Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Project Pope by Clifford D. Simak

Faith from knowledge or knowledge from faith?
Published in 1981, Project Pope is one of the last few novels penned by Clifford D. Simak, a Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master whose career spanned over half a century. This is the 28th book I’ve reviewed by Simak, so I’m definitely a fan. Neither the best nor the worst of his novels, Project Pope could be considered an average work by Simak standards, but it still upholds a higher level of quality than most of his sci-fi contemporaries.

Project Pope takes place in a future in which mankind has populated planets in myriad star systems. Fleeing some legal trouble, James Tennyson, a physician, stows away on a spaceship headed to End of Nothing, a planet situated on the very outskirts of our galaxy. There he finds a society established by robots from Earth, along with a few human citizens. The robots have created a center of religion and research named Vatican 17, complete with a supercomputer as Pope. In their search for a one true universal religion, the robots employ Listeners, humans capable of mental projection, to explore other worlds and gather data on alien cultures and faiths. When one of the Listeners claims to have found Heaven, a political schism develops in the Vatican hierarchy. As dissension escalates, Tennyson and his human companions seek to learn the truth behind this mysterious world propounded to be the one true Heaven.

Simak expresses Christian sentiments and features Catholic characters in several of his works, which leads one to assume he was Catholic. He was, however, open-minded enough not to accept Catholic dogma unconditionally but to thoughtfully question his own religious views through his work. His most overtly Christian work is the 1978 fantasy novel The Fellowship of the Talisman, which concludes with a blatant preachiness almost bordering on the fanatical. Project Pope demonstrates a much more even-handed approach that criticizes organized religion as much as it respects faith. Here Simak examines the dichotomy between knowledge and faith. Should empirical investigation into the workings of the universe lead to the development of a rationally acceptable theism, or should an a priori faith serve as the moral and ethical lens through which man seeks knowledge and defines his relationship to the universe? In Project Pope, Simak gives credence to both views but ultimately settles on the former more than the latter.

If there is a profound message to be learned here about religion, however, it is not carved in stone tablets. The book really raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps that was Simak’s intention. His philosophical investigation isn’t helped any by certain whimsical touches that undermine the gravity of the themes discussed. A planet named End of Nothing seems right at home in a Simak novel, but other worlds mentioned bear unrealistic names that comically evoke the Wild West, such as Gutshot. The humans in the novel designate alien species by cartoonish pet names, such as Bubbly, Plopper, and Haystack. When first presented, these playful word choices may be mildly entertaining, but they do make it difficult to take the story seriously.

To its credit, Project Pope is never boring. It starts out weird and just keeps getting weirder. As the plot progresses, Simak throws logic to the wind and seems to be just making up the rules as he goes along. This is not one of his more expertly crafted novels, but Simak’s visionary imagination still has the power to inspire awe, admiration, and amusement. For newcomers to Simak’s work, this is probably not the best book to start with—try Way Station, City, or All Flesh is Grass—but confirmed Simak fans will find it a satisfying read.
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Thursday, November 12, 2020

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Hamilton as saint, Jefferson as villain
Based on the fine writing and exhaustive research that went into his book Washington: A Life, I would consider anything Ron Chernow writes on the Revolutionary War and the early American republic to be worth reading. Like his Washington book, Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton is a very detailed, comprehensive, thoroughly researched cradle-to-grave life history of one of America’s heroic Founders. The Washington book, however, takes a very balanced look at the first president, showing both his exceptional qualities and his faults. Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, clearly has an agenda to push. History has unfairly bestowed a bad reputation on Hamilton, and Chernow goes to great lengths to debunk negative and distorted myths. He takes it too far, however, resulting in a book that reads like an argument nominating Hamilton for sainthood.

What Chernow does very well is enumerate Hamilton’s numerous positive contributions to America’s government and economic system. There’s no denying that Hamilton was instrumental to the formation of our nation, and Chernow justly restores his valuable accomplishments to the public memory. Every time Hamilton pulls something shady, however, Chernow writes it off as a momentary “hypocritical lapse” in Hamilton’s otherwise impeccable judgment. By today’s standards, Hamilton was a far-right conservative. He really wanted a monarchy, even if he phrased it as an “elective monarchy,” and frequently showed inclinations toward militaristic and authoritarian rule. He supported John Adams’s Sedition Acts, under which anyone criticizing the government could be prosecuted for treason. Although Hamilton himself was an immigrant, he was against immigration. He may have been the architect of American industrial capitalism, but his policies favored the rich, alienated the South, and he even advocated for child labor. Today’s income equality and Wall Street bailouts would have been right at home in Hamilton’s utopia. Chernow, however, continually presents his subject as the personification of virtue.

