Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review of Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

Fifteenth Discworld novel and second to star the City Watch, Terry Pratchett’s 1993 Men at Arms is a funny romp on the streets of Ankh-Morpork that brings together some of his most beloved characters.  Compared to some other Discworld offerings, the novel is less focused thematically, but makes up for it with a quantity of trademark humor—slapstick, satire, wordplay, and otherwise—beyond what is standard in the series.

Men at Arms opens with Corporal Carrot Ironfoundersson writing home to his family, describing to them the current events of the City Watch in Ankh-Morpork.  A few new recruits have been landed, including a dwarf, a troll, and a woman—strange newcomers for what has been a WASP institution since the Watch took its place in the city.  Right off the bat the group’s tenor is tested by having to put down a minor dwarf-troll insurrection—the two groups’ enmity threatening to erupt violently.  Captain Vimes has also announced his retirement from the Watch.  He quickly discovers, however, his final days are to be anything but relaxing.  With a rogue member of the Assassin’s Guild chasing a fool dream to reinstate a king in mayor Vetinari’s place, Vimes must use all of his alcohol riddled wits to trace the mysterious assassin as he moves from one bizarre murder scene to another, the weapon of choice unlike anything the city has seen before.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

I’ve read statements claiming H. G. Wells is the father of science fiction, and there does appear a degree truth in it.  Certainly other writers had taken steps, most notably Jules Verne with his voyages extraordinaires, but it was Wells who latched onto the ideological potential of the genre and began writing stories.  Seeming to spawn a sub-genre with each book published, The War of the Worlds looks at humanity’s reaction to an alien invasion; The Invisible Man deals with identity problems; The Island of Dr. Moreau tackles biological modification; and The First Men in the Moon is a very early look at lunar life.  Each book a vehicle for his political agenda, these and other of the author’s works employ what are now standard sci-fi motifs to expound upon sociopolitical concepts.  Wells’ debut in long form, the 1898 novella The Time Machine, is one such book.

The Time Machine is a foremost frame story.  It opens from the point of view of an unnamed narrator at a dinner party hosted by a person called simply the Time Traveler.  Amongst the group sit men of learning—a medical doctor, psychologist, and others—who listen as the Time Traveler expounds upon dimensional physics, interest and discord arising in the discussion’s wake.  After demonstrating with a small time machine to the disbelief of some and amazement of others, the Time Traveler invites the group to return the following week, hoping to be able to report on a larger machine he has been constructing.  When the guests return, they find the Time Traveler strangely absent from his home.  But soon enough he emerges from the shop.  Weary in body, clothes in rags, and feet bloody through the socks, he begins the narrative of his adventure in time.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Review of The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss

The 19th century was a time of transmigration for Europe.  Thousands left continental shores for lands abroad, South America, Australia, the US, and beyond.  Ship travel the only method to access most of these destinations, the sea wasn’t always forgiving.  Not a few were sent to a watery grave, others crashing on strange shores.  Johann David Wyss’ 1812 The Swiss Family Robinson is the fantasy-esque tale of one such shipwreck.

The novel opens with said wreck.  The only remaining survivors a family of six, the group struggles to get ashore and find their bearings.  A father, mother, and four sons, what follows is a narrative recounting exotic survival in the wilds.  The group slowly explores the island they now call home.  They build better and safer homes, fight for life with food and predators, and towards the end of the novel, have an encounter they’d never dreamed of.  Adventure in the purest form, getting caught up in the family’s escapades of everyday life is a joy.  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Review of the Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn

In 1991, before George Lucas had released Episode I, II, and III in the Star Wars saga, and before the flood of franchised books in the Expanded Universe that followed, he offered contracts to a few, lesser-known writers to create spin-off stories.  A handful of books appearing, they were well received.  Working from the success, Lucas then allowed Timothy Zahn to pen Episode VII, VIII, and IX—the events following Return of the Jedi.  Lucas’ instincts sound, Zahn produced a trilogy of books that live up to expectation, and from some angles, exceed the quality of the films.

Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, known as The Thrawn Trilogy (1991-1993), is a solid series that utilizes book format to expand the Star Wars universe after the fall of Darth Vadar, the Emperor, and the Empire.  Set five years following the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, R2D2, C3PO and all the fan favorites remain the focal characters.  Though now in middle age, they are characterized exactly as seen in the films.  (Zahn should be commended for this.)  General Thrawn is the new villain, a ruthless but shrewd one, and fits into the natural evolution of the story if the Empire is to have any hope of getting back into the picture after the Rebellion’s victory.  In fact a deeper character than any evil presented on screen thus far, Thrawn’s role has a complexity and ingenuity to it that makes reading his scenes interesting.  Intelligence his weapon of choice, the recently formed New Republic finds itself in a fight for its life if it is to survive its own birth pains, not to mention Thrawn’s quest to bring the Empire back to power.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review of The Wisdom of China ed. by Lin Yutang

Initially published as The Wisdom of China and India, publishers later separated the massive tome into its two natural halves, The Wisdom of India and The Wisdom of China.  Focusing on the major schools of thought from Eastern philosophy, the Chinese half is full of names familiar to the West: Laozi, Confucius, Zhuangzi, Mencius, Mozi, and others.  The book also features a large number of selections from personages most would be unfamiliar with: Luxin, Sizi, Shenfu, and so on.  Lin’s translations and introductory material invaluable, this is perhaps the best introduction to Chinese philosophy available.

