Thanks - I’ve heard the title Canticle … for decades but only the other day picked it up in a bookshop and it caught my interest
White Noise, Don Delillo, 1985
Just started reading it, but it’s already one of the funniest novels I’ve read.
Always helpful to learn about funny books. Funniest thing I’ve read, or should I say the thing I personally found the funniest, was the essay Nine Needles by James Thurber. I read it on an airplane and must have looked like a lunatic (no offense to the moon) convulsing with my face covered in tears.
I have finished Adulthood Rites, the second volume of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. As I previously noted, AR is much more sedate than its predecessor, because it lacks the tension provided by the atmosphere of mystery in the first novel. Instead, AR develops a traditional dramatic situation, of a protagonist with divided loyalties (think Moses). In this case, the story follows the tribulations of Akin, a human-Oankali hybrid, who is kidnapped as an infant and raised by a family of human resistors. As an emerging adult at the end, he has decided on a plan to help the humans regain their fertility and colonize Mars. The majority of Oankali, however, oppose the plan because they believe the human race should go extinct.
In our discussion of the first volume, most of our book group felt that the Oankali were horribly manipulative, and many of us did not trust their motives. These issues remain in play in a more subdued way in AR. Did the Oankali save humanity merely to force them into a genocidal genetic assimilation? Are the Oankali actions moral; do the ends justify the means? This is the underlying theme of the whole trilogy, I think. It is a weighty matter that is explored with the utmost seriousness—next-level science fiction, to use a popular phrase.
I strongly suspect that Butler’s Oankali (1987) influenced the creation of the Borg (1989) in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The strong theme of assimilation exists in both, although the Oankali are strictly biological while the Borg are cyborgs.
Before I move on to the final volume, I am giving myself a change of pace with a recent acquisition, Langston Hughes’s The Best of Simple. I usually prefer to read a complete series rather than a “best of” volume, but the “Simple” stories (1943-1965) were collected in three books, which I have never seen for sale, so I am contented to read just this. These are “slice-of-life” sketches (i.e., extended anecdotes), a genre popularized by The New Yorker starting in the 1940s. They are primarily dialogues, with an occasional paragraph of scene-setting, between the author (“I”) and his working-class friend, Jess Semple (nicknamed “Simple”). The form does not offer as much scope for powerful writing as The Ways of White Folks, but it gives glimpses of Harlem back in the day and makes clever critiques of various aspects of segregation.
I have delayed my reading of the final Xenogenesis novel, because I am tired of fiction at the moment. Instead, I read a volume about little-known corners of American history, A Nation Rising, by Kenneth C. Davis, which I bought for 50 cents at the library. About half wasn’t new to me, but the other half was enlightening. For example, I knew a good deal about the Amistad incident, but did not know about the very similar Creole case. And I knew about the strong anti-Catholic sentiment in early U.S. history, leading to major discrimination against German, Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants in particular, but I did not know about the numerous incidents of mass violence against Catholics.
Now I am reading another library purchase for 50 cents: 1812: The War that Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman. This is the fifth book I have read on the subject, a strange, quirky, “little” war that had a huge, outsize effect on the U.S., Canada, and world history.
I recently finished The Old Curiosity Shop. It was entertaining. I also started Blood Ninja, but because of a change of schools, I had to return the book to the school library. I intend to pick it back up though, as it was enticing to me.
The Old Curiosity Shop is one I haven’t read. I should do so.
Currently reading Loudoun Discovered: Communities, Corners & Crossroads (vol. 3: The Hunt Country and Middleburg) by Eugene M. Scheel. This is another library sale item, part of a five-volume history of a nearby county. I like county histories if they are more than compilations of names from gazetteers and tombstones.
I have already learned some interesting tidbits from this. Most significant is the law about “ground rents,” which I had somehow never heard of before. These were a sneaky version of a serf or sharecropping system, typically used by large landowners when founding a new town. Someone who bought a lot, would have to erect a house (usually with minimal specifications) within one year or lose ownership. Also, they had to pay annual “ground rent” in perpetuity. The reason people agreed to this was that the cost to purchase was very cheap. Amazingly, probably because of our respect for contracts, this system continued until it was outlawed in Virginia in 1916.
