misce stultitiam consiliis brevem


When I was encouraged to read Ruthanna Emrys’s Winter Tide, which jumpstarts from the “Deep Ones” part of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology and is intended as the beginning of an “Innsmouth Legacy” series (Tor’s got some previews from the months before the book was released), it was fairly popular in my library systems. While waiting my turn I got myself a better Lovecraft grounding: specifically, The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, which as a hardcover volume feels really impressive. (One of my math friends at Harvard demonstrated his thesis’s, er, gravity by dropping it on the floor for me. You’ve all heard the one about a class’s grades starting from “A to the person whose paper falls farthest down a staircase,” right? This guy seemed actually to be aiming for that—proudly.)

The source for the Winter Tide recommendation asked, upon hearing of my progress, “Do you think Lovecraft as an original author is worth reading?” That’s the sort of question I like to respond to publicly.

Do I feel honor-bound to have my Lovecraft “grounding” before I attempt a spin-off/re-imagining like Winter Tide or Lovecraft Country? Not at all. Do I think it’s likely useful background to enhance my experience not only of those books, but of a host of other cultural experiences up to and including overhearing “de-briefs” of Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror at HRSFen Summer Party? Oh, yeah. Heck, I hadn’t even known until the other month the reference inherent in Batman Begins‘s “Arkham Asylum.” “Lovecraftian horror” is one of those terms thrown around enough that it’s worth having a primary-source experience for it.

Lovecraft’s well-acknowledged real-life racism and other prejudices are, indeed, off-putting to say the least. Some people recoil at his very likeness. To me, though, it can’t be any significant factor in my appreciation for his fiction. Fiction must speak for itself. I feel insulted, and sometimes literally pained, when I feel an author is insulting the audience—and this is partly because it’s a misuse of the medium. Characters with unsavory personal views, in contrast, are often a perfectly valid element in the author’s story-telling. And that’s how the racism in Lovecraft’s actual stories feels to my reading. His stories assume certain bizarre fears and ‘ick’ factors about certain heritages (long-term small-village insulation being even more off-putting to the characters than ethnic background). This assumption from story to story is consistent enough that one isn’t surprised to hear it comes directly from the author. However, the stories propound equally–or more–consistently and markedly the fear that “people around me might be in contact with or even worshiping arcane powers that it’s Better We Know Not Of”—that’s exactly the atmosphere people like in “Lovecraftian horror,” isn’t it?

Besides, it’s truly charming to skim over the annotations in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. There’s how many biographies and critical works and cross-referencing and maps and genealogies and other secondary literature? It’s just sweet that so many people have cared so much for the worlds he created. It reminds me of Tolkien.

C.S. Lewis might very well have agreed with me that Lovecraft and Tolkien have a legitimate kinship here. In An Experiment in Criticism, one of the greatest literary critics suggests very gently and very persuasively that the value of a book may lie less in how it is written, and more in how it is read. The chapter “On Myth,” though not the center of Lewis’s argument, is my favorite part of the volume, and the part applicable here:

There is … a particular kind of story which has a value in itself—a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work. …

The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable. And the first hearing is chiefly valuable in introducing to us a permanent object of contemplation….

The degree to which a story is any story is a myth depends very largely on the person who hears or reads it. … Where one finds only danger for the heroes, the other may feel the ‘aweful.’ Where one races ahead in curiosity, the other may pause in wonder. … The myth-loving boy, if he is also literary, will soon discover that [John]  Buchan is by far the better writer; but he will still be aware of reaching through [H. Rider] Haggard something which is quite incommensurate with mere excitement. Reading Buchan, he asks ‘Will the hero escape?’ Reading Haggard, he feels ‘I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.’

Over the course of almost a century, H.P. Lovecraft has inspired readers gleefully to dig into, mine out, crack open, polish, display, and send to the stars every little nugget of the strange, fearsome world his characters live and (mostly) die in. A discovery whether some version of that world strikes roots, too, in you is worthwhile irrespective of the quality or morals of the writing.

Oh, and about the writing: yes, I, too, get the impression from At the Mountains of Madness that you could cut out a full third of the text just by culling adjectives synonymous with “eldritch.” But it’s like with Philip K. Dick, or George Lucas: these men have ideas that can light fires in so many imaginations. That’s worth appreciating.

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Jerusalem, Post 1

HRSFANS Book Clubread-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

This post has GUARANTEED 0, ABSOLUTELY NONE plot spoilers.

