28 December 2007

There are weird things about Ohio, believe it or not


Weird Ohio
James A. Willis, Andrew Henderson, and Loren Coleman
Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005


Despite having hack writer and former Decaturian Troy Taylor at the helm, Weird Illinois--a companion to this volume--makes for great bathroom reading. The production values and colorful images more than compensate for Taylor's leaden prose and inane editorializing. I love this book so much that every time I visit my best friend's Chicago apartment, I make time to secrete myself away in the john and hunch over it. I got to wondering what I would think of the book if the writing were as good as the production, and so I decided to check out another book in the series to see.

Luckily, I picked an absolute winner with Haunted Ohio. The writing is great, and not just because I'm comparing it with Taylor's ham-fisted oeuvre. The three co-authors balance a love of a good scare story with a desire to know the available facts about any site they describe; it constantly amazed me how they could debunk a particular legend with one or two salient, documented facts without ever abandoning the joy of repeating the original legend."Who cares if it isn't exactly true?" they seem to suggest, "If you're reading a book of weird stories, you're probably into it more for the chill it send down your spine than for any empirically verifiable facts it may reveal." As mentioned before in the context of Haunted Illinois, the production values are superb, and the addition of stories supplied by readers and locals really capture something uniquely Midwestern about these weird people and places.

The sections of the book deal with various weird topics like local legends, ancient mysteries (e.g., the Serpent Mound), fabled people and places, unexplained phenomena (e.g., UFO sightings, Hangar 18, and the ever-popular pancakes from space!), bizarre beasts (including the Mothman), local heroes and villains, personalized properties, roadside distractions (like the Longaberger Basket HQ featured on the cover---it's the building shaped like the giant basket, complete with handles), haunted places, cemeteries, and abandoned buildings and roller coasters.

A very fun, entertaining, and even (gasp) informative book.

"Certainly the prospect for 'normal' humans sometimes seems bleak in these stories." Amen to that assessment.


Supermen: Tales of the Posthuman Future
Gardner Dozois, editor
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002
0312275692

“Would we ordinary, garden-variety human beings like the Posthuman Future if we were somehow suddenly catapulted into it? Or would we find it a terrifying, hostile, and incomprehensible place, a place we were no more equipped to understand and deal with successfully than an Australopithecus would be equipped to deal with Times Square? Are human beings, as we understand the term, as the term has been understood for thousand upon thousands of years, on the way out? Doomed to extinction, or at the very least to enforced obsolescence in some future equivalent of a game reserve or a zoo? Certainly the prospect for “normal” humans sometimes seems bleak in these stories, with author after author postulating the inevitability of a constantly widening gap between the human and the posthuman condition… with the humans left ever father behind, unable to cope.” (Preface, pp. xii-xiii)

As with almost every book I read, this one fits into a larger context. A few years ago, one web search or another introduced me to this idea called "the Singularity." It seems that science fiction writer Vernor Vinge came up with this term to describe that point in the near-future where developments in germline genetic engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and associated disciplines will accelerate and converge in such a way as to create a scientific analog to the fundamentalist Christian "Rapture." Those of us who came into existence before this singular convergence will be radically different from those whose lives are defined by the terms of a post-Singularity world. The latter, deemed "posthumans" (or "transhumans") by various commentators on this vision, will be in control of the the fundamental constituents of the human universe---matter, life, and mind---to such a degree that they will effectively be as gods to the mere humans who preceded them.

I was fascinated by this idea, in part because these developments do seem to presage a variety of unprecedented social, cultural, and other realities. After all, just consider the impact that computer and mobile phone technologies have had on all aspects of global society in the last twenty years, and envision those changes compounded and sped up. I read a few novels that I've previously reviewed here (i.e., Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Rudy Rucker's Moldies and Meatbops and Realware, and The Engines of Light trilogy by Ken MacLeod) and sort of burned through the most intense phase of the interest before I moved on to more pessimistic appraisals of our collective future (mainly dealing with the issue of Peak Oil, a prospect thatjust might put the kibosh on the whole transhumanist project).

This series of pessimistic appraisals then led me back to the topic of transhumanism in the form of Bill McKibben's book Enough. In this well-written but not entirely convincing book (more about which when I actually finish it), he argues against the posthuman/transhuman future implicit in these technologies on the grounds that it will be devoid of meaning, since meaning is grounded in our limitations, defects, and finitude. His book got too preachy too quickly, and so I put it down and picked up a variety of other relevant books, including Jeremy Rifkin’s The Biotech Century, Rapture, The Future and Its Enemies, and a bunch of SF, including this volume. So that's all by way of an explanation as to why I picked this book up.

Regarding this collection of short SF itself, editor Gardner Dozois provides a rough sketch of a "superhuman" posthumanity in his outline of the criteria used in selecting these stories. Science fiction, once dominated by stories of space conquest and interstellar adventure, had by the early 1970s begun to yield to the fundamentally unsettling discoveries of modern cosmologists and space researchers. Solar system changed into galaxy, which in turn had gave way to galactic clusters, galactic superclusters, and ultimately to a universe of such analogy-defying proportions that the space conquest fantasies of the 1950s came to be regarded as impossible. So SF writers and some scientists began to develop new scenarios and strategies for space colonization; after all, if the crux of the problem is a dearth of nearby earthlike planets, then two possible solutions are to make planets earthlike (i.e., terraforming) or to change the nature of human beings and adapt them to a wide variety of habitats. It is this latter notion, changing the very nature of what it has meant thus far to be a human being, that is the subject of this collection.

But it is not just any change of what it means to be human. Dozois invokes various filters in his anthology: the stories contained don't deal with "accidental" posthumanity brought about through mutation or post-apocalyptic scenarios, nor do they deal with posthumans who are angels, machines, or gods in disguise (it is SF after all and not fantasy), nor do they deal with virtual realities and downloaded posthuman consciousness. In this collection, all the posthuman situations are the direct result of deliberate change, often for the purposes of space colonization and conquest, and occur primarily in the "meat" world, as opposed to that of disembodied cyberspace.

Alas the stories in this collection did not, for the most part, live up to the promise of Dozois' introduction. While many of the tales were quite good in terms of craft, not many very meaningful or memorable. Too often I found myself shaking my head at the glibness of the authors and at how far they hadn't come from the Wild West, Manifest Destiny, cowboys in space mentality that characterized much of so-called Golden Age SF. A few stories do stand out, though, and so merit special mention.
  • In “The Chapter Ends,” by Poul Anderson, the Earth has become a rustic backwater that has been traded to an alien civilization in a cosmic territorial exchange. The posthuman descendents of Earth, who have absolutely no connection to this obscure planet in an outer spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, move the few thousand remaining human beings off of the homeworld. They leave behind one Wendell Berry-esque holdout who realizes what it like to be the last person on earth--after the last flight out has gone.
  • “Aye, and Gomorrah,” by Samuel R. Delany, is the sort of sexy science fiction I'd expect from Phillip Jose Farmer. The story centers on spacers, "modified" posthumans whose exotic asexuality makes them the target of fetishists called frelks.
  • "Understand,” by Ted Chiang, features a patient who is resuscitated from a vegetative state through the use of an experimental new synthetic hormone. Of course, the vegetable becomes an uber-genius, escapes from the hospital as a fugitive from CIA, begins meddling in the affairs of humanity in pursuit of his posthuman aesthetic agenda, and finally discovers another pharmaceutically engendered uber-genius out to save the world.
  • “None So Blind” finds Joe Haldeman (one of my favorite authors) telling a love story of sorts about an odd couple whose love begets an experimental surgery that turns regular folks into geniuses. And all they need to do is give up their eyes.
  • “Border Guards,” by Greg Egan (another author I've always liked), poses a good challenge to the McKibbenses of the world with their argument that death gives our lives meaning and dignity. Egan asks the simple question, "is that true?" If we could find a way to get rid of death once and for all, would it be fair to our children not to do so?
  • “A History of the Human and Post-Human Species,” by Geoffrey A. Landis, was my favorite story, I think. It is found in the epilogue, and constitutes a "scientific" abstract covering all the speciation and evolution, engineered and naturally selected, that facing the human race in the next few million years. Intelligent species arise after humans, but none achieve spaceflight, and in a final twist reminiscent of Dougal Dixon's Man After Man, posthuman descendants of Terrestrial colonists on Mars return to Earth in the far future, with no memory of their original connection.

