Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Servants of the Map

I started reading seriously about forty years ago, staring with Tom Swift, Jr. books and progressing from there. After four decades of reading, I am pleased that at times I can still get very excited about new discoveries. Sometimes it’s new authors, other times specific books. A half-dozen years ago I was very excited at reading Andrea Barrett’s first collection Ship Fever, followed by her novel Voyage of the Narwhal. Needless, to say I was very excited at the publication recently of her second collection Servants of the Map. The danger, of course, is that sometimes when one’s expectation are too high, so the book cannot possibly achieve those expectations, and what would otherwise be an enjoyable experience turns disappointing. So I tried to temper my enthusiasm as I started the book.

The best praise I can give Servants of the Map is that it compares favorably with Ship Fever. As were Barrett’s recent two books, it is primarily concerned with scientists’ passion for their work. It is not the science aspect which appeals to me so much, but the passion. I am equally-enamored with works about artists and writers who approach their fields with passion rather than merely as uninvolved workers.

“Servants of the Map” is an award-winning novella about an English map-maker who in the mid-19th century leaves his family for nearly two years to help research maps in central Asia, particularly in the foothills of the Himalayas. Most of the story consists of a series of letters written by the protagonist to his newlywed wife in England. At the story’s outset his love and yearning for her are so powerful that nothing else seems to matter to him (which made me wonder why he ever undertook the journey at such a point in his life, but I shrugged that off as dramatic license). As the story progressed though, his love for his work and for the exotic lands he is visiting grows so strong that we can see his feelings for his family fading into the background. This is a strong story, both exotic and well-written, but it is not the best story in the book.

“The Forest” is much stronger. A long novelette, it takes place in a single night during which a distinguished but aging Polish scientist reaches England where he is immediately thrust into a party of fellow scientists. At the party we see both the competitive attitude of scientists towards each other as well as the attitude of people towards old age. This is a very powerful story indeed.

Both “Two Rivers” and “The Mysteries of Ubiquitin” are love stories about scientists, in which the science serves as facets of the characters’ lives rather than the raison d’etre of the stories themselves. In the former, Caleb is the son of a headmaster of a private school in the early 19th century. His father teaches science from a strict biblical point of view, while Caleb offers more modern views. Meanwhile Caleb falls in love with the younger Miriam who teaches her deaf sister and a few other youngsters, ultimately leading Caleb to convert his own school–after the death of his father–into a school for the deaf.

“Mysteries” describes how the childhood crush of an eight year old with a thirty-year old family friend evolves twenty years later into a fullblown love affair when she has become a star in the scientific world but he is struggling to find funding in the unpopular field of entomology. The story is a good view of finally getting what one has wished for so long and realizing exactly what one has.

The finest story in the book is the long novella “The Cure”, which is a sequel to “Ship Fever,” the finest story in her previous collection. The original story told about an Irish immigrant named Nora and her younger brothers who were separated at Grosse Island since she was deathly sick and they were healthy, and the Canadian authorities were sending the healthy to new homes while caring for the sick. Nora survived and began searching for her brothers.

In “The Cure” Nora eventually locates her brother Ned running a boarding house in a rural community in an Adirondack region which is developing a reputation as a healthy region for people with consumption (tuberculosis). The story tells of their life together, how Nora cares for the invalids in the area, how her son Michael becomes Ned’s apprentice, and how Nora takes as apprentice the daughter of the protagonist of “Servants of the Map”. It is a warm, thoughtful story, whose foundation is not science so much as rural life.

While overall Servants of the Map is not as good as Ship Fever or Voyage of the Narwhal, it will not disappoint Barrett’s fans. If you’ve read any of her other books, you’ll likely enjoy this one. But if you have never read her before, I recommend you begin with one of the other two before reading this book.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Deep Time

I first stumbled across Greg Benford's Deep Time when I went online a few years ago and saw CNN advertising their review of Greg Benford's new nonfiction book. The review was quite enticing because it indicated that Deep Time is a thought-provoking, sense of wonder book. Since I have always enjoyed Greg’s fiction, I bought the book and read it very quickly. In brief, Deep Time is indeed both thought-provoking and wondrous, and I recommend it highly.

