Monday, February 1, 2016

Spin Title: The Adventurous Simplicissimus

The Adventurous Simplicissimus: Being the description of the life of a strange vagabond named Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim, by H. J. C. von Grimmelshausen

Full disclosure: I had already started this book before I put it on my Spin list, but I felt it was pretty fair because it's not an easy read at all, and I could use the help! 

 This is a very early German novel, from 1668.  Like Don Quixote, it's a picaresque novel, consisting of one adventure after another and not too linear in plot.  It is set during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), and the beginning, at least, is a fairly savage satire on war and soldiers, but then it moves into the picaresque adventures.

The narrator is born a German peasant, but his home is plundered and ruined by soldiers looking for food, women, and loot.  Believing his whole family dead, he wanders in the forest and ends up living with a hermit, who teaches him religion and names him Simplicius Simplicissimus, because he is too simple to know his own right name.  After the hermit's death, Simplicissimus meets up with soldiers; the leader turns him into a jester, since he has no idea how to function in the world.  Simplicissimus goes through a huge variety of jobs: soldier, highwayman, painter, thief, snake oil doctor....anything you can mention, all against a backdrop of horrible war, plunder, and destitution.  Near the end he meets his own father and finds out who he is, travels to Russia, and even visits the land of the mermen underwater.  It gets really strange, and then he decides to become a hermit again and renounce the sinful world.

From the beginning, when Simplicissimus begins his tale:
...'tis not untrue that I have often fancied I must have drawn my birth from some great lord or knight at least, as being by nature disposed to follow the nobleman's trade had I but the means and the tools for it.  'Tis true, moreover, without jesting, that my birth and upbringing can be well compared to that of a prince if we overlook the one great difference in degree...
It's an important book in the development of German literature, and it was a huge hit, which encouraged von Grimmelshausen to write more--most of which wasn't really very good.  Modern readers probably won't love it unless they're really interested.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Black Amazon of Mars

Yep, she's good with an axe.
Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett

Leigh Brackett was apparently a fairly big name in the pulp SF magazines; in fact she was called the Queen of Space Opera!  She wrote a whole lot of short stories and novellas, plus some screenplays (she helped with Empire Strikes Back just before her death).  One of her planetary-conquest series was about Eric John Stark (formerly N'Chaka of Mercury), a human man who is really something of a barbarian.  I was strongly reminded of Conan or Tarzan, only on Mars.

Stark is traveling with a friend to the fortified border city of Kushat, but the friend dies on the way, entrusting Stark with a relic that is supposed to protect the city.  Stark tries to return it, but first the barbarian hordes capture him!  After an interview with a mysterious masked black-clad warlord and some torture, he escapes and reaches Kushat, warning the city that invasion is imminent.  Lord Ciaran wants the city because it guards the Gates of Death, beyond which lies some mysterious power--and why not use that power to conquer all Mars?

There's a lot of bloodshed and conquest and celebration thereof.  Some elements of the story are lifted from Irish myth; the Talisman of Ban Cruach reminds me of the Eye of Crom Cruach from the Secret of Kells movie!

It was a fun space opera story, total pulp.  I'll have to read more Brackett.

And this post hereby finishes up my vintage SF reading for January.  Thanks to Redhead--it's been fun!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Two Clifford Simak novels

Time and Again, by Clifford D. Simak

This book has been on our SF shelf for I don't even know how long, but I'd never gotten around to reading it, though I like Simak just fine.  It turned out to be quite fun, although I saw the end coming from a mile away.  Simak's books aren't huge or terribly complex; they're more like YA science fiction, relatively short and easy to digest.

6,000 years in the future, mankind is spreading through the galaxy, but very thinly.  The population of humans does not seem large at all.  Instead, they swell their ranks with robots and androids--chemically-grown, human DNA, in all ways identical to human beings except that they are sterile.  Androids do most of the work and fill a lot of bureaucratic offices, but they are slaves.  And now, Asher Sutton has come back, 20 years after he disappeared, to find himself a target for assassination so that he won't produce the book he plans to write.  He is chased through time (and space) with only the androids to help him.

Not bad, though with a massive weak point; at no time does anyone suggest that people simply have children.  And not as good as this next one:

Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

Redhead reviewed this the other day, and I liked the sound of it so much that I got myself a copy.  I really enjoyed Way Station; it's much better than Time and Again.  Read this one!

