Monday, November 29, 2021

Special Deliverance by Clifford D. Simak

Wild goose chase in an alternate universe
Since discovering the science fiction of Clifford D. Simak a few years ago, I have been steadily chipping away at his complete works. Thanks to the inexpensive ebook editions offered by Open Road Media, I have been able to read over two dozen of his books. While I am favorably disposed towards anything Simak has written, Special Deliverance is not one of his stronger works. This novel, his second to last, was originally published in 1982.

Edward Lansing is a professor of English literature at Langmore College in New England. Through a series of odd circumstances best left unspoiled, he finds himself transported to a mysterious forest he knows not where. After wandering a bit, he eventually finds an inhabited inn and meets up with a handful of displaced individuals like himself. Together they form a band of six: a professor, an engineer, a parson, a military man, a poet, and a sentient robot. They ascertain that they have all been abducted from different universes—Earths with alternate histories—and brought together in this place, though none of them have any idea the reason why. Convinced that they have been brought together to undertake some mission that might allow them to return to their homes, the half dozen characters explore this unknown world looking for clues to the mysterious purpose of their involuntary journey.

Though the setup involving the exploration of the unknown has the potential for an intriguing premise, the problem with Special Deliverance is that too much remains unknown throughout the length of the book. The travelers wander about looking for answers, occasionally experiencing some unusual phenomena, but nothing much is really learned along the way. It’s kind of like a long and poorly conducted role-playing game in which the players roam blindly through terrain they can’t see. Only when they accidentally bump into something interesting does the narrative pick up a little. Simak occasionally inserts a device, a monolith, or a creature that demonstrates his knack for original visionary concepts. Only in the final chapter is all conveniently explained; everything up until that point is merely the blind leading the blind. One can’t help thinking that all this aimless wandering could have been avoided or at least condensed for the reader’s benefit. Simak should have parcelled out bread crumbs of knowledge throughout the narrative instead of dumping all the answers in the final act.

Despite the theory about alternate universes, this novel is more fantasy than science fiction—not Dungeons and Dragons-type fantasy but something like Twilight Zone fantasy. There isn’t really much scientific rationale given for any of the happenings in the plot. The narrative is just a string of cool ideas strung sparsely along a meandering thread. By Simak standards, Special Deliverance is a novel of average quality. If you are a Simak fan it may be worth a read, but it is not a book to go out of your way for. If you are new to Simak and haven’t done so already, check out any of the volumes in The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. Each volume is quite good, and they often pop up as Kindle Daily Deals.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks by Hugo Blümner

From cradle to grave in Athens and Sparta
Hugo Blümner was a German archaeologist who wrote several books on ancient Greece and Rome. His book The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks was published in English in 1895. It was first published in German in 1887 as Leben und Sitten der Griechen. The book is a synthesis of what was known in the late nineteenth century about the daily lives of ancient Greeks, not just the kings and warriors of renown but also the common folk and even slaves. Much of the book’s conclusions are drawn from extant texts and works of art left behind by the Greeks rather than from archaeological digs in which remains and artifacts are found in situ. For example, Blümner frequently refers to Homer’s descriptions of the archaic Greek world, as well as vase paintings and statues pictured in over 200 illustrations

The book opens with a very extensive chapter on clothing that really challenges the reader’s attention span with its charting of every fold, stitch, and pleat in the ancient Greek wardrobe. Next is a discussion of childbirth and childhood that covers not only how children were cared for but also how they amused themselves. After describing the kind of education Greek children of different classes would have received, Blümner then delves into marriage customs. This is followed by a dawn-to-bedtime study of daily life in a Greek household, paying close attention to the different activities practiced by men and women. A chapter on sickness and death explains the birth of the medical profession in Greece as well as burial customs. Succeeding chapters deliver copious details of the athletic, musical, and religious activities of the Greeks. A section on public festivals provides a vivid look at the Olympics and the Festival of Dionysus, among other events. Blümner’s very interesting chapter on Greek theatre does not go into the literary history of drama but rather describes how the plays were performed and the experience of the theatergoers. The book then delves into the lives of soldiers, farmers, and artisans before closing with a chapter on slaves, who greatly outnumbered the free population of ancient Greece.