21 December 2007

Makes for fascinating reading on multiple levels



DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences
Rick Strassman, MD
Park Street Press, 2000


What feature do mystical experience, near-death experience, and alien abduction share? According to this fascinating book, all of these disparate experiences may be accompanied by a release of dimethyltryptamine (DMT, a potent psychedelic compound related to serotonin, melatonin, and psilocybin) from the pineal gland. Interestingly, this substance is also found in scores of different New World plants and has been used in many indigenous South American cultures as a pharmaceutical adjunct to shamanic practices. Intrepid psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Rick Strassman navigated the byzantine bureaucracies of the FDA and the DEA in order to conduct the first psychedelic research on human beings in two decades and lived to tell the tale, much to the satisfaction of psychonauts like yours truly.

This book serves multiple functions: it provides an introduction to the chemical DMT and to the anatomy and physiology of the pineal gland, an overview of the literature on human psychedelic research and an outline for future instances of the same, a template for the process of human psychedelic research design, a database of first-person experiences of large doses of intravenous DMT, speculations on the nature of consciousness and reality, and caveats about future research with psychedelic substances. As noted in the title for this review, the book provides fascinating reading on all these levels. It is rare that I've read a nonfiction book that held my attention so easily; the fact that I devoured a book that covered so much intellectual ground in such a brief time speaks volumes as to the quality of Strassman's writing. He follows the tried and true method of writers past---summarize what you plan to say, say it, and summarize what you've said. For some reviewers his prose was too pedantic or workmanlike, but for me it was perfect. He managed to convey a sense of scientific detachment while at the same time exhibiting a profound sensitivity both to the needs of his subjects and also to the needs of his readers, even as he described the saline flush used to clean out the IV lines. Strassman does not approach the subject matter glibly and avoids coming to any easy conclusions; in fact, his own sense of discomfort with the direction the research takes (i.e., the repeat encounters of test subjects with "other beings" that don't seem hallucinatory in the least) cemented my respect for him as a researcher and an author.

Anyone interested in altered states of consciousness, whether natural or substance-induced, would do well to read this book. Dr. Strassman should be thanked for returning a sense of respectability to an area of scientific research that was effectively "lost" for a generation.

(This review was originally posted on December 6, 2007.)

Well la dee da, it's Adi Da!



Adi Da and Adidam: The Divine Self-Revelation of the Avataric Way of the "Bright" and the "Thumbs"
Carolyn Lee
The Dawn Horse Press, 2004


In my sojourns through the religion, philosophy, and New Age sections of various bookshops, I've repeatedly come across the name and face of Adi Da (previously known as Bubba Free John, among other monikers). It was only when I found this pocket-sized introductory book, though, that I decided to read a bit more about this enigmatic and controversial guru and his teachings. Having devoured the entire thing last night, I'm still trying to figure out whether or not Adi Da means for us to take everything written here seriously. My assumption is that this booklet is an accurate, if brief, look at Adidam, because it is published by the Dawn Horse Press (the publisher of all of Adi Da's other works) and was written under the direction of the Ruchira Sannyasin Order of Adidam Ruchiradam (a impressive-sounding group about which the reader is told nothing). If this is the case, then Adi Da is either: (1) God incarnate, (2) a legitimate spiritual teacher with delusions of grandeur, (3) seriously mentally ill, (4) a charlatan of epic proportions, or (5) some combination thereof. For the record, my money is not on option #1.

Adi Da is, according to this book, "Real God, or Truth, or Reality, Manifesting in human form" (p.6). He claims that at his birth as Franklin Jones (in Jamaica, NY, no less), the Divine Reality became a human being for the first time, and that the millennia-long struggle for human beings to attain enlightenment under their own steam, as it were, came to an end. This claim must come as a surprise to the billion-plus Christians worldwide who assert that God became a human being in 1st century Palestine, and to the hundreds of millions of Hindus who believe that the divine Vishnu has taken human form on at least nine occasions.

As for Adidam, "the Path of the Heart," it boils down to guru-devotion or bhakti-yoga. What this means is that the devotee, by surrendering the heart and giving complete attention and devotion to Adi Da, allows the divine essence that is incarnate in Adi Da to break through the knot of self-concern and ego-contraction which is the source of all suffering. Again, this is not unique, at least from the perspective of comparative religion. Bhakti yoga is probably the most practiced form of Hindu spirituality, and many other religious traditions, Christianity and Shin Buddhism among them, see divine grace as the only "means" to salvation. For the devotees of Adidam, however, the salvific response to this devotion isn't simply taken on faith; rather, it takes the form of palpable energetic responses, called the "Bright" and the "Thumbs" by Adi Da, that transform the mind, soul, and body of the devotee. At least, that's what the book says.

Apart from the actual content, the book's style posed many problems. Hagiography isn't a genre popular with too many moderns, yours truly included, and the praise-filled prose becomes cloying just a few pages into the book. Adi Da's own commentary, quoted at length throughout the slender volume, is rife with arbitrary capitalization, underlining, and other annoying stylistic and typographic idiosyncrasies. Those features, combined with fairly impenetrable philosophy and a sense of inflated ego (which is to be expected, I guess, from the "promised God-man"), made for a less-than-thrilling read.

(This review was originally written on November 27, 2007.)

These authors need a crash course in discerning speculation from fact



The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ
Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince
Touchstone, 1998


Claiming on the front cover to be an expose about the "true identity of Christ," the book comes to this conclusion on page 352-3: "Jesus was not the Son of God, and neither was he of the Jewish religion--although he may have been ethnically a Jew...John did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. He may well have baptized him, because Jesus was one of *his* disciples, perhaps even rising through the ranks to become his second-in-command. Something went wrong, however: John changed his mind and nominated Simon Magus as his successor. Shortly afterwards John was killed. Mary Magdalene was a priestess who was Jesus' partner in a sacred marriage..."

After reaching this point in the book, I put it down in disgust, something I am not wont to do (particularly after I've spent hour after hour plowing through a text), and decided to write this review.

This book is offensive, not necessarily because of its radical and unsubstantiated claims about Jesus, but because it, like so many others of its ilk, confuses a constellation of conjecture, speculation, supposition, and allegation with EVIDENCE as it seeks to support a very unconventional hypothesis.

From its first chapter, in which authors Picknett and Prince discuss the secret symbolism of Leonardo da Vinci's paintings (symbolism that most professional art historians consider spurious, by the way), the following pattern is established:

  • Explain away the fact that reputable and knowledgeable parties don't agree with your observations by linking these parties with the "conspiracy" you're attempting to expose.
  • Ask a question like, "what other possible explanation could there be?" and then refuse to seek explanations different from your own pet theory.
  • Use qualifiers like "perhaps," "could," "suppose," or "might" when establishing a speculative data point, and then forget about that qualifier when you bring up that same data point, as an established fact, in the next chapter to bolster the next data point.
  • Connect all your dots and claim that the picture you've just drawn is the REAL DEAL, all the while ignoring the fact that the dots you connected were all of your own design.

I can't honestly say that the book was worthless; it was occasionally a fun read and the authors' ruminations contain lots of interesting, if unsupported, speculations about varied topics. The first half of the book does a fair job of showing possible connections between various esoteric and occult groups in Western history, such as the Knights Templar, the Hermeticists, and the Freemasons. As well, the second half of the book, which focuses on the "true identity of Christ," is also interesting, if only because it offers a challenge to those whose knowledge of Christian origins and history is sorely wanting. (Didn't know that the New Testament was put together by a committee of bishops and their representatives? Well now you do.) And the chapter on the Mandaeans of Iraq was also very interesting and made me want to read more about this vanishing remnant of Gnostic religion. Having said that, the authors' tendency to conflate speculation with fact and their lack of hesitancy in passing the former off as the latter ruined this book for me as anything other than a work of fiction.

Read it if you must, enjoy it if you can, but please remember that speculation and fact are two different animals. Just because Picknett and Prince have written it, doesn't make it so.

(This review was originally written on November 20, 2007.)

Some of these stories have haunted me for decades



Across the Universe: The DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore
Alan Moore
DC Comics, 2003



V for Vendetta
and From Hell are two of my favorite graphic novels, due in no small part to the brilliant ideas and prose of Alan Moore. Because I first read both books in the `00s, I'd just assumed that Moore was only a contemporary comic book writer. Imagine my surprise, then, that upon picking up this volume at the local library, I discovered not one but three stories that affected me so profoundly when I read them as a kid that they still stick with me twenty-plus years later.

