The Best of C. L. Moore Book Review

The Best of C. L. Moore
by C. L. Moore
452 pages
Published by Diversion Books (September 22, 2015)
ASIN B07H15QVLC

Catherine Lucille Moore  By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34553491

Catherine Lucille Moore

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34553491

I had heard of Catherine Lucille Moore, but this was my first exposure to her work. I saw this collection of her short stories come on sale on Amazon, so I decided to give it a try.

In my typical fashion for a short story collection, I’ll do a short review of each story, and then look at the collection as a whole.


Shambleau *****

Not only is this story my introduction to Moore’s work in general, it is my introduction to one of her most famous characters, Northwest Smith. N.W., as his partner-in-crime Yarol calls him, is very much the anti-hero. I call him an anti-hero insofar as he doesn’t particularly demonstrate the chivalry of other nearly contemporaneous characters like the Geste brothers. However, I think you could almost as accurately call him a hero, if the hero you have in mind is someone like Odysseus.

Northwest Smith is a pirate and a smuggler, a desperado of renown. Like Odysseus, he is cast adrift from his home. He definitely shoots first and then neglects to ask any questions. He is happy to lie to your face and then rob you blind. He is not, however, a force of random destruction, he just is wholly out for himself. In the pre-Christian moral universe of the Homeric Greeks, N. W. would have fit right in. However, he does not actually live in that moral universe, but in one whose foundation is Christianity, which is a thematic element we will return to later.

In addition, the story itself is a re-working of Greek legend, but with an eldritch horror element that feels quite natural here. Greek myth itself doesn’t have the existential dread of living in a universe that contains many things older than, more powerful than, and also indifferent at best to man, but it readily compatible with it. The Greek Gods were anthropomorphic, but often cruel and indifferent. However, the real monsters do not even rise to that level.

“Shambleau” uses the venerable conceit that old stories often contain a gem of truth. Stories in this vein treat their subjects as not at all metaphorical. With suspension of disbelief, such a story can be strange and frightening because you can imagine it to be mostly true. Many of my favorite authors have recycled myth and history to great effect, and Moore does an excellent job here. Even more remarkable, since this was her first commercial sale. “Shambleau” is one of the stories almost everyone talks about when speaking of C. L. Moore’s work, and I think it a remarkable piece. I can see why Moore had such a long career and so much influence on other authors.


Black Thirst ***

Whereas “Shambleau” had a touch of eldritch horror, “Black Thirst” is quite simply Lovecraftian. This is the second Northwest Smith tale, and in typical planetary romance fashion, it is set on a young and torrid Venus, whereas “Shambleau” was set on an old and dusty Mars.

This story gave off a pretty strong Tim Powers vibe for me. Powers’ early novel, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, in particular. The antagonist of “Black Thirst”, the Alendar, has a likeness to Powers’ Norton Jaybush. Most of Powers’ protagonists are nothing like Northwest Smith however.

Unfortunately, while this possible connection is intriguing to me, I started to lose steam on the collection here. “Black Thirst” is very much in the vein of Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. I liked the John Carter stories well enough, but not enough to read again, so I found more of the same unispiring. Not even the Lovecraftian element was good enough, since it was more of a mood than a repetition of Lovecraft’s peculiar way with words.


Mantorok – The Corpse God

Mantorok – The Corpse God

The Bright Illusion **

“The Bright Illusion” is the weakest story in this collection. I might actually have given up here, but I am glad that I did not. My best description of this is Lovecraft in spaaaace! It features a human coerced into serving as an agent in a titanic battle between two beings so great in power and majesty they are worshiped as gods, although they are nothing of the sort.

Except, this story ends on a curiously hopeful note, which in the hands of lesser author would have been merely schmaltzy. We get “Love conquers all” mixed up with “There are fates worse than death”, but I am most fascinated by the way in which this is used to illustrate the fundamental inadequacy of the victor of the titanic battle of the “gods”, who is forced to admit that the worst it can actually do is kill you.

This is curiously not like Lovecraft, and piqued my interest despite the overall weakness of the story compared to the rest.


This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

Black Kiss *****

“Black Kiss” was the story that rescued the whole collection for me. It helped that I stumbled upon a recently written blog post, Fandom: An Illustrative History (Part I: Origins and Tales From the Crypt). This blog post illuminated Moore’s work in particular, and my love of science fiction in general.

The blog post has a lot of sci-fi inside baseball that need not detain us here, but this part stuck out to me:

The Gothic is the beating bloody heart in any good traditional romance story and is what gives it the universal core so needed in fiction. White against black. Dark against Light. Hero against Villain. Eternal Life against Endless Death. Temptation against Virtue. It goes beyond the surface into weighty themes of the Ultimate, God, and True Justice. The knowledge of a battle between forces beyond both parties at play that haunt the scenery and the overall world behind the story. It underpins every action and decision, and the thought that salvation or damnation is a stone throw away is the most nail-biting experience of them all. Now those are stakes, and they were an integral part of all fiction until the second half of the 20th century where the worst thing that can happen to you is that a monster might kill you in the dark where you can't see it.

The term romance, as used here and in my own musings above, echos the sense in which J. R. R. Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance, by which he, and I, means a story of heroism and adventure and wonder. This was a development of the earlier chanson de geste, such as the Song of Roland. Not a bodice-ripper, although you might actually be confused if you search of images of Jirel of Joiry. I picked the one image I found that matched the story best.

The moral universe of Jirel is explicitly a Christian one. Defeated, and in extremis, Jirel seeks the possibility of a weapon beyond mortal ken in the bowels of her castle. She has previously explored the forbidden passage with her chaplain, but now she disregards his entirely sensible advice to turn back and she descends into a strikingly imagined Hell to exact vengeance. Jirel reaches a point where she can progress no further without discarding the Crucifix she wears about her neck. She proceeds.

I have no idea what Moore’s beliefs, or personal life, were really like. But at the distance of 85 years, what struck me was she simply assumed her readers would understand the peril in which Jirel was placing herself. If you don’t think there are fates worse than death, this story won’t make any sense at all. The stakes are not death, but damnation.

Jirel finds that which she seeks in that mysterious tunnel under her castle. But what we seek, and what we really want, often aren’t truly the same things. Moore’s denouement is so characteristically feminine that I don’t know how to properly do it justice, other than to say that the image I selected for this short story is simply perfect, and all the others are irrelevant cheesecake.

I am also almost certain that Tim Powers lifted parts of this story into his works, particularly The Drawing of the Dark. There is a scene in “Black Kiss” with a spiral tunnel that Jirel transits, and Powers wrote of a spiral staircase under a brewery in Vienna that his protagonist descended to seek power, claustrophobically close. Once I saw the similarity here, I couldn’t unsee it in other places too.


A Tryst in Time ***

A time travel/reincarnation/love story. I was impressed with how well Moore blended the masculine adventure elements with star-crossed lovers. Not exactly my thing, but well-imagined.


Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s   Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.    More information about this image:  digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ictcs/id/7358

Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s

Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.

More information about this image: digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ictcs/id/7358

Greater than Gods ****

This short story feels to me like something written much later, for example Ballard’s work, with its elements of science run amok and managerial expertise turning into despotism. On the other hand, Heinlein’s first published story came out the same year as this, 1939, and Heinlein’s work is often similar to “Greater than Gods”.

Due to an accident in converging time streams, a scientist finds himself thrust upon the horns of a dilemma. In one future, his choice of a wife means that a pacifist, matriarchal, and quite stagnant society will occur. There is no more war, but no more technology or drive either, and that society’s grip on prosperity is slowly slipping away. In the other future, the other woman he is considering proposing to will bear him a son, who will beget a long line of sons who will dominate the Earth, and far, far beyond. This society is militaristic and regimented, but also capable of genuinely great things.

