenty, thirty or forty years before I was born, may never pass into the public domain in my lifetime. This actually dooms many worthy books to utter obscurity, as they become orphan works https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan_works. I want to be an activist and advocate for keeping these works alive.

  • Books about contemporary history and politics. This corner of the collection I am currently downplaying. Collecting these books has led to a lot of books that I read once and then dispose of, or never finish reading. This includes books like Columbine by Dave Cullen, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Hany López. This collection has been problematic for various reasons. One is just that a lot of topical books become less relevant as time goes on and I am unlikely to consult them again. For example, I read Disarming Iraq by Hans Blix, and several books by Scott Ritter, but these aren’t books I was likely to re-read, and so I got rid of them. I think the key to this corner of the library is to keep this part of the collection small, only acquiring copies of books that look like they will be important for reference and that have high “re-readability.”

  • Science fiction and fantasy works by specific authors, such as Gene Wolfe and Greg Egan, in editions that are special in some way: scarce first editions, signed books, limited editions, and uncorrected proofs. This corner of the collection is problematic and I find myself wondering what I’m really trying to achieve here. Will I treat some of these books as investments, and hope to one day sell them for more than I paid? This seems like something I certainly shouldn’t count on, although I might be able to do it with some specific books.

I find that I have warring impulses: on the one hand, I love to collect and keep in fine condition some special copies of books that I love. On the other hand, I believe that fundamentally, all books should be read, and enjoyed, and re-read, and circulated. They should be handled with some care, but ultimately they should be read to death, until they disintegrate from the attention of many hands, not simply die of old age. I am not quite sure how to reconcile these impulses. My current strategy often involves owning both a signed hardcover first edition (of, say, Gene Wolfe’s book Urth of the New Sun), and also owning one or more copies of the trade paperback edition which I read, re-read, and feel comfortable loaning out.

But what to do about fine traditionally bound books such as publications from Subterranean Press? Some of these books have the “collector price” built-in. I’m somewhat opposed to this, but on the other hand, they build books with sturdy covers, nice thick paper, and sewn bindings. It is worth it to me to pay extra for well-made books, but these should be read, not just hoarded. My approach has been to willingly pay more for some very well-made editions, signed or unsigned, but not to pay the large “collector’s price” for the very limited numbered, lettered, leather-bound, or tray-cased versions of the books.

  • Books for my professional library — that is, books about computer science, programming, electronics, mathematics, specific programming languages, and the history of programming languages. This includes books about digital signal processing, Haskell, Scheme, C, Python, Lisp, Lua, etc.

  • Books about logic, technology, puzzles, paradoxes, and the “laws of thought.” This category includes books like Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter, To Mock a Mockingbird and Other Logic Puzzles: Including an Amazing Adventure in Combinatory Logic by Raymond Smullyan,

  • Books specifically for homeschooling. This includes a wide range of books, everything from coloring books and books teaching basic handwriting through books of essays and textbooks about chemistry and algebra.

  • Books that are controversial, extreme, radical, banned, or censored. I collected a lot of books like this in the nineties — books from RE/search Publications, the Apocalypse Culture books by Adam Parfrey, books by the Marquis de Sade and Kathy Acker, films by Pasolini and Bertolucci, comics of R. Crumb, paintings of Robert Williams, and J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (the first edition of this book was actually withdrawn and shredded due to an obscenity challenge).

As an advocate of artistic freedom and the First Amendment, I have long felt that it was my duty to support artists pushing the accepted limits of free expression.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I have lost some of my interest in pushing these limits for the sake of pushing them, and I’ve given away most of this stuff.

This will be only a modest part of our collection. I retain an interest in radical philosophies and controversial works — for example the novels and essays of J. G. Ballard, some of the writings of William S. Burroughs, performances of Lenny Bruce, and works about Dada, the Situationist International movement, the Fluxus movement, and the Futurist movement, because they contain elemements of philosophy and political and cultural critique.

Two of my personal favorite books from this corner of my collection is The Futurist Cookbook by F. T. Martinetti, edited by Lesley Chamberlain and translated by Suzanne Brill, and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus.

For now, most of my books are in storage. In a few more weeks, just about all of them will be there. I’ll keep a handful out — books I’m currently reading and plan to read immediately. The rest aren’t that inaccessible; I could dig out a box if we need it. But it’s going to be strange not to have our whole library on hand, perhaps for quite some time.

Anyway. Onward!

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I’m almost halfway through the unabridged audiobook version of Great Expectations. It’s a good read. Miss Havisham in particular is a delightfully disturbing character. I have also become very fond of Joe.

At about the 1/3 mark, I made some predictions about how the story would end. Then I decided to go ahead and spoil it for myself by reading the plot summary on Wikipedia. It turned out that my predictions were mostly accurate.

Warning: Spoilers About a Novel Published More Thant One Hundred and Sixty Years Ago

Prediction 1: Miss Havisham isn’t Pip’s benefactor. (She did give him the money that allowed him to become an apprentice blacksmith, but she isn’t the one to give him his “expectations.”) Dickens sets up the reader’s expectations, just as Miss Havisham expected to be married, but her expectations were foiled.

Prediction 2: Biddy would eventually marry Joe. This kind of practical marriage doesn’t seem that odd in the context of England in the 1800s.

Prediction 3: Pip would not marry Estella. This is technically true, as they don’t marry before the end of the novel. I discovered that the original ending that Dickens wrote left Estella married and Pip single. Dickens changed this so that the ending suggested that Pip and Estella will marry, but I was interested to note that even in the altered story, their romantic relationship can develop only after Estella has gone through some challenging circumstances that force her to change the way she thinks and feels about other people.

Apparently some critics to this day believe the first ending was more consistent with the way the overall story begins and proceeds, so I don’t feel bad about missing the mark. After I finish it, I’ll have to track down the original ending and see which one I think works better. Some even think that the book would be better if Dickens had just left off either ending. Soon, I shall have my own opinion in this very important matter, and I’ll be sure to convey it to you, dear reader. (All right, I couldn’t’t really keep a straight face writing that last line).

Last Call by Tim Powers

A few years ago I picked up a copy of Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers. I found it interesting and enjoyed the writing style, but I didn’t really become engaged with the story and so I couldn’t finish it. I’ve spoken to some other people who have read more books by Tim Powers and they have told me that Earthquake Weather is far from his best work. They recommended Last Call. So I borrowed my friend’s copy; in fact I’ve been carrying it around in my car for several months. I’ve finally started reading it. It is much more engaging than Earthquake Weather — a dark “weird tale” about gamblers where the stakes are far larger than just piles of money. This work may be classified as “low fantasy” but it seems like it also might be one of the foundational documents of the “urban horror” sub-genre that includes such writers as Jim Butcher, Simon Greene, and Kat Richardson.

Arrival

I usually have dinner on Monday evenings with my friends, the friends who are so kindly providing me a place to sleep a few nights each week. This past Monday they were busy, so after work I grabbed a quick meal at the Uptown Coney Island and then went to a showing of Arrival at the Quality 16 theater on Jackson Road, very close to my office.

I have to confess that I have not read the story this film is based on, a story entitled “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. I have read a couple of Chiang’s other stories, including “Tower of Babylon.” I own his book The Lifecycle of Software Objects and enjoyed it, and I own the collection Stories of Your Life and Others, but I did not finish the story collection, and now it is packed. So it may be a while before I read it. For now I can’t comment about how well the movie adapts the story, but just the movie.

