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20-21 February 2003

I finished Voyag^o al Kazohinio (Voyage to Kazohinia) by Sándor Szathmári Wednesday afternoon. (I started reviewing it last Thursday.) In Part I, Gulliver lives among the Hin for about a year, finding their way of life at first pleasantly strange, and then more and more repellent. Szathmári seems to intend the Hin as perfectly rational socialist materialists: they have no notion of etiquette, games, art, religion, patriotism, or any of a number of other human things. They seem to feel no emotion. In warm weather they wear no clothes; in winter, uniformly manufactured stuff, comfortable but monochome. They use no money; everyone works as much as he has energy for, and uses what he needs. None of them, except for rare lunatics, desires more than he actually needs, so there is no free rider problem. (Less satisfactorily explained is how they do without prices to communicate demand and scarcity information, which would seem to be necessary even in a society without selfishness or laziness. He implies something like telepathy; they automatically know what their society needs, and each works to produce his share of it.) They never chat, gossip or sing; they speak only as necessary for communicating necessary information.

Gulliver is at first taken to a hospital. (His tears of gratitude at his first acquaintance's hospitality are taken for symptoms of some optical or nervous illness.) There he stays while he learns their language, and then something of their way of life. He is then told to find work, which he eventually does as a nurse tech in the hospital. I won't go into detail about the next some-odd chapters. At first Gulliver is mostly pleased with Hin society, but becomes more and more disgusted with it as he experiences more of it. He learns more about the Behin, as the Hin call their lunatics, and, suspecting they are the "normal" humans whose company he has been missing more and more sorely for the last year, asks to be admitted to the Behin colony.

In Part II, Szathmári parodies in his portrayal of Behin society all the customs of Europe (and most or all of humanity besides the Hin) which Gulliver has missed during his stay among the Hin. The Behin's customs and semantics are different enough in detail that Gulliver can't recognize them as parallel to those of England and Christendom generally. He leaves certain words of their language untranslated in his account, declaring that there are no equivalents for these nonsensical concepts on our language; but of course the reader has no very difficult time figuring out what the equivalents are. There are some amazingly funny passages where Gulliver argues with the Behin about the irrationality of their customs, in words that echo those the Hin used to demonstrate the irrationality of England's. Gulliver keeps tripping over the surprising customs of the Behin, and violating their taboos; he gets in trouble for eating in public, for instance, and wanting privacy to eliminate. Parts of the story are somewhat tedious, as ridiculous customs are piled on layer after layer and Gulliver naively constrasts them to exactly parallel customs of England; but the climax is more interesting and exciting than one expects from a philosophical novel. The return to England is something of an anticlimax; but this is a minor flaw, which Voyag^o al Kazohinio shares with its original.

The Gulliver who swims ashore in Kazohinia is not the cynical Gulliver who has lived a while among the Houyhnhnms and returned unwillingly to live among the Yahoos of England; he's modeled more on the naively patriotic Gulliver of the "Voyage to Brobdingnag". Some of Part I seems vaguely reminiscent of the Voyages to Laputa and Balnibari; but where Swift was savagely ridiculing the silliness of his scientist contemporaries, Szathmári lovingly describes the extrapolated futuristic technology (aluminum housing, electric monorail trains, telephone answering machines (which the taciturn Hin don't use very often), and so forth) in a way that's reminiscent of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell, Jr.

I've found the publication information for the English translation: it was translated as Kazohinia by Inez Kemenes, from the Hungarian version, and published by Corvina Press in 1975. I don't see any used copies listed on abebooks.com, though.

I've also been re-reading Gulliver's Travels. I was going to re-read some bits (I hadn't read it in four or five years) to see how closely Szathmári followed his model; but of course I got caught up in the story, and started reading straight through. It's a ripping good yarn, even if you can't decipher the political satire on particular English scientists and politicians. The only serious flaws I find are the cacaphonous invented names. (Tolkien complained about them too, but for the wrong reason; he was annoyed at their linguistic inconsistency, as at those in Lord Dunsany's fantasies. But unless you are a linguist, euphony and evocativeness are more important qualities for invented place-names than a rigorous linguistic background; there Dunsany is at the top rank of fantasists, slightly excelling even Tolkien, whereas Swift is among the worst inventors of names.)

Other neat sequels to Gulliver's Travels include "Short Timer" by John Morressy (Asimov's, April 1983), in which a Lilliputian voyages to several remote regions of the world; and Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White, which deals with the descendants of Lilliputians carried into exile in England. (Where are the sequels about Brobdingnag or Laputa? Maybe I just haven't run across them.)