I haven’t yet seen (partway into “X Marks the Spot”) two perspective characters actually interact with each other, though some of them have seen each other. This is not a book where the reader is just shadowing character(s) through a narrative. Rather, it seems like the intent is that I, the reader, keep catching balls thrown by the author and, as my arms fill up, I gradually notice ways to piece them together to form a partly congruent whole. It seems intended to be organic in the chemical-reaction sense, rather than the “plantlike” sense.
This is my first Alan Moore. Can anyone tell me whether he’s likely to be able to pull that off?
First favorite quote, from the “Prelude,” perspective character Michael –

“… when he was a child, when the insane were that much easier to spot and someone walking down an empty street towards you yelling angrily into the air was certain to have paranoid psychosis rather than a Bluetooth earpiece.”

Other early favorite quotes:

from “ASBOs of Desire,” perspective character Marla –

What it was, when it was good, it felt like that was you, that was how you were meant to feel, that was the life that you deserved and not all this, this walking round like you’re asleep and feeling like you’re dead.

from “Rough Sleepers,” perspective character Freddy –

You could sometimes see the sisters still up there, a proper pair of dragons who’d been widely-known and talked about when in their prime: wild, shocking and exciting. Famously, they’d once raced naked through the town, leaping and twirling, spitting, running along rooftops, all the way from here to Derngate in about ten minutes, both so dangerous and beautiful people wept to see them. Freddy sometimes spotted them in Mary’s Street, just moping wistfully around the piles of dried-out leaves and litter drifted up against the sunken car park’s wall, drawn back here to the place where they had once commenced their memorable dance The glitter in their eyes, you knew that if they had the chance, even at their age, they’d still do it all again. They’d do it in a minute. Blimey, that would be a sight.

On a one-off basis these sentences are beautiful, but this book is going to be tough on those readers who want to understand a sentence before they go on to the next one. I mean, dude, I’m not one of those people, and I still regularly feel the need to go back and reread almost immediately. The writing is third-person limited, and closer to the idiom of the perspective character’s internal monologue rather than his/her speaking voice. Someone else’s inner monologue is not easy to catch hold of.

This makes me a bit apprehensive about how many other Book Club readers are going to be willing to read at least part of this, and come discuss it with me. We have several members who for one reason or another strongly prefer audio books. I can’t imagine trying to grapple with this in any medium other than the actual printed page – it’s too slippery even for e-reading for me.

And a quote which I’m starting to think bears on some main theme, from “Rough Sleepers,” –

It’s like the houses that used to be down here, with unexpected bends and doors that led off Lord knows where. But all the pokey little nooks and stairways had their purpose in the builders’ plan.

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Book Club – announcing “read-a-LONG” to February book

HRSFANS Book Club meets each month virtually, by Google Hangouts videoconference. (If you are interested in joining us and have not yet signed up to the Google Groups account – please email Kay S., Kevin M., or Rose M.) Our next few meetings are

  • Dec 12, Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart
  • Jan 16, Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

On an actual browse through an actual book store (or, well, kind of: it’s a mega-bookstore) earlier this fall I found a bunch of new stuff to try reading, including one that struck me very strongly as The Kind of Book I’d Want Help With. Such a book is usually what makes me want to recommend a month’s foray for Book Club, but Alan Moore’s Jerusalem is also 1200+ pages long, and bears some sort of relation to the works of William Blake—neither of which is by any means Book Club’s usual. (So if you like the idea of regularly discussing books with HRSFANS but not the idea of this doorstop, please don’t be turned off.) I was pleasantly surprised that multiple people said, “yeah, sure, I’m game” when I emailed the group to gauge reaction, so now Jerusalem is our scheduled February 2017 book.

It’s Kay’s suggestion that “It might be easier to tackle this huge, dense book in some kind of read-a-long like steps,” and our weblog seems the simplest way to host those steps. So my commitment for the next while is to post about my progress on Jerusalem at least every other week. Anyone who would like to offer their own post, please contact me or comment to a post and I can coordinate putting it up for you. Of course I hope for comments from other readers throughout.

Before we begin, since this has something to do with William Blake’s Jerusalem, a few sources for that:

  • from BlakeArchive (color, but single link per single page)
  • from HathiTrust (black-and-white, but downloadable in .pdf)
  • the HathiTrust file as a .pdf with blank pages removed, Part 1
  • the HathiTrust file as a .pdf with blank pages removed, Part 2
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Challenge me!

