Friday, May 17, 2019

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking

A valiant attempt at a physics primer
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was originally published in 1988, but I am reviewing the 2017 ebook edition, which includes an updated afterword. This book, intended for an audience of general readers, provides an overview of physics from the astronomical to the subatomic level. In doing so, Hawking delves into such fundamental yet difficult to comprehend questions as the nature of space and time, what happens inside a black hole, and whether time travel will is possible. Through a mix of proven fact, contentious theory, and informed speculation, Hawking takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the arcane workings of the universe.

There is no doubt that Hawking was a genius and one of the most knowledgeable people in this field. Since this is a book aimed at the general public, however, the real judge of its success is how well Hawking can explain complex concepts to a lay reader. It turns out that although Hawking may very well have been the next Einstein, he was no Bill Nye the Science Guy. Though I am not a scientist, I consider myself pretty well-versed in fundamental scientific concepts, yet there were passages in this book that were quite difficult to decipher. Even after repeated readings, some of Hawking’s explanations suffer from excessive ambiguity and assumptions of prior knowledge on the part of the reader.

Hawking spells out the processes of classical physics with a methodical step-by-step precision, and he explains general relativity pretty well. When he gets to quantum mechanics, however, his explanations are far less clear, and he expects the reader to make a pretty considerable leap in understanding. His discussions of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and particle spin are particularly baffling, and he glosses over the standard model of particle physics pretty quickly. His brief description of string theory, on the other hand, may be the clearest I’ve ever read. Like any other “elementary” work on quantum physics, there is a limit to how far he will clarify, and the reader is expected to take some assertions on faith. Presumably this is because a more thorough explanation would either be too difficult for the layman to understand or would simply make the book too long and cumbersome.

Astronomical phenomena, such as the big bang, black holes, and the expanding universe, are easier for the reader to wrap his or her head around, and Hawking discusses them in a manner that is eye opening and intellectually thrilling. His explanation of time and speculations on time travel also make for entertaining and informative reading. Hawking even delves into philosophy a bit by questioning whether there’s a place for god in the universe and contemplating the validity of the anthropic principle. One of the most important points he makes is that philosophers stopped concerning themselves with cosmology once physics became too complicated for them to understand. Throughout the book, Hawking explains that the fundamental purpose of physics is to strive for a unified theory of everything that explains all the workings of the universe, one that rectifies relativity and quantum physics and unites gravity with the forces of electronuclear interaction. Once that theory is discovered, Hawking asserts, science will be easier for laymen to understand, and the average person will take a much deeper interest in the physical workings of the universe. Until then, even if some answers are yet to be discovered, and others weren’t elucidated entirely to my comprehension, this landmark book certainly did pique my interest on the subject and provided much fascinating food for thought.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

A barrage of interesting minutiae lacking coherence
Australian author Stuart Kells’s 2017 book The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is not quite the history of libraries it promises to be. Though it contains a lot of historical information on some libraries of the author’s choosing, the definition of library is about as broad as it could possibly be. Arranged neither chronologically nor strictly thematically, The Library is a haphazard collection of anecdotes, data, and historical trivia on libraries, bookmaking, writers, readers, and just about anything else related in any way to books. Within this very broad range of subject matter, Kells throws in just about anything that strikes his fancy. If you are a lover of books and libraries, there is plenty of interesting content here, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired.

In the book’s preface, Kells reveals that he is a collector of rare books, which explains why this really is a book about book collecting more than it is a book about libraries. Most of the libraries Kells discusses in the book are private collections, not public institutions. He expresses his admiration for illustrious book collectors of the past and envies their shrewd purchases and acquisitive luck. Many of these great collectors of centuries gone by were clergymen, so there is quite a bit of coverage of monastic libraries as well. Most of Kells’s bibliographic interests seem to fall prior to 1800, though he does cover a few more recently founded institutions such as the Morgan Library and the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale.

Some chapters tell a single story in exhaustive detail while others are just a hodgepodge of loosely related bits and pieces. A chapter on library fires, for example, is just a string of one-paragraph summaries of different libraries that burned, without any discernible organization to their sequence. Some chapters drift farther afield, as when Kells makes the case that the traditional oral histories of Australian aborigines constitute a library. In another chapter he discusses fictional libraries in the works of Umberto Eco and J. R. R. Tolkien. There are some good chapters on papermaking, printing, and binding, but again, that’s more about bookmaking and collecting than about libraries. One gets the idea that Kells is far more interested in the physical packaging of books than the actual content of them. Books are objects to be owned, not knowledge to be used. Only one chapter really deals with issues of public or academic libraries today, and Kells uses it to assert the inferiorities of digitized texts when compared to the heft and smell of old tomes.

Though Kells often ventures off into irrelevant asides, many of the stories are fascinating, and the book is packed with interesting information. It’s all delivered with such a lack of structure and organization, however, that it is difficult to remember anything from this verbal quagmire. Kells seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of these subjects, but without any notes or bibliographical references there’s no way to gauge the truth or accuracy of any of the data. I don’t know about the print edition, but the ebook has zero illustrations, which is a shame. It is only natural that after reading about these wonderful libraries and beautiful bindings readers would want to see some photographs of them, but no such luck.

Perhaps I would have had a more positive opinion of this book if it had been titled more accurately. The Library is worth a read, but its constant barrage of tangentially related factoids is also a frustrating mess, somewhat like a book composed entirely of footnotes. Readers who really love libraries and old books will likely find it equal parts delightful and disappointing.
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Monday, May 13, 2019

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

The best Viking novel you’ll ever read
Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954) was a poet, essayist, and biographer before writing his one and only novel, The Long Ships. The book was originally published in Sweden in two parts in 1941 and 1945 under the title of Röde Orm before being published in English translation in 1954. One of the most widely read books in Sweden, The Long Ships is an adventure novel set in the time of the Vikings, around 1000 AD. It chronicles the adventures of Orm Tostesson, also known as Red Orm, a Danish Viking who hails from Skania, a portion of present-day Sweden that was at that time under the rule of Denmark. When a young man, Orm is stolen from his home by maritime marauders who make him a willing member of their crew. His subsequent voyages take him from Moorish Spain to the British Isles to the Ukrainian steppe in search of treasure, love, and a peaceful home to call his own.

