Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Cosmic Computer (a.k.a. Junkyard Planet) by H. Beam Piper

A stagnating planet searches for its techno-savior
This science fiction novel by H. Beam Piper was originally published in 1963 as Junkyard Planet, but the following year the title was changed to The Cosmic Computer. Though the latter title is certainly more attractive, in many ways the former is far more accurate of its contents. This novel is a revised and expanded version of a 1958 novelette by Piper entitled Graveyard of Dreams. The story takes place in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History timeline, at year 2837 of our calendar. Mankind has populated numerous planets, which are united by a Terran Federation. An interplanetary civil war has recently taken place. Rebellion has been quashed and peace restored. The planet Poictesme was an important Federation military base during the war, but now the armed forces have departed, leaving Poictesme to succumb to economic stagnation. The planet is now a sort of Wild West backwater, with its one major export being a melon-based liquor. One good result of the war, however, is that the Federation forces left a lot of their military hardware behind, and salvage becomes big business on Poictesme, hence the title Junkyard Planet.

In need of more sustainable long-term economic solutions, the citizens of Poictesme pin their hopes on a mythical strategic supercomputer that the military supposedly left buried in a secret location. With its ability to run complex models and simulations, this computer, dubbed Merlin, is seen as a techno-messiah that can revitalize Poictesme’s economy and ensure the planet’s longevity and prosperity. The leading citizens of Litchfield, a city on Poictesme, send their brightest son, Conn Maxwell, off to an Earth university to study computer science and hopefully uncover Merlin’s secret hiding place. As the novel opens, Conn returns to Poictesme with bad news.

As told in Graveyard of Dreams, this story felt somewhat half-baked, so it benefits from the expansion it receives here but at times feels a bit overdone. Fascinating at first, it drags in the middle but thankfully picks up at the end with an innovative conclusion. The story includes a few battle scenes for excitement, but although Piper is a ballistics enthusiast and a wannabe military commander, the main attraction here is not combat but commerce. While dangling the carrot of Merlin before Litchfield’s techno-worshipping chamber of commerce, the level-headed Conn encourages everyone to invest in infrastructure that will further their current industries. The book is all about the progress of Poictesme’s economic development, and at times reading Piper’s complex industrial scenarios is like watching a master player in a civilization-building role-playing game. For Piper, the establishment of a limited liability corporation is just as exciting as a laser gun battle, and boy are there a lot of companies chartered in this book. It becomes very difficult to keep track of the large ensemble cast of characters and all the various enterprises they are involved in. The ending, which hinges on an ethical dilemma, is a welcome philosophical respite from the logistical chaos that characterizes the middle of the book.

Nevertheless, in Piper’s novels such frustrating complexity is as much a blessing as it is a curse. Piper really excels at creating fictional worlds, and the intricacy with which he explores every political, economic, and spiritual dimension of those worlds really adds authenticity to his sci-fi visions. The Cosmic Computer is a perfect example of the depth of forethought that he invests into every planet he envisions. Though it is not necessary to know the whole Terro-Human Future History timeline to enjoy this book, the sweeping scope and level of detail in Piper’s grand plan is very impressive and really adds to one’s appreciation of each individual story in the series.
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Monday, September 17, 2018

All God’s Chillun Got Wings by Eugene O’Neill

Mixed marriage with mixed messages
Eugene O’Neill
Likely one of the reasons that Eugene O’Neill won the Nobel Prize in Literature is because he pushed the boundaries of realism on the American stage, thoughtfully confronting audiences with uncomfortable subject matter previously unseen in theaters. In plays like Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, and The Hairy Ape, O’Neill gave audiences unflinchingly frank portrayals of dysfunctional families and grittily authentic depictions of the working class. In his 1924 play All God’s Chillun Got Wings, O’Neill pushed the envelope even further by tackling the topic of race. The curtain opens on a city street corner where white and black tenement neighborhoods converge. Black and white children play in the street, all but oblivious too their differences. As those children grow older, however, their attitudes change and they become more divided by prevailing racial prejudices. Nevertheless, one young black man, Jim Harris, retains his love for his childhood sweetheart Ella Downey, a white woman.