Warning: This Review of Arrival Contains Spoilers

Arrival is a visually striking film right off the bat. In some of the very first scenes, the cinematographer uses lenses that give a very shallow depth of field. This means that if a subject in the foreground is in focus, subjects in the background are quite blurry, and vice-versa. The effect seems to indicate that the characters may not be able to truly see each other clearly, because they don’t quite exist in the same “frame.” This is a hint to the viewer that we must not assume too much about what is going on in these apparent “flashback” scenes, in which the protagonist, Louise Banks, seems to be reminiscing about the short life of her daughter.

Banks is a linguist, and when aliens arrive on earth (in twelve identical stone objects, each silently hovering), she is recruited to try to make sense of the noises they make. Every eighteen hours, a hole opens into the interior of the stone objects, allowing humans to enter. Inside the stone objects, gravity is altered, so that humans can ascend by walking “along” a hallway to a chamber that features a large window. Behind this window, in a chamber filled with mist, are the two “heptapods,” giant beings with seven tentacles that look like a cross between a squid and an elephant. The heptapods arrive for an interview, and Banks must figure out how to communicate with them. The stakes are high, as all the nations are nervously wondering if this arrival portends an invasion or an attack on the earth, and no country wants to be the second to figure out why the aliens are here.

Amy Adams is terrific as Louise Banks. She is courageous but not fearless, if that makes sense — the actress very clearly shows us what her is character is feeling, including the vertigo and fear as she enters the alien object. She is not “fearless” but she is extremely courageous, which is different — Banks gives the aliens her name, which triggers them to use a new mode of communication: spraying a sort of ink or smoke onto the window to create circular symbols. This is a breakthrough in communication between the aliens and humans. In a later scene, she becomes the first person to remove her protective clothing inside the object, so that the aliens can actually see her human form, and communication with the aliens continue to improve.

Things aren’t moving quickly enough to pacify the military running the contact operation, though; tensions are rising around the world, with riots and looting and conspiracy theories spinning out of control all over the media. Meanwhile, Banks and her team are stymied by the confusing nature of the alien glyphs.

This is a slow and philosophical film, about the nature of language and how our language delineates our ability to think. I joked on Facebook that this is “one of the best movies ever made about the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis!” As Banks works with the alien language, she comes to understand that their conception of time does not match our own. They do not seem to experience time in a linear fashion, but to experience every aspect of their lives, and perhaps even events outside their lifespans, in a kind of simultaneous present. Because she has started to think in the Heptapod language, she begins to experience time in this way as well. And in light of this, we as the audience have to reinterpret everything we’ve seen in the “flashback” scenes.

It’s really a brilliant and beautiful movie. The alien visuals are gorgeous and minimalist. The music is beautiful and understated; it reminds me of some of my favorite film scores: the Michael Nyman score of Prospero’s Books, Mark Isham’s music for Mrs. Soffel, and Philip Glass’s score for The Hours. I’m also reminded of Claire Hamill’s 1986 album Voices (although that album has not aged well; I’m thinking more of the technique is employs than the results).

This is “sense of wonder” science fiction; you might also consider it “soft” science fiction. If your experience with the genre is limited to Star Wars, Star Trek, and space operas, you might be disappointed. This film is meditative and slow. It is for fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, La Jetée, Solaris, Moon, Primer, and other philosophical science fiction films. Everything is eventually explained, but you’ll have to work a bit to understand it; you’ll have to meet the director halfway. But if you do, I think you’ll be rewarded. If you can, catch this one in the theater; unless you have a truly massive home theater, the film will lose a lot when shrunk to a small screen.

That Hideous Strength

I finished That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. It didn’t get better. The ending featured, as G-d is my witness, dancing elephants. I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out what, exactly, Lewis was thinking when he wrote this one. Whatever it was, the end result is not actually good. While the book does raise some interesting moral dilemmas and contain some beautiful passages and imagery, whatever it might have achieved is buried under the book’s laughable pot-boiler plot and bloated page count.

Scorecard

Completed since last time:

  • That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (in unabridged audiobook form)

In progress:

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (in unabridged audiobook form)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • The Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo (bedtime reading for the kids)

Ann Arbor, Michigan
December 6–7, 2016_

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Read It, Late November 2016

Today temperatures are in the twenties in Michigan, while in the arctic there is an unprecedented temperature anomaly and the sea ice is decreasing, at a time of year when it is normally growing.

Donald Trump is President-Elect of the United States, a development that did not shock me, but did surprise me slightly.

I did not have a strong sense of how the election would go. I thought the most likely outcome was that Clinton would barely squeak through, with nothing that could be considered a “mandate,” as a bare majority of voters decided to hold their noses and vote for the “lesser of two evils.”

I also thought that we might see a reprise of the 2000 election, with a drawn-out recount. Instead we see the effects of the Electoral College, which gives more weight to rural voters, and of the disastrous decision of the Democratic party to run one of the least popular candidates in the history of American elections, a Nixonian figure with open contempt for national security and FOIA, who paid scant lip service to avoiding conflicts of interest.

My wife, a black woman, was practically giggling on election night, as her liberal friends on Facebook were shoved screaming into the stages of the grief Grace and I worked through a year ago. She got to troll them with phrases like “Guys! Guys! I could still be wrong! The votes aren’t all in yet! Maybe you were right when you told me Americans would never elect an openly racist president!”

And now we’ve got one of the weirdest Presidents Elect in history, a bizarre, intemperate, openly racist and misogynist bully who lies and brags reflexively, who revels in his anti-intellectualism, and who just agreed to a twenty-five million dollar payment to settle three separate lawsuits over his “Trump University” real estate classes. Real estate, of course, being the last part of the American economy with any residual value to be extracted, at the expense of those losers like me and my family, who would like to simply live in a home, not invest in one, or extract the maximum possible profit from it.

This is not unprecedented in history; we’ve had crass, ignorant presidents before. We had Franklin Pierce, an alcoholic who openly supported slavery. We had Warren Harding, whose administration is remembered for the depth of its corruption. We had Ronald Reagan, who openly pandered to racists, promised to restore “states’ rights,” and invented stories about “welfare queens.” His administration was the most corrupt presidential administration of the twentieth century, with over a hundred officials investigated, indicted, or convicted.

The country survived.

One thing seems certain: we are all students of Trump University now. He hasn’t even been sworn in yet, but already seems to be melting down, lashing out at the media, his critics — basically, at any adults in the room who dare to furrow their brows instead of nod along at the ranting of the “short-fingered vulgarian.”

Is it too late to hope for some faithless electors?

Hopefully we will learn more than his earlier students did, as we have the opportunity to study, in real-time, the unfolding of a real estate scam of historic proportions.

In 1787, it is alleged, Benjamin Franklin was asked:

“Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?”

“A Republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

It was a nice Republic, while it lasted. Sort of. At least, for a few people it was. For a while.

Anyway.

Packing Up the Books

We continue to pack up our possessions. I’ve packed up 95 boxes of books, CDs, and DVDs so far, with a few more in progress. 91 of these are now stacked in a storage unit in Ann Arbor. Of these boxes, 78 of them hold books.

I’ve got all the books and DVDs in a database, managed by the program Delicious Library. The database lists the contents of each box. I have also made a chart showing where, in the stacks, each box rests, so that if I need to get at a particular box, I should only need to take apart a portion of the book-box edifice.

When the last book is packed, or otherwise accounted for, I should be able to view the books and DVDs that aren’t assigned to a box, and delete them, thus cleaning up the records for a number of books and DVDs that are accidental duplicates, or that I’ve given away, or lost. Then the database should closely reflect what we actually own.

