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30 September 2002

Hilaire Belloc's The Path to Rome (1902) tells the story of his pilgrimage to Rome. Belloc's father was French and his mother English; he was born in France, and later lived in England and travelled a good deal in America (his wife was from California). When he returned for a visit to his home town in France, he was inspired, on visiting the newly restored church there, to go on a pilgrimage on foot to Rome. He vowed:

I will start from the place where I served in arms for my sins; I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at High Mass in St. Peter's on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.

A few months later, at the beginning of June (he does not say of what year; I suppose 1901 or maybe 1900) he set out from Toul, where he had been stationed during his period of conscripted service, and tried to follow as straight a line as possible from there to Rome. He had to deviate in places where a lake or high mountain blocked the way, but he climbed a number of ridges and mountains that were not insuperable in order to stay as nearly as he could on a Great Circle route. Along the way he made sketches of many of the scenes he saw, many of which are printed in the book, along with maps illustrating his route and his explanations of how he chose his way. Some of the drawings are a bit blurry in this 2001 Neumann Press reprint, but most are clear enough.

The text of the book is pure delight. Belloc tells the story of his pilgrimage and some stories of his period of service in the army, with hints of his California travel, with digressions on politics, religion, language, comparative anthropology (though I misdoubt he would like my use of the term), and the wines of various places. Bits where he puts in an imaginary conversation between himself and an annoyed reader are reminiscent of Tristram Shandy.

I'm about half through with it; I will probably write more when I finish it.

29 September 2002

Herodotus, in the last part of his Histories, narrows his focus somewhat (though he is still prone to digression) and tells us how Xerxes succeeded his father Darius as emperor of Persia, and was persuaded by his courtiers to continue the war against Greece; how he raised a huge army and navy from every part of his empire to cross the Hellespont and invade Greece from the north; and how the southern Greek cities, led by Athens and Sparta, defeated the navy at Salamis and the army at Plataea. This is probably the best part of the book; not necessarily the most fun to read (the tall tales about Libya, Arabia, and Scythia are probably more fun because it's less mental work to follow what's going on), but exciting, heroic, and mostly true. It's not easy reading, though; I generally had to read each passage twice, once to figure out who all the newly-mentioned persons were, and once to figure out what they were doing.

The two maps in the 1972 Penguin edition (Aubrey de Selincourt's translation, revised by A. R. Burn, with an introduction by the latter) are helpful, but it would be nice to have a third map showing the battle regions of the peninsula at a closer scale. The index of this edition is pretty good, too. I haven't seen the more recent Penguin edition (also Aubrey de Selincourt's translation, but revised by John M. Marincola), but I imagine it probably includes the same or better maps. A separate historical atlas would be a helpful aid in reading this, though.

My earlier blog posts on Herodotus:

Search for used editions on abebooks.com

A City in Winter by Mark Helprin (1996) is the story of a nine-year old girl whose royal parents were murdered when she was a baby by the usurper who had earlier murdered her grandfather. Her adoptive father, "the Tutor", tells her the story of her parents when she is nearly ten, and sends her out to learn about her kingdom and prepare to lead the rebellion that will cast down the usurper and restore her as queen. So far it sounds like fairly standard high fantasy; but when our heroine (who is never named) leaves the isolated forest where she grew up and comes into the (also unnamed) City, clichés go out the window, and we're in Gormenghast territory. Not that the City or the usurper's (actually the queen's) Palace is similar to Gormenghast in detail, but the sense of place is similarly unexpected and overwhelming. After being caught by the usurper's guards and sent to "Selection" (a euphemism for the forced labor and death camps), she narrowly escapes death by claiming skill as a "yam-curler", and is sent back to the City and into the yam-kitchens of the Palace. The life of the yam-slaves (even lower on the social scale than the miserable bakery slaves in the neighboring province of the Palace) is reminiscent of Dickens; the stupefying vastness of the yam-kitchens, the bakeries (which take hours to traverse by skylift), the hundreds of floors of storage bins, the small dining room (which seats a thousand guests at an intimate dinner), remind me of Peake's Gormenghast and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As Lord Dunsany in "Idle Days on the Yann", Helprin accomplishes an astonishing lot of worldbuilding in fewer words than you would think possible.

The story is good, too; even though it's the second of (at least) three books, the cliffhanger ending still somehow provides satisfying closure. It's a sequel to Swan Lake, apparently a retelling of the ballet by Tchaikovsky, and followed by The Queen's Tale, neither of which I've read yet. A City in Winter won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 1997.