I am by no means a connoisseur of the genre, but The Long Ships is easily the best work of Viking fiction that I’ve ever read. It is much more lively and engaging than Poul Anderson’s historical novel The Golden Horn, for example. Pulp adventure writers who are known for this sort of thing, like Harold Lamb or Robert E. Howard, tend to get bogged down in the minutiae of armor and weapons in an attempt at historical authenticity. Bengtsson, on the other hand, doesn’t emphasize the visual trappings of the time period but instead really adopts the mindset of his Viking characters. He does a splendid job of thinking like a Viking, which enables him to come up with surprising details that delight the reader with their ingenuity. Though written around the time of World War II, Bengtsson’s prose has the gravitas of a 19th century masterwork but a clarity and timeless creativity that make it seem as if the book were published just last week. Some credit for this is due, no doubt, to Michael Meyer, who provides the English translation for the New York Review of Books edition. In the introduction to that edition, novelist Michael Chabon accurately describes the tone of the book by stating that it “feels at once ancient and postmodern.”

Bengtsson also has a great sense of humor, and the text is riddled with wry wit. The story takes place at a time when Scandinavia was somewhat reluctantly undergoing a process of Christianization. The topic of faith is treated irreverently throughout the book, as characters tend to adopt whatever beliefs—Christian, Muslim, or pagan—that will be advantageous to them, either in the acquisition of worldly goods or simply in the never-ending quest for good luck. Christian missionaries are sometimes depicted as selfless martyrs but also as schemers aiming to tally up the most baptisms, even if it means converting ignorant Vikings under false pretenses. The book also features a Jewish character who is portrayed in a positive light and accepted by the Vikings because of his ability to lead them to treasure. In addition to religion, Bengtsson finds humor in marital relations, courtship rituals, and gender roles. He humorously captures the chauvinism of 1000 AD without succumbing to the chauvinism of the 1940s. The female characters of the book are depicted as intelligent and strong-willed, with a resilient resolve towards the horrible hardships that women faced daily in the 10th and 11th centuries.

If The Long Ships has a flaw, it would be its somewhat excessive length. For an adventure story, the pace can get a bit lethargic at times. Though each chapter is engaging, after finishing one I can’t say I felt compelled to immediately start another. Still, in the end this pleasant surprise proved itself worth the effort and a very enjoyable read.
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Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Kiss to the Leper by François Mauriac

A sacrifice for love
French author François Mauriac won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature and was a member of the Académie Française, France’s honorary society of literary “immortals.” His novel Le Baiser au lépreux was published in 1922 and the following year was translated into English as The Kiss to the Leper. The story takes place in the region of Les Landes, on the southwestern coast of France, near Mauriac’s hometown of Bordeaux. This area is rich in pine forests from which are harvested both timber and resin for the making of turpentine. In the novel, the wealthiest landowners in the region are the Péloueyre family, or at least what’s left of them. Jean Péloueyre is the only child of his widower father, Monsieur Jêrome Péloueyre, who is plagued by chronic illnesses.

The title of the novel is a biblical metaphor; no actual leper appears in the story. Jean, however, is cursed with a physical ugliness that renders him almost as repulsive as one afflicted with that disfiguring disease. Conscious of his own hideousness, he lives a mostly solitary life on his family estate, but his isolation does not spare him from indulging in romantic thoughts. He envies a young servant’s handsomeness and health, and he nurses a crush for a local girl of exceptional beauty, Noémi d’Artiailh. Though Jean may be viewed as a pitiful freak by his neighbors, his family’s estate nonetheless makes him an attractive catch. One day his father informs him that, with the help of the parish priest, a marriage has been arranged for Jean. This is a surprise to Jean, and his shock is amplified when he finds that his betrothed is none other than Noémi, the woman of his dreams.

Though Noémi’s father may have had financial motives for the match, she herself is no gold-digger. She wants to be a good wife to her new husband, but cannot overcome her physical repulsion to him. Though she masks her aversion as much as possible, Jean clearly senses it. He withdraws from his wife out of self-consciousness of his own ugly and stunted form and self-sacrifice to his beloved’s happiness. Though both parties are well-intentioned, their behavior results in an unhappy and unstable marriage that cannot continue for long in its present state before something must be done to either save or dissolve the union.

With its picturesque setting and archetypal characters, The Kiss to the Leper often has the feeling of a fairy-tale fable or—in keeping with Mauriac’s devout Catholicism—a religious parable. The plot events are clearly calculated to serve the moral lesson of the story, somewhat in the romantic style of a Victor Hugo novel. (One can’t help thinking of Quasimodo and Esmeralda from Notre-Dame de Paris.) The characters, however, are depicted with a touch of naturalism and a psychological authenticity that grounds the story in a bleak realism. The overall tone of the book is rather depressing, and Mauriac does not shy away from the unseemlier aspects of disease or lust, but ultimately the novel’s depictions of sacrifice and redemptive love are quite moving.

The inherent sadness of the story is also countered by its brevity. At 132 rather sparse pages, it makes for a brisk read. Despite the small package, Mauriac delivers a Nobel-quality work that quickly and deeply involves the reader in the characters’ lives in a profound and compelling way. This is the first work I’ve read by Mauriac, but it certainly won’t be the last.
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Friday, May 3, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 4 by Steve Englehart, et al.

Not a good run
Marvel Comics’ Essential Captain America, Volume 4 reprints numbers 157 to 186 of the Captain America and the Falcon comic book, issues which were originally published from January 1973 to June 1975. Almost every issue in this volume is written by Steve Englehart, who is a pretty prominent name in Marvel history. The direction he took with this title leaves a lot to be desired, however, and Volume 4 is a lot less enjoyable than Volumes 1, 2, and 3.