The villain in this story is Thomas Jefferson, of whom Chernow has nothing good to say. What Chernow fails to admit is that America needed both Hamilton and Jefferson to become a great nation. If Hamilton had his way, presidents would rule for life, the executive branch would have been far too powerful to be curtailed by checks and balances, there would be no separation between church and state, and any dissent on the part of the citizenry would be punished with military might. Of course, despite Jefferson’s contributions to American government, he did own slaves, and Hamilton did not, so Chernow can always use that to negate Jefferson’s accomplishments entirely. Even Jefferson’s atheism and interest in science are treated as insults. John Adams may come off even worse than Jefferson. Chernow’s depiction of him as power hungry, emotionally volatile, and administratively inept bears a surprising resemblance to Donald Trump.

Chernow gives extensive coverage to the deadly duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and really provides the reader with a thorough understanding of its causes and effects. Like Jefferson, Burr is a villain in this story, but more deservedly so. Chernow, however, considers Burr’s triumph in the duel to be cold-blooded murder, which feels like a stretch, given the circumstances.

I have to admit I learned a lot about American history from this book. Chernow does provide a wealth of information, even though I didn’t always care for the way he spins it. This is certainly worth a read for anyone interested in the founding of the American republic, but it will appeal more to conservatives than to liberals.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Stories of Poland by Robin Carver

Polish history for 19th century American youths
Stories of Poland,
a book by Robin Carver, was published in 1834. I don’t know anything about the author, other than he or she was likely a Bostonian who also wrote a History of Boston and The Book of Sports. Carver also did something that probably few Americans of the 1830s could claim to have done—traveled to Poland—which makes him or her relatively qualified to write a book on the nation in question. Despite the word “Stories” in the title, this is a nonfiction book, not a collection of literature. A scanned digital copy can be found at the HathiTrust web site.

Stories of Poland was written for a young audience. Children’s books of the 1830s, however, were apparently a more serious affair than the kid lit of today, since a relatively advanced reading level and substantial attention span would be required for a kid to understand and maintain interest in this book. Carver’s prose is familiar in tone, sometimes addressing young readers directly, but can sometimes be confusing in its relating of events. Most of the historical content is about politics and warfare, with very little softening of the harsh realities for a young audience.

The book contains a dozen engravings illustrating various aspects of Polish life. These are all ganged up at the front of the book, prior to the title page. The text consists of 21 brief chapters, some of which serve as a travelogue of contemporary Poland, such as descriptions of Warsaw and Krakow, a visit to the salt mines, or a fancy ball at the villa of a family of Polish nobility. Most of this travel writing concerns the upper classes, though a brief attempt is made to describe the living conditions of the peasants in their thatched cottages. Carver does succeed in granting the viewer a cursory, sanitized view of what life was like in Poland in the early 19th century.

The majority of the chapters, however, are devoted to tales of Poland’s history, from the 17th century to just prior to the date of publication. These condensed historical narratives read like part history and part folklore, the purpose of which is to present the reader with a series of Polish heroes, including King Jan III Sobieski, King Stanislaw I Leszczynski, Karol Stanislaw Radziwill, Casimir Pulaski, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko (these are the spellings from Wikipedia; Carver’s spellings vary). The narrative also occasionally includes villains, like the tyrant Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich of Russia, brother of Tsar Alexander and tyrant governor of Russian-occupied Poland. Carver gives quite a bit of coverage to the recent November Uprising of 1830, a failed Polish rebellion against the Russians. Antonina Tomaszewska, a teenage military heroine of the Polish-Russian War, is hailed as a sort of Polish Joan of Arc.

