Monday, April 30, 2012

Musical Monday - The Internet Will Always Be Here (World of Warcraft Breakup Song) by The Doubleclicks

This has been a lousy week for me for blogging, which is evidenced by the fact that since the last Musical Monday I have not posted a single book review when in a normal week I'd post three and maybe four. Without going in to details, this lack of blogging has been directly tied to the fact that in a lot of ways that I don't want to go into in any more detail, this has been a lousy week for me in general. In the larger scheme of things I hope this will lead to better weeks ahead, but the last seven days have been mostly crummy.

And so for Musical Monday I picked The Doubleclick's The Internet Will Always Be Here subtitled A World of Warcraft Breakup Song. This song is about the bittersweet sadness of a necessary breakup, and the consoling power of the internet and MMO gaming. For the record, I'll say that although the situation described in the song has some vague similarities to the events that made my last week lousy, the similarities are only vague. The feeling behind the song, however, is spot on.

Previous Musical Monday: Happy Birthday George Takei by Five Year Mission
Subsequent Musical Monday: Icarus (Borne on Wings of Steel) by Kansas

The Doubleclicks     Musical Monday     Home

Friday, April 27, 2012

Follow Friday - There Are Fifty-Eight Spaces in the Game Hexxagon

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Book That Thing! and Little Read Riding Hood.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Have you had a character that disappointed you? One that you fell in love with and then “broke up” with later on in either the series or a stand-alone book? Tell us about him or her.

Hmm. This is a tough question. I usually either like a character right off the bat or I really don't. The other thing that makes this a tough question is that I haven't read very many series in which one character is the central feature. For example, I've read James Bond, but I figured out right off the bat that he was kind of a dim sexiest jerk, so I didn't fall in love with the character only to be disappointed later. I do get annoyed when a character has wild swings in their personality in order to make some story element or another work. If you are writing a story and you need a character to behave in a manner entirely contrary to the personality you've developed for them in order to make a story line work, then you should either change the storyline or lay the groundwork for the personality traits needed to make the story work. One example would be the character of Arthur in Bernard Cornwell's Winter King series who acts wildly out of character in Enemy of God in order to make the story of Tristan and Isoulde work. Through most of the series Arthur is a maverick, bending or breaking rules to achieve his goals. But when he is dealing with King Mark and Tristan, Arthur suddenly becomes a stickler for the letter of the law for no real apparent reason other than if he didn't the story wouldn't end as a tragedy. This sort of left-turn in a character's persona always annoys me. On the other hand, Arthur got over that and went back to being his more established character, but this just makes the entire subplot in question seem false and artificial.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Musical Monday - Happy Birthday George Takei by Five Year Mission

April 19th, 2012 was George Takei's seventy-fifth birthday and Five Year Mission decided that he needed a birthday tribute song. So they wrote him the most awesome Star Trek themed birthday song in history. It worked its way to Takei and he apparently loved the song. In addition to highlighting his obvious Star Trek connections, they even worked in references to his roles in The Green Berets and Heroes, covering the broad range of Takei's career.

Related to this: George Takei is an amazing guy and hilarious to boot. If there was justice in the world, he would be captain of the Enterprise in this world, and not just in the alternate universe. But life isn't fair and just having an Asian character on the bridge of a show on 1960s television was something of a triumph, even if it was the result of demoting him from being the head of the ship's astrophysics department. If you have not liked his Facebook fan page and followed his Twitter account, you should go do that right now.

Previous Musical Monday: I'm the One That's Cool by The Guild

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review - Perelandra by C.S. Lewis

Short review: Ransom travels via Angel express to Venus in order to save a new Eden from the poor judgment of a silly woman.

If you can't argue
And convince them with reason
Kill your enemy

Full review: Although Perelandra is usually classified as science-fiction, it is more or less the exact opposite, extolling the virtues of anti-science and anti-reason, with the only "science fictional" element being that almost all of the action takes place on Venus. The second book in C.S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy", and the weakest of the three books, Perelandra is a slow as molasses story packed with tediously unconvincing theological debates and a healthy dose of patriarchal misogyny. The book is somewhat noteworthy in that it is the first in which Lewis takes the stance that if you cannot overcome your ideological opponents with the superiority of your arguments, then it is okay to resort to violence in the name of your faith.

One of the first things to note about this book is that there is almost no story within it. Dr. Elwin Ransom, having returned from Mars in Out of the Silent Planet is called upon to journey to Venus, also known as "Perelandra" on a mission ordained by the agents of heaven. To get to Venus, Ransom gets into a divinely provided coffin and is flown by eldils to the surface and more or less unceremoniously dropped off in the Venusian ocean. The fact that for Ransom's interplanetary journey Lewis discards with even the pretense of having a spaceship powered by something other than outright magic should tip off an astute reader that he has abandoned the pretense that he's writing science fiction rather than religiously inspired fantasy.

Once on Venus, Ransom finds some floating islands and discovers that everything on the planet is "more", as in the colors are brighter, the water is more refreshing, the food is tastier, and generally everything is simply better than on Earth. Venus, it seems, has only recently been endowed with life and as yet it is still in a condition identical to that attributed to the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Before too long Ransom comes across a green-skinned woman who expresses disappointment in finding him. This is because she is the "Mother" and she is searching for the "King", who she apparently had become separated from some time before. And as soon as the Mother shows up the hubris and misogyny begins to flow thick and fast.

The hubris stems from Lewis' extreme humanocentrism: in answer to the question of why the "Mother" looks just like a human with green skin, we are told that because God had incarnated himself as a human all future intelligent beings will look like humans. I suppose it was just the misfortune of the hrossa, pfifltriggi, and sori to be created before humans and thus before God allegedly incarnated himself as a man that caused them to miss out on being shaped just like us. One might note that in Genesis it is asserted that humans were supposedly made in the image of God to begin with, so apparently when he incarnated himself as a human God was just assuming a physical manifestation of his normal form, which makes one wonder why the inhabitants of Malacandra were unlucky enough to be made using such different body architecture. Despite having made a somewhat exotic landscape in the previous book, and populating it with some moderately exotic denizens, Lewis seems to retreat from the exotic in Perelandra (and even further in That Hideous Strength). Oddly, it seems that Lewis became less certain of himself as an author as the series progressed.

And this brings up a side point about Lewis in general as an author and an apologist: he seems to have had only a very limited ability to come up with original ideas. In Out of the Silent Planet he posited a dying planet populated by three alien races. In Perelandra his vision is reduced to a world ocean populated by green humans. In That Hideous Strength he is reduced to university politics, parliamentary maneuvering, and manipulating newspaper articles topped off by recycling Arthurian, Greek, and Egyptian mythology. Even his celebrated Narnia series is populated by creatures drawn directly from Greek mythology to tell stories that are little more than thinly disguised tales from the Bible. Contrasting Lewis' fantasy with that of his friend Tolkien, who gave us a world populated by elves and dwarves that were markedly different than the elves and dwarves of previous stories, hobbit, orcs, and balrogs, reveals that even if one might not consider Tolkien's fantasy particularly imaginative by today's standards, he was leaps and bounds ahead of Lewis in this department.

