Monday 20 September 2021

Moby Fucking Dick; or, The Wail

1632139090828-795524e8-fc22-406a-b65a-e81ff4563c43_ MFD has a lofty place in the annals of books that no-one reads; and having now read it, I can see that is entirely justified. And lest you think I just don't like long books I reply oh no indeed: I rather liked Anathem and LOTR and even Proust. The problem with MFD is the lack of a plot. You might reply "but what could be more exciting than a whaling yarn" and the answer to that is that very little of the book is plot; most of it is regurgitated facts about whaling and other matters, doubtless all "fascinating" in some abstract sense but actually not very fascinating. Wiki offers A contribution to the literature of the American Renaissance, Moby-Dick was published to mixed reviews, was a commercial failure, and was out of print at the time of the author's death in 1891. Its reputation as a "Great American Novel" was established only in the 20th century, after the centennial of its author's birth. William Faulkner said he wished he had written the book himself, and D. H. Lawrence called it "one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world" and "the greatest book of the sea ever written". That last seems implausible in the face of Conrad. "Call me Ishmael" is good, though.

I feel - but do not have the literary resources to prove - that it might resemble the (flaws in) medaeival literature that Lewis acknowledges: the dullness from padding. And so much of the "detail" does appear to be padding. I also disliked the "voice" of the padding, for which I'll have to give you an example: No good blood in their veins? They have something better than royal blood there. The grandmother of Benjamin Franklin was Mary Morrel; afterwards, by marriage, Mary Folger, one of the old settlers of Nantucket, and the ancestress to a long line of Folgers and harpooneers-all kith and kin to noble Benjamin-this day darting the barbed iron from one side of the world to the other. And so on.

You're also wondering where on Earth the weird name "Moby Dick" came from, and the answer is Mocha Dick.

There's also a problem of sympathy: doubtless when written whalers were providing a useful service viz whale oil, but I cannot understand their total lack of sympathy for their prey, which - unless I've forgotten, and recall that I started this book many years ago in Mallorca - is not explored in the book, perhaps because the very concept was absent in 1850. I do recall that in one of the POBs Maturin asks a whaleman "do you not feel anything on taking so hugeous a life?" and the answer is a stolid no, and that's it. But that then rather upsets the excitement of the Quest; the book presents Ahab as on some semi-justified quest or perhaps a war against an adversary, the whale; but of course the whale is just hoping Ahab will fuck off and leave him in peace1.


1. I know, it isn't really like that, but you see the problem I hope.


* Blue Whale Penis.

Tuesday 14 September 2021

Book review: Till we have faces

1631639421756-6063abb3-9d9d-4a12-8282-db5845c88ca2 Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is a 1956 novel by C. S. Lewis. It is a retelling of Cupid and Psyche, based on its telling in a chapter of The Golden Ass of Apuleius, says wiki. It is set in an imaginary city-state of Glome not too far from the Greeklands; Aphrodite is known as Ungit.

Wiki further says Lewis considered this novel to be his best and most accomplished work but I consider that odd. The book is... not very interesting, I think I would say. Not dull; well written;  but most of the "interest" is the torment of the central character's relationship to the Gods; which isn't an interest of mine. But was of Lewis's, I believe.

What to say... certain bits are certainly well done. The King has absolute authority to geld a young trouble maker; but must give way before the weight of the local priest and populace when they decide his daughter must be sacrificed. The locals, at least the better-informed ones, are aware that they are on the fringes of the Greeklands... but no I've said that wrong. They aren't "on the fringes" because the Greeklands aren't central. But they know that books come from there, and to some extent culture, that they don't want. The disparity in thinking between the Greeks, who have Philosophy, and the locals, who are rather more earthy. We are drawn to consider the Greek way better; and then at the end, told (somewhat crudely, from the mouth of the dead Greek himself) that it isn't so. That... True Religion is the important part.

The title makes sense at the end: nothing to do, as I half-guessed at the beginning, with female subjection. Instead, it is that we can't meet the gods face-to-face "until we have faces": which is to say, until we can see things truely, without masks. But this conclusion depends on the Gods existing; and they don't.

Book review: The Hobbit

1631562608953-1b091fc9-1456-4986-9d6f-30fd05a6da2b I find it hard to believe that I haven't reviewed this already... I've read it a few times. But perhaps not recently? Except I found we had a hardback copy, in addition to the paperback I've had forever. I think the hardback came from Mfd; anyway, I re-read it. It is still good; far better than almost anything new, naturally.