This book is unlikely to interest youths of today. It will primarily be of interest to adults intrigued by Polish history. Carver provides only the briefest, romanticized summary of events, the details of which are of questionable veracity. This book can, however, generate enough interest to lead the reader to seek out more info on these historical figures and events from other sources. Carver doesn’t cite any references, except for the material on the November Uprising, much of which was drawn from the account of Major Joseph Hordynski, author of the 1832 book History of the Late Polish Revolution. Though Carver’s book may have been written for children, most Americans are basically kids when it comes to knowledge of Polish history, so Stories of Poland can serve as a primer to those readers who are interested in finding out more.

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Friday, October 30, 2020

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic by Denise J. Youngblood

The history behind the masterpiece
Though I am a lover of classic literature, I haven’t yet had the courage to tackle Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth novel
War and Peace. Recently, however, I did see the Russian film adaptation directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, which was released in four parts from 1966 to 1967. This film is a true masterpiece of cinematic historical fiction that combines epic battles with intimate human drama. The artistic and technical aspects of the film are superb, and the grand scale of the production truly staggers the mind. The 2019 Criterion Collection DVD set includes a 45 minute interview with historian Denise J. Youngblood, an expert on Russian war films. I enjoyed her commentary so much that I decided to read her 2014 book Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic

Youngblood’s Criterion Collection presentation focuses primarily on the making of Bondarchuk’s film, while her book expands the discussion to include literary and film criticism, adaptation theory, historiography, and the actual historical events upon which the novel and its films are based. The text is organized in a very logical manner. Chapter 1 covers most of the making-of material. If you’ve seen the Criterion Collection interview, then you’ve already heard about 80 percent of what’s here, but the book still contains plenty of new and interesting details. Chapter 2 discusses the definition of an epic, and whether Bondarchuk’s film qualifies as one. This hinges not only on the grand scale of the story and production but also on how well it embodies the culture and national spirit of Russia and the Soviet Union. Chapter 3 discusses Bondarchuk’s War and Peace as an adaptation, how it compares to Tolstoy’s novel, and the decisions Bondarchuk made in interpreting the source material. In Chapter 4, Youngblood examines how well the film reflects historical reality. Chapter 5 compares Bondarchuk’s film with director King Vidor’s 1956 adaptation of War and Peace, an American film that was very popular in Russia. Chapter 6 covers Bondarchuk’s follow-up film, Waterloo, another grand historical epic of the Napoleonic Era. Finally, a brief conclusion sums up, on a somewhat tragic note, the remainder of Bondarchuk’s career.

There is a lot of comparing and contrasting going on in this book: Bondarchuk vs. Tolstoy, Bondarchuk vs. Vidor, War and Peace vs. Waterloo, both films vs. history. The very nature of film studies requires that a large portion of the content be devoted to plot summaries (spoilers included, of course). Therefore, if you’ve read Tolstoy’s novel and have seen all these films, much of the text may be telling you things you already know. Such recapping is necessary, however, for Youngblood to illustrate the conclusions she draws, and her synopses are interspersed with enlightening observations on filmmaking technique. One also learns quite a bit about the history of Russia’s war against Napoleon’s France, as well as the cultural climate and cinematic history of the Soviet Union. Youngblood’s comprehensive knowledge in history, film, and Russian studies allows her to make revealing interdisciplinary connections between the three fields.

With about 130 pages of text and half that much in notes, bibliography, and index, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is not a cumbersome read for the general reader. I am neither a historian nor film scholar, just a film and literature buff, yet I found Youngblood’s prose quite accessible and never boring. Anyone who appreciates Bondarchuk’s film will enjoy the fascinating behind-the-scenes and between-the-lines details that Youngblood delivers in this comprehensive study.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold

Wisconsin’s Walden, and an ecological call to arms
Published in 1949,
A Sand County Almanac is a landmark book in the field of ecology and one of the seminal texts of the modern American environmental movement. The author, Aldo Leopold, was a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin after having previously been employed for over two decades by the United States Forest Service.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section, A Sand County Almanac, is a nature-writing memoir similar to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. While at the University of Wisconsin, Leopold purchased a plot of land outside Baraboo in Sauk County (there is no Sand County in Wisconsin; the phrase refers to the region’s sandy soil). Leopold and his family spent their weekends on this farm and woodland, living in a shack that is now a National Historic Landmark. Leopold records a year in the life of this sand county land, describing the sights and sounds of each season and explaining the natural processes taking place. Amidst these empirical observations, Leopold emphasizes the holistic unity of all natural phenomena that comprise an ecosystem. He also frequently recounts the natural history of the region by discussing the changes in the biome over time. Leopold’s nature writing is some of the best ever written in the English language. He combines scientific objectivity with philosophical thoughtfulness, often giving the reader new insights into familiar species. Unlike Thoreau, Leopold doesn’t venture off into philosophical asides or literary flourishes. He sticks to the subject of nature, and his prose is quotably eloquent, articulate, and accessible to readers of all levels.