The CDs aren’t in the database, although I did photograph them as I packed them. Maybe I can add them when I unpack them.

According to my records, the 78 book boxes contain 1,793 books, or about 23 books per box.

Stacks and Stacks

The boxes on the bottom two layers are U-Line S–18916 double-wall boxes, specified to hold up to 160 lbs. On top of those are two layers of U-Line S–4712 boxes, specified to hold up to 80 lbs. I chose to pay extra for super-sturdy boxes in the hopes that I could stack them high without wondering if the boxes on the bottom would collapse.

Friends on Facebook suggested that I just get boxes free from stores. I don’t think they understood the sheer size of the library I am trying to move and protect or the value of some of the volumes. It’s inherently hazardous to the books to move them at all, but I am doing my best to subject them to as little damage as possible. Of course, many of them aren’t valuable or irreplaceable at all, but I still feel that it would be wrong to let them come to harm, if I can avoid it by taking modest precautions.

The weight varies dramatically from box to box. A cubic foot of large hardcover textbooks and magazines, printed on coated paper, weighs a lot, while a cubic foot of assorted paperbacks are surprisingly light.

The storage unit is heated and air-conditioned, which should at least help avoid some of the potential problems with moisture. I’ve seen what happens to paper stored in a basement that isn’t de-humidified, and it isn’t pretty.

With any luck they won’t be in storage that long, although given the way our house-hunting is going, it could be a while.

Shelf-Feet

As I packed each 12" by 12" by 12" box, I recorded the estimated number of shelf-inches that the contents would take up. This varies dramatically by box. In a 12" by 12" by 12" box I can fit four stacks of small mass-market paperbacks, or about four feet of shelf space, while boxes holding large hardcovers will hold only a bit more than a linear foot of books. I did not actually measure every book, but eyeballed the rows of books as I arranged them in the boxes.

The totals tell me that I now have, in storage, so far, about 150 shelf-feet of books.

This sounds like a ridiculous number, but it corresponds (very roughly) to 19 short 3-shelf Billy bookcases, or 9 tall 6-shelf Billy bookcases. Many of them are mass-market paperbacks, which could be shelved in a more compact way, since the shelves themselves could be much shorter, vertically.

This is more shelving than we actually had available in our home, and so a lot of these books were never properly shelved or organized in our current home. Many remained in boxes and stacks, in closets and piles.

Organizing

I’ve packed them as best as I could, trying to group them in boxes in rational ways (by author, by subject, in collections, etc.) but I could not do this organizing as thoroughly as I would have liked, because to do it thoroughly would have required that I had sufficient shelf space to completely organize them before packing them. Not only did we not have that shelf space, but that would have exposed them to the tender mercies of my youngest son, who has a particular penchant for destroying books, either by drawing on them, or by simply tearing them apart.

I don’t know where we are moving, yet, but my hope is that we will be able to set up enough custom or, err, off-the-shelf shelving, and get all our books out of the closet, and put into some kind of useful and attractive arrangement, with some protection from baby Nemesis. This will also, I hope, allow us to do the sort of organized purge, or decimation, of their ranks that I’ve long wanted to do.

There are more books to pack, although I have emptied the bulk of the shelves now. I am not quite sure how many more boxes I’ll need to pack the rest; my best guess is about fifteen. The count of books will go up dramatically, as I will be packing a lot of thin children’s books.

I find it hard to put away all my books. To me our library is a living, growing collection; I am still reading and re-reading books from our library. I took my best guess at the books I would want to read, over the next few months, and they are on shelves to pack last. But my butterfly mind keeps demanding that I read books which are now sealed up in boxes at the bottom of a stack of more heavy boxes, and giving me new ideas for how to organize the collection. I’ve got to just tell it to find something else to obsess about, for now.

Memories

There is good news about my computer. I spent some time swapping around memory modules, trying to figure out which DIMM was bad. The memory behaved unpredictably. I wasted a lot of time and never could figure out exactly which DIMM was bad. I swapped all the DIMMs between riser cards, and that was also inconclusive. To try to rule out a marginal riser card, I ordered a used riser card from an eBay seller. It seems like all the riser cards worked fine, but I still could not figure out which DIMM or DIMMs were bad.

I considered ordering 8 GiB of new RAM in 2-GiB DIMMs, to get my computer up to 12 GiB. But finally I decided to just go ahead and order 16 GiB of new memory in the form of eight 2-GiB DIMMs.

The memory, from macsales.com, arrived quickly, and seems to be working flawlessly. Memory is a lot cheaper than it was in 2008! Even so, I was hesitant to spend this much on refurbishing an eight-year-old computer. Fortunately I can get at least a little bit back, in the form of a rebate on the old memory. Maybe it will work for another eight years.

My scant time at home has been spent, largely, packing and organizing stuff. A person with several different hobbies accumulates a lot of junk in seven years. And in the last eighteen months of commuting, living away from home half the time, I just haven’t been able to do the kind of regular tidying-up that was needed. So my office/studio is truly a mess.

In my quiet evenings in Ann Arbor, when I should be writing, I find myself back on Facebook, or Reddit, reading about politics, and trying to understand just what has happened, and why.

There’s so much left to do.

And there’s so much, Left, to do.

As Baudelaire said,

There is no such thing as a long piece of work, except one that you dare not start.

On to today’s notes about books.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

This was a re-reading. I plucked this paperback out of a box of paperbacks as I re-packed them into a new, sturdier box better suited for stacking. This was Reynolds’ breakthrough book, published in 2000, the first novel set in the Revelation Space universe.

Reynolds writes “dark space opera,” involving plenty of grim tropes: viruses that bridge the gap between organic life and electronics; “servitor” machines with razor-sharp claws that occasionally go berserk and turn human beings into their component parts; giant, nearly-abandoned spaceships filled with unspeakable technology; uploaded minds, human and otherwise; world-sized, and bigger-than-world-sized, inscrutably alien minds; and vast engineering projects that re-shape space-time itself.

More than a dozen years later, Revelation Space feels a little tedious. It has some really wonderful images and scenes, but it moves quite slowly in places, and there are bleak stretches of info-dumps, where a character author-splains the back-story to you, in detail, instead of conveying this information in a scene, or in dialogue. And there’s quite a bit of back-story.

The last third of the book moves along better, and I found myself eager to get to the ending, which is reasonably satisfying, and not as grim as the setup might suggest.

I still recommend Revelation Space, although I seem to recall that Chasm City was a better read, so it might actually be better to start with that one. I was going to re-read Chasm City next but it is packed in a box, and I probably won’t dig it out just now. We’ll see.

The Book of Exodus

I finished re-reading Gene Wolfe’s Exodus from the Long Sun. Because there doesn’t seem to be an audiobook version, I re-read a paper copy, which is now packed. Exodus wraps up the four-volume Book of the Long Sun series and concludes Patera Silk’s whirlwind tour of the Whorl, as he becomes the seed crystal which triggers the long-overdue overthrow of the government of Viron and the beginning of the literal Exodus, where the Cargo begins to disembark to Blue and Green, the two planets of the Short Sun Whorl.

By the time we reach this volume we’ve gotten quite a complicated cast of characters, and many events are happening in parallel. Auk becomes a prophet of Tartaros. Crops are failing and it seems that the Whorl itself may not be able to support life much longer. Just about everything is explained, or nearly so; the story told in the Long Sun books is a little less cryptic, in part because the narrator isn’t as unreliable as Severian was (although as Horn is not really in the center of most of the action, it is hinted later that he had to take some liberties in re-creating crucial scenes and conversations based on the best information available).

