Friday, November 14, 2008

Companions on the Road (Book review)

Lee, Tanith Companions on the Road (1975)

This is a quest story. Havor has participated in the destruction of a city, in one of the endless wars of his time and place. He and two others find and steal a chalice of mysterious and very dark powers. It had been used in unspeakable rites by the defeated King and his brother and daughter. Lukon, one of Havor’s comrades dies in the fighting, but not before he gives Havor his savings and enjoins him to bring them to his family, many leagues distant. So Havor, Kachil the thief, and Feluce the corporal of dubious antecedents, set out to fulfill Havor’s vow, and with luck sell the chalice and divide the loot. But ghosts accompany them, and first Kachil and then Feluce die, somehow destroyed in a dream encounter with the daughter of the King who owned the evil vessel. Havor manages to survive, but only because he has fulfilled his vow to Lukon, and in his dream encounter with ghosts pities their spiritually wasted lives and their present condition. He will marry Silsi, Lukon’s sister, and have as contented a life as is possible.

Lee writes a spare but lyrical style, which moves the story forward briskly. She is very good at producing and maintaining an atmosphere of struggle against the weather (wintry), the people (taciturn and unwilling to help), conflict within the little group of three unwilling allies, and a dreamworld that lethally impinges on the waking reality. The characters of course represent the Jungian archetypes, Havor the ego, Kachil the alter ego, Feluce and the ghostly princess the animus and anima. They are well drawn, having about them enough individuality that we care about them as people, yet never forget their roles in a drama that we all know well.

As in all quests, the plot turns on inward growth and increasing knowledge: Havor must learn who he is by surviving tests not only of his physical prowess but more importantly of his moral worth. The intended audience is the middle school child, and I think the book would appeal as much to girls as to boys. At any rate, I will pass it on to Bria and Connor, and see what they think of it. A well done example of its kind. **-½

Book Review: Major Barbara (GBS)

Shaw, George Bernard Major Barbara (1906)

Shaw’s Preface is as outrageously wrongheaded as usual: he loved the sound of his own ideas. His comments on the way the world works are as acutely and cynically accurate as always, but his inferences about how we should deal with it simply miss the mark. He is very good at presenting us with real and lifelike characters, but when he thinks about people he goes awry. It’s as if his intellect and his imagination don’t know of each other’s existence. The play works well, and would be a pleasure to see. The plotting is perhaps a trifle too pat, but that’s GBS for you: he will make his plays demonstrate his ideas, and that’s when the machinery creaks. When he just goes with his imagination, as in the Salvation Army scenes, the results are brilliant, witty, emotionally true, and beautifully paced. ***

Book Review: John Bull's Other Island (GBS)

Shaw, George Bernard John Bull’s Other Island (1907)

I started to read the preface and gave up. GBS was not the best analyst of politics - his notions of how the Irish Question came about and how it should be resolved were shown to miss the point by events. About the only thing he seems to have gotten right was that it would be a protracted and bloody affair if it wasn’t settled quickly.

The one thing GBS never seems to have fully understood was the lure of power for its own sake. (This leads him to make Undershaft a seeker after profit, which is the only serious flaw in Major Barbara. Profit (money) is a means and instrument of power, not and end in itself.) Like many idealistic ideologues, he believed that sweet reason would prevail, if it was made clear enough what the benefits would be. He would not recognise the irony of the Canadian toast, “Peace, order, and good government.”

That sheer bloody-mindedness and paranoid delusions are more potent motives than the desire for peace, prosperity, and lawful order was something he could never see. That’s one reason he (like many other Socialists of the time) kept excusing the excesses of Soviet Russia, for example. He was of course right that the Protestants would have nothing to fear in a Catholic united Ireland, but he couldn’t see, because he couldn’t understand, that religious paranoia would prevent a settlement. He also couldn’t see that the IRA was dominated by psychopaths, who carried on their bloody vendettas, not because they expected politically acceptable results, but because they liked the murder and mayhem (as well as the loot).