Blümner admits that most of his book applies specifically to Athens and its vicinity, for that was the area of Greece on which most archaeological knowledge had been accumulated. On many subjects, however, he also provides specific information on Spartan life and customs, and on rarer occasions he discusses some of the outlying regions of Greece. Blümner also makes a distinction between the “heroic age” (the time of Homer’s works) and the “classic” period of Greek history, from about the sixth to the third century BC. He often discusses both eras, pointing out differences between the two.

A lot of archaeological digs have taken place over the past century, which no doubt have expanded upon our knowledge of ancient Greece, so there are bound to be some errors in accuracy and omissions of detail in Blümner’s work. For the non-archaeologist like myself, however, Blümner draws a sufficiently clear picture of the ancient Greek world to satisfy the curious general reader. Blümner’s writing, and its translation, were aimed at a nineteenth-century audience, so his prose often comes across as stilted and dry by today’s standards. For a more up-to-date, detailed, and user-friendly synthesis on the subject, I would recommend the Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece by Lesley and Roy Adkins, from Oxford University Press’s exceptional Handbook to Life series. Though it wasn’t always the most engaging text, I did learn much from The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks and found it a rewarding read.

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Friday, November 19, 2021

Travels to Oaxaca by Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville

Biological espionage in New Spain
Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville (1739-1780) was a French botanist and physician. In 1776 he came up with a plan to venture into Mexico to steal samples of the cochineal insect, valued for its production of a vibrant red dye, and its natural habitat and food source the nopal cactus. Thiéry de Menonville hoped to then transplant these natural resources to French colonies in the Caribbean, thus breaking the Spanish monopoly on the cochineal’s carmine dye. Because such biological and mineral treasures were so closely guarded in the American colonies, the French and other foreigners were not allowed into the territories of New Spain without obtaining rarely granted passports for each checkpoint in their journey. Unable to obtain the proper papers to venture beyond the coastal city of Veracruz, Thiéry de Menonville embarked on a clandestine journey to Oaxaca, home of the cochineal, thus making his foray into Southern Mexico a hazardous spy mission.

In 1787, Thiéry de Menonville published his scientific text Traité de la Culture du Nopal, et de l’Education de la Cochenille dans les Colonies Françaises de l’Amerique, which included the narrative of his Voyage a Guaxaca as an introduction. The Voyage portion of this book was then translated into English and published in 1812 as a chapter in A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels to All Parts of the World, Volume 13 (pages 753 to 876), edited by John Pinkerton. Whether published in French or in English, these early editions are quite phonetically inventive in their spellings of Mexican place names, and the species names of plants are sometimes vague and outdated. It helps to have some prior knowledge of Mexican geography because today’s reader must frequently employ educated guesses in order to determine to where and what Thiéry de Menonville is referring.

I’ve traveled to many of the places Thiéry de Menonville discusses in this book, so it was very interesting to read about what Veracruz, Orizaba, and Oaxaca were like two centuries earlier. As I recall, the trip to Oaxaca was rough even by bus, and this account reveals it was quite an adventure making the journey by foot and horse when the land was even wilder and more sparsely populated. Though Thiéry de Menonville is forced to rough it in some harsh conditions, he seems to have an unlimited supply of gold and silver in his pockets, which comes in handy when wrangling over the purchase of horses, mules, or ship fare to transport his botanical specimens.

