Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Humboldt’s Mexico: In the Footsteps of the Illustrious German Scientific Traveller by Myron Echenberg

Tangential asides inspired by Humboldt’s travels
Two subjects of great interest to me are the life of Alexander von Humboldt and the history of Mexico, so when I learned about Myron Echenberg’s 2017 book Humboldt’s Mexico I was eager to read it. During Humboldt’s landmark scientific expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804, he spent about a year in Mexico, but Andrea Wulf’s recent biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, barely mentions this period of his travels, and Gerard Helferich’s book Humboldt’s Cosmos only devotes one chapter to it, so the promise of further information on this period of Humboldt’s Latin American journey heightened my interest. As the subtitle faintly indicates, however, there is a lot more about Mexico here than about Humboldt. Echenberg explains in his preface that the odd numbered chapters of the book will focus on Humboldt’s travels, followed by a chapter on a related topic. The truth, however, is that often you only get a few paragraphs of Mexican travelogue quoted from one of Humboldt’s publications, followed by Echenberg expounding at length on whatever subject strikes his fancy. A mix of history and travel writing covering Mexico past and present, the resulting book is not unlike a collection of the sidebar articles one finds in a Lonely Planet guidebook.

Some of the digressions are totally reasonable. There is much in this book about the history of Mexican mining, for example, which is perfectly justifiable since Humboldt was trained as a mining engineer in Prussia, and one of the main reasons he visited Mexico was to examine its silver mines. Echenberg may have taken things a bit far, however, when he devotes an entire chapter to the silver jewelry industry in Taxco, including a lengthy biography of Taxco silver artisan and entrepreneur William Spratling, followed by mini-biographies of Spratling’s students! Echenberg wanders even further afield when he draws tenuous comparisons between Humboldt and Diego Rivera, which provides an opportunity to discuss the Mexican mural movement. Rivera is my favorite artist, but even I found his presence here gratuitous. Even more inexplicably, Echenberg devotes an entire chapter to an archaeological site, Zempoala, that Humboldt didn’t even visit. The author’s justification for inclusion is his own mystification that Humboldt never mentioned the site. That’s just an example of how content with only the slightest connection to Humboldt is included, simply because the author finds it interesting. Humboldt’s Mexico is not a badly written book at all, but really the editor should have reined this one in a bit, because Echenberg goes off on tangents that are all over (and sometimes totally off) the map.

On the bright side, having traveled to about half of the locations that Echenberg discusses in this book, I did enjoy his travel info and informative historical recaps of the sites in question. The chapter entitled Culture and Higher Learning in Humboldt’s Mexico gives a very enlightening overview of the cosmopolitan intellectual landscape of Mexico City in the early 18th century. I mostly enjoyed the book because I am a confirmed Mexicophile, but if you’re specifically looking for information on Humboldt, this probably is not the book for you.

For those wanting to learn more on this subject, a very good documentary entitled Humboldt in Mexico: The Gaze of the Explorer was released in 2017 from Mexican director Ana Cruz. In addition to scenes of reenactment, it features several expert talking heads discussing Humboldt’s life, science, and legacy. As far as I can tell, Amazon doesn’t sell it, but you can perhaps get a copy through your local library.
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Monday, February 11, 2019

A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak

Humanity’s stragglers: immortal but not immoral
Clifford D. Simak’s 1972 novel A Choice of Gods is a post-apocalyptic story of sorts, but without the apocalypse. Sometime around the year 2135, the vast majority of humanity mysteriously disappears from the Earth, leaving only a few hundred people behind. These survivors live somewhere near Minneapolis (Simak lived his entire life in western Wisconsin and Minnesota and set most of his fiction there.) Jason and Martha Whitney reside in a large stone house that tenaciously survives the ravages of time. That’s fortunate because when nearly all the humans vanished, those remaining discovered that they had stopped aging and could perhaps even be immortal, barring accidents. In addition, some have developed advanced parapsychic abilities, like interstellar telepathy. Nearby lives a band of Native Americans who have chosen to abandon modern ways and live off the land like their ancestors. To some degree they were forced to, since there aren’t enough people left to produce technology or operate power plants. There are, however, many robots remaining. Sentient and nearly indestructible, these former servants of mankind are now mostly masterless and searching for a purpose. One robot named Hezekiah takes it upon himself to preserve Christianity, a faith that humans have long abandoned.

