Found this by searching for 'airship' on Project Gutenberg, where the full text is available for download. Written in the midst of The Great War, it i...moreFound this by searching for 'airship' on Project Gutenberg, where the full text is available for download. Written in the midst of The Great War, it is a fairly standard example of Invasion Literature, featuring a dashing young aviator and inventor, his girlfriend, and his best mate trying to single-handedly fight off the dastardly German menace nightly loosing bombs over London.(less)
In 1901 Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, two of the greatest literary writers of the 20th Century, pooled their talents to write a novel about inte...moreIn 1901 Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, two of the greatest literary writers of the 20th Century, pooled their talents to write a novel about interdimensional terrorism. Almost no one has read it, and those who have do not seem to think much of it.
To critics, it is a mere curiosity, only of any possible interest to completists of Ford or Cobrad's works--so, to any of you who have been looking for reasons to dismiss my opinions and paint me as incoherent, here is the gift: I found this book perfectly fascinating. But then, I have come at it from a much different direction than any critic I have seen.
In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a speech on Beowulf that completely changed the way scholarship on the poem was approached. Prior to this, it was studied for almost purely historical reasons, as a portrait of a time in history of which we have very little documentation. However, Tolkien argued that the critics were missing much of the meaning and subtext of the work by ignoring the symbolism of the fantastical elements: the monster Grendel, his mother, and the dragon.
The same oversight seems to have taken place in the approach to this book: critics talk about common themes of Ford's and Conrad's, such as the obsolescence of nobility and the class system, or the foul cruelty of colonialism. They talk about how the book represents the politics of the times, how certain events mirror and comment on history. Yet they completely ignore the central symbolic thrust of the work, the extended conceit which ties the whole thing together.
Unlike most critics, I was primed to look for the meaning behind the fantastical elements, coming to this book not from the context of Conrad's and Ford's more famous works, but from the works of Lovecraft, Chambers, Hodgson, and Blackwood--here, once more, is the tale of the sensitive man, the artist plagued by an otherworldliness that draws him on inexorably to the forfeiture of his very humanity--and of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Moorcock, and Griffith, of powerful revolutionaries set to topple the order of the world.
Since magic is the physical representation of an idea, a metaphor sprung to life, it behooves us to ask: what does the magic in this tale represent, and how does it operate within the work? Most intriguing for analyzing the tale is the fact that--unlike most critics claim-the supernatural element is not merely 'tacked-on', but is a vital part of both Conrad's and Ford's views.
To Ford, these alien beings infesting our world--Body Snatchers-like--are the very spirit of the changing Zeitgeist. It is their arrival, and their insidious effect on society that is to destroy a thousand years of hereditary rule, plunging the whole world into a war from which it will emerge reborn, a new land of new ideas which leaves the old powers amongst the ash.
To Conrad, it is the subtle treachery of colonial influence, the ability of the ruling power to seduce, to use and abuse its subjects, to make them doubt, to reshape their minds without their recognizing it, to cause them to betray and subjugate themselves through art, ideal, faith, and symbol.
And all of this meaning is wrapped up in a single character, a woman, who with the protagonist creates a rather odd romance: a romance of the colonized mind, a romance of personal obsolescence--but then, perhaps it really isn't so odd, after all.
The subtle turns of the way her alienness is explored would do credit to any of the classic authors of Supernatural Horror. Firstly there is the fact that as we're looking at it, we can't be quite certain if it's even real, or if perhaps the girl is simply mad, or playing a trick on our hero, as he believes.
Additionally, it is implied that somehow, we are descended from these beings, that they are our source, but that we have since forgotten, ceased to see the wonder of other realms, and grown petty and a bit unhinged--and that they periodically return to recolonize us. Of course, there is a sort of hint of Dunsany's Elfland in this: the mystical, untouchable realm which fades away, but which makes us dream, and which we remember without ever realizing it.
Then there is the impression that, not only are the thoughts of these outsiders infectious and transformational, but that they must be careful not to be changed, themselves, by their interactions with humanity--it is a more delicate way of playing with the notion that 'man himself is the monster'--that he is not so in a physical, violent sense, but in the cosmic, Lovecraftian one: that perhaps in this universe, man is the incomprehensible, insane force, not the merely the staid victim--the notion of idea as a disease, of the infection of the meme.
Of course, there is also a colonial commentary here: that even as the colonizer forces her will upon the other, she in turn is changed by their biases and values, no matter how carefully she guards herself against that influence, the natural tendency is for both sides, conqueror and conquered, to draw ever closer together, and even to bind.
In that sense, there is a deep parallel between this story and Kipling's famous representation of a love affair between overseer and vassal: Without Benefit of Clergy--and an even closer similarity to Tagore's less-romanticized reversal, The Postmaster--excepting that in this case, it is the woman who possesses the power.
It is also interesting to see Ford and Conrad, who were not yet successful authors when they collaborated, write about the life of the struggling author, the hopelessness of it, the sense that one is always 'selling one's self' to do work that is little more than propaganda for the state, contrasted with the intense desire to do something worthwhile.
There is also a great deal of clever drawing-room humor, which I expect if Ford's, as Conrad's humor tends to be less that of the wit and more the ironic and morbid cynic. From Conrad, we get those utterly characteristic digressions, a sentence here or there where some fundamental aspect of human life is encapsulated in a few profound phrases.
Of course, there are some problems, as well--both authors are young, trying to find their way, and the whole project was, to them, an attempt to make a bit of money--meaning there is some deprecating cleverness to the fact that it is about a writer who gives up his artistry in order to write things that will pay. The most prominent issue is Ford's constant use of the word 'infinite' in his metaphors. Of course, we understand that he is trying to touch on matters of the sublime 'Fourth Dimension', but it could have done with more variety instead of simple repetition.