The second part of the book, Sketches Here and There, is a series of writings about places where Leopold lived, worked, or traveled, among them Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Manitoba. The writing is similar in style and quality to A Sand County Almanac but starts to introduce more discussion of land and wildlife management. The highlight is Leopold’s vivid memories of two canoe trips he took through the Sierra Madre in Mexico.

The third section of the book, entitled The Upshot, consists of four chapters in which Leopold stresses the importance of wilderness, criticizes current practices of land management, and outlines his own plan for conservation. A lifelong hunter, Leopold does not object to recreational use, but laments the trend in outdoor sportsmanship towards gadgetry and convenience and away from traditional woodcraft and communion with nature. He proposes the formation of a land ethic where nature and its resources are not judged by their monetary value but by their value to the overall health and well-being of the Earth. To adopt such a land ethic, mankind must view himself as an equal participant in nature rather than a master with dominion over it.

Leopold died shortly after the completion of this book, but his call to arms has not gone unheard, and this book has proven very influential to the American environmental movement. He would no doubt be pleased at some of the developments that have taken place since his passing, such as the establishment of large national parks in Alaska and the reintroduction of predator species. One would also have to admit, however, that we are still a long way from living the land ethic of which Leopold dreamed. Nevertheless, Leopold’s insightful writing does succeed in changing the way one thinks about nature. Whether you are a hunter, a farmer, a birdwatcher, a tree-hugger, or just someone who enjoys a walk in the woods, there is much to learn from A Sand County Almanac, and much to enjoy.
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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Pictures of the Socialistic Future by Eugene Richter

From utopia to dystopia
Examples of utopian literature can be found as far back as Plato’s Republic, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that this category of fiction really ballooned into a full-blown genre. Because utopian literature predicts the future, there is always an element of science fiction to it, but most 19th-century utopias were more concerned with political and social change rather than scientific or technological advances. Many of the utopian novels of this era advocated socialism as the cure for mankind’s ills, among the most popular being American author Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Englishman William Morris’s News from Nowhere. In response to such rosy visions of socialism, Eugene Richter, a member of the German Reichstag (parliament), penned his novel Pictures of the Socialistic Future, published in 1891.

The story takes place in Germany, specifically Berlin at first, at an undetermined point in the near future. As the novel opens, Germany is embarking on a new socialistic path. Very little is said about the political turmoil that preceded this rebirth, but a scenario similar to the French Revolution is implied: The existing government has been overthrown, and it is now day one for the nation to construct a socialist society from scratch. All private property is confiscated, total separation of church and state is established, and policies are immediately rewritten to abolish class and implement total equality among the citizenry.

The beautiful thing about Pictures of the Socialistic Future is that for the first several chapters, it is difficult for the reader to tell whether Richter has written a pro-socialist or an anti-socialist narrative. The narrator is overwhelmingly in favor of the socialist transition and continually trumpets the egalitarianism and brotherhood promised by the regime change. In each chapter, however, a problem arises, and the narrator describes the socialist government’s solution, which often involves the rescinding of civil liberties. Early in the book, such difficulties include the confiscation of citizens’ life savings, workers forced into jobs against their will, and the splitting up of families for occupational relocation. At first, the narrator excuses these developments as unavoidable inconveniences necessary to bring about universal equality and social justice. As the novel progresses, however, the policies become more draconian, and the narrator starts to lose faith in the socialist ideology. Thus the utopia gradually devolves into a dystopia.

In many ways, Richter presents a worst case scenario of what could go wrong with socialism. For example, the chancellor of Germany resigns because he is too busy shining his own shoes and cleaning his own house to get any political work done. (He’s not allowed a housekeeper, because that would be elitist.) Most of the objections raised, however, are realistic, and some presage actual faults that materialized later in the Soviet Union and communist China. Though guilty of exaggeration at times, for the most part Richter keeps the plot well within the believable.