At this distance in time, I am fascinated by the dilemma Moore gives us. Today, no one could possibly propose this as a genuine dilemma in literature. I don’t think it could be done, because even I feel like maybe the peaceful but incompetent society is clearly better. However, the story makes no sense at all if you cannot truly feel that heroic deeds and exploring the universe and inventing new things are genuinely good things, which counterbalance the very very topical jingoism of this late 1930s tale.

Also, Moore superficially presents us with the thought that future history depends on whether each woman bears a daughter or a son first, but on another level, what really matters is the character of the mother, and what kind of child that union will create. I won’t spoil the choice the man makes in the end, which is what makes this story really transcendent.


Mary and Eve    by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Mary and Eve

by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Fruit of Knowledge *****

A dramatic retelling of the Fall of Man and the Temptation of Eve. Of Biblical stories, the sin of Adam and Eve retains popular currency even now, while other stories have begun to fade from our memories.

”Fruit of Knowledge” is perhaps a typical expression of the West in the twentieth century, insofar as the sin that truly separates Man from God is not simply disobedience, but sexual desire. On the other hand, if this story had been written today, Adam would have had sex with Lilith, not simply spoken to her and enjoyed her company for a brief time before the creation of Eve.

Like “Jirel of Joiry”, “Fruit of Knowledge” is set within a Christian moral universe. Moore sets the Fall shortly after the rebellion of Lucifer, an act which does not appear in the Hebrew tradition, but is instead from the Revelation to John. Also, there are hints that the Fall of Man was in some sense a happy accident, an event that was allowed to happen, because a greater destiny was in store. This is a speculation that goes back to Augustine of Hippo, so far as I know.

Finally, the children of Lilith, referenced by Moore here, were used by Tim Powers in his novels The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves.


No Woman Born *****

Moore explicitly links this to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, through the dialogue of her characters. This is a tale of the creation of a monster by means of good intentions, and also truly terrifying to me.


Daemon ****

I think I can trace this short story to two Tim Powers novels. First, the setting, Atlantic sailing in the age of the buccaneers tinged with Vudun, is much like On Stranger Tides, the book that was optioned for Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Next, The Drawing of the Dark, Powers’ contribution to the Arthurian legend, which hinges upon the titanic change in the world wrought by the first Christmas.

No, three, because the influence of the Grait God Pan, who was the center of Powers’ Earthquake Weather.

This was a fantastic little story, from near the end of Moore’s career. Poignant and well-crafted, with acute psychological insight. Not as striking as “Shambleau”, but far better written.


Vintage Season ***

A sad tale of time-traveling voyeurism, but a well-executed one.


Ben’s final verdict *****

I almost gave up on this collection, but I am glad I didn’t. Moore wrote some great stories, of a kind I don’t think you can find anymore. I can’t find any interviews or essays where Powers talks about Moore, but after reading this, I have a hard time imagining he didn’t read her works and find inspiration in them. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

Expiration Date Book Review

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

Expiration Date
by Tim Powers
Orb Books 2007
$15.95; 381 pages
ISBN 0765317524

Expiration Date is a "companion novel" to Last Call. It isn't a sequel, but it shares the same world. A few characters with minor roles in Last Call end up being central in Expiration Date. Expiration Date also has a theme in much the same way Last Call did. While Last Call is about the Fisher King, the book also explores the world of professional poker players, and the weirdness that is Las Vegas. In a similar way, Expiration Date is about ghosts, but it also indulges a nostalgia for the Hollywood of silent films and the glamorous world of show business. This gives each book a distinct character, despite a common fictional universe. Eventually, it all gets wrapped up in the third book, Earthquake Weather. But that is a review for another day.

I always really enjoyed the premise of this book. That premise is that ghosts are real, and ghosts flit about mindlessly repeating the things they did when they were alive. Sometimes, the result is comic, as when old ghosts accrete enough substance to panhandle for spare change to buy liquor. Other times, it is tragic, when a lonely and bewildered ghost tries to make a human connection, and accidentally causes its new friend to drop dead. 

And, if you are sorcerously hip, then you know that ghosts are the greatest high ever known when inhaled, with the side effect of providing the user with unnaturally long life. A whole underground is devoted to hunting, preserving, and then ingesting hapless ghosts. Which turns out to be pretty easy, since they are also witless. In a Thomistic turn, the electromagnetic remnants that are ghosts don't possess the capacity to be rational because they have no souls, but they do have memories and desires, which are enough to cause them to try to imitate their former lives. 

Ghosts are also attracted to certain people. Specific ghosts can become linked to you through strong emotions, particularly guilt. But some people, like Edison, attract ghosts like moths to a flame. The key tool for protecting yourself from ghosts is a mask. Ghosts kill you by overlapping your timeline [in a relativistic space-time sense, an idea that Powers has used in a number of novels and short stories] and abruptly ending it by mixing their lack of life with your vitality. To avoid that, you need to make sure the ghost can't find your timeline, your identity. The methods are varied, but the ability to obfuscate your birthdate, your marriage, and your children is key.

By taking this idea and running with it, Powers is able to invent a secret history that explains a number of unusual incidents in the life of Thomas Edison. Lots of weird things happen all the time, and sober histories usually don't make much of them, although comprehensive ones do document them. But, Edison had a greater share than most. For starters, Henry Ford really did convince Thomas' son Charles to catch his father's dying breath in a vial. But the rest of it happened too. In 1878 Edison traveled to the American West, stopping to view a solar eclipse, and then completing the rest of his journey by riding the cow-catcher of the locomotive. Edison also forced his children to jump in the air while he threw firecrackers at their feet. Those are pretty strange things to do, but if you were attempting to shake the unwanted psychic attention of ghosts and other ne-er-do-wells, it might be just the thing. 

Crafting this secret history involving Edison [and Harry Houdini] is classic Powers. However, I've found that what I really enjoy about this book, and much of Powers' writing, is the compelling way in which he writes about human brokenness. The ensemble of characters that fall into orbit around Edison's ghost are all haunted [literally] by their past mistakes. Their journey to deliver Edison's ghost from LA's occult underground is also a pilgrimage of repentance and healing.

Ghosts themselves are not capable of forgiveness or redemption, but in the right circumstances they can help provide those things to the living. Thomas Edison's ghost's ability to light up every dormant wisp provides an opportunity to face the past squarely, and stop running away from it.

harry-houdini-40056-1-402.jpg

For a long time, I greatly preferred Last Call to the other books in this loose trilogy. I still like Last Call best, but I no longer find it to be head-and-shoulders above the others. The characters in Expiration Date make mistakes, suffer from poor judgment, and experience temptation. Ultimately, some of them do find redemption. Others come to judgment for their sins. This moral realism grounded in Powers' Catholic faith takes a fun premise with a sprawling cast of characters and turns it from a book I used to consider second-rate into something quite remarkable.

My other book reviews

Last Call Book Review

The one-eyed Jack

The one-eyed Jack

Last Call
by Tim Powers
Perennial 2003
$15.95; 535 pages
ISBN 038072846X

Last Call is one of my all time favorite books. I can return to this book again and again, and find something different in it each time. According to LibraryThing, the last time I read this book was in May of 2011, almost exactly six years ago. Which probably explains why I find the father/son relationships of the book so gripping now.

But I get ahead of myself. Tim Powers is a long time favorite author, and this was one of the first books of his I ever read. I am amazed that I persisted, because on first read, the book is bizarre. Who is the Fisher King? Why does Bugsy Siegel feature so prominently? Why does everyone keep quoting T. S. Eliot? What about the fractals and chaos theory? How does this all fit in with poker?

That very first reading, I was very, very confused. But I was also deeply intrigued. I immediately read the book again, and I tried to put the pieces together into a coherent whole. I didn't get there, but I started looking into the mythology of the Fisher King, and the historical events referenced in the book. I learned about the history of playing cards, and how they related to the Tarot. I tried to read The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

That last proved too dense and esoteric even for me. But I persisted. Last Call is the first book of a trilogy by Tim Powers, and reading the other two books did actually help fill some of what is going on, but I think Last Call is by far the best of the three. I got quite a bit of help from the collected works of John J. Reilly, who while not a Tim Powers fan, was conversant with Jung, comparative mythology, and the Fisher King.