The Fourth Dimension itself was coined by H.G. Wells, a friend of both writers, whose success with The Time Machine inspired them to write a fantastical political tale. Wells tried to publish an essay on the topic, exploring the concept that time, like heighth, width, and length, might be seen as traversable, or at least as a coordinate for describing matter, but it went over the head of his editor, who told him to put it in a story, which he did.
In that sense, The Inheritors can also be read as a time-travel story, and that is is not a more perfect place which colonizes us, but a more perfect time. To put it briefly: there are so many fantastical and speculative threads coming together in this story that it would be quite dizzying, if it weren't all performed by subtle implication. Really, we never know just what is going on--all we can do is take in clues and surmise as best we can.
But of course, that's the whole nature of the fantastical: that even when it touches us, we are unable to explain it, to make sense of it, to wrap our minds around it. We tell ourselves that it is impossible, we try to ignore it, to concentrate on art or love--on those mad human passions that always draw us away--and yet the fantastical has a way of getting inside of us, no matter how we try to fight it off, of changing us, in such a way that we can never quite go back to the way it was before.
We are left suffused with a feeling of strange nostalgia, and of a kind of bitterness--that now we are worldly, we have seen, and cannot be simple again. But then, the true searcher in the dark would never choose simplicity--for when the world has broken one's heart, at least it can be said you loved it--and in the end, that is the true message of Ford's and Conrad's strange little book, too long unknown, ignored, dismissed, but no longer lost to me, or to you.
Lovecraft once said:
"Conrad's reputation is deserved -- he has the sense of ultimate nothingness and the evanescence of illusions which only a master and an aristocrat can have; and he mirrors it forth with that uniqueness and individuality which are genuine art. No other artist I have yet encountered has so keen an appreciation of the essential solitude of the high grade personality -- that solitude whose projected overtones form the mental world of each sensitively organised individual"
And it seems such a shame not to know what he might have made of this book.(less)
The East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fe...moreThe East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fears. They will create it even where it doesn’t exist, and they will believe in it despite evidence to the contrary. When a lawyer in London convinces them with words, they will call him ‘shrewd’--when a Hakim in Delhi does the same, they lay it to ‘mesmerism’. When a young thing with a bare shoulder in Paris turns their head, it is because she is a pretty coquette, no more--when a musk-scented daughter of Persia does the same, it is laid to some ancient magic.
Tales of colonial adventure in the East, with few exceptions, are fantasies--true fantasies, of magic and impossible things, of notions which spring from the mind and come to life in the world. Indeed, that is part of the charm of such narratives: that in reading Burton, we learn more of Burton than we do of ‘The East’, as his sometimes questionable translations demonstrate--but even biased as he may be, to read of a man as large and queer and self-made as he is an amusing thing.
Of course, it is also makes the narratives false, and invites us to believe that the East is real, and not merely a fantasy. Hesse writes of the tenets of German Protestantism--but because he writes of them under the guise of Eastern wisdom, they are gobbled up as if they were new. In the fascinating (and sometimes uncomfortable) documentary Kumaré, a man born in New Jersey grows a long beard and imitates his grandmother’s accent, and easily fools everyone into thinking he is some wise guru, even when his words make no sense. It is the fantasy of the East, and while it can make for an entertaining story, we must not be fooled into thinking, as Kumaré's students are, that their own notion is the real story of a real people.
Mundy’s is a better fantasy than most, relying as it does upon all those little bits of oddness, verisimilitude, and turns of phrase that gradually build into a wondrous and strange realm. But then, Mundy lived during his youth in Africa, India, and elsewhere, making his way as a con man and petty criminal, which experiences certainly give his tales an excellent flavor. It is hardly surprising that his work was an influence on authors of Sword & Sorcery Adventure, inspiring Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar--and both construct their fantastical worlds along the same lines as Mundy's.
In Howard, it is the story of the foreign man in the mystical East, amongst the arched temples, the scent of incense, the dancing girls, the wicked viziers, the brutal yet righteous warriors, debauchery, savagery, and ancient magics unearthed. For Leiber, it is the thousand-fold minarets of the eternal City of Brass: the old houses and old feuds, the corruption and tyranny of the priests, the bustling marketplace where the spoils of a hundred far-fetched lands are priced and weighed.
But then, of course, these are all traits of the great European cities, as well, which are no less ancient, no less strange and bustling--but somehow, a twisting alley in London is thought of differently to a twisting alley in Marrakesh. It is the process of showing us something old, but in a way that makes us think of it freshly, without preconceptions--a process known in literary criticism as ‘defamiliarization’. The Myth of the East is a sort of automatic defamiliarization, in that we are always primed to see its ways as strange and different, even when they are not.
This was how the Theosophists used it, to lend a sense of newness and authenticity to their own lives. Without that, they were merely eccentrics with loose morals and a dislike of honest labor, but shroud it all in a veil of pseudo-religious phrases and symbols, and it starts to read in quite a different way, altogether. It’s still how many New Agers live their lives: they do not sacrifice in order to practice a faith, they sacrifice the faith in order to practice themselves. It is just an exercise in self-prejudice.
Mundy himself was a known Theosophist, which is not hard to detect in his work. He has made of the East something like a fairyland, and espouses the same old philosophy of the stagnation of the Abrahamic faiths giving way before the more ancient (and hence ‘true’) and more infinite variety of the Eastern Gods.
