Japan: From Prehistory
to Modern Times (1968) by John Whitney Hall (1916-1997)
is a fairly well-written, compact history of Japan (358 pp. of main
text + glossary, chronology, bibliography and index). It covers the
"medieval" period (the Shogunate, when Japan had feudal
institutions somewhat similar to contemporary Europe) in more detail
than others. In the modern era, the Meiji restoration (1868+, when a
group of oligarchs westernized Japan's government while ruling in the
name of the emperor Meiji), the period of militarization leading up to
the war in Manchuria (1931+) and World War II, and the reconstruction
of Japan during the American occupation after the war, get a lot more
space than World War II (which only gets a couple of pages), which
makes sense given that the war is more thoroughly covered in other
histories. I was somewhat surprised to see few or no references to
the development of Japan's martial arts. The settlement of Hokkaido
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is only briefly mentioned.
The history of Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity in Japan is pretty
well described given the limitations of length.
Dr. Hall also wrote several other books on Japan, more specialized
than this general history. I haven't read them, but after this I am
inclined to look for them.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 2003
In "The Lightning Bug Wars" by
W. Shockley, we find a man floating down a broad river on a raft,
with little notion how he got there or why he hasn't seen any people
on the banks. When his raft gets snagged, he gets ashore and looks
around, finding a young woman, Lana. It's hard to briefly describe
what happens next. The river seems to have some connection with time
and death, and to be cyclical, at least at whiles. Lana and her
(probably) dead sister and parents don't make the plot any less
complicated. A bizarre delight. The game named in the title of
the story is worth the price of this issue by itself.
"Scabbing" by Mark W. Tiedemann is set in a
union-dominated near future. The narrator is a young boy whose father
has a stroke at the outset of the story. His recovery necessitates a
brain implant, but that alienates him from his union brothers; it
makes him "management". The future society is well sketched
in a few words, and the characters are convincing.
"Seeing is Believing" by Paul Di Filippo shows us Ron
Fewsmith, who has discovered a powerful new hypnosis technique, and
plans to use it to become rich and powerful; Stringo Strine, an
ex-baseball pitcher turned private investigator who is hired by the
first bank Fewsmith robs; and Parrish Maxfield (yes), a memetic
scientist whom Stringo consults for help on the case. Both men are
strongly attracted to the beautiful Professor Maxfield. The story
moves fast, and it's a lot of fun. There are nifty references to sf
movies and books of the 20th century.
"The Dog Movie" by Albert
E. Cowdrey is another fantasy set in modern New Orleans. A cop
tells the strange story of how the Cavallo case ended to another cop,
not expecting to be believed. A pleasant supernatural revenge story.
"Bread and Bombs" by M. Rickert is set in a near future
dominated by fear of terrorism. The narrator tells a story of her
childhood, and how she and the other neighborhood children, taught fear of
strangers by their parents, reacted to the daughters of the strange
foreign family who moved into the old Richter place. Eerie,
frightening, very real.
Also "Legend of Conquistadores" by Robert Sheckley, an
alternate history alien invasion story; "The Haunting"
by Joyce Carol Oates, a ghost story of sorts; book and film
reviews, and a couple of home science experiments (removing the shell
of an egg without breaking it, etc.) described by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty.
I'm going to a cousin's wedding near our nation's capital next
weekend. I may find time to post something the Saturday before Palm
Sunday, or it may be later than that.
22 March 2003
Roughing It by Mark Twain tells
about his experiences out West from 1861 to 1867. When his older
brother Orion was appointed territorial secretary of Nevada, Sam went
with him as private secretary; he worked for his brother a little
while, then went to silver mining, reporting and editing for some
years. While working for a San Francisco newspaper, he was sent to
the Sandwich Islands (Hawai'i, then an independent kingdom) to write
about them for the paper; and on his return, he toured lecturing about
the Sandwich Islands. Roughing It ends shortly after his
first lecturing experience.
The book opens very strongly with a fine, detailed narrative of his
and Orion's stagecoach journey from St. Joseph to Carson City. The
middle chapters, about his experiences prospecting for silver and
gold, and reporting, are also quite good. The brief chapters about
the Mormons in Utah, and the later chapters about Hawai'i, are not as
good - possibly because he spent less time there, and had to make up
jokes rather than just tell about funny things that happened to him -
but still enjoyable. His description of walking on the crater floor
of Kileuea is amazing, and makes up for the comparative weakness of
the rest of the Sandwich Islands chapters.
Overall I would rank Roughing It as not so excellent as
Life on the Mississippi or The Innocents
Abroad, but better than Twain's other nonfiction books.
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September
"The Monster in the Park" by Gerard Klein (translated
from the French by Virginia Kidd) tells about a young woman who hears
on the radio that an alien spacecraft has landed in the city park
through which her husband usually walks on his way home from work.