When Steve Rogers took the super soldier serum in World War II, he was endowed with the strength and agility of a superior Olympic athlete. Early in Volume 4, however, through an accidental and mysterious fluke of chemistry, Cap suddenly gains “super strength,” a condition which persists through the end of the volume. The extent of this strength is never clarified nor investigated and barely has any bearing on any of the stories. It only comes into play once in a while when Cap needs to rip through a steel door. The primary purpose for this plot device seems to be to make the Falcon jealous of Cap’s newfound power. In Volume 3 the Falcon was an equal partner to Cap, but here he spends much of his time whining as Englehart has relegated him to a sidekick role. While initially Marvel used the Falcon to explore racial, social, and urban issues, Englehart tosses that by the wayside in favor of weird stories and compulsive retconning.

A frequent villain in these issues is the Viper, a man in a snake suit with deadly venomous powers. Englehart, however, finds the most interesting aspect of the character is the fact that he used to work for an advertising agency, a detail that is repeatedly emphasized with his every appearance. Similarly, the most fascinating thing we learn about the Banshee (back when he was a villain) is that he’s a fan of American country music. Englehart resurrects the Yellow Claw, an Asian stereotype from the 1950s. Then there is the introduction of Nightshade, a teenager in a dominatrix outfit who declares herself “Queen of the Werewolves.” Cap’s status as America’s superhero is challenged by a contender who fights him for the hearts and minds of the American public, and that rather unimpressive challenger is . . . Moonstone? (The original male Moonstone). Other bad guys include Plantman, Porcupine, Solarr, Lucifer, and the Gamecock. It’s as if Englehart went out of his way to pick the oddest and least threatening villains he could think of. High points in this run are an appearance by Dr. Faustus and the early formation of the Serpent Squad. At the end of the book the Red Skull makes a triumphant return that is genuinely frightening, but Englehart uses it as an excuse to retcon the Falcon’s origin, making it even stranger than before. For good guys, there are guest appearances by the Black Panther and a few of the X-Men. This is also the period when Steve Rogers briefly gave up being Captain America and adopted the silly costume of Nomad.

For most of this book, the art is handled by Sal Buscema, who epitomizes the default Marvel style of this era. For four issues at the end of the book, the art duties are taken over by Frank Robbins, who has a very weird cartoony style that calls to mind Harvey Kurtzman’s work in EC Comics. His exaggeratedly misshapen figures are a refreshing change from Buscema’s standard fare. Either way, the art is a lot better than the stories, and the faults of this volume lie almost exclusively on the shoulders of Englehart. Thankfully, Jack Kirby returns as both artist and writer in Volume 5.
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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Delightful kid-lit classic
I recently read Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my nine-year-old son. Published in 1964, this kid-lit classic is still delightfully entertaining to children of today, even those who haven’t seen the movie. For adults, it is one of the more enjoyable chapter books you can read with elementary school kids. This is my son’s favorite book by Dahl, and I would have to agree with him.

Willy Wonka is the world’s greatest chocolate manufacturer and a reclusive genius who sequesters himself inside his giant factory. What goes on inside this secretive compound is a mystery until Wonka announces a contest in which five lucky winners will get to tour his factory and win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. After much anticipation, a poor young boy named Charlie Bucket scores a winning ticket. He and his grandfather get to meet Wonka and tour the factory, along with the four other winners and their parents. This is no ordinary factory, however, but a magical fantasy land and candy lover’s paradise.

While Charlie is the hero of the story and an exemplary behavioral model for children to follow, the other four children are various species of juvenile monster. One is a greedy glutton, one is addicted to bubble gum, another is a gun-toting TV junkie, and then there’s the little rich girl who demands her every whim be satisfied. Dahl doesn’t merely heap all his criticism on these problem children, but saves some of his censure for the parents who indulge them. Through these negative caricatures, the book imparts some good moral lessons to young readers in a very fun and non-preachy manner. Wonka’s workforce, a race of foreigners of unknown origin called the Oompa-Loompas, act as the Greek chorus of the production, reinforcing each lesson in silly poetic song.

As good as this book is, I actually do prefer the movie. That is, the 1971 musical starring Gene Wilder (I haven’t seen the Johnny Depp version). Director Mel Stuart and his team really did a wonderful job with the visuals on that film, going well above and beyond Dahl’s descriptions in the book. The screenwriters made some changes to the story, which Dahl hated, but I actually think are an improvement. For example, in the book Charlie is a relentlessly good boy surrounded by brats. In the film Charlie is not perfect, as few children are. He is tempted to make a mistake by breaking Wonka’s rules, but atones for it with a demonstration of his pureness of heart which sets him apart from the poorly behaved kids. Dahl also disagreed with the casting of Gene Wilder as Wonka, but Wilder’s take on the character is really far more interesting than the Wonka depicted in the book. Dahl primarily defines Wonka by the wonderland that surrounds him, while Wilder brought a manic quality and a scary side to the character that really doesn’t come across in the book.

Children’s literature is not a genre that I personally enjoy particularly, but if all kids’ books were as fun as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I might just be converted. For anyone with young kids, it is an essential addition to your youngster’s bookshelf.
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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic

An unsung masterpiece of American realism
The name Harold Frederic is unlikely to ring a bell with many readers these days, even those who are well-versed in the history of American literature. His obscurity, however, is undeserved. I had previously read one very good short story of his entitled “Brother Sebastian’s Friendship.” This led me to his novel The Damnation of Theron Ware, an 1896 bestseller that is largely forgotten today. To my surprise, this lesser-known novel from the turn of the last century turned out to be an excellent read. As an enthusiast of naturalist literature from this time period, I consider this book to be an unsung masterpiece of Victorian-era American literary realism.

Theron Ware is a young minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church in upstate New York. As the novel opens, the church’s annual Nedahma Conference is being held to determine the placement of ministers in its churches throughout the district. Theron and his wife Alice are hoping to move to a larger, more cosmopolitan town, but instead they are posted to the conservative backwater of Octavius. Almost immediately after accepting his post, Theron must contend with the puritanical and parsimonious views of the church trustees and elders. By chance, Theron meets some new friends from outside the Methodist Church: Father Forbes, an Irish Catholic priest; Dr. Ledsmar, a skeptical scientist; and Celia Madden, a young Irish woman who serves as the Catholic church organist. As Theron gets to know these new acquaintances, he soon overcomes his prejudices against the Irish and Catholics and begins to envy Forbes and Ledsmar for their progressive intellectualism and enlightened views on theology. Even Celia intimidates Theron with her modern sophistication. The daughter of a wealthy family, she is an early feminist set on living an independent, liberated life. As a result of his encounters with these individuals, Theron begins to doubt his strict Methodist faith and becomes infatuated with the beautiful, cultured Celia.