In his bright and curious characters, his poetic bent, and his turns at spiritualism, he resembles that group of colonial authors whose works aspired to greatness: Conrad, Kipling, Doyle, Melville, H.G. Wells--but he never quite philosophizes the way they do. His action is planted too firmly on the ground, and his mysticism is too undefined and undifferentiated to reach the profundity of those authors. Thus he is relegated to the lesser tier of adventure writers, whose works sparkle and delight, but rarely challenge.
In style, Mundy possesses a cleverness and a passion that outstrips Haggard, though one will recognize in King--of the Khyber Rifles a story that very nearly parallels the Quatermain tale She--yet I found that Mundy’s take was more subtle, owing more to Realism than Pulp, and with greater sophistication and charm. The beginning, slowly playing out, is the superior part, introducing us to Captain Athelstan King of the Secret Service--a kind of early secret agent working for the Raj. He is an immediately recognizable type, that self-possessed, competent man who wins his way through life by wit and daring, of which the Colonial Period gave us numerous examples in the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Richard Francis Burton, or 'Chinese' Gordon.
Though in detail and subtlety, Mundy outdoes Haggard, there are some slower patches, particularly in a lengthy section of exposition about the middle which should have been the climax to the mystery that led us along the first third of the book. He begins to get bogged down in his plot, and then to make of his characters mouthpieces for his own Theosophical notions about true religion and ancient divinity.
Yet, after this stint, we're on our way again, towards the somewhat predictable climax. There is a rather delightful twist in the story that I happened to guess about the middle, due to the phrasing in a particular scene--and when I realized it, I was embarrassed not to have seen it sooner, as should be the case with a good twist. Yet, I think that without that one scene, I might not have realized it until quite a bit later, though it does grow increasingly obvious.
But, for all its inevitability and a few slow sections, it is overall a delightful adventure, and reminds me once more that as a fantasist, it is important that I study not only the blatant fantasies--the fantasies that call themselves fantasies--but also those fantasies that masquerade as truth, the ones that we use as convenient shortcuts to represent the world, and to confirm our own biases, that are true only in the mind, only as symbols, and which by habit we overlay upon a world that we can never fully understand.
This one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of...moreThis one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of the time--which isn't to say childish, it's more of a young man's immaturity.
The whole premise: that a powerful terrorist force is trying to destroy all world governments is somewhat uncomfortable for a modern reader--and the fact that the terrorists are meant to be the heroes brings it to another level. However, their rebellion is a vague, nonsensical thing. The idea seems to be to destroy society, and not to worry about what the next step is until later.
I guess they've never heard of the 'baby with the bathwater' problem. I mean sure, society has lots of problems, but if you don't have something better to put in its place, then tearing it down is not going to solve anything--it's probably going to make things pretty shitty in the meantime. But then, it strikes one as being typical of a man in young adulthood: irate with the horrors and inequalities of the world, rebelling against anything society has to offer without really understanding why things are the way they are.
But conveniently, everyone just signs up and agrees that this is a great plan. There are no ideological disagreements or concerns about where this whole thing is going--everyone is stalwartly devoted to the undefined cause, and willing to die for it (whatever it might be).
There are actually a few members who betray the cause, but they always do it out of mere greed, not because this whole 'terrorism' things seems kinda shaky. They also rebel despite the fact that the terrorists have an infallible network of assassins, the only airships in the world, and a leader who can literally control men's minds with a thought. All betrayers die the same chapter in which they commit their betrayal.
I mean, I understand that this was a serial, but the fact that every problem gets solved as soon as it's introduced means that the whole thing doesn't have as much continuity as it might. Indeed, for the whole first half, they're just hanging around, waiting for things to happen, not even putting their plan into action.
Now, if this had been juvenile in a sort of fun, adventure way, that could have been enjoyable, but it's clear that Griffith is taking it a bit more seriously than is warranted. It's never a battle with a fleet of ships, it's always two destroyers, five torpedo boats, a complement of three thousand men, &c. Then there are all the wire telegrams and news stories that repeat information we already know, or just talk about various battles and parts of the war that don's seem to matter much to the story.
Then, of course, there is the titular 'Angel of the Revolution' herself, a totally gorgeous teen girl who all the terrorists want to marry, but whom they respect too much to romance overtly. She's also a crack shot, and utterly loyal to the cause, even if it means (horror of horrors) marrying someone she doesn't love. Our superscience hero, of course, does everything he can to get her, until she finally tells him that the best way to get into her pants is to destroy society and create eternal peace. Sexy.
Once again, what could have been a passable adventure story is ruined by the author's inane attempts to make it 'realistic' and fill it with all sort of unrelated details. It doesn't take much seriousness to ruin the guileless charm of a pulp romp.(less)
Dunsany is best known as one of the masters of fantasy, possessing one of the most complex, developed, and subtle voices in supernatural fiction, as h...moreDunsany is best known as one of the masters of fantasy, possessing one of the most complex, developed, and subtle voices in supernatural fiction, as he displayed to peerless effect in The King of Elfland's Daughter, one of the few fantasy books I've read where the magic actually felt magical, instead of just being a contrivance or allegory. And yet, so many times, when I discover these great authors, it takes me a long time before I read another of their books.
I'm not sure why I possess this habit--perhaps its that, once I've found something really good, I know it's there, waiting, and so I can get on the search for the next revelation and return to my cadre of Great Authors when I'm too tired of disappointment. Then of course, there are also those authors, like Leiber, who start out brilliantly and become rather disappointing, themselves, as time goes on.