It is easy to draw parallels between A Choice of Gods and Simak’s 1952 novel City, which is probably his most famous and acclaimed work. Both books deal with the distant future of the remnants of mankind on Earth after almost all the people have departed the planet. The Whitney house is very similar to the Webster house in City, and Jason Whitney serves as the custodian of human history and culture much as the Webster family did in that earlier book. The prevalence of robots, and their peaceful coexistence with mankind, is another common bond that unites the two novels. A Choice of Gods, however, does not have talking dogs or intelligent ants, though some robots in this book behave similarly to City’s ants. Both books speculate thoughtfully on the future of humanity, in particular questioning whether the human race will ever overcome the violent, greedy, and selfish flaws in its nature. What differentiates this book from City is that A Choice of Gods focuses more on religious and environmental issues.

The chronology of A Choice of Gods is a little screwy and difficult to follow. Due to the immortality of the characters, at times it is difficult to tell whether the story takes place 50 years or 5,000 years after the great disappearance. The main narrative of the novel seems to be closer to the latter. However, interspersed throughout the book are first-person journal entries that could take place at any time in the characters’ past (our future). Though these entries are dated, the years often don’t seem to correspond to any logical timeline.

Though A Choice of Gods asks some deep, dark questions about the purpose of mankind, Simak’s tone as usual is predominantly hopeful. This isn’t another post-apocalyptic book about warlords battling for scant resources. This novel emphasizes the cooperation of humans and robots in building a new society from the remnants of the old. This wild Earth, nearly empty of human habitation, constitutes an idyllic landscape that is inviting to the reader, but the peacefulness is not guaranteed and does face its share of threats. As always, Simak depicts mother nature and human nature with incredible sensitivity and insight. This book may be inferior to City, but it is far more than just a retread of old ideas. A Choice of Gods is yet another fine novel from this prolific sci-fi master.

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Friday, February 8, 2019

The Essential Captain America, Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Cap’s freshly thawed adventures of the 1960s
When I was growing up and reading comics in the 1970s and ‘80s, Captain America was my favorite character. He was never as powerful as most of the other heroes in the Marvel Universe, but he triumphed through sheer bravery, tenacity, and nobility of spirit. Captain America was created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics. In 1964, after Timely became Marvel, the character was revived by Kirby and Stan Lee. When Lee and Kirby created the Avengers, Captain America was found frozen in a block of ice and brought back to life to fight evil anew. Shortly thereafter, Cap received his own adventures in the pages of Tales of Suspense, beginning with issue number 59. At issue number 100, Marvel changed the title from Tales of Suspense to Captain America. The Essential Captain America, Volume 1 reprints these adventures of the resurrected hero through issue number 102.

Tales of Suspense was a series shared between Captain America and Iron Man, therefore each character only got 10 pages in each issue. Even so, it’s pretty amazing what Lee and Kirby could do with Cap in just 10 pages, especially when you consider most of those 10 pages were devoted to fight scenes, with the creative duo constantly finding new ways to write and draw hand-to-hand combat. Even though Cap was an active member of the 1960s Avengers, a large portion of the stories here take place during World War II. That’s a bit disappointing, because the war stories get somewhat monotonous, and the only villain who’s in any way remarkable is the Red Skull. These WWII adventures of Cap and Bucky are not nearly as interesting as those created for the Invaders series that Marvel would publish beginning in 1975. 