As a storyteller, Thiéry de Menonville is an entertaining raconteur. His writing reveals him to be quite arrogant, and not surprisingly he considers France the greatest nation in the world. He never passes up an opportunity to rip on the Spanish, whom he denigrates for their idleness, lack of culture (compared to Paris), and what he sees as poor management of their New World colonies. He expresses more respect for the Indigenous inhabitants of Mexico because as a botanist he admires their waste-not-want-not approach to utilizing nature’s bounty. As one might expect in an 18th-century text, the author does engage in some unfortunate racial profiling of the Black and Native populations, but only briefly, and his criticisms are more the insults of a disgruntled traveler than racial slurs. One aspect of Mexico that pleased Thiéry de Menonville very much is its natural beauty and diversity. When he describes the animals and plants that he encounters, his joy of discovery is infectious, making this a very interesting read for anyone interested in the early scientific exploration of the Americas.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips on Canadian Nature and Art, edited by Maria Tippett and Douglas L. Cole

A staunch advocate for representational art
Walter J. Phillips (1884-1963) was one of Canada’s greatest printmakers. He was also a very accomplished watercolor painter, but he is more widely known for his color woodcuts made using traditional Japanese methods. Born in England, Phillips emigrated to Canada in his late twenties. He lived and worked in Winnipeg for almost three decades, than moved West to take up a position at the Banff School of Fine Art in Alberta. In addition to being an artist and teacher, Phillips also wrote extensively on art and artists. Cultural historians Douglas L. Cole and Maria Tippett have collected a number of Phillips’s essays in the book Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips on Canadian Nature and Art, published in 1982 by the Manitoba Record Society in Winnipeg. Many of the selections included in the book were previously published as newspaper columns in the Winnipeg Tribune, while others were taken from unpublished manuscripts left among Phillips’s surviving papers held by a private collector. A pdf file of Phillips in Print can be found online with a Google search and downloaded for free.

Of the pdf edition’s roughly 200 pages, about two dozen are devoted to reproductions of Phillips prints, some in color and some in black and white. You can find better reproductions in other books and websites, however, so the real attraction here is Phillips’s writings, many of which have not been published elsewhere. The brief essays are not presented chronologically but arranged thematically into chapters on the practice and business of art, the four seasons of landscape sketching in Canada, favorite scenic sketching grounds, Canadian art (in Toronto), Western Canadian art, and the art of the woodcut. Cole and Tippett also open the publication with a biography of Phillips that is more extensive than one typically finds in coffee-table books of his art.

In Canada, everything west of Ontario is considered The West, at least as far as art is concerned. Phillips was proud to be a Western Canadian artist and was active in trumpeting the accomplishments of his artistic colleagues west of Toronto. At this time, however, if you wanted to find fame and fortune as an artist in Canada you had to live and work in Toronto. Phillips acknowledges that settling in the West was not a great career move, but rather than resign himself to second-class status he chose to promote Western art and lay the foundation for future geographic equity by pioneering the establishment of art scenes in Winnipeg, Banff, and Vancouver.

Phillips was personally acquainted with many of Canada’s most renowned artists, including the great Tom Thomson. Phillips’s relationship with the Group of Seven, the superstars of Canadian painting, is somewhat contentious. When he writes about them as individuals, he expresses much respect and admiration for their work. As a movement, however, Phillips takes umbrage with the implication that the Group of Seven style is the only true Canadian art. Their rough, impressionistic technique, saturated colors, and geometric mountains were too modernist for him. For Phillips, the purpose of art is to interpret the beauty of nature. In these essays he champions representational art and frequently chastises modernism as a “cult of sheer ugliness.” To those who appreciate Phillips’s realistic landscapes and classical craftsmanship, this probably won’t come as a surprise. His tastes in art are not unilaterally one-sided, however, and his insightful writings shed light on the entire varied panorama of Canadian art in the early 20th century. Though the reader may not agree with all of Phillips’s assertions about art, anyone interested in printmaking, landscape painting, or Canadian art history will enjoy his articulate discourse on these subjects.
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Monday, November 15, 2021

Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Alexander Levitsky

More an academic monograph than a sci-fi anthology
Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction was published in 2007. The target audience for this book seems to be editor Alexander Levitsky’s fellow scholars in Russian studies or literary criticism. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. For what it is, it’s quite well done. When this book pops up as a Kindle Daily Deal, however, the average reader may think it’s simply an anthology of short stories from Russian authors that will appeal to a curious science fiction or fantasy buff. While there certainly is material here that the general reader will enjoy, there is also quite a bit of historical and cultural analysis in the form of critical essays between the entries. The works collected here are not chosen for their entertainment value but rather for what they reflect of Russian and Soviet culture and to support Levitsky’s theses on those topics. Some of the greatest writers in Russian literature are included here, but in order to fit all their works into the volume many of the selections had to be abridged. Much of the book’s contents consists of truncated stories or isolated chapters from novels. Even if those chapters pique your interest, you may not be able to find the complete novel in English translation.

