Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Myshkin by David V. Reed

Lame and tedious mad scientist tale
Originally published in the April 1953 issue of Other Worlds Science Fiction, Myshkin is a science fiction novel by David V. Reed, who is perhaps best known as a writer of Batman comics in the ‘50s. In this mad scientist tale, the narrator, Lieutenant Henry Bannerman, returns from service in World War II and looks up his former roommate, a man known only as Myshkin. Bannerman finds that his old friend has gone somewhat off his rocker by devoting all his time and energy to the creation of a new invention. Remarkably, the machine that Myshkin has created is, for all intents and purposes, a 3D printer. It scans any object placed within its “cage” and creates a miniature duplicate composed of whatever raw material is fed into the machine. Myshkin goes beyond mere replication, however, pushing the envelope of what this 3D printer can do, until one of his creations gets out of hand and becomes dangerous.

While the basic premise of the novel is fine, Reed takes the story in directions that are merely frustrating and annoying. The book is incredibly poorly written, consisting almost entirely of dialogue in the form of convoluted, pun-riddled Who’s-on-First? routines that go nowhere and aren’t the least bit funny. All the action takes place in two apartments, where a series of unlikable, unfunny characters are constantly and pointlessly entering and exiting, to the extent where it’s difficult to keep track of who is where and what’s actually happening in the story. The cast includes two female characters whose sole purpose is to be sexy and stupid. A large portion of the narrative is given up to a Sherlock Holmes-style locked-room mystery revolving around how and why a bundle of clothes has been moved. Everyone eventually ends up fighting over a chemical compound, the value of which is unclear.

Science is almost entirely absent from this science fiction. The series of events that takes place is nonsensical and asinine. Never is any attempt made to offer an explanation for the fantastical happenings until the very end, where Reed provides a brisk and half-baked wrap-up. Myshkin is a tedious ordeal to read, neither intelligent nor entertaining. Though it was a respect for vintage pulp fiction that led me to read the novel in the first place, Myshkin represents the nadir of the sci-fi produced in the pulp era, a reminder that this was a time when newsstands were crammed with so many fiction magazines that just about anything could get published.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Genesis by Eduardo Galeano

Scenes of New World conquest
Genesis, a book by Uruguayan novelist and journalist Eduardo Galeano, was originally published in 1982 under the Spanish title Los nacimientos. It is the first book in Galeano’s trilogy Memory of Fire (Memoria del fuego), in which he chronicles the history of the Americas. Though Genesis is certainly historical fiction, it isn’t quite a novel, but rather its own unique form of fiction. The book consists of hundreds of brief historical scenes, each only a page or two in length. These vignettes are arranged in chronological order but don’t necessarily lead sequentially from one to another in the way chapters of a novel do. Each scene is based on historical fact, but Galeano fictionalizes the history by adding dialogue, interior monologue, bits of folklore and myth, and poetic description. Snippets of poems and songs also appear sporadically. Though unlike a novel it has no protagonist per se, certain “characters”—historical personages such as Christopher Columbus, the pirate Henry Morgan, or Mexican scholar and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz—make recurring appearances throughout the book, allowing the reader to see the progression of their lives.

Though the trilogy is often described as a history of Latin American, its scope is actually broader than that, encompassing the entire Western Hemisphere. While most of the chapters deal with Mexico and South America, it does include glimpses of North America as well—the Plymouth and Jamestown colonies, for example, or the Haida in the Pacific Northwest. Galeano also elaborates on the history of the conquerors with many scenes set in Spain. England and France are also covered, as is the slave trade in Africa. Genesis begins with a series of creation myths from Native American cultures, then chronicles the years 1492 to 1700. The second and third books, Faces and Masks and Century of the Wind, will continue the narrative into the 1980s. Galeano omits the history of Native American civilizations prior to the arrival of Columbus, presumably because his main concern is the conquest, colonization, and clash between Old and New World cultures.

Though the scenes jump all over the place in terms of location, culture, and tone, all are united stylistically by Galeano’s consistent narrative voice, skillfully translated by Cedric Belfrage in the English edition from Open Road Media. Galeano’s descriptions of the brutality of conquest are often bluntly graphic, but his prose is suffused with a gallows humor, as if speaking from the perspective of a centuries-old inhabitant of this world where violence and slavery were simply facts of life. He points out the laughable absurdities of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, without sugar-coating the atrocities. His treatment of the conquest is admirably even-handed and matter-of-fact, eliciting pathos without succumbing to preachy condemnation. His intention is neither to shock nor to castigate but rather to examine how modern America arose from such reprehensible beginnings.