I have no personal interest whatsoever in the workings of the Methodist Church, but this book really made the subject fascinating. The story delves into the politics of running a parish church, the social expectations imposed upon the minister and his wife, and the sometimes distasteful marketing savvy required for fundraising. The book is not antireligious, but Frederic himself doesn’t exhibit a strict attachment to any faith and reports on church doings and questions of belief in an objective, realistic manner. Occasional scenes come across as highly romanticized, but Frederic skillfully negates such departures from realism by forcing the reader to question how much of the romance merely exists within Theron’s fevered mind. Similarly, at times Frederic depicts Celia, the liberated woman who scorns Victorian conventions, as almost a devilish temptress, but then he challenges conservative readers with scenes that portray her as the voice of reason in a puritanical world. Despite its religious subject matter, the novel never succumbs to easy contrasts between good and evil or right and wrong. Frederic can be quite harsh in his renunciation of formulaic plot elements or romantic cliches. The Damnation of Theron Ware is always engaging and never predictable, right up to its very conclusion.

Frederic’s writing is on a par with better-known naturalist contemporaries like Frank Norris, Charles W. Chesnutt, Theodore Dreiser, and Edith Wharton. If this novel is any indication of his abilities, Frederic merits a great deal more name recognition than he currently enjoys. The Damnation of Theron Ware deserves to be widely read by all fans of American realist literature.
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Friday, April 26, 2019

Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill

Greek tragedy in rural New England
Desire Under the Elms, one of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill’s better known dramas, premiered in 1924. The story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Theseus, but O’Neill’s play does not adhere strictly to the plot of the source material. The drama takes place on a farm in New England. In the opening act, Peter and Simeon Cabot and their considerably younger half-brother Eben Cabot are discussing their father Ephraim, who owns the family farm. The older sons are wondering when the old man is going to die so they can take over his land. Fed up with waiting for their due share of the farm, they are contemplating running off to California to hunt for gold. Eben, on the other hand, harbors a strong hatred for his father for having worked his mother to death. Eben dreams of someday taking his revenge on the old man and reclaiming the land that he believes rightfully belonged to his mother. Everyone’s plans are upset, however, when it is revealed that Ephraim has remarried, and will soon be returning home with his much younger bride.

Desire Under the Elms is one of O’Neill’s more popular and successful plays, having been staged in many productions over the past century and adapted into a Hollywood film in 1958. The script certainly contains some meaty parts for the three leads. Eben, Ephraim, and the stepmother/third wife Abbie Putnam all get their fair chance at scenes of emotional power. When reading the play in book form, however, it does not come across as effecting as many of O’Neill’s other works. For starters, the entire play is written in a sort of hillbilly accent that doesn’t really call to mind New England. The word “yes” is transcribed as “ay-eh,” “home” is “hum,” and “pretty” is “purty.” Not only does this apostrophe-studded hick transcription make for difficult reading, but it renders the characters less sympathetic, as if O’Neill himself were making fun of them. The accent doesn’t come across as true-to-life as do those of the patrons of the waterfront bar in Anna Christie or the coal shovelers of The Hairy Ape. On stage, skilled actors would be unlikely to stick exactly to the text and could craft a believable accent to sell the characters, but on the printed page you’re stuck with the language as written.

The plot of the play is very predictable. There really isn’t any story development that you don’t see coming a mile away. These are archetypal characters acting out a scenario that is thousands of years old. Originality or surprise, therefore, probably aren’t the main objectives here, but rather to allow the audience to experience universal scenes of love, anger, and grief that are familiar but nonetheless powerful. Even so, Abbie’s climactic act does not come across as realistic, at least not when set in the twentieth century. Here it feels like a contrivance calculated to squeeze as much anguish out of the characters as possible. After the intensity of that moment, the conclusion seems timid by comparison, more epilogue than finale. The final line of the play reads almost like a joke and is indicative of a disconnect that persists throughout the story between the tone of the language and the tone of the events in the story.

In general, I enjoy reading O’Neill’s work, and I respect him as one of America’s preeminent playwrights. Desire Under the Elms is a good play, but in a career studded with masterpieces it doesn’t shine as brightly as many of O’Neill’s other renowned works.
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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Gertrude by Hermann Hesse

Perhaps the best of early Hesse
German author Hermann Hesse was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature largely on the basis of novels from the second half of his career, books that experimented with Eastern mysticism and psychoanalytic theory, such as Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, or The Glass Bead Game. Prior to these more modern works, however, Hesse was a writer of relatively traditional novels that stylistically straddled the line between German romanticism and impressionistic realism. Though these early novels may not be as flashy as his more avant garde writings, they still constitute a steady stream of quality work from Hesse. One of the better entries from this formative period in Hesse’s career is Gertrude, published in 1910.

The story is narrated by an aspiring composer named Kuhn. As a young man, he is involved in an accident that cripples one of his legs, forcing him to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. He is very self-conscious of this defect and sees it as an obstacle to forming friendships and finding love. He discovers his true calling in life is music, and after graduating from school he sets out to build a career for himself as a musician and composer. Along the way he meets his polar opposite in the form of a singer named Muoth, a brash ladies’ man who is egotistical to the point of rudeness. Opposites attract, as they say, the two become friends, and the outgoing Muoth helps find career opportunities and build confidence in the timid Kuhn. About halfway through the book, Kuhn meets Gertrude, who assists him in the writing of an important composition. Not surprisingly, she becomes the love of his life, but Hesse steers clear of writing a typical love story, and the plot never succumbs to romantic clichés.