Two of these stories, both of which involve the Green Lantern Corps, still come up in my comparative religions class when I am reflecting on perception and frames of reference. In "Mogo Doesn't Socialize," Bolphunga the Unrelenting has come to a remote planet in search of the great Green Lantern Mogo. Suffice it to say that Bolphunga and the reader both discover precisely why Mogo can't be found anywhere on that remote world in a perceptual shift worthy of the Twilight Zone. "In Blackest Night" challenges a Green Lantern to communicate with a blind being from a dark planet who knows (and, more importantly, can know) nothing of "green" or "lanterns." This story drove home the point that you need a common frame of reference in order for ideas to translate.

The third story, "Brief Lives," filled a single page spread and came from something called Vega. As with the latter of the GL stories, this one was all about perspective. Two giants, whose lives encompass epochs of geological time, encounter---in the form of an almost imperceptible little cloud of dust---the futile attacks of a race of militant insectoids. The punchline, delivered by one of these eons-old creatures to his colleague, is that he shouldn't worry too much about the dust cloud because "life is too short." Wonderful!

All the other stories collected in this volume are strong, and most of them explore the nuances of interpersonal relationships, hardly the standard fare of superhero comic books. In "For the Man Who Has Everything," Superman is attacked by an alien plant-thing that renders him comatose while allowing him to live out an idealized virtual life on a Krypton-that-never-exploded with his wife and children. "The Jungle Line" finds the Swamp Thing gently, almost tenderly, rescuing Superman from the feverish grip of a lethal Kryptonian fungus. "Night Olympics" follows an evening out with socially conscious crime fighter couple Green Arrow and Black Widow as they encounter drug freaks, stereo thieves, and a would-be assassin. "Father's Day" is a troubling, if overlong, Vigilante story about a child-abusing, wife-murdering ex-con, and the complex, unfathomable relationship he has with his daughter. The closing story, "Mortal Clay," finds Batman dueling with the third incarnation of Clayface over the affections of an, um, woman.

Alan Moore has demonstrated time and again that he is a writer to be reckoned with. The implications of some stories in this collection took me by surprise decades ago, and their effects have still not worn off. I recommend the stories in this collection very highly.

(This review was originally written on November 19, 2007.)

Great introduction to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism



Buddha of Infinite Light
Daisetz T. Suzuki
Shambhala Publications, 1998

Ever since the first Englishman translated the final words of the Buddha as "work out your own salvations with diligence," the English-speaking West has associated Buddhism almost exclusively with the cool, detached path of self-power and the attainment of enlightenment through the individual cultivation of wisdom, ethics, and meditation. Perhaps it is due to this limited understanding of the Buddhadharma, perhaps it is because so many Westerners have come to Buddhism in order to escape from a theistically oriented religion; whatever the reason, out of the millions of Westerners who now find themselves attracted to the Buddhadharma, few are familiar with the Buddhist path of Other-power, a path which finds its clearest expression in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhism of Japan.

Thankfully the folks at Shambhala Publications have decided to fill this gap in knowledge by updating and republishing a classic work by D.T. Suzuki, perhaps most well known in the West for his work on the Zen traditions of Japanese Buddhism. The result is this short, clearly written work which attempts to explain the essential teachings of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (aka Shin Buddhism) in a way that situates them squarely within a more familiar Buddhist worldview.

Suzuki admits up front that his presentation of Shin Buddhism, stripped of what he calls "accretions," will go directly against more traditional interpretations, and so obviously this book is not an exhaustive treatment of its subject. Instead the book sketches the basic premise of Shin Buddhism (i.e., Amida Buddha has vowed that anyone who calls out to him with sincere faith will be reborn in the Pure Land, a stainless realm whence anyone can attain enlightenment) and discusses its essential practice of reciting the nembutsu ("Namu-Amida-Butsu") in the context of standard Buddhist philosophical concepts (e.g., selflessness, emptiness, compassion, etc.).

So for Suzuki, the practice of reciting the nembutsu is not about calling out to a god for salvation, although that is certainly how it first appears. Instead "Namu" symbolizes self-power, "Amida Butsu" Other-power, and the conjunction of the two in the nembutsu is emblematic of the essential nonduality of oneself and the enlightened mind of the Buddha. Likewise, Suzuki explains that we cannot practice the sincerity necessary to call out to Amida because sincerity is the "perfect forgetting of oneself." In other words, what initially seems "too easy" is seen on closer analysis to be nigh impossible. This is why Shinran's modification of existing Pure Land Buddhist doctrines was, and is, so radical; for him, the nembutsu isn't a prayer or mantra to be put into practice (after all, what good would such practice be given our hopeless self-centeredness?) but an expression of gratitude for having already been swept up into the Pure Land through the absolute grace of Amida's compassion. For Shinran, the Pure Land itself is not merely understood as a post-mortem destination but is a radical re-envisioning and sanctification of the present moment. The strict separation between what is self and what is not-self, between what is samsara and what is nirvana, blurs; "When sincerity and insincerity are transcended, then Amida comes into our inner self and identifies himself with this inner self. Or, we can say, this self find itself in Amida. And when we find this self in Amida, we are in the Pure Land" (p. 41).

This is a great introduction to an often-overlooked school of Buddhist thought and practice.

(This review was originally written on October 26, 2007.)

Not as funny as *The Daily Show* nor as clever as *The Onion*



The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book)
Jon Stewart


This book was a gift from one of my die-hard Democrat, old school liberal friends. Like many other coffee table books, it sat unread, gathering dust on my shelf. Something finally possessed me to read it, I read it cover to cover, and now here I am, filing my obligatory report. Suffice it to say that while I found the book mildly amusing, it isn't a keeper.

Sadly, the book is not nearly as funny as The Daily Show itself. Maybe I would have liked this book more if I weren't so spoiled on the really clever, witty, and occasionally brilliant writing of the folks at The Onion. Then there was the realization that, other than being progressive and left-leaning, I don't think I fall into the book's target demographic of young hipsters. Regular jokes about "bling," "mochachina," and "mother f*ckers who love their mother f*ckin' tea" just left me cold. As well, the use of profanity seemed gratuitous and, because it wasn't bleeped out and therefore somehow even more scandalous, just not that funny.

That said, there was one truly exceptional piece of writing in the book--on the introductory page to the chapter on the media, the authors tear the Fourth Estate a new one for their constitutional inability to investigate and report on substantive issues whose open discussion is essential to the health of our democratic republic. Of course, in Monty Python-esque fasion, the next page featured a new, more "acceptable" introduction to the chapter on the media. I got a big kick out of that, in an "oh my god what is happening to my country" sort of way.

As well, the layout of the book, mimicking as it does a public school social studies textbook (down to the stamp inside the front cover for student names), is really well conceived and executed. The sometimes tedious and unfunny text is supplemented by scores of ridiculous timelines, diagrams, textboxes, and quizzes, and it was in these detailed elements that the book redeemed itself. (After all, who doesn't want their own copy of naked Supreme Court justice paper dolls?)

So there you have it: America (The Book Review). There will be a pop quiz on this review next period. Any questions?

(This review was originally written on October 26, 2007.)

Explores some heavy-duty ideas, but gets pretty confusing along the way

Deathhunter
Ian Watson
St. Martins, 1987

Deathhunter
is the third Ian Watson that I've read, the first two being The Embedding and Miracle Visitors, and it shares some features with his other works. On the one hand, Watson is a brilliant thinker whose novels are filled to the brim with profound questions about the nature of the self and the nature of reality. On the other, because Watson's novels are about profound topics which don't lend themselves to easy envisioning, they tend to become confusing and murky. In this, Watson seems very much like Philip K. Dick.

This book features a society in which the fear of death has been all but completely uprooted. Violent deaths, murder, warfare, etc. have all disappeared and been replaced with a peaceful system of "good deaths" in which the sick and elderly are brought into Houses of Death and guided to their ultimate fate. Religion, with its insistence on survival of death, has been suppressed, as have those art forms that are rooted in death anxiety (i.e., all quality poetry, film, art, etc.).

At the novel's opening, protagonist and death guide Jim Todhunter arrives by monorail at Egremont, one of the cities in this society. Almost immediately he witnesses the unthinkable assassination of the community's resident saint, Norman Harper, by one of the residents of the local House of Death. Though he is tasked with guiding the assassin to a good death, he instead becomes caught up in the assassin's belief that so-called "good deaths" allow strange, red, bat-like creatures from another dimension to steal the souls.