Still, Wolfe can be difficult, even though this work is not nearly as difficult as Return to the Whorl. A number of important events happen off-stage, and Wolfe expects the reader to pick up on critical details. The Long Sun books are not for everyone, although I believe they will appeal to a wider audience than the more challenging and less rewarding Short Sun books, and recommend them for anyone who enjoyed the Book of the New Sun.

The Space Trilogy

Out of the Silent Planet

As a reader of the Narnia books, I have long been curious about the Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis. Not curious enough to read them, though. With many dull hours in the car due to my commute, I decided to take a chance on unabridged audiobook versions of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

Out of the Silent Planet is a quick read, and forms a really lovely and moving account of a space voyage. It is inspired by the work of H. G. Wells and also by David Lindsay’s book A Voyage to Arcturus, which I also want to read someday soon.

The plot moves along quickly, getting our hero, a professor named Ransom, caught up in a plot to travel to Malacandra, which we learn is actually Mars, with two companions, Weston and Devine, who have ill intentions both towards Ransom and the planet itself, which they wish to exploit.

The description of Ransom’s space voyage is truly poetic and lovely. Lewis conceives of outer space not as a dead void, but as a heavenly space, filled with wonderful, nourishing light, while Earth itself is the dead place, cut off from most of the wavelengths of energy that fill the spaces around it.

In this novel Lewis overturns the tropes of early science fiction, in clever and entertaining ways. Space is a beautiful place; the aliens are not horrific insects or hungry monsters but highly cultured and peaceful beings.

Lewis sets up what initially appears to be a colonization narrative in which Ransom and his companions reveal their sense of superiority to, and disdain for, the natives of Malacandra. But Ransom has “gone native” and developed an understanding and appreciation for the culture, philosophy, and ethics of the different types of natives. The climax of the novel involves a meeting with a divine being, Oyarsa, in which we learn that Earth also has a counterpart, a divine being responsible for life on Earth, but that the ruler of Earth (also known as Thulcandra, the “silent planet”) is even (or “bent”), and Thulcandra is his prison.

I wrote to a friend the following notes about Out of the Silent Planet:

I started [reading the book] a year ago but got a bit disgusted with Ransom’s condescending, colonialist attitude towards the Hrossa. This time I have gotten further and realized that Lewis has set all this up in order to deconstruct it. As “science fiction” the science is kind of laughable, but I really love the attempt to reconcile a post-Copernican world view with a theological view. The description of space travel remains gorgeous and moving, much more beautiful and uplifting than real space travel which involves stuffing people into a fart can, irradiating them not with beautiful health-enhancing rays, but with cancer-causing cosmic rays, and spinning them until they throw up. And I’m intrigued by the way that it fits in with Tolkien’s theology (Illuvatar and Maleldil, the Ainur and Eldil, etc.)

This is a philosophical novel that also moves quickly, and is beautifully written. It is not quite what I expected, and surprised me repeatedly by surpassing my expectations; in it, Lewis expresses a Christian world view that is larger, more visionary, and more compassionate than I had dared hope it would be.

Perelandra

This second book is longer, deeper, stranger, and more philosophical than Out of the Silent Planet. In this volume Ransom travels to Venus (Perelandra) in a coffin-like spacecraft, where he arrives stark naked and entirely at the mercy of what he might find there. In doing this he is obeying the will of Oyarsa, and is told that he is going to defend Perelandra against an attack by the ruler of earth (a Satan figure).

Ransom discovers an ocean-covered planet, and learns to live on the floating islands, made of vegetation. These are beautifully portrayed as “lands” that are in constant motion. All of Ransom’s material needs are met; he eats fruits that provide wonderful flavor and nourishment. But for some time he finds no companionship, and Oyarsa does not speak to him.

But then one day he meets a green woman of human form, Tinidril, the Queen of Perelandra. And here the story begins to take a turn which I did not really appreciate. The novel now becomes a very blunt allegory of the story of the temptation of Eve, from the book of Genesis.

In his introduction to The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien (another Inkling) writes:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history — true or feigned — with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

Was Tolkien’s inclusion of this comment specifically a jibe at Perelandra?

Weston arrives, in a conventional spaceship, and begins to debate with Ransom. He begins to show signs of demonic possession, and the story gets very dark very quickly. Weston begins to try to convince the Queen of Perelandra to disobey the will of the divine being, Maleldil — specifically, to disobey his orders and live on the “Fixed Land.”

And now, I’m going explain what happens next, from a wholly materialistic perspective, to put it into a particular light, before considering it again in what I think is its intended light.

Ransom, following his compulsion to protect the Queen, argues with Weston, Weston apparently develops symptoms of psychosis. He has a seizure, and begins to display flattened affect, and starts to harm animals. He begins to go without sleep, staying up each night to argue with the Queen and to engage in childish, endless harassment of Ransom.

Ransom, driven into psychosis himself by Weston’s torment and sleep deprivation, attacks Weston. Weston flees. Ransom, believing he has been ordered by God to kill Weston, chases him across the ocean to the fixed land. Weston begs for his life, in a rambling and disturbing monologue that expresses his utter terror of death. Ransom drowns Weston, nearly drowning himself.

Weston returns from death as a zombie, pathetically following Ransom, who ultimately pulverizes his head with a rock, and throws him into a volcano.

Ransom now enters his messianic delusions completely, and experiences a vision of the King and Queen together, who thank and reward him; he listens to a very long sermon, and has a very long vision, and is sent back to Earth.

That sounds pretty troubling, doesn’t it? (And maybe vaguely like the climax of The Return of the King?)

Of course, in the context of the book, Ransom is obeying the will of God, and Weston is possessed, and if you believe that those things are literally true, and that God really might one day ask you to beat a possessed man’s head to a pulp with a rock, then you’ll enjoy this book without hesitation.

I have some questions and some doubts.

Did Lewis intend to “teach the controversy,” as it will, inviting his readers to question the motives and facts behind this story — to see it with a “dual consciousness” of the events?

Because if he didn’t — I don’t understand his theology. I attended Sunday School (in the Presbyterian tradition) for 18 years, and the God of the New Testament doesn’t ask us to bash in the heads of our colleagues just because they are annoying us.

While Perelandra has some passages of real beauty, I consider it to be an altogether more troubling and disturbing work, and it leaves me scratching my head, wondering about Lewis himself — his motives, his character, and his theology. I’m not sure that’s what he intended.

That Hideous Strength

Wallace Stanley Sayre is quoted as saying “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

C. S. Lewis, an Oxford professor, must have sat in on plenty of faculty meetings, and so been moved to write a story about faculty meetings in which the stakes were much higher. And so we have an even stranger novel than the allegorical Perelandra, in which Ransom returns, but as a minor character, and the struggle is for the soul of a Sociologist and (and I can barely keep from laughing as I type this), also for the fate of the earth, as a sinister scientific institute, the N. I. C. E., attempts to take over a University town and gain access to a forest reputed to be the resting place of Merlin (of Arthurian legend), while Ransom has assumed the role of Pendragon, as the heir of King Arthur (again, I’m biting my lip).