So I didn’t read the play. I don’t think I missed anything.**

Book Review: Palm Sunday (Kurt Vonnegut)

Vonnegut, Kurt. Palm Sunday (1981) Subtitled "An Autobiographical Collage".

Vonnegut is billed a "America's greatest satirist", and he may well be. But I find him a gentle and melancholy clown rather than a savage Juvenalian or a mocking Horatian. That his books were attacked as obscene seems almost unimaginable in these days of internet porn, but obscenity and vulgarity were never the real reasons for the attacks. Vonnegut has the gift of telling unpalatable truths baldly, and that's what people disliked and loved him for. In this book he assembles bits and pieces from his occasional output, stitching them together with commentary and narrative, some of it quoted from his Uncle John Rauch's family history. Rauch means "smoke", one wonders how much of his story is just so much smoke and mirrors.

The theme that Vonnegut refines out of the dross and breccia of his and our messy lives is that we are lonely because we have lost our extended family, our tribe. We are highly social animals (some scientists argue that our mathematical ability is a side effect of the ability to remember large sets of people and their relationships - kinship is a pattern, a kinship chart is a graph, graphs are representations of sets, and there you are – arithmetic derives from geometry.) We need family, relatives, friends. Barrack Obama's recent success rested in large part on his ability to evoke the American nation as a family. The Republican emphasis on individual responsibility too easily becomes disdain for those who cannot make it on their own - and we all know that we all, especially the self-styled individual successes, depend on each other for whatever material comforts, security, and success falls to our lot. I think Ayn Rand was stupidly wrong: no one can achieve any kind of material success without the (almost entirely anonymous) co-operation of vast numbers of other people, who operate the systems that produce the goods and services that the individual needs to achieve his success.

Vonnegut goes on to say that we need commonly accepted myths, communal narratives that give meaning to our lives. Alone, we cannot have such myths. (It seems to me that the Horatio Alger story has devolved into one of brutal competition, but Alger's stories were founded on notions of mutual help and co-operation as much as on the doctrine of hard work and honesty.) The solitary individual who tries to find his meaning in power and wealth, in acquisition of goods as the signs of success, will find instead an unbearable loneliness. The nuclear family, with its assumption that two people can be all-in-all for each other, fails abysmally. "And they lived happily ever after" is a cruel fantasy. (Keep in mind that in the fairy tales, the marriage of the commoner and the princess occurs in a well-ordered mutually supportive society, the kingdom that the happy couple will inherit.) I think Vonnegut is right.

Well written in Vonnegut's laconic style, a pleasure to read, if not always a pleasure to contemplate. ***

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Book Review: Breaking the Maya Code

Coe, Michael D. Breaking the Maya Code (1992)

Coe begins with a survey of the history of writing systems, with a glance at linguistics. His main story tells of the rediscovery of the pitifully few codices salvaged by a few of the Spanish friars, and the slow and steady recording of the inscriptions found on stone and pottery. Early students of these Mayan remains suggested that like all writing systems they were phonetic. A Spanish bishop, Landa, even recorded what he understood of the Mayan alphabet, which provided the key to the eventual deciphering of the script. Like all ideographic scripts, it's a mix of logograms (signs that represent words or morphemes), and phonetic signs that indicate the pronunciation of the logograms. The phonetic signs are also used to spell out words (for example, foreign names, which are meaningless in the native language). Thus a character could be a logogram or combination; or a logogram with one or more phonetic signs; or a combination of phonetic signs. Like the Egyptian scribes, Mayans used all three methods interchangeably, sometimes for aesthetic reasons, sometimes perhaps for word play or merely personal preference.

Coe is very good at sketching the character and life of each of his protagonists, and at summarising their research and its results. He tells s story of clashing personalities, professional envy, ego-involved clinging to obvious errors, and even interference by ideological politicians. The deciphering of the code was the work of many hands and minds (one a teenager), took longer that it needed to, and shows that academic infighting is as nasty and mean-spirited as any. In the end, we recognise an immense intellectual achievement, which will enable the (partial) recovery of Mayan history and culture.