I learned that all of the things about Bugsy Siegel actually happened. When I first read Last Call, I wasn't familiar with Powers' secret history style of writing, but his fastidious research paid off in hooking me forever. I learned about the Arthurian legend of the wounded King who ate nothing but fish and represented the health of the land and its people, and how this figures into the legitimacy of the Emperor who rules the Earth.  I learned of the way in which the Tarot cards had morphed into the playing cards we use today. Finally I understood why early Protestants were so opposed to card games. I was intrigued by the sacramental imagination of Powers, who made the Eucharist real to me.

Last Call is part of the reason I mostly read fiction. Many people otherwise like me mostly read non-fiction, but I find that I learn the most about the world from fiction. This is probably a function of the kind of fiction I read. And probably the kind of person I am. Last Call is also the reason I deeply distrust Tarot cards, and all forms of fortune-telling and gambling. It just isn't worth the risk.

Also, Las Vegas will never, ever be the same to me after reading this book. I've never really been the kind of person who enjoyed the spectacle and excess of Vegas, but now that I've seen Las Vegas as the fortress of a bad King and a shrine and sacrifice to the gods of chaos and randomness, I really don't like it. Which is unfair to the people who work and live there, but what has been read cannot now be un-read.

A nuclear weapon test from Las Vegas

A nuclear weapon test from Las Vegas

Returning to where I started, this time through the aspect of the book that was foremost in my mind was Scott Crane and his fathers, both real and adoptive. Fatherhood: real, adoptive, and mystical, is central to Last Call. The King is in a sense a father to us all, and thus the character of the King matters in the same manner as a father's does. Powers sets this up in the prologue, where we meet five-year-old Scott on a fun outing with his real father. They eat breakfast at the Flamingo, and flatten pennies on the railroad tracks. Scott worships his father, as most five-year-olds do.

Cronus

Cronus

Then we learn exactly what Georges is willing to do for power. What he has already done to Scott's older brother Richard. For just a moment, Georges finds his resolve wavering. To his own surprise, he actually loves his son. But he sets his face against his weakness, and proceeds.

Only the rebellion of Georges' wife saves Scott before Leon can consummate the ritual. Which Georges should have seen coming, because his life is an archetype. Scott is thus set up to displace his father in a re-enactment of mythology. The epilogue is a refrain of the prologue, and very bittersweet.

Sci-fi or fantasy novels that have mythological themes are not difficult to find. What makes Last Call remarkable is Powers' ability to make Georges Leon and Scott Crane seem like real people, while still instantiating a type. They seem real to me, rather than characters in a book. Each one, their loves and loss and failings, is like a person. That human verisimilitude is what balances out the craziness of a world where Tarot cards can kill you.

Powers has a fierce love of particular places, specifically Los Angeles and the areas nearby. Since I live across the Mojave desert from LA, and I have family there, I have driven across the Mojave more times than I would like to. 

The highway was a straight line in the twilight, a tenuous line between the dark horizon so far ahead and the red horizon so far behind. The old Suburban barreled along steadily, squeaking and rocking but showing low temperature and a full tank of gas in the green radiance of its gauges. On either side of the highway the desert was pale sand, studded as far as the eye could see with widely spaced low markers that looked like, but couldn't have been, sprinkler heads.

This is exactly what the inhuman vastnesses of the Mojave feel like. I've been to LA and Vegas often enough to validate Powers' descriptions of them. Suspension of disbelief is a lot easier when you've been to all of the places in a book and find the descriptions spot-on. I imagine Tim and his wife Serena taking trips on the I-15 to get it just right.

I am a bit late this year, but I may make this a regular feature of my celebration of Easter. Much like Tolkien, and more inventively than Blish, Holy Week, the week of Passover and Easter, is at the center of the chronology of Last Call.  This week represents an ending and a beginning, and certain things can only happen during this time. Classical allusions are one thing, but to interleave them with Christian sacraments and eschatology and make it look easy is quite another. 

Tim Powers is the only author I know who can do all these things well. And Last Call is one of his best. Read it.

My other book reviews

LinkFest 2015-09-30

Wow, it has been a long time since I did a LinkFest, so here is one delayed 7 weeks.

48 Hours on the Dark Side of Vegas

This reminds me of the hidden desperation in Tim Power's Last Call.

Is the U.S. behind Fethullah Gulen?

Not as newsworthy as it used to be, but a very interesting take from a Turk living in the US.

Why Trump Supporters Think He'll Win

Still very newsworthy.

Could Trump Be the 'Man's Man' America Wants?

After the popularity of the above article, David Frum wrote another on the same subject. Part of the appeal of Trump is that he hasn't got even a hint of the Ned Flanders vibe that turns many people away from other Republican candidates.

Surprises of the Faraday Cage

It turns out a famous explanation of the phenomenon may not be correct. Which hasn't stopped the engineers who design them.

Internaut day: The world's first public website went online 25 years ago today

Also out of date. I fondly remember the early days of the internet. Everything was more innocent then. No, really.

No Matter Who Wins The Presidency, The ‘Deep State’ Will Run Things

I'm not sure I believe this, but I think the argument is interesting.

America's birth rate is now a national emergency

PEG says there is no good reason the US, an empty country that grows lots of food and exports oil, should have a birth rate below replacement. I am inclined to agree with him.

Terry v. Ohio. Happy 50th Anniverary, Detective McFadden!

I enjoyed learning the history of the 'frisk'. 

The Tesla Effect: How the cutting edge company became the most powerful engine in Bay Area manufacturing

People forget how much of the money any company pulls in as revenue goes to its suppliers, which go to its suppliers, and so on. 

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists

In my opinion, the current trend of crank amateur physicists is entirely the fault of the direction that physics as a whole has taken. Lots of great progress has been made by applying mathematical theories in elegant ways, but the data that support those theories comes from a messy reality that is often obscured in the tales told about science [usually by science journalists and popularizers]. This is the story of a physicist who tried to bring a little reality to the amateurs.

Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink

The author seems like she lives in world that I've heard about, but never experienced. Getting sloshed sounds like an entirely human response to living that kind of life, but the bigger question is why would you want to? A good companion piece to the Jezebel article about binge drinking and how it contributes to women's dissatisfaction with their sex lives. There is a common thread here, and it isn't alcohol.

DEVOODOOIFYING PSYCHOLOGY

Psychologists have been trying to devoodoofy psychology for a long time.

What U. of Chicago Activists Are Complaining About

Trigger warnings are grossly overused, but this is a sympathetic look at the environment in an actual elite school. I still think Neal Stephenson got this all right thirty years ago.

In Defense of Prince Hans

I said the same thing the first time I watched Frozen.

Pondering Miracles, Medical and Religious

A breath of fresh air after all the nastiness from the atheist community before and during the canonization of Mother Theresa.

 

A brilliant series of Tweets from Ross Douthat on why Trumpism matters, no matter how much you hate Trump.

And of course, the essay that occasioned that Tweetstorm.

Salvage and Demolition Book Review

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

Salvage and Demolition
by Tim Powers
Subterranean Books, 2013
$30.00; 155 pages
ISBN 978-1-59606-515-4

Tim Powers has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade, and this novella is full of the reasons why. 

A good time travel book is hard to write, but I think Powers has nailed it. Again. Powers' most popular book, the Anubis Gates, is the best time-travel story ever written. If you take the premise of time travel seriously, then severe logical constraints are imposed on your storytelling. One way to avoid these constraints is to posit something like the Everett-Wheeler interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is the route Powers selected in Three Days to Never. The other route, the one selected here and in the Anubis Gates, is to embrace the implied determinism of time travel, everything you are going to do already happened and cannot be changed, and just deal with it. Powers does this in a way that follows those logical implications, and yet still produces a satisfying story. Somehow, he makes free will and determinism lie down together.