So there is always a certain hesitancy when approaching a new work by a well-loved author, because few things are more unpleasant than to watch someone do something poorly when you know it is perfectly within their power to do well. Gladly, when I cracked this collection of tales fictionalizing Dunsany's experience in The Great War, I discovered that Dunsany's skill was to be felt in all its force.
Within, you will find his knack for creating odd little characters who feel real by virtue of their unrealness--that same gift that lent Peake and Gogol their brilliance. Likewise he demonstrates his fine sense of mood and rhythm, and of curious turns in his language, which never fails to remind me that he wrote all his stories longhand, with a quill pen. There is also a great variety of mood and theme, from stories of small life to unsettling, eerie tales to his meditations on the ancient, fey spirit of the land, and the crass stupidity of war.
Unfortunately, coming to the middle of the book, this variety of approaches begins to wane, and he gives us a number of stories which harp on the same themes over and over--namely, the foolishness of the Kaiser and the destruction of the ancient beauty of France. Some of these are quite powerful and affecting, but others rehash the same ideas over again, and it becomes rather dull. Its not that any individual story is weak, but it feels like we're looking at many drafts of the same idea, some stronger than others.
This was really the only reason that I dropped the rating down from five stars. Indeed, its one of the few examples I can think of where the removal of some stories would have improved the book. In any case, it did nothing to reduce my opinion of Dunsany, and I'll have to make a note to myself to visit his lovely works more often than has erstwhile been my habit.(less)
One of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the character...moreOne of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the characters, their little joys and quarrels and concerns. There's this humorous self-awareness throughout the story that makes the whole thing read as if its being told, given over to the reader in a particular voice.
Certainly, this can be carried too far and made condescending, as with C.S. Lewis, but it goes to show what a winking authorial presence can lend to a work, especially to a melodrama adventure. Too often among the lesser class of 'thrilling' books, we get flat characters who are so profoundly competent and neutral that they lose any chance of possessing a personality.
It just goes to show that a good story, be it action or horror or what have you, still requires some humor, some wryness to inject suitable depth and humanity, just as a good comedy can profit from a bit of pathos and tension. Of course there are some rather insensitive colonial notions woven into it, which some readers are quick to forgive as being a 'symptom of the time', but a perusal of Wells shows that it was not an inextricable part of the Victorian man's mind.
The story's notions are delightful, made up of the sort of thing that can still fire up a young man's imagination today, and it's hardly surprising to see that they were picked up and elaborated upon by numerous later authors, most prominently in Burroughs' 'Tarzan' and 'The Land That Time Forgot'.
The latter book I actually read as a child and mistook for Doyle's work, and it was only recently that I realized and rectified my error, and I'm glad I did.(less)
I came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium E...moreI came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium Eater' about some clever reprobate's adventures through the Victorian. If you know anything about this book, then you can imagine my shock and wonder at discovering the story it actually contains.
It begins simply enough, as a witty picaresque set in Scotland and making some mockery of self-righteousness and Calvinist pre-destination in particular. But then the thing breaks off, it becomes suddenly clear that it is impossible for it to continue as it began, and we are split off into a second telling of the same events from a new point of view, a la Rashōmon. This second version is much darker and the prose becomes experimental, until we seem to be dealing with a crazed serial killer attended and impelled by a strange figure who may be the devil himself--if indeed he exists, at all.
The narrator is what we'd call a 'flat character', as despite his doubts and concerns, he remains static throughout and does not go through a great revelation about his state. This can be somewhat frustrating, as often, the only thing we desire of the character is for him to show the slightest bit of self-awareness, but the story is also a kind of satire of allegory, and those of us who recall The Pilgrim's Progress, Piers Plowman, and Everyman will see that Hogg's work provides a sort of parallel to Candide, and that the wooden characters are a fuel for mockery, and for deeper thought.
Yet I found Hogg's work much more interesting than Voltaire's, for as much as Voltaire turned the allegory on its head, in the end that's just an inverted allegory, relying on the same stereotypes for its message, but mocking instead of lauding them. Hogg, on the other hand, manages to make the whole thing conflicted, self-consuming, deluded, and mad. His treatment of Calvinist doctrine might be said to play rather straight, but all the other notions his story is concerned with intermingle and subvert beyond any straightforward interpretation.
But in the end, and for all that, I'm not sure what to say about it. As a piece of art, it is powerful and unusual, prefiguring existentialist and experimental literature, but for what it all means, I feel somewhat less qualified to say.(less)
And so the adventures of Oswald Bastable continue, thrusting him yet again through the barriers of time and into a strange Earth at once familiar and...moreAnd so the adventures of Oswald Bastable continue, thrusting him yet again through the barriers of time and into a strange Earth at once familiar and disturbing. The themes and characters we explore are similar to the first volume, featuring at the center yet another Nemo-esque warlord whose methods give our narrator uneasy pause. By the end, we find ourselves liable to agree with Mr. Bastable's suspicion that time is having a laugh at his expense, forcing him to experience history as 'variations on a theme', and not a theme he appreciates reliving.
Usually, describing a book like this as 'alternate history' is a malapropism, since 'alternate' means to shift back and forth between things while 'alternative' means 'of a different sort'. So, if we described wind power as an 'alternate energy' to coal, that would mean we would be constantly switching between wind and coal, not replacing one with the other. But in Moorcock's case, both terms are actually applicable, which must be a boon to sci fi fans that have trouble keeping words straight.