 

From my Hugo nomination ballot:

Novel

Novellas

Novelettes

Short stories

Best Fanzine

Best Fan Writer

John W. Campbell Award (Best new writer)

 

Some search requests that have brought people here recently:

My brother Brian and I are going to see Phish in Greensboro, NC next weekend, and to visit our cousin who lives in Raleigh. So I probably won't post again until the second weekend of March.
I am, of course, none other than blank verse.
I don't know where I'm going, yes, quite right;
And when I get there (if I ever do)
I might not recognise it. So? Your point?
Why should I have a destination set?
I'm relatively happy as I am,
And wouldn't want to be forever aimed
Towards some future path or special goal.
It's not to do with laziness, as such.
It's just that one the whole I'd rather not
Be bothered - so I drift contentedly;
An underrated way of life, I find.

What Poetry Form Are You?

via Flos Carmeli and various other weblogs

13-14 February 2003

Asimov's Science Fiction, February 1993

 

Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 2003

 

I'm reading Voyag^o al Kazohinio (Voyage to Kazohinia) by Sándor Szathmári. It's a pastiche of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Szathmári resituates Gulliver to the early 20th century, without invoking time travel; here, he is a naval surgeon, just as in Swift's original, but serving during the Italian-Ethiopian war on a dilapidated ship en route to Shanghai to relieve more capable ships that are needed closer to Britain's African possessions. His ship is torpedoed and sinks (if I were a rat, I would definitely leave any ship Lemuel Gulliver boards), not unpredictably, and after a hurricane whelms the lifeboat he's in and presumably drowns his companions, he floats in a life jacket for some days until he sights land and swims to the shore of an island.

The first part of the book describes Gulliver's long stay among the Hin, as the people of the island call themselves in their own language. They're of normal size and human appearance, but they have as strange a psychology as most sf aliens. I'm not sure yet to what extent Szathmári intends Kazohinia as a utopian model society; certain elements seem dystopic to me, but I'll reserve judgment, and further comments, till I finish the novel. I'm about a fourth through now.

This novel has an interesting history; the author started writing it in 1935, at first in his native Hungarian, but once he figured out what the story was about, he rewrote the beginning and finished it in Esperanto. In 1938 he sold it to Literatura Mondo, the main Esperanto publishing house at the time, but Hitler's rise to power made difficulties for them, and he submitted it to Sennacia Asocio Tutmonda (SAT, the World Nationless Association, based in France). They accepted it, but the outbreak of WWII and Hitler's invasion of France put an end to that project and many others. Szathmári then translated it into Hungarian, and a version mutilated by the military censors was published in 1941, and reprinted (with the deleted parts restored and some new material) after the war in 1946. SAT was finally able to publish the original Esperanto version in 1958. (It's this paperback edition which I'm now borrowing from a friend.) It was later (I'm not sure when) translated into English; according to Don Harlow, one of only four books written in Esperanto that have been Englished. That translation appears to be out of print, though I hear that SAT has recently reprinted the Esperanto original.

8 February 2003

Vergil in Averno (Doubleday, 1987) is Avram Davidson's prequel to The Phoenix and the Mirror. It's set a long while earlier, at least twenty years, or perhaps more. The main story is of Vergil's first major commission, and there are flashbacks to episodes of his education as a sorcerer, which later connect to the current events of the story. Vergil had no particular interest in Averno, the Very Rich City, until several seeming chance events - comments from acquaintances, meetings - in the course of a few days brought it to his attention, and made him think that someone in Averno was trying to get his attention. On his arrival in the city (built in a volcanic area, where many manufactures requiring heat can be carried on cheaply, without the expense of fuel - given a steady supply of slaves to replace those who die of the noxious airs), he discovers that the magnates do have a job for him, but are inexplicit at first in telling him what it is. At last he is told that the magnates are dissatisfied with the shifting and gradual fading of the volcanic hot spots they need for their manufactures, and want him to do something about it, or tell them what they can do. So he begins a program of research into the vulcanism of Averno.

The plot is far more complex than what I've outlined above - there are factions among the magnates who want different things, and there is a kind of cult of a popularly crowned Mad King, which might become a rebellion or revolution under the right (or wrong, from the magnates' perspective) circumstances - but giving further details of the story would be no service to the reader. This is in many ways a better novel than The Phoenix and the Mirror; the characterization, the stream of consciousness narration, the dialectic speech, the scientific detective story plot, are all better developed here. It's more difficult reading, however; in general Davidson's later works are more difficult than his earlier ones - he seems to assume more background knowledge on the part of the reader, more willingness to make an effort to enter a different world. I find it well worth the effort, but if you've read little or nothing by Davidson as yet, I would recommend you start with his earlier novels and his short stories. Also, reading Vergil in Averno before The Phoenix and the Mirror might spoil some surprises in the earlier-written novel.

Avram Davidson also wrote several short stories about Vergil, most as yet uncollected, and a third novel, not yet published (possibly unfinished?).

 

Asimov's Science Fiction, February 2003

 

I recently listened to Rumpole of the Bailey and Rumpole's Return by John Mortimer, in audiobooks narrated by Patrick Tull, from Recorded Books. (The original stand-alone editions appear to be out of print, but they're reprinted in The Rumpole Omnibus from Cahill & Co.)