I think Powers may be even better in short stories and novellas than he is in novels. At the very least, I get a different vibe from his short stories than I do from his novels. I find Powers' short stories bittersweet and poignant, while his novels often find their way to a truly happy ending, although oftentimes though great suffering. Salvage and Demolition is a love story, but a love that can never live happily ever after.

I also have to give Powers recognition for a storyline that borrows elements of eldritch horror, while managing not to be horrific. The premise of Salvage and Demolition is reminiscent of that of one of my favorite videogames, Eternal Darkness. I have never read in an interview that Tim plays videogames, although it is certainly possible that he does. Nevertheless, Salvage and Demolition has elements far more light-hearted and whimsical than Eternal Darkness, or anything like it. I believe the key difference is that Tim believes in Providence, and most authors in the eldritch horror genre don't. 

H. P. Lovecraft's visions are so terrifying because everything he ever wrote was suffused with the idea that the monsters are not only real, they are the ultimate reality, and they will eventually destroy us. Tim Powers is far too Catholic to think anything of the sort, and you can tell. If you take Christianity seriously, then the end of history is already known. In the end, the monsters will be thrown down, and the mourners' tears will be wiped away. What happens in the meanwhile is the stuff from which stories are made.

My other book reviews

LinkFest 2016-02-26

This link fest has been long delayed, so it got extra big. Enjoy!

How to Construct the Ultimate Conspiracy Theory

An interview with Tim Powers about how he researches his novels, and other fun things.

America's Top Five Mistakes in Iraq

John Schindler at XX Committee reviews what he thinks were the biggest mistakes we made in Iraq, and since he was working for the NSA at the time, he knows it all from the inside.

Curse of the High IQ

P. D. Mangan started an interesting discussion at his blog about being too smart for your own good. In the comments section, I was initially skeptical, since in my experience meritocracy tends to work pretty well, but I came around to a better appreciation of what Mangan was saying as the conversation progressed.

National Merit

In counterpoint, Greg Cochran's post on the National Merit Scholarship program, which is pretty much the national IQ test with prizes.

Woodrow Wilson's Great Folly

Another great piece by John Schindler, this time regarding the effects of Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy mixed with a peculiarly American evangelical Christianity that perhaps made the twentieth century worse than it needed to be. Perhaps the Germans should have won World War I.

The Good News on Generic Drugs

The cost of generic drugs in the United States is falling. A lot.

Twitter's new Safety and Trust Council is an Orwellian Nightmare

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry points out the Emperor has no clothes.

The United States needs a new Long Telegram. But from where?

Foreign policy is not our strongpoint.

The Role of Infanticide and Abortion in Pagan Rome's Decline

This is obvious to anyone that has eyes to see, that a policy of reducing birthrates through infanticide and abortion will have long-term negative effects on the elites that promote these ideas, but who can remember things that happened so long ago?

The Long View: The Cunning Man

This is why I do this. Coming back to this barely remembered book review after many, many years is much like reuiniting with an old friend. I can see in these paragraphs things I have said, and things I have thought, forgetting their true source. This post is a rich vein of the insights that I have applied over the years.

John liked Robertson Davies for the same reason I like Tim Powers, he was an author you could use to cleanse your palate after reading some modern drivel. There is something disheartening about so much modern fiction, that it is a real joy to read a book that doesn't drag you down. John notes that while Davies was never opposed to modern culture as such, Davies managed to avoid modernity's worst excesses by looking beyond modernity to what is inevitably to come.

Davies' novel is grouped where it is in John's blog because it is thematically related to Tradition, the political embodiment of the perennial philosophy. You could read John's post as an indictment of Tradition, but mostly I think he wanted to draw attention to something that possesses latent power, and his review of The Cunning Man seeks to draw out the good there is to be found in the perennial philosophy, much as Davies looked for the good in modernity.

John felt that the perennial philosophy at its best was far from the worst possible world, but probably also not capable of achieving the best. Graceful despair was how he characterized it, perhaps most memorably embodied in the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. However, John clearly also felt that the hermeticism of the perennial philosophy could conjure a world that none [or almost none] of us really want.

Searching for the even better alternative was John's ultimate purpose, and by extension it is now mine.

The Cunning Man

by Robertson Davies

Viking Publishers, 1995
$23.95, 469 pp.
ISBN 0-670-85911-7

 

The Breath of Coming Winter

 

Some years ago, for reasons that seemed sufficient at the time, I read Doris Lessing's great novel, "The Golden Notebook." The novel takes the form of a long, agonized memoir by a progressive young woman in the middle of the 20th century, in which the protagonist tries to come to grips with the political and sexual struggles of her time. This really is a great book. It succeeds like few other works in conveying to the reader the dismay and self-disgust of the modern mind. Then I happened to read Robertson Davies' novel, "The Lyre of Orpheus," the first of his books I had ever encountered. Reading it was like being cured of an abscessed tooth. Since then, I have been reading everything by him I could find.

I don't think that my reaction to Davies is altogether unique. Many people find his prose to have the same curative effect. His books breathe compassion and an intelligent sense of history. In contrast to so much of what goes on in fiction these days, his vision seems to capture the light of sanity. In his latest book, "The Cunning Man," he puts a fittingly old name to this light: the perennial philosophy. (This term has been variously defined, but perhaps Aldous Huxley's book, "The Perennial Philosophy," comes closest to an extended exposition of what Davies means.) Today, many people speak of the end of the modern era, and some even say it has already ended. They call our time "the postmodern age." This is nonsense, of course. Postmodernism is merely a satirical epilogue to modernity. Robertson Davies, though often accounted a somewhat old-fashioned author, shows us in his books one of the spiritual regimes that could actually succeed modernity when it does end. If so, it will be better than we deserve. Even now, however, with modernity still largely undismantled, it is not too early to begin to understand that the perennial philosophy is in essence a form of graceful despair.

"The Cunning Man" consists of a series of reflections and character sketches, held together by a loose account of the life and times of one Dr. Jon Hullah, master diagnostic physician of the city of Toronto. There are three stories here: Hullah's school life and professional career, the growth of the cultural life of Toronto to world-class status, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of orthodox religion. The doctor, like so many other characters in Davies' books, is a wizardly man, a bachelor and a bit of a misanthrope with some odd intellectual interests. After a boyhood in the Canadian north and a tough-but-fair elite boys' prep school, he has an early infatuation with Freudian theory when it was still new and not particularly respectable, at least in Canada. He has some occasion to put this interest into practice while treating "friendly fire" casualties during World War II. Back in civilian life, the doctor develops into a physician in the tradition of Paracelsus. This means that, in practice, he learned the value of just listening. He is, of course, perfectly expert in scientific medicine, but he tends to take his science as a metaphor. There are genuine mysteries in the case histories of his patients. To illustrate this, he has a bas relief of a caduceus on the wall of his waiting room. Its two intertwining snakes symbolize empirical science and "wisdom" respectively, while above both is written the Greek word for "fate."

The health of every individual, the doctor believes, is as unique as each soul, and so is every disease. The point is not that all diseases are psychosomatic; they aren't. However, the conditions to which the body is prone are usually expressions of the mind, and the patient's state of mind is of critical importance to the success of any therapy. Dr. Hullah acquires a quiet but wide reputation as a "diagnostician of last resort," a physician whose results other doctors cannot quite explain and which they usually have the sense not to ask about. His clinic, it happens, is located in a building in close proximity to a high episcopal church.

