Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Visitors by Clifford D. Simak

Not your typical alien invasion
Clifford D. Simak had a long and illustrious career as a science fiction writer. Towards the end of his life, after almost a half century as a published author, he was still going strong. One of his later novels, The Visitors, was published in 1980, when Simak was in his mid-70s. This book is apt proof that his prodigious talent did not diminish but only ripened with age. The novel was originally serialized in issues of Analog magazine.

A large black box, reminiscent of the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, descends upon the small town of Lone Pine, Minnesota. The mysterious object appears to defy the law of gravity, hovering just above the ground with no visible means of propulsion. The unexplainable nature of this strange thing leads to speculation that it may have come from another world. It is unclear, however, whether this alien visitor is a living being or a mechanical probe. The visitor displays no hostile attention towards humans or the Earth, other than to munch some trees for fuel. It’s attitude towards mankind seems to be one of total indifference, and no one can find a way of communicating with it, except perhaps for one bystander fly fisherman who momentarily feels a telepathic bond with the black box.

The Visitors is not your typical novel of alien invasion. The book is not so much about the visitors themselves as it is about mankind’s reaction to them. How would the government, the press, and the general public respond to such an event? Simak illustrates this through an ensemble cast of characters including the aforementioned fly fisherman, the townspeople of Lone Pine, a team of journalists from Minneapolis, and the presidential administration in Washington, DC. Reporters are frequently employed as protagonists by Simak, who was a newspaperman himself, and the Minnesota setting should come as no surprise to Simak fans. He was born in Southeastern Wisconsin and worked at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune for most of his life. He has been called the pastoralist of science fiction for his frequent use of the rural Midwest as a setting for his stories. His affinity for small-town life and the natural landscape has a way of grounding fantastical happenings within the realm of believable reality.

The Visitors is riveting from start to finish. Simak expertly builds suspense by tantalizingly doling out piecemeal clues of the nature and purpose of the visitors over the entire length of the novel. He generates excitement not through War of the Worlds-style action sequences but rather through more cerebral scenes of intellectual discovery. In Simak’s fiction, a meeting of two worlds is rarely a conflict of good-vs.-evil but rather a question of whether the species involved will come to an understanding or succumb to fear and destruction. Simak has an exceptional talent for bringing out the humanity in his characters, even when his characters aren’t human.

Simak wrote The Visitors in a very cinematic style. With its brisk pace, engaging cast, and quick jumps between scenes in multiple locations, it is easy to imagine this novel being adapted into a Hollywood movie. Towards the end of the book, however, the sci-fi concepts become a little too high-end for the general viewing public. The unconventionality of Simak’s story admirably challenges the reader’s intelligence. The only drawback to this excellent novel is that the ending doesn’t go quite far enough and falls just short of satisfying, as Simak decides to leave the conclusion somewhat to the reader’s imagination. Nevertheless, The Visitors is one of his best novels and one that every Simak fan should read.
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Monday, August 8, 2022

Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay by Watkin Tench

Establishing Australia’s first British colony
Botany Bay, a natural harbor on the southeastern coast of Australia, was discovered by Captain James Cook in 1770. When Britain decided to colonize Australia, Botany Bay was judged the most promising location to establish a settlement. In 1787, a fleet of 11 ships set out from England to do just that. With several hundred convicts on board to serve as settlers of the new colony, the ships arrived in Botany Bay in January of 1788. Finding the land too swampy for settlement, however, the expedition opted instead for another harbor nearby, Port Jackson. The settlement they established there would eventually become the city of Sydney. Watkin Tench was an officer on one of the vessels in this company of ships (now known as the First Fleet). Prior to departure, Tench made a deal with a London publishing firm to write an account of the voyage. His memoir was published in 1789 as Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay.

Tench begins his narrative with the embarkation of the convicts in England. It isn’t until almost halfway through the book that the ships arrive at Australia. Along the way, Tench discusses stops the fleet made at Teneriffe (in the Canary Islands), Rio de Janeiro, and the Cape of Good Hope. These chapters mostly consist of information that would be valuable to mariners, such as geographic coordinates and the availability of supplies and fresh water. Tench also describes the conditions on board ship and the dangers of transporting prisoners, but in general he has nothing but good things to say about the behavior of the convicts. Because of Australia’s unique status as a prison colony, Tench delves into some of the legal and penal codes that applied to the settlement’s convict colonists. It seems like just about every infraction, major or minor, was punishable by death. For the most part, however, the convicts seemed pleased with their second chance at life and worked hard to create a new home amid the hardships of wilderness.