The latter half of the book more satisfyingly focuses on Cap’s present-day (1960s) adventures, but still the Red Skull dominates almost every story. Although he may be Cap’s arch-enemy, he is not one of Marvel’s more creatively evil supervillains, just a sort of Lex Luthor-type mastermind who once served Hitler. He comes up with master plans, but somehow never manages to kill Cap when he has the chance. The number of times the Red Skull is presumed dead is just ridiculous. Some welcome variety is provided by the first appearances of Batroc the Leaper, MODOK, and the Super-Adaptoid. The scientific mafia A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) is also featured in several of the later issues. There aren’t many guest stars in these stories but for the occasional Avengers cameo, until issues 98 to 100, in which Cap teams up with the Black Panther. 

Cap has a love interest who makes several appearances in this volume, but although he just about proposes marriage to her at one point, issue after issue goes by without him ever asking her name. Known only as Agent 13, she will eventually be revealed as Sharon Carter, though that doesn’t happen in this book. Cap also remembers a love he lost in World War II, which likely will eventually turn out to be Peggy Carter.

Even when the stories get tiresome, Kirby’s art is phenomenal. In the glory days of the Silver Age, no other artist could touch him. He only draws about two-thirds of this book, with various other artists filling in here and there. Personally, I think the Captain America stories of the ‘70s, when he teamed up with the Falcon, were better than these rather simplistic ‘60s tales. Still, it’s a lot of fun to read these newly-thawed adventures of my favorite childhood hero and to marvel at Kirby’s spectacular art.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Mizora: A Prophecy by Mary E. Bradley Lane

She blinded me with science
Mizora: A Prophecy is a feminist utopian novel by Mary E. Bradley Lane. Little is known about the author, though a brief preface states that Lane kept the writing of the novel a secret from her husband. Somehow it made it into the pages of the Cincinnati Commercial, where it received its first publication in serial form, under a pseudonym, from 1880 to 1881. Mizora was first published as a book in 1890.

The narrator, Vera Zarovitch, is a Russian aristocrat who, for speaking out against her own nation’s oppressive regime, is sentenced to Siberia. She escapes from this fate, only to be separated from her husband and daughter and lost in the Arctic. Her boat descends into a whirlpool, and she ends up in the mysterious land of Mizora, which is populated only by members of the female sex. The Mizorans are all beautiful blonde specimens of physical and mental perfection. Their civilization is much more scientifically advanced than our own, and through science they have achieved a society free of crime, poverty, and disease.

In addition to being a utopia, Mizora also falls into the category of Hollow Earth literature, along with science fiction works by Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Little attention is given to the fact that Mizora is underground, however. The Mizorans cannot see the sun, moon, or stars, but they do have clouds and rain. Light is provided by some sort of electrical phenomenon generated from an inconspicuous source. Another example of the Mizorans’ technological mastery is a “reflecting apparatus” that works like a videophone and can be used to simulcast events and presentations to a wider audience. The Mizorans are very advanced in chemistry, and are able to create food, including meat, from its molecular components, kind of like the food replicator from Star Trek: The Next Generation. By creating perfectly healthy food and environmental conditions, the Mizorans are able to ensure themselves perfect health and an extended life span, which in turn yields superb intellectual development. And, of course, they’ve found a way to reproduce without men.

For much of its length, Mizora feels like more of a fantasy wish list than a utopia. The land is full of good things, but there’s little logical explanation of how they came about. In that sense, as well as in literary quality, it is inferior to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 feminist utopian novel Herland. Sure, all things being possible, who wouldn’t opt for free education and financial security for all, but how? Perhaps the lack of defense spending might account for that, since Mizora apparently has no military. Lane too often uses vague references to science as a panacea for all ills and thus is less clear than Gilman in how the development of her utopian society was actually shaped by femininity. To its credit, Mizora doesn’t sound quite as fascistic as Herland, but both utopias rely on eugenics and the forced sterilization of criminals. At one point in Mizora, the Preceptress of the National College, “the leading scientist in the country,” drops one big racist bombshell. The fact that the Mizorans are all blonde and fair-skinned is no mere coincidence.

