Category Archives: Shannon Suggests

End of the World Running Club

A dystopia full of hope, a running manual full of feeling, and a family man full of remorse. This fast-paced run across the island of Great Britain takes Edgar Hill through that most difficult terrain–self-assessment. When a swarm of asteroids wreaks wide-spread destruction, the survivors struggle to make sense of the new world. Some do better than others, and Ed threads a path between dangers and pitfalls. At the end of the world, we find that the only answers are the ones we know at the beginning.

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.