Tag Archives: review

584. The Old Man and the Sea

Back when the Great American Read was happening I promised my own best list. I tried for a long list and settled for fifteen, of which I have presented twelve so far. Looking at that list, I find that only three were written by “classic” authors. Today’s entry is one of them; Stevenson and Dickens were the other two. The other twelve choices just write better than most of those old guys.

I once said that Hemingway is the greatest writer who ever wrote a novel where the hero won a fight, made love to a woman, caught a fish, and died on the final page. I wasn’t referring to Santiago’s fish, but to all the fish his heroes caught in a sporting fashion in nearly every book he ever wrote.

Hemingway was the master of a small set of circumstances, but those did not represent all of the human condition — not even a significant chunk of the human condition. Shakespeare wrote about all of mankind. Hemingway wrote about roughly 1%.

What he wrote was wonderful, if you thought like he did. But it didn’t have much depth or breadth, and it certainly never tackled a situation where there were two ways of looking at something. There was only one way — his way.

I have to be a bit careful here, so you don’t think I’m trashing him. I love to read Hemingway. He is a fine writer, within his limits. He isn’t a great writer. He isn’t even close. His focus is too narrow and his reach is too small. But I still love to read him.

Hemingway won a Nobel prize for literature. If he had won it for The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls, that would bother me, but he won it for his masterpiece, The Old Man and The Sea.

It’s likely that you have read The Old Man and The Sea; most people have. Hemingway’s style was minimalist, which makes him easy to read, so he ends up on a lot of high school required reading lists, and The Old Man and The Sea is his shortest book.

In case you haven’t read it, Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, hasn’t caught a fish in months, but he still goes out every day. We see him first in preparation for another trip, then we spend the day with him. Eventually, he hooks and lands a giant marlin. This amounts to too much success; he can’t get it into his small boat, so he has to lash it alongside. Then he spends painfully long hours bringing it in, while sharks tear it to bits. He reaches shore, with only a small portion remaining. The next day, he will have to go out again.

It doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but that is the point. It isn’t about what he does, but about how he does it.

I think there are two reasons that The Old Man and the Sea worked so well, one minor and one major. The piece is short. It is not a novel by any reasonable reckoning, but a novella. Hemingway is a man with a few ideas which he presents well. The Old Man and the Sea let him say everything useful he had to say, without padding or repeating.

More importantly, Santiago spends most of the book alone. He does not have to be a man before women. He also does not have to be a man before other men. He can simply be a man.

He didn’t have to win a fist fight. He didn’t have to have sex with a woman. (The term “make love” does not really apply to anything Hemingway wrote.) And when he caught the fish, it was a real fish to sell for pesos, not some allegorical event.

He also didn’t cop out by dying on the last page.

Let’s look at a short passage. Santiago is alone at sea in a small boat, so he his talking to himself.

Don’t be silly,” he said aloud. “And keep awake and steer. You may have much luck yet.”

“I’d like to buy some if there’s any place they sell it,” he said.

What could I buy it with? he asked himself. Could I buy it with a lost harpoon and a broken knife and two bad hands?

“You might,” he said. “You tried to buy it with eighty-four days at sea. They nearly sold it to you too.”

The first time I read The Old Man and the Sea, in high school, I missed that passage. That is, I read it, but I read it wrong. I read it like it was something from television.

Let me I tell you what I heard on TV this morning, so that will make sense. The pitch woman for a self-help book said, “You won’t get your dream job right out of college. But if you work, you will get it eventually, when you find the job you were meant for.”

She actually said meant for! This is Christianity turned up a notch, and given a bank loan. It was also, by actual count, the five millionth time I had heard that particular load of crap.

“Everything happens for a reason,” is the pure quill version of this notion. And floating in the air, unsaid but understood, is the implication that the reason will be for your own good. Work hard and you will succeed. If things don’t seem to be going right, it is just life’s way of getting you ready for better things to come.

The Great American Lie.

The flip side of the GAL is that, if you don’t succeed, you weren’t trying hard enough, because “Everything happens for a reason.”