When first staged in 1924, the play was quite controversial. Predominantly white audiences were outraged by O’Neill’s portrayal of love between an African American man and a white woman. Today we can see that O’Neill deserves to be commended for his groundbreaking depiction of an interracial marriage. On the other hand, his representation of that mixed marriage is certainly not a positive one, and if anything he seems to be saying that such relationships are bound to end in tragedy, despair, and perhaps even insanity. That’s hardly the enlightened attitude towards race that today’s theater-going audiences would expect, yet it is characteristic of the well-intentioned but rather half-hearted attempt at racial justice that pervades this drama.

By the end of the play, O’Neill makes Ella such a racist that it’s unbelievable that she could ever have married a black man in the first place. She is paralyzed by guilt for betraying her white race, and she sabotages her husband’s chances at success in order to keep him from reaching above his accepted station in society. Ella’s “keeping the black man down” attitude doesn’t make any sense in the context of their marriage. On the other hand, if the two characters are meant to stand for their races as a whole, then it does make some sense as a commentary on white society’s treatment of the black population in the early 20th century. In truth, however, O’Neill really doesn’t treat Jim much better than Ella does. He depicts Jim as the exceptionally intelligent son of an upwardly mobile black family, but then he renders him incapable of succeeding in his studies towards becoming a lawyer. In one scene O’Neill has Jim overtly begging to be Ella’s “slave,” a surely intentional word choice on the part of the playwright that would be considered offensively inappropriate today. On the bright side, the most positively portrayed character in the play is Jim’s sister Hattie, who is depicted as a smart, capable, independent black woman and an outspoken straight shooter in conversations about race.

One undeniably good thing that came from this play is that it launched the theatrical career of the great black actor Paul Robeson, who would also go on to star in the 1925 revival of O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones. While today All God’s Chillun Got Wings seems a bit antiquatedly tone deaf in its discussion of race, in the 1920s it was a big leap forward for the realistic depiction of blacks in mainstream white culture. When it’s faults are taken into consideration today, that leap may seem more like two steps up and one step back, but nevertheless it amounted to one important baby step forward.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Humboldt’s Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World by Gerard Helferich

Blow-by-blow recap of Humboldt’s New World adventures
During the 19th century, Prussian explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was one of the most famous men in the world. By the age of 30, he had already received much acclaim in Europe for his scientific research, but it was his expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804 that really made Humboldt a household name worldwide. Humboldt was one of the first European scientists to travel extensively through South America, Cuba, and Mexico. While traversing the desolate llanos of Venezuela, dodging jaguars in the jungles of the Orinoco basin, canoeing on tributaries of the Amazon, and climbing the highest volcanoes of the Andes, Humboldt collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, gathered copious geological and meteorological data, researched the history and culture of the Native inhabitants, and tested and developed new theories of geological processes. Through the numerous books he published about his expedition, Humboldt captivated the public with his descriptions of the natural wonders of the New World and changed the way people viewed nature in general. In his excellent 2004 book Humboldt’s Cosmos, Gerard Helferich recounts this amazing journey in comprehensive detail.

Given the blow-by-blow nature of Helferich’s narrative, the main narrative of the book is likely heavily based on Humboldt’s own Personal Narrative of Equinoctial Regions of America, but it is a heavily annotated version, as Helferich adds much historical context and supplemental content to Humboldt’s story. Helferich deftly compares each of Humboldt’s achievements to the discoveries of his scientific predecessors and points out how Humboldt influenced the scientists who followed him. Sometimes Helferich gets a little carried away with his historical asides, like when he gives multi-page mini-histories of the Spanish conquests of the Inca and Aztecs, which happened centuries earlier, but the subject matter is so fascinating that such excesses are soon forgiven.

Because the book is so loaded with detail, one might accuse Helferich of not seeing the forest for the trees. In contrast, I just recently finished Andrea Wulf’s 2015 book on Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, which mainly focuses on the forest at the expense of the trees. Wulf does a better job of showing the big picture of Humboldt’s overall impact on world history, politics, and science, as well as the extent of his fame. Helferich, however, does a much better job of making you feel like you’re on the ground with Humboldt, experiencing what he experienced. For instance, Wulf only cursorily touches on Humboldt’s time in Cuba and Mexico, while Helferich devotes whole chapters to those portions of the journey. Wulf, however, provides an entire chapter on Humboldt’s Siberian expedition, which Helferich only briefly mentions because it is outside the Latin American scope of this book. In general, Wulf’s book covers Humboldt from more of a historian’s perspective, while Helferich’s account is more science intensive. Both books are excellent and full of fascinating insight. For those unfamiliar with Humboldt, Wulf’s book is likely the best one-volume introduction to the man’s life and work. Helferich’s book is for those who prefer more of an expedition narrative than a historical biography, or who simply want more specific detail.

