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.

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

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

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

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

Pavane; Or, Adventures in Reader Reactions

The alternate history series continues, but this time with a novel, a famous alternate history at that.

An alternate and more graceful perspective is provided by Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

Raw Feed (2004): Pavane, Keith Roberts, 1968.pavane

Stylistically and thematically this reminded me very much of Roberts’ Kiteworld, the only other work of his I’ve read. Both works feature an alternate, pastoral England (I believe Kiteworld was a post-apocalypse book, but I’m not sure). Both are sort of fix-ups with some characters that cross from story to story. Both are fascinated by the details of arcane technology and the men who service that technology. In Kiteworld it was the details of the kites. Here it’s the arcana of the steam tractors (not all that arcane of a technology, after all, my father has personal acquaintance with it from his childhood), the semaphore system run by the Signallers Guild, the lithography done by monks.

Roberts uses the approach of several stories taking place over a long period of time with the descendants of some viewpoint characters being the viewpoint characters of another story. For instance, Jesse Strange of the first story “The Lady Margaret” is the great-uncle of Lady Eleanor of the last story, “Corfe Gate”. (The steam tractor “The Lady Margaret” shows up as a sort of character in both stories as well.)

Despite the classic status of this novel, I think it had two significant failings. First, while Roberts cleverly structured his novel around the musical structure of the six part pavane, some of the stories make little or no contribution to the story. To be sure, not every story makes reference to a member of the Strange family but some are obviously there to give background details to Roberts’ world. Thus “The Signaller” shows the detailed workings of the Signallers Guild. “Brother John” shows the work of the Inquisition in post-1968 England (of course, it’s an alternate England).

“Lords and Ladies” is there to tell the story of the romance and seduction of Lady Eleanor’s mother. At first, it seems like one of the romances/seductions doomed by class distinction since her mother is of the merchant class and her noble father simply infatuated with her. It seems like it’s going to take the usual course: the discarding of the common woman after she finally gives into the blandishments of the noble man. However, he eventually decides he can’t live without her and marries her. Thus this story is justified as having some sort of character continuity.

“Corfe Gate” is obviously essential since it shows the rebellion of Lady Eleanor, a rebellion which triggers a worldwide breaking up of the near universally dominated Catholic world and the freeing of England from Papist rule and return to an older, pagan religion. However, “The White Boat” has no real function. The terribly isolated, boring world of an English fishing village is not terribly interesting or essential to painting a picture of the world though, perhaps, Roberts thought that was what he was doing since he makes reference to smugglers transporting forbidden technology and makes a reference to the legendary martyrdom and disappearance of Brother John.

The book is also marred at the end. After a strong and interesting start in this alternate history — the assassination of Queen Elizabeth just before the Spanish Armada lands and conquers England which leads to a world where all European colonization is done under the auspices of Catholic countries (the Reformation in Germany is destroyed in the Lutheran Wars) — the book ends with totally unexpected and obscure mysticism.

In “The Signaller”, we get the first mention of the mysterious Old Ones, sort of the aboriginal religion of England with Fairies and Celtic myth and Balder as sort of a Christ figure. (For reasons never really explained, one of the People of the Heath, associated with this ancient, pre-Catholic religion, nurses a wounded signaller, and he has a deathbed vision of them.) Brother John, horrified by the Inquisition he documents in his drawings, preaches the faith. Lady Eleanor embraces it when the Church tries to take her land.

All that is fine, until the “Coda” of the book which seems to feature a John unmentioned previously. He reads a letter from a John Falconer which may be the same person as (may because, as I said, the ending is unfortunately obscure) John Falukner, Lady Eleanor’s seneschal and eventual lover who disappears after she is murdered on the king’s orders. In a world where all the technologies of internal combustion engines and electricity and radio (which the Signallers secretly played with), forbidden by Catholic Bulls, are finally unleashed (they even have hovercraft), John reads a message that explains the strange sign that opens each chapter. It is a combination of diverging and converging arrows representing fission and fusion. It seems that

beyond our Time … there was a great civilisation. There was a Coming, a Death, and Resurrection; a Conquest, a Reformation, an Armada. And a burning, an Armageddon.