That culture was bloody and cruel. I've been bemused by people who profess to see beauty in the Mayan characters and sculptures. I've always thought they expressed some of the most evil impulses of the human spirit, and had no desire (as I did when I looked a Egyptian art) of being transported back in time to live a few days or weeks in that society. Eric Thompson, one the most assiduous Mayanists, believed that the Maya were a society ruled by priest-kings, mystics who cultivated science and spiritual wisdom. I can't understand how anyone looking at the art could believe this. The most common expression on the faces is a sneer. The Mayan elite clearly believed themselves to be superior to the peasants who fed them, and gloried in humiliating their adversaries. The images of the gods show monsters. Mayan mythology seems to be death-obsessed - the majority of the gods were gods of the underworld.

Thompson believed too that the Mayan script was ideographic, "representing ideas directly". He should have known better – no other script anywhere in the world does this; all are phonetic. "Picture writing" exists only in the form of comic strip-like drawings, and both intuition and records of how they were used show that such drawings were used as mnemonic devices: they were not scripts. But scripts are not comic strips. What's oddest about Thompson and his like (and there were many scholars with similar attitudes) is that they thought they could decipher the inscriptions without knowledge of the Mayan languages, and with minimal knowledge of their culture. But that knowledge was available: despite their generally arrogant assumptions about their cultural superiority, and the truth of their religion, the Spanish invaders did leave reasonably accurate accounts of what they observed of the indigenous peoples' lifestyles. To make little or no use of these resources, to make no attempt to learn the language, to ignore the results of comparative philology and anthropology, all these indicate a man obsessed with a vision of some idealised world, and locked into a belief that he had found an actual example. No other interpretations could be admitted as valid or true. Yet oddly, Thompson did from time to time acknowledge that such facts and results were likely true. He just didn't incorporate them into his view of the Maya.

Not that Thompson was alone, nor is his use of anthropological studies unique. Think of the not so distant characterisation of the !Kung as a pacific, innocent tribal people, untouched and uncorrupted by the evils of civilisation. Yet statistical analysis shows that their murder rate is much higher than that of any civilized society. The desire to believe in an innocent stage of human society is strong; the myth of Eden expresses its essence.

One of the perennial questions about archaeology is its value. What good is it to know about long-vanished cultures? What practical value is there to knowing that the Mayan kings not only tortured and killed their adversaries, but also subjected themselves to horrifically painful rituals, some of which must have left permanent scars and impairments? The answer is, none. Except perhaps to help us understand what humans are capable of. The Maya were cruel and bloodthirsty, as were the Aztecs, the Sumerians, the Stalinists, in fact all totalitarian states (and all states tend towards totalitarianism.) But they were also accomplished mathematicians and astronomers, and had a far more subtle and accurate method of counting the days than we have.

In any case, we are blessed and cursed with an ability to produce far more surplus wealth than we can reasonably consume. Our preferred method for consuming that surplus is to destroy it in wars. Far better to use it for adventures of the human spirit. Space exploration is cheap compared to war. Archaeology is cheaper still. Each of these, and many other impractical endeavours, satisfies curiosity and intellectual and spiritual yearnings. That's more than enough justification, I think. I know that perhaps only a few thousand people will care that the Mayan script is now partially readable, and that our intuitions about their way of life will be more or less confirmed as their history is unravelled. That's OK. All interests are minority interests.

Book Review: Black Cat, January 1904

Black Cat, January 1904
42pp text + 24pp advertising.