By Hesse standards, Gertrude is not a particularly ambitious novel. He’s not trying to introduce a Buddhist message to Western readers or illustrate a complex Freudian theory. The only touch of mysticism in the story is a brief mention of theosophy, which doesn’t have any important bearing on the story. (Perhaps theosophy was the entry point through which Hesse became interested in Eastern philosophy?) I have read that Gertrude is an illustration of concepts formulated by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book The Birth of Tragedy, but though I read that book a long time ago, it never popped into my head while I was reading Gertrude. As far as most of today’s readers are concerned, Gertrude will simply be a moving story of human relationships, told at an intimate scale.

Hesse’s novels often feature introspective protagonists who are involved in some intellectual pursuit, whether it be music, poetry, classical languages, or the futuristic thought exercise known as the Glass Bead Game. This shy hero then meets an outgoing, sophisticated friend who takes him under his or her wing and helps him navigate new social terrain, achieve creative fulfillment, or blossom into a more confident and spiritually realized human being. Such is the formula for Beneath the Wheel, Demian, The Glass Bead Game, and other Hesse novels, and we see it here again with Muoth and Kuhn. Whether accurate or not, one assumes Hesse identified with such protagonists, and his books will likely appeal to introspective, intellectual readers who see themselves in these characters. For such an audience, Gertrude is a satisfying read. There’s nothing here that will blow your mind or change your philosophy of life, just sympathetic characters acting out a compelling drama of art, love, and loss that rings true to life.

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Monday, April 22, 2019

A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium by Chris Harman

The rise of capitalism and the struggle against it
Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World was first published in 1999, but I am reviewing the 2008 ebook edition from Verso Books. In this monumental overview of world history as seen through the lens of class, Harman, a British journalist and Socialist activist, charts the development of class divisions from prehistoric times to the early 21st century. Harman explains how capitalism came to be the dominant economic model, describes how it has oppressed workers, and chronicles efforts by those who have fought against it. Despite his avowed socialism, Harman is not always adulatory toward such anti-capitalists and is often quite critical of their failings.

This truly is a people’s history which explores world events from the ground up, emphasizing social movements rather than famous personages. Up to about the mid-19th century and the coming of Marx, Harman rarely even includes any individual proper names in his history, but rather discusses nations, classes, races, and other groups almost as if they were bacterial cultures fighting for nourishment in a global petri dish. It is a unique way for readers to experience history, and really opens one’s eyes to the hidden motivations behind major historical events. As the book moves into the 20th century, Harman does refer to more individual human beings, but the heroes and villains in this story are not the same as those in your typical history textbook. Any Americans who are still under the impression that the United States has been the good guy on the world stage throughout the past couple centuries will soon be disabused of that notion. In fact, one really gets a better idea of why the rest of the world hates us so much (and this was published prior to the Trump administration). Harman is perhaps even harsher in appraising his own country’s role in world affairs, however. There are no sacred cows here, not even Winston Churchill.

Unlike Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which can be appreciated by pretty much any American who is interested in human rights or social justice, Harman’s A People’s History of the World is a lot more intensive in its Marxism. To appreciate this book, you have to have a firmly leftist political bent and some foundational understanding of economics. While I may meet the former qualification I’m not so confident in the latter, and I will confess that at times the economic theory here was a little over my head. Such passages were few, however, and for a layman like myself this book is remarkably accessible. It could and should (but probably won’t) be used in American high schools as an alternative to the mainstream historical narrative. Because this is a comprehensive textbook on world history, it is not always pleasure reading. The extensive chapter on the Reformation, Oliver Cromwell, and the English Civil Wars comes to mind as particularly difficult and disorienting. Overall, however, this book presents a well-reasoned, clearly explained argument and makes for a fascinating and compelling read.

Though Harman’s history is often a catalog of oppression, injustice, and corruption, it does offer a hopeful message as well. In his early chapters on the ancient world, Harman is quick to point out that capitalism is not the default mode for human society that its proponents pretend it to be. He enumerates various points in history when socialists have come very close to overthrowing the capitalist status quo, and he ends the book with a call to arms for socialist-minded readers to keep pushing for revolution and a new social order. Not only is A People’s History of the World a staggering achievement in comprehensiveness and clarity, at times it also proves quite inspiring.
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Friday, April 19, 2019

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Into the wilds of human depravity
Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was originally serialized in 1899 issues of Blackwood’s Magazine before being published in a 1902 collection of Conrad’s short fiction entitled Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories. The fact that Heart of Darkness wasn’t even designated the title selection of that collection is an indication that it did not garner a lot of notice when it was first released. Since then, however, it has become one of the most highly acclaimed and deeply scrutinized works of literature in the English language. The story is based on a trip Conrad made up the Congo River. In the novella, the river is unnamed, and the word Congo is never used to describe the setting, but the narrative clearly takes place in Africa.

Charles Marlow, a passenger on a Thames River steamboat, narrates the story to a group of fellow travelers. Marlow explains that he has often had an attraction for blank spaces on the map, and one day he selects one of these little explored regions of the world and decides to venture there. Marlow takes a job as a steamboat captain for a British trading company, but in order to take command of his vessel he must first journey to a remote trading post in the interior of Africa. The company’s primary business in Africa is to buy ivory from the natives, and no one brings in as much ivory as Mr. Kurtz, a company man who has apparently gone rogue, disappeared into the deep wilderness, and established an uncommon rapport with the native population. It is even rumored that the local inhabitants worship him as a god. As Marlow proceeds on his trek upriver, he gradually learns more about this mysterious Mr. Kurtz and develops a personal obsession with the man.

This obsession is not entirely contagious. So much of Heart of Darkness is spent proclaiming how extraordinary and astonishing Kurtz is, that when the reader finally meets him it is a bit of a letdown. Perhaps this reader has become jaded by the intervening century of adventure literature and explorer biographies, but the idea of a white adventurer in a remote wilderness “going native” and turning megalomaniacal in the process doesn’t particularly shock or surprise. One wonders if that didn’t happen quite often at the height of 19th century colonialism. The picture Conrad paints of European colonialism in Africa is frightening. He depicts frankly the horrible treatment of the black race by the whites, but he never really portrays the blacks positively either. The novella seems to have been written at a time period between the celebration of empire and the condemning of it, when it was enough to just point out the disgusting aspects of colonialism in a matter-of-fact matter without actually expressing any disgust, outrage, or sympathy.

