Category Archives: Shannon Suggests

The Demolished Man–SciFi Self Education

Wow. What an amazing book in a lot of ways.

Don’t pay any attention to its award-winning primacy. It won the first Hugo in 1953, but that’s a nearly meaningless fact; sixty years ago a group of people chose it from among its cohort for a prize, but the prize is only a snapshot of how its quality was assessed back then. What books were in its cohort? I don’t know–remember, no research around here unless it’s fun.

This is a fun book. There’s this killer, and there’s this telepathic cop, and there’s this cat-and-mouse game between them to catch him. The cop knows he’s the killer, after all, the cop’s a telepath, and the killer doesn’t particularly care if the fact that he’s the killer is a secret so much that he cares that he doesn’t get put away. And, in this case, being put away means Demolition. Demolition, we are given to understand, sucks. Eventually we find out why.

But along the way there’s a fun, fun book.

Murder! Mayhem! Tough talkin dames! Naked people!

Alfred Bester has built a beaut of a world, sometime in the modestly distant future. Maybe a couple of hundred years, maybe a bit longer, but close enough that we’re still in a recognizable environment of cops, skeeze, wealth & poverty, and things like the burden of proof. Just because the cop is a telepath doesn’t mean he can just arrest the killer. He has to build a case solid enough to convince the Big Data computer in the prosecutor’s office that the case against the killer can be successfully prosecuted in a court before the prosecutor is willing to press charges.

This world feels real with high society shenanigans, an underworld of gangsters, gamblers, and down-and-out pariah telepaths, and a middle class of professionals. Shot through this world is a sizable minority of telepathic people who–almost entirely–are members of the telepath’s club which demands and gets funding through a steeply progressive dues structure in order to help fully integrate telepaths into society, and–in the future–usher in a world where… well, that’s only touched on, since it doesn’t have anything to do, really, with the plot at hand.

And in this future, people have spread out across the solar system, with people living on Venus and Mars not just because they want to because they can, but because they want to because they like it. And in the asteroid belt there’s an amusement park/resort complex/wild animal wilderness sanctuary the characters visit because it’s easy to get to and a big enough place to hide in that’s it’s reasonable to make the effort.

But.

At the end of the book, like some 1980’s era nite-time soap, the explanation for the killer’s psychosis and sociopathy is presented, and–though it’s been well foreshadowed throughout the book–it’s really kind of weak. There’s also a romantic sub-plot which I find… icky, given the power disparity between the two people, and how that power disparity defines how the relationship plays out.

But those weaknesses don’t really make the rest of the book ineffective. There’s a lot of really well done regular stuff in this novel, and a couple of really remarkable new stuff going on, especially the way telepathy is presented using various type styles and layouts, and the thoughtfulness Bester exhibits in how telepaths might find themselves integrated, perhaps even hobbling themselves for generations, in order to make their way through a world we could call our own.

Making of a Religious Naturalist: Reader Response

Here’s a weak opening. Chet Raymo gives readers a personal tour of how he came to claim the mantle of religious naturalism from his foundations as a Roman Catholic.

When God is Gone, Everything is Holy, the Making of a Religious Naturalist is part memoir, part history of science, part history of near-science. I won’t get too much into religious naturalism as such. (Start here or here.) Briefly, it’s a … well… wikipedia has a pretty good summary, “an approach to spirituality that is devoid of supernaturalism.” That’s a pretty good way to go with it, at least as far as it goes.

It’s a well-written book, and I came to it through a sermon by Donald Miller at First Parish in Concord. Perhaps I’ll have more to say after reading the other book mentioned in the sermon, Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century, by William R. Murry.

For now, I can say it resonated. It’s very personal to Raymo, so there’s not really a lot to say. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like this iteration of it.

(Note on old UU posts.)

Scandalous Gospel: Reader’s Response

I’m reading The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s so Good About the Good News? these days.  Peter J. Gomes died recently; I had never heard of him–not that I know of, anyway–but his passing was mentioned by a couple of bloggers I have come to take seriously.  I won’t bore you by pretending to know anything substantial about him, except to note what might be the most important fact about him in this context.  He was a believing Christian.