So, if our theme is 'world-shaking war', the variation here is 'global politics of racism'. There is a certain tension throughout the book because Moorcock presents a lot of genuinely racist characters of different stripes and degrees, and even lets prejudice slip into his narrator's mouth. It's clear that the violence and rhetoric of the Civil Rights Era tickled Moorcock's unyielding imagination, so we get quite a few powerful (and somewhat unsettling) scenes charged with the complexities race dynamics.
Moorcock also seemed to take a bit more time with his narrative as compared to the last book, and didn't rely quite as much on bare exposition to carry the story along, which was nice--but as usual with Moorcock, it was a fairly straightforward adventure with some interesting concepts driving it along throughout, but lacking polish and care.
Reminds me of this charming episode of Neal Degrasse Tyson's StarTalk where sex researcher Mary Roach talks about the fact that long-term couples experience better sex because they tend to take their time and get lost in the moment, whereas newer couples are often 'going through the motions' of what they think should work. It's the same with writing books, people: don't just go through the motions when you should be in the moment, taking the time to give your narrative the attention it deserves.(less)
As ever, Moorcock is a wry, clever author full of ideas and insights, but he ends up rushing from one moment to another when I wish that he would let...moreAs ever, Moorcock is a wry, clever author full of ideas and insights, but he ends up rushing from one moment to another when I wish that he would let his stories play out. The characters and their relationships were intriguing and promising, but Moorcock tends to fall back on exposition instead of showing the development of his characters and plot through interaction and carefully-constructed scenes. The scope of his tales rarely seem to match the length of his books.
I have great appreciation for the freedom he allows his imaginative drive, so that he has no compunction about sticking a bit of inexplicable Lovecraftian time travel in as a framing story for his zeppelin combat narrative. That sort of pulp zaniness combined with an authorial voice that can be subtle and clever and precise will keep drawing be back to Moorcock's writing--indeed, he is an inspiration for authors of speculative fiction, if only he'd spend a little more time polishing up.
Some of his political satire was a bit rough, lacking in the precision that makes satire truly effective, but other sections showed a much lighter, knowing touch. Likewise, there were errors in his structure, particularly the killing off of a certain character in a large battle that seemed entirely unnecessary--there was no apparent reason that he needed to be sent into sudden danger when he was, especially as the conflict could have been (and eventually was) resolved by a much simpler method. It seemed he was only thrown to the wolves to procure a bit of drama, which seemed rather cheap to me.
Hopefully as the series continues Moorcock will take a bit more confidence in his voice and let the story play out instead of interposing interesting scenes and rather more bland exposition.(less)
A remarkably progressive book, but then Wells did like his politics. His constant observation that Europeans are no more civilized than the other race...moreA remarkably progressive book, but then Wells did like his politics. His constant observation that Europeans are no more civilized than the other races of man, and no less prone to violent, dominant, cruel behavior is refreshing amongst the variety of Victorian sci fi and adventure stories I've been taking in.
However, it is rather disappointing that these comments and insights are rarely tied into the warp and woof of the narrative, but are added on as little observational essays in the voice of the abstracted narrator. It would have been much more effective if he'd found a way to demonstrate these ideas in his story--otherwise, what's the point of writing a bit of fiction in the first place when he could easily have made it into a tract?
But then, even those elements which he does manage to get into the story can be rather shoe-horned, as our main character is such an example of type that he barely possesses individuality outside of what he's meant to represent (and there can be no question of what that is, since the narrative voice reminds us with regularity); and then, after switching back and forth between essays and our representative story, he breaks off and ends the thing with an unrelated short story--the structure of the work is its greatest weakness.
However, the book has many clever spots, points of wit, insights, and a rather visceral, desperate tone maintained throughout much of the story. I admit that I was surprised that the story ends up resolving itself in a post-apocalyptic 'Dark Age' reversion right out of DeFoe's 'Journal of the Plague Year', but this outcome was just Wells' way of doom preaching that the invention of the airplane would destroy all modern society across the whole world (which might not be a bad thing, apparently).
It's always unfortunate when novelists start to turn into pamphleteers, for there was never a book that was improved by adding a digressive essay to the middle of it at the expense of a narrative-driven story about actual characters and events. Indeed, it confuses me that authors so often mistake books for pulpits, since books are, on the whole, not as tall.(less)
While researching the use of opium for my own (fictional) writings into the subject, I came across this fascinating article about a fellow whose habit...moreWhile researching the use of opium for my own (fictional) writings into the subject, I came across this fascinating article about a fellow whose habit of collecting paraphernalia led him to become both the leading expert on them and an addict. The interview led me to the work of Dr. H.H. Kane, and Kane's analysis led me back to de Quincey, with whom I had some prior familiarity due to my literary studies.
De Quincey's writing style is precise and exacting, but he does not have that flair for storytelling which marks a fascinating diarist. Indeed, many of the most intriguing parts of his tale are those he declined to go into in great detail, and throughout one can see his struggles not so much in what he has written on the page, but in what he cannot bring himself to say. He comes to the cusp of his own suffering again and again, but to cross that threshold is to relive his greatest shame and disappointment, so he often skirts it.
No doubt this is why Dr. Kane accuses de Quincey of presenting all the beneficial sides of the drug's use, and ignoring the dangers. Yet I found myself constantly thankful that I was not in de Quincey's position, for his constant and unabated suffering seemed clear enough to me.
Indeed, when he spoke of being unable to complete his work (the promised third part of his Confessions never arrived), of the weeks or months passing by without his being perceptibly closer to completing all of the great tasks and projects he had set before himself--one does not have to be a taker of laudanum to sympathize, as being an artist of any stripe is quite enough to understand that eternal struggle.