Mizora is quite critical of religion and perhaps succeeds more as a freethought utopia than a feminist utopia. Unlike many utopias, the book is not much of a political treatise. The Mizoran government is barely mentioned, but it comes across as vaguely libertarian. Lane gets points for originality, feminism, pacifism, and religious skepticism, but the racism and eugenics really taint the reading experience.
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Monday, February 4, 2019

The Shore Road Mystery by Franklin W. Dixon

Three jumbled mysteries and a lot of fat jokes
The Shore Road Mystery is the sixth book in the Hardy Boys series of mystery novels (those published by Grosset & Dunlap, with the blue spines). The author, Franklin W. Dixon, is a blanket pseudonym for any number of authors who worked on the series. The original version was published in 1928, but then, like all books in the series, the story was significantly revised to keep up with the times, and the new version was rereleased in 1964. It is the latter version that I’m discussing here.

In this installment, the boys have no less than three mysteries to solve. Their father, detective Fenton Hardy, is in New York hunting down a ring of gun smugglers. The Hardy Boys, in their hometown of Bayport, are faced with a string of auto thefts along Shore Road. In addition, one of their school chums has brought to their attention a clue to the location of a mysterious treasure buried by a pilgrim centuries ago. It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads these books that the three mysteries all end up being related.

Though this may be a children’s book, my middle-aged self had trouble keeping up with all the twists and turns in this convoluted plot. There are so many unmemorable villains it is difficult to tell them all apart, and by the end of the book I still couldn’t figure out who all was doing what and how each profited from the schemes they had hatched. Nevertheless, I am reading these books with my nine-year-old son, and there was enough excitement to keep him interested from start to finish. As always, there are plenty of chase, capture, and escape scenes to keep the plot moving, and every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. The amount of unconcern on the part of the Hardy parents, who allow their sons to roam around at all hours of the night chasing dangerous criminals, is truly ridiculous. Towards the end of the book, the boys come up with a plan to catch the car thieves that in real life would have surely ended in the termination of their young lives, but of course, through dumb luck everything works out all right in the end.

The Hardy Boys are meant to stand as exemplars of good manners and breeding, and for the most part they succeed. One thing I didn’t like about this book, however, is the extent to which it makes fun of their “stocky” friend Chet Morton. Poor Chet is the butt of so many fat jokes, both from his schoolmates and from the author, that it really constitutes bullying, albeit a form of bullying that was acceptable in the 1960s. This book includes an entire humorous subplot about Chet being on a diet. He has suddenly developed an interest in botany and decides to take a crack at vegetarianism. The whole thing is just an excuse to make fun of his weight and portray him as a hopeless glutton. Given that most of today’s children are probably heavier than what was considered “stocky” in the 1960s, it doesn’t set a great example for the young readers of today.

My son liked the book enough that he’s already talking about moving onto book seven. The more I get into this series, however, the more I realize how hacky these books are and wonder how I ever enjoyed them so much when I was younger. I guess in the minds of young readers the fantasy of crime-fighting independence counts for more than any coherence in the mystery itself.
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Friday, February 1, 2019

Fruitfulness by Emile Zola

Secular pro-life argument
Originally published in 1899 under the French title Fécondité, Fruitfulness is the first book in Emile Zola’s final series of novels, Les Quatre Évangiles (The Four Gospels). It would be followed by Travail (Labor or Work), Vérité (Truth), and Justice (never published because Zola had barely begun writing it when he died). The Four Gospels were intended to sum up Zola’s personal philosophy by exploring the four qualities he felt were necessary to a healthy society or, more specifically, to a flourishing France. In Fruitfulness, Zola proposes that the prosperity of France depends upon a robust birth rate and an ardent devotion to agricultural development.