But I guess you want to know a bit more about it than that, huh?

The first section is actually the Introduction which discusses mankind's innate urge to send messages into the future announcing his presence and his achievements: Stonehenge, The Great Wall of China, the Sphinx, etc. Modern civilization offers us the capability of sending even more spectacular messages, such as the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. But we've also taken to sending much smaller messages that lie buried for decades or centuries until their intended time of arrival: time capsules.

This sequés into Part One: Ten Thousand Years of Solitude which is concerned with a specific message that Benford was part of sending into the future: how do we warn future civilizations away from the buried nuclear waste that contemporary civilization has buried beneath the soil in such semi-desolate places as New Mexico? The U.S. government formed a committee of scientists to devise such a message, and Benford very carefully describes the discussions which the committee held and explains much of their reasoning. Such as what guarantee is there that future civilizations will understand any 20th century languages? (If history is any indication, and if the messages remain extant for two millenia, the answer to that question is probably no chance at all) What symbols should have universal resonance two millenia down the line? (This brings back the spectre of Stonehenge which might itself have been a deliberate message left to future generations by its builders, but whose message has been totally lost over the changing centuries) And how should the message be built? Most of the physical ideas discussed were rejected because of the temporal nature of the materials and their liability to falling prey to everything from acts of nature to forms of human destruction (such as warfare which has a nasty habit of popping up with disgusting regularity).

This was a very interesting chapter indeed, not to mention scary when you consider just what type of legacy 20th century humans are leaving buried beneath the soil for future generations.

Part Two: Vaults in Vacuum was not so dire, but equally fascinating. Benford was part of another committee-the man surely does keep busy!-related to the U.S. government's SETI program. This time he was one of a small group of scientists designing a message to be placed in a spacecraft intended to introduce humanity to distant aliens who might discover it. These restraints were considerably different than those involved in the nuclear waste message. Obviously no language message was possible, so other forms must suffice. Pictures? Mathematics? Audio messages, specifically music? As in the previous chapter, he describes the discussions among the committee members, as well as all the considerations which were not scientific at all. Costs factors. Space considerations in the spacecraft itself. Public relations concerns, some as a result of the public relations problems which accompanied the message placed in Voyager several decades earlier. These included political correctness concerns: pictures were rejected showing men bigger than women or not including sufficient numbers of minorities. And, most frustrating of all, political concerns, particularly the ego of the scientist spearheading the committee who sought to sabotage the work of the other committee members for the sake of her own personal aggrandizement.

These first three sections were the most fascinating parts of the book, perhaps because of their concern with interplay among scientists with common goals but considerable different means toward achieving them. Much of this was very frightening, especially Ten Thousand Years of Solitude, which left me with the creeping feeling that, considering the narrowmindedness which often dominated the prior two sections of the book, all the fears Benford discussed will indeed come true, and all his hopes seem like so much wistful thinking.

Part Three: The Library of Life is concerned with biodiversity and how humans are the only species ever whose existence has been responsible for the destruction of so many other species. Benford discusses in situ methods for saving species-specifically zoos and preserves, although maintaining natural locales for certain species is a more desirable, if less likely, option. Benford wisely decides it is not succeeding fast enough to save most currently endangered species, if it is succeeding at all. So he proposes an ex situ method: collecting DNA from as many plant and animal species as possible and saving it in "libraries" whose contents should overlap for the sake of safety through redundancy.

As in the previous sections, Benford discusses the pros and cons of his plan. Again they include cost factors, space factors, reliability of various storage techniques, and the need for maintaining the libraries after the generation which designs them passes on. He also comes up against scientists who disapprove of his plan for various reasons, some practical, some pigheaded, but Benford pushes onward, because this chapter is not a discussion of a past series of events, but a proposal that he feels very strongly about. I am no more a biologist than I am a physicist, so I had to accept much of what Benford said on trust alone, but his arguments certainly seemed convincing to this layman.