The inference seems to be that we have been reading one of those irritatingly irrational and implausible circular versions of history where everything has repeated itself down to the names of individual rulers.

Yet even this explanation seems contradicted by other mentions of the People of the Heath and fairies which seem to hint at a sort of cross-dimensional travel. This plot feature greatly negates the inventiveness Roberts shows. As an artist who took up writing, his style is intensely visual which helps when he describes his arcane technology (particularly lithography). Structuring an alternate history of a world that diverges from ours by the circumstances of Elizabeth’s death and using a musical form from that time to do so was clever. And the most interesting thing about the book is that the Church, seen throughout the book as holding England down, suppressing its native religion, imposing foreign rule on a land that loved liberty in our time, a world of deliberately suppressed technology which makes life poorer, a land which feels the terror of the Inquisition, is ultimately seen as sympathetic. The Church suppressed technology because it knew it couldn’t suppress “Progress” but it felt that, if Progress could just be slowed by fifty years from its previous rate of development, man would “reach a little higher toward true Reason”.

Did she oppress? Did she hang and burn? A little, yes. But there was no Belsen. No Buchenwald. No Passchendaele.

I don’t know if Roberts is offering a Catholic apology or not. But it’s a startlingly interesting idea — particularly from a native of a country which regards the defeat of the Armada as a supremely important escape from Papism. However, Roberts intriguing notion is so blunted by the absurd setting he chooses to illustrate it that this work is, at best, an interesting failure.

 

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

Year’s Best SF

Yes, I am well aware that the countdown is going backwards on all these Hartwell anthologies I’ve been posting reviews of. Like the previous ones, this has alternate history material.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1996.years-best-sf

Think Like a Dinosaur“, James Patrick Kelly — Hartwell, in his introductory notes, says this story is part of a dialogue about Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”. That’s true. It does involve the killing of an innocent to balance some equations, here the obscure equations involved in quantum teleportation of humans to an alien world. However, the story, in its plot of birth and death via teleportation, has echoes of Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon. This story is more emotional than Godwin’s tale. The narrator, a person counseling skittish people on how to handle the teleportation process, kills, rather gleefully, one of his charges. He learns to “think like a dinosaur”, like the alien Gendians who are the ones who insist on the equations being balanced in their teleportation process.

Wonders of the Invisible World“, Patricia A. McKillip — I’m not really sure what the point of this story was. Most of it concerns the narrator’s interaction, as a time traveling researcher, with Cotton Mather (the story’s title is an allusion to a work of Mather’s) as part of a project to investigate the imagery of primitive, “Pre-Real” (presumably as in “virtual reality”) peoples’ mind. At first, the narrator seems appalled by both the poisonous uses that Mather puts his rather impoverished imagination to yet sad by the lack of imagination by most adults in her world. Yet, she’s appalled by the atavistic imagination of her boss. The narrator seems to reach the conclusion, at story’s end, that the powerful computer tools of her age enable a much healthier imagination for her son — though that imagination may be lost when he gets older. Why a library of pre-conceived icons and notions should necessarily mean greater imagination among the youth is not really explored — though it probably would. And McKillip definitely doesn’t explain why this imagination should suddenly be lost in the narrator’s society when people reach adulthood. It seemed like more of an excuse to comment and criticize Mather than anything else.

Hot Times in Magma City“, Robert Silverberg — Once again Silverberg proves why he’s a master. He takes a rather hackneyed idea, Los Angeles threatened by volcanic eruptions, and breaths new life into by sheer technical skill and a little technological extrapolation. (To show what a hackneyed idea this is, about two years after this story was published, the movie Volcano came about — about Los Angeles threatened by an eruption.) Silverberg has the great metropolis threatened by a whole series of magma eruptions. The technical skill of the story comes in telling it in a chatty, present-tense style and, perhaps even more importantly, who he selects as the heroes: a bunch of drug addicts sentenced to mandatory community service. They fight the magma upwellings in special suits. Silverberg handles those action details well. But it’s the addition of their interactions, the flaws and quirks that made them addicts, and their attempts at self-rehabilitation through their work fighting magma, that make the story special. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 2

The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.years-best-sf-2

After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.

In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.

Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother. Continue reading