Not actually to a duel, please – I’m unlikely to stand a chance at anything except, maybe, a Clue or Babylon 5 reference-off—and even on those, I wouldn’t rate my chances highly. Just give me good reasons otherwise, or—even better, if appropriate—good reasons for and against:

Star Wars isn’t science fiction.

I need challenging because this came out of my mouth without me really thinking it through first, and in a context where it wasn’t likely to be challenged (right before a staff meeting starting, and I work for a regulatory body). I dredged up some justifications after (in proper Douglas Adams fan fashion; for that matter, in proper human fashion), so I think it’d be fun to argue.

So, Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It’s mythology. Science fiction uses technology as a vehicle for exploring aspects of humanity: “Given people being people, …”

  • “… what would actors do if reincarnation were proven?” (Nancy Kress’s With the Original Cast!)
  • “… what would people seeking meaning do if life on other planets were conclusively disproven?” (Philip K. Dick’s The Trouble with Bubbles)
  • “… what would strong people do if another intelligent species wanted to take ‘the best’ of humanity and integrate it into some other form of life?” (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis, aka Lilith’s Brood, Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms, &c. &c.)”

Star Wars uses technology to look cool while telling a story that would, and indeed does, unfold exactly the same in any context. It’s is such a classic hero journey that

  • it’s literally used to illustrate the hero journey paradigm in at least one high school class I recently heard of;
  • It’s been awesomely translated into Icelandic saga;
  • I instinctively mapped onto Star Wars characters about half a dozen of the major characters of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death? the second time I read it (whereas on the first reading, exactly the foreignness of the book’s culture had impressed me most).

But, then, note that I linked no sources for parts of my claim like definitions of “science fiction” or even “hero journey.” So what am I missing? And what’ll be fun to pick apart even if I didn’t really miss it?

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Fandom & adaptations

So who’s seen Ender’s Game?

Is it any good as a movie?

Unrelated question: which, if any, parts of the feel & experience of the book does it get right?

It’s funny, isn’t it, that those are unrelated questions? And movie reviews can only answer the second question when it’s obvious that the reviewer is a fan. e.g. for The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey (3-part Hobbit: WTF?), go straight to Anthony Lane’s review. It summarizes very neatly to “I loved it — but I’m a fanatic” (which is also, word-for-word, my own review of Terminator: Salvation).

I haven’t seen a fan’s review of Ender’s Game. (No, I haven’t searched at Hatrack River, why do you ask?) I knew I was in the wrong place at Entertainment Weekly upon reading, “The problem is, these initiation and training scenes go on forever.” I’m not a Card fanatic, but I’m pretty confident that anyone who considers Battle Room a problem hasn’t the slightest idea what Ender’s Game fandom is about.

P.S. Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham is, in theory, an unadulterated stroke of genius. Please tell me that, unlike Russell Crowe as Javert, it also works in practice.

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Why to read, when not to read

The other month, a to-be-commended HRSFalum asked through HRSFANS-discuss for good books to bring on a long vacation, imposing only constraints that they be in-print (reasonably available) mass-market PBs. As one might expect, this generated an excellent recommendations list (which someone really ought to collate for the HRSFANS wiki—shoot, I volunteered again, didn’t I?), if rather heavy on SF/F and historical fiction with SF/F elements. But there’s nice range to the discussions, as well; and a bit of back-and-forth amongst the recommenders.

One day into the discussion, Tony cautioned:

His Majesty’s Dragon, like Name of the Wind, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and Vlad Taltos are all unfinished series, and I’d really recommend reading the GREAT books on this list that are DONE before reading ones we don’t know how they turn out.

This seems to involve a bit of legerdemain in categorization, comparing “unfinished series” to “books … that are DONE.” A series pretty much by definition comprises several books completed in their own right (or at least to the extent that individual publishing is deemed warranted). His Majesty’s Dragon is done, as are five successor novels: the author is not yet done with all stories she intends to set in the Temeraire universe, but why should her artistic and/or business decision in our reality handicap the readability of books already available?

Even if the intent is to recommend complete series (such as The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) over ongoing ones (from the barely-begun City of a Hundred Rows through the apparently-still-kicking Song of Ice and Fire all the way to, I suppose, Wheel of Time?), why should the expected number of additional related books be a more compelling reason against or for reading volume 1 (or 5) than the qualities of the specific volume in question?