The protagonists of The Four Gospels are all sons of Pierre Froment, who starred in Zola’s previous trilogy, The Three Cities. Mathieu Froment lives in the suburbs of Paris with his wife and children. He ventures into the city every day to work as a designer for a company that manufactures farming implements. Pierre and his wife Marianne have a loving relationship and a devil-may-care attitude toward producing children. As they gradually crank out more and more babies over the course of the book, a cast of supporting characters views them with disgust, contempt, and envy. Among the couples in the Froments’ social circle, representing a variety of social classes, each has an excuse for choosing to have few or no children. To them, the happiness that the Froments enjoy among their burgeoning brood is a slap in the face highlighting their own discontent. Mathieu inspires further ridicule and disbelief when he decides to leave his job at the factory and become a farmer. 

In examining the lives of the supporting characters, Zola highlights a number of societal ills related to reproduction and child-rearing, including neglectful nannies, corrupt child care professionals, exploited wetnurses, ghoulish orphanages, back-alley abortions, and unwarranted hysterectomies. The novel primarily consists of Zola contrasting the idyllic happiness of the baby-making Froments with the shameful and depressing lifestyles of their acquaintances who have chosen to limit their reproductive output. After a while, even Zola seems to realize how simplistic and unrealistic this dichotomy is, so about halfway through he attempts to balance the scales a little by inflicting some melodramatic tragedy upon his heroes. Despite some of the eyeroll-inspiring plot turns, however, the last several chapters are really quite entertaining, and the reader truly does care about the characters, even though the ensemble cast is so vast it is often difficult to tell them all apart. If ever a novel needed an explanatory list of characters or a genealogical tree, it’s this one.

Fruitfulness is not Zola’s best work. While he often crafts the lives of his characters to illustrate social ills, here he has the Froments and friends unrealistically debating the French birth rate in almost every chapter. It is also odd to see the liberal Zola taking such a conservative stance on these particular issues. At one point he suggests that any mother who doesn’t breastfeed her own children should be convicted of a crime. Alas, times were different back then. Though Zola wrote the novel to controvert Malthusian theory, we now can see how so many of the world’s problems are caused or heightened by overpopulation, making the book’s arguments seem antiquated and naive. Nevertheless, it’s still a good piece of writing for diehard fans of Zola. Those unfamiliar with his work, however, would be better off sticking to one of the better-known novels in his Rougon-Macquart series.
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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Native Soil by Alan E. Nourse

As exciting as mud
Alan E. Nourse was an American science fiction writer who was active from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. Like Michael Crichton, Nourse was also a physician and worked his way through medical school with the income he earned from his writing. Nourse also wrote nonfiction works on science and medicine, including children’s books, and often inserted medical ideas and subject matter into his science fiction. His novella The Native Soil, for example, briefly works a medical concept into a story of interplanetary exploration. It was originally published in the July 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe magazine.

After much speculation as to what sort of world might exist beneath the thick clouds of Venus, the first Earth expedition to reach the planet discovers that its terrain rather disappointingly consists almost entirely of gooey mud. Nevertheless, a pharmaceutical company finds a valuable resource buried within the mud and sets about trying to extract it. The problem is that every mining base or piece of equipment they set down on the surface ends up either sinking or becoming hopelessly mired in the muck to the point of malfunction. The company enlists Venus’s indigenous inhabitants, a race of intelligent beaver-like creatures who dwell in the mud, to help with the extraction. Though eager to assist, they are not smart enough to operate the Earth tech and end up hindering more than they help.

That’s pretty much it for most of the story’s length. The plot becomes a repetitive one-trick pony, humorously chronicling the foibles and failures of the extraction team. After about a half an hour of that, the reader comes to a twist ending that is clever but not really surprising. Though there are a few interesting ideas here, it is difficult to get excited about a story that is mainly about mud.

The Native Soil is the first work I’ve read by Nourse. In subject matter and tone, it reminded me of the writing of H. Beam Piper, whose work I enjoy quite a bit. Nourse shows enough promise that readers who enjoy vintage sci-fi pulp fiction will probably find at least a few good stories among his body of work, but this particular offering isn’t very impressive.
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