The novel explores this premise, that different forms of death lead to different sorts of afterlives, as the two main characters explore near-death experiences, astral travel, and attempts to cage death itself. While these explorations themselves are quite fascinating, they lead the novel into ever-widening circles of weirdness where the characters, and reality itself, are not quite what they seem.

(This review was originally written on October 16, 2007.)

Imaginative and creatively written vision of a world without "the West"



The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson
Spectra, 2003


What would the last 700 or so years have looked like if the Black Death virtually wiped out Europe, instead of "merely" annihilating 30-60% of her population? What if Christianity were suddenly and almost completely removed from the world stage? What if Columbus had not sailed the ocean blue in 1492---would the New World have still been "discovered" and if so, by whom? These are among the questions that Kim Stanley Robinson addresses in this masterfully written work of alternate history.

Robinson uses a couple of interesting writing devices to add a singularly human depth and breadth to his speculative vision. Instead of employing a single linear narrative history spanning three-quarters of a millennium, he uses ten individual yet interconnected books of exploration, conquest, and discovery as the brush strokes with which to paint an overall picture of a world without "the West." The connections between the ten books come in the form of recurring characters whose many names throughout the centuries share the same initial consonants, e.g. "B" and "K." Between the varied stories that comprise the novel these characters find themselves in the bardo--the "space in between"--deliberating on their choices and on the progress of humanity as a whole. The use of these cycles and of recurring personalities in the place of linear history and character development reinforces the absence of the West; the characteristically Asian cyclical nature of time, of history, and of progress provides an appropriate foundation for Robinson's overarching vision.

This is the first Robinson I've read, apart from an anthology that he edited (Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias), and based on how much I enjoyed this I think I'll definitely read more.

(This review was originally written on October 15, 2007.)

Intriguing premise, inoffensive story



Eternity Road
JackMcDevitt
Eos, 1998


Engaging and competently if not masterfully written, Eternity Road envisions a post-collapse North America dotted with the crumbling ruins of a bygone Golden Age, that of the "Roadmakers." McDevitt recounts the exploration of this land by a party of Illyrians (the neo-dark age successors to those who lived in what was once Memphis) in the context of an earlier, failed expedition.

He does a fine job of creating a landscape that is unsettlingly familiar. For example, the citizens of Illyria marvel at the ruins they call the Iron Pyramid, made not of iron but of some strangely permanent material and whose original purpose can't be fathomed. En route to the fabled outpost of Roadmaker civilization, a mythical (?) place called Haven, the travelers encounter other wonders: the Devil's Eye (perhaps the remnants of Fermilab's particle accelerator); an automated maglev train and the sole surviving artificial intelligence in Chicago's Union Station; a submerged Detroit-Windsor tunnel; the natural wonder that is "Nyagra;" reverse engineered technologies like steam engines; and, of course, the ubiquitous roadways which have given their name to the Roadmakers who built them.

While we learn that a plague killed almost everyone in North America (and presumably the world) in 2079 AD, the novel refuses to spell out explicitly just how long before our protagonists' time that plague occurred. Their knowledge of history only goes back 300 or so years, if that, and so we wonder at the age of ruined bridges and skyscrapers along with our heroes. Buried in the chapter on "Nyagra," the author gives us a substantial clue as to how far in the future the story takes place; if, through erosion, the Niagara has traveled approximately three feet upstream every year and the falls have traveled almost a mile in this fashion, then we are looking at roughly the year 3839 AD. That's approximately the same as our distance in time from the fall of Rome.

And so I guess my favorite feature of the story is that our contemporary, 21st century world becomes legend and pre-history to our barely civilized descendants and our commonplace technologies (those which survive anyway) are seen as the magical wonders of gods.

The story was strong until the last few chapters, which seemed hurried and disappointing. I was also unhappy with the conclusion, although perhaps McDevitt wanted his characters to learn to live in their own time and to experience progress on their own terms, instead of rescuing them from their "savagery" with a deus ex 21st century machina.

Definitely worth a read for people who like post-apocalyptic SF, especially since you can get it for a single cent.

(This review was originally posted on October 15, 2007.)

Interesting artwork and factoids, but overall a big "who cares?"



The Secret Symbols of the Dollar Bill : A Closer Look at the Hidden Magic and Meaning of the Money You Use Every Day
David Ovason
Perennial Currents, 2004


"Fascinating." "Extraordinary." "Dazzling." Breathless adjectives like this, taken directly from the blurb on the back cover, echo the tone of the book itself. While purporting to reveal "the fascinating secret meanings behind the design of the money we use every day," this book instead merely presents a series of more-or-less unconnected factoids about the various images found on the US $1 bill. Having previously read Ovason's The Zelator on the recommendation of a friend, I recognize this rambling and disconnected manner of presentation as something characteristic of the author's ouvre and not merely something particular to this specific book. Sadly, Ovason's writing style wrings all the power and magic out of a fascinating premise and replaces it with a sullen "so what?" I also found annoying Ovason's habit of passing off unsubstantiated assertions as fact, something that he does on a regular basis.

A page-by-page analysis of the book is inappropriate for a book review, but one choice example should suffice to support my criticisms. On page 5 (in his irrelevant factoid on how the word "dollar" originally came from Germany, irrelevant because he fails to connect it with any subsequent factoid) Ovason makes the claim that only those who knew that the dollar sign had been derived from a crucifix (one of the many points he assumes rather than proves) would get the "half-joke" from Sinclair Lewis' Main Street that the dollar sign "chased the crucifix clean off the map." Really? I would have thought that was a pretty transparent reference to the fact that the "almighty dollar" had supplanted the Christian God in the hearts of America's faithful, a rather mundane theme which is in keeping with the rest of Sinclair Lewis' writing. Far too often, a section heading that includes wiggle words like "may," "possible," "might" is followed by a paragraph from which these qualifiers are absent. One need read only a few pages into the book to see that Ovason's tendency to confuse assertion with fact is clearly evident.

A good book on the symbolism of the dollar bill would definitely be an interesting read for those interested in American history, Freemasonry, and symbolism in general. Sadly this isn't that book.

(This review was originally posted on October 3, 2007.)

A fitting (and welcome) conclusion to a long story



In at the Death (Settling Accounts, book 4)
Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, 2007


I've said it before and I'll say it again--if you've read the rest of the series, then what I have to say probably won't influence you one way or another. As well, it is likely that anything I reveal here won't be a real spoiler. It should come as little surprise that Turtledove's wrap-up involves the deployment of this world's first atomic weapons (a total of nine times worldwide!), the trials and hangings of those responsible for Confederate atrocities, the assassination of CSA President Jake Featherston, the utter collapse of the Confederate States of America, and the permanent occupation/reconquest of these territories by the USA.

What did surprise me is that Turtledove's warring nations unveil their atomic weapons less than halfway into the book. I was expecting that something so paradigm shifting as the birth of the nuclear age would come later in the novel and be used for greater dramatic effect. As it is Turtledove's treatment is much more subtle; after the absolute obliteration of Petrograd ("One bomb. Off the map. G-O-N-E. Gone. No more Petrograd. Gone."), the use of uranium and plutonium/jovium bombs by the different warring nations begin to influence how the POV characters see the world and their places in it. The atomic age begins with a bang and a whimper, as it were. Similarly the assassination of Featherston takes place with little fanfare, as if to suggest that his fall from power was as total as his rise. The novel itself spends much of its second half dealing with the aftermath of the war and the consequences for those in both nations occupying the heart of North America. Although its conclusion leaves the door open for further sequels, I hope that Turtledove is through with this series---frankly, I don't think I can handle further installments. Instead, I hope that the ambiguities and uncertainties the reader faces at the end of this novel are simply indicative of how history is itself constantly in the making, never thoroughly resolved.

Turtledove (or the writing team by that name, if you subscribe to certain authorial conspiracy theories) also seems to have taken fan criticisms to heart with this concluding installment. He avoids overindulging in threadbare comments on the quality of US tobacco and how readily Sam Carsten's skin burns in even the slightest sunshine, for example. This, like its predecessor The Grapple, had better pacing and was far more engaging than many which came before it, making for a fitting conclusion to an interesting, if overlong, vision of an alternate North America.

(This review was originally written on September 21, 2007.)

A gift to all fans of smart AND brilliantly written speculative fiction



The Man Who Had No Idea Thomas M. Disch
Bantam Books, 1982


Prior to picking this book up at a library sale in Benicia, CA, my only experience with Thomas Disch had been playing his text game Amnesia many years ago. After putting this book down upon concluding the final story, I wished that I had been reading his books instead of playing that game. If the stories contained in this volume are indicative of his skills as a thinker and writer, then Disch is a true luminary of SF.