For even greater specificity, I plan to proceed to Myron Echenberg’s 2017 book Humboldt’s Mexico. With all the books on Humboldt lately, it would seem we are in the midst of a resurgence in Humboldt appreciation, which is a very good thing, because this important scientist and fascinating historical figure certainly deserves to be better known today. Helferich’s account of Humboldt’s Latin American odyssey will give 21st-century readers a thorough understanding of why Humboldt, so undeservedly forgotten today, was such a big deal two centuries ago.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Short History of Greek Philosophy by John Marshall

A good concise overview from Thales to Chrysippus
A Short History of Greek Philosophy was written by John Marshall, a classicist and educator who translated classic Greek texts and also worked as rector of the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though published in 1891, the text is still very accessible to 21st-century readers. Marshall provides a very good concise overview of Greek philosophy from Thales—the first philosopher of the Western world—through the various pre-Socratics schools, the triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the Epicureans and Stoics who followed them.

Throughout the book, Marshall discusses the thought of these ancient philosophers in clear and intelligent prose. The amount of detail he provides is enough for the reader to get a general understanding of each philosopher’s major tenets without getting bogged down in every twist and turn of their philosophical arguments. The text is not in any way dumbed-down, though it is much easier to get through than more extensive studies of Greek philosophy, such as a book like Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy, Volume 1, which probably delivers more information than the average non-philosophy major needs to know. In his Short History, Marshall really does a fine job of showing the continuous threads of thought weaving from one philosopher to the next through the course of history as each influenced his successors. Marshall also pauses periodically throughout the text to compare and contrast the important concepts of different philosophers.

Marshall gives ample coverage to the pre-Socratic schools, including the Pythagoreans, the Eleatics, and the Atomists, and satisfactorily distinguishes the differences and similarities between each thinker’s underlying conception of the cosmos. The bulk of the book, not surprisingly, is devoted to the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Marshall gives the best simplified explanation of Plato’s ideas that I’ve ever read, and he provides a brief summary guide to Plato’s dialogues so that the reader can intelligently choose which texts to pursue for further reading. Plato is clearly Marshall’s favorite in the Greek philosophical pantheon, though he covers Aristotle with almost the same level of detail and regard. Marshall makes no secret of the fact that he feels the glory days of Greek philosophy ended with Aristotle. He gives the Sceptics and Epicureans cursory treatment and even expresses some disdain towards them. He ends the book with the Stoics, for whom he likewise gives short shrift. To be fair, however, all the best Stoics—Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca—were Romans, not Greeks, so Marshall only mentions them briefly if at all.

One point that repeatedly shines forth in Marshall’s book is how so much of the philosophical output of these ancient Greek thinkers ended up being subsumed into Christian dogma. Marshall overtly makes that connection in a few brief passages, acknowledging the intellectual debt that Christianity owes to these early philosophers. It is easy for us today to dismiss the ancient Greeks as being too remote in antiquity to affect our daily lives, but in reality their influence is all around us. By reinforcing that relevance, A Short History of Greek Philosophy makes for a far more interesting read than I expected from a 19th-century philosophical history. Anyone looking for an introduction or a refresher course to the main ideas of ancient Greek thought will be well served by this commendable book.
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Monday, September 10, 2018

Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska by Rockwell Kent

Bad weather and father-son bonding
In the early 20th century, Rockwell Kent was a household name in book illustration, most notable for his work on the 1930 Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick. He also wrote and illustrated his own books, mostly relating his personal artistic adventures in remote locations in the Far North. His book Wilderness: A Journey of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, published in 1920, is Kent’s account of one such journey to Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, near what is now Kenai Fjords National Park. Kent and his son, also named Rockwell, traveled to Alaska in the Summer of 1918 for the express purpose of finding a cabin somewhere in which they could temporarily live like hermits in the wilderness. In Resurrection Bay they meet an elderly man named Olson who tells them he has a cabin out on Fox Island that they can rent. After purchasing and packing their supplies for a long stay, the two Rockwell Kents settle in to be Olson’s sole neighbors on the otherwise uninhabited isle. The book details their stay from August 1918 to March 1919.