And how does this square with Tony’s own list of recommendations, emailed to the thread the previous day, including “Hyperion by Dan Simmons (only read the first book!)”? Once a reader knows how a set of related books “turns out,” s/he can choose only the “GREAT” one, but that same reader should hold off reading a GREAT book that might yet have good, bad and/or indifferent successors?

Please allow me only barely to mention the undead series, completed by their creators for good or bad and re-animated in subsequent decades (Dune being probably the most extreme example—in this aspect as in others—but with the Foundation books an arguably even weirder case, since they were re-animated first by Asimov himself and then again by his estate!).

I say, read any given book on its own terms. As I’ve written before, if it is a GREAT book there will obviously be further stories to tell, but that does not mean you need feel any duty to seek out any more of those stories, or to believe any related stories just because the same person (or an anointed successor) wrote them.


Who’s the medium now? Part II


Nur - Enemy of darkness and illuminator of consciousness


Xyn - Bringer of sleep, keeper of secrets and guardian of Mysteries

Earlier this fall I encountered an pair of goddesses to enthrall me, part of a larger pantheon on display in a coffee shop. More recently I found contact information for the artist, Jonah Kamphorst, and asked for their stories; he has been kind enough to send some preliminary pointers prepared for an earlier show.

I had earlier on the evening I wrote to Jonah re-read my other recent post on fiction, reality, and communication by/through artists. This pretty clearly influenced the particular questions I posed of this artist:

Are they from a world of yours? If so, to what degree are they yet fleshed out in your consciousness?  If not, where else can I look for more?

Jonah’s response is that he created the goddesses (note the direction of the agency) for himself, but has hoped others might find them illustrative or more. Also that he has an “extensive narrative … which is nowhere near complete” regarding them.

I haven’t checked yet, but my first guess is that Jonah has less than extensive experience writing narrative fiction so far. Again, as I noted last month, many writers seem to find themselves less than entirely in control of their narrative worlds. Also, I would describe none of my favorite fictional worlds as “complete”—or at least not as “completely described.” Wholeness in a world, whether this in which we live or those into which we follow storytellers’ great tales, is to my senses crucially dependent on there being always more to discover. One should always sense that one does not yet know everything that’s going on. Even, I expect, as a world’s creator.

Certainly that’s how I maintain my self-respect as a proper Dune fanatic: by insisting that it is not a universe belonging to and best understood by Frank Herbert. Herbert was merely the first to show it to us.

Likewise, I quite without remorse discarded Farscape barely into Season 3 and Six Feet Under part-way through Season 2, feeling the writers had lost track of their characters. And, despite my continued absorption in and deep respect for the character creation from Martha Cooley in The Archivist, I feel she mistakes her plot at the end.

Nur and Xyn here, from Jonah Kamphorst’s pantheon, remind me visually somewhat of “The two sisters,” from Margaret Mahy‘s The Door in the Air, and Other Stories, although these two are not actually complements as Jennifer and Jessica are. The obvious visual influences of Indian, Celtic, and cyberpunk cultures are quite striking and super-fun in combination. The image of Xyn linked here, though, does not quite feel the same as when I first saw it; it may be a different image, or possibly I feel different enough looking at it through the computer screen. In either case, I don’t have quite as forceful a feeling today as I did earlier this fall that there is more to discover—but it’s forceful enough.

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Of wardrobes and inner wars

Laura Miller‘s The Magician’s Book is a lit-crit-cum-memoir of loving, losing, and making peace with the Chronicles of Narnia. (I have made my way through this book only one third at a time, with one third yet to be read on the next go-round from the library. The second third was quite difficult for me.) Miller read the Narnia books passionately, with utter absorption, between about ages 9 and 14, until she was clued in to the books’ Christian symbolism (generally regarded as fairly obvious).  At that age, Miller was even more passionately disillusioned with the Catholic Church: she felt the need to reject Narnia, feeling betrayed.  The rest of The Magician’s Book comprises the musings of Miller, with input from many other Narnia-experiencers, on why she loved the works, what there is not to love about them, and how she, well into adulthood and her own career as a literary critic, came to terms again with what ‘in one sense will always be the best book I’ve ever read’ (Lion, Witch &c.). Philip Pullman‘s thinking and writing makes a more than cursory appearance, as is to be expected; Miller has previously written about Pullman specifically in connection with Lewis.

Some of Miller’s material was garnered from a set of conversations with readers; though I’m having trouble finding links to those pages, there’s also a recent conversation with Miller posted on Salon regarding The Magician’s Book.