The notes I took for this review are brief. The stories in this collection are all about people and about what it means to be human. The stories in this collection contain myriad examples of really great writing, inventive language, and novel turns of phrase. The stories in this collection encompass a variety of styles, all of which are handled deftly. And the stories in this collection explore a wide range of awesome ideas, reminding me once again why I've always liked smart SF.

A few of the stories that still stand out in my mind include the titular tale, in which people are required to become licensed in order to hold a conversation; "The Santa Claus Compromise" in which the extension of full civil liberties to children leads to some stunning "revelations" about Jolly Old St. Nick; "The Vengeance of Hera" explores themes of fidelity, estrangement, and how the gods (or in this case, goddesses) work in mysterious ways; "Concepts," the centerpiece of the anthology, breathes new life into the throw-away space aliens motif, and raises troubling questions about the nature of life and consciousness along the way; in "The Foetus" we encounter a demon-spawn hellbent on nuclear annihilation; and the brutally titled "Planet of the Rapes" views sexual politics through the prism of space age satire.

This is definitely a book for re-reading and a gift to all fans of smart AND brilliantly written speculative fiction.

(This review was originally written on September 14, 2007.)

Works as both thriller and alternate history



Fatherland
Robert Harris
HarperTorch, 1993

What if Nazi Germany had won the European war? What would the world of the 1960s look like with an aging F├╝hrer still clutching the reigns of power? Those are the big questions that inform journalist and author Robert Harris' debut novel, a genuine page-turner about one German policeman's investigation of a routine corpse who turns out to be anything but routine.

I really enjoyed this novel on many levels. For one thing, it is a compelling thriller involving long-buried secrets, political assassinations, international intrigue, and Gestapo tactics and police state paranoia. The main protagonist, Sturmbahnnf├╝hrer Xavier March, a surprisingly sympathetic SS officer-by-default whose loyalty to the Reich is far from perfect, finds himself drawn into a web of treachery involving a 20-year old secret that unknown parties will kill to protect.

Fatherland is also ingeniously crafted alternate history, in which Albert Speer's larger-than-life architectural visions for Nazi Berlin have been brought to fruition. Descriptions of the titanic Arch of Triumph (40 or so times bigger than the Parisian monument of the same name) and the thousand-foot tall Great Hall vied for my attention against chilling details about everyday life in a racist police state. And of course, there is that decades-old secret March unravels; it has something to do with obscure frontier towns called Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Dachau.

All in all, a well written debut novel that is well worth a read.

(This review was originally written on September 14, 2007.)

Gripping, disturbing, chilling--you'll look at the strangers around you in a new way



Carrion Comfort
Dan Simmons
Grand Central Publishing, 1990

How horrifying would it be to find someone else in that most intimate of "places," your own mind, using you as a marionette, steering you to commit senseless acts of violence as an absolutely helpless pawn in their sociopathic schemes? That is the central, chillingly effective premise of the epic second novel by award-winning author Dan Simmons. Ranging from a concentration camp in Nazi-controlled Poland to the genteel Southern city of Charleston, South Carolina, to the racially charged streets of Philadelphia to a private island off the Atlantic coast, this near-900-page chiller deftly covers an equally extensive expanse of literary territory, including elements of science fiction, supernatural horror, psychological thriller, and international espionage.

If I could summarize the plot in one paragraph, it would be as follows. Our world is populated by a vanishingly small population of psychic "vampires," individuals who can enter the mind of others to control their thoughts and actions. These creatures are sociopaths, amoral monsters who casually foment violence, commit mental and physical rape, and destroy lives in order to play their "games." Three such vampires, old colleagues in sociopathology, have decided to end their decades-long game with one another by attempting mutual homicide, using (of course) innocent bystanders as their weapons. The resulting mass murder brings together our protagonists---a psychiatrist and survivor of the Chelmno death camp, a young black college student whose father was a victim of the vampires, and a Southern sheriff whose demeanor belies a keen intelligence. Over the course of 850+ pages, these characters uncover a sinister cabal of "vampires" whose games seem to be leading toward the ultimate finale---destruction of the world itself.

At almost 900 pages (have I mentioned how long the book is?), Carrion Comfort could be a daunting, even boring, read in the hands of a lesser talent, and yet Dan Simmons is able to pull it off with aplomb. His use of various side characters, subplots, multiple points of view, and unexpected twists, along with an ever-climbing bodycount of innocent puppets, keeps the readers interest through the very last page. Most chilling, perhaps, are the first-person musings of Miz Melanie Fuller, a Southern belle "vampire" whose obsessions with scripture, race, and propriety exist side-by-side with her callous disregard for the lives of all the pawns she uses and discards.

I had the opportunity to do dinner with Dan Simmons a decade ago and found him to be a charming man with a warm, open manner. It amazes me that a story so profoundly dark and chilling could come from a person so engaging. I guess that goes to show that Simmons is great at what he does. Whether writing award-winning fantasy, horror, science fiction, or thrillers, he always seems to be at the top of his game, and Carrion Comfort is no exception.

(This review was originally written on August 17, 2007.)

Brilliant and engaging, even page-turning, overview of the history of the Jews and Judaism



Wanderings: Chaim Potoks' History of the Jews
Chaim Potok
Fawcett, 1987

"Each time the light returns and we are able to see the new world that has been created on the ruins of the old, we discover familiar elements of the overthrown civilization in the creativity of the new" (p. 379). Although specifically referring in this passage to those Germanic tribes who conquered and assimilated the Roman empire, this comment is a succinct encapsulation of Potok's larger narrative about the Jewish people. Wanderings demonstrates that the history of the Jews and of Judaism is a palimpsest in which the central theme of covenant relationship with God has been regularly reinvented, overthrown as it were and creatively reconstructed, so that it may maintain its relevance in a changing world.

For those of us whose knowledge of the Jewish people and the religion of Judaism effectively begins with "Genesis" and ends with "Malachi," this book is indispensable. It seems equally indispensable for those raised within contemporary Jewry who wrestle, like Jacob, to reconcile the idea of a God who operates in history through his chosen people with a reality that is multi-faith and often seemingly without purpose. It does not hurt that Potok, an acclaimed novelist as well as an ordained rabbi, infuses his historical narrative with a pace and lyrical grace more in keeping with an epic novel than a work of nonfiction.

Potok's narrative begins, in a manner similar to contemporary accounts, with those first great Mesopotamian civilizations, Sumer and Akkad. Against this background of cuneiform and clay, Bronze Age technology, extraordinary civilizational creativity, and the constant threats of catastrophic flood and drought, wanders Abraham of Ur, first of the Hebrew patriarchs. Even in the earliest recorded tales of this wanderer and his descendants, we are told, "the basic themes of the Hebrew Bible-covenant, liberation, redemption; the search for insight into a world assumed to be meaningful-remain essentially the same..." (P. 40) . The wandering tribes descended from Abraham-called Hapirus-mingled with their new Canaanite (aka Phoenician) neighbors; slowly made their way into the Black Land of the Nile to escape famine; were enslaved by the native Egyptians when their Semitic relatives, the Hyksos, were driven from the pharaoh's throne; were liberated when one of their own, a man named Moses, received a call from their God; returned to the land of Canaan, their "Promised Land," with the goal of conquest; established a kingdom under Saul, and then the shepherd boy David; built a magnificent temple under the reign of David's son Solomon; watched all these accomplishments fade under one weak and corrupt king after another; and finally found themselves taken captive by the Babylonians. In short, we follow the rise and fall of the first great Jewish civilization, all while keeping in sight the religious thread that connects these victories and calamities. "The Israelites saw each of these crucial encounters between God and man through the filtering vision of covenant relationships" (p. 141). While all of these stories are familiar to those who have read the Old Testament, Potok ingeniously retells them with a novelist's sensibility and a scholar's insight, making the oftentimes two-dimensional characters of scripture come to life and resonate with the contemporary reader.