Approaching Oblivion by Harlan Ellison (Walker, 1974) is a collection of mostly unpleasant stories. Some of them have a clear point and reason for being unpleasant - the best are probably "Knox", a Rake's Progress tale about a young man who gets deeper and deeper into the evil Party that has taken over the U. S. of A., and "One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty", a time travel story about a man visiting his seven-year-old self in the poor neighborhood where he grew up. Others are more obscure; I don't think I understand "Kiss of Fire" or "Catman" well enough to comment on them. "I'm Looking for Kadak", a tall tale about eleven-armed aliens on the planet Zsouchmuhn who converted to Judaism several generations ago, and their attempt to get a quorum to sit shivah for their planet which is about to be destroyed, is a fun diversion from the unremittingly grim tone of the rest of the stories. In all there are eleven stories here, maybe five or six of which I might want to read again someday.

26 September 2002

Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1992

Asimov's Science Fiction, October 1993

Asimov's Science Fiction, February 1994

I finished Herodotus Tuesday night; am feeling overwhelmed right now, will probably blog more on his Histories later.

21 September 2002

Sean Roberts wrote in his weblog on 21 August about his nervousness about telling his parents that he is becoming Catholic. The comment system he was using broke and lost all comments (that seems to happen to a lot of people lately), so here I'm posting my reply to him on my own blog.

I did not tell my parents that I was considering becoming Catholic, but within a few hours after I actually made the decision, I telephoned them. (I decided during lunch hour at work, I think, and called them when I got home.) They argued with me for awhile on the phone, then said they would come visit & stay the night at my apartment next day. So I said they were welcome and they did.

We put off the main topic until after supper. Dad asked me to tell them why I had decided to become Catholic, and I started to do so - frequently interrupted by questions from Mom, at first. After I had answered a bunch of their questions, Dad said something like -

"It looks to me like God is leading you to the Catholic Church; and I don't want to get between you and where God wants you - I would just get squooshed."

We talked more about it the following weekend and less often over several months.

Telling my Grandpa, on the other hand, was much more traumatic. "Oh, son! don't do that!" "Catholics are idol worshippers!" - etc. Repeat with variations on subsequent visits. I was afraid he was going to forbid me to visit him again, but he compromised by forbidding me to mention the Church in his presence.

My other family members were surprised, but did not object.

My advice is, tell them as soon as you can work up the nerve to do so. The more time they have to get used to the idea before you are received into the Church, the better.

Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1991

I've read more of Herodotus; just started book VII - I think this is the farthest I've gotten yet, past the battle of Marathon and shortly before the battle of Thermopylae. I took the Histories with me to Worldcon, but not surprisingly didn't find time to read much of it, except on the plane to San José. On a panel about "Fantasy and History", Rod Garcia (R. Garcia y Robertson) talked about a short story he wrote - I don't recall the title - about Heracles and the Amazons, for which Herodotus was one of his main sources, the other being recent articles about archaeological discoveries relating to the historical Amazons. He pointed out that the fantasy elements of his story are all testified in Herodotus and other historians (should I put quotes around that last word?), whereas the realistic parts about the society of the Amazons are mostly speculation based on scant archaeological evidence. (The stories about Heracles and the Amazons are in book IV, among the anthropological sketches of various Scythian tribes.)

After Worldcon I found it difficult to pick up Herodotus again, having forgotten somewhat of who was who and what was going on in the infighting about various Greek cities prior to the first attempted Persian invasion. As you can tell from my last several blog entries, I've mostly been reading short stories and short novels, and have finally picked up Herodotus again, having re-skimmed some earlier parts to refresh my memory of what was going on.

20 September 2002

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett (1997) is another of his comic fantasies set in the Discworld. It's another sequel to Guards! Guards! and Men-at-Arms; it precedes Jingo. It could stand alone, but you would understand it better (particularly the interaction of the members of the Night Watch) if you've read the previous books.

Commander Vimes and the Night Watch have to investigate a series of murders in the city. The golems of the city, mostly owned by small manufacturers, are starting to behave strangely. Someone has tried to assasinate the Patrician. Meanwhile, startling facts are discovered about some of the watchmens' ancestry. Of course the investigation reveals a connection between all these events. The ending is satisfying.

An interesting feature of this novel is how Mr. Pratchett has modified the golems of Jewish folklore to fit the Discworld. Here, they were invented by the priests of one of the various polytheistic or henotheistic religions of the Disc, but have come to be considered a sacreligious usurpation of the power to create life; no more have been made for a long time. The golems are powered by sacred words written on parchment and placed into a hollow cavity in the golem's head. The changes in one golem's religious beliefs near the end of the book is a neat twist.