But the limited story of Perelandra story is marred by more than humanocentrism and a lack of imagination, it is also chock full of misogynistic themes. The "Mother" that Ransom meets is searching for the "King", who was apparently lost on a different floating island than the one Ransom encounters her on. It soon becomes apparent that the entire story of Perelandra is a new version of the fall of humanity, with the lush and inviting floating islands rolling over the ocean of Venus replacing Eden and the prohibition against sleeping on the "fixed land" replacing the forbidden fruit. Once Weston arrives (or at least the animated body of Weston) to fill in for the deceptive serpent, the stage is set for Lewis to replay the temptation of Eve. Ransom quickly decides that he has been sent to Venus to serve as an intercessor in the tempting so as to foil Weston's efforts to convince the Mother to disobey the divine edict against sleeping on the fixed land. But in this drama one can see Lewis' low opinion of women: Weston immediately sets up the Mother as his target, but there is no suggestion that the King, who is also presumably alone and (without Ransom there) unguided, might choose poorly and decide to disobey the divine mandate. Only the Mother is viewed as a juicy target, and only the Mother is seen as requiring guidance from Ransom to make the correct choice.

At this point the book becomes almost comically tedious as Weston makes some fairly weak arguments in favor of disobedience and Ransom makes some even weaker arguments against it. In the course of the interminable debating it becomes apparent that Weston is not Weston any more, having been possessed by some malevolent spirit at some point prior to his arrival on Venus. And this raises a host of nagging questions about the story. Given the edict against the "bent" eldils of Earth traveling the heavens, how did this particular one manage to bridge the gap between worlds? If the "evil" forces use a spiritual tempter to try to deceive the Mother, why was Ransom sent to be her protector given that he cannot even seem to counter the ridiculously limp arguments that Lewis puts into Weston's mouth? Why is Weston not countered by the Oyarsa of Perelandra, who is supposedly acting as the guardian of life on the planet? If the Mother chooses to disobey, would this corrupt the Oyarsa of Perelandra? As a corollary question, which came first on Earth, the bent nature of the planet's Oyarsa or Eve's fall from grace? Given that Weston is apparently a spirit that has taken up residence in a human body and would thus be aware of the reality of the spiritual realm that Lewis assumes is real, why does Weston continue to converse as if the spiritual realm were not real, even when talking only to Ransom? And so on and so forth. Lewis simply didn't bother to think his fictional reality through, probably because he wasn't interested in writing a story but rather interested in getting to the polemics. But the very nature of the unanswered questions that stick out of the story would have undermined Lewis' polemics even if they were well-written, and as Lewis is unable to make a convincing case for either side in his fictional theological debate, the unanswered questions overwhelm them.

Having set Ransom up to be outmatched in debating skill by having him opposed by a tireless denizen of the nether realm, Lewis ends up endorsing violent murder as a means of winning an argument. Once he realizes that he cannot win a debate against demon-Weston, Ransom decides that the only way to save the Mother from making the wrong choice and turning to disobedience is to kill his adversary. But this just raises the question of what the purpose of the whole charade was. If an acceptable resolution to the temptation of the Mother is to take the decision out of her hands and kill off the tempter, why did the divine forces have Ransom involved at all? Why did they let demon-Weston get to Perelandra in the first place? One could have made an argument that the divine wants to allow for free will, which means allowing for the ability of the residents of Perelandra to choose incorrectly, but when Ransom takes it upon himself to kill demon-Weston, doesn't that deny the Mother the ability to make a choice on her own? Not only that, the story seems to suggest that should a believer find himself (and in Lewis' mind, one can be certain that it would always be himself) unable to match an ideological opponent with a superior argument, it is perfectly acceptable to resort to violent means to shut them up. Burning heretics and apostates at the stake was always Christianity's best maneuver for silencing the opposition, and Lewis seems to tacitly endorse such actions in this story.

So, having endorsed the idea that women just aren't competent to make choices for themselves and it is okay to beat your enemies to death, Lewis has Ransom aimlessly wander about for a while, along the way seemingly endorsing the position that paying homage to alternate deities could be acceptable. This seems an odd position for someone making Christian apologia to make, but it seems that in Lewis' theology that subordinate divine entities are acceptable and may even be worshiped. Eventually Ransom's meanderings bring him back to where the  Mother is, and now that Weston is dead, she has found the King. They are also attended by the Oyarsa of Perelandra who helpfully decides to show up after the crisis has passed. The Oyarsa also turns over dominion of the planet to the King. Having sat around doing not much of anything offstage for the whole book, the King is given rule over everything, including the Mother. And of course, having theoretically done the heavy lifting of making a "choice" to obey or disobey the divinely ordained rules, the Mother is perfectly content to turn over dominion over her future to the King. Because, as should be apparent from the story in Perelandra, women can't be trusted with the weighty responsibility of making decisions for themselves.

As with Out of the Silent Planet, there is not much story in Perelandra. In fact, there is considerably less story and a lot more badly reasoned polemics. The most damning element is not that the polemics are phrased in a way that belittles women, although they are, the most damning element is that Lewis seems to think that reason and argument is simply insufficient to make an effective case for his espoused beliefs. Perelandra is, quite simply, a treatise built upon eschewing reason in favor of brute force. The book could even be fairly construed as advocating anti-reason and continuing Lewis' campaign against all human learning and thought of more recent vintage than the 13th century. With next to no story, an anti-woman message, and a pile of theological debates that amount to nothing more than nonsense, Perelandra is a book that should definitely be avoided.

Previous book in the series: Out of the Silent Planet
Subsequent book in the series: That Hideous Strength

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Follow Friday - Sergeant Mal Reynolds and Corporal Zoe Alleyne Were Members of the 57th Overlanders Brigade

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Amy's Book World and Word Spelunking.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Fight! Fight! If you could have two fictional characters battle it out (preferably from books), who would they be and who do you think would win?


I'm going to go with the spy against spy scenario of Dominic Flandry versus James Bond. I'm specifying the literary Bond as written by Ian Fleming for the purposes of this match, and not the movie Bond. And I'm going to call the match in favor of Flandry because to be perfectly honest, literary Bond is kind of a dimwit.While movie Bond has become a virtually flawless superman, the Ian Fleming Bond is brave, a good shot, capable of improvising his way out of sticky situations, and also fairly unobservant and a little bit dumb. Even though this fight may be a little unfair given Flandry's technological edge resulting from coming from a science fiction novel, even if we put them on even footing, my money would be on Flandry.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: There Are Fifty-Eight Spaces in the Game Hexxagon

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review - Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Short review: A character named Ransom travels to Mars where he discovers that humans are awful, aliens are filled with the light of goodness, and sex is something you should only have once in a lifetime.