Part Four: Stewards of the Earth is even scarier, since in it Benford discusses global warming, its causes, its progress, and its likely effects. Briefly he discusses some of the opposition to global warming fears, mostly generated by energy companies which, in his words, launched a tobacco industry style disinformation campaign against the global warming findings. And the media is a culprit too since they are vulnerable to the binary model of disagreement, so that the skeptic position of warming gets equal exposure, despite being a tiny minority of the scientists working in the area. This does not mean they are wrong, but it does reveal a sobering truth: a small propaganda investment by the oil and coal lobby has bought them decades of delay.

But this is not exclusively a scare session, since Benford also has proposed solutions, although this time they are not necessarily his creation, but methods that seem to have been proposed by other scientists and, in some cases, even tested. Global warming is caused primarily by high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, and there are several known ways of countering that increased level. They fall under the title of geoengineering, which is a fancy word which basically means altering the earth somehow. And what's the best way to lower CO2 levels? Plant more trees? Or perhaps seed the ocean with iron filings which causes plankton to grow, which has a side effect of increasing fish levels in the oceans, which Benford describes as a positive side effect.

Or perhaps scientists should bypass the CO2 itself and go right to the source by reflecting some of the solar rays which the increased CO2 absorbs. This can be done by several methods, including seeding the upper atmosphere with microscopic droplets of sulphuric acid, either by shooting it there via big naval guns which fired straight up can put a one-ton shell twenty kilometers high, where it would explode and spread the dust. Another possibility is that changing the fuel mixture in a jet engine to burn rich can leave a ribbon of fog behind for up to three months.

As in The Library of Life, Benford includes cost estimates for each of his proposals and, quite frankly, some of them seem amazingly logical to a non-scientist like me. Perhaps I would see more of a disadvantage in them if I were more politician and less idealist.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


It is highly unusual for me to write a conreport, since I have attended three conventions total in the past 24 years. But this year Lunacon, the regional convention sponsored by the New York City based fan group the Lunarians, was held at the Sheraton Hotel in the Meadowlands, which is less than an hour away from me. I got email from fellow FAPAn Peggy Rae Sapienza several months ago encouraging me to attend it, so I decided I would give it a try. But only for a single day, since I cannot afford to give up an entire weekend of schoolwork.

I arrived at the hotel about 10:00 in the morning. I immediately went to the Dealers’ Room to browse the f&sf books, which is always one of my favorite parts of a convention. They had Sean Stewart’s acclaimed new novel Perfect Circle, which was published by Small Beer Press instead of a major publisher. So I bought it.

I attended 5 panel discussions, which were all moderately interesting: Guest of Honor Michael Swanwick was on a panel comparing how writers, sculptors, musicians, and costumers tell the same story different ways; F&SF editor Gordon Van Geldor was on two panels, one about the decline of the prozines (which everybody blames on the collapse of the magazine distribution companies in recent decades), and the other about what editors are looking for; another panel was about alternate history and historical fantasy.

The fifth panel was a discussion of contemporary fanzines, but only three people showed up. One of them was panelist John Hertz who is on my mailing list and was incredibly friendly and chatty, so he, Ed Meskys and I discussed fanzines for an hour. That was the highlight of the convention for me, since I rarely get to discuss any of my sfnal-related interests with anybody, nor do I meet members of my mailing list very often. It was worth attending Lunacon just for the time I spent with John and Ed.

So overall, it was a good day, and I hope to go back again next year since it will be in the Meadowlands again. The only disappointing part was I never found Peggy Rae anywhere, but at least that gives me something to look forward to doing next year.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Story of the Stone

There are four highly-acclaimed Chinese novels which all students of Chinese literature should read, all of them huge, multi-volume epics. Both Journey to the West (reviewed 9/23/04) and Outlaws of the Marsh (rev. 10/21/04) were excellent, the former a fantastic quest adventure, the latter a satirical look at justice in medieval China. Each was approximately 1500 pages, and it took me the entire summer of 1996 to read them both.

The next of the four classics is the 2200 page Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin. One description called the novel the Chinese novel of manners. In some ways that is a somewhat deceptive description, but in others it is quite appropriate. Another good description might be the Chinese Upstairs-Downstairs, since basically it is the saga of one household in 18th century China. But what a complex household it is! Hundreds of people reside in the twin Rong-guo and Ning-guo mansions. A small minority of them are family members. The others, over 500 strong, are servants!

