Poetry: “Notes from a Children’s Memorial Service”

No end-of-the-year metrics for me. No New Year’s resolutions. It’s the unexamined life that’s worth living.

Still, in actually catching up on my blog reading lately, I’ve begin to think this blog is a bit too cold, a bit aloof in comparison to others. Maybe it could stand to be just a bit more chatty and less like the awkward uncle who recites prepared dialogue at his one-time social outing at Thanksgiving.

Maybe someday.

But I’ve also been thinking of posting (or republishing) some of my poetry. I make no claims for its worth only that, if I put it up, I think it’s as least as good as most contemporary poetry I see. (And the profile page does claim I’ve published poetry.) And I’m often too lazy to submit my stuff anywhere.

Actually, in this case, someone did think this was good enough to publish, at least in an online venture — in the early days of National Review Online to be specific. It appeared in July or August of 2000 I think. You’ll just have to take my word for that though. All online traces of it have vanished.

For the poetry haters (and I used to be one), I’ll helpfully code these adventures in funny typing with “Poetry” in the title to warn you away. Eventually, I’ll create another index page for them.

And, yes, the first one has a very cheery subject as the year expires.

Don’t come here expecting optimism and good times.

I said more chatty — not more cheerful.

Notes from a Children’s Memorial Service

Death made a present of pain.

Wrapped his gift in

Rioting cells and violent physics,

Life’s architecture carelessly copied.

 

They brought cards,

Paid to voice

The long, hollow shriek

Of absent years

With Hallmark, Shakespeare

And the King James on cardboard.

 

Barbies and Poohs

And Boy Scout badges, factory

Tokens of the dead.

Photos, crayon musings,

Crafted fish lures,

Shed skins of the dead.

 

They huddle on tables

About invisible fires,

Reefs of memories, lives

Grown to stone.

 

Death does not reap.

Death does not sow.

Death waits.

 

“Why” is the question everywhere.

“Because” is the first, last, only

Only answer.

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The Peshawar Lancers

There are still alternate history reviews in my archive, but I think I’ve beaten (and flayed and crushed) this particular dead horse enough.

So this will be the last one for a while.

Raw Feed (2005): The Peshawar Lancers, S. M. Stirling, 2002.peshawar-lancers

Stirling thinks through the consequences of his alternate history. The point of divergence is a series of commentary impacts, mostly in the northern hemisphere, in 1878.

American civilization is wiped out. The British Isles are all but denuded of people. Prime Minister Disraeli marshals an exodus of the most important people, cultural knowledge, and technology and sends it to India. France is also wiped out but French culture lives on in Northern Africa. Islam is resurgent across the Middle East and Balkans. Russia has turned into a country of nominal Satan worshippers. Japan and China have combined. The Angrezi Raj, the cultural fusion of British and Indian culture, inherits the British empires (including new outposts in North America.)

The exposition is mostly in the first 60 pages of the book in which Stirling throws around a lot Indian/Hindu terms. He gets around to religious issues (basically the Anglican Church has accepted a lot of the Hindu gods and goddesses as versions of the Trinity) later on. To further show off his world building, he has five appendices with the background of the world. The culture is credible, and Stirling certainly makes this version of the British Empire seem noble and appealing with its personal ties of loyalty and honor and an intelligence run along informal lines.

Initially, I didn’t like my first exposure to seeress Yasmini, whose visions of the future, I thought, brought an unwelcome element of magic to this alternate history. Then Stirling got around to rationalizing using an obvious, if oblique, version of Roger Penrose’s idea that the brain is a quantum computer and thus (Penrose doesn’t say this) can see alternate timelines. The presence of a Kali cult was to be expected even if they were minor villains allied to the Satanic Peacock Throne.

The novel has two faults though neither was enough to disgust me. The reason — penetration of the Imperial intelligence services so vast that they can not be purged safely without first luring the traitors into the open –why Athelstane King and company have to sneak aboard the dirigible at the end seemed was a bit weak. I think Stirling, understandably, just wanted some scenes on a dirigible.