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968) is a near-future sf novel with a cast of thousands. Besides four or five main characters, and the minor characters we meet in the chapters devoted to those main characters' adventures, there are dozens of minor characters whose stories are briefly told in interlude chapters. Besides the storytelling in the main plot threads and the many vignettes, we get news broadcast transcripts, rock video transcripts, "A Free Rendering of Two National Anthems", and excerpts from several books by the sociologist Chad Mulligan, one of the main characters in the latter half of the book. The effect is to overwhelm us with the state of the whole Earth in 2010. Brunner also goes to great lengths to build an extrapolated future slang. This might have been the first sf novel to use this set of techniques, which has been used often since, in (for instance) Earth by David Brin and Slant by Greg Bear; I'm not aware of anything earlier that puts all this together,

The main plot threads involve two roommates sharing an apartment in New York. Norman House is a vice president at General Technics, a large multinational (but still mostly Usonian) corporation. Donald Hogan is apparently a self-employed researcher, spending most of his time at the New York Public Library; but he's actually a sleeper agent, paid a salary by some government department to keep up with the sciences and world events so he will be useful if they ever need to activate him as a spy. He lives in dread of being activated. Elihu Masters, U.S. Ambassador to Beninia, a tiny African country, approaches General Technics with a proposal for its involvement in Beninia; Norman House is sent to Beninia as head of the delegation to investigate and recommend accepting or declining the proposal. The government of Yatakang (an archipelagic nation sqeezed in somewhere between Indonesia and the Philippines in Brunner's version of Earth) announces a genetic engineering program far in advance of the rest of the world, promising free genetic surgery for its entire population. Donald is activated, as he feared, and sent to Yatakang to find out if they can really do it, expose them if not, or sabotage them if they can.

The main theme of the novel is overpopulation; the title comes from a news broadcast in an early chapter that notes the entire population of the Earth, standing shoulder to shoulder, could just barely fit in the area of the island of Zanzibar. At the end, we read "the human race by tens of thousands would be knee-deep in the water around Zanzibar". Most countries have eugenic legislation limiting the number of children any couple can have to two, or imposing tax penalties on families with 3+ children, but also forbidding anyone with a congenital defect (in some countries, even something as mild as color blindness) to have children at all. Several of the interlude stories deal with people who have been forbidden to have children and their anguish over that fact. I note a strong anti-Catholic strain in spots - Brunner posits a formal schism between Catholics who retain the traditional teaching on artificial birth control, and another group who accept some types of artificial birth control - but whether Brunner agreed with the characters in whose mouth he puts these sentiments is hard to say for sure. Probably to some degree he did.

Stand on Zanzibar is dated, especially in its world's limited use of a few monolithic computers (what sf of the 1960s isn't so dated?), but probably less so than many other novels of the time. It's still quite readable, though not as impressive as when it was new, I suppose.

The Third Cry to Legba and Other Invocations (Night Shade Books, 2000) is the first of five volumes of their Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman. Rather than using a strictly chronological sequence, as the editors of Philip K. Dick's and Theodore Sturgeon's collected stories are doing, John Pelan is collecting the stories by series; so this volume one contains all of the stories about the occult detectives John Thunstone and Lee Cobbett. I have volumes 2 and 3 on my yet to read shelf. Two more volumes are still to come; the fifth is supposed to collect the Silver John stories (which I reviewed here).

The John Thunstone stories mostly appeared in Weird Tales in the 1940s. John Thunstone is a detective who often investigates supernatural events. He carries a silver sword cane said to have been made (the sword part, anyway, maybe not the cane casing) by Saint Dunstan, inscribed Sic pereant omnes inimici tui. He knows how to foil almost any kind of black magic. Most of the stories are set in New York, but a few have a rural setting. These stories are all fun adventures, and many of them have a real moral depth. The characterization isn't as deep for the most part as in the Silver John stories, but it's good as far as it goes.

The Lee Cobbett stories are fewer and later, published in various fantasy and horror anthologies in the 1970s and 80s. Lee Cobbett is not so much a larger-than-life figure as John Thunstone, and probably more believable. The settings are given more detail and the characterization is generally deeper than in the earlier Thunstone stories.

Overall, these aren't quite as good as the Silver John stories, but they're worth reading if you enjoy Wellman's style. I hope Night Shade Press will reprint Wellman's novels when they've finished the Selected Stories.