This is a pot-boiler for sure. There are nightmares of severed heads, and shooting, and torture with cigarettes. The Sociologist is framed for murder. There are storms and mystical portents and Ransom lectures us about marriage, employing a number of very dated and heavy-handed tropes about the relations between the sexes, and a reanimated human head, and Oh, God, I can’t go on. I think the pot-boiler has boiled over, and what’s left is a horrible smell of burning plot.

That Hideous Strength is longer than either of the first two books of the Space Trilogy, and I’m honestly not sure that I’ll be able to finish it. While I think it was an influential work, an interesting work, I’m not finding it to be actually a good work.

I think this may be in part because, as original as it was at the time, it has been widely imitated. And so when I read it, I may not be experiencing it as it was experienced at the time, but as it reads now in the shadow of seventy years of pulp fiction that recycles the same tropes, once not quite so tired. But I’ll try.

On the Pile

I keep getting these iTunes gift cards, since I have a credit card that gives me these things periodically as a reward. I have just about paid off that card, and will shortly cancel it, but meanwhile I had another card to use. I felt the need to read some classics, and I still have to do a lot of driving, so I purchased unabridged audiobook versions of Great Expectations and Bleak House, both by Charles Dickens. These are long; Great Expectations, a relatively short novel as Dickens novels go, clocks in at over 16 hours. Bleak House clocks in at over 32 hours. Both versions are read by Peter Batchelor. I’ve only listened to the first hour or so of Great Expectations, but I’m enjoying it so far; Batchelor does a nice job with voices; it’s not a full-cast drama, but he differentiates the voices of the characters just enough. I especially like what he does with the blacksmith Joe.

Here I have to admit to not having read as much Dickens as I should have. I read A Tale of Two Cities at one point in high school, and got through it, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it that much.

A few years ago I started to read Bleak House, and got a few hundred pages in; I laughed out loud at the characters and dialogue, but ultimately I was distracted by shinier objects and faster-moving stories.

Dickens was a prolific and incredibly gifted writer, especially as a caricaturist, and while I deeply admire his style and ability with characters and dialogue, his writing can be off-putting to a contemporary reader, because is not really modern in a few important senses.

First, his stories are often quite sentimental or “corny,” although so far in Great Expectations I feel that he’s so far admirably avoiding the quicksand of sentimentality (but skirting it). Second, he published his works episodically, and so his works are long and wordy; he was paid by the word, and he expected the reader to take breaks (Great Expectations was published in 35 weekly installments, over the course of just over eight months, from December 1st, 1860 to August 3rd, 1861; Bleak House was published in 19 monthly installments, and so would have taken the contemporary reader over a year and a half to complete).

Ideally, then, his works would be best read as they were read by his contemporary audiences — episodically, with a week or a month between episodes. The chapters as published in modern editions do not match the original divisions into episodes, but one could break the story when one chose. The audiobook format allows me to experience a chunk of the story over the course of a two-hour drive, and then set it aside until the next drive (unless I can’t wait). I’ll see how that goes.

Onward to December!

Scorecard

Completed since last time:

  • Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (in print form)
  • Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis (in unabridged audiobook form)
  • Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (in unabridged audiobook form)

In progress:

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (in unabridged audiobook form)
  • That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (in unabridged audiobook form)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • The Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo(bedtime reading for the kids)

Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 22–23, 2016

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Read It, Mid-October 2016

My wife and I like to play a little game of chicken in October. We agree to tolerate the dropping temperatures without turning on the heat until November 1st. Then we see if anyone’s willpower cracks. (I should add that the kids don’t seem to care or notice; they run around so much that they generate their own heat, and don’t get cold, and won’t keep warm clothes on, until it is really cold. But for me, especially as I get older, October in Saginaw starts to get pretty uncomfortable; not just cold, but damp. Since my work keeps my largely sedentary, I have trouble keeping my body temperature up, even with wool socks and layers.

Anyway, I was the one to chicken out this year. Today is only the fourteenth, but I have a virus. I’ve got a sore throat and my lungs aren’t feeling like they should. The kids passed something to me. I feel awful. So I am giving up, and turning on the heat.

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been packing books for an upcoming move. We now have 51 boxes of books in a storage unit. I think we haven’t quite reached the halfway point in book packing, as far as volumes go. I’m not entirely sure. I have to make more progress if we have any hope of moving by the end of the year.

My computer is barely working. It is giving me occasional kernel panics, which are, I think, due to memory problems. Sometimes when I boot up I find that it is not recognizing all the installed memory. This is probably just be a case of oxidized contacts, because it is eight years old. In the past I have fixed the problem by pulling out the memory riser cards, taking out all the memory modules, dusting them off, polishing the edge connectors, swapping them, and putting the whole thing back together. That might work again. Let’s hope it does.

The computer holds my Delicious Library database. The database is backed up multiple times (and all the rest of my files are, too), so I won’t lose any data if the computer goes completely belly-up, but it would be hugely inconvenient, because I’m using it, updating the database as I pack. The idea is that the database has a “shelf” for each box, showing exactly which books are in each box. I’ve included an estimate on the shelf-feet needed to shelve the contents of each box, so that we can choose to unpack only what we can shelve.

When I get through packing everything, I should have a freshly updated inventory of every book we own. I should also be able to purge the database of everything that isn’t on one of the virtual shelves, meaning in a box. That should eliminate duplicates and books that are in the database but which I no longer own, having given them away or lost them.

In the midst of all this, I’ve been failing to get much writing done. My eyes have been bothering me. I suffer from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computervisionsyndrome and my lifestyle of the past sixteen months or so, where I’m not doing much with my eyes other than looking at screens, has made it considerably worse. On many evenings I just want to close my eyes, and the thought of spending one more minute staring at a screen makes me shudder. Often times I don’t even want to read.

Anyway, on to the books, and some music.

Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe

I have an unpleasant duty to perform. I am a big fan of Gene Wolfe. I have read his stories and novels and especially the Solar Cycle novels. I’ve come back to the the New Sun books over and over again. Each time I get more out of them. They are a deep, moving, fascinating, humane, and even profound work.

I have finally finished Return to the Whorl. I have finally finished the twelfth and last volume of the Solar Cycle, finally, almost thirty years after my first reading of The Shadow of the Torturer.

Dear reader, it is a disappointing book. I’ve come at it every way I can, up, down, and sideways. I wanted to give Wolfe every benefit of the doubt that I possibly, because he has been such a source of inspiration. But ultimately I have to say that it isn’t due to a lack of attention and effort on my part. I have worked hard to read these books. Return does not live up to the other two volumes of the Short Sun trilogy, and it does not live up to the very high standards Wolfe set over the course of the whole Solar Cycle.

One might say that I just need to read it a few more times, and then everything will fall into place, and I’ll understand it and it will work for me.

I don’t think that’s the case. My frustrating with the final book isn’t that it doesn’t make sense. I feel like I have the basics figured out, although some things remain puzzling. And I would also like to point out that the puzzling nature of the earlier parts of the Solar Cycle, the New Sun and Long Sun books, did not ruin my enjoyment of the storytelling, even on my first uncertain and slightly baffled initial reading. In fact, it was my deep enjoyment of both previous series that motivated me to come back to the books again and again.

I’m not sure I want to try reading the Short Sun books again at all, especially not Return to the Whorl. I might, but I have a pretty strong sense at the present time that Return is not going to magically improve so much on re-reading that I will want to recant this critical review.

I don’t think it was inevitably this way. The first two books of the Short Sun trilogy get progressively more challenging, and fragmented, but Wolfe could have, I believe, toned this down in the third volume and brought the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Instead he continued and even intensified the fragmentation and elliptical storytelling of In Green’s Jungles, and the result is a story that does, eventually, make sense — but it is not satisfying, emotionally.