I’m not far into it, but that’s what I do.  Read a bit, begin to respond, read a bit more and so on until I’m finished.  And then, when I’m not finished any more, come back and repeat the cycle.  So anyway, Gomes is a believer, and I’m the guy who talks so much.

Gomes’s belief, while certainly more complex than I’m going to get into, is that the good news is radical.  One is tempted to add superlatives, but they aren’t necessary.  The upheaval of the world proclaimed by the gospel of Jesus is total, as Gomes presents it.  In this Gomes sounds quite a lot like John Dominic Crossian.  Who knows how either of them might feel about that.  I like to think ‘probably ok’ since neither of them, in their writing, seems awfully concerned about stuff like that.

In any case the good news is a hard thing for for the conventional. Gomes quotes from Luke, Chapter Six:

How terrible for you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep!

How terrible when all men speak well of you, because their ancestors said the very same things to the false prophets.

Not much comfort there.

Three Hearts and Three Lions: Reader Response

I just finished Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. I’m not totally sure how I came across this title, but Wikipedia claims that it influenced the first edition of D&D in its conception of alignment and trolls. Not that it’s an especially D&D-like novel. Not that I would really know; I don’t think I’ve ever read a D&D novel. Anyway.

Here’s what it is like. It’s like watching someone go from one place to another, dealing with various monsters from the menu of European fairy tales. Then, at the end of the journey, the hero discovers his strength and defeats the bad guys. And it’s great.

Our hero is a guy, Holger Carlsen, Dane who half-emigrated to the USA in the years before WWII. He’s a pretty smart guy, a pretty strong guy, who, when WWII breaks out, discovers that he didn’t really mean to emigrate. He returns to Denmark to fight Nazis in the underground. In the heat of a particularly important secret mission, he gets knocked out and wakes up in Ye Olde Europe.

From there the questing, and the romance, and the fighting, and the discovering his true identity takes place. He uses his modern knowledge in some circumstances, gets lucky in others, and in some his friends help him make it through. His friends are mainly a dwarf and a swan may.

Each chapter is, essentially, one encounter loosely connected to the next. About a third of the way through the book, things shift, and what appeared to be one type of fantasy story—the type where the unwitting hero moves rapidly into circles of power and through his native wisdom, strength, and grace wins the day—turns into a different type of story. This is the type of where the hero doesn’t really understand much of anything, accidentally does the right thing a few times, and finds he’s leading the good guys against the forces of Chaos, and it’s not going so well at pretty much every step.

Here’s what I mean by that. In each encounter, Holger prevails by and large unscathed. He comes out of each one with a tiny bit more knowledge about who he is, and how he fits into this world where he finds himself. However, though he defeats his opponents, his material position slowly weakens. This is of little consequence in the middle third of the story, when Holger and his friends are wandering in the wilderness. It begins to matter rapidly and increasingly rapidly through the final third, so that by the final encounter, he’s barely able to stand before he attains his goal.

And then he gets what he’s after, the veil falls, and… and the novel ends. There’s a coda, but we readers only get the final climactic battle retrospectively.

This is a very good book. It seems nothing much happens, but it’s very well written, and the pace of it makes more sense on review than perhaps it does at the time. The characters are clearly drawn, and fun to journey with.

Also great is to see how Anderson links this character to The Matter of France. It’s not just a name, or a character history; Anderson allows the Christianity of the source material to come through. While the novel isn’t Christian as such, the characters all assume the power of Christ and God, the good guys rely on the Holy Name to give them strength, and the bad guys are weakened by encounters with those how believe and use these talismans. Upon returning to the mundane world, Holger joins the Church in an effort to return to the heroic realm where The Matter is history and not just legendary literature. This is some literature which I didn’t know about before, and which I’m now looking forward to reading.

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye: Reader’s Response

Sure enough, there was nothing in this book about the volcano.

You might think that would be enough, but, heck, I’ve read the thing, why not respond in some detail? So, first, I had to take a break about half way through to read the Neil Gaiman “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” because Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was… pretty wooden.