Reading Genesis inspires the reader to want to find out more about these characters and events. Therefore, one of the most valuable aspects of this book is its bibliography. Each of Genesis’s vignettes ends with a numerical reference to one of the 227 cited works Galeano consulted in writing the book. Unfortunately, in the ebook edition from Open Road Media, those reference numbers are not linked to the bibliography, so the reader has to search for them.

I will admit that at times I lost my patience with Galeano. He can get long-winded and venture off into fanciful asides, but overall I’m glad I read the book and plan to read the other two volumes in the trilogy. Readers may find themselves resistant at first to the book’s unusual composition, but once one lets go of conventional notions of what fiction should be and just accepts Genesis for what it is, the book is a profound and educational reading experience.
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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Soothsayer by Verner von Heidenstam

Serving two masters
Verner von Heidenstam
Swedish author Verner von Heidenstam was the winner of the 1916 Nobel Prize in Literature. His play The Soothsayer is one of only a handful of his works available in English translation. This quickie drama would have only lasted about ten minutes on the stage, but it was nevertheless published as a stand-alone book in 1919.

The Soothsayer is similar in style, substance, and duration to another of von Heidenstam’s plays, The Birth of God, which is also available in English. Von Heidenstam was a diehard romanticist, and he uses gods and characters from classical antiquity to convey a moral lesson. The play takes place in ancient Greece in the 5th century BC, around the time of the Persian invasion. The curtain rises on a man named Eyrytus, along with his wife, mother, and faithful old servant, worshipping at an altar to Eros, the god of love. His wife and family are the greatest joys of Eyrytus’s life, and he celebrates that fact by making offerings to Eros. However, Eyrytus was born with the prescient power of a soothsayer, and his destiny therefore falls under the jurisdiction of Apollo, among whose many titles is the god of prophecy. Apollo becomes irate when he sees Eyrytus devoting himself to Eros, and he demands that the young soothsayer make a choice between which of the two gods he is going to follow.

From there, the play essentially becomes a brief enactment of the proverb “you can’t serve two masters.” At only 48 pages long, there isn’t really room for a whole lot to develop out of that basic premise. Though it may be hard to get excited about a ten-minute play, this is still better than The Birth of God. At least The Soothsayer has one meaty scene for the actor who plays Eyrytus, and despite its brevity it does manage to get its point across with affecting poignancy. Von Heidenstam likely has more substantial works in his oeuvre, but if you want to sample the work of this Nobel laureate The Soothsayer is a quick and easy way to do so.

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Seven Icelandic Short Stories, edited by Ásgeir Pétursson and Steingrímur J. Thorsteinsson

Hard lives in a harsh land
Halldór Laxness
Seven Icelandic Short Stories was published in 1961 by the Reykjavik Ministry of Education, presumably for the purpose of educating English-language readers about Icelandic literature. The introduction by Steingrímur J. Thorsteinsson gives a brief and interesting overview of the nation’s literary history. Each of the volume’s seven selections has a different author and translator. The final story is by Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in literature, the only name here likely to ring a bell with most English-language readers.

The first story featured in the collection is an anonymous tale from the 13th century, “The Story of Audunn and the Bear.” In this fable emphasizing right manners and gratitude, Audunn travels to Denmark to give the Danish king the gift of a polar bear. Despite its antiquity, this brief example of Iceland’s medieval literature is admirably clever and still quite entertaining.

The book’s remaining selections were all originally published from 1905 to 1927. All the stories are concerned in some way with the lives of Icelandic common folk such as farmers, fishermen, and shepherds. In Einar H. Kvaran’s story “A Dry Spell,” the narrator operates a country store in a rural town, where he is witness to agricultural life during the haymaking season. In a similar vein, “The Old Hay” by Gudmundur Fridjónsson is about an industrious farmer who prides himself on his private stockpile of hay. When weather conditions threaten to starve the region’s sheep, his neighbors come begging for him to give up his stash. In “The Fox Fur” by Gudmundur G. Hagalin, a farmer is troubled by a chicken skulking amongst his sheep, until he finds the animal dead, shot by a hunter. In an oddly comic twist, he claims the kill as his own, and the fox fur becomes his prized possession and source of vanity.

The seafaring life is also well-covered. In Jón Trausti’s “When I Was on the Frigate,” a traveler in a small coastal town needs transportation to the opposite side of the fjord. Due to the bad weather, the only ferryman he can get is an old fishing boat captain rumored to be mentally ill. The story provides some good sailing action, but is primarily a touching character study. The best selection in the book is “Father and Son” by Gunnar Gunnarsson, a moving depiction of two poor fishermen, a father and his twelve year old son, who share a hard but honest life devoted to one another. Laxness provides another strong entry in the volume’s closing selection, “New Iceland,” which is also the name of an Icelandic settlement in Manitoba, Canada. With hope for a new and prosperous beginning, a farmer moves his family to this foreign outpost, but finds that life in the New World may be even more harsh than the life he left behind in his homeland.