I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first I want to talk about my current feelings about the whole 12-volume Solar Cycle.

The Solar Cycle in Retrospect

A few weeks ago, while I was still trying to finish Return to the Whorl, I left a comment on Reddit, giving a reader some unsolicited advice on how to read the Solar Cycle. Those comments, slightly, edited, follow:

The first series can be read the first time as, basically, a fantasy adventure story. If you don’t get all the details, or have a nagging feeling that you haven’t understood everything that is going on, or that Severian doesn’t quite understand what is going on, that’s totally normal, but you can get through the books the first time just understanding the surface plot.

You might then be motivated to go back and read them all again later, and understand all the events of the story in more depth, and then maybe read Urth of the New Sun, and maybe read some books about The Book of the New Sun, etc. You come to realize that even the genre of the book is in question — that the work is really science fiction, not fantasy; and that there is no “magic” except technology indistinguishable from magic.

The Long Sun books are harder to read, in a way, because they do a few things differently. In the New Sun books there are a number of digressions and “side quests” — for example, the stories told in the camp of the Pelerines. You get more texture of the world in these digressions. If you skim some of these digressive parts of the story on your first reading, you will still understand the basic arc of Severian’s story.

The Long Sun books move much, much faster. There aren’t as many mysteries, but the time scale of the story is extremely compressed — days go by over the course of the for books, not years. And there’s just a huge amount of detail to keep up with. So reading them can be a bit challenging, with the large number of names and places and events to keep track of, and the way the plot-lines intersect. But it doesn’t have quite the sense of “what is really going on here?” as the New Sun books. The events unfold in pretty much a strict chronological order, and in limited set of places, and so there generally isn’t a lot of confusion over who is doing what, although a lot of the rich texture and detail and back-story of the world is revealed gradually — for example, there are hints about what Blood and Musk are actually up to with the birds of prey, but you won’t necessarily understand these hints until later.

The Short Sun books are, to me, much more challenging than the New Sun and Long Sun books. I have read the New Sun books at least five times. I’ve almost finished a third reading of the Long Sun books. But it took me three tries just to get through In Green’s Jungles without giving up, and I still have not made it through Return to the Whorl. In the Short Sun books the unities of time and space are shattered. The actual chronology becomes very broken. The books raise a lot of philosophical questions and they are fascinating, but the storyline itself is so broken up and fractured across time and space that it can be immensely frustrating just to figure out who is doing what and when.

I think they are definitely worth reading, but I just want to caution you not to expect a similar experience. In the New Sun books you can enjoy them without figuring everything out. In the Long Sun books pretty much everything is eventually explained and it doesn’t take five re-readings to feel like you understand everything, although you really do have to concentrate to keep up. In the Short Sun books, just trying to figure out what is happening can be very challenging. But I would encourage you not to give up on them.

If you feel the need to set them aside, well, I think that is a common reaction. You have to decide for yourself each time you try to read a book if the effort you put into it is worth the reward you get out of it. I think the Short Sun books are deliberately much harder and so will naturally weed out a lot of readers who don’t want to work that hard. Honestly, I’m still not 100% sure that Return will be worth the effort, and I’m a reader who reads Dostoevsky and Melville and Joyce for fun. Yes, I’m saying the Short Sun books are harder to understand and enjoy than Moby Dick and Ulysses… and certainly harder than other “difficult” science fiction books like Dhalgren… really.

Returning to Return to the Whorl

In Return to the Whorl we learn many startling things, and un-learn some things we thought we knew after getting through In Green’s Jungles.

The first two Short Sun books gave me the impression that Horn’s adventures, since leaving his home on Lizard, were taking decades. I thought we might learn, eventually, that he had been gone from his wife, Nettle for as long as twenty years.

But in the third book, we find that he has been away for less than two years. This is an echo of Severian’s journey; as changed as he was, his journey from the Citadel as exile, back to the Citadel as Autarch, takes only two years.

In the New Sun books, this is startling but seems convincing; Severian has been swept along by events outside his control, but his restlessness, and the fact that he has to repeatedly flee from his accusers for his various transgressions, makes it convincing. But it seems impossible that the protagonist of the Short Sun books accumulates as much experience as he has, winning two wars and traveling across three worlds, in only two years.

In Return, the events in Dorp take place in fragmentary flashback; we actually read only a few very brief scenes covering what happened. The most interesting parts of the text cover what happened in the Whorl, when our protagonist returned there. In some beautiful scenes, he encounters Olivine, daughter of Maytera Marble (who is partly Maytera Rose). He conducts a sacrifice, and as they have no animal, he sacrifices bread and wine. In this scene it seems that he is inventing, or perhaps rediscovering, the Eucharist, and the familiar is made strange again by its strange context. It’s a startling and beautiful scene and, to me, the emotional high point and best part of the novel.

Meanwhile, the entire arc with Pig is concluded abruptly, with a single scene at the far end of the Whorl. It’s a moving scene, but so brief; it sets up parallel sacrifices, of Olivine and our protagonist. We also get a scene where our protagonist’s mission for Maytera Marble is concluded. Unlike the long visit in On Blue’s Waters, this one is told very quickly. We learn what happened, but because of the brevity of the scene, it doesn’t carry a whole lot of emotional weight.

Is it possible that Wolfe wanted to conclude the Short Sun arc in four books, not three, but was forced to cut the ending down into one volume? It almost feels as if that sort of forced amputation cauterization of the plot lines has taken place.

Wolfe actually leaves our protagonist, behind and the final chapters are written by other characters: by Hide, and Daisy. It seems that he is emphasizing that life goes on; our protagonist will move beyond our knowledge, back to the Whorl, and his family on Blue will also go on without him. It seems that the broken pieces of his identity have finally come together and he accepts what has happened. But we don’t hear about this from him, a finally-unified “him.” That also feels unsatisfying. For three volumes I’ve hoped that the protagonist and narrator himself would say something clear about his whole arc, not just what it occurs to him to tell us about at any given moment, often jumping wildly back and forth through time and space. We don’t ever get the satisfaction of reading the words written by a healed and whole protagonist.

Wolfe’s technique, in the third series of the Solar Cycle, is experimental. It seems a bit like a relic of the New Wave science fiction experiments of the Dangerous Visions era. I find a lot of that stuff is still interesting to read, but often doesn’t really work. In this case the experiment is not a failure, but in In Green’s Jungles it starts to impede the storytelling, and in Return to the Whorl it raises the impedance to such a degree that I could not really feel the satisfaction I hoped from reading the conclusion of a vast, moving, profound, and well-told story.

Who is Wolfe serving, by sticking with this fragmentary style? In this volume, it starts to feel like sadism towards me, the reader; not a prodding towards a deeper reading, but a torment. When the story takes another crazy jump through time and space I want to yell, like Oreb, “No cut!”

Mysteries remain. There was another trip to the Red Sun Whorl, apparently traumatic, which is mentioned only briefly, but not detailed. What happened on that trip? There is something mysterious about Nettle. When Nettle helps Horn’s “daughter” Jahlee, Jahlee refers to Nettle as “Rani.” This is a clue of some kind. What the hell does it mean?

Maybe I will figure it all out someday. But I am not too pleased that, in the final pages of this epic, Wolfe is still teasing me, still turning the kaleidoscope, introducing more puzzles, when he ought to be tying up loose ends.