Tench describes the land, climate, wildlife, and agricultural prospects of the Australian terrain. His prose has the no-nonsense style of a military report, but there is also a tone of disappointment and disgust that runs throughout. Tench seems to regret his mission to this godforsaken place and doesn’t express much hope for those required to settle there. He also grumbles about the lack of governmental support of the expedition and the colony. In describing the land’s natural attributes, Tench often has to apologize for his own ignorance, since the British government didn’t see fit to send any scientists along on the mission. As a makeshift naturalist, however, Tench does express some admiration for the beautiful birds and plants of Australia, and he finds much of interest to say about the kangaroo. Tench readily admits that he doesn’t know much about the aborigines, who mostly kept their distance from the colonists. From his few encounters with the natives, Tench makes it clear thhe finds them physically repulsive. In general, however, he finds their behavior neither hostile nor amiable, simply aloof

Tench’s Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay only covers the first few months of the Australian colony. He would later follow it up with a second book, the Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson. For anyone interested in Australian history, Tench’s books are a must-read, but compared to other expedition narratives, like those of Captain Cook for example, Tench’s Narrative is not very exciting and only moderately informative.

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Friday, August 5, 2022

Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Civilization as a curse not a blessing
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men as a contest entry in an essay competition sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. Although he did not win the prize, Rousseau’s treatise was published in 1754 and became one of his most famous and influential works. The political ideas that Rousseau outlines in the Discourse on Inequality helped inspire the French Revolution, and his conception of the natural state of man was instrumental in spawning the cultural movement of Romanticism.

The Dijon competition asked its entrants to consider the question, “What is the origin of inequality among people, and is it authorized by natural law?” Rousseau begins by envisioning man in a pre-civilized state in which he is subject only to natural law. Free of reason and language, this “savage” man is driven by self-preservation and a preference for solitude and yet possesses a natural compassionate pity for the pain of other beings. Rather than look down on this pre-rational man, as one might expect from an Enlightenment intellectual, Rousseau expresses admiration for his natural virtue and envy of his blissful ignorance. While the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes conceived of natural man as a brute motivated by fear, Rousseau idolizes his prehistoric progenitors. Like the Biblical fall from Eden, Rousseau posits that the birth of civil society was the beginning of the end of happiness and the origin of all moral wrongs. In Rousseau’s view, civilization has not been a blessing to man but rather a curse.

Rousseau then hypothesizes upon how civilization began in the first place, conjuring up scenes of the invention of language and the initial establishment of private property. Without the benefit of as much archaeological knowledge as we possess today, much of Rousseau’s hypothetical history of mankind is conjectural, but the narrative he creates is cogently reasoned and unfolds in a rational progression. A century before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Rousseau clearly views man and society in evolutionary terms and at one point even expresses a concept akin to natural selection.

In Rousseau’s view, civil society began when the first man claimed a piece of land as his own, land that was previously freely available to all. Thus it is private property that sparks mankind’s fall from grace and is the root of all evil, self-loathing, and discontent. Although Rousseau doesn’t elaborate too much on economics in the Discourse, his longing for an anteproprietary past brings with it a connotation of socialism. The French Revolution was a socialist and secularist revolution. Rousseau fueled the socialist ideology with works such as this, while Voltaire provided the atheism. After Napoleon, they are probably the two most influential men in modern French history, which is why they get the most prominent tombs in the Panthéon.

Even if the reader doesn’t agree with everything Rousseau asserts in this treatise (the archaeological truth of “natural man” likely falls somewhere between Rousseau and Hobbes), one can’t help but admire his unconventional thought and well-reasoned argument and the profound effect his ideas had on world history. Rousseau is also simply a great writer, with a prose style that transcends philosophy to become literature. The Discourse on Inequality is a rare example of an important philosophical text that is not only thought-provoking but also a genuinely entertaining read.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Bertram Cope’s Year by Henry Blake Fuller

Landmark gay novel and a fun comedy of manners
Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929) was a Chicago author known for regional realist novels like The Cliff-Dwellers. Fuller was also gay, which in itself is not so remarkable, but he has left his stamp on history with what some literary critics have called the first gay novel in American literature: Bertram Cope’s Year, published in 1919 (although at least two other books can vie for that title: Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend [1870] and Xavier Mayne’s Imre: A Memorandum [1906]). In recent years, Fuller has been posthumously recognized for his achievements by induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame and the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

What’s amazing about Bertram Cope’s Year is how Fuller was able to cleverly write a realist novel about a gay man’s life and same-sex relationships without ever overtly mentioning either. The prudish world of American literature in 1919 would not have stood for explicit descriptions of physical affection or even verbal expressions of romantic love between two men, so Fuller does not include any, yet he gets his story told nonetheless. I suppose it is possible that some quite clueless reader of a century ago might read this as a story of platonic relationships, but one would have to be truly naive indeed to miss what Fuller implies between the lines.