In a remote corner of Wisconsin, Enoch Wallace lives what seems a simple life--for 150 years.  He's a Civil War veteran, and now it's something like the 1980s.  His neighbors are willing to live and let live, up to a point anyway, and nobody has bothered him much until somebody decides he needs watching.  In fact, Enoch runs a way station inside his house; aliens arrive and rest on their way to their destinations.  He's met hundreds of life forms, and learned amazing things.  Now things are coming to a crisis.

This is a nice, quiet novel for the first half or so.  It builds slowly and then things get crazy.  It's really good stuff.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Voyage to Arcturus

Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay

It doesn't get much more Vintage SF than this--Lindsay published this weird novel in 1920.  It made a splash at the time; lots of people like Tolkien thought it was great stuff, and it was a large influence on C. S. Lewis, who was inspired to write his Space Trilogy.

Maskull is looking for adventure, and he teams up with two shady characters--Krag and Nightspore--who promise to take him to a different planet.  He ends up alone on Tormance, a planet orbiting the double star of Arcturus.*  He finds that he has grown some new organs on his neck, forehead, and chest, and these change throughout the story.  Maskull travels over Tormance, meeting one or two new people in every area.  Each new land is the expression of a philosophy, such as stoicism or Nietzschean will to power or pacifism.  Maskull disrupts most of these places; despite his intentions to purify himself inspired by the peaceful people he first meets, he kills several people, and others just happen to die.  All the time, Maskull is trying to figure out who made Tormance--really he's trying to find God but there are a few candidates.  Finally, he ascends a tower and sees Reality, which is some sort of Demiurge/Gnostic thing I didn't really get.  It's all very confusing.

Being a spiritual fable in SF form from 1920, it's kind of clunky.  Coherence is not a strong point, and science fiction had not yet developed much at all.  I suspect that it made such an impression because it was so strange, and because it was a new kind of thing.  (Or not; really, it's Pilgrim's Progress for the modernist.)  It's an important book if you're interested in the development of SF as a genre, much like reading Lord Dunsany and The Worm Ouroboros is important if you're interested in the development of the fantasy genre.  But it is not at all suited to modern tastes.

*Arcturus is not, in fact, a double star.  But in this story it is.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Childhood

My Childhood, by Maxim Gorky

I've always meant to read Gorky's autobiographical trilogy.  I have all three, and I did read My Childhood once years and years ago, but I stopped there and had forgotten all.  So one goal of mine this year is to read all three.

Maxim Gorky's real name was Alexei Maximovich Peshkov.  He called himself Maxim after his father, and gorky means bitter, which he was.  Born in 1868, he had a lifelong concern for the plight of the Russian working class poor.  He got into Marxism, but he also founded a socialist publication that attacked Kerensky and Lenin (while living outside Russia; he spent time in the US and Europe).  Upon returning to Russia in 1928, he became an enthusiastic Soviet, and died in 1936--rumor had it that he was poisoned by political enemies.

My Childhood starts at age 5, at the death of little Alexei's father.  His mother goes home to her parents, but spends less and less time there, until she kind of disappears from the book for a long time.  Alexei is raised by his grandparents, in a tense and hostile household; Grandfather is usually stern and violent, and his sons are constantly demanding money.  There is fighting all the time, and Alexei is often beaten.  His consolation is his loving and saintly grandmother, who tells him stories and takes care of him.

Over the years, the grandparents move around a bit.  Odd characters come and go, and Alexei learns a bit more about the world, though he is hopeless at school.  His mother returns and remarries, which doesn't turn out too well.  Two little brothers are born.  And then, his mother dies, and Grandfather turns Alexei out to fend for himself.  He's maybe twelve, at most.
When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worth while recording them? And with ever stronger conviction I find the answer is yes, because that was the real loathsome truth and to this day it is still valid.
It is that truth which must be known down to the very roots, so that by tearing them up it can be completely erased from the memory, from the soul of man, from our whole oppressive and shameful life.  And there is still another, more positive reason which compels me to describe these horrible things....Life is always surprising us--not by its rich, seething layer of bestial refuse--but by the bright, healthy and creative human powers of goodness that are for ever forcing their way up through it.  It is those powers that awaken our indestructible hope that a brighter, better and more humane life will once again be born.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Trigger Warning

I LOVE this cover.  SO awesome.
Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?  by Mick Hume

It's a book on free speech issues, so you know I've got to read it, but this time it's by a British guy!  Mick Hume is the editor of Spiked, writes newspaper columns, and is a Marxist which I don't really get but OK.  The back cover says he "was described as Britain's only libertarian Marxist newspaper columnist" so that makes it really confusing.  And here is his free speech opinion.