In many ways I feel that Wolfe is “criticism-proof,” as far as evaluating how good a book such as Return is; it’s hard enough just to understand it, much less to judge it. But here I am, criticizing; the third book is disappointing, to the extent that it taints my enjoyment of the whole Short Sun trilogy. It’s a shame. Maybe I’ll change my mind one day after taking another crack at it, but I doubt it.

Scorecard

Completed since last time:

  • Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook)
  • Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook)
  • Calde of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook)
  • Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe

In progress:

  • Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (in print form)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (bedtime reading for the kids)
  • An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo(bedtime reading for the kids)

Saginaw, Michigan
October 14th and 20th, 2016

Monday, September 26, 2016

Read It, Late September 2016

Well, the second half of August went fast. And so did most of September. This one has been sitting on my computer, unfinished, for some time. I’ll try to be more regular, although I am now spending my free time packing my books for a move, which is taking up a great deal of time. The library takes up a lot of boxes, and a lot of storage space! On the positive side, I am attempting to bring the database of every book, video, and compact disc my family owns completely up to date.

On to the books.

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

In reviewing Authority a short while ago, I wrote:

I have started reading the third part with low expectations. I haven’t finished it yet. Already, it is more engaging than the second one. But I think my final verdict will likely be that readers should read the first book, which I reviewed highly in May, and stop there.

And in short, this is exactly what happened. I finished Acceptance this morning and found it unsatisfying. Like Authority, it suffers in comparison to the first book, Annihilation. It sets up the sensation that there will be revelations and climaxes. We learn a little more and speculate a little more about what is going on in Area X, and there are some interesting and disturbing scenes and moments, but overall the latter two books in the trilogy both lack the sense of sustained build-up, forward movement, and storytelling that keep me happily turning pages.

So I’m going to do what I said I would do, keeping the first volume in my library and giving away the other two, and accept that VanderMeer tried, but somehow wasn’t able to make this work really work as a trilogy; it was a great novel. I think the setting might still be a fertile setting for other stories, but the stories VanderMeer actually managed to tell in Authority and Acceptance just didn’t live up to the uncanny weirdness, beauty, and intensity he achieved in the first volume. Which is a shame, but not exactly a startling revelation, since many, many trilogies follow in those same well-worn tracks.

The Stainless Steel Rat Books

Some time ago I read Harry Harrison’s original novel The Stainless Steel Rat released all the way back in 1961.

In the last couple of weeks I picked up an omnibus paperback containing the first three books and so completed The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge and The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World.

Revenge features a storyline about an alien civilization that has expansionist aspirations, and is invading other planets. Harrison’s world is not deep or complex but it is entertaining and fast-moving. His plot points often seem a little bit clichéd and feel like TV dramas, but I think one could make the case that this is, in part, because his novels have influenced several generations of screenwriters.

In Word there is an elaborate time-travel narrative. Time-travel stories were not new in 1972, but some of the tropes weren’t quite as tired. Slippery Jim travels back in time to 1975, and has highly amusing adventures trying to figure out the culture of old Earth.

I’m currently working on The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You. In this volume, Slippery Jim’s twin sons are full-grown and ready to embark on a dubious adventure with Jim and Angelina.

Let’s face it; the Stainless Steel Rat stories are not heavy, or deep. At least, the ones I’ve read so far are not, although amid Slippery Jim’s constant boozing, an admirable personal philosophy does emerge, a philosophy about personal freedom, coercion, and the role of the state and the military.

Harrison is apparently still writing Stainless Steel Rat stories over fifty years later, so maybe the new ones get heavier or deeper. I don’t yet know. But the volumes I’ve read so far are slightly satirical but mostly just amusing adventures in the mold of old-fashioned adventure tales. They do this admirably. Each one consists of about 21 short chapters. There are lots of narrow escapes and cliffhangers. They are, in fact, a nice antidote to some of the much heavier works that I’m reading. Works like…

The Book of the Short Sun

Having finished the New Sun books in audiobook format, I continued right on to the Short Sun books. In the past I have tried to read this series a couple of times. Each time I got hung up, if I recall correctly, about halfway through In Green’s Jungles.

I’ve had another chance to tackle this, the challenging third series of Wolfe’s “solar cycle” books, but by listening to the first two parts as audiobooks. The third part, Return to the Whorl, does not seem to be available on YouTube.

Even with the long hours in the car, available for listening, and large volumes of coffee, to focus my mind, In Green’s Jungles remains a difficult work. The first volume is, for the most part, told as a relatively straightforward story, but out of order, and with some deeply strange elements, some whose significance only becomes clear upon a second or even third reading.

Horn, a character from the Long Sun books, is the narrator. He tells us about accepting a mission to travel across the planet Blue to claim a seat on a “lander,” a spacecraft, which will return to the Whorl, the generation starship that brought humans to this solar system. His mission is to find Silk, the hero of the Long Sun books. He wants to bring Silk to Blue, because civilization on Blue is suffering from a distinct lack of coherent, moral leadership.

Horn has several adventures and misadventures, all told in a complex, interleaved retrospect. He meets a young woman who seems to be human, but who has gills, and she seems to have been transformed by a goddess into a literal siren. He is granted a vision of this goddess, who can take the form of a gigantic woman. She seems much like the Undine in the New Sun books.

Taking the young woman as his companion and lover, Horn violates his marriage. In a disturbing scene, he convinces the young woman, Seawrack, to sing for him. This singing arouses him so much that he brutally rapes her. It seems that both his violent and procreative instincts have been aroused, and he seems to try to hurt her as much as possible in the assault. This is a disturbing and baffling scene. How are we to identify with the narrator afterwards? Was he really unable to control himself because of Seawrack’s magical singing?

Wolfe here is clearly trying to challenge the reader by giving us a narrator who is difficult to empathize with, just as the New Sun books featured a young man who was literally a torturer, and whose job was to execute people by beheading, or perform other acts of punishment; after exile, Severian was appointed the administrator of a horrifying, wretched prison. I’m still disturbed by the way this Horn doesn’t seem to fit with the Horn of the remainder of the trilogy; at the very least, Wolfe is warning the reader that “this isn’t going to be easy.” At worst, it seems almost a George R. R. Martinesque act of sadism.

Horn meets one of the inhumi, a vampire-like alien being who takes on the appearance of a young boy. His difficult relationship with this inhumi, Krait, is set up in relation to his relationship with Seawrack. The cast of characters is rounded out with a hus, an eight-legged creature a bit like a boar, named Babbie. Babbie is not human, but seems to develop greater intelligence and empathy as he spends time with Horn. So does Krait. Seawrack seems to have been human once, but only constant contact with Horn keeps her so. So in addition to the actual storyline of In Blue’s Jungles, Wolfe has set up some complex philosophical questions about personhood, especially how our conception of someone’s personhood can change. But as soon as you have a feeling that you pretty well understand these issues, Horn casually mentions how all these things happened back before he died. And the issue of just who Horn actually is starts to loom large in the reader’s mind.

In the second volume, In Green’s Jungles, we are again learning more of the story out of order. The lander was a trap, and operated by the inhumu, to take humans not to the Whorl but to their planet, Green, to serve as slaves and/or food. Although the title mentions Green, almost none of the story actually takes place on Green, except in recollection of Horn’s earlier sojourn there. Well, sort of. As In Green’s Jungles is opening, Horn, years older than the Horn in the previous book, recounts staying with a man named Inclito. He tells us the story of how he winds up leading Inclito’s troops in an inter-city-state war on Blue. There are other inhumu characters to understand and contend with, some disguised and some not. And then, as Incanto, who is Horn, who may also be in some sense Silk, is left to sleep in the snow with a dying inhumu, he takes a whole contingent of fighting mercenaries to Green, via some kind of astral travel. And then things get so strange and difficult that, I think, this is the point at which I gave up in my previous attempts to complete it, and set the book aside.