At the time of the main action of the story, St. Aidan's was a very high episcopal church indeed, with a congregation that provided a good social cross-section of Toronto. In those glory days, its pastor was the saintly Father Hobbes, a man who literally went hungry to feed the poor. We meet him as he sinks in his last years into a pious and well-beloved dotage. Though the pastor was willing to accommodate elaborate ritual practice, the church's splendid liturgies during the late period of his tenure were the work of the parish's sophisticated music directors, and even more so of the curate, Fr. Iredale, one of Dr. Hullah's old schoolmates. The artistic life of the church was greatly enriched by, indeed it really only reflected, what went on next door in Glebe House. This old mansion had once been parish property, but came into possession of two representatives of another stock type in Davies' books, the Lovable Lesbian Artists. Called the Ladies, they were friends with their tenant Hullah (his clinic is located in a building that had been Glebe House's formidable stone stable). Starting first with artistically-inclined people at St. Aidan's, they came to host a weekly salon that attracted most of the musicians and plastic artists of the nascent artistic world of Toronto at midcentury. (The Ladies invited few writers, since writers proved to drink too much.)

Lest anyone miss the moral, this arrangement is supposed to illustrate the fruitful relationship that art can have with religion. The artists themselves are in large part infidels and persons whose private lives do not bear close scrutiny, yet their community is created by the need of the church for music and vestments and sculpture. Once assembled, they develop their art according to its own needs, but the church continues to benefit from the new creations it has neither the funds nor the imagination to produce itself. During the Golden Age of St. Aidan's, faithful parishioners like the Ladies and Dr. Hullah do not of course believe in the tenets of orthodox Christianity. They are attracted to the church because they intuit that there is a dimension of Being beyond the material. They see that the Good is often the occasion for the Beautiful, as illustrated by the beautiful ceremonies presided over by the genuinely admirable Fr. Hobbes. They are, however, too sophisticated to believe that the Good must also be linked to the True. The Gospel taught at St. Aidan's is a kind of significant poetry. To think otherwise is a bit of naivete that might be tolerated in simple people, but which leads to disastrous results in the hands of men with intellect and imagination.

Such, unfortunately, was Fr. Iredale. Everyone agreed that the pastor was a saintly man. His curate, however, inspired by private visions he could not dismiss, came to regard Fr. Hobbes as a living saint in the most literal sense. The book is in small part also a murder mystery, so it would not be appropriate to set out here just what steps the curate took to prepare the pastor for canonization. Fr. Iredale wanted nothing less than that for the late Fr. Hobbes: a shrine, a cult, and finally official recognition of sainthood by the whole Anglican communion. The cult of Fr. Hobbes was to save not only Toronto, but the whole of North America. The problem, the curate soon found, was that the enthusiasm he had whipped up could not be kept within church walls. One of Dr. Hullah's truly psychosomatic patients declared herself cured by the lately deceased saint's miraculous intervention, and began preaching in the little graveyard by Glebe House where he was buried. She attracted dangerous crowds of those whom Fr. Hobbes had helped in life, street crazies, thieves and invincible alcoholics. (The Unworthy Poor are another staple of Davies' fiction. Here they take the Orwellian name of "God's People.") The bishop of Toronto, alarmed at the disorder and credulity at St. Aidan's, sends his favorite hench-cleric to preach on the dangers of ritualism. Fr. Iredale is banished to a parish in the farthest north. There he must listen to the private revelations of his landlady and try to adapt to a poor rural congregation (actually six small ones at various widely-separated churches). He takes to drink and becomes himself one of God's People, eventually dying in Dr. Hullah's care.

We learn of all this as Dr. Hullah explains it many years later to his godson's wife, an investigative reporter in Toronto. (Newspaper journalism, like the theater and the academy, is yet another stock feature of Davies' fiction. He has, after all, had significant careers in all three professions.) Thus, we get to look at these events from their aftermath. One Lady has died and the other moved away. In any event, the artistic life of the city has become too large and too commercial to fit into one of their artistic evenings. St. Aidan's has become a parish of the rich and tonedeaf. Dr. Hullah has stopped accepting new patients. We see him planning a great literary study for his retirement, a compendium of medical diagnoses of the great characters from literature, based on their spiritual conditions as set out in the texts.

We are given various hints that these personal things are not all that is ending. The doctor's indispensable nurse-therapist, for instance, is a great reader of Toynbee and Spengler, especially the latter. The era of classical modern culture with which the doctor literally grew up seems to be drawing to a close with his career. As a doctor, he has less and less faith in contemporary science, even as metaphor. AIDS and cancer research go on and on, costing ever more but yielding few results. Even the old diseases he thought conquered as a young man are staging comebacks. The suspicion grows that the whole business of research is just that, a business, perhaps finally a bit of a racket. One of his old friends discourages him from making a bequest to a university unless he attaches strict conditions. Otherwise, the greedy scientists will eat it up without licking their lips. Like the monasteries of Henry VIII's time, the laboratories have become bloated and corrupt. The time is coming for a cleaning out.

Robertson Davies has never set his face against the trends of the modern world. Insofar as modern culture has had a strong psychoanalytical component, his novel "The Manticore," which deals with a course of Jungian analysis, may someday be seen as one of the key texts. His novel "The Lyre of Orpheus," which deals with a university production of an original opera about King Arthur, is open to the possibility that there may be worth in today's experimental musical styles. In "The Cunning Man," he even manages a few kind words for feminism, of a sort. Though he clearly prefers some cultural usages of previous periods to those of the twentieth century, he has always been willing to acknowledge whatever good the world has on offer. Still, he suggests that modern culture, at least as it has been known in Canada, is drawing to a close. There is no Spenglerian gloom associated with this development. Empires may crumble and the arts go into hibernation, but the wise do not despair. Every historical era is equally far from God, but the perennial philosophy is there to console us in each.

Davies' idea of enlightenment seems to bear a certain family resemblance to that of the English novelist and former Oxford philosopher, Iris Murdoch, who has been promoting a brand of moderate Platonism for years. The reference point of Murdoch's philosophy is not a personal God, but the abstract Good. The Good, of course, issues no orders, but informs every choice we make, even those that deliberately contravene it. It does, if you will, set the agenda. It does not punish, but reality exacts a price from those who do not seek the Good, which is also the ultimately Real. Popular religion provides a form of the Good that can be understood even by people without a philosophical education. For the mass of mankind, the search for the Good can be reduced to a set of crude injunctions. This is at least sufficient for the purpose of maintaining social order. Sophisticated minds, however, will usually find that, as they climb the ladder of moral perfection, they will eventually no longer need a personal God in order to understand the Good. They need not then abandon God, but may continue to cherish Him as a metaphor. Indeed, Murdoch is a great promoter of High Church practices. As limited beings, we need symbols to help compose our minds to higher things. Ritual links us to the past and so to each other; it helps constitute society. Murdoch is the kind of Anglican who cares little whether her priest believes in God, but a great deal whether he reads from a Bible other than the Authorized Version.

There are a number of flaws one might find with an idealism so chilly. For one thing, a lot of people with expensive philosophical educations, such as St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis, found that the Good was a steppingstone to God and not the other way around. In any event, Davies' philosophy (to the extent it can be derived from his novels) is much less desiccated than Murdoch's. Davies has, for one thing, a strong taste for the merely uncanny. Although there is little actual magic in his books, there is great deal of talk about astrology, alchemical philosophy, and archetypes of one kind or another. These factors are hardly an impediment to sales in today's intellectual climate. He does favor his readers with significant coincidences, effective curses, the odd ghost (his last novel, "Murther and Walking Spirits," was a posthumous narrative by a murdered man) and one memorable case of the Evil Eye. One way of looking at the supernatural is that it is just a plot device that got out of hand, but one of Davies' attractions is that his use of it makes his fiction feel more realistic. Some people all their lives, and others during one or more vivid passages, sense a purpose or presence behind everyday life. Modernity, unlike most cultural periods, has been dedicated to dismissing this intuition as an illusion, or to explaining it in material terms. Davies' kind of realism does not do this. His vision, which perhaps reached its clearest expression in his deservedly-best selling book, "What's Bred in the Bone," can claim the designation "perennial" with some justice.