Other tidbits: Mills were considered pubic utilities, and it was illegal for millers to turn away any customers. An 1830 account book shows a cash loan of $5 to former President James Monroe, who was debt ridden in his later years. Adult male residents, in colonial and early post-colonial days, were conscripted for one or two days of work each year to repair the turnpikes in the county; this practice ended in 1814. A gas station owner in Middleburg put up a sign saying that the next stop was at “All Die, five miles” (referring to the hamlet of Aldie). And a one-line legend tells of the sinking of a ferry, in which a woman was saved from drowning because she was buoyed by her hoop skirt.
Edit: added author
Yesterday I finished Imago, the final volume of Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, and I don’t know what to think of it. I was prepared to praise the trilogy to the sky, for its phenomenal conception and superb writing. However, now I’m unsure. The book neatly tied off the storyline with a “happy,” Kumbaya ending, but my questions were unanswered, and I feel completely dissatisfied. The introduction of the Mars colony at the end of Book Two implied that it would be the focus of the third book, but it plays no part in Imago’s plot. The colony is an all-human reservation (like the Indian reservations in the U.S.) where people can breed freely. It is only one of three options offered to the human resistors. The other options are (1) mate with the Oankali and live on Earth or on the spaceship (a world in itself) until the time comes to leave Earth, and (2) continue to live on Earth in resistor villages, disease ridden and sterile.
Certain facts must be remembered. The Oankali, who are manipulative and deceptive, did not save the human race for any altruistic reason. They are “traders,” and we had something they wanted in trade. (It is interesting that this is an extreme extension of an idea pioneered by Clifford D. Simak in his 1958 Hugo-winning novelette, “The Big Front Yard.”) Also, the Oankali intend to suck the Earth dry of resources and then leave. That is why any humans who want to stay behind must be on Mars.
I see three possible interpretations: (1) the story is rosy propaganda for a collectivist viewpoint, (2) it is a dark allegory of the European conquest and enslavement of natives in the Americas, or (3) it is a standard alien invasion story, ingeniously presented with a positive gloss to conceal its savage irony. I have no idea what Butler intended. Maybe that is the whole point—just to make us think.
Now I have returned to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. I’m reading the tenth novel, The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper. This has the slowest build-up of anything I have ever read, I think. I’m up to page 72, and the main plot has only just begun to emerge. Not complaining, just marveling at how MacDonald gets away with it (modern readers probably wouldn’t let him, but that’s another discussion).
He reflected with some irritation that in general his courage derived from the fear that he might be taken for a coward.
From Vernor Vinge’s SF novel “Tatja Grimm’s World”, which I’m reading currently, after having finished his awesome collection of short stories, one of which was “The Barbarian Princess”, which he later extended to write “Tatja Grimm’s World”.
Meanwhile I have read many of Vinge’s books, and every single one was such a joy to read, not a single one disappointed me.
And there are a few more of his works in my reading stacks. But next up is—probably, currently planned—something very different, you’ll be surprised
Nostromo by Joseph Conrad is a story of revolution set in a fictional South American country. A small and isolated coastal region has achieved prosperity and modernization through the reopening of a silver mine. The proprietor of that mine has secured financing from overseas and created an extensive support network, effectively turning the region into an extended company town. Above all, he maintains a dogged faith in economic determinism. Let the would be dictators from across the mountains rattle their sabers all they like, but ultimately they must come to their senses and get on the right side of history. This supposition is soon put to the test, and the novel deals with the turbulent result.
The fate of the resistance quickly revolves around a shipload of silver ingots entrusted to a dashing young seaman and troubleshooter known to his employers as Nostromo (apparently a corruption of nostro uomo.) There’s nothing like a hoard of treasure to pull a story together and create narrative tension. From previous readings of this novel I had come to think of it primarily as a series of character sketches, and I guess I still look at it that way. But character and plot are much more fully integrated here than I remembered, and I would no longer hesitate to describe Nostromo as a tale of suspense. Conrad is quite rightly admired for his insights into human nature, yet sometimes it’s easy to forget that he was a very good story teller as well.