The end of the book descended into a wealth of clichés (presumably taken from the authors Stirling lists in the acknowledgements). There is not only a prince in disguise (the French envoy sent to arrange a marriage turns out to be the French prince who gets himself involved in a lot of combat during the book) but three marriages. The marriage of the French prince and Princess Sita was expected — after all, that’s why the envoy is there, to arrange it. But the marriage of Athelstane King and Yasmini, though hardly unexpected, was that old cliché of adventure plots. Worse was the convenient death of the Emperor and the marriage of scientist Cassandra King and the Crown Prince.

All three of the main women characters are of the same improbable action heroine mold beloved of modern authors. Stirling may have a thing for this sort of thing given the character of guerilla leader Skida Thibodeau in Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling’s Go Tell the Spartans. I think I was supposed to find the constant insults between King’s faithful Sikh Narayan Singh and would be Pathan assassin Ibrahim Khan (who also turns out to be a prince) funny. I didn’t mind them, but I usually didn’t find them funny.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

 

What If?

The alternate history continues with a collection of essays from various historians and popular writers, a modern sequel of sorts to If It Had Happened Otherwise.

There was a follow up volume I have not read.

Raw Feed (2004): What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, ed. Robert Cowley, 2000.what-if

“Introduction”, Robert Cowley — A cursory look at the current state of academic “counterfactual” writing, teasers for the essays in the collection, and a brief discussion of their genesis in the special tenth anniversary edition of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Infectious Alternatives: The Plague That Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C.”, William H. McNeill — Not surprisingly McNeill, the historian who really first put forth the idea that disease epidemics affected many events in history, chooses a plague as his turning point. We don’t really know why the Assyrian king Sennacherib abandoned his investment of Jerusalem. We know his army suffered severe losses, and it is probable that it was due to disease. McNeill briefly sketches, in cultural and religious terms, the consequences of the Assyrians taking Jerusalem and, thereby, killing Judaism as a cultural force for good. (It really isn’t that much of a stretch. The splinter kingdom of Israel had abandoned Judaism and disappeared in 722 B.C. Several cities in Judah were taken, and the King of Judea ended up paying tribute to the Assyrians.) McNeill sees the main effect of Jerusalem being taken is that the Jewish faith looses further confidence. The unique universal monotheism of Judaism is weakened. When the Jews are taken off in the Babylonian captivity, they become just another locally centered, ethnically based faith and exert no influence on the following centuries.

A Good Night’s Sleep Can Do Wonders“, Barbara N. Porter — A very brief alternate history that imagines the possible consequences (actually, it spends most of its time recounting the historical record and not imagining alternative outcomes) of the Lydian King Gyges not getting a good night’s sleep and impatiently attacking the Cimmerians before he was ready. The Lydians don’t form an alliance with Assyria and, years later, nascent Greek culture is overwhelmed by the expanding Cimmerians. Continue reading “What If?”

Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places

The alternate history series continues with yet another Turtledove collection.

Yes, I’ve covered two-thirds of the material before.

Raw Feed (2002): Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places, ed. Harry Turtledove, 1999.down-in-the-bottomlands