Hemingway knew better. Santiago knew better. He knew that 84 days of trying wouldn’t buy you any luck. When I was in my teens, I read that it did, even though the words on the page were clear enough. When I read Santiago’s statement a few years later, I read it like Hemingway wrote it. I had learned a few things by then.

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581. The Traveler in Black

(The traveler in black) has many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding on ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.

John Brunner was a successful and popular author of science fiction and fantasy, but he is rarely mentioned in the same breath with Clarke or Asimov. He has fifty-nine books listed inside the cover of my copy of Traveler, and he won a Hugo for Stand on Zanzibar, but he never quite made it to the top rung of the ladder. I have a theory about that.

The blurb-quoted reviews on the back cover of my Traveler praise Brunner for his competence. Competence may get you to the party, but it doesn’t make the fans gather ’round you once you are there; and that isn’t completely fair either, since he once wrote a book that was as good as any in science fiction or fantasy. The Traveler in Black was his Old Man and the Sea.

My theory is that, like Clarke, Brunner was an idea man. His characters have just enough blood in their veins to carry the ideas, and not one drop more. Zanzibar is a prime example; all the characters in that novel were cyphers. It was a big book about big ideas, populated by little tiny people.

Traveler avoids the curse of dull character by the oddest of twists; the traveler has no character at all. His character is to not have character. And it works.

The traveler moves through a world of chaos, having no will and no agenda, and changes everything. He is cursed-blessed-given-created to answer wishes in the exact words they were asked.

It’s like a wishing well with a mean streak, but there is no mean streak in the traveler. He sadly shakes his head and does what he was created to do — gives people exactly what they ask for. And since people aren’t too bright, they don’t see the consequences that will attend their wishes. They almost always get what they really didn’t want. Many do not survive their wish fulfillment, and no one survives unscathed.

As you may guess, this uses up a lot of lesser characters. These are précis people; sketched out in a few words and gobbled up by the march of change. Only the traveler survives.

This sounds a bit like a Mad magazine view of history, but Brunner pulls it off through the non-personality of the traveler. He has no backstory. He has no motivations, only the geas to grant wishes. He is slowly carving reason out of chaos by letting chaos devour itself. There is a tremendous cost in human suffering, and the traveler witnesses it all, unable to warn or advise, compelled to grant whatever wish he encounters, whatever the cost to the wisher.

We don’t hear him think about this. He does not converse, although he is often the object of conversations. We only know his inner feeling by a shake of the head, a hesitation to speak, and the slow pace of his progress through the world. That this is one sad and weary entity is only acknowledged in passing. It is all a game of subtlety, conveyed by the stately beauty of the language in which it is written.

Traveler is a fix up novel of individual stories previously published in SF magazines, and stitched together by the traveler himself. It comes in two versions. The one I read first, many years ago, was called The Traveler in Black. Its cover is pictured here. The cover pictured at the top of the post is a later version with one more story called, of course, The Compleat Traveler in Black.

The odd spelling is a literary reference. I won’t elucidate. I’ll just let you feel superior if you recognize it.

580. Pavane

During the Golden Age, most science fiction was in the form of short stories, published in science fiction magazines. When paperbacks became popular, there was a need for novels, mostly short by modern standards. Authors and editors mined the SF magazines for interrelated short stories that could be linked together and somewhat rewritten to appear as if they were novels. They became known as fix-up novels. The next three on my best list are all fix-up novels: Pavane today, The Road to Corlay (set for April 17, but these things sometimes change), and The Traveler in Black this Wednesday.

Pavane by Keith Roberts (publication date 1968) is not to everybody’s taste, but is one of my all time favorites. It is an alternate universe novel, set in the twentieth century in a world where the Catholic Church has maintained its power. The universe-changing event was the assassination of Queen Elizabeth the First, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish Armada.

Of course, the people of Pavane don’t know that they are an alternate. Their world is simply the world. Other than a brief introduction, the novel is written from that perspective. Things are explained, as they must be in any novel, but only enough that someone in the world of Pavane would understand.