But though some of his narrative is less than vivid, most interesting are his descriptions of opioid dreams, which visions were so influential to fantastical authors like Gogol and Lovecraft. Indeed, his vision of the 'impossible castles of the clouds' are recognizable in the writings of numerous mythos authors, who were so obsessed with the realm of dreams, especially when it bled into quotidian life.(less)
After the overblown Frankenstein and the undercooked Dracula, it's pleasant to find that the language and pacing of the third great pillar of horror i...moreAfter the overblown Frankenstein and the undercooked Dracula, it's pleasant to find that the language and pacing of the third great pillar of horror is so forceful and deliberate (especially since I was disappointed by Stevenson's other big work, Treasure Island). But then, this is a short story, and it's somewhat easier to carry off the shock, horror, and mystery over fewer pages instead of drawing it out like Shelley and Stoker into a grander moralizing tale.
But Stevenson still manages to get in quite a bit of complexity, even in the short space. As I was reading it, I found myself wishing I didn't already know the story--that it hadn't been automatically transmitted to me by society--because I wondered how much better it would be to go in not knowing the answer to the grand, central mystery, but instead being able to watch it unfold before me. Much has been said about the 'dual nature of man', the good versus the evil sides, but what fascinated me about the book was that despite being drawn in such lines, it did not strike me as a tale of one side of man versus another. Indeed, it is the virtuous side who seeks out a way to become destructive, showing that his virtuosity is a mere sham.
Likewise, neither Jekyll nor Hyde seem to have any real motivation to be either 'good' or 'evil', it is more that they are victims of some disorder which compels them to be as they are--that causal Victorian psychology which, in the end, robs anyone involved of premeditation for what they do. Dracula kills to survive, Frankenstein does so because he is the product of the ultimate broken home and Hyde does it as a self-destructive compulsion despite the fact that he loves life above all else, yet is unable to protect himself well enough to retain it.
This is not the evil of Milton's Satan, or of Moriarty, who know precisely what they do and do it because of the way they see the world before them, but that of the phrenologist, who measures a man's head with calipers and declares him evil based upon the values so garnered, independent of any understanding, motivation, or reason.
And yet this is not an unbelievable evil--indeed, Stevenson uses it as an analysis of addiction and other self-destructive behaviors, where the pure chemical rush of the thing becomes its own cause, despite the fact that the addict will tell you he wishes nothing more than to be rid of it, to be normal again, never to have tasted the stuff in the first place. It is a place a man might fall into through ignorance and carelessness, never realizing how hard it could be, in the end, to escape.
And that's something we can all relate to, far more than the sociopathy of Moriarty, which requires that you have complete understanding but just a completely different set of emotional reactions to the world around you. It is much easier for most people to say that there is some part inside them that they do not like, that makes them uncomfortable, some thoughts and desires which rise unbidden from their brain, and which they must fight off. And it is the fact that they are strong enough to need to be fought off that unsettles us and gives us pause, for we do not like to think that such incomprehensible forces might always be there, working, just beneath the surface, and which might come out not due to some dark desire or motivation, but due to simple, thoughtless error.(less)
It is strange to me how often Lewis is mentioned as a leading Christian apologist, since his views on Christianity tend to be neither conventional nor...moreIt is strange to me how often Lewis is mentioned as a leading Christian apologist, since his views on Christianity tend to be neither conventional nor well-constructed. Of course, he's not taken seriously by Biblical scholars or theologians--I suspect this is because his Jesus is a cartoon lion and his God is a space alien.
As Michael Moorcock pointed out, the prominent tone in both Tolkien and Lewis is condescension, and I admit my general impression of Lewis is that he's talking down to the audience in a sing-song voice as if we're disturbing his perusal of the morning paper. Thus I was pleasantly surprised by the opening of this book, which looked to be a more mature adventure with a more-or-less neutral narration.
It immediately reminded me of Burrough's John Carter books, an influential series of planetary adventures about a man marooned on an alien world. Of course, Lewis' take was much more plodding. Instead of jumping from action to action, nakedly slaying naked green giants with space-swords, we wander around mostly in the main character's head as he ponders things. The further along, the more ponderous it got, until our 'climax', which was an extended conversation about the myriad flaws of man.
Once again Lewis shows that the only villain he's capable of creating is one who is stupidly comical and malicious, undermining the whole conflict. It's almost as if he's so incapable of comprehending the thoughts and actions of others that he can't write believable characters unless they think and act just like him.
Actually, in this case, there are a few more layers of complexity, but they serve to undermine Lewis' overall message, so I'm not putting that in the 'win column' for the old boy. Without giving too much away, he creates a situation where all humans are helplessly screwed by the galacto-spiritual system, but then he manages to still blame them for being ignorant and desperate.
Like in his other books, the climax is both caused and fixed by an infinitely wise spirit of goodness who carefully explains everything to us and who resolves the conflict by having everyone laugh at the villain's wretchedness for a chapter and then being so powerful that it turns out there was never any conflict in the first place.
But yeah, the climax was extremely lame with Lewis just building up Straw Men and then knocking them down, one after the other, all the while ignoring the fact that the villain is the logical result of the supposedly beneficent system.
There's also the odd issue of the alien languages as presented in the book. They're all fairly straightforward, with verbs, suffixes, prefixes, compound words, and so at first I assumed we were just supposed to take them for granted, which I have no problem with. Tell me a guy has a laser sword, and I'm with you. It gets more tedious when the author keeps going on about the laser sword, trying to explain it and make it seem important.