English walking tour
Shanghaied by villains to Mars
Confronting angels

Full review: C.S. Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, under the influence of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien (and if Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carter to to be believed, Lewis was converted by just about the most facile argument possible). Lewis then set about trying to advocate for his new-found faith by writing a pile of apologetics dressed up as novels. Among his earliest attempts at this were his "Space Trilogy", starting with Out of the Silent Planet, which was supposedly written to counteract the 'dehumanizing" trend in the science fiction of the day. Given that the science fiction of the day consisted primarily of books about action hero characters like John Carter, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon and some self-conscious attempts to promote a love of science among younger readers, without reading the "Space Trilogy" it is hard to figure out exactly what bothered Lewis (and Tolkien) about the science fiction of his day.

But when one starts reading Out of the Silent Planet one begins to realize that what apparently bothered Lewis was that science fiction had too much science in it, and not enough theology. The story, such as it is, centers around Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist and thinly disguised version of Tolkien, who begins the story on a walking tour of Britain. Lest one think that Ransom is as interesting as Tolkien, other than his love of walking and his profession as a philologist, Ransom has almost no other personality traits in the book, serving essentially as a stand in for the reader so that the other characters can make long philosophical speeches. His ramblings are interrupted when he is shanghaied by an old school acquaintance named Devine and a supposedly noteworthy scientist named Weston and bundled off on a voyage to Mars. Ransom makes his voyage with his two abductors in a ship that seems to essentially work by magic, and it is on this trip that the first indications that mysticism is the path that Lewis thinks humankind should follow. On the journey, Ransom goes from seeing the space between worlds as, well, space, and begins to think of it as glorious heaven, whereas the planets are transformed in his mind to mere motes of insignificant corruption in the living heavens. And with that, Ransom abandons reality for the fantasy world that Lewis has imagined for our solar system.

Eventually the travelers reach Mars, or as its inhabitants call it Malacandra. Along the way, proving that they are some of the dumber villains in written fiction, Devine and Weston let Ransom know that they abducted him in order to turn him over to the natives as a sacrifice to what they presume to be their primitive deity. Upon landing, this coupled with the inhumanly talsl and slender appearance of the Martians, Ransom flees, managing to evade capture and wind up lost and alone on the surface of an alien planet. After wandering about a bit, discovering that the water is somehow warm (which seems odd for something on the surface of Mars), Ransom comes across a native alien hross - a race of seven foot long otter-like creatures. Ransom has a fit of human hubris and at first assumes that the hross is an animal, but is quickly convinced  of their rationality. He is taken in by Hyoi, as the friendly hross is called, and puts his philology skills to good use unraveling their language. From Ransom's perspective, it seems that all that has really happened is that his walking tour has moved from England to the surface of Malacandra.

It is the interaction between Ransom and the hross, and later the sorns (a third race, pfifltirggi, also lives on Malacandra but Ransom barely interacts with them) that is where the meat of the book lies. The hrossa live an apparently primitive lifestyle of fishing and farming valuing poetry and song above all things. Ransom learns that the three races of Malacandra live in a sort of symbiotic socialist society overseen by the heavenly eldil who oversee everything. The hrossa are tasked with producing all the food on Malacandra and hand it out to all who need it. It is at this point that Lewis begins to establish what he seems to have considered to be the ideal society, and which he also reveals his somewhat less than comfortable relationship with women and sex. In interacting with the hrossa Ransom learns that they live in a kind of idyllic symbiosis with the other races on Malacandra, serving to provide food to the others on an as needed basis in exchange for the products of their labor, also on an as needed basis. Everyone only takes as much as they need, and contributes as much as they can - a very Marxist sounding system, with the only wrinkle being that it is a divinely guided one. Given the love many conservative Christians display for Lewis, one wonders if they realize that endorsing the Randian style free-for-all that so many of that mindset seem to favor, Lewis seemed to think that the only reason socialism doesn't work on Earth is that it simply doesn't have enough divine influence in it.

But when Ransom attempts to figure out what would happen if one group or another wanted more than was available, the conversation founders somewhat. Greed and lust and other similar sins don't seem to exist on Malacandra, and to even discuss these issues requires that Ransom explain evil, a concept that the Malacandran language is ill-equipped to address, resulting in the use of the word "bent" to describe someone who is violating the divine order. Given the later revelation that the language spoken on Malacandra is the universal language of the heavens, this inability to address sin seems strange, especially when one notes that the disobedience of the eldil's of Earth is a commonly known story among the inhabitants of Mars. But this exchange reveals that Lewis apparently had a rather less than comfortable relationship with women and sex. (And it seems somewhat revealing that there are no female characters in Out of the Silent Planet, because apparently females, human or otherwise, are simply not relevant). When Ransom asks Hyoi what would happen if the sorns or the pfifltirggi had so many children that they overwhelmed the ability of the hross to produce food and they had to fight over resources. After overcoming the difficulties of communicating the concept of war to Hyoi, Ransom learns that overpopulation is entirely absent from Malacandra, because no couple ever has more than enough children to replace them, and they accomplish this by the simple expedient of only having sex a handful of times in their lifetime. According to Hyoi, one should be satisfied with the memory of having had sex with a loved mate, and that should be sufficient for anyone.

Although not Catholic, Lewis seems to be toeing the Catholic line and advocating not merely abstinence for unmarried couples, but abstinence for life for all purposes other than procreation, but with the added wrinkle that couples should not "be fruitful and multiply", but should rather limit their sexual activity to the two or three times necessary to have a pair of children to carry on after their own passing. While many religious organizations today, including the Catholic church, loudly deny that overpopulation could ever be a problem for humanity, Lewis appears to have been painfully cognizant of it in the 1930s. Unfortunately, his putative solution for this problem is almost ridiculously comical, and after this apparent moment of clarity in Out of the Silent Planet, he appears to have abandoned this view by the time he got around to writing That Hideous Strength, and has gone back to telling women that their purpose in life is to have babies. But in Out of the Silent Planet he was concerned about overpopulation, and his chosen solution reflects the thinking of a man who seems to have been distinctly uncomfortable with women, and even more uncomfortable with the messiness of sex.

Eventually, Ransom's idylls among the hrossa comes to an end during a hunt for a large fish called a hnakra in which he accomplishes the apparently praiseworthy act of killing the fish when Devine and Weston kill Hyoi with a rifle shot. After having been stalled to provide theological musings the story lurches out of the mire that it had gotten stuck in and ambles forward as Ransom resumes his walking tour of Mars, heading off to meet the sorns and the chief eldil, or Oyarsa, of Malacandra. On his way, Ransom passes into the Martian highlands and is nearly asphyxiated by the thin air before being rescued by a sorn named Augray. Ransom has a brief sojourn with Augray during which the reader is subjected to more theology in which Ransom is ashamed of humans for behaving like humans and not like the idealized creatures Lewis created to inhabit Mars. But in the fictional reality that Lewis has created, humanity is "bent" because our Oyarsa rebelled against the divine order and cast our planet into silence in the celestial symphony (leading to the appellation "Thulacandra", the "silent planet" being applied to Earth). The virtuousness of the Martian inhabitants seems to be directly tied to the benevolent shepherding influence of their Oyarsa, a form of influence denied to the inhabitants of Earth. Not only that, according to the story the Oyarsa of Earth actively worked to subvert the minds and lives of Earth's inhabitants. Ransom is ashamed, it seems, because humanity didn't live up to the example set by aliens that had supernatural assistance denied to us and actively undermined. Lewis' it seems, wants to berate humanity for being flawed, but also wants to include the Miltonian myth of the fall of Lucifer in his story, which requires there to be a supernatural source for humanity's flaws. Throughout the Space Trilogy this contradiction is never resolved, and it makes Lewis' attempts to make theological arguments as part of his story  almost incoherent as he asserts that the problems of human civilization are the result of human venality, but cannot seem to decide if human venality is the result of our unworthiness, or if human venality is the result of supernatural forces.