Though some stories are stronger than others, there really isn’t a bad selection in the book. As intended, this volume would make an excellent introduction to any reader looking to investigate Iceland’s literature. The stories included here give the reader a fascinating glimpse of life in the harsh climate of this North Atlantic island, and they all aptly demonstrate the literary merit one would expect from such a book-loving nation.

Stories in this collection
The Story of Audunn and the Bear by Anonymous 
A Dry Spell by Einar H. Kvaran 
The Old Hay by Gudmundur Fridjonsson 
When I Was on the Frigate by Jón Trausti 
Father and Son by Gunnar Gunnarsson
The Fox Skin by Gudmundur G. Hagalin 
New Iceland by Halldór Kiljan Laxness

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Poland: A Study of the Land, People, and Literature by Georg Brandes

Life and art under foreign occupation
Georg Brandes
Georg Brandes was a Danish literary critic who influenced European literature’s transition from romanticism to realism. He was a big deal in the world of letters a century ago, when a literary critic could still be a big deal. His writings demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge of literature from throughout Europe, and he had a particular interest in Polish literature when everyone else was paying attention to Germany, France, and England. Brandes’s 1903 book Poland: A Study of the Land, People, and Literature is part travelogue, part investigative journalism, part political commentary, and part literary critique.

In the first two-thirds of the book, Brandes writes the impressions he formed of Poland from four journeys he made to the country from 1885 to 1894. At this time Poland as a nation did not exist, for it had been conquered and divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Brandes’s first two visits were to Warsaw, in Russian-occupied Poland, and his third to a country manor house nearby. In these travel narratives Brandes vividly describes the lives of Poles under the rule of the Russians, who made every attempt to obliterate Polish culture, including prosecuting anyone who spoke the Polish language and exiling thousands to Siberia. As a literary man and journalist, Brandes pays special attention to censorship and the absurd lengths to which the Russian bureaucrats would go to stifle any inkling of nationalistic expression on the part of the Poles. Clearly sympathetic to the cause of Polish independence, Brandes praises the indomitable spirit of the Poles but frankly and insightfully points out how this systematic oppression has nevertheless affected the mindset of the Polish people and their national literature. More than just a geographical treatise, the book is an in-depth character study of the spirit of a nationless people. In the fourth and briefest trip described in the book, Brandes travels through Austrian Poland (a.k.a. Galicia), stopping briefly in Krakow before spending some time in Lemberg (today Lviv, in the Ukraine), where he is hailed as a visiting dignitary. By including this contrasting vignette, Brandes makes it clear that Austrian rule was far less oppressive than that of the Russians.

After 200 pages on Poland’s political climate, Brandes devotes the final third of the book to a study of Polish literature. This section was somewhat disappointing because Brandes only covers a handful of authors in detail. Mostly he discusses romantic poets of the early 19th century, with an intense focus on Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński. Today’s readers tend to view novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz as a paragon of romanticism, but Brandes only mentions him briefly as an overrated upstart and an author of “light literature.” Though I have read Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz, I was unfamiliar with the other works referenced, and I suspect most English-language readers are in the same boat as me. Still, some of the biographical information on these writers is very interesting, and Brandes provides a great deal of insight into how Poland’s history of foreign occupation has influenced its literature. Frankly, at times the literature section gets rather boring, but I won’t fault Brandes for providing a thorough examination of romantic poetry simply because the subject doesn’t particularly interest me.

Brandes’s book is a valuable document of Polish life at the dawn of the 20th century. Anyone interested in Polish history and culture—even if you’re not keen on romantic poetry—will find much to discover and appreciate in this frank and thoughtful work of literary travel journalism.
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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Gold by Eugene O’Neill

From pulp fiction to family tragedy
Gold is a four-act play by Eugene O’Neill. It was published in 1920, the same year as his better known works Anna Christie and The Emperor Jones. The first act takes place on a deserted island in the Malay archipelago of the South Pacific. Captain Isaiah Bartlett of the whaling ship Triton and five of his crew members are marooned on the isle after having survived a ship wreck. Having drifted on the open seas for days, they are now starting to feel the pangs of starvation and are on the verge of being driven mad by the lack of drinking water. Though the island is devoid of the bare necessities of life, the castaways have discovered a treasure chest full of gold and jewels, which provides them with yet another reason to go mad. Fortunately, they are rescued by a passing ship at the end of the first act, but what has transpired on the island will continue to haunt them long after they have returned to civilization.