A taste for the uncanny is a long way from a religious perspective, of course. The uncanny can be a source of bad as well as good, of horror as well as illumination. If you believe in C.G Jung's idea of luck, the "synchronous event," then you must believe in the possibility of bad luck and inescapable ill-fortune. The ultimate that we sometimes sense beneath the surface of our lives is not necessarily friendly. Those characters who seek to understand it, like the diabolical old Jesuit in Davies' "Fifth Business," may be merely entertaining. On the other hand, like the nihilist monk Parlebane (another Anglican ritualist) in "The Rebel Angels," they can become formidable monsters. This view is not a kind of Manicheanism, the idea that there are independent and roughly equal forces of Good and Evil in the universe, each perhaps with its own god. Rather, it is the suspicion that God is both good and evil, that He and the devil are the same thing as seen from different angles. A God of this kind might be respected, and probably should be placated. However, it just presents another problem for human life, it is not a solution to anything.

All of this, Evil Eyes and intuitions of Being and so on, may be gross superstition. For that matter, maybe the Good and the cult of the Authorized Version are subtle superstition. The fact is, however, that educated people in most times and places who did not accept the formal theology of a major religion believed something like this. Even the secular Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was suffused with "hermetic" ideas of this type. They are, if you will, the "default position" for the sophisticated human mind, a kind of historically-informed skepticism that gives no special priority to materialism. For over two hundred years, the progress of scientific theory (and only secondarily of the technology incorporating it) has kept these ideas at bay. Today, one may argue, this perennial philosophy is returning. The problem is not that science has failed. It has almost succeeded in everything it set out to do. We understand much of the chemical aspects of biology. Even the progress of cancer research is not quite the shell-game Davies seems to think it is. We may soon have a Unified Field Theory short enough to write on T-shirt. Even before we have complete solutions to these problems, however, we know that they will not be enough.

What is true of physics is also true of morality. Nietzsche promised us a thorough-going reexamination of all values, and damned if we did not get it. Today, the experiments have all been run, and it is pretty clear to all but the most obtuse observer that the only alternative to something like the traditional systems of ethics is no human life at all. The alternatives will simply kill any society that tries to adopt them. We know what we set out to discover, and now it remains only to implement our findings. To this extent, perhaps, the future is not problematical.

What is problematical is the atmosphere in which this reconstruction will occur. It is easy to imagine a transition in which "secularism" gradually ceases to mean materialism and comes to mean something very like the perennial philosophy. This would make sense. The excitement of modernity being over, it only follows that the more relaxed "default" position would kick in. It would not be the worst thing that could happen, but one can't help but wonder whether it would really be the best. The perennial philosophy is, after all, not really very optimistic about the world or about mankind. It is not ambitious to do things that has not been achieved before. Its highest value is order. Of course, in the terminal stages of modernity, order is nothing to be sneezed at. In the final analysis, however, I think that we will finally come to see that order is not enough, either.


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Flame is Green

I've never tried to read anything by Lafferty, but I'm curious if he is anything like Tim Powers. From John's description, he sounds even crazier. When I started reading Tim Powers, I found it hard to appreciate everything he was trying to say. Last Call, in particular, got much, much better with subsequent readings. I guess I liked the book enough to persist.

The Flame Is Green
By R. A. Lafferty
Walker Publishing Company, 1971
245 Pages; Historical Price US$5.95
ISBN: 0-8027-0346-1

 

The works of R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002) are not too far out be reviewed by an ordinary human being. However, one must reach into an awkwardly positioned dimension to lay hold of them. So, I will not attempt much interpretation of this little novel. What I will do is display some representative chunks of it. I will also add some explanatory matter, for form's sake.

 

* * *

"The Flame Is Green" is about the adventures of a young Irishman named Dana Coscuin, who sets out from Bantry Bay in 1845, just as the potato blight is settling onto Ireland and Europe is preparing for the Revolutions of 1848. He makes the tour of the greater and lesser scenes of unrest and pre-unrest, with special attention to Carlist Spain, Paris, and Krakow. The potato blight and the revolutions are not unrelated. On the prosaic level, the author reminds us that the potato harvests also failed in much of Europe in those years: not so disastrously as in Ireland, perhaps, but enough to help foment unrest. On the level of high symbol, however, we also are reminded that the blight caused a red mist of corruption to settle over the green fields. Coscuin and his friends are in the service of the Green Revolution, which at that point in history is largely coincident with the nationalist uprisings. Their task is to protect it from the Red Revolution, which did not yet have much to do with socialism, and which in any case is a primordial thing of no particular politics.

"The Flame Is Green" was published over 30 years ago, the first book of a tetrology that also includes "Half a Sky," "Sardinian Summer," and "First and Last Island." I came across "The Flame Is Green" recently and by accident, not long after I finished Adam Zamoyski's Holy Madness, another book I had no business reading. That book is a sort of symphonic poem (to use John Lukacs's phrase) about the pre-Marxist revolutionary tradition, and its author imagined it to be the only treatment of its subject. Now I know better, though whether Lafferty knows better than Zamoyski remains to be seen.

One does not read Lafferty books for quite the reasons one reads other fiction.

Lafferty stories do have plots and characters. In this book, in addition to Dana, there is Elena Prado, the "Muerte de Boscaje," so-called because of her demonical proclivity for gingering up the Carlist guerrillas to attack main-force Spanish columns, thereby getting all the guerrillas killed. There is Ifreann Chortovitch, a son of the devil in a not particularly metaphorical sense, whom Dana almost certainly fails to kill at the end of the book. There is Catherine Dembinska, Dana's soon-lost Polish wife. The followers of the Green Revolution act at the behest of Count Cyril, sometimes called Charles, whom no one will ever admit to seeing, but whose agents are so ubiquitous that the Green Revolutionaries need only hold up the bill in a tavern for the Count to cover the expense.

All the characters, male and female, Irish and Polish, human and otherwise, speak exactly the same way. This is typical of Lafferty books. So is the relaxed attitude toward time. The characters often allude to events that have not happened yet, and indeed sing about them. This temporal insouciance sometimes leaks out of the text. The Carlist chaplain and pillar of orthodoxy is a Polish priest known as "The Black Pope," this in a book published a mystical seven years before the election of John Paul II.

None of these playful features hurt. Neither does the prescience, in small doses. However, a greater merit of Lafferty's books may be his easy way with philology, which dovetails nicely with a weirdly immediate sense of history. Consider this description of Dana's encounter with the first of Count Cyril's emissaries:

"They hadn't any full language in common. They spoke in mixed scraps of Spanish and Irish and English and French. Spanish men and Irish men had always been able to understand each other on Bantry Bay, which was also called Spanish Bay. They had understood each other back when they spoke in scraps of Norman and Irish and Navarrone, back when they used Old Norse and Middle Irish and Dog Latin, back when they used Arabic and Gothic and Celtic, even back when they used Phoenician and Milesian."

Let no one say that Lafferty is without ordinary narrative skills. His description of the overthrow of the Orleanist monarchy, for instance, is of a lucidity in every way superior to the events themselves. Much of the action takes place in the Paris of the Hundred Persons, the brief period in the 1840s when Paris was the fulcrum of world history, and the mission of the Green Revolutionaries was to influence the small group of people who really mattered. Still, though Lafferty can handle action, he is better at description. He is best of all at describing things that don't quite not exist. We see this in an encounter involving Dana, a friend from the Constituent Assembly, and one of Count Cyril's late ancestors:

"That man talked to them a very long time, or so it seemed. Much of it went directly to the substrata of their mind and memories; only hazy bits of it remained on the surface. Brume and Dana both became very sleepy, not from lack of interest, from some humorous trick that the man was playing on them. It was as if there was something here too rich to be understood at one sitting. After a long while of it, there was something about the man rising to go (he had some signs of great age about him, the backs of his hands, the sunkenness of his cheeks; and some signs of quick youth, his full throat, his eyes, his easy movements); there was something about him saying that he would let himself out, that Brume and Dana could rest easy (they were not hosts, he was the host); there was something about the man being gone then."