Divided into sections based on theme rather than philosopher, readers will find mysticism, democracy (Chinese style), universal love, familial piety, everyday life, and a large number of other subjects broached.  Starting with the Daoists, moving through the teachings of Mozi, touching upon Mencius, and moving to Confucianism, Lin has included all of the big names expected, as well as large number of names the majority of Westerners probably have not encoutnered.  So while these philosophers’ works can be found in many, many other books (including Lin’s own The Wisdom of Laotse and The Wisdom of Confucius), the inclusion of lesser known ideologists to fill the political, spiritual, and social spaces of Chinese thought makes this book all the more comprehensive and valuable.  (I would estimate 70% of the book relates to the “famous” philosophers mentioned above, the remaining 30% to lesser known personages.)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review of Lost Horizon by James Hilton

James Hilton’s 1933 Lost Horizon is one of few books that has survived the test of time yet continues to fly low under many radars.  A mix of intrigue, spiritual profundity, exotic adventure and (perhaps) a touch of fantasy, the story of Conway and the mysterious Shangri-la he encounters is full of thought-provoking questions, and thankfully, not many answers.  A book which will turn in the mind after, its length does not describe its depth.  

Set in the era of the book’s publishing, Lost Horizon is foremost a frame story.  The book opens with a group of school fellows, now in middle age, discussing a former classmate who has disappeared in Southeast Asia under mysterious circumstances.  One of the group possessing notes taken from a delirious conversation with the man just before the man disappeared, the narrative soon switches to the notes, and the wild, possibly imagined tale leading up to the disappearance takes center stage.  

Conway, the man who has disappeared, is the idyll of the English gentleman—at least at the outset.  He’s intelligent, he speaks numerous languages, he’s cultured, has impeccable manners, plays the piano, and has served his country in World War I.  Handsome to boot, he seems every mother’s dream of a son.  Kidnapped and taken to a strange land, he soon finds himself dealing with awkward social situations and a sub-culture with more doors closed than open.  A mystery within a mystery, the secrets of Shangri-la are slow in coming, but expand with each reveal that culminate in a major decision for the man.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review of "The Difference Engine" by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

The ‘punk’ in ‘cyberpunk’ comes from the generally rebellious stance of the sub-genre.  In contrast to the squeaky-clean space visions produced by the likes of Asimov and Clarke, sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, mixed with near-future tech, are instead presented as the future.  So when two of its most prominent representatives genre decided to collaborate on a novel, what better way to rebel than defy expectation?

One its premiere stylist, the other its most outspoken media voice, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling buck cyberpunk expectation with their cooperative effort The Difference Engine.  Applying computing in Western society nearly a century before it occurred in reality, the two create an imaginative alternate history, and in the process pen one of the most influential works of steampunk to date.

The Difference Engine is set in London of 1855.  Charles Babbage’s theories of computing having been made mechanically possible in difference engines—primitive computers powered by steam that process punch cards (see Section B.4 here).  Spindles, gears, and feeder chutes, alongside steam gurneys, telegraphs, and smog abound in this alternate vision of England’s capital.  The plot is centered around a peculiar set of punch cards which are being pursued by various personages.  Luddites, Communards, Industrial Radicals, and other political interests giving chase, adventure and intrigue propel the plot through social and political waters, the use of the cards growing ever more mysterious as the story develops.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Review of "The Silmarillion" by J.R.R. Tolkien

If The Hobbit is the tip and The Lord of the Rings is the iceberg, then The Silmarillion is the glacier from which Middle Earth was calved.  A dark, epic history, the book outlays the mythic roots of Tolkien’s imaginary land.  Truly for the connoisseur, it is written in an entirely different tone than The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. A tone that emphasizes tragedy and time over questing and adventure, filling its pages are cosmology, culture, the will of the gods, and tragically heroic tales. “Epic Pooh” it is not. 
Starting with the music of the Ainur and ending with the downfall of Sauron (as told in The Lord of the Rings), The Silmarillion is the history of the three ages of Middle Earth.  Written in mythic style, the gods, the world, the elves, mankind, and the roots of good and evil are revealed.  All of the names and places which lacked context in The Lord of the Rings come suddenly to life.  Why was Elrond so revered?  For what reason does Gimli speak of Moria in breathless tones?  Where does Gandalf get his power?  Why do the elves and dwarves foster enmity?  Why is the White Tree in Minas Tirith of such significance?  Why is the balrog to be feared?  How did the Numenorian kings of old lose power?  