What truly sets Richter’s novel apart from so much of the utopian fiction of its era is that, in addition to all the political commentary and dead-serious satire, Richter also delivers a very engaging personal story about the narrator’s family. Unlike Bellamy’s and Morris’s novels, Richter’s is not the least bit boring. Prior to what would be more formally considered science fiction (George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ayn Rand’s Anthem, for example), Pictures of the Socialistic Future may be the perfect anti-socialist novel, just as Jack London’s The Iron Heel is the perfect pro-socialist novel. Like London’s masterpiece, Richter’s novel is an eloquent and thought-provoking read that provides a vivid look into the political climate of its era.
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Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Professor Challenger Short Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

His two remaining adventures

It goes without saying that Sherlock Holmes was the character that made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famous. The Holmes adventures, however, only constitute a fraction of Conan Doyle’s literary output. Outside of the Holmes universe, the most famous recurring character that Conan Doyle created is Professor Challenger, the hero of The Lost World. Challenger is the world’s preeminent authority on all manners scientific, or at least considers himself to be so, and he has little patience for those who disagree with his theories. He is described as a large man with a “spade-shaped” beard and a quick temper and blustering manner of speech that make him intimidating to all but his closest friends and family. Outside of his study and his laboratory, he is a man of action who, true to his name, never shies away from a challenge.

Conan Doyle featured Professor Challenger in three novels and two short stories. The Lost World, published in 1912, is one of Conan Doyle’s most popular books and has undergone several film adaptations. The rest of Professor Challenger’s adventures, however, have not fared so well. The novel The Poison Belt, published in 1913, features the scientist and adventure hero in a tepid affair with very little science and no adventure. In this apocalyptic story, the Earth passes through a noxious nebula, and the characters are left with nothing much to do but sit around and watch the effects. The third Challenger novel, The Land of Mist (1926) is even worse. In this awful story, Conan Doyle unforgivably sells out his own character by subverting Challenger’s scientific skepticism in order to promote his own beliefs in paranormal activity.

Thankfully, the two short stories are an improvement over the second and third Challenger novels, though their brevity leaves one wanting more. It’s too bad Conan Doyle didn’t produce an entire volume of Challenger stories, because these two turned out pretty well.

“When the World Screamed” (1928) — 4.5 stars

Unlike the other Challenger adventures, this story is narrated in the first-person by Peerless Jones, an expert in artesian wells and an old rugby buddy of Challenger’s journalist sidekick Ned Malone. Challenger hires Jones to join the team of his latest project. Challenger has bored a deep tunnel into the Earth, roughly 8 miles deep, in an attempt to pierce all the way through the planet’s crust and ascertain what lies beneath. He theorizes that the planet is actually a living organism that shows signs of respiration and circulation in its natural processes, like a gargantuan sea urchin. Though the science seems farfetched, the important thing is that Conan Doyle treats it with a ring of authenticity, which results in a well-written and entertaining sci-fi yarn, even better in some respects than The Lost World, though less substantial. At one point in the story, Mrs. Challenger is mentioned as still living, thus chronologically placing this story before The Land of Mist. Challenger’s great borehole might owe a debt of influence to Frank R. Stockton’s subterranean sci-fi novel The Great Stone of Sardis, published in 1891.
Read the story online at Project Gutenberg Australia.

“The Disintegration Machine” (1929) — 3 stars

A scientist named Dr. Nemor claims to have invented a machine that can break matter down into its individual atoms and then reverse the procedure to reassemble the disintegrated object—a process similar to teleportation but without the distance traveled. Assigned by his newspaper to investigate the matter, Malone takes Challenger along to meet the inventor. Nemor makes it clear that he intends to sell his device as a weapon to the highest bidder. This story is much briefer than “When the World Screams,” and it doesn’t delve very deeply into the science of disintegration. It is more of a Holmes-like caper in which Challenger and Malone must thwart a villain. The plot is pretty simplistic and the ending predictable, but Conan Doyle’s telling of it is still enjoyable and Challenger behaves in a matter true to his character.
Read the story online at Project Gutenberg Australia.