All the reservations mentioned above are forgivable, given what Levitsky is trying to accomplish with this book. What really disappointed me about this volume, however, is the extremely broad parameters of what is considered to constitute fantasy or science fiction. In one sense, just about anything that’s fiction could be considered fantasy, but most readers would probably apply the word to the Lord of the Rings genre or at least fiction in The Twilight Zone vein. Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky are certainly among Russia’s greatest authors, but one could question whether some of their works included here really qualify as fantasy. In Levitsky’s definition, however, all manner of dreams, ghosts, angels, folktales, and religious visions of the afterlife are included. As an analogy, imagine if someone were to compile a book on English fantasy and science fiction that started with Beowulf and proceeded through Arthurian legends, Robin Hood folktales, Thomas More’s Utopia, the Romantic poets, and Dickensian ghost stories before ever getting to William Morris, H. G. Wells, or J. R. R. Tolkien, abridged excerpts from whose works would occupy only the final quarter of the volume. The result would say a lot about British culture but would likely leave typical fans of the science fiction and fantasy genres disappointed with the overall offering of selections. Such is the case here. I learned a lot about Russian literature, but wasn’t interested in much of the literary content presented.

Of course, there is much to like in this volume as well. Valery Iakovlevich Briusov’s story “Republic of the Southern Cross” is a delightful horror story of a utopian city in Antarctica. Alexander Ivanovich Kuprin’s “Liquid Sunshine,” about an eccentric scientist’s visionary experiments in South America, calls to mind the sci-fi tales of Wells or Arthur Conan Doyle. Mikhail Bulgakov’s entertaining satirical novella The Fatal Eggs appears to be reproduced in its entirety. Space travel doesn’t factor much into the collection until four-fifths of the way through, where there’s a special section devoted to it. Three fragmentary stories by Andrei Platonovich Platonov contain enough innovative scientific theories to spawn at least a half dozen sci-fi novels. Ivan Antonovich Efremov’s novel The Andromeda Nebula is an intriguing Star Trek-style saga of mankind’s exploration of the galaxy, but the reader only gets portions of the first two chapters.

None of my comments are intended to be negative criticism of Levitsky’s scholarship. Kudos to him for writing this book. I’m just trying to help other readers decide if they want to read it.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

The reign, fall, and aftermath of a Latin American dictator
Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, is likely the most renowned and acclaimed author in contemporary Peruvian literature. His historical novel The Feast of the Goat, published in 2000, is set in the Dominican Republic. It examines the reign and fall of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, who ruled over the Caribbean nation from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Vargas Llosa’s outstanding novel provides a realistic look inside the regime of one of the most brutal autocrats of the twentieth century.

In 1996, a Dominican American woman named Urania Cabral returns to her homeland for the first time in 35 years. She fled the island nation as a teenager and was raised in the United States, where she built a successful career for herself in New York City. Since her departure from the Dominican Republic so long ago, Urania has not spoken to her now aged father, a former high-ranking senator in the Trujillo administration, nor to any of her relatives. Now, seeing her father for the first time in over three decades brings to the surface anger and resentment for a wrong he inflicted on her all those years ago, the nature of which is initially concealed from the reader.

The story is not a strictly linear narrative but rather jumps around chronologically. In scenes of 1961 the reader sees both the Trujillo regime at the height of its power and the assassination that brought about its downfall. In between chapters on Urania and the Cabral family, Vargas Llosa examines in great detail the killing of the dictator and its aftermath, telling the story from the multiple perspectives of Trujillo’s enemies and allies. While the Cabral family is entirely fictitious, nearly all the other characters in the book, Trujillo included, are actual historic personages. The large ensemble cast comprise a complex web of corruption, oppression, and atrocity that illuminates in intricate detail the horrors of life under the unchecked power of a brutal autocrat.