(If I wrote a story about a blacksmith, I would explain enough that a college student could understand, not enough for an alien from Alpha Centauri to understand.)

This makes Pavane a bit challenging, but Roberts does his job well. The challenge is slight, and the reward is an abundance of ambiance.

Pavane takes place in a cold, hard world, and the characters fit their situations. Jesse Strange, in the first story The Lady Margaret is so dedicated to the family business (haulage by steam road waggons) that he passes up love and ignores friendship. Rafe, the student signaler, is engaging, but doomed. The story of the artist Brother John is positively grim.

All this sounds like I’m saying, “Don’t read this book,” but in fact I give it my highest recommendation. You will be forced to confront this alternate culture by digging deep into what makes it work, and any time one has to learn another way of thinking from the inside, the mind and the heart are enriched.

The ending called Coda is a disappointment. Roberts gets up on his soap box for a brief but embarrassing moment to try to justify his culture. Cultures don’t need justification; they just are. And every one of them, including yours and mine, is a mixture of joy and horror.

Probably the most notable part of the novel is the sheer beauty of the writing. At least, that is my take. I have found beauty of writing to be extremely subjective, but Pavane hits the sweet spot for me. I invite you to see if it hits yours.

One thing for sure. Thirty pages in, you will already know if you love it or hate it.

Pavane is available used or e-book from Amazon, or if you are lucky at your local used book store.

579. Guilt

How many times have you seen it: the massive city, the grinding machinery of the state, the downtrodden under the wheels of the machine — it’s a classic dystopia. One man (or, rarely, woman) fights back, foments a rebellion, and it all comes crashing down, ushering in a new day.

End of movie or novel.

Well, maybe . . .

It seems to me that this trope has been overused. I have no real argument with all those stories that end with the destruction of a dystopia, but I was looking for something a bit more subtle in Like Clockwork. There is something resembling a downfall (you’ll get no spoilers here) but it doesn’t come at the end, and those who bring it about have to face the reality of what they have done. Here’s a taste.

(Hemmings) laid his head on his crossed arms. His heart hurt.

Life may be nasty, brutish, and short. Life may be eternal in the lap of Jesus. Or life maybe a recurring year, extended far too long, but it is still life. And Hemmings had taken the lives of men who had done him no wrong.

He had not known the others who had died, but he clearly remembered the guard at the waggon door. He grieved for him.

I know exactly where this scene originated.

I was a young teen. I had recently discovered the local public library and my hundredth-or-so book was Underwater Adventure by Willard Price. Overall, it was a good book, although no better or worse that the average I was reading at the time. However, one scene knocked me out.

The villain, posing as a friend, went for a dive with the mentor. The two brothers who were the heroes of the book were elsewhere. The villain contrived to have the mentor trapped underwater, and left him there to drown.

Two things about this affected me. First, the mentor did not make a brilliant and heroic escape. He actually did drown. Second, the villain — who was pretty scummy and eventually came to a well deserved bad end — came up out of the water full of remorse. Not enough remorse to go back and save the mentor, but enough to be shaken.

The scene was told from the villain’s perspective. In that moment, I identified with him far more than I had identified with the cardboard heroes. Through him, I came to an understanding of how it would feel to take the life of a good man. It was something worth knowing, and something a bit more real than most of what I was reading at the time.

So here I am, decades later. I have a debt to Willard Price for that moment of clarity, and I’m paying it forward.

575. Textbook: The Rolling Stones

This is a continuation of the post Learning Spaceflight.

For someone reading this post today, it will require a bit of imagination to recreate the head space I’m talking about. Think 1952. Sub-divisions and interstate highways were brand new. NASA was still three years in the future. Heinlein wrote a science fiction juvenile called The Rolling Stones in the year Mick Jagger was still twelve years old.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was five years old that year, so I must have read it six or seven years after publication.

In those days, those of us who were in love with the idea of spaceflight were getting our fix from science fiction, and mostly from juveniles. PBS was seventeen years in the future, and NOVA was twenty-two years in the future.

I recently re-read The Rolling Stones. It was never my favorite novel. I would give it one star for plot and no stars for its obnoxious characters.