It's kind of a screed and definitely a polemic.  Hume is not happy and he's going to let you know it.  It gets a bit repetitive at times.  And, even from my "free speech is pretty much a religious tenet with me" perspective, I think he goes a bit too far.  I agreed with a lot of it, though, and there's some great analysis in there.  It's very worth reading; not as necessary as Kindly Inquisitors (I'd like every citizen to read that by age 19, please), but an important addition to the free speech library.

Hume's British/European perspective is really interesting to read.  He starts off with the Charlie Hebdo murders and dubs people who wish to limit speech "reverse-Voltaires."  There is just generally more about Euro concerns, so it's fascinating.

The boring chapter, to me, was the one about sports.  Largely because I really don't care about sports, and I especially don't care about Manchester football or whatever, but Hume's actual point isn't bad.  Then I just plain disagreed with him when he said that Twitter shouldn't do anything to trolls; we should all just learn to ignore them.  While I do think that trolls are better ignored than fussed over, Twitter is a private company with a perfect right to set rules about what is and is not acceptable, and the fact is that normal people tend to leave online fora when things get more abusive than is comfortable.  Most people can only ignore so much.

But right after that there is a fabulous chapter about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' far-overused line about "there is no right to shout 'Fire' in a crowded theater."  Hume complains about the constant use of this mis-quotation (they always leave out the 'falsely' bit) as if it applies to anything at all--and he also points out that Holmes changed his mind about the case and the ruling was struck down in 1969.
Underneath all the legalese, the fire-in-a-theatre argument has often been an expression of elitist disdain for the masses.  It rests upon the assumption that many people are ignorant and suggestible enough for a word out of place to start a riot, just as being told a theatre was on fire might start a stampede for the exits.
There is also quite a lot about Holocaust denial, which is a much bigger issue in Europe than the US.  Several European countries have made Holocaust denial an actual crime, and not just Germany.  To my mind, this gives more power than necessary to the silly people in the Holocaust denial business.  Hume argues that while the Holocaust is important, it is not dogma; we can discuss and argue about it.  It's a very interesting section on something I don't hear much about.

Hume makes a lot of good points that are worth thinking about and discussing.  Overall I liked Trigger Warning pretty well, and I recommend it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

I first read this book a few years ago when Ekaterina recommended it on her blog. But the edition I read was the old translation from the 70's, and I wanted to read the newer translation from a couple of years ago. It said it fixed some errors and put in more material, and it also had an afterword explaining the history of the novel's publication in Russia (which is pretty fascinating all on its own).

Red Schuhart is your average schmo. He's a stalker-- he ventures into the Zone to retrieve artifacts. It's a very dangerous occupation; the Zone is an area filled with random alien objects. There are five of them on the earth,  rather as though somebody had thrown some trash out of the car window on their way to somewhere else. The purposes of the different artifacts are unknown, and they are often extremely dangerous. Those who venture into the Zone and survive are somehow changed; their children are not quite human.

Roadside Picnic is a true classic of science fiction; it inspired a movie, a video game series, and a sport. Well, it's not exactly a sport--it's the Russian pastime of sneaking into derelict buildings for exploration.

I was really happy to be able to read the new translation, which is more detailed.  It still has the same feel, but there's a bit more to it.  And it's a great book.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Story of Layla and Majnun

The Story of Layla and Majnun, by Nizami

Layla and Majnun is one of the world's great love stories, akin to Romeo and Juliet or...Aeneas and Dido, maybe.  The story dates from around the 7th century AD, and various versions of it were floating around until Nizami, a Persian poet, collected and shaped the material into one long marrative poem in 1188.  After that, the story's popularity spread across a couple of continents and is still influential today.  The introduction in my copy speculates that the lovers may have been real people who became legendary.

Layla and Qays know each other from childhood; both are Bedouin, though belonging to different tribes.  They fall in love as children, but when they grow older and Layla's parents realize that she is already attracting boys, they keep her sequestered in the family tent.  Layla, imprisoned, must act as though all is well.  Qays, however, starts reciting poetry in public and acting like a madman, which earns him the nickname Majnun (madman).  Without his Layla, he cannot care for anything else.  Eventually he runs off into the wilderness, becoming a sort of hermit and forgetting to eat.  He cares only to compose poetry that he hopes the wind will carry to his love.

Majnun with his animals
This all kind of backfires on him, because his father goes to propose a marriage between the two lovers, and Layla's father refuses on the grounds that Majnun goes around acting crazy all the time.  If not for that, it would be fine.