The linguistic structure we were given was not complex enough to be interesting or thought-provoking, the plot didn't hinge on it, it didn't introduce any complexities into the philosophy of the story--yet Lewis kept returning to it over and over. Sure, he made the protagonist a linguist, but then he never took the opportunity to analyze the differences in thought and expression that a linguist would come across when learning a language (except for the occasional eye-rolling 'they have no word for hate' tidbit). There was nothing vital or interesting in it, but that didn't stop Lewis from devoting endless paragraphs to the subject.
Then again, I suppose that aimless precision is Lewis' general mode. He goes on about theology despite the fact that he doesn't have much to say. He has long scenes where he makes fun of his villains and presents them as idiots despite the fact that it renders the whole plot conflict pointless. He endlessly paints his fellow humans as stupid and worthless, as if his faith had made him so blind that he is incapable of feeling sympathy for anyone with a different point-of-view. Who knew that Christian sentiment could be turned so readily into misanthropy?
Also, his depiction of technology and sci fi elements was fairly silly. I don't even mean that it didn't age well, because it compares poorly even to depictions of earlier writers like Verne--then again, Verne somehow predicted weightlessness in space.
I was hoping I'd like this more, but then I've never really enjoyed anything by Lewis. When it first began, I had a fleeting hope that he might have written a four-star book, but by the time we got to the space angels and the exceedingly lengthy lecture about how terribly humans are, it was over.(less)
Milton wrote this while blind, and claimed it was the result of divine inspiration which visited him nightly. There are few texts that could reasonabl...moreMilton wrote this while blind, and claimed it was the result of divine inspiration which visited him nightly. There are few texts that could reasonably be added into the Bible, and this is certainly one of them (the Divine Comedy is another). Paradise Lost outlines portions of the Bible which, thanks to its haphazard combination of mythic stories, are never fully explored.
In fact, most of Paradise Lost has become tacitly accepted into the Christian mythos, even if most Christians do not recognize it as a source. It also updated not only the epic, but the heroic form, and its questioning of the devil is a great philosophical exploration, even if it may ultimately prove a failure, as I shall try to explain.
The question remains: even if the Vatican did not explicitly include it, why are there not smaller sects which so often spring up around such and inspiring and daring work? The answer is that one need not explicitly include something that has been included implicitly. Many readers accept Milton's view of events as accurate and that it was wholly derived from the Bible, when in fact, it is largely an original work.
Under Constantine, Hell and the Devil were re-conceptualized. The representation of Hell in the Bible is often metaphorical, and does not include 'fire and brimstone'. Hell is defined as 'absence from God' and nothing more. This is supposed to be a painful and unfulfilling experience, but not literal physical torture.
Much of the modern conceptualization of Hell is based upon Hellenic mythological influences and verses from Revelation taken out of context. The place of 'fire and brimstone' is where the Devil and the Antichrist are put after the apocalypse, and is never stated as being related to human afterlife.
Likewise, the Devil is most commonly depicted as a greedy idiot chasing after farts. The only tempting he ever does Biblically is during Job, where he must first ask God if he is permitted to interfere. The concept of the Devil as a charming, rebellious trickster and genius is entirely Milton.
He portrays him this way to align Satan with the heroic figures of Epic Poetry. This is not because he thinks of the Devil as a hero, but rather so he can show that our heroes should not be rebellious murderers as they were in ancient stories, but humble, pious, simple men.
He gives the Devil philosophical and political motivations for rebelling, but has him fail to notice that God cannot be questioned or defeated. However, this requires that one absolutely believe this assertion without ever testing it. Anyone who accepts it unquestioningly (such as C.S. Lewis) is bound to believe that the Devil is foolish to question the natural order.
However, Milton himself states that the Devil had no choice but to doubt, and due to our own rational minds, man cannot help doubting either. In this case, we might fall in with Blake, and suggest that Milton was the Devil's man, not because he wanted to be, but because he carried biblical rhetoric to its rational conclusion.
This is illustrated in a rather shocking way in the creation of Eve: finding herself, utterly new to the world, she sees her own reflection in a puddle and, finding it beautiful, leans down naively and tries to kiss it. This amusing retelling of the myth of Narcissus indicates that God made women naturally autoerotic and bisexual.
Sadly, this never made it into modern Christianity, for some reason, but it does show the strength of Paradise Lost: Milton provides rhetorical support for every idea he explores, even those he did not side with. It is a great book of questions, and a book which demands the reader think and try to understand.
We are supposed to sympathize with the Devil because he is heroic and dangerous, but we also know he is the Devil. We know that to sympathize with him is wrong, and that he is supposed to be wrong. Milton here invented the concept of the Devil we cannot help but sympathize with, and who we must fight daily to overcome.
He defined sin as doubt, but without realizing that doubt will always deconstruct an old answer and suggest a new one. The fact remains that metaphysically, doubt can only injure us in a realm we cannot know exists. As the enemy of any tyranny--of men, of ideas--doubt is the helpmeet of all who struggle. The Devil is the father of doubt, and the final outcome of doubt is always accepting that we are fundamentally ignorant: either in our believing, or in our not believing.
He also uses the English language in an entirely idiomatic and masterful way, his is one of the few unique voices of English. Reading him sometimes proves a challenge for those without a background in Latin, since his sentence structure and particularly his verb use are stripped-down and multipurpose, taking the form of metaphysical poets to its logical conclusion.
He is also one of the most knowledgeable and allusive of writers, especially when it comes to the longer form. His encyclopedic exploration of myths, reinvention of scenes, and adoption of ideas make this work one of the most wide-reaching and interconnected in English.