The head of the family is Grandmother Jia, an 80 year old matron and absolute authority in the household. She has two sons Jia She and Jia Zheng and a daughter Jia Min, each of whom has spouses and children, as well as various cousins and in-laws, concubines, and hangers-on. Each member of the family has their own personal staff, headed by a chief maid who rules over a strict pecking order of lesser servants in each family member's retinue.

Even in 2200 pages it is impossible to deal with the entire family and staff thoroughly, so that 95% of the people in the household are barely mentioned in passing, if at all. Another 4% have their single moments in the sun, specific scenes in which they play important parts. Or people such as chief household steward Lai Da who reoccurs periodically and is obviously an important part of the household, but he never becomes an important part of the novel.

And then there are the remaining people upon whom the novel focuses most closely. Gradually they become living, breathing people that we learn to know very well and, at times, very intimately indeed. As is true in any successful saga, we come to love some of them deeply, resent others just as deeply, and have a myriad of mixed emotions towards the others, not necessarily the same emotions for each person by each reader.

The main character is Jia Bao-yu. At the novel's start, he is a young teenager, very personable, particularly close to the females, both family members and servants. He is also quite caring so that many of his crises through the novel are caused by his emotional reaction to the setbacks of others.

Bao-yu is also very loathe to partake of his studies, which frequently becomes a major point of contention between him and his father Jia Zheng. However, Bao-yu is the personal favorite grandchild of Grandmother Jia, which gives him advantages in his playfulness and slothful study habits.

Lin Dai-yu is the love of Bao-yu's life. She is his cousin, and his playmate while growing up, but rather than develop deep fraternal feelings towards each other, they are hopelessly in love at the novel's start and remain so throughout it. Dai-yu's nickname among the other youth in the household is Frowner, which aptly describes her personality. She is deeply insecure, always anticipating the worst, and frequently reacting badly to the most minor problems. At times her physical reaction to some emotional setback is so deep she lies on the verge of death while other family members desperately try to determine what physical ailment has struck her.

Of course, in any great romance there must be a triangle, so here we have Xue Bao-Chai, another cousin who has a deep, although hidden, crush on Bao-yu. Her true personality is a point of contention between Fei Fei and myself, so rather than take sides here I will only say that she is one of the more intriguing of the younger generation in the family.

Another member of the younger generation, although somewhat older and more established in the family hierarchy, is Wang Xi-feng. She basically runs the household in Grandmother Jia's stead, making all important decisions concerning personnel and finances. Although another favorite of Grandmother Jia, as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly evident that Xi-feng is definitely not a nice person. This is portrayed most convincingly when her husband Jia Lian secretly takes on a second wife. Now the reader's natural instinct is to sympathize with the aggrieved wife in such an instance, but Xi-feng's actions towards the second wife are so vicious that I can almost guarantee every single reader will feel the same emotions towards her that I did after that instance.

Almost as important as the above characters are their chief maids. Aroma, Faithful, Patience and others are anything but faceless servants hovering in the background. They are accorded the respect almost due a true family member by the lower staff members, and deservedly so. More than just mere servants, they are confidantes, advisors and, in many instances, plan out and perform duties that save their charges from some very trying situations.

The novel's 2200 pages is chock-full of subplots, some which linger on for much of the novel's length, others which occur and resolve in the space of a single chapter. The novel's 120 chapters contain many wonderfully-exciting scenes involving every facet of human emotions from humor to adventure to romance to intrigue. As the characters grow and mature, the cast of the novel changes slightly. Some people leave the mansions, while others arrive. Several people die, often in scenes of great emotional impact. It is hard to imagine any reader not being moved to both tears of grief and tears of laughter while reading Story of the Stone.

An added bonus for a sinophile like me is the wealth of knowledge I learned from reading this novel. Everyday life in the twin mansions is strictly determined by centuries of Chinese philosophy and tradition, and steeped in glorious Chinese culture. More than just a novel, the 2200 pages are a virtual textbook in Chinese history and culture. Besides the numerous passing references to important historical persons and events, and the well-developed background in which the novel is steeped, there are entire scenes devoted to the study of Chinese poetry and Chinese philosophy. Not dry scenes of boring exposition, but thoroughly entertaining scenes such as when the younger generation of cousins form a poetry club.