I could find no information about The Shortstory Publishing Company of Boston, Massachusetts. This issue of Black Cat is Vol. IX, No. 4, Whole No., 100, so it was around for some time. Searching on the magazine's name yielded more; it was begun in 1895, and lasted well into the 1920s. This copy cost 5 cents. By 1919, when Henry Miller wrote for it, it cost 15 cents.
The stories are typical high end pulp fiction: the style is quite "literary", a word I put in quotes because the writers use what they and their readers presumably think is good writing. The stories all have twists, a couple are shaggy dog stories. As entertainment, they are pleasant and innocuous enough. As evidence of the intended audience the stories are wonderful, and the ads provide an even better insight. The demographic appears to be middle class, people who want to better their position, by taking correspondence courses for example. Several ads offer instruction leading to a career as an advertising writer or manager, others offer editing and revision services to would-be authors, and of course there's the usual quota of nostrums and health foods.
Several ads offer sets of leather-bound volumes at half price, the ostensible reason being a "binding error", or "scuff marks." All these offers originate at the same address, but have different names attached. "Only 30 sets" are on hand, apparently. These ads appeal to the same attitudes that show up in ads of the 1950s-80s for whiskey or recorded music showing a well dressed man or couple in a book-lined room. Several ads are for railroads, which implies better than average income: travel was expensive around 1900. A fascinating magazine.

Contents:
My Oriental Visitor (Harry Stilwell Edwards) A visitor to the narrator (how he gets into the study isn't clear) tells a fantastic story about the provenance of a small ivory carving of a cat. Turns out he is the narrator's son Style is high flown "oriental". **
The Death Pearl (Frank Lillie Pollock) Two friends fish for pearls, one find a gorgeous pink one. His older friend tries to steal it, which causes a rift. Some time later both attend a reception at which the hostess wears the pearl. The older friend grabs and tosses it, it explodes: it was part of a nefarious plot to kill the man's enemy, containing a mysterious explosive that would blow up only after a period of gentle heat (provided by the hostess's deep decolletage.) An over-plotted tale, as this summary shows. *
With McGann in the Equation (Richard Barker Shelton) A thief arrives at a sleepy town in the swamps, and tells the denizens that he's a detective waiting for a thief, and deputises a bunch of them. When the real detective (McGann) shows up, he is of course detained, and the thief escapes. *-½
The Passing of the Gooba (Mrs. Willis Lord Moore) A satirical account of how a con man sets up a major scam, using "eastern philosophy", etc. The satire attacks not only the gullibility of "practical men", but also social climbing, and materialistic greed. The writing isn't as sharp or subtle as in Stephen Leacock's version of the same plot, but it hits its target. **-½
A Pair of Paper Aunts (F. Wendt) An 18 year old girl must return to America without her aunt. The lack of a chaperon disturbs her, so she invents all sorts of reasons why the aunt, whose name still appears on the passenger list, cannot leave the cabin. A young man makes her acquaintance, and eventually gives her a letter from his aunt to hers. The girl of course reads the letter, which changes her attitude to the young man, but when they each reveal their trickery, they part on bad terms. Only a mixup in their trunk keys, luckily discovered in the customs hall, saves their relationship. A nicely done little love story. **-½

Friday, June 13, 2008

Theatre Review: Apple (Vern Thiessen)

Thiessen, Vern Apple (2006)

We saw this play in Elliot Lake, played by the Gateway Players of North Bay, offered as a 2007 Quonta entry.

The adjudicator's remarks were a model of constructive criticism. He was able to lead the production team into recognising their mistakes, or questioning their choices, without in the least putting them down. His remarks about acting were entertaining and instructive. He was far, far kinder than I would have been – he obviously loves theatre, and theatre people, and that love was contagious. By and large, the adjudication rescued a rather dreary evening.

The Gateway Players did a valiant job, and during the adjudication explained why they thought it was a good idea to interrupt the play with frequent blackouts for scene changes, why the lighting was too dim, why the set was a mix of abstract and realistic scenery. One thing the adjudicator did not ask was why the director thought that the actors should speak their lines in very measured, and often obviously portentous tones. The actors worked hard, and did a very good job with a very thin script. The director used music (mostly songs by Peter Gabriel) to bridge the scene changes and provide atmosphere. These would have worked better if we had not been distracted by the busyness of the stage hands.