The Babylonian captivity was not the end of the Jewish people or their religion, although that is all too often assumed by those whose only knowledge of the Jews and Judaism comes from the Christian Bible. Instead, those who were allowed to return to their homeland after almost a century in captivity began the slow transition to the second great Jewish civilization, that of Rabbinic Judaism. Potok discusses the influences of Greek philosophy and Roman political domination on Jewish thought and practice; the origins of the conservative Sadducees and liberal Pharisees; the destruction of the Temple and, later, of Jerusalem by the Romans; the expulsion of the Jews from Judea; the creation of the Talmud in Palestine and Babylon; the high Sephardic civilization of Al-Andalus in Muslim Spain; the difficulties and discrimination faced by Jews on the margins of Christendom; and the ultimate unraveling of the 1,500-year old rabbinical civilization with the coming of the Enlightenment. All along the journey, Potok discusses the regular reinvention of what it means to be one of God's chosen people: from the early days of the doctrine of dual Torah and the Pharisaic emphasis on ethics; to the Kabbalistic notion that keeping God's commandments is a way of restoring the cosmos to its original sacred integrity; to Isaac Luria's conception of God sharing Israel's exile in the process of creation; to the joyous celebration of life itself expounded by the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov; to the Enlightenment's questioning of the very need for a sense of Jewish identity.

In short, Wanderings, in brilliant and engaging, even page-turning, prose, reveals Judaism to be a dynamic and fluid faith whose drive to find meaning in the world and willingness to change even that which seems most essential has allowed it to survive, and even to thrive, on the margins of civilizations whose views of the Jewish people have vacillated between begrudging respect to genocidal hatred. This book (I almost wrote "novel") is a remarkable achievement.

(This review was originally written on August 15, 2007.)

Buddhism without jargon



Buddhism Without Beliefs
Stephen Batchelor
Riverhead Trade, 1998


After reading most of the other reviews for this book, I'm wondering if maybe I read a different edition than everyone else. The 1-star folks claim that this book throws away such venerable Buddhist ideas as karma and rebirth, that author Batchelor asserts his view of a "Buddhist agnosticism" as the "original, pure, true" Buddhism, and that this book is tantamount to heresy and should be reviled. Most of the 5-star reviews view this book as something akin to the Fourth Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. From where I'm sitting, this book is significantly less offensive and dismissive than the 1-star people would have you believe, while also being slightly less earth-shattering than most other 5-star reviewers assert.

Basically, Buddhism Without Beliefs boils down to Buddhism without jargon. Batchelor discusses a good deal of traditional Buddhist ideas, but he does so without using the Pali and Sanskrit terminology and threadbare traditional examples that can hinder clear communication. In fact, it is this judicious reframing and masterful retranslation of many received Buddhist teachings that makes this book so powerful. For example, instead of discussing the Four Noble Truths (always written with initial caps), he talks about "four ennobling truths." While this might seem to be a mere exercise in semantics, he makes it clear that it is not: "Yet in failing to make this distinction [i.e., that each truth requires a particular action on the part of the practitioner], four ennobling truths to be acted upon are neatly turned into four propositions of life to be believed" (p.5) Right out of the gate, Batchelor's point is clear. If Buddhadharma is to be a lived reality, a practice with efficacy in one's life, then for many of us it cannot be approached like an ossified belief system.

The rest of the book is equally powerful and lucid. "We discover that we have been thrown, apparently without choice, into a world not of our making" (p. 22). How much more succinctly and clearly can one summarize the existential dilemma---dukkha in Pali---intuited by the Buddha? And using language that also invokes Western thinkers like Heidegger and Ortega y Gasset in the bargain! "Evasion of the unadorned immediacy of life is as deep-seated as it is relentless" (p. 25) Breathtaking and to the point! He discusses Buddhism's unique approach to ethics (shila) in his chapter on integrity--"Dharma practice cannot be abstracted from the way we interact with the world. Our deeds, words, and intentions create an ethical ambience that either supports or weakens resolve. If we behave in a way that harms either others or ourselves, the capacity to focus on the task will be weakened" (p. 45). Spiritual friends and gurus, like the Socratic ideal, "are like midwives, who draw forth what is waiting to be born. Their task is not to make themselves indispensable but redundant" (p. 51).

About awareness and mindfulness he says, "one of the most difficult things to remember is to remember to remember" (p. 58) That is one of the craziest things I've ever read, precisely because it captures my own often absurd experiences on the zafu so vividly! Commenting that "focused awareness is difficult not because we are inept at some spiritual technology but because it threatens our sense of who we are," Batchelor could be accused of channeling Trungpa Rinpoche (p.62), hardly the model heretic.

And in his most provocative chapter, he does not dismiss the possiblity of rebirth out of hand, as many reviewers have alleged: rather, as he says quite clearly, "it may seem that there are two options: either to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge, in all honesty, I do not know....Dharma practice requires the courage to confront what it means to be human....To cling to the idea of rebirth can deaden questioning" (p. 38) Again and again and again, in cogent chapter after chapter, Batchelor explores what it means to practice Buddhadharma without necessarily clinging to a religious orthodoxy that can numb as easily as it can awaken.

Does someone who gets a good deal out of this book have to then chuck any tendencies toward Buddhist religiosity that naturally arise within them? Of course not. Readers also, if they are like me, don't have to get rid of any tendencies toward Christian religiosity that naturally arise within them either. That's the beauty to me of Batchelor's Buddhist agnosticism. It is about experiencing what arises without prejudice and just seeing what happens. In that sense, this book echoes all the other meaningful dharma books I've read. What it adds is an openness to doctrinal uncertainty and ambiguity that is refreshing for those of us looking to awaken while taking refuge from dogmatic religiosity.

(This review was written on July 13, 2007.)

Rod Serling's Night Gallery: If you are a fan of Serling's television work, this is worth reading



Rod Serling's Night Gallery
Rod Serling
Bantam Books, 1971


Rod Serling was the genius behind one of my favorite TV programs, The Twilight Zone, and his face and voice are familiar to the millions who loved that show. Serling, and the other writers (such as the brilliant Charles Beaumont) always took their SF, fantasy, and horror with a serious dose of social criticism and thought-provoking philosophy. In the early 70s, Serling hosted another TV series, Night Gallery, which was less successful critically and commercially, in part because Serling had much less artistic control over the final product. Luckily, the control he did have allowed him to create more note-worthy stories.

Six of these stories are collected in the volume being reviewed, including the poignant, Emmy Award nominee "They're Tearing Down Tim Reilly's Bar." Most of these stories read like teleplays, and Serling's rhythm, pacing, and dialog will be familiar to any fan of his TV shows. He wasn't merely a good screenwriter, though; all of these are fine examples of well crafted short stories.

The first three, "Sole Survivor," "Make Me Laugh," and "Pamela's Voice," are vintage Serling with story arcs that lead to ironic (if unsurprising, for regular fans) twist endings. The first deals with a harbinger whose rescue from an ancient life raft spells doom for his rescuers; the second with a failed comedian who finally gets his wish---everything he says gets a laugh;, and the third with about a man who murders his shrewish wife, only to find that her nagging doesn't stop at death... or after it.

"Does the Name Grimsby Do Anything to You?" is an intriguing, if implausible, tale about an astronaut, specifically the first man on the moon, who is losing his mind because it seems that someone beat him to the lunar surface---over 100 years earlier! The penultimate tale is about a pathetic young pacifist whose big game hunter father is planning to strip him of his inheritance if he doesn't get over his compunctions about killing. Let's just say that the moral involves watching what you ask for. And the final story, the aforementioned Emmy-nominee, is a heart-breaking yet ultimately redemptive tale about a long-suffering widower who has come unmoored in the rapidly changing world of the early 1970s.

While not a literary classic, this is still a fun, intelligent book from a master of witty, ironic, and socially-relevant fiction. Fans of Serling's TV work should snatch it up.

(This review was originally written on July 13, 2007.)

Not your run of the mill comic book



Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History

Art Spiegelman
Pantheon, 1986

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History
is at once the autobiographical tale of an American baby boomer trying to get to know his Holocaust-survivor father and of that father's experiences in and survival of the Holocaust. Spiegelman's audacity in attempting to use a "child's art form" to discuss one of history's greatest atrocities is matched only by the skill, both as a writer and a graphic artist, with which he accomplishes this goal. This groundbreaking graphic novel is definitely deserving of the accolades it has received.

In Maus, Spiegelman has demonstrated that comics and cartoons cannot be automatically relegated to the literary ghetto of the Sunday papers. This novel also proves true the old adage that pictures are worth thousands of words. Consider, for example, the cut-away view of the hidden bunker (p. 86) which graphically (in every sense of the term) shows the lengths to which Jews and other untermenschen had to go to hide from the Third Reich. Maus is successful not only in terms of its artwork, but also in terms of the stories that it tells. Spiegelman manages to show not only how the evils of the Holocaust unfolded and shaped his father, his late mother, and his new step-mother, but also how those same events shaped the relationship between Vladek Spiegelman and his son Art thirty years later.

