Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

The Gospel according to Lew
Ben-Hur, a historical novel by former Civil War general Lew Wallace, was published in 1880. The best-selling American novel of the 19th century, it combines a Count of Monte Cristo-esque revenge tale with a retelling of New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. Those who think they are familiar with the story from seeing the award-winning film adaptation will be surprised at how much Wallace focuses on the latter subject matter at the expense of the former. The book opens with an extensive rehash of the story of Christ’s birth, from the meeting of the Magi through the Nativity. Wallace loads his narrative with vivid descriptive details of the clothing, architecture, food, animals, and multicultural peoples of the Middle East. All this ethnographic and archaeological detail adds to the authenticity of the story. This realism is negated, however, by Wallace’s decision to pepper the book with supernatural phenomena, from choirs of angels to the miraculous healing of the sick.

Judah Ben-Hur is the son of a wealthy aristocratic Jewish family in Jerusalem, then part of the Roman Empire. A Roman boy named Messala is his closest childhood friend, but as the two reach manhood their differing races and faiths set them at odds with each other. When the Roman governor of Jerusalem is injured in an accident, Messala deliberately accuses Ben-Hur of an assassination plot. Ben-Hur is condemned to be a galley slave for life, and his mother and sister are taken away, he knows not where. While spending years in chains, he vows that someday he will have his freedom, reunite with his beloved family, and wreak his vengeance upon Messala.

Much like the Count of Monte Cristo, Ben-Hur is the beneficiary of a great deal of unbelievably good fortune and uncanny coincidence in his epic quest for retribution. Wallace attributes his hero’s dumb luck to the will of God. I prefer to think of it as romantic license on the part of the author, which can be forgiven for the sake of a good story. What can’t be forgiven, however, is the plodding pace with which Wallace proceeds through his narrative. The lead up to the climactic chariot race takes forever, and in the end one discovers it wasn’t really worth the wait after all. Ben-Hur’s love interest is a beautiful Egyptian temptress whose sole purpose is to spout interminably long folk tales and creation myths. Throughout the book Ben-Hur and his supporting cast engage in debate after debate about the nature of Christ and what his title of “King of the Jews” really signifies. The way Wallace weaves the life of Christ into Ben-Hur’s story is clever at first, but eventually the book just devolves into a nearly verbatim recitation of the Gospels, a story the reader has likely already heard.

It’s possible to write a historical novel dealing with religious and theological themes in a way that appeals to an audience beyond the devout. Henryk Sienkiewicz proved that with Quo Vadis. Wallace, on the other hand, is clearly preaching to the converted. The fictional story of Ben-Hur is an admirable creation, but it’s opaquely obscured by the heavy-handed application of Christian dogma. It’s hard to even find a moral lesson here, other than simply, “Believe in Christ.” Wallace could have used the story of Ben-Hur to make a powerful statement about forgiveness or redemption; instead, he just paraphrases scenes from the Bible. Thus, the more devoted you are to the Christian faith, the more likely you are to enjoy the book. Readers simply looking for an epic adventure of the ancient world would be better off turning to Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, or Gore Vidal’s Creation.
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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Third Time Travel Megapack, edited by John Gregory Betancourt

More fun with past and future
This is the third collection of time travel stories published by Wildside Press as part of their extensive Megapacks series. The Megapacks are inexpensive ebook collections, usually costing a buck, that largely consist of reprinted vintage pulp fiction, with a few more contemporary entries thrown in as well. This volume contains 18 stories of past or future exploration (though two of them are so brief you might as well just consider it 16). This may be their third time out of the gate for this subject matter, but John Gregory Betancourt and his editorial crew at Wildside haven’t run out of material yet. The Third Time Travel Megapack is every bit as good as its predecessors.

This Megapack is quite a bit shorter than the two that preceded it—less than half the length of the original Time Travel Megapack and about a third as long as the Second. It only contains one novella-length work, “The Children’s Room” by Raymond F. Jones, which is one of the book’s better entries. Though the brevity of this less mega pack may mean you’re getting less for your dollar, that’s not so bad, because it feels like there’s less junk in the attic. Although the excellent stories may be few and far between, there aren’t many stinkers either. Mostly it’s just good science fiction fare. The first and second Time Travel Megapacks each had their share of antiquated, hokey, and politically correct entries, but the third volume is almost devoid of such dross. The main offenders here are the humorous pieces, in which the punchlines have not held up well over time. The two “Ferdinand Feghoot” shorts by Grendel Briarton are dumb puns that inspire eye rolls, but each takes less than sixty seconds to read, so they don’t waste much of your time. Stories like Emil Petaja’s “Dinosaur Goes Hollywood,” on the other hand—loaded with annoying slang and dumb slapstick comedy—makes one long for more serious time-travel fare.