Overall the production was a good deal less than the sum of its parts. I agreed with all adjudicator's judgments except one: he claimed this was a brilliantly written play, but I think the script was bloody awful.

It seems Thiessen has a reputation for brilliance: http://moderntheatre.suite101.com/article.cfm/this_apple_is_delicious is a laudatory review of the Toronto premiere of this play. But if this play is evidence of Thiessen's normal standard, his reputation is undeserved. The characters are cardboard, possessing only enough features to propel the plot, which reminds me of a TV movie of the kind made to provide a "vehicle" for a fading star.

Oh, yeah, the plot: Dysfunctional marriage between bland husband Andy and driven real-estate-agent wife Evelyn. Husband has been fired from his government job, gets no sympathy from bitchy Wife, and offers none in return when she complains about her job. He meets medical student Samantha in the park, has affair with her – she has an orgasm the first time they're together. Wow! Student has no goals in life, just wants to enjoy the moment. Wife is engaged to sell Student's condo (inherited from her mother). Neither knows they have a man in common. Then Wife develops breast cancer. Husband now has a full-time job: to care for Wife. The intern handling her case for the specialist is – the Student! Husband breaks off affair. Husband and Wife reconcile (and have orgasmic sex on stage to prove it.) Wife dies. Husband and Student meet in park again, she wants to get back together with him. He refuses. The End.

But why should we care for these people? Just because someone has lost a job or develops a fatal disease is not enough reason to feel any more than an abstract compassion for them. We have to believe their lives matter to them, but how can we do so when so little of their lives is revealed? I suppose the wife's acceptance of her mortality, her reconciliation with her husband, his devoting himself to her and giving up the sexy student, are all intended to show how the smell of death can be morally therapeutic. Or something like that. There are repeated references to living in the moment. The characters remark on the beauty of the park, the sunlight, the air, in identical phrases, etc and so on and so forth. The adjudicator claims the script was written like a piece of music, by which he presumably had these repeated motifs and their variations in mind. I found the language flat and uninteresting – the repeated references to the beauty of the park became irritating to me. "Beauty" is a word that fails to convince me.

The characters are flat, they engaged neither my interest nor my sympathy, despite the actors' skill. For example, the husband claims to have loved his government job, but we never know why – beyond making that claim, he says nothing about it. So on what grounds should I believe that he loved his job?

Thiessen has a knack for using incomplete phrases and sentences to express social awkwardness, but that has limited use in a play that supposedly explores how and why people make the choices they must make. He also suffers from the regrettably wide-spread notion that scattering fuck yous about makes dialogue more realistic, since such strong words must express rage, mustn't they? Well, no, actually. The phrase worked best when Andy and Evelyn used it good-naturedly to express affection.

Thiessen has another gimmick: at intervals, the student appears dressed in doctor's whites, and lectures about the progress of cancer. I suppose the technical, medical language is intended to comment on the action, and to heighten the reality and emphasise the emotion of the dialogue. Unfortunately, Thiessen didn't bother to get the facts right - the student tells us that cancer "invades" the cells, which is an elementary error. It put me off, so I was not disposed to look kindly on the superficial characterisation, the sophomoric assumption that a life-threatening situation is in itself enough to evoke pity and terror, and the attempt to heighten realism by using foul language and explicit sex. There were quite a few funny bits, but neither the script nor the direction indicated that they were intended as such.

Monday, March 17, 2008

BigDog, an animoid robot

Just check it out. There are seven videos in all.

http://gizmodo.com/368651/new-video-of-bigdog-quadruped-robot-is-so-s

Cute li'l beastie, eh?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Movie review: Away from Her

Away from Her (2007. D: Sarah Polley. Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis)

Fiona's developing Alzheimer's results in her going into a long term care home. Grant has a very difficult time adjusting to this. At the home, Fiona starts a relationship with Aubrey, a fellow patient. His wife Marian takes him out of the home because she can't afford to keep him there without selling her house. Fiona becomes depressed. Grant comes to ask Marian to bring Aubrey back for a visit. She refuses. Later, Grant and Marian have sex. Marian sells her house, and brings Aubrey back to the home. When Grant is about to bring him to Fiona, Fiona has a lucid spell, as predicted by the nurse, and recalls that recently Grant was reading her Auden's Letters from Iceland. Grant is ecstatic that she remembers him. Fadeout. And that's the plot, based on an Alice Munro story.