Conrad is considered one of the all-time masters of the English language, and there is no doubt that the prose in Heart of Darkness is artfully crafted. Perhaps at times it is too much so. Though the book’s best quality is its creepy and dangerous atmosphere, too often this gets lost in a veil of flowery verbiage too pretty for its harsh subject matter. The idea that Marlow is relating this story out loud is ridiculous, since the language doesn’t at all resemble human speech but rather carefully constructed written prose. Almost every sentence in the book is quotable, but cumulatively it adds up to a whole lot of adjectives and metaphors being used to describe every mundane detail of movement or expression. There’s a difference between admiring a great work of literature and actually enjoying the reading of it, and too often Heart of Darkness falls on the wrong side of that line. Though it is worthy of respect, it is not always compelling.

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 3 by Stan Lee, et al.

Featuring the Falcon
Picking up where Volume 2 left off, Essential Captain America, Volume 3 reproduces issues 127 to 156 of the Captain America comic book, which were originally published from July 1970 to December 1972. I really enjoyed this volume because it begins to get into some of the random issues I own and first read when I was a little kid. After all these years, I finally got to find out what happened with the Scorpion and Mr. Hyde! When I think of Marvel Comics, I remember fondly the visual style and storytelling of the 1970s to the early 1980s, and these issues exemplify that period very well.

At the start of the volume, Stan Lee is still penning the stories himself, but at about the halfway point he starts delegating the writing duties to others, beginning with Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway, who each get a couple of issues before settling on Steve Englehart. Gene Colan continues as the lead artist for several issues, but his work here, in the hands of a succession of journeyman inkers, doesn’t look as good as it did in Volume 2. John Romita Sr. takes over for several issues, doing an excellent job, before the torch gets passed for an extended run by Sal Buscema, who, after Jack Kirby, might be considered the quintessential Captain America artist.

With issue number 134, the Captain America series underwent a title change to Captain America and the Falcon. Not only was this obviously an important change in the direction of the magazine but it also greatly improved the quality of the stories. The Falcon, though less physically powerful than Cap, is more than just a sidekick like Bucky Barnes. Cap and the Falcon are equal partners, with each getting equal time in the spotlight. Sometimes they fight side by side, sometimes alone pursuing different adversaries, and sometimes, in the Marvel tradition, they end up fighting each other. Black Panther may have been the first black superhero, but he lives in a fantasy land in the jungles of Africa. Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon, lives in Harlem, and he faces the real world problems that an urban black man faced in the 1970s. In his day job as social worker, Wilson is never at his desk, and we never see him with a client, but the stories cover the gamut of African American issues from race riots to slumlords to racial profiling. Since the writers are white, the stories often read like a mixture of well-intentioned liberalism and ‘70s blaxploitation. Conway does the best writing in this vein, but his tenure is short-lived. Then Englehart takes over, and many of the social issues are ditched in favor of immediately retconning Cap’s history.

When not dressed as Captain America, Steve Rogers has a job as a cop who rarely shows up for work, which is a rather silly and unbelievable premise. For bad guys, the Red Skull still shows up occasionally to bore the reader with another giant robot. A-list fascists like Baron Strucker and MODOK make appearances, as does the fan favorite Frenchman Batroc. Odd choices for villains are the Grey Gargoyle, who overstays his welcome, and the cosmic collector The Stranger. Spider-Man teams up with Cap and the Falcon for a couple issues, and SHIELD’s Femme Force makes their debut. Overall, there’s a lot to like in this collection. The stories take silly turns and get a bit kitschy at times, but that’s what makes ‘70s comics so lovable. For the most part, Essential Captain America, Volume 3 is vintage Marvel.
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Monday, April 15, 2019

The Years with Laura Díaz by Carlos Fuentes

Fascinating history made boring
I’m what you might call a Mexicophile. I’ve traveled extensively throughout the country, and I read a lot of books about Mexican history and art. So it was with great enthusiasm that I commenced the reading of Carlos Fuentes’s 1999 novel The Years with Laura Díaz. I’m very interested in the Mexican mural movement, and Diego Rivera and his murals play an important part in this story. I have also been to many of the locations in this novel, such as Veracruz, Xalapa, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, and the Rivera murals in Detroit. While in the process of reading this book, I happened to spend a week in Mexico City walking many of the same streets and seeing many of the same sites mentioned in the book. So if anyone should be predisposed towards liking this novel, it should be me. Why then, did I find the reading of it to be such a terribly boring ordeal?

It seems the one aspect of Mexican culture that I am unable to appreciate is Carlos Fuentes. He has been widely hailed as the greatest Mexican novelist since Juan Rulfo and might have won a Nobel Prize if his countryman Octavio Paz hadn’t beaten him to it. Nevertheless, I’ve always found it difficult to get into his books. The Death of Artemio Cruz is the one work of his that I remember fondly, but I recall The Old Gringo being annoyingly tedious. The problem is that Fuentes tries really hard to be William Faulkner, and not in a good way. He writes in a style that emphasizes verbal creativity at the expense of storytelling. Every scene and emotion must be approached from an oblique angle; every sentiment expressed in sentences of intricate syntax. Rather than augmenting the emotional power of the story being told, all this verbal gymnastics tends to obfuscate the plot and dull any identification with the characters.

The Years with Laura Díaz is a historical novel chronicling the life and loves of a Mexican woman who lived from 1898 to 1972. As such, it contains a lot of Mexican history, but it’s very much in the background. The coming and going of presidential administrations are mentioned. Many historical figures make cameo appearances, but the reader doesn’t learn much about them beyond the dropping of their names. For a while, Laura Díaz works as a personal assistant to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but they never really register as actual human beings. Rather, they speak only in bon mots and metaphor, serving as mouthpieces for the author’s cleverness. The narrative makes meandering side trips into the Spanish Civil War and McCarthyism in Hollywood. For a historical novel, the history here feels very tangential, hidden behind a veil of gratuitous verbiage. When all is said and done, The Years with Laura Díaz is really just the story of one woman’s love life, and not a very interesting one at that. What really becomes tedious is the way Fuentes feels the need to constantly recap her entire genealogy and history of lovers on almost every page of the book.