The Stone family lived on the moon. The slightly underaged twins wanted to buy a spaceship and flit around the system on their own, using money they had made from an invention. Dad said, “No,” but never fear. He bought a larger ship and took his whole family along, first to Mars, then to the asteroid belt.

If my tone sounds facetious, chalk it up to how irritating all the characters were, but as a textbook on how to fly in space, The Rolling Stones was top notch.

Here is an example. Leaving Luna for Mars, the Stones opt for the most economic orbit. This puts them in a long line of craft who have made the same decision. They fuel up on Luna then drop down to pass close to the Earth because . . .

A gravity-well maneuver involves what appears to be a contradiction in the law of conservation of energy. A ship leaving the Moon or a space station for some distant planet can go faster on less fuel by dropping first toward Earth, then performing her principal acceleration while as close to Earth as possible. To be sure, a ship gains kinetic energy (speed) in falling towards Earth, but one would expect that she would lose exactly the same amount of kinetic energy as she coasted away from Earth . . .

The mass of fuel adds to the energy as they drop deeper into the Earth’s gravity well, but the fuel is expended at perigee so it does not subtract from the energy as they move away. I’m interrupting RAH and explaining it myself because he took too many paragraphs, but that’s where I learned about gravity well maneuvers. By the time I got to college my main interest was ecology and then anthropology, so I never studied engineering or orbital mechanics. I still wish I could have done both but, in truth, most of my knowledge of space travel came from Heinlein, Clarke, Ley, and Goodwin, with lesser lessons from Gamow, Coombs, Hoyle and dozens whose names I no longer remember.

Later on, the Stones headed out for the asteroid belt. They . . .

shaped orbit from Phobos outward bound for the Asteroids six weeks later. This was no easy lift like the one from Luna to Mars; in choosing to take a ‘cometary’ or fast orbit . . . the Stones had perforce to accept an expensive change-of-motion of twelve and a half miles per second for the departure maneuver. A fast orbit differs from a maximum-economy orbit in that it cuts the orbit being abandoned at an angle instead of being smoothly tangent to it… much more expensive in reaction mass.

Of course. That makes perfect sense.

I watched the first part of a NOVA program the other day called The Rise of the Rockets. I turned it off about ten minutes in muttering kinderspiel. At least that’s the word I’m choosing to use in this family site. That happens a lot. NOVA covers fascinating subjects, but they tend to dumb them down. The old dudes did it better, even in their fiction.

However, they didn’t always get it right. Regarding the asteroid belt, RAH said . . .

But it was not until the first men in the early days of the exploration of space actually went out to the lonely reaches between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and looked that we learned for certain that the Asteroids were indeed fragments of a greater planet — destroyed Lucifer, long dead brother of Earth.

Back in the fifties when The Rolling Stones was written astronomers had not yet decided if the asteroids were an exploded planet or an unformed one, caught in the tidal stresses of Jupiter’s gravity. RAH chose the more exciting option. Today we know better. Too bad. I always wanted to write a novel called The Last Days of Lucifer. I guess I still could, as steampunk.

In the fifties, we knew little about the universe and not all that much about the solar system. A lot of what RAH and others wrote has been killed by current knowledge. He had a non-human civilization with canals on Mars and intelligent talking dragons in the swamps of Venus. But he knew his math, and his rockets always got where they were going by following the rules of physics that NASA uses today.

567. Bridges of Longing

Every time I print some poetry, my own or favorites from other writers, my readership spikes. It’s got to be the tag POETRY that does it.

The problem is that I don’t like 99.9 percent of the poetry I read today. My rule is: if you can rewrite a poem without line breaks, and that turns it into the first couple of sentences in an unfinished short story, then it isn’t a poem. Almost everything I read nowadays fails that test.

I’m not talking about rhyme. Check out Spoon River Anthology or anything by Yeats or Frost to see the flip side of what I’m complaining about.

When I do find exciting work by a contemporary author, it knocks me out. Example: Marsheila Rockwell.

I met Marsheila at Westercon in 2017 at a reading. She and another author, a couple of author’s friends, and I sat down in a conference room that would have held fifty. I was the only stranger in the room.