Sarah Polley's adaptation of Munro's story, with its multiple layers and constant moving back and forth in time, is brilliant. The film mimics the unexpected and confusing rememberings that Alzheimer's patients are said to experience. The editing helps, with repetitive establishing shots and subtle shifts in colour, sound, and editing. The three leads are very good. The characters are all vulnerable, and it's that vulnerability that I think makes the film convincing.

Christie's performance as Fiona is wonderful. She changes from knowing that she is deteriorating, to repeating increasingly inappropriate social phrases, to being barely aware of where she is. Pinsent as Grant has captured the essence of a man used to having the supports of career, social rank, and a satisfying marriage, who realises that he can barely survive on his own, and must accept a diminished role in his own life. He doesn't realise that he has been defined by his surroundings and relationships all his life; he has believed that he was somehow self-defined. When Fiona loses her self to Alzheimer's, Grant loses his self too. He says he could not ever bear to be away from her, that's why he married her. In fact, he couldn't be himself without her; and now he must learn how do that. Dukakis as the no-nonsense wife-caregiver, who copes by pretending she is self-sufficient, knows she too needs comfort, even if only the illusion of a brief connection in bed. In the end, we have only ourselves. Those we love, and who love us, no matter how close we are, will always be apart from us.

Yet the movie isn't quite satisfying. It's a depressing story, and has its strongest moments at the beginning, when Fiona charts her own descent into non-self, and decides, while she still can, that it's time for her to go. It's Grant who can't accept the loss, who hopes that the stay in the home will be a short one, who wants to believe that Fiona is just being her quirky self, that therapy will bring her back. Towards the end, as he comes to accept that Fiona must move to the second floor (where the end stage patients are housed), we see that he will somehow survive in his new role as mere visitor. When at the end Fiona has one of those lucid times that the nurse has told Grant she will have, he accepts her embrace, blissed out by her mere presence. Is this a note of hope or of resignation? A recognition that we must accept small mercies gratefully, or the delusion that things will return to normal? Or a setup for even greater heartbreak? The ambiguities arise from the vagueness of Grant's character. The movie doesn't give us the answers, nor should it, but it should give us a clearer sense of how Grant has changed. ***

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Solar Power and subsidies

An article in today's New York times reports on thermal solar power plants being built in the SW states. Costs are high, compared to coal fired plants, and a subsidy is provided:

"The solar plants receive a federal tax subsidy, like other types of renewable energy, which makes the economics work for builders but also feeds skepticism about the technology’s long-term potential. “Unless there’s a subsidy involved, it doesn’t seem like a very attractive technology,” said Revis James, a renewables expert at the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility industry consortium."

I don't know what else Mr James said, but his comment is disingenuous. Coal and other fossil fuels receive subsidies of all kinds. The oil and coal companies receive tax rebates to compensate them for the diminishing supplies of coal and oil. The power companies receive rebates for building the plants in the first place, and more rebates for installing pollution control equipment. And everyone involved externalises the costs of whatever pollution remains after scrubbing, and of course the cost of CO2. Externalised costs are indirect subsidies. We all pay for them one way or another.

No one knows exactly what these subsidies amount to in cents/kWh, but there's no question that it's high. One thing is for sure, though: power generated from fossil fuel is not priced to reflect its actual costs. If it did, solar power would look a lot more attractive, and there would be a lot more effort to conserve power. There's not much point in increasing electricity supply if there isn't also an effort to cut electricity use.