The Mythopoeic Fantasy of Journey to the West: China’s Monomyth - Part II

(The following is the second part of the essay "The Mythopoeic Fantasy of Journey to the West: China’s Monomyth".  Part I can be found here.)

Campbell, an advocate of Freudian symbolism and Jungian archetypal theory, believed that myth, folktales, legends, and all other manner of lore and tales are the poetics of the imagination, “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” as he states in his treatise on the subject, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (3).  Produced naturally by the psyche, symbols and archetypes reveal themselves in the colors of the culture they are associated with, customs, dance, music, visual arts, and stories included.  Greek mythology remains a unique sub-genre of stories, for example, but if one strikes at their core they will find elements, symbolism, and archetypal patterns common to world mythology.  At this degree of commonality, myth and mythology are thus creative manifestations of humankind’s universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities, and as such “[h]umanity lives in one shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story.”
The constancy of this “one story” cannot be underestimated, according to Campbell, who writes it is “a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.” (Hero 30).  While he extends his argument to elaborate upon seventeen individual steps, the first phase, “separation or departure,” is the severance of the hero from their relative group, or as he states it in more psychological terms: “the retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside.” (30). Taken from their zone of comfort, the individual faces the unknown within themselves.  The second phase, “the trials and victories of initiation,” is the struggles of the hero in their new found predicament and subsequent triumph over the problems encountered: the “clarification” and  “eradication” of difficulties.  Facing the unfamiliar, the individual is thus tested and succeeds in overcoming the difficulties.  The third phase, “the return and reintegration with society,” is the transfigured return of the hero to his respective group and his acceptance by them.  Thus in Jungian terms, the result can be expressed as “individuation,” or the individual’s “break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of […] archetypal images”: the universal human (Hero 17).  Campbell sums up the monomyth with the following:

The Mythopoeic Fantasy of Journey to the West: China’s Monomyth - Part I

With thousands of years of recorded history and a rich and varied literary tradition which draws upon one of the world’s longest evolving written languages, it is no surprise myth and fantasy are integral parts of Chinese literature, past and present.  From this tradition, four works have been chosen as the ‘four greatest novels in Chinese history.’  It is interesting to note that of these epic-length novels, one contains light elements of Daoist fantasy—more mystical than supernatural—while two others use stronger elements: the motifs of super-human ability, pre-cognition, and supernatural connection with nature are present in varying degrees throughout the works.  Relatively unknown to the West, the fourth novel, Journey to the West, is, however, a ‘full blown fantasy of epic proportions’ in the most literal sense of the expression.  Suffuse with elements of animal fantasy, ghost fantasy, magic-adventure fantasy, and the strongest of all, mythopoeic fantasy, it is arguably one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written.
First recorded on paper in the 16th century, there is much confusion as to who the real author is, consensus falling upon Wu Chengen for lack of decisive proof.  Based on the true story of a Chinese monk who was sent by the emperor to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras, Journey to the West is the literary result of generations of street corner historical recollection, legend building, and tale swapping—“a string of stories that developed over many hundreds of years,” sparking the confusion over authorship (Journey 2322).  In a country prizing their street corner raconteurs, artistic license in making each episode more fantastic than the next became the norm, and the story became a “collective creation by professional entertainers” (2332).  Taels of silver traded for dexterity of tongue, it is perhaps no surprise the centuries yielded a story 100 chapters long and more than 2,300 pages (W.J.F. Jenner’s English translation).  Passed on orally in a predominantly illiterate population, it has since enjoyed immense popularity by the educated in written form as well.  Following the influx of Western technology in China’s post-Mao years, a lengthy television series was filmed.  Adhering closely to the book, it has maintained its charm and continues to win the hearts of the Chinese, the series in heavy rotation on several television stations at all times of the year.  There is not a person in China who does not know the name of the main character, Sun Wukong.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Review of "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng’en

One of the four great novels of Chinese classical literature, Journey to the West is also one of the greatest fantasy novels the world has ever known.  The story rooted in real history, promulgated and perfected on street corners, and finally put into written form sometime in the 16th century by Wu Cheng’en, the novel is as much a cultural record of Buddhism’s transition to China as it is a delightful adventure of humorous and imagination proportions impossible to conceive in the West.  There is simply no comparing Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.

Journey to the West is the story of the monk Tang Sanzang, his small band of loyal disciples, and the journey the group takes to Vulture Peak in India to obtain a copy of the holy Buddhist sutras for the Chinese emperor.  This premise is only an umpteenth fraction of the story, however.  Implied in the title, it’s the getting there that’s of utmost importance.  One adventure happening after another, the five “man" band of Sanzang, Sun Wukong, Pig, Friar Sand, and their faithful horse get into scrapes and escapades like no other.