Though depictions of sailors and seafaring life are common in O’Neill’s body of work, there is a pulp-fiction quality to this scene that is refreshingly unexpected. In the second act, however, the play returns to territory more familiar to readers of the Nobel laureate’s dramas. Act Two takes place at Bartlett’s house on the California coast, where we see the sea captain interacting not only with his crew but also with his family. Dysfunctional families are stock-in-trade for O’Neill, and here we witness the Bartlett family being torn apart by the father’s obsession with gold as his greed and guilt drive him further from the ones he loves.

The play’s change in direction from the sensationalistic sea story to the more prosaic and depressing concerns of family dynamics is not unexpected, given O’Neill’s track record, but it is not really a welcome change either. After the first act, which is kind of fun, the audience wants more of the gold-hunting narrative, even if it is uncharacteristic of O’Neill, but he goes out of his way to avoid gratifying those desires and instead delivers another variation on the tragedy of the American family. Though in general I’m a fan of O’Neill’s plays, Gold is not one of his better pieces of writing. The dialogue generally consists of overly protracted arguments that end with predictable results. When the story does occasionally take a surprising turn, it’s usually more of a letdown than an improvement. The behavior and choices of the characters are not always realistic, even when their judgment is not clouded by gold fever. The use of gold as a poisoner of minds and a destroyer of relationships is a convenient and clichéd way of arriving at the sort of emotional turmoil that O’Neill would explore more intelligently in later, greater plays like Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Gold isn’t a terrible play—it is Eugene O’Neill after all—but it’s hard to imagine an audience exiting the theatre or a reader closing the book feeling noticeably excited or moved by it. When compared to other plays in O’Neill’s impressive body of work, Gold may have been a necessary step in his artistic development, but on its own it is an overwrought melodrama that feels a little too simplistic and half-baked to be compelling.

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Monday, June 18, 2018

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Life is but a dream
The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, was first published in 1971. The story takes place in 2002, in a future world plagued by global warming, overpopulation, and war. George Orr, a mild-mannered draftsman, is assigned to court-appointed psychiatric treatment because he is convinced that his dreams can alter reality. When Orr has a particularly lucid dream, he can essentially change the course of world history to suit what his subconsciousness envisions. When he goes to see Dr. Haber, a dream specialist, Orr manages to convince the psychiatrist that his power is real. Instead of trying to cure Orr of this unusual malady, however, Haber decides to use Orr’s power to enact and implement his own personal plan of dream-induced world-shaping.

One’s appreciation of a work of science fiction often depends on which branch of science is being fictionalized. I chose this book solely on the basis of Le Guin’s reputation and had no clue as to its contents before I read it. What I got was a novel about psychology and oneirology (the science of dreams), subjects that don’t really fall within my particular areas of interest. I was more interested in the brief glimpses of the futuristic world than in the main narrative taking place within it. Even Le Guin seems to be conscious that her novel may be too far outside the realm of commercial sci-fi, as she feels the need to use the dreams to introduce more traditional sci-fi subject matter into the story.

The imaginative premise of the book is exciting at first, but it soon sets into a repetitive pattern. In each chapter, the reader has to wade through about 20 minutes of psychobabble about sleep science, just waiting to get to the last couple pages to find out what aspects of reality have changed from Orr’s latest dream. I admired the first half of the book for setting up its own unique laws of existence and reality, but was disappointed when the second half of the book denied those laws and went off in arbitrary directions. Just as in time-travel novels there are always chicken-or-egg conundrums, the cause-and-effect relationships between dreams and reality in this book don’t always make sense. The climactic scene of the novel seems to defy the alternative logic that Le Guin worked so hard to establish at the beginning, and the bizarre, dream-induced manipulations of reality are described in such vague and sketchy terms its really quite a letdown. I ended up enjoying the romantic subplot more than the sci-fi or the philosophy behind it.

The story is set in Le Guin’s hometown of Portland, Oregon. The city is not merely a backdrop to the narrative, but is really quite integral to the plot, and Le Guin discusses Portland and its environs in great detail. At first it is quite refreshing to read a sci-fi novel that doesn’t settle for New York, Washington, or L.A. as the center of the universe, but after a while the level of Portlandia becomes kind of annoying. Just as so many French novels assume the reader has an intimate knowledge of Paris, it often seems as if Le Guin wrote the novel strictly for an audience of Portlanders, or at least expects readers to have a city map spread out before them as they read the book.

This is the first work I have read by Le Guin, and maybe I was just expecting too much since her name is so often uttered with reverence and associated with greatness. Overall, The Lathe of Heaven is a pretty good sci-fi novel but far from a masterpiece. I liked it enough that I’m sure I will give Le Guin another try in the future, but I don’t feel in any hurry to do so.
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