Though I admire Kent for the journey he undertook, as far as life-in-the-wilderness memoirs go, this one is a bit disappointing. It contains little naturalistic observation of wildlife and not even much scenic description. Moments of philosophical reflection are likewise few and far between. So what does Kent write about? Mostly the weather, and it’s almost always bad. Relentless rain, fog, and snowfall are the norm, often keeping the father and son indoors. Kent also writes a lot about cutting down trees, chopping wood, and other household chores. He also makes frequent trips to the city of Seward that also detract from the wilderness narrative.

Though Kent is an artist, he doesn’t write much about painting either. He frequently mentions that he’s painting or drawing, but never gives much indication of his artistic process or even his subject matter. In fact, he probably writes more about stretching canvases than about actual painting. He does occasionally surprise the reader, however, by going off into a mini-essay on art in general, written with keen insight and profound eloquence. Another subject Kent covers well is his relationship with his son and the effect their sojourn in the Alaskan wilds is having on the boy’s own independent spirit. Though at times the trip sounds miserably cold and dreary, the warmth that develops between the bonding father and son is infectious and enviable. In addition, the Kents’ narrative benefits from frequent visits by Olson, who turns out to be not just a goofy hermit but also a former adventurer, an entertaining conversationalist, and a lovable codger.

The book includes dozens of illustrations by Kent. About half are realistic drawings of Alaskan scenery, and the rest are more idealized, allegorical pictures inspired by the trip, with figures in dramatic poses against abstracted backgrounds. The former category are more successful, at times evoking his famous illustrations for Moby-Dick. The digitized versions of the book online don’t really do justice to Kent’s art, so if the illustrations are of importance to you you’ll have to get your hands on a printed copy to get their full effect.

Despite the surprising paucity of both nature and art in this painters’ wilderness memoir, it does make for an enjoyable read. Whether you are an artist, a lover of solitude, or just someone who’s ever dreamed of making an extended trip to Alaska, it is fun to live vicariously through the Kents at their hermits’ fantasy camp, even if the weather sucks.

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Friday, September 7, 2018

The Long Valley by John Steinbeck

California realism at its best
Published in 1938, The Long Valley is a collection of short stories by Nobel-Prize winning author John Steinbeck. The stories included here (with one exception) were written in 1933 and 1934, and most of them had seen prior publication in magazines. Among the selections is “The Red Pony,” which is probably just long enough to qualify as a novella. Steinbeck’s writing is the culmination of a long and distinguished tradition of California realism extending from Bret Harte to Frank Norris and Jack London. All but one of these stories are set in Steinbeck’s homeland of Salinas County, and they stand as wonderful exemplars of American regional realism.

To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed by the volume’s first few selections. “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail” are two contrasting, almost Ibsen-esque studies of wifehood that are perhaps too subtle to serve as captivating lead-off hitters. “Flight” starts out as a great piece of social realism about a poor Mexican family, but then turns into a sluggishly paced tale of a manhunt. “The Snake” is a precursor to Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row in that it stars a marine biologist named Doc who works in a lab on the Monterrey waterfront. Though the main character and the setting are fascinating, the story that unfolds is OK at best. “The Breakfast,” a 3-page description of a memorable campfire meal, may be vividly rendered, but it amounts to little more than a sketch. Though the first third of the book is a bit lackluster, the opening pages of “The Raid” will blow you away, and from that point on the masterpieces just keep coming..

“The Raid” is a brilliantly suspenseful tale of two socialist party members who are determined to hold a meeting, even though they know they will be beaten and possibly killed. Steinbeck’s storytelling is grimly realistic with a dash of the workingman’s leftist idealism that would be further developed in The Grapes of Wrath. On to something completely different, “The Harness” is a lighthearted slice of agrarian life in which a farmer gets a new lease on life after the death of his overbearing wife. Next, the shocking story “The Vigilante” is told from the point of view of a man who has just participated in his first lynching. Nothing prepares the reader for the bizarre title character of “Johnny Bear,” a creepy helping of rural gothic that reads like a classic episode of The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. In “The Murder,” a farmer marries a beautiful foreign woman who makes a cold and distant wife. The story turns brutal and a bit sexist, but real for its times, like a harsh blues song. The one oddball in the collection is “Saint Katy the Virgin,” a humorous piece set in medieval France. This story of a demonic pig is not without its satirical charms, but it bears no resemblance to any of the other selections and doesn’t really belong in The Long Valley.