Early in Miller’s work I discovered C.S. Lewis‘s An Experiment in Criticism, a delightful little volume the central suggestion of which is that the value of a book lies perhaps less in how it is written and more in how it is read. I’ll be obtaining that from the library again momentarily, and will no doubt share more.

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Needing absorbing reading … and thoughts on it

I am thisclose to agreeing to teach again for the MIT student-run summer program for high school and middle school students, HSSP. If you’d like to do the same, or to do it with me, great!

And if you’d like to advise me on the course I am thinking of putting together, also great. I set up a Google Groups page for discussion on my curriculum. I’d love input!

The basic idea will be explorations into the process of reading and the experience of stories. I came to this idea through a recent penchant for philosophizing on reading. Speculative fiction often provides excellent metaphors for the reading experience–Narnia being an obvious example, and David Brin’s Kiln People one of my favorites. I’d like to take that as one day’s theme, and also expand/expound (or, better yet, lead discussions) on different literary forms, how we experience them and how we’re meant to experience them.

Help much appreciated! Respond here, by email, or through my Google Groups page (which I might like best because then my other friends who are willing to help can weigh in).

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To read, to live; to live, perhaps to dream

I stared at the computer for some time before beginning to write this.  Decompression time.  Sometimes coming out of a book really is like rising out of deep water, isn’t it—bends and all.

Today the book is Orson Scott Card‘s The Worthing Saga. Other days it may be Anne Perry‘s Tathea, or David Brin‘s Kiln People, or Guy Gavriel Kay‘s Fionavar Tapestry.

And there’s no need even to get me started on Martha Cooley‘s The Archivist–I am quite sure I have already written more about it than anyone else wants to know.

Part of the agreement I made in beginning to post to this weblog was to write about what I’m reading. I suppose I’ll start by writing about how I read.

I read many works in parallel, because my tastes change with mercurial alacrity (okay, so I just wanted to use the word “alacrity”), and more importantly because I frequently want time to digest a chapter or scene in a story. (This makes me the perfect kind of reader to adore the Amazon Kindle, and indeed I do. Mine is named “The Guide, Mark II.”) My philosophy of reading holds that I owe nothing to a book merely because I begin to read it. I will quite happily discard a book after 3 pages, 100, or 300, rarely looking back. However, if I do intend to finish a book, I shoulder the (occasionally awesome) responsibility of learning the characters on their own terms, of allowing them their full measure of existence.

I loaned The Archivist to a friend who reads entirely differently from me (who once as an escape read half of War and Peace in two days, and feels compelled to finish every book he starts). The next morning he handed it back with a simple, “It was good. Let’s talk later.” His major critique of the book was that Ms. Cooley should have let the ideas percolate another 20 years or so before writing the book: it seemed a “green” undertaking to him. Although he may have a point, I still feel I too had a point when I responded, “Who are you to say that? You didn’t even give her two days.”

I have a friend who for several intense months at age 11 or so went around murmuring scenes from Lord of the Rings under her breath, imagining herself tromping along as a tenth member of the Fellowship. Another who has spoken of planning lighting schemes and camera angles as if to stage and film favorite scenes from stories. My imagination works differently. I rarely see the characters of whom I read, though I sometimes see through their eyes. I hear them speak, but it always sounds like my own voice. I feel my body move their gestures. I suppose I try personally to experience the story.

Which is more or less how, in the world of The Worthing Saga, telepathy works. If they “look into the minds” of others, the telepaths experience those others’ memories as their own. This can cause all sorts of philosophical/psychological quandaries if the “viewee” is a very different sort of person from the telepath, who has done very different things, had (to the telepath) inconceivable reactions to the stimuli of life. Twice so far in Worthing there have been conversations where one character says to another, “Your life is more real to me than mine. How did you take my life from me?” But it’s not that anyone’s life is erased—just that the overwhelming force of someone else’s strongest memories may seem more evocative than one’s own “normal” life.

The more I read, especially in good speculative fiction, the more metaphors I find for the reading experience. I think this one, from Card, will last me for a while. And of course Card is the author who wrote, in a 1991 introduction to Ender’s Game, “The ‘true’ story is not the one that exists in my mind; it is certainly not the written words on the bound paper that you hold in your hands. … The story is the one that you and I will construct together in your memory.” I hope all my favorite authors have such faith in me. I hope I may live up to that faith.

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