She worries about him, and as the scientists on the radio sound pretty
worried behind their hopeful words, and he still hasn't gotten home,
she sets out to see for herself if he's okay. The main character is
well developed, and the ending is strong and enigmatic.
"Timberline" by Brian W. Aldiss is a sequel (fourth in a
series, of which I haven't read most of the others) to
"Hothouse" (which I
reviewed in August). It suffers somewhat from being in the middle
of a series, though the whole might be excellent enough.
"The Day They Got Boston" by Herbert Gold is a silly
satirical piece in which Boston is accidentally nuked by a drunken
Russian lieutenant; the story follows what happens next as Russian
diplomats hastily explain and beg the U.S. government not to retaliate
massively, and finally agree to let the U.S. nuke Leningrad as
compensation. There are also subplots about the effects on the
Boston area, some realistic and some absurd (maybe making fun
of earlier sf's sloppy science re: the effects of radiation; here, the
girls of Radcliffe College undergo a spontaneous sex change).
In "Pecking Order" by Nils T. Peterson, the narrator has
been changed into a strange, sui generis creature by a trio
of witches, and caged in their Zoo along with other men they are
punishing for unknown crimes. Day after day he endures torments as
the witches shock him to make him move for the amusement and
instruction of the children who
come to see the Zoo. He and several other prisoners plot an
escape; which doesn't quite work... Effective, pleasantly weird.
Alfred Bester, in his book reviews column, writes biting sarcasm in
the third person about his own self-destructing career. He reuses
the title of his first novel: "The Demolished Man".
Also "Privates All" by Floyd Wallace, "The
Timekeeper" by Michael Young, "Through Time and Space with
Ferdinand Feghoot: XLIII" by Grendel Briarton, "Hamlin"
by Rosemary Harris, and two poems by Rosser Reeves.
I'm comparatively new at this business; 2000 was the first Lent (that
just before I was received into the Church) that I made any attempt to
follow any regular discipline of fasting - though, on a couple of
occasions long earlier, I had made some briefer attempts (about week
long, I think) when a Baptist and later a non-denominational
Christian. But, on account of my health, I thought it maybe unwise to
follow the stricter discipline with respect to fasting; so I cast
about for something else than meat to not use during the whole of Lent
(though keeping the Friday abstinences, and the Ash Wednesday and Good
Friday fasts (in the loose sense of "only one meal",
according to the current discipline for people who have to work on
such fast days). Here I come to a difficulty in speaking. It seems
clearly a bad thing to make noise about one's fasting practices (as
Jesus says in the bit of the Sermon on the Mount we read on Ash
Wednesday). Yet to speak about fasting in excessively general terms,
or not at all, is to deprive others of the benefit of our experiences
(our mistakes, but also our good choices). When I was a catechumen, I
got real benefit from hearing Catholic friends talk (not in boastful
terms) about what they gave up for Lent, and how they managed
difficulties. Some of the things I could say might be helpful to new
converts; but I want to go slowly and carefully to avoid speaking
boastfully, as though I have already "arrived".
Our doctors and nutritionists tell us who have cystic fibrosis to eat!
eat! eat! - lots of calories, so as much of meat, cheese, ice cream,
and so forth as we can digest. That qualifier is the tricky part,
involving regulating how much of our digestive enzyme supplements we
take with each meal, and how to spread them out over the course of a
prolonged meal (such as when taking a dietary supplement as enteral
feeding). There is no rule except what works, and no way of learning
what works but by trial and error; so when eating something outside my
usual habits, I'm apt to take too many or too few enzyme pills and
suffer in consequence. Because I try to eat frequently throughout the
day, and take 2000 calories of enteral feeding throughout the night, I
rarely feel very hungry. I generally associate real hunger,
therefore, with (1) imprudence; bad planning leads to me being unable
to eat when I expected to; (2) laziness; I occasionally go right to
sleep after a tiring day without setting up enteral feeding; or (3)
medical tests which require my digestive system to be empty
during them, so I can't eat or drink anything for many hours
previously. I generally get irritable when so unaccustomedly hungry;
so it seemed that deliberately going hungry probably was not, for me,
likely to be conducive to prayer. But, as the Church recommends
fasting as an aid to prayer (though she doesn't make it an obligatory
rule for people with serious health problems), I resolved to try it
anyway. It worked surprisingly well, that first Ash Wednesday before
I was received into the Church, and on the strange Good Friday I spent
waiting in Emory's emergency room, gradually giving up hope of getting
discharged in time for the Easter vigil (another story for another
time). I would not recommend fasting for more than one day to others
with CF, or fasting at all to anybody with a case of CF more severe
than mine; but I think I can say that actual fasting (not eating
anything for the most part of a day) can have spiritual benefits
outweighing the physical costs, even for someone with health problems
Of fasting in the more general sense, of giving up during Lent (or the
forty non-Sundays of Lent) something you customarily enjoy during the
rest of the year, I am more hesitant to speak. I've tried different
things in different years, and all had some benefit in freeing up time
to pray more - much of which time I squandered on things other than
prayer. For now I'll just mention one such discpline, which I now
think to have been insufficiently penitential: in Lent of 2001 I gave
up starting new books. (I was in the middle of at least five, most of
them nonfiction, when Lent started; I finished nearly all of them
before Easter.) Giving up certain other things in Lent of 2000 and 2002
was more of a radical change to my habits, and more effective in
putting away distractions and thus helping me to pray. But, being
purely on the intellectual level, those disciplines still seemed somehow
insufficient. This Lent I'm trying some different things,
which I might describe here later, but probably won't.