Oddly enough, the most satisfying portion of the novel may be the two pages of Acknowledgments at the end of the book, in which the reader finds out that all of the characters are based on members of Fuentes’s family. This could have been a much better book if he had written it as nonfiction, which might have reined in some of the Faulknerian excesses. Fuentes is a very intelligent and talented writer whose personal stylistic choices just really rub this reader the wrong way. I haven’t read enough of his books to gauge whether he deserved a Nobel or not, but I do know that a Mexicophile like me should have enjoyed The Years with Laura Díaz a lot more than I did.
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Friday, April 12, 2019

Deliverance by James Dickey

A literary masterpiece, whether you’ve seen the film or not
The film Deliverance is one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, and after recently rereading the James Dickey novel for I think the third time, I would have to count it among my all-time favorite books as well. Published in 1970, Deliverance is certainly one of the greatest novels of the second half of the 20th century. Fans of the film will find the novel every bit as riveting as its cinematic adaptation, and the book also provides a deeper insight into the characters, setting, and plot elements. Ed Gentry (the Jon Voigt character) narrates the story in the first person, which gives the reader an intimate connection to his thoughts and feelings during what develops into a very tense and harrowing experience. The course of events before and after the canoe trip is more thoroughly explored than in the film, and the reader learns a lot about the characters’ everyday lives—their occupations, their families, their everyday personalities—making it all the more compelling when they are forced to fight for those lives.

For those who have never seen the film, Deliverance is the story of four men who decide to take one last canoe trip on a soon-to-be-dammed wild river in a remote North Georgia wilderness. The adventure is more than they bargained for, however, when the party is attacked and forced to fight for their survival. Deliverance is a gripping adventure novel, but it is also an insightful examination of modern masculinity. Ed Gentry is happy to skate through a life of good-enough contentment that borders on complacency. His friend Lewis Medlock (the Burt Reynolds character), on the other hand, only feels alive when he is pushing himself to the limits of survival. Though more of an everyman realist, Ed can’t help but admire Lewis for his uncompromising machismo. For Ed, the canoe trip is his chance to embark on some sort of Lewis fantasy camp. When things get out of hand, however, what started as grown-ups at play in the wild turns deadly serious, and Ed finds himself faced with the greatest challenge of his life.

Deliverance is the best wilderness survival film ever made. Truly good wilderness adventure movies are hard to find, and the same is true for literature. Dickey may be the best wilderness adventure writer since Jack London. Reading this book gives one a visceral experience of the beauty and deadliness of the wild. Dickey makes the reader feel the woods, the river, and the rocks like few authors can. In addition, he brings a rich psychological depth to the characters that is on a par with writers like Hemingway or Steinbeck. Though the first person narrative occasionally veers into stream of consciousness, the book never succumbs to modernist excesses of verbal cleverness. The prose is taut and relevant, and the gripping story never relents.

Another unique aspect of Deliverance is that, unlike most action/adventure stories, after the life and death struggle takes place, the survivors must return to civilization and explain themselves. This adds another dimension of realism to the story that really elevates it above typical genre fiction into the realm of great literature. Author James Dickey (who played the sheriff in the movie) considered himself first and foremost a poet. He only wrote three novels, which is a shame considering how great this book is. His subsequent novels, Alnilam and To the White Sea, didn’t quite measure up to the same standard of greatness, but Deliverance will always stand as a masterpiece of modern American literature.
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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the First Epic Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

From drawing board to Kuiper Belt
When I was growing up there were nine planets orbiting our sun, but as of 2006, planet number nine, Pluto, has been demoted to a dwarf planet. Prior to that redesignation, however, Pluto remained the last unexplored planet in our solar system. The Voyager space probes were immensely successful in exploring the rest of the outer planets, but somehow Pluto could not be worked into their flight plans. As early as the 1980s, a number of Plutophile scientists began plotting how to rectify that omission. The result was the New Horizons spacecraft, which launched in 2006 and reached Pluto (or rather, passed within a mere 8,000 miles of it) in 2015. The book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the First Epic Mission to Pluto, published in 2018, charts the trajectory of this spacecraft from conception through development to historic success.

If you are looking for a book that details all the discoveries that New Horizons made on its journey to Pluto, this is not it. For the latest Plutonian research, you would be better off hunting for articles in Science magazine or even National Geographic. Here, most of the mission’s scientific yield is briefly summarized in an appendix. Concrete conclusions will require more time for all of the collected data to be processed and analyzed in a thoroughly scientific manner. What this book does cover, however, is the process by which the New Horizons probe was conceived, designed, built, tested, approved, launched, and operated. The reader really gets an inside look at what it is like to be a scientist working for NASA and the planning and politics that go into a mission.

The book’s authors, Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, are both planetary scientists who worked on New Horizons. The preface explains that Stern was the project leader and primary driving force behind the project. Grinspoon played a smaller role on the New Horizons team, but he has more experience as a professional author, so he did most of the writing of the book based on extensive interviews with Stern and other members of the New Horizons team. Grinspoon is very skilled at explaining complicated scientific concepts in language that a lay person can understand, but his writing does have its annoying quirks. For starters, he is so set on portraying Stern as a herculean hero that anyone who opposes Stern’s grand vision, whether a scientific competitor or just a government bean counter, is unrealistically painted as a villain. Also, at times the book reads almost as if it were written to satisfy a grant proposal, justifying every expense and making sure that each stakeholder is heartily patted on the back.

The narrative is often exciting and fascinating, but the book does drag at times. It doesn’t really seem necessary to catalog every last test and drill the team went through in preparing New Horizons for its final approach. On the other hand, one really does get a great education into the workings of NASA. Executing a mission isn’t just about scientific discovery; there is quite a bit of tedious routine and bureaucratic red tape as well, and this book captures it all, for better or worse. Grinspoon’s erring on the side of verbosity rather than omission will ultimately make this book the authoritative chronicle of this historic event. Fear not, science lovers, there is certainly enough science here to make up for the excess of board meetings, software uploads, and public relations opportunities. Chasing New Horizons is really an enjoyable and enlightening book. Every NASA mission would be lucky to have such a thorough and accessible document of its triumphs.