What’s pleasantly surprising about The Feast of the Goat is that, for the work of a Nobel laureate, it is a remarkably accessible read. That’s not to say that Vargas Llosa has dumbed down the work in any way, only that he writes in engaging, articulate prose, free of gratuitous verbal ostentation, that emphasizes substance over style. This novel reads like a political thriller that might have been written by an author of bestselling potboilers were it not for the unflinchingly frank authenticity with which Vargas Llosa sets his scenes. While Trujillo is an infamous monster and Urania somewhat of a saint, the remaining cast of characters are painted in varying life-like shades of gray that blur the lines between heroes and villains, predators and prey. The plot includes a few very disturbing scenes of torture, execution, and rape that illustrate the violent excesses of authoritarian oppression in startling detail.

The Trujillo regime is just one example of what took place in many Latin American nations in the twentieth century, sometimes with the complicity of the United States. As a historical novel, The Feast of the Goat encapsulates that tragic era in South American history. It serves as a monument to all who suffered and died under the Trujillo regime and dictatorships like it. Though this novel may read like a political thriller, may it also stand as a cautionary tale of unbridled power.
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Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov

Satirical novella of science gone wrong
Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) is best known for his novel The Master and Margarita, which has become something of a cult classic in English translation. Prior to writing that magnum opus, Bulgakov had published several novellas including The Fatal Eggs, a satirical work of science fiction. The Fatal Eggs was originally published in the Russian literary journal Nedra in 1925, but the story takes place in the near future of 1928 and 1929.

Professor Vladimir Persikov is a zoologist who specializes in amphibians. One day while peering through a microscope in his laboratory, he discovers an optical abnormality arising from the light refracted through his device’s lenses. After serendipitously isolating a specific red wavelength of the visible spectrum, he notices that the microorganisms within this ray of light experience remarkable fertility, growth, and physical fortitude. When word gets around of the professor’s findings, it is said that he has discovered the “ray of life.” Meanwhile, a mysterious plague has struck the chickens of Russia and decimated their population. Before he has been able to conduct satisfactory experiments on his invention, Persikov’s red ray is co-opted by the government to combat the poultry plague. In science as in love, however, only fools rush in, and the unwise haste with which the ray is applied to the chicken problem leads to unforeseen and terrifying consequences.

The first third of The Fatal Eggs is quite fascinating science fiction. Though the concept of the red ray is not entirely realistic, it is treated realistically in terms of the scientific method of its discovery. This results in a tone of verisimilitude similar to the science fiction novels of H. G. Wells, who was a major influence on Bulgakov. After a gradual crescendo of suspense, the plot of The Fatal Eggs climaxes in scenes of chilling horror and thrilling action worthy of a vintage monster movie.

In between its promising start and exciting finish, the mid-section of the novella is more satirical in nature. Through Persikov’s dealings with the government, Bulgakov lampoons the Soviet socialist bureaucracy, particularly in regards to its policies toward science and public safety. Today’s reader may not find Bulgakov’s satire entirely successful at generating laughs, however, since the humor is almost a century old and the comedy has somewhat of a Dadaist sensibility reminiscent of fellow Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We. The English translation (by Carl R. Proffer in my edition) may also be at least partially to blame. The English text reads awkwardly, as if the Russian prose may have been translated too literally, and the translator perhaps assumes too much knowledge of Russian history and culture on the part of the reader, resulting in some disorientation for Westerners.

Overall, The Fatal Eggs is a little too comical, to the point where the humor undermines the impact of the story’s science fiction elements. Bulgakov’s writing is more effective in the suspenseful scenes than in the satirical passages, leaving one to wish that he had devoted more energy in the horror direction. Even so, there is still plenty to enjoy in this truly off-beat and uniquely Russian work of science fiction. Fans of writers like Wells and Jules Verne should certainly give it a try.
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