Back to the regularly scheduled reviews...
With "La Princesse de Babylone" I
finished reading Voltaire's Romans (Romances), which I
had spread out reading over the course of about two and a half years.
Formosante, the only daughter of the emperor of Babylon, is offered in
marriage (according to the instructions of an oracle) to the winner of
a series of contests of strength, skill, valor and other desirable
qualities. The Kings of Egypt, India, and Scythia come to Babylon to
compete for her hand. A mysterious young stranger, who disclaims
noble birth, also comes, riding a unicorn. The stranger gains in the
contest, and makes a gift of a beautiful bird of unknown species to
the Princess; but being suddenly informed by a courier of his father's
illness, rushes off leaving no forwarding address. The fastest horses
of Babylon can't keep up with the unicorns. So begin Formosante's
adventures; after her father seeks another oracle, he sends her on a
pilgrimage to a shrine in Arabia to pray for a husband. The
gift-bird, a phoenix, tells her much about her mysterous suitor, hight
Amazan, and his country; she plans to travel thither, but get abducted
by the king of Egypt first, and has to resort to a distasteful
stratagem to escape... This is as eventful a novella as one could hope
for, and covers a great deal of territory all around the ancient
world. Voltaire makes satirical points about modern Italy, Britain,
Russia, France, and Germany by imputing their peculiarities to their
ancestors. (The British section is by far the funniest.) But mostly
this doesn't get in the way of Formosante and Amazan's adventures.
The end of the story is quite satisfying; then follows a section of
disacknowledgements, in which Voltaire invokes his Muse against his
literary enemies who attacked his earlier books, and prays for
protection for this latest one.
It's been too long since I read most of these Romances to comment on
them in any detail. I'll just briefly note which ones I liked best
and least. Candide is deservedly a classic, though I
didn't enjoy it as much as Zadig, "La Princesse de
Babylone", or "Le Taureau Blanc" (The White Bull).
This last, my favorite from this collection, is a bizarre
concatenation of various stories and characters from the Old
Testament: the Witch of Endor, the mages of Egypt, the Serpent from
the Garden, Balaam's ass, the whale that swallowed Jonah, and several
of the prophets all make appearances. It sounds silly, and it is, but
somehow all this anachronism actually enhances the romance of the
young princess of Egypt whose fiancé has been missing for seven
years. Of middling good quality were "Micromégas",
"Le Monde Comme Il Va", and "Le Blanc et le Noir".
I didn't finish reading "L'Ingenu". L'Homme aux Quarante
Ecus I reviewed back in June.
I don't know of a complete translation of the Romances in English;
each of these collections has some of the stories.
"Nightfall" by Charles Stross is the latest in his
"Accelerando" series, which began with "Lobsters"
(Asimov's, June 2001; Hugo nominee 2002). It's hard to
say much about this story without spoiling the earlier ones,
especially the immediately preceding "Router". The premise
of the series is the history of three generations of a family through
the next century or so; "Halo", "Router", and
"Nightfall" all deal with Amber, the only daughter of
Manfred Macx, main character of "Lobsters" and
"Tourist" (and maybe one other story?). Most humans have
given up on flesh by this point in the series, and live (?) as
simulations or "uploads" in VR worlds. Stross throws
beautifully strange ideas you left and right throughout every story,
and the plots move along fast enough, but somehow most of the
characters don't quite gel; it's hard for me to care what happens to
them. I'm not sure if this is because all the characters are uploads,
or because these stories move too fast. It's not because Stross can't
create believable characters, as I've read at least two of his
non-"Accelerando" stories (those reprinted in Dozois'
Year's Best Science Fiction, Nineteenth Annual Collection)
which had somewhat better-made characters than those in this series.
"Hard Times" by Neal Barrett, Jr. portrays a near
future in which everyone, or nearly everyone, is neutered soon after
birth, and may earn the right to be male or female when they grow up
if they rise high enough in the corporate hierarchy. The story begins
with Dawkit, a young neuter, genetically male, who has finally earned
a promotion that will get him his male parts re-implanted. Barrett
not only develops the core idea well, but sketches the whole future
society that this custom is part of. Dawkit and several secondary
characters are well drawn.