However, there are some good points. The adventure and action sequences are pretty good, and there are plenty of these. (Not much plot beyond them, though.) Chases, blowing things up, shooting and light sabering, and more chases, and fist fights, and a dungeon crawl, and more fist fights, and shoot outs, and light sabering. And then there’s Darth Vader. Now, when we get to Darth Vader, it is difficult to keep our knowledge of how he came about and where he wound up from coloring our response to him. But bear in mind that this novel is really only the second appearance of this character. The author didn’t even know he was Luke & Leia’s father. (Indeed, the novel contains significant internal evidence that, at this point in the development of the Star Wars saga, the Empire was presumed to have been around for 40 years*.)

Still, even with those caveats in mind, hoo-boy is Darth Vader scary. Luke and Leia are fairly well drawn as well. Luke is more competent than I would have expected, and his facility with the Force is greater than maybe it should be. Maybe not. Leia is petulant, and hot-headed. But here’s something really interesting. She’s also terrified in a way we never really see in the movies. Remember that scene in the original movie where Darth Vader has her imprisoned on the Death Star and that droid floats into her cell with the huge ole hypodermic hanging off the side of it? Then the cell door slams shut, and we don’t really hear much of it again. In this novel (and I presume in the novelization of the original movie), there is discussion of the torture Leia underwent. This torture has lasting effects on the character of Leia. This is quite good, though it has the effect of making Leia sometimes little more than a damsel in distress.

Anyway. I’m glad I read it, but I’d still like to figure out how, in 1978, the volcano story trickled into the consciousness of me and my lower elementary school-aged friends.


(*A case can be made that these references to a 40 year period are consistent with the film saga. Palpatine probably was moving pieces into place at least several years before the opening of the first movie, and anyone on the wrong side of those early moves could reasonably date the earliest days of the Empire to those times.)

Whatever happened to… on Batman, on Gaiman, on Superman, on Moore

I’m taking a break from Splinter of the Mind’s Eye for reasons I’ll get into when I finish reviewing it here. Today I’m going to address Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The book, even beyond its title, invites comparisons with Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? So, before I address the work on its own, I’ll make the comparisons.

Gaiman points them out in his introduction to the collected volume. Basically, both stories want to be a pause in the on-going story lines of these continuously-published comic book heroes.  And both are.  The Superman story was much more than a pause, coming as it did in relation to Crisis on Infinite Earths and Man of Steel.  It buttoned up an especially comic book-y era, one which had lasted for well more than thirty years, and was a story of a very Superman style.

The Batman story is a pause between writers, in an era when comic books, especially DC titles, are very strange.  Writers, especially good writers, especially with iconic characters, often come into the titles with a story in mind, and a plan for THE BIGGEST THING EVER.  And this writer will do what needs doing, and there will be a couple of issues with a guest writer, and then the new writer will do a story culminating in THE BIGGEST THING EVER.

Now, imagine that Grant Morrison has written the THE BIGGEST THING EVER to happen to Batman.  Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, since you can read them in Batman numbers 655 to 685.  And then it’s followed up with Gaiman.  So you have Morrison doing his Morrison thing for thirty or so issues, deconstructing the Batman back story, culminating with a storyline titled “Batman R.I.P.”  Then this thing from Gaiman, with Gaiman doing his Gaiman thing deconstructing the Batman back story.

When Moore deconstructs, he adds a level of psychological realism, dark and gritty when the story calls for it, but mainly something along the lines of, “what if these characters were real people?  What would cause them to act like this, and what would be the spiritual fall-out of that sort of thing?”

When Morrison deconstructs, he asking something along the lines of, “given that this is a comic book, in what way can we understand all of these tales as having happened to the same character, and what happens when the character really tries to make sense of all these events–some of them flatly contradictory?”

When Gaiman deconstructs, he’s asking something like, “it’s a given that these are stories, and these characters are before us primarily for our enjoyment and for us to make some sense of the world we live in, so what’s the essence of the story, and what’s the angle on the story that shines light on facets of life?”

