Visions of Paradise

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I admit up front that my background in the classics is pathetically weak. That is why I am reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time. Nor will I admit here how many other classics are still sitting on my Recommended Books list (not to mention those which I still have no desire to read at all).

The first chapter of Hunchback sets the premise, showing us the nature of 15th century Paris and its denizens during a feast day when the public is invited to watch the debut performance of a new play. The production proves to be a dismal failure, not due to any flaw in the play itself, but due to a series of events out of the control of the playwright: the late arrival of the cardinal and the distinguished group of Flemish ambassadors who are his guests, who first anger the audience due to their lateness, then disrupt the play itself by their arrival. This ultimately causes total chaos in the theater, eventually leading to a mock election of a fool’s pope while the playwright struggles futilely to continue the performance of the play.

This is an incredible scene which demonstrates all of Hugo’s strengths as a writer and the inspired choice of his setting for the novel. The scene also introduces all the main characters:

• Gringoire, the suffering playwright;
• Quasimodo, the deaf, hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral who is chosen as fool’s pope;
• Claude Frollo, intellectual and tortured priest who rescued Quasimodo as a child and serves as his beloved surrogate parent;
• Captain Phoebus, who rescues the girl Esmeralda from the clutches of Quasimodo, setting off most of the book’s events that follow;
• Esmeralda, the innocent and lovely gypsy girl whose effect on each of the above characters causes most of the emotional foundation of the book.

Basically, Hunchback is a morality play, which is obvious in the first scene since Gringoire’s badly-received play is itself a morality play. All the characters are suffering in some manner, and their reactions to Esmeralda only increase their emotional pain.

Hugo is an outstanding writer whose ability to create a totally convincing 15th century Paris was worth the entire book. He is also a satirist, showing us in somewhat exaggerated form (or at least we can hope it was) the darker side of medieval life, both involving powerful people such as King Louis XI himself and city judges, and ordinary people as far down the economic scale as the homeless gypsies.

Hugo has the knack of writing powerful individual scenes. The book’s opening scene was an example. So was the scene in which the gypsy girl was sentenced to death but was rescued by Quasimodo who took her to the legal sanctuary of Notre-Dame de Paris. A third scene was when the gypsies attempted to break into the cathedral to rescue the girl, but Quasimodo thought they intended killing her, so he fights them off single-handedly.

The book contains many detailed historical asides which generally deepen the book’s background, although occasionally they prove to be too long and too rambling, Hugo’s only glaring weakness as a novelist.

The novel’s ending is distressful, but inevitable considering all that led up to it. Hunchback of Notre-Dame was a powerful, successful book overall, and I recommend it highly to anybody who, like me, has not read it yet.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Earth Book of Stormgate

The biggest names in science fiction are not necessarily the most talented writers overall. Some writers are able to master a particular type of fiction so that their fans know what to expect from each of their books, so their popularity grows higher and higher with each publication. Examples include Anne McCaffrey, Terry Pratchett, and Frank Herbert in his later years (whose many fine non-Dune novels are mostly forgotten now).

Other writers tend to master so many different types of fiction that to some extent each book has a different audience than others, so their audience becomes splintered among fans of the various types. Often these are the most acclaimed writers inside science fiction, but they never achieve similar mass popularity to their peers or even to some slightly-lesser writers.

Poul Anderson is one of the quintessential examples of the latter type of writer. He has won numerous awards for his writing, but his books are scattered across the entire spectrum of f&sf: high fantasy, historical fantasy, hard science, and, my favorite type of his fiction, worldbuilding.

While I truly enjoyed some of Anderson’s other science fiction, such as Tau Zero and the Time Patrol series, my favorite of his stories tend to be his Polesotechnic League stories. Those stories combine his outstanding storytelling ability with his knack of creating truly alien races, both in physical characteristics and their cultures. Think of a faster-paced C.J. Cherryh and you have some idea what I mean.

The Earth Book of Stormgate was a large 1978 collection containing much of the Polesotechnic League short fiction, as well as perhaps its finest novel The Man Who Counts. The best stories, as well as the novel, feature Nicholas van Rijn, perhaps the most unlikely hero in sf, an aging, brash, insulting, overweight master trader in the Polesotechnic League who even when he is rallying his underlings to victory manages to alienate many of them.

On the surface, The Man Who Counts is a problem-solving novel as a group of traders, including van Rijn, are stranded on a world in the midst of a civil war. Since they cannot eat the native food, it is urgent that they be rescued before their own food runs out, but the natives are too pre-occupied with their war to bother seeking help for the humans.

But as is typical in many Poul Anderson stories, the plot itself is only the foundation for a multi-faceted story. The Man Who Counts is also a study of evolutionary diversity, a look at the causes of war as well as the difficulties of overcoming them, an examination of leadership roles (between van Rijn and his underling Wace), as well as true leadership versus fake leadership (in the persons of two aliens, one who is the hereditary ruler and the other who is the respected leader).

Perhaps the most impressive part of the novel though is the development of the alien race and its twin cultures. The novel’s original paperback title was War of the Wing-Men, which was a terrible title in the way it simplified and almost demeaned the splendid creation of the winged aliens and their well-thought out cultures.

The Man Who Counts is an award-worthy novel, and would have been worth the entire book if there were not several other equally-superb stories in it. My other favorite was “Day of Burning” (which was originally published in Analog as “Supernova”). This is another problem-solving story–how the heck can you get a bunch of independent rulers to work together to save their world from the effects of a supernova which has already burst?–but, as usual, the development of the alien culture is the true star of the story.

If you can find a copy of The Earth Book of Stormgate, you owe it to yourself to buy and read it. And if not, why the heck is somebody as good as Poul Anderson not in print anymore? (I know the economic reasons why, but that does not satisfy my sense of fair play).

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Viva Italia!

Even during the past two weeks in Italy, f&sf was never too far from my mind. So here are some sfnal comments from the trip:

• Both Naples and Rome were filled with bookstores, including an entire block filled with used book stands in Rome. One of the stands was selling copies of the Italian edition of Galaxy from the 50s and 60s. I was tempted to buy some of them, but you had to buy an entire package of nearly a dozen issues, and that was too much to buy of stuff I cannot even read.

• Instead I bought a copy of Clifford D. Simak’s novel Anna Sensa Fine, which is the Italian edition of City.

• The main reason we were in Italy was for Silvio & Fei Fei’s wedding, and I finally got to meet Silvio’s dad Gey, who is a big science fiction fan. He grew up reading those Italian editions of Galaxy, so it is not surprising that his two favorite authors are Robert Sheckley and Jack Vance.

• Among Gey’s talents is film-making, so he showed us two short films he made in the 90s, one of them entitled “7th Victim,” which is based on Sheckley’s story of the same name, and was quite well done. The other film was a time-travel fantasy imagining Queen Isabella traveling between the 20th and 15th centuries, thus using that knowledge to inspire Columbus to sail for the New World.

• Whatever free time I had on the trip was spent rereading Poul Anderson’s The Earth Book of Stormgate after 30 years. I’ll post that review here soon.