Bertram Cope is a young teacher pursuing a PhD. He works as an adjunct instructor at a university in the town of Churchton, which is likely meant to be a lakeside suburb of Chicago, though that’s never overtly specified. Cope realizes he must work the college-town social scene if he wishes to advance his academic career, so he befriends local society hostess Medora Phillips and makes further connections with those who frequent her salon. Like many a handsome young man, Cope unwittingly draws the attention of straight young women who, unaware of his sexual orientation, try to snare him for a husband. Cope is also pursued by Basil Randolph, a 50-year-old businessman who enjoys the company of college men. Meanwhile, Cope carries on a long distance relationship with his boyfriend in Wisconsin, whom he hopes to persuade to relocate to Churchton. All of these relationships complicate the mild-mannered Cope’s life as he tries to live discreetly as a gay man while keeping up the appearance of a heterosexual bachelor.

Bertram Cope’s Year is not a comedy in the laugh-out-loud sense but it is a comedy of manners that satirizes social conventions. Fuller maintains a wry and dry humor throughout. Most of the characters in the novel end up looking foolish, and not simply because of the way they fall all over Cope. Fuller lampoons the very society that Cope is trying to fit into, with its constricting code of etiquette, annoying obligations, and matrimonial negotiations. Cope himself comes across a bit ridiculous as he reluctantly and bemusedly navigates this social landscape of dull cocktail parties, unwanted heart-to-heart confabs, and obligatory country outings.

Bertram Cope’s Year may not actually be the first gay novel in American literature, but it is nevertheless a groundbreaking and genre-founding work. Beyond its historical importance, however, it is quite an entertaining read with an enjoyably ironic sense of humor. This novel of manners calls to mind the earlier satirical melodramas of Honoré de Balzac or Anthony Trollope, but Fuller updates the genre for the modern era by pioneering a more inclusive representation of American society. This lesser-known work from a century ago is a pleasantly surprising gem.
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Monday, August 1, 2022

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A beautiful trip with unpleasant companions
After having made a name for himself in literary circles with his short stories, future Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway published his first novel in 1926. The Sun Also Rises is an autobiographical novel based on Hemingway’s experiences as a foreign correspondent in Europe. It centers around a group of American and British expatriates living in Paris who travel into Spain to go fishing and attend the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, which includes the famous running of the bulls. The novel is narrated by Jake Barnes, a wounded war vet and reporter from Kansas City. In Paris he encounters an old flame, Lady Brett Ashley, for whom he still has feelings. At least two other men in his social circle, however, are also in love with her. A thoroughly modern woman, she bestows her affections freely upon whomever captures her interest. This results in much in-fighting among the men in the traveling party as they booze their way around Spain.

Ninety percent of this novel isn’t really fiction at all but rather travel writing, and good travel writing at that. Hemingway is obviously recalling real travels that he undertook in Spain, and he vividly brings the setting to life with his descriptive prose. As for the fictional content of the book—the relationships between the characters—there is really only about enough plot here to fill a short story. Though the novel is set in France and Spain, it contains no French characters and only a few Spanish characters important enough to warrant names. The travelogue is heavy with tourist experiences of hotels, cafes, and trains. Mostly what the traveling party does is drink and get drunk, but in the background the week-long festival in Pamplona brings interest and vivacity to what would otherwise be a dreary narrative. The most effective passage in the book is Hemingway’s expertly rendered account of a bullfight. One can draw whatever conclusions they wish by considering this as a metaphor for masculinity, nature, or freedom, but even if one just takes the scene face-value as sports journalism it is an exceptional piece of writing, calling to mind the verbal artistry with which Jack London used to recount boxing matches.

Hemingway garnered praise for his sparse use of language, particularly in this novel. His economical, journalistic style of prose employs few words to say what he wants to say and deliberately leaves much unsaid, leaving the reader to deduce many of the characters’ inner thoughts and emotions. Hemingway’s modern rapid-fire style does make for brisk and addictive reading that propels the reader through the narrative. On the other hand, one could argue that The Sun Also Rises is awfully repetitive with its endless scenes of alcohol consumption and often pointless dialogue. Of course, many conversations in real life are pointless too, so in that sense the characters are more a reflection of reality than those of the romantic literature that prevailed before Hemingway’s modern era. The blunt shallowness of the characters, however, does make many of them unlikable and difficult to care about. There’s also an anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jewish character that tarnishes the book and reflects poorly on the author.

The Sun Also Rises was likely a groundbreaking novel for its day, one that took critics and readers by surprise for its modernist innovations. By now, however, we’ve lived through two generations of writers who grew up reading Hemingway and trying to emulate him, so much of the book’s cutting-edge originality is lost on readers of today, as is the author’s commentary on the “Lost Generation” of our grandparents and great-grandparents age. Stripped of that context, this is a very good piece of realist writing about a time and place, but it is inhabited by a group of characters who fail to move the reader with their angst, self pity, and disillusionment.
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