There are lots of places to get a summary of the story of “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” so I’m not really keen to spend a lot of time on that.  But I don’t think I can address it very well without looking at the plot, which is primarily in the form of a series of eulogies for Batman.  It’s a very Gaiman-y story.  It reminds me of that other Gaiman comic book–in its over-all form, it specifically reminds me of “The Wake” and particularly the one issue where everyone in the world goes to Morpheus’s funeral.  There’s a detail from that issue, one or two frames where Batman and Superman are talking about the strange dreams they sometimes have, referencing some of the stranger Silver-Age adventures.  The Martian Manhunter is there, too.  As I recall, Batman says something like, “but the strangest ones are the ones where I have my own TV show; do you ever have those?”  And Superman says, “who doesn’t?”  And the Martian Manhunter says, “I don’t.” (Note: as of CW’s Supergirl, Martian Manhunter an at least join a conversation like that. SM Jan. 7, 2018)

It also reminds me of the finale of “The Season of Mists.”  In that issue, Morpheus give a woman he wronged (wronged very badly, out of love–so he thought) the option to move on after spending ten thousand years in Hell.  She could move on to whatever comes next, or return to life as a new-born, not remembering all that came before, but always welcome in the Dreaming.

Finally, it reminds me of Death, who does not make an appearance in this story, despite it being a story about the funeral of Batman, and despite the story being carried forward not by the eulogies presented by those who knew Batman but rather by the disembodied conversation between Bruce and… some woman, who (in a Gaiman story in the DC universe) we might naturally assume is Death.  Actually, it is between Bruce and his mother Martha.  Some might like to argue that it’s not really Martha, but is, in fact, Death taking Martha’s form, and bending the rules for Bruce.  Death has been known to bend the rules before.  But I don’t think so.  Death always appears as Death when Gaiman is writing the character; I think it’s partly a respect thing–Death does not deceive.  Death would not claim to be Martha Wayne.

Also, despite reminding me of the end of “The Season of Mists,” the end of “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is not reincarnation event.  Bruce is not reborn as someone else.  He is reborn as himself with a new life, or, at least, a new life in its details.  In its essentials, it will be the same life–Bruce will witness his parents’ murder, and will be Batman, and will die as Batman.

It is a strange Batman story, but one that rewards the reader able to look beyond the disjointed narrative, the ambiguous characterizations, the unexplained references, and the atemporal conclusion. It will also reward the reader able to separate it from “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” with its unabashed Superman adventure, Superman continuity, and Silver-Age knowingness. “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is also whatever happened to the dark knight, the world’s greatest detective, the man who took in Dick Grayson as his ward and adopted Jason Todd–making them both into sidekicks named Robin, and whatever happened to all the other characterizations of Batman that had been published to that point? And what, despite the differences, makes them all the same–Batman?

What do you call half a Splinter?

I’m about halfway through Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. It’s pretty OK. I’ve wanted to read it since, I suppose, it was first released. I was in… um… second grade, I think. The question that’s always bugged me about Star Wars is this: how, years before The Empire Strikes Back, did that kid in elementary school know about the volcano?

I always figured the answer was in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.

This probably isn’t true, though it might be. I’m half way through the novel at this point. Luke and Leia are running around on a bog planet, evading some local Imperial entanglements, and have accidentally gotten themselves drawn into a search for the Kaiburr crystal. The crystal is a thing that focuses the Force for a Force-sensitive user. They are running around with a couple of hairy grunting creatures, which I imagine look like really, really big aardvarks.

There’s also an old woman who’s Force-sensitive, and who’s been hiding out from the Empire for the last 40 years. The novel came out in 1978, shortly after the original movie, and–though it’s still considered in continuity–it’s best not to think too hard about the details. (Note: very little of this novel is probably considered in-continuity these days, SM Jan. 7, 2018.)

Anyway.

I’m about half way through, and our heroes are being chased, albeit slowly, across the face of the planet, and, despite the promise of the cover, there’s no evidence of Darth Vader yet. The writing is OK. The plot is OK. The adventure aspects are pretty good, actually. Lots of running around and fighting and blowing things up, monsters, and falling down deep holes. There’s a lot of attention paid to things like charging the weapons and having food and water.

But it feels like kind of a lot of filler. Maybe that’s because I’m looking for that other thing about Darth Vader, and I’m just not taking the time to stop and smell the roses. Or the bog gas. There’s some back story about why the characters are the ones they are, and the setting is the way it is, and stuff, over at Wookiepeedia’s page on the book. I found it interesting, since I also remember getting into an argument with some other kid about what the sequel movie was going to be called in the early 1980’s when Empire was in production.

I’ll have more to say when I’ve finished reading the book.