This can make his work somewhat daunting for readers, who are often unwilling to read the books he references in preparation for tackling him, which I find rather ironic, since no one complains about having to read ten-thousand pages of Harry Potter before tackling the last book.(less)
Hector Hugh Monroe was an author of British extraction born in Burma. He lived a life shared by many authors of the imperial period, he traveling wide...moreHector Hugh Monroe was an author of British extraction born in Burma. He lived a life shared by many authors of the imperial period, he traveling widely, and finding work as a journalist in the wild world of the empire's influence. Like Kipling before him, he was a foreign-born man whose varied experiences lent depth and breadth to his tales.
He began writing short stories under the moniker 'Saki'--taken either from a character in the Rubiyat or a type of monkey--and became an acknowledged master of the form, tightening up the quirky, sometimes eerie style of Kipling and adding a deep wellspring of absurd humor which would in turn inspire the high farces of Wodehouse. He lived a suppressed man in an age when the 'unspeakable vice of the Greeks' was a criminal offense, and died a middle-aged soldier trying to make a difference in the trenches of The Great War.
What can a reviewer say about a perfect short story? That it must be brief enough not to be bogged down in superfluity, and it must be long enough to show a complete story arc: the set up, the conflict, and the reveal. A perfect short story quickly introduces characters who are at once recognizable yet puzzling--that strange gift which so shines in Chekhov. It revolves around a climax which is almost a punchline, but with a tinge of bittersweet pathos.
The master carver pulls from his pocket what seems a plain walnut, but in a moment, has popped it open, so that we can see inside a scene has been carved in complete detail. We bend down, our eyes devouring details, drawing us in, and just as we have been given a glimpse of this dear, miniature world, it snaps shut again, leaving us with the vivid impression of a work of utter precision, where any stroke out of place could have marred the whole thing in an instant.
Each story is an example of self-sufficiency, with everything in its place, so that a reviewer feels almost impious at the notion that he could add anything to a work so self-contained. Instead I must make something to hold it--a setting for the well-cut stone, a baize-lined box for the brass-hinged walnut--and having made a box to hold the box which holds the story, all that remains is for me to give it to you.
"I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas." -Michael Moorcock
With this simple sentenc...more"I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas." -Michael Moorcock
With this simple sentence, Moorcock reveals something troubling and endemic to the fantasy genre: that not enough fantasy authors start out with fantastical ideas. There are a lot of big writers out there (with really big books) who don't have very big ideas. But perhaps that shouldn't surprise us, since their ur-inspiration, Tolkien, has a remarkably vast amount of skill sadly limited by a very small vision, while Moorcock is the opposite: a man with grandiose visions who is sometimes limited by his meager skill.
Certainly, Moorcock is capable of some pretty, frilly prose, and shows in this story, as in the tale which opens Elric's saga, that he is capable of providing a consistent tone and driving plot. But, at his core, he is still (at least through the early Elric stories), a pulp writer, and he admits as much in the introduction to 'Stealer of Souls', talking about how many of the stories were rushed, how some were written for money, that many disparate stories were combined to make saleable novels, and how most of these stories were explorations of ideas that he would only fully develop in later series.
I admit I appreciate this straightforward humility much more than the pretension of many in the genre, and as usual, it is the most humble author who tends to produce the best work--it is almost as if some level of restraint and self-awareness was vital to being a skilled writer. Though not all of his experiments work out so well, like Leiber, the earlier writing seems to have the most drive and vitality. While this dark, mythic vision of Ragnarok might be the conclusion of Elric's tragedy, it actually comprises some of the earliest stories.
Like the introductory story of the series, this one has a consistent arc of plot and tone, and is much more concerned with Elric's psychological struggles than some of the others, where he is more standoffish and archetypally mythic.
There is also an interesting crossover here between Elric's story and the historical myths that inspired him--namely the Song of Roland, and it is an interesting choice on Moorcock's part to create a literal connection to his inspirations instead of merely a symbolic, allusive one. It is another sign of his authorial inventiveness and boldness to delve suddenly into pastiche and give his mythic world a very real connection to his reader's reality.
Once again, I am struck by the fact that, reading the entirety of the original Elric tales, I have grossed about eight-hundred-fifty pages, and in that space, have gotten a character's life: his several loves, many companions met, befriended, lost, and mourned, empires destroyed, mythical realms explored, and a worldwide war begun, waged, and concluded. In many other fantasy series, I might still be waiting for the plot to actually pick up.
Already I have gotten a depth and breadth that exceeds many longer works, and that is despite the fact that several of the Elric stories are experiments that never quite concluded, and thus acted as filler. I know that Elric is not quite an 'Epic Fantasy' (though it does have some epic scope), but it seems to me that too few authors actually have enough ideas to actually fill a series the length of the average epic.
Moorcock does have a wealth of ideas, many of them promising and unusual, and it's unfortunate that Moorcock never quite explores them all, though he has said that for him, the Elric stories were just the opening forays for concepts he would develop more fully later, and so I look forward to reading those later books and seeing how his promising concepts play out when he has the opportunity to put more time and thought into them. One complaint I had with the stories was that the interesting magical cosmology of the world never seemed to manifest in the characters, who tended to be more mythical than psychologically complex, and if, in the future, Moorcock is able to rectify this, it would deepen his fantasy immensely.
The conclusion is impressive, and if all of the stories had the same drive, continuity of tone, and depth of psychology, it would be a much stronger series. As it stands, it is an interesting experiment, an exploration of fantastical concepts that, if not as focused as we might hope, at least present a unique, inspiring vision of what fantasy can be.