There are features of Lafferty stories that make them neither better nor worse; they are just always there. Among them are the snakes, anthropomorphic and otherwise, and this book is at least up to quota. Far more interesting to me, however, are this book's spiders, which Lafferty puts to better use. Consider, for instance, this memorable description of the untrustworthy Spanish queen, Isabella II:

"Who will father the Queen's children? Nobody. She says that she will do it all by herself. Many insects do this, and Isabella is very like an insect in her waspishness, in her spiderishness, in her ever immaturity coming always mask-faced, cotton-faced, old-young out of the cocoon. And with such divergent and parthenogenetic insects the offspring is always female, so I see a long line of female children of the Queen."

Among the most memorable spiders are the ones in a great room in the Italian villa of Ashley, the Un-Englishman. (Lafferty describes the fellow in a way that sheds new light on the garden landscapes of Fragonard, but let us not digress.) The spiders, which make their webs over a pit of rotting corpses, have all been named after famous people in the world. As Ashely explains, the weaving of their webs incorporates the future:

"That is Chancellor Metternich of Austria who rehearses his fall from power again and again and again. He is in love with his own drama. He considers it from every possible aspect. He obliterates sections of it that do not satisfy him, and he substitutes other more dramatic scenes in the topography of his weaves. What is the present year? I myself become confused when I am among my spiders. Oh no, the fall of Metternich has not happened yet, but it will be done when he is done."

Not unusually for a Lafferty novel, "The Flame Is Green" sets out a model of history. One might find sources for it, from Augustine to Newman to Isaac Asimov (even Nietzsche, if you look at the second paragraph below). In any case, several characters give voice to it (as I said, all the characters talk the same, so it makes little difference who said what):

"Beware of those who manufacture final answers as they go along, of those who will catch you on their catch-phrases and let you perish in the traps. All the final answers were given in the beginning. They stand shining, above and beyond us, but they are always there to be seen. They may be too bright for us, they may be too clear for us. Well then, we must clarify our own eyes. Our task is to grow out until we reach them.

"We ourselves become the bridges out over the interval that is the world and time. It is a daring thing to fling ourselves out over that void that is black and scarlet below and green and gold above. A bridge does not abandon its first shore when it grows out in spans towards the further one"

"In this growing there are no really new things or new situation. There are only things growing out right, or things growing out deformed or shriveled. There is nothing new about railways or foundries or lathes or steel furnaces. They also are green-growing things. There is nothing new about organizations of men or of money. All these growing things are good, if they grow towards the final answers that were given in the beginning."

 

What we have here is an assertion of the compatibility of political and technological progress with tradition, especially tradition in its Roman Catholic manifestation. This kind of progress, however, is teleological; historical change is going somewhere, and so is not open-ended. Lafferty was outraged during the second half of his long life by the use of the principle of "development of doctrine" to discard the substance of the faith and replace it with contemporary fashions. The internal problems of the Church during his lifetime, however, simply mirrored a general feature of history:

"Or let us say that we have a green thing growing forever. Everything that is done is done by it. And on it we also have the red parasite crunching forever: and everything that is undone is undone by that. The parasite will present itself as a modern thing. It will call itself the Great Change. Less often, and warily, it will call itself the Great Renewal. But it can never be another thing than the Red Failure returned. It is a disease, it is a scarlet fever, a typhoid, a diphtheria; it is the Africa disease, it is the red leprosy, it is the crab-cancer. It is the death of the individual and of the corporate soul. And incidentally, but very often, it is also the death of the individual and of the corporate body. We are asked to swear fealty to the parasite disease which the enemy sowed from the beginning. I will not do it, and I hope that you will not."

Though the Red Disease is a chronic phenomenon, it becomes acute only to prevent or distort the advent of some great good. Lafferty obviously thought that the romantic, democratic nationalism of the 19th century was, on the whole, just such a good thing (though Pius IX might have thought otherwise):

"[T]he devils stroll the earth again and infect with the red sickness. They must, at all cost to themselves, destroy the growing tendrils before such can touch the other side. For, whenever one least growing creeper touches across the interval, that means the extinction of a devil. It is a thing to be tested. Notice it that whenever there is the special shrilling, when there is the wild flinging out of catchwords to catch you in, when there are the weird exceptions and inclusions, when there are specious arguments and the murderous defamations, when all the volubility of the voltairians and the cuteness of the queers has been assembled to confound you, then one green growth has almost reached across to the other side, one devil is in danger of extinction. Oh, they will defend against that!"

One might conclude from this that the later revolutionary tradition was just the devil's way of frustrating the good work of Whiggish, democratic liberalism. This leaves us to speculate about the origins of postmodernism, which sprouted in the West just as the Whig Tradition was about to defeat its Marxist rival.

 

* * *

As is the way of curmudgeons, Lafferty had a disdain, rising to the point of affectation, for conventional political categories:

"[T]he opposite of radical is superficial, the opposite of liberal is stingy; the opposite of conservative is destructive."

Predictably, his books provide little specific guidance for those sympathetic to his views. Lafferty's program for the Paris of a Hundred Persons sounds threatening, even when it is actually irenic:

"Listen now to a series of sayings that always come hard to brave people. Our task is to extirpate by prevention. Our own great movement will grow with its own impetus wherever it is not blighted. We will break up persons of blight and centers of blight. But often, and this will be the hard part for all of you to understand, we will warn and advise before we kill. And quite often we will not kill at all. Try to understand this."

If you remove the implicit threat of mayhem, that's still sound advice.

 


 

 

 

Since this book is long out of print,
you might want to buy another book:

 

Your reviewer would be gratified, however,
if you gave special consideration to these books.


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Man in the High Castle

Phil Dick was a friend of Tim Powers. Thus this book review is really favorite authors squared. John Reilly reviewed a seminal novel by a man who influenced one of my favorite fiction writers. I think I first read this review before Powers became one of my favorite writers, but I remembered it when that time came.

Tim Powers writes secret histories, which are a little different than alternative histories. Yet I think you can see Dick's influence in Three Days to Never. Powers often muses on the way things might have been. This is a theme that has often occupied John Reilly as well. They both take seriously the idea that our choices have consequences, even though the world around us seems to move in discernable patterns. We are neither wholly free nor wholly constrained, but seem to fall somewhere inbetween.

The Man in the High Castle
By Philip K. Dick
Quality Paperback Book Club 2001
Originally Published 1962
See Amazon link below
for ISBN and possible prices.

Was Philip Dick (1928-1982) a prophet who was tortured to death by searing insights into the posthuman condition, or was he just an amphetamine-addled hack who died of paranoia as his prose was about to decay into 100% psychotic drivel? Dick was actually a fairly successful science-fiction writer, but most of us know him from films loosely based on his work. He received enormous, though posthumous, critical attention, probably too much for his reputation's long-term good. This novel is where his extraordinary reputation starts.

There are alternative-history stories much older than "The Man in the High Castle," even one or two novels, but this book established alternative history as a genre. The premise, which has since been done to death, is that the Axis won the Second World War. It is not at all clear how this happened. We know that Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in his first term as president of the United States, which had some effect on American preparedness. The US entered the war after a completely successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During the war, which lasted until 1947, New York and San Francisco were badly damaged. In the aftermath, the United States east of the Rockies became a German satellite, while the Pacific states constituted a federation that was part of the Japanese Co-Prosperity sphere. Only the strip of Rocky Mountain states was left independent, no doubt as a buffer zone.