At the risk of admitting my aesthetic thick-headedness, I still don't understand why Spiegelman chose to use animals instead of people in this work. Perhaps it is because, as some have suggested, seeing Nazis and Jews as animals allows the reader to drop the mind-stopping question of how humans could treat one another in such inconceivably barbarous ways. Perhaps the use of mice for Jews and cats for Nazis is an allusion to the old phrase about playing cat and mouse, or maybe it is a symbol of the Nazi perception of Jews as vermin. I tend to think Spiegelman's use of mice refers to his father's comment that maybe Artie will grow up to be like that famous cartoonist, "what's his name." After all, "what's his name" became famous through his cartoon mouse character, so why shouldn't Art Spiegelman? Whatever his reasons for the interesting choice to use animals as people, it works.

(This review was originally written on July 11, 2007.)

Turtledove's best in this series since *How Few Remain*



The Grapple (Settling Accounts, book 3)
Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, 2007

I really enjoyed reading this installment of Turtledove's "what if the South won the civil war" alternative timeline. In fact, in my estimation, it was the best in the series since the inaugural volume, How Few Remain.

Other reviewers have commented, at length, about the book's (and the author's) failings, which are mainly that Turtledove tends to repeat some elements ad nauseum (e.g., Sam Carsten's pale skin sunburning, how good CSA tobacco is vs. the cigarettes from the USA, etc.), that he plays fast and loose with the "laws" of history, and that the series doesn't really provide more than glimpses into the wider World War.

Though these criticisms are not without merit, I found this the second-most engaging and compelling novel in Turtledove's Southern victory timeline. General Irving Morrell's brilliant campaign against the CSA not only sees the Confederate forces being routed in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but also drives the Confederate forces southward until they reach Atlanta, paralleling Sherman's march to the sea in our version of events. The Freedom party's West Texas death camp, Camp Determination, is attacked and exposed, and many "good Confederates" pay the ultimate price for enabling this monstrous facility. The transformation of Jeff Pinkard from a henpecked steelworking vet to engineer of genocide is complete. Negro guerillas in the South wreak havoc on rural white populations and in turn face attacks from Mexican conscripts. And as victory appears increasingly assured for the USA, both sides continue to work on the ultimate weapon, uranium bombs. And the CSA, in a surprising twist, reveal a few cards still up their rebel sleeves.

If you've liked the characters and interweaving storylines thus far, this novel will be a treat. Yes Turtledove tends to repeat himself and often uses shorthand to remind the reader of the extra-long back story, but that's ok. I couldn't imagine writing a story arch this massive without falling back on some of those same strategies. What makes this novel successful is that the story itself, filled as it is with both moral ambiguity and outrage, is one of the better chapters in the overall eleven-volume arch.

As I put the book down I could not wait to read the next and final volume.
(This review was originally written on July 6, 2007.)

2 stars = 3 stars for exploring interesting ideas; 1 star for writing a really bad novel



Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit
Daniel Quinn
Bantam, 1995

I've been trying to encapsulate all my feelings about this book, and I have concluded that it is basically a written version of the film Mindwalk.

Let me explain. (And please don't comment that the written version of Mindwalk, or more accurately the book upon which the film was based, was Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point--I know that already. I'm speaking metaphorically.) While the ideas discussed in that film were oftentimes incredibly fascinating and very urgent, the film itself, as a film, sorta sucked. Not an idea picture you want to make most folks sit through more than once, if that, in other words. So it is with this book. The ideas that it explores, sort of like deep ecology for beginners, certainly put it in the 3-star ("good") category. As a novel, though, it just isn't that good. The two characters in the book are merely mouthpieces for the pseudo-dialogues comprising the bulk of the book, and one of the two, the narrator, isn't much of a mouthpiece at that. It is not a surprise to me that many publishers passed on this novel.

The story, such as it is, begins intriguingly enough with a classified ad advertising a teacher for those who earnestly want to save the world. Our narrator, being an earnest, spiritual "seeker"-type, applies in person, only to discover that the teacher, Ishmael, is a gorilla who can communicate telepathically--not exactly what we expect of a guru! The two enter into a series of pseudo-dialogues that go on for the majority of the book's 250+ pages and which are interspersed with a few rather pedestrian interludes whose sole purpose seems to be to make this book a work of fiction, rather than a series of nonfiction lectures.

Many reviewers have asserted that these dialogues echo a powerful and respected format used by philosophers from Plato to Hume, but I disagree; instead of being authentic dialogues, in which every position is examined from many angles and by many voices, what appear in this novel are frustrated (and frustrating) lectures on the part of an overbearing, know-it-all silverback. They reminded me of high school lectures by a bad teacher who asks overly general questions and then snaps at the students for not immediately intuiting the expected answer. In addition, because these aren't authentic dialogues, Ishmael basically outlines his thesis without any critical feedback or counter-theses from the narrator, and so the reader is left accepting or rejecting the gorilla's expositions on intuition.

So much for the book's failings. Its success is in its ability to articulate clearly both a deep ecological critique of "civilization" (i.e., the worldview that has come to dominate the globe since the Agricultural Revolution began) and a vision of an alternative cultural paradigm within which humans can live harmoniously with the rest of the world. Using the terms "Takers" and "Leavers" (derived from the phrase "take it or leave it") to describe the two general types of human culture, Ishmael explores a subject with which he, as a gorilla, is quite familiar: captivity. Takers, who now make up the majority of the human species, are captives to their culture, which Ishmael defines as the story that they enact every day. For Takers, this story "casts mankind as the enemy of the world" (p. 75) and makes absolute mastery over the planet (nay, the universe!) the overarching cultural imperative. Human uniqueness and dominion over creation is "the manifesto of the [agricultural] revolution on which your culture is based. It's the repository of all your revolutionary doctrine and the definitive expression of your revolutionary spirit. It explains why the revolution was necessary and why it must be carried forward at any cost whatever" (154). Ishmael's description of the barrenness of the Takers' inner landscape rings true to those who see the consumption and control don't bring happiness: "The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness" (146). Those who find the works of Morris Berman and Derrick Jensen, (among others) compelling will nod their heads in agreement with much of what Quinn, and Ishmael, have to say about "Taker" culture.

"Leaver" cultures, which Ishmael roughly equates with "primitive" or "indigenous" cultures, are those who engage in "limited competition" (which complements Piotr Kropotkin's idea of "mutual aid"). This means that they do not exterminate their competitors and they don't deny their competitors access to food, so that biological (and cultural) communities maintain a healthy diversity and sustainability. Ishmael's challenge to the narrator, and to the reader, is to find a way to infuse the Leaver mindset (i.e., the intuition that there is no one right way, no need to have total control, and no way that we can continue to determine who lives and who dies) into our 21st century civilization.

(This review was originally written on June 25, 2007.)

One small strange trip into the past, one long strange trip from the future



Summer of Love

Lisa Mason
Spectra, 1995


Teenage Susan Stein, aka Starbright, runs away from middle-class Midwestern suburbia and uses her savings to fly to San Francisco in the first days of summer, 1967. (Interestingly, I began reading this book a few days before the media began hyping the 40th anniversary of this strange fleeting season called the Summer of Love.) Beckoned by a postcard from her old friend Nance, now calling herself Penny Lane, she has traveled to the City by the Bay to escape her parents' constant bickering and to reconnect with her old friend. In one of the most uncannily accurate portrayals of an LSD experience, she is thrown into the ecstatically, erratically archetypal lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. She also becomes pregnant. Starbright accidentally comes across Penny Lane only to find that the young girl is now cynical, bitter, and self-destructive. Her friend confesses that her life has been one of absolute hell, as she was regularly raped by her stepfather and ignored by her mother. Not being as well-off as Starbright, Penny has had to sleep her way across the US in order to get away from his advances, and resents the fact that her once-best friend has somehow escaped all this, and was even able to fly to San Francisco thanks to her rich daddy. Starbright watches Penny, who is still basically a child, descend further and further into the dark side of 1967--speed, prostitution, biker culture, and death.