I’ve done better this time, but I have to admit that after finishing In Green’s Jungles in audio form, I immediately had to go back and listen to most of it a second time before I felt like I understood it to my own satisfaction, and I don’t feel like listening to it a third time would be out of the question.

In Green’s Jungles is an immensely complex work. It bounces around in time and space such that it really would not be easy to put the chronology of events into a completely rational order. One would have to make a detailed outline and then cut it apart and reorder everything. In fact I get the sense that Wolfe constructed these three books, at least in part, by doing the opposite — tearing a detailed chronology of events to shreds and reassembled it as told by a narrator who is himself deeply damaged and confused, although (I think) not actually deluded or misled as to the true nature of events, as Severian seems often to be.

I wish I had Return to the Whorl in audio form. That book is also complex. I’d like to be able to listen to it in the car as well. Instead, I’ve been reading the printed version again. I have not gotten very far yet. In Return to the Whorl we finally start to learn what happens in between Horn’s “death” and how he fails — sort of — to complete his mission. Because I am not that far into it, I am not really sure whether In Green’s Jungles represents the peak of narrative confusion and complexity in the trilogy, and things start to become more linear in the third book, or whether Wolfe will be twisting things up even more. I’m betting that he is, at least for a while, going to ratchet the degree of difficulty up even higher.

I don’t feel like I’m even at a point yet where I can adequately review this trilogy. I’m a good reader. I once audited a seminar class on James Joyce’s Ulysses and I had a lot to say about that book, and felt as though I got a great deal out of it. I still have my notes. I was an English major and studied big and difficult books, classic works of literature like Moby Dick. Wolfe can, when he wants to, really make things hard, formally, by playing with the fundamentals of storytelling, in a way that Joyce didn’t and Melville didn’t.

The Book of the New Sun is so fascinating in part because it can be read in a very satisfactory way as a fantasy/adventure novel set in the milieu of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. It is perfectly respectable to read and enjoy Severian’s adventure as a big travelogue, exploring his world and winding his way to his ascent of the throne. But the story is not quite what it appears. The fantasy world turns out to be a science fiction world. Many things that initially seem magical have a technological explanation. The lacunae and oddities and inconsistencies in Severian’s story reveal that he is not what he seems.

The second series, The Book of the Long Sun, seems right off the bat to give us an unreliable narrator — a young priest who has, in the first book’s first scene, a vision, or perhaps a mild stroke. He sets off on a great mission, believing that he has been granted enlightenment by the mysterious God, the Outsider. The story is actually quite straightforward, although through various details we come to understand that this story is connected to the Long Sun books because the gods of the Whorl, the generation starship, are the uploaded children of Pas, who is himself the uploaded Typhon, the two-headed ruler of Urth who Severian meets in both the four-volume novel and the “coda” The Urth of the New Sun. And Silk, it turns out, is not unreliable at all, although he may be divinely inspired, by a real God, not one of the fradulent technologically-enhanced human “gods” of the Whorl.

The Book of the Long Sun is not complex in the sense that The Book of the New Sun is complex. The plot is relatively straightforward. The challenge to the reader stems from the way the storytelling across the four volumes is so intense, complex, and focused. Events take place in an extremely compressed time scale. Dialogue is packed with meaning. There are dozens of characters to meet. Small details mentioned in passing become significant later, and there is a lot of detail to absorb.

The Book of the Short Sun takes yet another approach to narrative, in that we don’t necessarily have an unreliable narrator, but a scrambled narrative. In reading Severian’s account, at least for a second or third time, Severian’s identity becomes somewhat complex as we realize that his timeline has been manipulated and his whole existence across timelines interfered with. Horn has not, I think, had any such external manipulation done to him. But he has been badly damaged, his identity itself altered, and the narrative that he unspools reflects this chronological confusion; it’s a tangled ball of yarn.

The Book of the Short Sun is definitely the more difficult of the three Solar Cycle series. I think that The Book of the New Sun endures because of the way the reader can enjoy it on multiple levels, and it richly rewards re-reading. Too, I’ve started listening to The Book of the Long Sun, which I’ve read twice already. Unlike The Book of the New Sun, the story of Silk does not become more confusing on re-reading, but richer and more beautiful. I am listening with admiration as I see just how brilliantly Wolfe sets up the story from the very first sentence, making the onrushing events that overtake Silk seem inevitable. It’s a bit like an incredibly detailed short story.

Unlike these other two series, though, The Book of the Short Sun seems to require re-reading in order to understand the most fundamental aspects of the book, such as:

  • “Who is telling the story?”
  • “What happens in the story?”
  • “Who are the other characters in the story?”
  • “Which of these characters are people and should be accorded the rights of people?”

And as I have not even completed all three Short Sun books once, I still feel like I’m not quite ready to answer these questions. And I’m not really prepared to advocate for this trilogy like I have advocated for the other two, because I really have come to believe that this trilogy just isn’t written for everyone. It’s really written for a reader who wants at the outset to take on a multi-dimensional chess game with Gene Wolfe. And I’m not entirely sure, yet, whether it’s even for me.

There isn’t a lot of analysis out there on the Short Sun books, probably because they are so complex. Even though the trilogy is fifteen years old, I suspect that not very many readers have actually completed it, and of those readers, even fewer came away feeling that they understood it. I did find one interesting and, I think, correct interpretive note in the form of some incomplete notes on the Wolfe Wiki, which today seems to be off-line; I don’t even know who to credit these thoughts to, but they start off like so:

I believe we can take the old pen case as a metaphor for the old body Horn has brought back from the whorl. “At present it holds two quills, for I have taken the third one out. Two were in it when I found it in the ashes of our shop. The third, with which I am writing, was dropped by Oreb not so long ago.” To push the analogy, the three pens are three spirits: Silk, Pas, and Horn. The third, with which he begins to write this book, will be “dropped” before the end.

See http://www.wolfewiki.com/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=TheBookOfTheShortSun.TheOldPenCase (although as it exists in the form of a Wiki, that page may well have changed by the time you go to look at it).

I’d like to be able to sum up and render some useful final judgement on The Book of the Short Sun, but I simply can’t — at least not yet. Maybe I’ll be able to do so soon. For now, it’s just too big. For the moment let’s just say that if The Book of the New Sun is Wolfe’s Ulysses, I hope that The Book of the Short Sun is not his Finnegan’s Wake.

Next time I will to include some notes about Robert Borski’s book Solary Labyrinth. This is a book of short essays about The Book of the New Sun and the mysteries in that text, particularly the mysteries surrounding the identities and relationships of some of the characters. I re-read this work while re-reading The Book of the New Sun, to refresh my memory. Borski’s book is interesting, but in some ways, to me at least, not fully convincing. More on that next time!

Scorecard

Completed since last time:

  • Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge by Harry Harrison
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World by Harry Harrison
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You by Harry Harrison
  • On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (audiobook)
  • In Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe (audiobook)
  • Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling (bedtime reading for the kids)

In progress:

  • Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
  • Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (audiobook)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (bedtime reading)
  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (bedtime reading)

Saginaw, Michigan
August 15, 2016