Eventually Ransom finally meets up with the Oyarsa of Malcandra, who it turns out is who Weston and Devine had unwittingly brought him to Mars to meet. Shortly thereafter, Weston and Devine also arrive, having been brought by an irate band of Malcandrans after they had killed a number of natives. After an extended exchange with the Oyarsa it turns out that Weston and Devine had come to Mars in search of gold (or as the natives call it "sun's blood"), and the Oyarsa had wanted to meet these interlopers into his domain and summoned them to its presence. Because Devine and Weston are "bent" they misinterpreted the request that had been passed through the sorns as being a demand for a human sacrifice, leading them to abduct Ransom for that purpose. After Ransom endures the obligatory berating by the Oyarsa for the failings of the human race, Weston and Devine are brought to face the immaterial being and mistakenly assume that it is a trick played by a local witch doctor. The pair are haughty and arrogant, more or less lampooning the attitudes displayed by many European explorers who had forayed out among "primitive" tribes in Africa, South America, and so on, boasting that they are not only interested in looting the planet for gold, but also want to conquer it and repopulate it with humanity. As usual, the fallen nature of humans is contrasted to the gloriously perfect nature of the alien inhabitants of the red planet. In the end, the Oyarsa banishes Devine and Weston and magically bars them (and all other humans) from ever returning to Mars.

At the end of the book, Ransom elects to return to Earth with Weston and Devine, having been guaranteed divine protection for the hazardous journey. Once they arrive back in England, their now magically powered space ship disintegrates into nothingness, leaving no evidence of their travels save for their own memories. Ransom, no longer protected by the eldils of heaven, avoids Weston and Devine and resumes his walking tour of England. Although Out of the Silent Planet is only 160 pages long, it is turgidly slow as events proceed at a glacial pace and nothing much happens for most of the book. In some ways it is not so much a novel as a vehicle for Lewis to expound upon his personal theology - and at this point in his career, his theological thinking was both very basic and internally contradictory. With cardboard characters, a slow and almost pointless story, and limply unconvincing theological polemics, Out of the Silent Planet is mildly interesting as a piece of science fiction history and as an early look at Lewis' apologetics, but isn't much more than that.

Subsequent book in the series: Perelandra

1939 Retro Hugo award Nominees

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Musical Monday - I'm the One That's Cool by The Guild

Felicia Day recently launched the Geek and Sundry YouTube channel, an effort to create a channel with regular programming dedicated to geeky interests. It is an interesting idea, and the lineup of shows that has been put out thus far has been pretty good. As part of the launch of the channel, seasons one through four of The Guild were posted to the channel as single videos (with annotations and outtakes), and season five was put up over the course of several weeks, one installment at a time. And alongside these relaunches of the earlier seasons of The Guild (and probably presaging the start of the sixth season), they put out a new music video titled I'm the One That's Cool which reveals, among other things, that Vince Caso is left-handed. The video is fun, showing all of the members of The Guild as performers in a indie pop band intercut with scenes of them from high school being picked on for being dorky nerds. Through the song the lyrics talk about how the people who picked on them have been left behind, while now the people who were outcasts have taken center stage as the new embodiments of cool.

I have mixed feelings about this song and this video. It is a catchy tune, and the message of nerd empowerment is certainly appealing, but I always find these declarations that "geek is now chic" or "nerd is the new cool" or whatever similar statement is made to be empty and foolish. The dominance of the adult world by ideas and devices produced by "geeks" is not new - the only real change is that geeks are producing computers now, and not engineering the various devices that made modern life better for most of the twentieth century. The world pretty much seems to have worked this way for quite a while: the smart introspective kids are picked on by the popular and pretty kids when they are young, and as everyone gets older intellectual achievement becomes more critical and the former geeks more or less make the world. But at the same time, the popular kids often end up running banks and investment firms or otherwise going into professions where they prosper. And so not only does the sort of "now I'm cool and you're not" line embodied by this song seem petty, but it also rings hollow.

We're geeks. The fact that internet culture lets us find each other and discover that we are not alone doesn't mean that we are cool to the rest of the world. Despite her talent and intelligence, Felicia is a relatively obscure figure outside of the niche culture of video games and internet fandom. At its most popular, the new Battlestar Galactica television show only attracted about a half a million viewers per episode. That may sound like a lot, but it is less than ten percent of the viewership that got the network television show Flash Forward cancelled after just one season. If you watched an episode of Battlestar Galactica in the United States and went out the next day and randomly asked people if they had seen it, you would need to talk to literally hundreds of people before you would be certain of finding a fellow fan. Despite all efforts to try to assert the coolness of being nerdy and geeky, the "popular" culture is still dominated by American Idol, Hell's Kitchen, Gray's Anatomy, and Biggest Loser. Think about that for a bit: A television show about morbidly obese people trying to lose weight is leaps and bounds more popular than all of the science fiction shows that are on the air, combined. Give a hundred people pictures of Snooki and Pat Tallman, and it is likely that most will immediately be able to identify the Jersey Shore alum, while sadly I would predict that only a handful will even recognize my favorite Babylon 5 telepath as a celebrity. Put simply: Science fiction fans, gamers, fantasy fans, math lovers, and all the rest of us simply aren't cool except inside of our tiny corner of the internet. I wish the world was different, but I don't think it ever will be.

Previous Musical Monday: Woody Allen Jesus by Tim Minchin
Subsequent Musical Monday: Happy Birthday George Takei by Five Year Mission

The Guild     Musical Monday     Home

Friday, April 13, 2012

Follow Friday - Fifty-Six Men Signed the Declaration of Independence

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Gizmo's Reviews and Book Briefs.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What is one book that you would be nervous to see a movie adaption of because you think the movie could never live up to the book?

My answer will probably surprise nobody who has read this blog before: Any book by Samuel R. Delany. I love Delany's books and while he's not my favorite science fiction author, he is definitely on the short list. But even though he wrote his books in the 1960s and 1970s, they are still so odd, outlandish, and innovative that adapting his ideas to film would probably require hammering down the edges so much that the final product would be bland. Not only that, so much of what makes Delany's books so good is his use of language that the core of most of his books would be torn out in the shift from the page to the screen. I would fear that most film makers would probably wind up excising all of the elements that make Delany so great, and the end result would be bland mediocrity.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review - Women of Genesis: Rebekah by Orson Scott Card

Short review: Rebekah grows up in a dysfunctional household, marries into another, and raises a third. In the end, deception is a holy act.