[Note to self: re-read, New Year 2022/3]

But what to actually say about it? When you know that LOTR is coming along as a sequel, you can see that some things don't quite fit, although Tolkein does a remarkably good job of hiding the joins (wiki says that the second edition makes some mods to fit in with LOTR; I think this copy is second edition, fifteenth impression, 1965). I'm thinking of things like the character of Gandalf. Or of the forest elves... is that fair? I'm not sure. There's trivia, like trolls turning to stone in daylight, whereas in LOTR they just don't like light.

Nitpicking: the "secret door", as described, wasn't a very useful door. You could presumably get out of it at any time, but a door that you can only get into once in a Durin's day is rather limited. It is never clear how tech like this was created, either. In most ways the dwarves seem to be on a medieval level, with swords and bows, but with odd bits of magic - invisible doors, swords enchanted to glow - that come from nowhere.

The story is good, and well told. I could relate it, but there's little point. The pictures are lovely. The frontispiece is the map, which is useful.


Here are the trolls, in the wood, with their fire. He really is very good at some things, like smoke; not so good at figures. And indeed the "roast mutton" scene, while cute, is not how trolls would behave in LOTR (in TH, trolls are comedy lower-class English workmen). But The Hobbit is a gentler book; it could be considered what would happen if you had to re-work LOTR-like events into a form suitable for children. Perhaps someone should try re-writing it as it would have been told to adults.

And the backispiece:



* When C.S. Lewis Reviewed His Buddy’s Book… The Hobbit.

Thursday 9 September 2021

Book review: Wherever Seeds May Fall

By Peter Cawdron. Amazon flung this at me as part of Prime on Kindle, so I experimented with reading it. And I will admit I found the first 80-90% of it very good, in a page-turning sort of way, though the prose is not sparkling. Goodreads slobbers all over it, with some exceptions, but I maintain that this is in a long tradition of books where the build up is good, but when the author has to finally deliver on what-the-aliens-actually-are, lacks the imagination to so deliver; see-also Rendezvous with Rama. Unfortunately in this case in his desperation to deliver an ending, our author completely contradicts his earlier pages.

So (spoilers ahead...) all is well until the Giant Alien Spaceship turns up at the Lagrange point and Our Heroes attempt contact. When I say "well", I mean "well with the book"; lots of people have died of course. And in fact I don't quite mean that, because during the flyby somehow the ionisation trail of the GAS has somehow taken out all the world's nukes. This is not, as the characters themselves realise, plausible. Also (as the author later admits, when he allows himself a rebuilt nuke to take  out the GAS) the mode of removal would have allowed them to be rebuild really very quickly. And even... it just isn't needed for the plot (though it would have fitted with the non-insane ending we didn't get).

During contact, Our Heroes realise - really rather belatedly - that the ship can't have come from Taurus as it would have taken far far too long. Where is does come from is never decided. They then realise that it is in some sense quasi-organic, although how such a thing could be strong enough to survive the various megatonne fly-throughs is not discussed. Then the alien briefly appears, almost comically all fangs and stuff. I really genuinely at that point thought it would turn out to be some sort of projection tuned to human desires and fears but no: our author has for weird reasons decided to throw in a Scary Alien which Wanted to Eat The World. Then they blow it up and live happily ever after. But! There's a problem: the GAS has gone from directed-by-intelligence to just-instinctive (the SAWWTETW is not intelligent, I think because the author can't bear to think that intelligence would be hostile) and so there is no possibility of it having done the flyby targetting so accurately. This, too, is not discussed. It is also totally unclear where it got its initial velocity from.

What's odd also is the way Our Heroes - well, mostly the Token Female Scientist - go from complete certainty that the GAS is non-hostile to total certainty that it is hostile, with no real evidence for either position. They see a thing with teeth that eats their probe (which pulls in the Orion capsule; I had wondered why the probe needed to be on a tether, the reasons given were not plausible, and the answer turns out to be "so that the probe's tether could pull in the Orion and cause serious but not fatal damage") and instantlly switch to total hostility, without even a token "well it would be a shame to just nuke this interesting new life form, couldn't we at least try to take some pix first?" which any genuine Sci would have said).

My best theory to explain this is that the author has inexplicably mashed together two different books, one a start and one an end, that he happened to have lying around.