Into this time of upheaval tachyports Chiron Cat's Eye in Draco, a young man from 500 years in the future. He has come back in time to the Summer of Love in order to find a mysterious young woman, known only through a few seconds of recovered video footage and a lot of probabilities. His job is to find this girl, protect her, and ensure that events unfold as they are supposed to, so that the existence of his future will be assured. The girl's name is not known to him; what is known is that she is pregnant, that her pregnancy is important to the future of humanity, and that demonic anti-matter forces from an alternate timeline are seeking to destroy her. As a time traveler capable of producing profound paradoxes, he is bound by an incredibly strict code of noninterference called the Grandfather Principle. He meets and befriends Starbright, whom he suspects is his mystery woman, and Ruby A. Maverick, the gorgeous 35-year old proprietor of an occult bookshop. Over the course of the novel, he reveals both the daunting shape of the future--sharing tales of overpopulation, ozone depletion, genetic mutations, and devolution--and Starbright's role, through her unborn daughter, in assisting humanity to survive the coming transitions. Alas, things are never as easy as they seem, especially when time travel and the (pardon the pun) embryonic women's reproductive freedom movement are involved, and so Chiron and Starbright have their work cut out for them.

This novel was a joy to read. Although I wasn't around for the Summer of Love (and so can't vouch for the book's veracity), the story conveys such a complex mixture of innocence, hope, joy, exuberance, ecstasy, revelation, chaos, despair, freefall, nihilism, and violence that I can't help but suspect its authenticity. It reveals the same multifaceted, ambiguous "60s" as the Love album Forever Changes, and that makes it seem straight from the source. As well, the use of regular references to newspaper clippings from The Berkeley Barb and The Oracle, sections from the I-Ching, and tidbits about environmental science rounded out this loving, and knowing, portrait of the Left Coast in `67. Finally, Starbright's regular references to Star Trek were a loving homage to that groundbreaking show; as I read the book, I realized how much that program, and the increased interest in SF that accompanied it, inspired the progressive and outlandish thinking of many young people at the time, including most likely the author herself.

(This review was originally written on June 24, 2007.)

Are you ready for the red pill?



The Culture of Make Believe

Derrick Jensen
Chelsea Green, 2004


The Culture of Make Believe
picks up where its predecessor, the powerful Language Older than Words, left off. After examining in that latter volume the objectification and systematic denial of that objectification that permeate Western culture, Jensen turns his attention to the related "relationships between hate and fear, hate and power, power and fear... What are the relationships between any of these and the desire or need to control? And what are the relationships between all of these and a desire or need to perceive others as objects? It seems obvious to me that enslaving another requires that the other be, at least to some degree, objectified: Does objectification imply hatred? I used to think so, but I'm beginning to think the relationship is more complex." (67)

The relationship is indeed more complex, and because of the complexly interpenetrating nature of the subject matter, the book itself is also complex while somehow remaining an engaging read. In order to adequately describe and analyze these complex relationships, Jensen's sprawling tome draws on vivid storytelling, graphic and painful historical accounts, potent metaphors drawn from our cultural heritage, powerful intuitions, postmodern reflexivity and critical insight into the author's own biases, lengthy interviews with relevant thinkers, and an underlying logic that deftly interweaves the seemingly disparate strands of racism, sexism, monotheism, hatred, power, exploitation, colonialism, ecocide, war, abstraction, objectification, production, and of civilization (particularly the civilization with roots in the Mediterranean and the Levant, aka "Western" civilization) itself. In the Biblical metaphor that he develops throughout the book, Jensen is Noah's son Ham, sharing his vision of the naked patriarch of civilization, especially industrial civilization, and calling the reader to see that the patriarch has no clothes, and having seen, to make a choice.

Jensen's book is filled with detailed accounts of atrocities that have been perpetrated against racial and ethnic minorities, women, and against the natural world itself, but he doesn't stop with relating the gory details. Instead he digs deeper into the accounts to show how the perpetrators were most often not barbaric and marginal, as we tend to assume, but were instead policemen, politicians, businessmen, economists, investors, CEOs, Rotarians, and other decent, respectable folks, the people that Ward Churchill has called "little Eichmanns." (In other words, the perpetrators were and are all of us who benefit from the system.) He describes how South African cultures were systematically destroyed, not through lawlessness but through the passing of laws, in order to get black laborers to mine diamonds for DeBeers; in effect, racist apartheid grew out of good old-fashioned market economics. He relates accounts of how everyday black Americans were lynched and burned for looking at white women, or for looking like black men who looked at white women, or for just being black. (He even tells the story of a woman whose fetus was cut out of her belly by a bunch of upstanding white citizens as punishment for her crime of hating them for burning her husband.) Again and again, we see that the perpetrators of these evils weren't inbred reprobates, but were upstanding members of their communities, and that these evil occasions weren't attended in shame, but in celebration. For example, at its height the KKK, contrary to popular belief, did not comprise backwater yokels but police chiefs, sheriffs, attorneys general, and state governors.

According to Jensen's analysis, hatred--whether aimed at blacks, at women, at religious minorities, at Iraqi civilians, or at the natural world itself--is a manifestation of our cultural vision of the world. In this vision, the Other is objectified, dealt with abstractly in terms of a class (so an innocent black man is burned just because he looks like the actual criminal or a 2,000 year old tree is rendered into two-by-fours just to make a quick buck), held in contempt, and viewed as a resource to be exploited instead of as another living being with which one may enter into relationship. Moreover, as Jensen teases out, the phenomenon of red-faced, spittle-flinging hatred is an aberration that typically appears only when the normal direction of power is subverted or challenged. At other times, hatred merely manifests as the status quo, innocent only to those who benefit from its privileges.

This book, while engaging, is not an easy read, precisely because it challenges the reader on EVERY level. It reveals the "embeddedness of all of us in a culture that perceives war in monstrously utilitarian terms" and our "immersion in a river of deceit, a river where we take as accepted that one hand may hold forth an olive branch while another makes final arrangements to thrust with a sword, a river where treaties are abrogated at convenience, a culture in which lying to achieve one's goals in not only acceptable and expected, but routine" (175). Making the choice to see one's embeddedness in the culture of make believe and to conceive of alternatives is irrevocable and has real consequences: "The difficulty comes--and here is the real beauty of the story of Noah and his sons---when, like Ham (or at least my vision of Ham), you find your way through these shifts in perception and see the patriarch naked and vulnerable. What do you do then? Do you, like Ham, talk about what you have seen? As the story makes clear, there are grave strictures against doing so, with severe consequences. Or do you follow the lead of Ham's brothers, and reap the privilege that comes from averting your eyes?" (62-3) Jensen's book challenges our need for happy, simple solutions and implies that this need for "feel-good" vibes is itself a loss created by the culture of make believe: "I need not fight despair...despair is a normal and reasonable response to a desperate situation.... my response--breaking into sobs over the killing of so much beauty--is normal, and expected, and that to not feel these losses manifests another type of loss, that of one's own humanity, one's own heart." (249)

I could write and quote more, but I won't. My guess is that you are here, reading these reviews, because you already have an idea of what Derrick Jensen has to say and agree with it to a greater or lesser extent. Readers seem to either hate Jensen's writing style-- with its tangential approach, long narrative arcs that connect loose ends over a span of 200 pages, and self-referential quality--or to love it, hearing it in a voice as refreshing as the truth it reveals in page after page. Give this book a read. Your view of the world and of your role in it won't be the same when you finish it.

(This review was originally written on June 22, 2007.)

Every story in this collection merits re-reading



Uncertainty Principle
Dimitri Bilenkin
Macmillan Publishing Company, 1979

I have to agree with fellow Amazon reviewer "foolsguinea" regarding this book. It definitely needs to be returned to print (with, perhaps, many of the other volumes in Macmillan's "Best of Soviet SF" series from the late 1970s). Based on the quality of the short stories contained in this volume, the late Dimitri Bilenkin had an SF voice that merits being heard by a much wider audience. As Theodore Sturgeon notes in his introduction, Bilenkin excels at tackling the question "if this goes on...", perhaps because he has (quoting Sturgeon), "a profound respect for the potentialities of science and its ability to open doors to achievement and to understanding both outer space and that far more vast inner space of the mind and heart, the fact---forgotten by so many science-worshippers---that respected and orthodox science gave us leeches and cups to draw blood from the desperately ill, malformed babies, filthy air, denuded hillsides, dead lakes, and industrial disasters" (p. xi). This recognition and respect for the limitations of science, as well as for the intersections of science with society and ideology, does not prevent his stories from being infused with a magical, lyrical quality evoking at once the wonder of a child and the wisdom of the aged. Every story in this collection merits re-reading, because with each reading subtler shades of meaning and humor are revealed, in the best tradition of Russian literature.

(This review was originally written on May 4, 2007.)