The novel has a powerful ending that is nearly a full volume (out of the five) in developing. Author Cao Xueqin was a member of a rich, important Chinese family that fell on hard times, thus spending a good portion of his life in abysmal poverty. While Story of the Stone is not autobiographical, it is closely patterned on the events of Cao's own life.

Anybody who enjoys family sagas will absolutely love Story of the Stone. Yes, it is a soap opera, but a high class soap opera on the level of War and Peace and Upstairs Downstairs. You will love its people, its plots and subplots, its wondrous scenes, and, hopefully, the world in which it is drenched. I cannot possibly compare this novel to either Journey to the West or Outlaws of the Marsh because all three are so different indeed. I am just glad to have read all three of them, and wish I could have spent more time immersed in each of the worlds.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Answers to F&SF Quiz I

If you have not yet read the March 8 blog, do so before reading the following answers to the Famous Lines from F&SF Stories quiz.

And tell me honestly how many you got correct!

1. A Martian Odyssey, by Stanley G. Weinbaum
2. Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov
3. Arena, by Fredric Brown
4. The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke
5. Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
6. A Rose for Ecclesiastes, by Roger Zelazny
7. Or All the Seas with Oysters, by Avram Davidson
8. The Big Front Yard, Clifford D. Simak
9. “Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman, by Harlan Ellison
10. The Last Castle, by Jack Vance
11. Riders of the Purple Wage, by Philip José Farmer
12. Nightwings, by Robert Silverberg

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

F&SF Quiz I

Famous Lines from F&SF Stories: How many stories can you identify from the following first lines? Hint: This is the classic quiz, since all stories were published prior to 1970. Answers will appear in the next blog.

1. Jarvis stretched himself as luxuriously as he could in the cramped general quarters of the Ares.

2. Aton 77, director of Saro University, thrust out a belligerent lower lip and glared at the young newspaperman in a hot fury.

3. Carson opened his eyes and found himself looking upward into a flickering blue dimness.

4. “This is a slightly unusual request,” said Dr. Wagner, with what he hoped was commendable restraint.

5. Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.

6. I was busy translating one of my Madrigals Macabre into Martian on the morning I was found acceptable.

7. When the man came to the F & O Bike Shop, Oscar greeted him with a hearty “Hi, there!”

8. Hiram Taine came awake and sat up in his bed.

9. There are always those who ask, what is it all about?

10. Toward the end of a stormy summer afternoon, with the sun finally breaking out under ragged black rain clouds, Castle Janeil was overwhelmed and its population destroyed.

11. Un and Sub, the giants, are grinding him for bread.

12. Roum is a city built on seven hills.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Quin's Shanghai Circus

Old Earth Books is one of the more ambitious sf specialty presses. It reprinted the entire Lensman series of E.E. Smith, and awhile ago it reprinted the entire ouevre of unknown writer Edward Whittemore, consisting of the four-novel Jerusalem Quartet and the standalone novel Quin’s Shanghai Circus. All five novels were reviewed fairly extensively in fandom, including Jeff Vandermeer reviewing them at SF Site, Gary K. Wolfe in Locus, and Anne Syndenham in The New York Review of Science Fiction.

All three were rave reviews, of the likes usually reserved for such works as the early novels of Zelazny, Varley or Le Guin. Vandermeer called Quin’s “a surreal mélange of images and characters in which each element is lucid in its madness.”

What was most interesting about the reviews was that none of them indicated any aspect of either sf or fantasy in the novels. The books are basically speculative history, or “secret history”, which is another undefined sub-genre which, to the best I can determine, differs from historical fiction as follows:

1. regular historical fiction tells the story of real historical characters “between” the famous moments which have come down in historical annals, fleshing out their lives and characters

2. “secret history” tells of imaginary events which were never revealed in the historical annals but which make everything we have learned about history merely a facade

So Quin’s is neither historical fiction, nor alternate history, since no basic premises have been changed, but it is surely speculative enough to qualify as some sub-genre of f&sf.