Dysfunctional start
A dysfunctional marriage
Holy deception

Full review: Rebekah is the sequel to Sarah in Orson Scott Card's Women of Genesis series focusing on the lives of the wives of the Old Testament patriarchs. To a certain extent, some embellishment of the original Rebekah story is necessary. After all, Rebekah and Isaac occupy about a half a dozen pages in Genesis, so expanding the story to a 400 page novel requires some expansion of the source material. Unfortunately, Rebekah is married to Isaac, who is one of the more passive patriarchs in Genesis, and who seems to exist mostly to be tied up for sacrifice by his father, and duped by his younger son Jacob. As a result, Card has little to work with.

The main problem Card has is that the stories that Isaac is involved in are, if taken literally, examples of what can only be described as fairly warped morality. In the first, Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac, which he sets about doing only to be stopped at the last minute by an angel. In the second, Jacob, Isaacs's younger son, with the help of his mother Rebekah, dupes an elderly and blind Isaac into giving him his older brother Esau's inheritance and blessing. Abraham, willing to kill his own son, and Jacob, who lies to his father, are both presented as being morally good. Although Abraham at least has the somewhat defensible position that God commanded his actions, the moral basis for Jacob's deception is unclear in the original text. Jacob's deception is made even more morally dubious in Genesis due to the fact that there seems to be little other than greed which motivates his actions: the inheritance he is given is basically Isaac's wealth and authority. Card solves these problems by inventing a heritable priesthood for the Hebrews, and adding a series of family conflicts.

The heritable priesthood was established in Sarah, to give a reason for Abraham to be treated as an equal by various kings and nobles of the era. In Rebekah, the priesthood becomes the bone of contention between Abraham and Isaac, and later between Isaac, Esau and Jacob. In both conflicts, Rebekah is stuck in the middle. However, Rebekah doesn't become embroiled in Abraham's family conflicts until well into the book. The first portion of the book is spent establishing the dysfunctional nature of her childhood living in her father Bethuel's household. Since no information is given in Genesis about Bethuel other than the fact that he is Rebekah and Laban's father and Abraham's nephew, Card has a blank page to work with. He fills in this page with a family torn apart by internal dissension, as it turns out that while Rebekah had been told her mother died as a child, the real story is that Rebekah's mother was turned out by Bethuel as an idol worshipper. In addition, Bethuel is stricken deaf and Rebekah and Laban must learn to read and write in order to communicate with him. Her father's disability and mother's absence forces Rebekah to assume control over the women of the household, giving her authority far beyond what would be expected for a girl her age.

Card elects to have Rebekah embarrassed by her attractive appearance, and wear a veil as a symbol of her independence (a story element not found in Genesis). This is spurred by an incident where a smitten and spurned servant boy begins writing scurrilous things about Rebekah, and when he is found out, Bethuel banishes him. Apparently, centuries of enforced oppression of women began with Rebekah wanting to hide her face because the men around her will do silly things if allowed to gaze upon her beauty. Eventually, Rebekah's parents reconcile due to some deception on her mother's part, and Rebekah's faith is only reinforced by her mother's fumbling attempts to control her father's household.

Tying the story back into Genesis, Abraham's servant Eliezer comes across Rebekah at a well and she gives him and his animals water. Apparently he had prayed for a sign from God in the form of a girl who would do this, which would indicate this was the woman for him to bring home for Isaac to marry. It turns out that God's signs are pretty run-of-the-mill happenings. It also turns out that Rebekah, who instigates the deception of Isaac by Jacob, was specially chosen by God to be Isaac's wife, meaning, it seems, that the deception was divinely inspired.

Rebekah moves from a household in which her father cast out his wife and lied to his children, and her mother deceives her father into remarrying her and then undermining his authority, to one that is just as dysfunctional. Abraham is transformed from the wise and virtually infallible patriarch of Sarah into a bitter and somewhat mean spirited old man. Isaac, still stung by his father's choice to obey God's command to sacrifice him, feels himself unworthy of the heritable priesthood, even though he clearly loves studying the writings that form the basis of that inheritance. Isaac also lives in the shadow of his more manly older half-brother Ishmael, apparently thinking his father should have gone ahead with the sacrifice so Ishmael could have been given the birthright. This father-son dynamic, coupled with the introduction of Abraham's somewhat overbearing concubine Keturah is the world into which Rebekah steps as a teen bride.

One of the odd side effects of making the priesthood a heritable "birthright" is that Card appears to demote Abraham's second wife (as she is identified in the Old Testament) Keturah from wife to concubine. Presumably this is to prevent there being any question as to whether Isaac should inherit the priesthood rather than one of Keturah's many sons (who are thus disqualified from inheriting on the same basis that Ishmael is disqualified from inheriting, as they were not born to Abraham's wife). In other words, in order to make the story palatable, Card is forced to make a change that alters actual scripture. In addition, there is no indication that Isaac either had a strained relationship with Abraham, or was jealous of Ishmael, or considered himself in any way to be unmanly in comparison to his various half-brothers. Once again, due to the paucity of the source material, Card is forced to cut from whole cloth, and he does so to try to make Jacob's deception palatable.

All of these dysfunctional family relationships are to explain why Abraham and Isaac both dote upon the athletic but intellectually uncurious Esau and neglect his studious and thoughtful younger brother Jacob. Abraham favors Esau because he doesn't want an heir who is wimpy like Isaac, and Isaac favors Esau because he believes himself to be unworthy compared to Ishmael. The prophecy contained in the Old Testament that essentially says that Jacob will rule over Esau is given as a vision to Rebekah, and although both Abraham and Isaac recognize it as divinely granted, they take it as a warning of something to be avoided. While Isaac's distrust of God may be somewhat justified, Abraham's behavior hardly seems like the reaction of a prophet so devoted to God he would sacrifice his own son. The story as framed by Card makes clear that Esau is entirely unsuited to taking the birthright, a judgment reinforced by God's prophecy, which makes the fact that Abraham and Isaac are so devoted to making sure he gets it seem bizarre. In many ways, one has to question the judgment of the two prophets, which seems to me to undermine their authority and the value of the scriptures rather than reinforcing them. If God picked dullards like the Abraham and Isaac portrayed in this book, then God must have had a pretty weak pool of applicants to choose from.

As a side note, it seems to me like the story of Esau and Jacob should be read allegorically: Esau is a hunter, while Jacob is a shepherd. Esau represents an older, more primitive way of life for the Hebrews, while Jacob represents a more modern (for the time the books were written) way of life. Isaac's blessing of the younger, but more modern way of life could be construed as symbolic of shedding the older nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a lifestyle centered around herding and farming. In this light, bypassing Esau makes sense, and has an almost inevitable air about it. On the other hand, if, as Card does, one assumes that Esau and Jacob are actual brothers rather than symbols of a way of life, then Jacob seems to be a conniving sneak, and hardly the sort of man one would think would be chosen as a prophet of God.

And this is the central problem Card must deal with. The story of Jacob's deception of Isaac, if taken at face value in the Old Testament, makes Jacob a thief and a liar (and based on the text of the Old Testament, a person who would lie and steal to obtain herds of sheep and other mundane possessions, in other words, someone who would lie and steal out of mere greed). This, of course, will not do, as he is also supposed to be a prophet of God and thus a source of moral authority. So Card intertwines the two invented themes of the book - the heritable priesthood and the dysfunctional family relationships - and attempts to make Jacob's unpalatable behavior not merely justified, but morally correct.