Down in the Bottomlands“, Harry Turtledove — Apart from Turtledove’s Sim World series and Harry Harrison’s Eden series, there are few alternate histories that use, as their deviation point, an event of natural history rather than recorded human social and political history. This is one of those stories. It postulates that a chain of barrier mountains closes off the Mediterranean Basin from the Atlantic Ocean and that it dries up to form the deep, dry, landlocked Bottomlands, (Death Valley on a big scale). Turtledove does little, by way of alternate history, with the idea. The Krepalgan Unity (roughly the area of modern France, Spain, and Portugal) hatch a scheme, using buried nukes, to geologically breach the mountains between the Atlantic and the Bottomlands thereby flooding it so they gain sea access and Tarteshan, the nation of the hero Radnal vez Krobir, being deprived of the mineral resources of the Bottomlands. The plot reminded me of an Alastair Maclean novel (specifically his Night Without End in plot and Goodbye, California with its scheme to use earthquake inducing nukes) with its murder of a secret agent in the midst of a Bottomlands tour group and Radnal being pressed into service to detect and capture the murderers (the rather obvious suspects of Lofosa and Evillia given their reflexive prowess in unarmed combat) and find the nukes. We get little sense on how humanity’s history has changed in what appears to be a time contemporary to ours apart from that nudity taboos have altered, no Christianity appears present, brides are bought in Tarteshan and tortured in its pragmatic justice system. I don’t know enough about botany and zoology to comment on the animals and plants of the Bottomlands and their relation to our world. It’s an engaging enough story and the Bottomlands are an interesting jumping off point to an alternate history of the supercontinent of Africa, Europe, and Asia, but Turtledove doesn’t do much with it apart from the adventure plot of Radnal foiling the attempt to flood the Bottomlands and being rewarded with a title and the friendship of a noblewoman who is the niece of the tyrant of Tarteshan.

The Wheels of If“, L. Sprague de Camp — This is the second time I’ve read this story. This time I was struck by its similarity to de Camp’s classic Lest Darkness Fall in that both feature intrepid and ingenious protagonist thrust into a strange world and remake it for their own ends. The ultra competent protagonist Park is very much in the competent man tradition of Heinlein and the Golden Age: he learns languages, researches his historical place, fights a war, outwits violent political faction, and leads a double life as a political party organizer and bishop. (Though he doesn’t do much like with technology unlike the protagonist of Lest Darkness Fall.) It’s also interesting to note that, given this early stage in the development of the alternate history sub-genre, de Camp spends the opening four and a half pages on covering the real historical events that the world of his story deviates from: King Oswiu of Northumbria accepts the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope rather than the Celtic Christian Church, and Moslems lose the Battle of Tours. Now days, an alternate history would probably take much less space to cover the hinge events of the fictional timeline or just allude to them in passing. Continue reading “Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places”

Strange Monsters of the Recent Past

Since the alternate history series is continuing, I return to Howard Waldrop.

Raw Feed (1992): Strange Monsters of the Recent Past, Howard Waldrop, 1991.strange-monsters-of-the-recent-past

“Foreword: The Left-Handed Muse”, Lewis Shiner — Shiner details Waldrop’s writing method: long bouts of research while he talks endlessly about the story he’s going to write then a burst of (usually) single sitting writing to make a story — usually he needs to write it down so it can be read at a convention).

All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past” This story has a fun premise: every single monster and alien menace from 1950s sf movies comes to Earth to wreck death and destruction. The ending was just ok: our protagonist decides to go out fighting the giant ants from Them!. This story illustrates why Waldrop is, in some ways, the quintessential example of what some consider sf’s genre shortcoming: interesting setups and premises with little attention paid to plot or character or theme, a lingering feeling, beyond the initial description of setting, of what’s-the-point?

Helpless, Helpless” — An interesting, ok story of the Artificials Plague which strikes the robots, androids, and artificial intelligences of a future society. The tone reminded me a bit of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (with some bits of humor from psychotic, sometimes violent machines) which is perhaps inevitable given the subject matter. Waldrop never explains the reason or origin of his plague but, as he explains in the introduction, that’s the point of the story: a sf recreation of all those historical plagues which had so much effect on their societies but couldn’t be explained by the members of those societies. I’m not sure the story would have been as enjoyable without the introduction. Continue reading “Strange Monsters of the Recent Past”

Traveler of Worlds

traveler-of-worlds
“But it’s been a long career, Alvaro. Lots of books, and I don’t remember it all clearly.”
But Silverberg does a remember a lot of that career, and he not only talks about his writing but what he’s read and hasn’t, the importance of awards in the science fiction field, his non-sf writing, politics, libraries, food, travel and thoughts on aging.
For Silverberg fans, it belongs in your library with the closest thing we have to his autobiography, Other Spaces, Other Times: A Life Spent in the Future.
other-spaces-other-times