So Layla gets married off to a very nice, very rich princely kind of guy, who then loves her so much that he puts up with her refusal of him.  Majnun goes back to hermiting and gathers wild animals around him, who are tamed by his gentleness and devotion to Love.   Then everybody dies.

I am clearly a grumpy old lady, because I have no patience for Majnun and his antics.  He and Layla could have been fine.  (I also have no patience for Catherine and Heathcliffe, so.)

The part I liked best was where they exchange a couple of letters, and Layla points out that Majnun is free to act however he wants, whereas she, as a woman, is confined to the role she must play.  He gets all the attention, and she mostly gets to suffer in silence.

I guess I'm not good at appreciating great romances.  But now I know the story.

Starship Troopers

the cover of my dopey copy
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein

Here's a Vintage Sci-Fi month title that really took me a while to get around to.  I've had it for a year, but I'm not big on military SF so it was hard to get started.

Starship Troopers turns out to have almost identically the same plot as Space Cadet did, except that it's for an older audience and plays with a different political system. Here, we have Juan Rico, a wealthy young son of industry who decides, almost on a whim, to enlist in the military after graduating from high school. This is a couple hundred years in the future--humanity has spread out to many planets--and only veterans are allowed to vote and be full citizens. Anyone can serve a term in the military; they will find a job for you no matter what your capabilities are, but only a fairly small percentage of the population joins up to serve the two-year term. Juan joins up during peacetime, but humanity soon finds itself in a war for survival with the dreaded Bugs--extremely intelligent hive-mind insects looking for planets to colonize.

Most of the story consists of a detailed explanation of Johnny's military training, from boot camp to officers' school. There is very little actual plot. He's a soldier in the infantry, and it sounds very much like mecha manga, with each soldier in a suit that makes him into a one-man tank. Heinlein plays around with ideas about freedom, government, and war. As far as I can tell, Heinlein was given to toying with different systems just to see what would happen, and this is one of them. I thought it was pretty clear that these were not Heinlein's own ideas; he's just doing a thought experiment. In the middle of the book, the teacher that provides most of the political philosophy gives a little speech that makes it clear that he has no understanding of the ideas in the American Constitution as any modern American would understand it. I don't mean that Heinlein was spouting ideas that he would have considered to be completely wonky, but Starship Troopers is not a clear reflection of his political values, whatever those were.  I wouldn't know.

It was a pretty fun read if you like the occasional foray into military science fiction. Military stuff is not usually my cup of tea, but Starship Troopers is a pretty major classic and I wanted to see what it was about.  Apparently the movie (which I have not seen) uses the title and the bugs, and not much else.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Kojiki

The Kojiki: an Account of Ancient Matters, by Ō no Yasumaro

Here we have Japan's earliest chronicle, giving the descent of the Yamato dynasty.  It dates from the 8th century, and was written by a courtier at the request of the Empress Gemmei.  

The chronicle is in three parts, and roughly they are myth, legend, and history.  The first section deals with the creation of the world and with kami--translated here as 'spirits.'  These are the stories that became part of the Shinto religion.  (It's very much like Hesiod's Theogony, being a genealogy of divinities.)  The story of Amaterasu is found here, and the ancient beginnings of the Yamato line.

The second, legendary part sounds a lot like the first, except that we've mostly moved into the world of people by now.  It becomes a kingship chronicle, with interesting legends attached.  These kings, however, are too far back to be able to confirm much about their existence.  And the third part is more historical, though it still has the same style.  There are some neat stories, but also quite a lot of just plain genealogy.  There are also songs, which were written in Old Japanese in a special kind of Chinese writing.  Most of them have an instruction at the end that tells you how to sing it (if you know the rules).

Every royal character, and every kami, has 'mighty' in front of every noun, so that it gets very repetitive indeed.  These mighty ones also never just go anywhere--they make their majestic ways.  Grand epithets are everywhere.  And the end of every section gives the location of that person's mighty barrow.

I had forgotten that ancient Japanese monarchs had barrows!  So I had to go look those up again.  They are called kofun and are distinctively keyhole-shaped (from above), with the burial in the round part.

This translation puts all the names into English as well, translating the meanings of the names.  Indexes in the back list all personal and place names, and their meanings; it's extremely handy.  There is also an extensive glossary of terms.

The Kojiki is not at all difficult to read, and it's less than 200 pages long.  Not all of it makes a lot of sense to a modern American, but hey, that's what the glossaries are for; we're supposed to be learning new stuff here.  So if you're interested in very old Japanese literature, this is a good choice.