"Legions in Time" by Michael Swanwick is a neat series
of twists on the "Time Patrol" idea; nothing terribly
original, but a fun, surprising adventure. In 1936, Eleanor Voigt
gets a strange but uneventful job at an office where she is instructed
to watch a closet door for eight hours each day, and open it briefly
at noon. If she sees anything unusual, she is to press a button at
her desk. Eventually, of course, her curiosity gets the better of
her, and she opens the door other than at noon; there the time
travelling adventures start.
"The Reign of Terror" by Robert Silverberg is part of
his Roma Eterna series of alternate histories in which
there was no Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, and in which the Roman
empire continues more or less strong and coherent for thousands of
years. I find the premise fairly implausible, but most of the
individual stories work well. In this novelette set in the Roman year
2603 (our A.D. 1850), he tells us of the two Consuls of the
western Empire who are trying to save the government from financial
collapse and avert a rebellion by containing the mad emperor's
extravagance. They have hard choices to make, and decide to solve the
empire's problems by a general beheading of its internal
enemies... The ending is very satisfying. If I had read the history
of the French Revolution more recently than I have, I would probably
have noticed even more parallels than I did.
"June Sixteenth at Anna's" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is
a heartbreakingly beautiful story about an unexpected application of
time-viewing. This may be the best story on this theme since Isaac Asimov's
"The Dead Past".
Also "The Madness of Crowds" by Paul McAuley and
"Here's Looking at You, Kid" by Mike Resnick, three poems,
reviews by Paul Di Filippo, and an essay by Robert Silverberg on the
history of writing technology and how writers have used it.
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1961
"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" by Cordwainer Smith is a classic, probably one of
his most reprinted stories. The Instrumentality of Mankind has
decided to restore the ancient cultures, languages, and "even the
old troubles". The safe, bland, homogenized life of the last few
thousands of years is giving way to a dangerous, exciting hodgepodge
of anachronistic revivals such as postage stamps, religion, and
cholera. A man and woman without personal names go into the hospital
and come out French, as Paul and Virginia. Predictably, they fall in
love; but she is suspcicious that their love was programmed into them
by the hypnopaedia and means nothing. They go on a quest to consult
an old, abandoned thinking machine on Alpha Ralpha Boulevard... This
is probably a good story to start reading Cordwainer Smith's future
history with, though it comes rather more than halfway through the
chronology. It's reprinted in The
Rediscovery of Man, among many other collections and anthologies.
"Crime on Mars" by Arthur C. Clarke is a slight but fun
piece about how an attempted burglary of the museum of Martian culture
in Meridian City was accidentally foiled. The frame story adds
additional interest and makes for a stronger ending to what would
otherwise be a mere gimmick.
"Something Rich and Strange" by Randall Garrett and Avram Davidson is a nifty story of
Jack Wilson, who combined his loves of seafood and of women "in a
very literal way". I don't think it's ever been reprinted, at
least not in any of Davidson's collections.
"George" by John Anthony West tells us of how the title
character grows paralyzed in the course of an evening at home, and how
he and his wife react to it. The sharp marital dialogue is delightful.
"Birth of a Gardener" by Doris Pitkin
Buck tells us of a physicist who is annoyed by his not very intelligent
wife's unavailing attempts to learn something about physics to please
him, and how he changes after her sudden death.
"A Curious Pleasure Excursion" by Mark Twain is his
prospectus for a long voyage by comet. There are lots of neat
touches, such as the "great force of missionaries" to
"shed the true light upon all the celestial orbs which,
physically aglow are yet in moral darkness."
In "Go for Baroque" by Jody Scott, a new patient in a
psychiatric hospital cures his doctor in record time. The
conversation is deliriously funny.
"The Cage" by Miriam Allen De Ford (1888-1975) shows us
a young science reporter, Roger Fairfield, calling on a reclusive
Nobel prize winner, long thought to be dead. Dr. Dudley Barnes shows
off his secret project: a race of intelligent insects, which he has
bred to be resistant to radiation, and helped in developing
tools. He plans to release them to inherit the Earth if it
appears that humans are about to destroy themselves in a nuclear war,
but wants to ensure they are destroyed if we can get past the present
nuclear crisis. As he is getting old, he wants young Mr. Fairfield to
take over the project after him. Mr. Fairfield has objections...
Also a Ferdinand Feghoot story by Grendel Briarton (Reginald
Bretnor); a science essay by Isaac Asimov on what he thinks are the
most critical technological developments in human history - beginning
with speech; and reviews by both Alfred Bester and James Blish of Algis
Budrys' Rogue Moon.