The novella “The Red Pony” presents a series of scenes in the life of a boy growing up on a Salinas Valley ranch. In the opening chapter, the boy receives the red pony as a gift from his father, and his relationship to the animal becomes the defining moment of his life. Depending on the edition, the story “The Leader of the People” is sometimes considered the final chapter of “The Red Pony” and sometimes a separate story in its own right, a sequel with the same characters and setting. Together the “Red Pony” stories stand as expertly crafted works of American literary naturalism. Dealing with issues of life, death, coming of age, and the passing of the Old West, they are beautifully written, starkly authentic, and truly moving. For the most part, these same adjectives of praise can be applied to The Long Valley as a whole. Despite a few shortcomings here and there, overall the collection is a great work of American literature and a powerful reading experience.

Stories in this collection
The Chrysanthemums 
The White Quail 
The Snake 
The Raid 
The Harness 
The Vigilante 
Johnny Bear 
The Murder 
Saint Katy the Virgin 
The Red Pony 
The Leader of the People

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Pierre and Luce by Romain Rolland

Love in the face of war
Pierre and Luce is the story of two young lovers in Paris during World War I. Published in 1920, it was written by French author Romain Rolland, who won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel begins in January of 1918. Pierre, an 18-year-old Parisian, is scheduled to enter military service in six months, but despite the atmosphere of fervent patriotism that runs rampant during wartime, he is by no means enthusiastic about his impending entry into the French Army. He spots pretty young Luce on a train, and the two are brought together at the next station when they hold hands during a German bombing raid. Over the course of the book, the two get to know each other and fall in love, while ever the threat of war and Pierre’s future departure looms over them.

There is no combat depicted in novel, and only the briefest mention of air raids. Rather than focus on physical destruction or wartime hardships, Rolland concentrates primarily on the psychological effects of the war. Pierre and Luce are depicted as members of a lost generation who are disillusioned with the governing powers of the world and the false promises of nationalism. Their lives are out of their control, they no longer feel the freedom to dream, and they don’t plan for the future because they (at least Pierre) feel that they will have none. Nevertheless, Pierre and Luce manage to build a strong love in the face of this adversity. Throughout the book, Rolland expertly crafts a narrative that walks a delicate line between hope and hopelessness.

Further stacking the cards against them, Pierre and Luce are of two different social classes. The son of a judge, Pierre is firmly situated within the bourgeoisie while Luce is a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She makes her living by painting decorative copies of masterpieces, while her widowed mother labors in a munitions factory. Pierre has lived a sheltered life in which he has had no experience with the lower classes, and through getting to know Luce his eyes are opened to a whole new awareness of the lives of others. Though neither puts any stock in the restrictive system of social stratification, they both realize that Pierre’s family and social station would prohibit their marriage. What difference does it make, however, when Pierre will likely be marching off to his death in a few months? In that sense, war is the great leveler of class and serves as a unifying force between the two. Rolland does a great job of examining all the subtle implications of this class disparity, as well as supplying supporting characters who briefly demonstrate a shallowness and conformity in French society that contrasts with the genuineness of the lovers’ bond.

While Rolland’s depictions of war, class, and their effects on society and the human psyche are admirably realistic, the two young lovers are a bit too innocent to be believed. Pierre and Luce share a very idealized and idyllic love in the midst of the woes of the modern world. It’s almost as if Rolland is making a leap from romanticism to modernism while skipping over realism entirely. The over-romantic passages might prove annoying if it weren’t for the book’s brevity. To its credit, Pierre and Luce does not overstay its welcome. Compared to depictions of the World War I experience in other classic novels, Pierre and Luce is neither as bogged down in navel-gazing sensitivity as John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, nor as stoically deadpan as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The tone of Rolland’s novel falls somewhere squarely between the two, and ends up being a more satisfying read than both.

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