A character in another Conrad novel has declared that “things don’t bear looking into.” That could very well stand as Conrad’s fiction writing creed or motto. The characters in Nostromo display varying degrees of honesty about their motives, and their words and deeds are easily misconstrued. In this atmosphere (or in the world generally for that matter) patriotism may be a mere pretext for violence and rapacity. Cynical words might actually mask unusual levels of compassion. A sense of honour can degenerate into a desire for personal glory; or pragmatism into sheer muleheadedness. Conrad has all these things in play. And, as in all of his productions, he resists the temptation to render any final judgements. Perhaps the best summation of what’s going on with these characters is provided by the mine’s chief engineer when he says “Upon my word,… things seem to be worth nothing by what they are in themselves. I begin to believe that the only solid thing about them is the spiritual value which every one discovers in his own form of activity.”
The filmmaker David Lean was projected to bring this story to the big screen at one time. (I believe they had already cast Marlon Brando in a supporting role.) It’s intriguing to speculate on what the director of Lawrence of Arabia might have done with this material. Certainly the particulars of both land and sea would have figured prominently. Battle scenes only broadly referred to in the novel might have been depicted in greater detail for pure entertainment value I suppose. As for getting into the characters’ heads, that’s another thing altogether. Joseph Conrad is a very tough act to follow, even for those adapting his work.
Nostromo was made into a TV “mini-series” in 1997 (IIRC, it was just a movie in two parts of 2 hours each). It was a lavishly produced, enjoyable, British-Italian production. I remember being annoyed by the fact that they changed the ending, but I don’t remember the details.
Conrad has been my favorite author since I read Lord Jim at age 17. I set out to read all of his works, and in April of 1975 I struck gold when my college library, at a sale, disposed of a duplicate set of the 1928 Colliar reprints of the collected works. They cost a whopping 35 cents each for well-made hardcovers (about $1.75 each in today’s money). I had to fill in a number of already-sold titles over many years.
Shamefacedly, I must admit I never quite finished my project. I still need to read Suspense (his last, unfinished novel), Romance (co-authored with his friend Ford Maddox Ford), which was the last volume that I acquired (about 15 years ago); The Inheritors (another collaboration with Ford), and The Mirror of the Sea. Looking over my shelf to write this, I discovered that the last title is missing. I know for certain I had it, but have no idea what has become of it.
After reading a couple enjoyable Travis McGee mysteries, I am now reading Carter Braxton, Virginia Signer: A Conservative in Revolt by Alonzo Thomas Dill (University Press of America, 1983) and rereading, for my book group, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.
Braxton is one of the least known of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and this was the first full-length biography of him. The reason is that nearly all of Braxton’s personal papers were lost when his estate burned in the early 1800s. Oddly, we don’t even know where he was buried. What little we know comes from the letters and diaries of contemporaries and from public records (he was a farmer and merchant as well as a member of the House of Burgesses). The book is dry, but I find it interesting because Braxton was a slow convert to the revolutionary viewpoint, and the book illuminates the political environment in colonial Virginia.
I first read Childhood’s End when I was 11 or 12 and disliked it. Now I am still disliking it, but understand why much better. The book is obnoxiously condescending, starting with the title. The writing is bland, and the story plods (I find the dry Braxton biography more interesting). Perhaps worst is that the plot is so contrived. It exemplifies Clarke’s well-known dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology will resemble magic. He uses this as a trick, as a deus ex machina, to make the Overlords unassailable, but a Superman without weakness is boring. In contrast Octavia Butler handled a very similar theme much better and more realistically (see my previous posts here).
Edit: tightened up a badly written phrase
… so at least I thought.
A huge and heavy hardcover, 1 kg I think.
I bought this for one story alone: “The Letter”—which I have not yet arrived at, and I had to interrupt this read because … my lust for SF, for imagined possible or impossible worlds and futures, was too strong, so …
… I switched to Poul Anderson’s (Wikipedia) Guardians of Time, a collection of four time-travel stories about the adventures of Manse Everard who works for the Time Patrol, written between 1955 and 1960.
From that book:
The first Latin phrase seems to be a parody of “poeta nascitur, non fit” (a poet is born, not made).
I may “have to” read even more SF before returning to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s wonderful (and heavy) story collection.
The complete collection of Anderson’s Time Patrol stories (excepting his novel, The Shield of Time) is The Time Patrol (Tor, 1991). It contains 9 stories including a novella that is 108 pages.