Westercon 70 was odd that way. It was very much a home town version of a regional conference. The Cosplay and Filk venues were packed, but the book signings and author’s readings were almost (sometimes completely) empty.

Her stories were fine and her poetry was excellent. I bought her collection Bridges of Longing and there wasn’t a poem in it that wasn’t wonderful. There were some I didn’t like, primarily in the section Those Who Wait, but it was only because they were harsh to the point of hopelessness. It wasn’t because they weren’t true. The same was true of some of her stories. They were superb, whether they matched my taste or not.

You see, Marsheila and her sig-other and writing partner primarily operate in the fields of horror, dark fantasy, and D & D, all places I have no interest in going. I would certainly never have found her except that fate steered me into that reading.

Her poetry, on the other hand, is humane and feminist, and always with a hard edge. It sounds like real life, even when it is supposedly about goddesses and harshly treated mermaids. She is the best new poet I have encountered in many years, even if her novels aren’t in my wheelhouse.

I would say, buy Bridges of Longing. The poems alone are worth the cost many times over, and if you have any liking for fantasy, you will enjoy the stories as well.

You might also check out her website http://marsheilarockwell.com/ .

562. Davy

This is one of my best stories series.

I re-read. It is my equivalent of brainless television. There are books that I frequently re-inhabit in order to once again enjoy the people, scenery, and action.

There are also books I read only once, and never need to read again. They become such a part of me that I still remember them decades later.

Edgar Pangborn provided two such books, Davy and The Trial of Calista Blake. I read each of them only once, between 1964 and 1967. I have never forgotten them, nor have I ever wanted to return to them. They were life changing, if read at the right age.

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I grew up in an era of fear. The bomb hung over us all, and fiction followed the trends of the day. Speaking from memory, not scholarship, it seems to me that it was the end of the exclusivity of science fiction. Events that would have once interested only the few and the faithful, were turning up on the best seller list. Books like Fail-Safe and On the Beach were called science fiction, and I suppose technically, they were. But they didn’t taste like science fiction because they were written by mainstream writers with different sensibilities. That may not be a legitimate complaint, but in truth they tasted like steak with no salt.

The flip side of the here-comes-the-bomb novels was an endless cavalcade of post-holocaust dystopias. The first book I read, the first day I discovered libraries, Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton, was one of those. There were dozens to follow; maybe hundreds. They mostly ran together in a mass of future sadness, but a few were memorable.

Davy stood out because it’s horny orphan protagonist got such joy out of life. He found a French horn in the rubble and taught himself to play it, which always made the book seem more like fantasy than science fiction. If you know French horns, you’ll understand.

We spend much of the book watching Davy go from ignorance to knowledge. The cover of the edition I read compares him to Tom Jones (the novel, not the singer) and that seems fair.

Davy’s world is the northeastern United States, a couple of centuries after the nukes fell. The names are scrambled but mostly decipherable. The state religion is the Holy Murican Church and belief is not optional. Davy falls in with anti-religious dissidents, which suits his doubter’s personality.

The novel is carried by Davy as a questioning, ebullient youth, but saved from silliness by a brooding feeling that all will not be roses. The story arc makes everything work. We see young Davy growing up as told by his older self, but we are spared the works of his maturity. There will be striving, battle, despair, and betrayal when the mature Davy attempts to mold the world to his liking, only to have it fall apart in his hands. That is the part of the story another novelist would have concentrated on, but we see it only in brief flashes. Then we are at the final chapter, a kind of coda in which Davy totals up his gains and losses and prepares for a final, hopeless journey.

What we have here is the joy of youth, overlain by the elegiac sadness of hopeless struggle against human inadequacy. Heinlein could have written it, but it would have had little heart because his protagonist would have stood above the fray, superior to the mass of humanity. Davy partook of the same human conditions that he fought against. Just like the rest of us. That made Davy stand out as something better that the rest of the dystopias. It made the novel a work of art to move the soul — at least if you read it at sixteen, while waiting for the bomb to fall.