The inheritance that the virtuous Jacob is set upon obtaining is not the herds and wealth of Isaac, but rather the priesthood and the documents that go with it. He is not motivated by greed, but rather fears for the status of the birthright should Esau, who cares nothing for learning or scholarship or obedience to God, obtain the priesthood. Esau's sale of the birthright to Jacob for a meal is cast in this rendition as a warning against how little Esau would care for it should it come into his hands. Esau is not only unsuited to caring for the priesthood, he marries two non-Hebrew women who are idol worshipers. Of course, Isaac, who favors Esau over Jacob, refuses to see the dangers posed by Esau despite it being written in big brightly colored letters, making him seem to be a fairly dim bulb. Rebekah and Jacob are cast as virtuous protectors of God's message, plotting to keep an obstinate Isaac from handing over this divine gift to an obviously unsuited candidate. In fact, after the deception is complete, Isaac finally comes to his senses and realizes that Jacob and Rebekah were completely correct to deceive him and that the birthright should thenceforth be handed down to the eldest worthy son (one wonders if this had been the rule a generation earlier would it have healed Isaac's wounded relationship with his father if Abraham had chosen to give him the birthright, rather than it being handed to Isaac by accident of birth).

In one sense, the way Card makes Jacob's deception seem necessary and correct is a testament to his skills as a story teller. On the other hand, the fact that he has to go to such lengthy contortions to do so reveals the paucity of the source material. In a way, Isaac is one of the least interesting characters in the Old Testament. God does not promise Isaac will be the father of many nations, as Abraham is, nor is he given a vision of a ladder to heaven, as Jacob is. Many times in Card's story Isaac protests that he will be remembered as a caretaker of the holy books, standing in between more significant prophets, and despite Rebekah's protestations to the contrary, that is more or less Isaac's place in Genesis. The things Isaac is credited with doing: digging wells, moving about to avoid disputes over those wells, and so on, seem fairly mundane, and this is reflected in Card's treatment of him. The one divine vision associated with Isaac, the prophecy of Jacob and Esau, is handed to Rebekah.

And once again, the story seems to assume the correctness of belief in the God of Abraham without demonstrating any actual basis for that conclusion. As in Sarah, the characters believe themselves to be divinely inspired at times, they attribute a "feeling of correctness" to some of their actions and ideas, which they assert is evidence of God. But there is no indication that this feeling is actually a sign from God, nor does the story explain why someone who believes in, for example, Ba'al, could not have a similar feeling of rightness about something they do. The story also makes a big show of condemning idol worshipers, but one wonders what the source of this condemnation is. The story takes place before the Egyptian bondage, and therefore before the Ten Commandments are laid down (and thus before the commandment to make no graven images). The fact that condemning idolatry looms so large in the framing of the story (forming the basis for Rebekah's broken family, and one of the key elements disqualifying Esau from the birthright) makes the source of this condemnation critical. And yet this appears to be something simply added to Genesis by Card. In addition, as in Sarah, Card feels the need to prop up scripture by adding some modern astronomy to the text, saying God revealed to  Abraham and Isaac the true nature of the stars. Effectively, Card has to create so much to make the story work and prop up the prophetic credentials of the two patriarchs, that one is left wondering whether the original story of Isaac and Rebekah is persuasive or valuable.

In the end, the weakness of the original material coupled with Card's invention of families of unpleasant characters sniping at one another makes the story drag. To try to make Jacob's deception morally justified, Card has to make Abraham and then Isaac into fools, which seems to be a direct betrayal of the source material. With these glaring weaknesses, not even Card's obvious love of the subject matter and relatively deft storytelling can make this more than an average novel.

Previous book in the series: Women of Genesis: Sarah
Subsequent book in the series: Women of Genesis: Rachel and Leah

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review - Women of Genesis: Sarah by Orson Scott Card

Short review: It is the story of Sarah, wife of Abraham from the Old Testament. Oddly, novelizing the story makes it seem trivial and silly.

Sarai and Abram
Go to Egypt and deceive
Get different names

Full review: Sarah is the first book in Card's Women of Genesis series. The series is an attempt to flesh out the stories of the lives of the wives of the early patriarchs described in the book of Genesis, in this case focusing on Sarai/Sarah. Card notes that compared to other contemporaneous literary sources that the book of Genesis is loaded with women who feature prominently in the narrative, which he asserts makes this a fertile source of inspiration. Unfortunately, it seems that some clumsy storytelling plus some weak source material saps the life out of the book.

The outline of the story will be familiar to anyone who has read Genesis. Sarai marries Abram, they go to Egypt where he pretends she is his sister to avoid being killed by the Egyptians, they return to Canaan, Abram shares his flocks with his nephew Lot, Sarai is unable to conceive and offers her handmaid Hagar to Abram who bears him Ishmael, and then Sarai becomes Sarah, Abram becomes Abraham, Sarah gets pregnant at an advanced age and has Isaac. Along the way Sodom is destroyed, and Ishmael and Hagar are driven away from Abraham's camp.

Obviously, a book that focuses on the wife of Abram/Abraham is going to be laden with religious meaning, a fact that Card freely admits in his afterward. But one of the primary problems with the book is that while the author clearly takes Abram/Abraham's faith seriously, he doesn't take any of the competing faiths of the other characters seriously. The God of the Hebrews is assumed to be true for the purposes of the book, but the religious backdrop presented in the book does not give the impression of a small cadre of followers of the true faith surrounded by a host of pagan adherents to competing faiths because Card does not treat those pagan faiths as being worthy of belief. Instead, the book gives the impression of a cadre of followers of the true faith surrounded by a host of hypocritical unbelievers. This distinction may seem small, but it means that when Abram/Abraham persuades others to give up their pagan practices, the accomplishment feels hollow, since they didn't have any faith in the other gods to begin with. Even Sarai/Sarah's own conversion of the God of Abram/Abraham seems empty: God is so clearly assumed by all the characters to be right, that one doesn't see any reason any character would follow any other faith.

This is reinforced by the venality of the other faiths, and the forced interconnectedness that Card asserts between the various faiths, including the Abramic/Abrahamic faith. The practitioners of the other faiths are all shown to be hypocrites, arranging miracles and using religion to advance their political agendas. While this is probably true to a large degree, there appears to be no one who actually believes in the pagan gods, and those that do, such as the Pharaoh of Egypt who features heavily in the early part of the book, do so only insofar as their religion is asserted to be connected with the Abramic faith. The typical pagan thinks nothing of arranging fake miracles to impress others, although given the overall weakness of most pagan belief as displayed in the book, one wonders why they bother. All other faiths are subsumed into the Abramic faith: Asherah is identified as Eve, Ba'al is identified as an alternate name for God, and so on. Given this, the later imposition of the first of the Ten Commandments seems a bit odd. Those few pagans who actually seem to have faith in their pagan Gods seem to shed that faith as soon as they discover the corruption of one of their leaders. I suppose this means we should abandon our Christianity because Peter Popoff has been exposed as a charlatan and Ted Haggard has been exposed as a fraud.