The book has two chief plot lines. One involves an attempt by German dissidents to contact the Japanese military. This serves to demonstrate the nightmare state of the world, in which the worse villains prove to be the less dangerous. The other leads to a trip to see the author of a best-selling alternative-history novel, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy," which describes a world in which the Axis lost the Second World War. (That author is, of course, "the man in the high castle," though by the time we meet him he is living in a sensible stucco ranch house.) That plot line shows the way out of the nightmare.

Ingenious devices link these threads. There is a shop of Americana items: all are supposedly of historical interest, but many are of doubtful authenticity. There are vivid characters and many original ideas. There are also flashes of anomalous mentation, such as this:

 

"She said, speaking slowly and painstakingly, 'Hair creates bear who removes spots in nakedness.'"

Restrictions on the possession of some drugs are sound public policy.

The alternative history is, frankly, a little perfunctory. At no point does the historical context go beyond the knowledge of the average history buff. The story takes place at the time of a change of administration in Germany, when Chancellor Bormann dies and is replaced, after a time of uncertainty, by Chancellor Göbbels. The characters spend a fair amount of time speculating about which of the leading Nazis will finally take control. The candidates are the same crew we know from the actual Nazi regime of the war era. (The exceptions are that Himmler was assassinated long ago, but Heydrich is still alive.).

Some details are merely arbitrary. It is hard to see how the German rocket program could have progressed to the colonization of Mars by 1962. And why was television still just a prospect, except for a few hours a day in the Berlin area? I suppose it is possible that Bob Hope might have been a comedian in an Axis world, broadcasting by radio from oddly unmolested Canada. However, is it really likely that he would make jokes about Göring wanting to revive Christianity, so as to vary his lions' diet?

These improbabilities are not defects, however. I would go so a far as to say that anyone looking for historical verisimilitude in this book is missing the point. This is not an alternative-history novel, but an anti-history novel. The book suggests that any history is fundamentally unreal. This is not to say that all history is illusion, or that there is nothing to choose between one historical scenario and another, but that there is a truth that is true even if events contradict it.

In terms of background detail, the great merit of the book is cultural rather than historical. Most of the action takes place in and around San Francisco, in the Japanese-dominated Pacific States of America. Dick was knowledgeable about Japanese culture. In the 1980s, this increased the attraction of his work, since informed opinion back then claimed that the Japanese were going to take over the world economically. "The Man in the High Castle" is set in the sort of world that Japanophobes used to warn against, where white Americans are second-class citizens in a Japanese economic colony. The novel in no way supports that sentiment, however. The Japanese in this history are the defenders of humanity and civilization against the Nazis.

Having said such hard words against Dick's counter-historical imagination, now let me praise him for his "ideology fiction." Consider this assessment of Nazism triumphant:

 

"Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Ehre. Not of honorable men but of Ehre itself, honor; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast, black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life…It is all temporary…They want to aid nature…They identify with God's power, and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off. It is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate-confusion between him who worships and that which is worshiped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man."

Fans of Jung will recognize the notion that the National Socialist movement was in some ways an instance of mass possession by an archetype. These lines also allude to Heidegger's idea that the Nazi phenomenon was an opportunity to return to authentic Being. Even the anti-individualism smacks of Rosenberg's preoccupation with the folk soul. Considered literally, all these ideas should be taken with a grain of salt. Taken all together, though, they are a prose poem of dark metaphysics.

The author's other metaphysical interests are soon apparent. Everyone in the book, except the Nazis, consults the "I Ching," "The Book of Changes," at every turn, and every time the oracle has something apt to say. The most sympathetic character, a quixotic Japanese trade official named Mr. Tagomi, explains that both the "I Ching" and the "Bible" are alive, along with certain other books. I am intrigued by this notion; certainly the canon of the "Bible" seems to have had certain powers of, well, self-assembly. In any case, in this book, the "I Ching" reveals the order behind the chaos.

How does one normally consult the oracle? With a question in mind, the user throws coins or yarrow sticks to select one of the 64 hexagrams of the "I Ching." Each hexagram represents a typical situation; the one you pick represents the current condition. Simple rules of transformation then indicate another hexagram, which represents what the situation will become. (There are exceptions; the current situation may be blocked.)

It is possible to use the "I Ching" as just another fortune-telling device. However, I gather that sophisticated users do not need to throw coins or sticks. The hexagrams are categories of possibility. Adepts can see well enough for themselves which one represents the present, as well as the hexagram of the future that is implied in the present. Sometimes the characters in "The Man in the High Castle" do just that: they don't need to consult the book. At other times, they ask the oracle to help them make the decisions that determine the plot. This is exactly how "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" was written, as the writer explains to a concerned fan. By Dick's own account, he did something very like this in writing "The Man in the High Castle," too. Sometimes it shows.

We are also told that "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" is a biblical allusion. Having consulted all the grasshoppers in the Bible, I suggest this may be the passage Dick was thinking of. Most versions have "grasshopper" for "locust" below, but I find this old Confraternity translation otherwise clearer:

 

"[The evil days of old age come] and one fears heights, and perils in the street; when the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is destroyed, because man goes to his lasting home; and mourners go about the streets…" Ecclesiastes 12:5

Using a meta-narrative device of the sort that would become a menace to sanity during the reign of postmodernism, the alternative history novel, "The Man in the High Castle," gives a synopsis of the historical scenario in the fictional alternative-history novel, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy." Aside from the fact the Axis loses, the world of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" does not greatly resemble our own. Franklin Roosevelt, though happily unassassinated, serves just two terms. The British win the Battle of Stalingrad and extend the British Empire to the Volga. There is apparently even an Anglo-American war. This is just the kind of scenario one would create by deciding among possible storylines by flipping a coin at every decisive event.

The message of this book is not very different from that of Ursula LeGuin's, "The Lathe of Heaven." Using the device of dreams that shape reality, that story suggests that history comes back into balance when events threaten to destroy the world; not just the future changes, but the past changes as well. Similarly, the author of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" says he wrote it to show that the Germans and the Japanese did not win the war, even though history says they did. This leaves us to speculate whether the history we know, or that we think we know, might similarly be untrue, even if it is factual.

There are earlier examples of this kind of skepticism. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre was so annoyed at the prospect that nuclear annihilation might derail Marxist eschatology that he once famously remarked, "The hydrogen bomb does not exist." Amphetamines are also available in France.


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

New Tim Powers book coming March 2012

Hide Me Among the GravesTim Power's newest novel, Hide Me Among the Graves, will be coming March 2012. This is sort of a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, a tale of vampryic muses in the lives of Byron, Keats, and Shelley, based on actual events in their lives. There is a continuation of this storyline in the most recent edition of The Bible Repairman and Other Stories that serves as a bridge between the two novels.

h/t The Works of Tim Powers

Forsake the Sky Book Review

by Tim Powers
$3.50; 217 pages 

Forsake the Sky is an updated version of The Skies Discrowned, Tim Powers first book. I am a big fan of Power's early work. I enjoy Forsake the Sky and Dinner at Deviant's Palace more than Earthquake Weather. The earlier books are short and tight, albeit sometimes less polished.

Forsake the Sky is set in a futuristic end-of-empire setting. I've long been interested in cyclical theories of history, and doubly so in fiction, because the rise and fall of empires makes for a cracking good yarn. This is more of an adventure story than one of Power's typical secret histories. And what an adventure it is! Francisco de Goya Rovzar finds himself unjustly imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor in the uranium mines before the first chapter is over. Rovzar escapes, finds refuge in the criminal underworld, and works his way to the top. Classic stuff here, the hero's journey, with Power's characteristic themes of providence and the true price of adventure.

This is a great book.

My other book reviews

Tim Powers' New Novel

From the Works of Tim Powers blog:

In the winter of 1862, London veterinarian John Crawford learns that his interlude with a prostitute seven years earlier has produced a daughter. The now-reformed ex-prostitute, Adelaide McKee, has recently learned that their lost daughter is still alive—but that the girl's life and soul are in peril from a vampiric ghost whose murderous attention McKee drew in her bad old days.