With three rave reviews in three publications I respected, I was anxious to sample some of Whittemore’s fiction, but I certainly was not going to dive unprepared into a four-volume series, especially when Quin’s Shanghai Circus had the more fascinating premise for me anyway, involving Chinese and Japanese history circa World War II, with part of it set during the Nanking Massacre, which is one of my major interest in recent years and the topic of my own recent nonfiction book.

It did not take me long into Quin's to realize that Edward Whittemore is one of the more extravagant writers I’ve ever encountered. Every scene, virtually every line, is written with verve, color, and thought- provoking images. Whenever a new character is introduced, we are treated to several pages describing that person’s extravagant background and experiences. Every event is enmeshed in wondrousness. There is never a dull moment, nor a single page which consists of linear but dull plot-movement.

And yet, although its constant extravagance leads to constant page-turning seeking the next wonder, this style of writing is also the novel’s main problem. Quin’s Shanghai Circus is written so much for effect it is detrimental to the novel in several ways. In the hands of a master, good writing serves to amplify both the plot and the characters. In this case, they overwhelm it so much it is very difficult to believe that anything happening beneath the surface veneer is worth taking seriously. At times I almost had to ignore the surface razz-a-ma-tazz to concentrate on the plot itself.

There is a plot to the novel, a fairly complex one involving both an underground movement to protect mainland China from the Japanese army during World War II and the relationships between a handful of characters during that era and their offspring twenty years later. The viewpoint character named Quin is the son of the title character who was one of the key people involved in the World War II espionage.

But even as the novel reached its climax, the plot never seemed as important as Whittemore’s attempt to pile wondrous scene on top of wondrous scene. The novel’s two high points–the depiction of the Nanking Massacre and the Shanghai Circus itself–were so enveloped by over-the-top writing they had the effect of both repulsing me with their grotesqueries and holding my attention like a raging fire that is impossible to look away from. Both scenes have the effect of raising the novel’s incredibility level even higher than previously, doing more damage to the believability of the plot itself.

So I finished reading Quin’s Shanghai Circus in a similar mode as finishing a tasty dessert, feeling as if I’d eaten lots of cream and sugar but no real substance. I enjoyed the experience, and I was pleased I had read the book, but it did not convince me to wade through the four-volume Jerusalem Quartet, since a single volume of extravagant fluff was more than sufficient for me.

But my thoughts kept drifting back to those rave reviews. Pleasant though the reading experience had been, it was light-years removed from Zelazny/Varley/ Le Guin as I had been [mis]lead to believe. Had I missed something in the reading? Or in the reviews themselves? I unabashedly admit I am not a scholar on the level of a Gary K. Wolfe, or a talented writer like Jeff Vandermeer. What had they seen in the novel that I had not? Curious, I returned to all three reviews and read them a second time (which is always an interesting experience after having read the novel in question).

While Gary Wolfe praised the novel, his specific comments were limited to its inventiveness. The same with Vandermeer. While they described the characters and the plot, neither actually praised those aspects of the novel. Does that mean they were so awed by Whittemore’s circus of wonders that they also lost credibility in the novel’s plot structure?

As for Anne Sydenham, she had more specific comments that went way beyond infatuation with the novel’s wonders. She claimed it “captures the essence of the Orient” and captured “an understanding of its main philosophical concepts and cultural practices.”

I chuckled at that comment for three reasons: 1. Whittemore lived in the far East for several years, so he certainly should have absorbed some of its essence and concepts.

2. How did Sydenham know he captured that essence and concepts accurately? Is she a student of East Asia? Such a comment can only be taken seriously if we know something of her own expertise in making it. Otherwise, it is possible Whittemore’s glib writing fooled her into believing what was not actually true.

3. While I am certainly not an expert in East Asian culture and philosophy, I do have some knowledge in that area, and I felt that in keeping with his over-the-top writing, some of what Whittemore portrayed swerved back and forth between factuality and stereotyping. It did not come across as a vicious or condescending stereotyping, but some elements of it were still present.

So do I recommend your reading this novel? It was fun, the writing was colorful and wondrous, and the characters quirky enough to be enjoyable. But if you’ve been lured by the positive reviews, I strongly suggest you read this relatively short stand-alone novel before wading into the considerably longer–and presumably more complex–Jerusalem Quartet.