The illustration used to help the reader understand the potential of solar thermal power is also interesting: "A megawatt is enough electricity to run 1,000 room air-conditioners at once." One of the things that struck me when I visited south Texas some years ago was the lack of insulation in most of the homes. Proper insulation would cut power consumption for air-conditioning by a third or more. The use of ground effect heat pumps would cut the remaining power demand by 75%. These two modes of conservation should be heavily subsidised. The payback in dollars for each installation would be ten years or less. The payback in energy savings would be substantially less.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Book Review: Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

Piper, H. Beam Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1964)

Calvin Morris, a Pennsylvania state trooper, is slipped sideways in space-time, into a medieval version of vaguely Greek "Aryans" who moved east instead of west and ended up on the eastern side of N. America. He of course takes over, what with his superior knowledge of warfare, honed both in a history classes and in combat in Korea, etc, and so on, and so forth. The local Prince not only takes him in, but promotes him, and eventually subjects himself to him! Kalvan also gets the girl, the Prince's daughter Rylla, but apart from some comradely joshing (she's good with a sword, and very, very smart), and a reference to how nice (!) it is to be married to her, there's no hint of sex. Calvin/Kalvan's predicament attracts the attention of the Paratime Police, who decide to leave him be, and study what happens when a disturbing factor is inserted into a time stream. Academics disguise themselves to blend in and insert themselves into the same "level". One of them becomes a commander in Kalvan's army! A typical adolescent nerd fantasy, IOW. Fun, and in a couple of places very funny, too.

The book reads very much like a novelette that could eventually be expanded to novel length. It has a number of dangling plot lines, and the characters feel unfinished rather than merely two dimensional. The Paratime motif is not well worked out. Presumably, some of the Level Five people who operate the Paratime Police will be seduced into staying in this primitive but exhilarating culture. There are hints of this, but the loose ends stay loose. The social and political consequences of Kalvan's arrival feel like sketches towards a more thorough treatment. The locals accept Calvin too easily -- there should be more resistance to his reforms and changes, not because people disagree with them, but because they are new. But pulp fiction moves fast.

Piper takes a good deal of trouble describing the battle formations and developments, which sound like description of real battles. Has he used actual Civil War battles as his models? I don't know enough to decide. He also tosses in all kinds of tidbits, such as the local word for mother: madh. He clearly despises anything that smacks of theocracy, or domination of state and society by a religion. He likes strong men, and clearly believes that strong men (and women, I suppose) make history, not the other way round.

The book belongs to the alternative history genre, which since the 1960s has developed into very sophisticated and much more carefully thought out stories. I've started reading a couple of these, and find that compared to this swiftly moving pulp fiction, they are boring -- too much attention to making the alternative history academically plausible, and not enough interest in character and plot. Many of them read like the fictions based on games: the rules constrict and constrain, so that the stories feel more like puzzles and calculations than fictions. But I liked this novelette, it's unassuming and designed to entertain. The hints of deeper themes and nuggets of fact are a bonus, just the kind of thing that feeds a nerd's yearning for insight.

This was Piper's last book. He suicided shortly after finishing it. Pity. **-½

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

9/11 Conspiracies

     Try the following link: Prison Trains

     Funny, eh?
     Then look at the comments. While most people see the humour (such as it is), a few earnestly propose or point to what they believe is the truth: that 9/11 was "an inside job", conceived to provide excuses for the reduction of civil liberties and engagement in foreign wars.
     Well, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade centre did provide those excuses, on which the Bush administration has acted with too many signs of glee. Not that they wouldn't have used some other excuse if 9/11 hadn't happened. They have been trying to find an excuse for a pre-emptive attack on Iran (also a former ally in the Middle east, by the way), citing Iran's nuclear weapons program as reason enough. A number of factors, which I needn't enumerate, have prevented them from acting on this excuse.
     I don't think there will be a strike on Iran in the foreseeable future. The next President, Republican or not, will have enough problems to deal with, without adding a gratuitous one.
     The ancient Chinese are said to have cursed their enemies with "May you live in the most interesting of times." We do live in the most interesting of times. But then, we always have.