Three excellent tales make this Megapack more than worth its meager cover price. Philip K. Dick’s name appears prominently on the cover, and his entry “Meddler” certainly merits notice. Despite warnings about the dangers of screwing with time, a team of scientists uses a machine called the Time Dip to take pictures of the future. In doing so, they seem to have inadvertently caused the destruction of mankind, and must send an investigator into the future to see where they went wrong. Mack Reynolds, who was the best thing about the Second Time Travel Megapack, contributes another great story here with “Gun for Hire,” about a mafia hitman who is transported into the future so he can assassinate a potential Hitler-esque dictator in the making. Full of surprises, it delivers both ample laughs and suspense. The best story in the collection is “Never Go Back” by Charles V. de Vet. A scientist makes his initial trip through time, traveling back to his childhood in order to save the life of a boyhood friend. It starts out in perplexing Twilight Zone mode, but then goes off into very unexpected directions, becoming a shockingly scary, creepy, and bizarre tale of horror. For a story written over 60 years ago, it’s surprisingly graphic and frightening.

Grab bags of assorted fiction such as this are seldom perfect, and this collection is no exception, but if you like vintage sci-fi, this series of Megapacks will satisfy your craving for all things time travel. After reading The Third Time Travel Megapack, I am happily awaiting the Fourth.

The Kindle file has a lot of typographical errors; not enough to hinder understanding, but enough to annoy. One of the shortest stories was pasted twice, so it appears duplicated in its entirety. The copy I downloaded even had the wrong cover image. Wildside publishes good stuff, but they should pay more attention to quality control.

Stories in this collection
The Children’s Room by Raymond F. Jones 
Sidetrack in Time by William P. McGivern 
George All the Way by Richard Wilson
Absolutely No Paradox by Lester del Rey 
The Hohokam Dig by Theodore Pratt 
Guaranteed Tenure by H. B. Fyfe 
Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: 42 by Grendel Briarton 
Never Go Back by Charles V. de Vet 
The Ancestral Thread by Emil Petaja 
The Sons of Japheth by Richard Wilson 
Meddler by Philip K. Dick 
The Man Who Liked Lions by John Bernard Daley 
Flame for the Future by William P. McGivern 
Dinosaur Goes Hollywood by Emil Petaja 
Time Out for Tomorrow by Richard Wilson 
Remember the Alamo! by R. R. Fehrenbach 

Gun for Hire by Mack Reynolds 

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: 63 by Grendel Briarton 

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Labor and Freedom by Eugene V. Debs

The state of socialism in America, circa 1912
Eugene V. Debs
A century before critics started accusing Bernie Sanders of being a socialist, a real Socialist was in the running for President of the United States. Eugene V. Debs sought the nation’s highest office five times (once from a prison cell). His best performance came in 1912 when, running as a fourth-party candidate against Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, he garnered six percent of the vote. Despite being a high school dropout, Debs was hailed in his day as one of the nation’s most eloquent and moving speakers. His rhetoric not only inspired political fervor but also influenced the socially conscious literature of his era, most notably the writings of Upton Sinclair and Jack London. Labor and Freedom, published in 1916, is a collection of Debs’ writings and speeches. The 18 pieces included in the book provide a detailed overview of Debs’ political thought and campaign platform, as well as a valuable historical record of the American socialist movement at its height.

The book is divided roughly in half; the first part being articles and short lectures and the second consisting of four longer campaign speeches. In “The Secret of Efficient Expression,” when Debs is asked to explain how he became such a powerful and effective speaker, he provides a political autobiography detailing the course of his self education. Among his influences, he ranks two great orators as his personal heroes: abolitionist Wendell Phillips and “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll­—two names that crop up repeatedly in his discourse. In “Susan B. Anthony,” Debs expresses his admiration for and solidarity with the famous suffragist, whom he met on two occasions. “Pioneer Women of America” heaps more praise upon Anthony, while also recognizing Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s contributions to the women’s rights and abolitionist movements. In “The Coppock Bros.,” Debs recognizes two Ohio men who fought alongside John Brown in the attack on Harper’s Ferry. “Jesus, the Supreme Leader” presents a secular interpretation of Christ as the ultimate communist, a view shared by Sinclair and many other Christian socialists.