But even those who believe in the God of Abram/Abraham seem to grasp at fairly thin straws to bolster their faith. Several miracles are attributed to God in the narrative that seem to stretch the definition of miracle to insensibility. God tells Abram/Abraham to go to Egypt, but tells him in the form of inspiration: Abram/Abraham thinks of the idea and attributes it to God. When there, Abram/Abraham becomes afraid that the Pharaoh will kill him to be able to marry into Sarai/Sarah's royal lineage, so he is inspired to lie. Sarai/Sarah can't have children, so she has the inspiration to give Abram/Abraham her handmaiden Hagar to have children. These, and most of the other communications asserted by the narrative to come from God are merely internal flashes of insight, which seems to me like a pretty weak basis to conclude that Abram/Abraham's God is the one true God. Sarai/Sarah even comes to the conclusion that the entire purpose of the trip to Egypt was solely pick up Hagar so she should bear Abram/Abraham's children. Later, when Hagar fights with Sarai/Sarah for primary position on Abram/Abraham's camp and then later Ishmael tries to kill Isaac (with Hagar cheering him on) no one questions why God's plan would turn out this badly.

The only miracles in the story that seem to actually be anything resembling miracles, are Sarai/Sarah's old age pregnancy (although one wonders why God decided to make her wait until she despaired and handed another woman to her husband and until her pregnancy would debilitate her) and the events surrounding the destruction of Sodom, including the intervention of the angels sent to Lot's home who blind the mob bent on harming Lot and his guests. The Lot story is interpolated into the Abram/Abraham story by the device of making Lot's wife Sarai/Sarah's sister, an unpleasant woman named Qira. Qira is made to be an unpleasant woman because she wants to live in the “clean” city of Sodom and avoid the “dirty” herds of livestock of the desert dwellers (such as Abram/Abraham and Lot), a lifestyle Sarai/Sarah virtuously adopts. But this is yet another element that pulls one out of the story: ancient cities like Sodom were festering sewers of filth (and not because of the sinfulness of the inhabitants). That many people living in close proximity without modern plumbing, to put it bluntly, would stink. Plus, most people living in the city would keep livestock nearby anyway (no food preservation and shipping infrastructure of note being in existence yet). In comparison, a herdsman’s camp would probably smell quite nice. But Qira has to be mean and nasty so she can be mean and nasty to Sarai/Sarah and so the reader is happy when she is killed, so she is made to love the cleanliness of cities.

But the inclusion of the Lot story, to me, shows how weak the story is. Although Sodom is destroyed, and Lot's wife killed, Card departs from the text of Genesis and does not have her turned into a pillar of salt. Card asserts, in his afterward, that he simply doesn't find the pillar of salt story to be convincing. But that raises the question, why is this miracle not true, but the others are? The Lot portion of the narrative also ends immediately after Lot flees the destroyed city with his daughters, probably to avoid the embarrassment of including the sequence where Lot's daughters get him drunk and sleep with him to become pregnant. The obvious question to ask, had this been included, was why Lot hid out in the hills instead of going to live with his loving uncle Abram/Abraham, putting his daughters into the situation of having no men other than him around.

It seems to me that, having noted the weakness of the miraculous nature of God in the story, Card felt that he had to bolster God, and does so by having Abram/Abraham have secret knowledge about the nature of the stars that corresponds with modern astronomy. But there isn't anything in Genesis that suggests this to be true, and as a result, the inclusion of this material feels like the author is simply playing dirty pool in order to bolster the bona fides of his faith. Card also feels the needs to puff up Sarai/Sarah by having her come from a bloodline of kings. He similarly elevates Abram/Abraham by having him come from a bloodline of priests that everyone (pagan and Hebrew alike) acknowledges as having a superior legitimacy to most other claims to priestliness. It is as if Card does not believe that the reader will be impressed with the authority of the central characters unless they are inflated in this way. The story also requires sin and sinners to be condemned (the Pharaoh, after all, sins against Abram/Abraham by trying to keep he and Sarai/Sarah apart, and the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah have to be punished) and the righteous to be rewarded. But since things like the Ten Commandments and the laws laid out in Leviticus are in the future, Card is required to be pretty vague about what constitutes sin. It seems that he ends up using what seems to be a modern viewpoint on sin that seems to a certain degree to be incompatible with a world in which keeping slaves and sleeping with one’s wife’s handmaid are acceptable.

Sarai/Sarah's sister Qira is added to the story, but mostly to give a sinful character to be mean and spiteful towards Sarai/Sarah, who bears her sister's venom with saintly grace. This seems to be a common theme in Card's works, as the virtuous put up with outrageously nasty behavior from other characters, and even though their inner thoughts countering the obnoxious behavior of their tormentors may be revealed to the reader, they never respond to their actual tormentor. Apparently, in Card's world it is better to suffer nastiness in silence than speak one's mind. The story of Hagar is dealt with in disappointing manner. Hagar steps in to be nasty to Sarai/Sarah almost as soon as Qira is eliminated from Sarai/Sarah's life. Hagar's story is also told in a way that it seems like Card is trying to make an antislavery argument, seemingly missing the fact that Hagar's story in Genesis has clear undertones of showing what happens when a servant steps above their station. But Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah are thoroughly modern and egalitarian in their thinking, so the story of Hagar has to be molded to fit that mind-set, and Hagar simply becomes a nasty (and murderous) woman.

The book, in attempting to create a believable account that humanizes Sarai/Sarah and Abram/Abraham instead makes them more unbelievable. Card excises some redundancies from the original text in the interest of streamlining the story, which makes sense, but he also excises things that he simply doesn't think sound plausible. But, if one can pick and choose among the narrative of Genesis to select only those things you like, how valid does the source text remain? This, plus the weak nature of the included revelations from God (which seems to undermine the claim that God is the one true God), and the weak faith of pagans (which makes converting them seem not that impressive), seems to make the original story seem shallow and weak as well. It was clearly not Card's intention to create this sort of effect, and from that perspective, one cannot call Women of Genesis: Sarah anything but a failure.

Even if one takes the book merely as a story, it comes up somewhat short as well. The language is too overblown in many places, with prayers laden with "thee"s, "thou"s and "O God"s in the same text as people using modern expressions such as "that pretty much killed the pleasure". Plus, the story is fairly slow, the central characters are idealized to the point of being almost inhuman, and the religious aspect is so interwoven into the narrative that all of the problems with the religious aspects of the book that I pointed out before undermine the story. As a result, the book gets a lukewarm rating.

Subsequent book in the series: Women of Genesis: Rebekah

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Musical Monday - Woody Allen Jesus by Tim Minchin

Now that Easter has come and gone, I figure it is probably a good idea to get a fix on the nature of this guy who supposedly came back from the dead yesterday. For that, I turn to Tim Minchin.