18 September 2002

The October/November 2002 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction contains several very good stories. "A Democracy of Trolls" by Charles Coleman Finlay is a novella about troll woman, Windy, and her changeling son Maggot, a human she adopts after her baby daughter has been killed. It soon becomes clear that the trolls are Neanderthal Man, and they're suffering because of the incursion of humans into their hunting grounds. The story follows Maggot's growing up and his and his mother's difficult relations with the other trolls. I particularly liked the way Mr. Finlay fit the legend of trolls being unable to stay above ground in daylight without turning to stone with the hypothetical neurology of his Neanderthals, and his portrayal of the ridiculously democratic social structure of the troll tribes.

"Openclose" by Terry Bisson satirizes our current airport security silliness by detailing (as a cellphone conversation transcript) the plight of one man who is locked out of his car in an airport parking lot. "Social Dreaming of the Frin" by Ursula Le Guin is written as a popular science article, describing how the Frin (humanoid inhabitants of the Frinthian Plane) dream communally, and how that has affected their society. "Something By the Sea" by Jeffrey Ford is an eerie dream-fantasy, difficult to describe, but worth reading. "The Sleeping Woman" by Robert Reed tells of the madness of a man whose wife dies just as they are starting to build their own home, and of what follows; very disturbing and affecting. "In the City of Dead Night" by Tanith Lee is a creepy high fantasy about two thieves who attempt to steal a treasure from a long-dead city of magicians; whether and how they escape with their lives and/or some of the treasure makes a satisfying ending. "The Drive-in Puerto Rico" by Lucius Shepard is complex and impossible to summarize briefly; it's set in an imaginary Latin American country, and deals with a war hero in semi-retirement who travels around supporting the government with appearances at various events, and how he gets involved with reporters from the United States who are investigating certain criminal acts by a popular military leader, and a totemic lizard. This might have the best characterization of all the stories in this issue. The only disappointing story in this issue was "Watching Matthew", a posthumously published story by Damon Knight. Some of the episodes of this novelet about a man who is unknowingly haunted by his dead brother's ghost (told from the brother's viewpoint) are interesting, but they don't seem to add up to anything. There are also several book review columns, a poem, "Footnote", by Robert Frazier, and a science essay by Gregory Benford on what the eleven-dimensional model of physics actually means. He doesn't explain this as well as Rudy Rucker's popular math books, in my opinion.

R is for Rocket (1962) is a collection of Ray Bradbury's early stories, including some that became episodes of Dandelion Wine. Bradbury is at his best in describing the way ordinary people adapt to the idea of space travel (not so good at describing the space travel itself, because his grasp of physics seems to be pretty weak). The title story, "The Rocket", and "The Rocket Man" all deal how with the people left behind on Earth relate to their friends, relatives and famous strangers who travel in space. "The Strawberry Window" is a pleasant story about homesick Mars colonists who find a way to fit a piece of Earth into their environment. "The Fog Horn" is a classic story about how a lighthouse fog horn attracts a marine dinosaur, probably the last of its kind, which thinks it hears the call of its long-lost mate. Most of the other stories are relatively weak, in my opinion, especially the ridiculous, overrated "A Sound of Thunder", which does have some good prose poetry about the romance of time travel, but is pretentiously silly as a story.

15 September 2002

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (1956) is an episodic novel of sorts, telling various stories set in Green Town, Wisconsin, in Summer 1928. Many but not all focus on the brothers Douglas and Tom Spaulding and their family. Some of the chapters work better as prose poems than as short stories or novel chapters. I enjoyed it; after I realized it was a collection and not the novel it was subtitled as, its lack of a strong conclusion didn't bother me.

Death in Florence by George Alec Effinger (1978) is another of his early short novels. Purportedly, a large section of central and western Europe has been voluntarily evacuated by its inhabitants to make room for an experiment in living known as Utopia 3. (Utopias 1 and 2 were in New Mexico.) A handful of people, mostly Americans, move in. With a few utopiates and the Utopia 3 support staff having thousands of square miles of historic territory to live in, how will they act? Will they huddle together in one place, or stay as far from each other as posible, or what? Gradually the benevolent façade behind the project gives way to sinister suspicions of the project directors' motives and methods. The characterization and episodes of the story are well done, but I found the ending sudden and not entirely satisfying.

Effinger continued experimenting with narrative form, as in his earlier novels What Entropy Means to Me and Those Gentle Voices. Here, the interludes between chapters take the form of pauses between test sections, paralleling the enigmatic tests, written and live, that the characters are subjected to.

I've updated the Esperanto Society of Metro Atlanta page with dates of upcoming meetings, and posted the autobiographical article which appeared in The Connection #259

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