Of course, the book is more than just a collection of history lessons. The majority of its pages are occupied by political rhetoric, some of which could fairly be called propaganda. In “The Social Spirit,” Debs preaches against individualism, capitalism, and competition in favor of brotherhood, socialism, and cooperation. In a pair of pieces, “The Little Lords of Love” and “A Message to the Children,” Debs uses imagery of an idyllic socialist childhood to appeal to parent voters and ends up sounding manipulative and cloying in the process. The campaign speeches are where the real meat of Debs’s thought comes through. If there’s one entry that encapsulates the state of socialism in America a century ago it’s “Unity and Victory,” which opens as a primer on socialist philosophy and ends in a call for all unions to join together into one universal brotherhood of the working class. Not surprisingly for campaign speeches, the four selections included here tend to get repetitive, and Debs spends just as much time attacking his opponents—Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, and William Jennings Bryan—as he does outlining his own agenda. These are campaign speeches, after all, intended to educate and persuade, not to entertain. Regardless of your political slant, the primary value of Labor and Freedom to the 21st century reader is its function as time capsule to an era when many considered socialism to be a viable option for American governance, the class struggle was openly discussed as a reality of American life, and the “S” word was not hurled about as a pejorative insult.

Articles, lectures, and speeches in this collection
The Old Umbrella Mender 
The Secret of Efficient Expression 
Jesus, The Supreme Leader
Susan B. Anthony 
Louis Tikas 
The Little Lords of Love 
The Coppock Bros. 
The Social Spirit 
Roosevelt and His Regime 
Industrial and Social Democracy 
A Message to the Children 
Social Reform 
Danger Ahead 
Pioneer Women in America 
Unity and Victory
Political Appeal to American Workers 

The Fight for Freedom 

Capitalism and Socialism  

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The People That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The sequel that saved a series
Originally published in Blue Book Magazine in 1918, The People That Time Forgot is the second novel in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Caspak trilogy, following The Land That Time Forgot and preceding Out of Time’s Abyss. I didn’t care much for The Land That Time Forgot because it took too long to get anywhere and was more of an introduction to the series than a complete novel in and of itself. Still, I was intrigued enough by the world Burroughs created to tough it out for another volume. The People That Time Forgot, thankfully, actually does qualify as a self-contained novel with a beginning, middle, and end all its own. Picking up where the last book left off, this adventure story hits the ground running and fares much better at engaging the reader than its predecessor.

The first book was narrated by Bowen J. Tyler, who wrote of his adventures in the lost continent of Caprona, which the locals call Caspak. Tyler stuffed his manuscript into a bottle and tossed it into the sea. In the second book, the man who found that bottle (ostensibly Burroughs himself) takes the manuscript to Tyler’s family in California. Tom Billings, a sort of servant’s-kid-turned-adopted-brother to Bowen, quickly organizes an expedition to find Caprona and rescue his lost friend. Billings’s ship locates Caprona easily enough, but the island is surrounded by steep cliffs that prevent entry into the interior. The resourceful Billings solves this problem by flying over the cliffs with a seaplane. His rescue effort is jeopardized, however, when his plane crashes and he must concentrate his efforts on rescuing himself.

In Caspak, prehistoric creatures of every stage of evolution coexist, anything but peacefully. One never knows if he will run into an Allosaurus, a Smilodon, or an Australopithecus behind the next grove of palm trees. The native inhabitants of Caspak are segregated into a social strata of tribes based on their stage of evolutionary development, from the Alu (ape men), to the Sto-lu (missing links), Bo-lu (Neanderthals), Band-lu (Cro-Magnons), Kro-lu (early homo sapiens), and Galu (modern homo sapiens). The People That Time Forgot is aptly titled because this volume primarily focuses on Billings moving about among these various peoples, interacting with them, and unintentionally getting involved in their tribal politics. Early in the book Billings encounters a Galu woman named Ajor, a beautiful but filthy barbarian, who becomes his companion as he travels toward the coast in hopes of reuniting with his shipmates.

This book is by no means a masterpiece. It gets pretty dull at times, and the evolutionary workings of Caspak are often quite confusing. Yet, when judged alongside similar fare of roughly the same era—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, or Burroughs' own The Land That Time Forgot—it shines by comparison. The stories of Billings and Tyler are far less interesting than the land of Caspak itself, which is loaded with fictional possibilities. It would be a great setting for a TV or comic book series (in fact, the Savage Land of the Marvel Comics universe is likely a Caspak knockoff). While the first book only hinted at the mysteries of this lost continent, the second installment reveals its strange characteristics in far more detail. Nevertheless, Burroughs has left many questions unanswered which will no doubt fuel the plot of the trilogy’s third and final volume. I’m glad I stuck it out through the second book and am looking forward to the finale.
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