As one might guess for a song of this nature, there was a bit of controversy surrounding it when it was first performed. Minchin wrote it especially for his appearance on the Johnathan Ross Show, and performed it when the show was recorded in December 2011. Unfortunately, ITV director of television Peter Fincham saw a tape of the episode before it aired and had Minchin's performance excised from the recording. What I find interesting is that in an earlier age, this performance of the song would now exist only as a story told by people swapping "can you believe this weird bit of trivia I know about television" tales.

But we don't live in an earlier age. We live in an age where YouTube exists, and Minchin uploaded a copy of his performance to his channel, and now we can all see what was so offensive that Peter Fincham was too frightened to put it on the air.

Previous Musical Monday: Justice League Opening Theme
Subsequent Musical Monday: I'm the One That's Cool by The Guild

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Review - City by Clifford D. Simak

Short review: The city outlives its usefulness, and so does mankind.

After the cities
Man fades and dogs learn to talk
The ants rise to rule

Full review: Winner of the 1953 International Fantasy Award, City is a collection of interconnected short stories describing the decline of the human city, and the subsequent decline of the human race and the rise of dogs and then ants as our replacement as masters of the Earth. In City, Simak's story deals with the intimate relationship between human civilization and cities, and the intimate relationship between human civilization and humanity itself. Using a set of framing pieces between each vignette that style the various installments of the story as fragmentary pieces of "doggish" history, the book skips through several millennia of the decline of man, starting with tales familiar to the reader but wholly alien to the dog historians "commenting" on the stories and moving to accounts progressively weirder to the human reader but more familiar to the fictional dog historians.

One of the most interesting points of the book is that the titular human settlement - the City - starts the book on its deathbed and effectively abolished by the end of the first story. And once the city is eliminated, human civilization begins to collapse - after all, the root of the word "civilization" is the same word that gave us the word "city". Simak posits that improved transportation technology would allow people to leave the cities behind and retreat to large family estates in the country, essentially adopting the lifestyle of the denizens of Edwardian manor houses with robots replacing house servants. In the excitement of the first story with police sweeps to drive out squatters and organized militias rolling cannons out of mothballs to oppose them, the loss of the unifying force in humanity's existence is overlooked. In the next few stories it becomes apparent that isolated in their private estates and waited upon hand and foot by robot servants, humanity has begun to fall apart.

The collapse of human civilization is subtle at first. With the story being told through the eyes of successive generations of the Webster family and their faithful robot butler Jenkins, we see mankind become isolated and fearful, some hiding in their familiar surroundings and eschewing travel even to save the life of their best friends. In an interesting contrast with Asimov's musings in his Robot Mysteries like The Caves of Steel in which Isaac had speculated that humanity might become extremely agoraphobic as a result of living in massive and crowded underground cities, Simak identifies the cause of agoraphobia among his characters as stemming from their reclusive isolation from one another.

With humanity split into tiny settlements inhabited by extreme homebodies, the world splits into factions composed of "normal" humans, super-intelligent mutants, and engineered talking dogs. The science that allows the talking dogs is fairly dated: a member of the Webster family starts performing surgery on the vocal cords of dogs to allow them to talk, and apparently this surgical change breeds true in successive generations of canines. The idea that the only alteration dogs need to be able to talk is a change to their vocal chords is implausible to begin with, but the suggestion that the results of this surgery would then be passed down as an inherited characteristic is just silly. But neither of these are any more plausible than the suggestion that all ants need to develop an industrialized society is to be protected from the elements for a year or two. But the plausibility of these plot developments is beside the point: the story is about declining humanity and the nonhuman civilizations that rise up to follow us when we go.

And by choosing dogs and ants, Simak has picked a pair of successor civilizations that each makes a different point. As mankind either leaves the planet to pursue hedonistic pleasures as transformed inhabitants of the Jovian surface or hides locked away and sleeping within the last city, the dogs pursue their doggish lives aided by the robots men left behind. But even though their rising civilization is built upon doggish preferences and not human ones, they are still mostly familiar to the human mind, and familiar enough that at least for a time the remaining humans, now renamed "Websters" are able to live in this distinctly doggish new world. But even though the new world is doggish in ways that are asserted could not be accomplished by humans, it is still heavily influenced by humanity, despite all of the efforts made to allow them to make their own way, by means of the robots they inherit from humans at the least. Otherwise it seems implausible that predatory and territorial pack animals would create a new order including all the animals of the Earth so pacifistic that they retreat rather than combat the alien threat of the ants.

And it is the contrast between the ants and the dogs that seems to be the critical distinction that forms the denouement of the book. Whereas the dogs are our familiar and well-loved inheritors, the ants are a wholly alien force, given their leg up to forming a civilization and then completely abandoned to their own devices by a member of a branch of humanity that had itself become alien to human concerns. With a nonhuman intelligence on one side, and a wholly alien intelligence on the other side, a conflict is set-up that results in a non-human oriented solution. In the end, the guardians of the dogs seek to consult the last remaining humans, but realize that a human solution to the ant problem would be antithetical to the fundamental nature of dogs, and decide to leave humans to their endless dreaming. Having given up their cities, mankind gave up their civilization, and then their bodies, and finally, their planet.

City is a difficult book to define. One might think that a book in which humankind is freed from the confines of cities to live the life of manorial lords would be optimistic. It isn't. One would think that a book in which human civilization collapses would be depressing. It isn't. One would think that a book in which humanity dwindles to irrelevance would be sad. It isn't. Despite being named for mankind's signature element of civilization, City is mostly about humankind without cities, and then the world without humankind. Told with humor and insight, Simak's tale reveals a intriguing picture of human nature by progressively eliminating humanity from the story. Even though this story is almost sixty years old now and has more than a few science related missteps as a result, it is still an excellent piece of science fiction that should have a place on every genre fan's bookshelf.

Review of 1952 International Fantasy Winner: Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier
Review of 1954 International Fantasy Winner: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

What are the International Fantasy Awards?

International Fantasy Best Fiction Book Winners

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Follow Friday - Charlton Heston and David Niven Kicked Ass in 55 Days in Peking

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - The Romanceaholic and The Talking Teacup.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Have you ever bought a book BECAUSE of a bad review?

This may seem like an odd thing for someone who writes lots of reviews to say, but I don't usually read reviews before reading a book. I have had subscriptions to Analog, Asimov's, and Fantasy & Science Fiction for years, and all have book reviews (actually, F&SF has several regular review features). And I try to read them every month. I really do. I follow a lot of other book bloggers, and I try to go around and read their material. But I always get in the middle of a review and get lost, unable to sort out what is supposed to be going on that makes the book good or not. Eventually, I go cross-eyed and give up. So I don't really know if it would be accurate to say I've ever sought out a specific book based on a review either good or bad. Maybe I have, but I don't recall.

I don't have anything against reviews (obviously), and I'm not trying to make some sort of hipster statement about being beyond being influenced, I'm just saying that for some reason I am not very good at reading the sort of stuff that I spend my time writing. At least before I read a book or watch a movie or television show. After I've read a book or consumed some other media, I love reading reviews of the book I read or the movie I watched. I don't know why I like reading reviews after I've read a book, I just do.

Yeah, I know. I'm odd. You're not the first to notice.

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