Rumpole of the Bailey (a collection of six stories) introduces Horace Rumpole, an English barrister, and the only one in his chambers (law firm) who prefers arguing criminal cases - always for the defense - to civil cases. In many of the stories he is defending persons unjustly accused of various crimes - but not always. Not all of the stories fit the classical detective story pattern; in some cases the person he's defending is guilty as charged, and he has to try to keep them from confessing to him. One of the niftiest in its detective-story aspects is "Rumpole and the Married Lady", in which he is representing the wife in a divorce case. Since detective work is in the background, or entirely absent, in some of the stories, the main attraction here is the character of Rumpole and his interaction with other Dickensian characters - judges, his fellow barristers, his clients and their friends and relations, his wife Hilda and son Nicholas (whom he hoped would follow him to the bar, but became a professor of sociology instead). Also interesting is the picture of life in England in the 1960s-70s, the social changes occurring, and Rumpole's reaction to them.

In Rumpole's Return (the third book of the series; the Lilburn public library appeared to be missing the second), the Rumpoles have retired to live with Nick and his wife Erica in Miami. The opening chapters alternate between a murder in a London Underground station, its investigation, and so forth, and a mysterious disappearance (of one of Nick's sociologist colleagues) in Miami. Rumpole hears of the murder in a letter from a friend at his old chambers, and returns to England to help in the defense of the man accused. The way the mysterious events in Miami finally connect with the circumstances surrounding the murder is very satisfying. Also pleasantly diverting are the subplots in which Rumpole defends a pornography dealer in the North of England, and an old South Londoner client recently arrested for carrying housebreaking instruments by night.

Patrick Tull's narration is excellent. (He also read some (maybe all?) of the Sherlock Holmes stories for Recorded Books, also quite well.)

These are very enjoyable stories; I expect I will eventually read the others in the series, though I'll probably spread them out more.

 

I've updated the Esperanto Society of Metro Atlanta page with dates of upcoming meetings, added more links to my reviews index and weblog archive index page, and fixed some broken links.

 

5 February 2003

During the Middle Ages a copious and curious group of legends became associated with the name of Vergil, attributing to the author of The Aeneid and The Georgics all manner of heroic, scientific, and magical powers - to such an extent, indeed, that most of the world forgot that Vergil had been a poet, and looked upon him as a nigromancer, or sorcerer.

(Author's introduction to The Phoenix and the Mirror, or, The Enigmatic Speculum (1969) by Avram Davidson)

I've just been reading The Phoenix and the Mirror for the third or fourth time. Avram Davidson recreated for this novel the ancient Roman world as vaguely misremembered by the Middle Ages; a mix of actual history, possibly not so actual history, legend, Greek mythology, and the later Biblical stories. I've understood and enjoyed it more each time I read it, as I get more familiar with ancient history and legend through various other sources.

In this first novel, Vergil is requested by a patrician lady, Cornelia, to make a mirror of virgin bronze in which to see where her missing daughter is. He refuses, pleading impossibility. But she finds a devious way to compel him to help her; so he finds ways to do the impossible. To make a mirror for far-seeing, all the ingredients must be in a virgin state - he must somehow get raw copper ore from pirate-blockaded Cyprus, and raw tin ore from wherever it is, beyond the boundaries of the Empire, that tin ore comes from; and, having acquired these inaccessible elements from which to alloy virgin bronze, he must have the mirror forged and polished with no one looking into it at any time. An account of such a magical process could be tedious, and in some fantasy novels it is; but here, every stage of the process is a window into the the ancient world, and shows us something new about Vergil himself.

The characters are very well made. Vergil is probably one of the best-developed mage characters in fantasy. We get to know him inside and out, through Davidson's stream-of-consciousness narration of his thoughts, as we don't know Oscar Zoraoaster Diggs or Gandalf or Iucounu. You'll probably recognize some of your own thought patterns here: dreams forgotten on waking and recalled much later; nagging hints of something... somehow... which you read or heard somewhere, which would be terribly relevant if you could recall what it was; things that remind you of other things for no reason you can figure out. His friends Clemens the alchemist and the mysterious Phoenician sea-captain known as the Red Man are well developed too, though not with the same introspective depth; and many of his servants and chance acquaintances are wonderfully sketched in a few well-chosen words. Cornelia and the mad cat-woman Allegra are also very convincing, though we see them too only from the outside.

The tension builds as the mirror nears completion, and both Vergil and the reader become suspicious of the circumstances about the disappearance of Cornelia's daughter. I won't reveal how the Phoenix comes into the picture, save that this is the best treatment of the pyrogenic bird in all literature. (IMHO)

This is probably Avram Davidson's best-written novel, which is saying a lot. I'm reading Vergil in Averno, the 1987 prequel, now; I will write about it, and maybe some of the Vergil Magus short stories, later on.

3 February 2003

Asimov's Science Fiction, January 2003

Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, March 1984


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