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Monday, April 8, 2019

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

Pioneering literature in words and pictures
Will Eisner is widely regarded as the greatest artist in the history of American comics. Of course, that honor can be debated, but there are probably only one or two other candidates who could claim such a title. Eisner garnered early acclaim in the 1940s for his groundbreaking work on the crimefighter comic The Spirit. Three decades later, however, he launched a career renaissance by pioneering the art form of the literary graphic novel. Eisner, by his own admission, did not invent the graphic novel. That was done by artists of the early twentieth century such as Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, who produced wordless novels composed entirely of woodcut illustrations. Eisner, however, spawned the art form of the graphic novel as we know it today—comics as a form of literature—and the work which started it all was A Contract with God, published in 1978.

Technically, this book is not a novel but a collection of short stories. The four related narratives all center around a tenement building, located at 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx, and the lives of its inhabitants, who are mostly Jews of the poor and working classes. The stories take place in the 1930s and are based upon Eisner’s own memories of growing up during the Great Depression. In form and tone, A Contract with God sometimes calls to mind Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, particularly in its often frank and disturbing depictions of sexuality. Eisner’s melding of scripted prose, dramatic dialogue, and sequential art is thoroughly modern and innovative in technique, but his narratives often harken back to older forms of storytelling such as melodrama, opera, and good old-fashioned Borscht Belt humor.

The book’s opening story, “A Contract with God,” is an intensely serious piece about a man’s relationship with his deity. Frimme Hersh, an immigrant from Russia, has made a personal pact with God to live an honest and righteous life in exchange for familial contentment and the promise of future just rewards. When his beloved daughter dies, however, Hersh questions the validity of this pact, rages at his maker, and changes the course of his life. This powerful and moving tale, rendered in rain-soaked and dark-shadowed visuals, is the entry most evocative of the soul-searching works of Masereel and Ward. In the second story, “The Street Singer,” Eisner recalls a class of men who survived by spontaneously serenading the courtyards of tenement buildings in exchange for tips. This is a shorter and more lighthearted tale, yet it still deals with crippling Depression-era poverty, alcoholism, marital infidelity, and domestic violence. All the more jarring, therefore, when the story effectively ends with a punchline. Next up, “The Super,” focuses on the superintendent of the tenement, who, as the representative of the slumlord, is viewed as a villain by the building’s residents. The plot of this story features a Lolita-esque sexual encounter, which Eisner relates with a brutal frankness that would likely inspire controversy if published today.

As good as these stories are, the final piece, “Cookalein,” is the book’s true masterpiece. A cookalein is a lower-class country resort where the vacationers would do their own cooking. As the summer destination for many of the Dropsie Avenue families, the cookalein becomes a dramatic social setting where married people cheat on their spouses, young singles shop for mates, parents pimp their daughters, and many a young man has his first sexual experience in the arms of a “cougar.” Eisner masterfully juggles multiple storylines in a tour de force of storytelling, both verbal and visual. If by the time you get to this final story there is any doubt that Eisner’s graphic novel was true literature, “Cookalein” puts such doubts to rest. Even if you are a hardcore literati who has never read comics before, A Contract with God will convert you into a comics fan.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Coming Race by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

A boring utopia, unless you’re a theosophist
The Coming Race is a utopian novel by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who, in addition to being a prolific writer, was also a politician who at one time held the post of Secretary of State for the Colonies of the United Kingdom. Published in 1871, the book tells the story of an American narrator who visits a friend who works as a mining engineer. In the process of granting the American traveler a tour of the mine at which he is employed, the engineer falls to his death, thus leaving the narrator alone at the bottom of the mine. Deep beneath the earth, he stumbles upon a subterranean civilization. The inhabitants of this world are not human, but rather a species of beings more advanced than our own, both evolutionarily and scientifically.

These beings, collectively dubbed the Vril-ya, are humanoid but more attractive, smooth, and hairless than we, in some respects resembling popular conceptions of angels. In fact, most of the Vril-ya have wings, albeit mechanical ones, which they use as a mode of transportation. These beings seemed to have evolved from a tribe of humans who descended into the earth long ago, but at one point a very odd theory is discussed at length asserting that the Vril-ya are descended from frogs as we are descended from apes, which accounts for their attractive near-hairlessness. Regardless of their origin, they have lived separate from the surface dwellers for millennia. Their underground world is illuminated by a combination of powered lights and natural phosphorescence.

The name of the Vril-ya arises from their ability to wield a mysterious power called Vril, a fictional ethereal substance that sounds like a mix of atomic energy and the Force from Star Wars. The Vril-ya use Vril to power their technology, destroy their enemies, and telekinetically move objects. The manipulation of Vril has solved many of the scientific problems that face humans of the surface world. The children of the race perform most of their society’s labor while the adults live languid lives of repose. Unfortunately, this excess of leisure makes the Vril-ya quite boring as subjects of science fiction. I enjoy classic utopian novels of all stripes, regardless of ideology or credibility, but I found very little to grab my attention and hold my interest in this rather lackadaisical depiction of an ideal society.

The one interesting aspect of the Vril-ya that sets them apart from our species is that the females are larger and more powerful than the males. In opposition to Victorian mores, in Vril-ya society the women are the sexual aggressors and the proposers of marriage, while the men are expected to be coquettish. This puts the narrator in an odd position when he is pursued by some females of the species. In fact, the entire latter half of the book deals mostly with the narrator’s interspecies love life, which has little to do with utopia but is slightly more entertaining than the book’s first half.

Though I didn’t much care for this novel, it was quite popular in its day. Some readers, mainly those who followed theosophist beliefs, actually viewed this book as a work of nonfiction. At least one Vril Society was rumored to have been established by occultists searching for Vril. For the rest of us, however, The Coming Race is just a utopian novel, and unfortunately, it’s a rather boring one. Those who choose to read it should do so out of historical curiosity and not in the expectation of much literary merit.

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