Thursday, May 9, 2024

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (novel #228)

In case you haven’t guessed, that’s the one reason you’re here – to remind the chuckleheads there’s more in heaven than they have dreamed. ~ Pilgrim [a tine] to Johanna [human child], likely an homage to Shakespeare: There are more things in Heaven and Earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5


A Fire Upon the Deep is a science fiction novel or Space Opera set in the far distant future in the Milky Way Galaxy. There are humans and occasional references to “Old Earth.” And, as the previous statement may imply, there are other sentient beings, some advanced, some primitive.


This was unlike any other Sci-Fi I’ve read or watched. While the Sci-Fi megatext allows for a myriad of cosmos building, Vinge’s novel describes a galaxy that takes some extra concentration to comprehend. The galaxy is divided into four “Zones of Thought”: The Unthinking Depths at the center, then working outward the Slow Zone, The Beyond, and The Transcend. The Unthinking Depths contains only elementary intelligence. The Slow Zone contains some higher intelligent life but almost no artificial intelligence. The Beyond is where most of the novel takes place and contains both highly intelligent life and artificial intelligence approaching sentience. Finally, The Transcend contains the highest intelligences, natural and artificial, known as “Powers”.


The boundaries between zones are shifting and the characteristics within each zone change as one approaches the bordering zone. For instance, there are higher intelligence levels in the High Beyond, while at the bottom of The Beyond, intelligence is only slightly greater than in the High Slow Zone. If a ship using artificial intelligence for propulsion and navigation passes into the slow zone, the artificial intelligence will not function properly, speed of light travel is impossible, and the ship and crew may be stranded in the slow zone.


That’s a gross over-simplification, but it should give some idea.


Similarly, Vinge’s creatures are abstract ideas that also require some deep thinking to imagine. The three main life forms in the story are humans, which are easy enough; Skroderiders, plant-like creatures capable of intelligent thought and speech, rendered mobile by coupling with wheeled vehicles; and Tines.


Tines! How to describe them? Doglike, but longer necks, which exist in packs of 4 to 8 creatures forming a single, group-thinking identity. They can survive losing a member or two, but “Singletons” are nearly invalid unless they can join another pack.


And I haven’t even hinted at the plot: Pandora’s Box. A group of Human Explorers in the High Beyond discovers a data treasure in the low transcend, and they unleash…I’ll spare the spoiler. Lousy humans; they’re always the villains. There’s a desperate escape attempt that is more than an escape; it’s an attempt to save free-thinking beings. There’s a space chase and an internet-like communications network nicknamed “the net of a million lies”. VERY internet-like.


And the ending? Anything but predictable.


This was a fascinating but difficult read. Certain aspects were so abstract that they were challenging to comprehend, but the story kept me engaged. I give Vinge high marks for such an unusual setting and narrative. I’d like to see the movie but don’t envy the director or screenwriter.


My rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars



This novel satisfies the “Natural Disaster” category (title must contain a word or words that denote a natural disaster, in this case, “fire”) in the What’s in a Name 2024 challenge.



Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Crooked Man: a Sherlock Holmes short story

"The Crooked Man” is a Sherlock Holmes short story from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection. According to The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, it was Holmes’ 27th case chronologically.


A respected British officer is discovered dead in a locked room after the servants heard him and his wife quarreling. But the wife, and obvious suspect, is rendered insensible by the event.


It looks like an open and shut case until Holmes discovers suspicious footprints suggesting a third person and an animal entered and left the room through a window.


After this, it’s a pretty disappointing case. Holmes barely uses his famous powers of deduction, and that only to determine the one person who may know the cause of the argument. From there, Holmes simply persuades the witness to tell all. SPOILER: The wife didn’t do it.


Not the most exciting of Holmes’ adventures. Indeed, I think it is the least entertaining I’ve read.

Monday, March 18, 2024

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel (novel #227)

…her people were newcomers to their land – but since they arrived things had been changing. They seemed to bring change with them.


Clan of the Cave Bear is a novel set in prehistoric times on the north coast of what is now the Black Sea. It follows the lives of the Cave Bear clan and the introduction into the Clan of an orphaned female child of the “others.”


The Cave Bear are likely Neanderthals, and the Others are Cro-Magnon, though the author makes no such distinction in the context. This is the first in Auel’s six-book Earth’s Children series.


The story opens when the child Ayla is left homeless and orphaned by a severe earthquake. She wanders aimlessly and is attacked by a cave lion. She survives by sheltering in a crevice too narrow for the predator to reach her. She is near death from exposure, loss of blood, and starvation when the Clan finds her. They are indifferent and sure to leave her until the aged medicine woman, who has some status, gives aid and is allowed to carry the child with them as they search for a new cave. They were also left homeless by the earthquake.


Most of the clan are indifferent, and some are hostile to the strange child, but Ayla has two allies. The medicine woman Iza, and her brother Creb who also has special status as the shaman or mog-ur. Creb convinces the tribal leader, Brun, that Ayla is lucky and should be allowed to remain with them. Over time, she is accepted by most, even loved and admired by some, but she always has one fearsome enemy, Broud, heir apparent leader.


Creb is not only mog-ur, he is The Mog-ur, the most revered mog-ur amongst all Cave Bear tribes. He senses that Ayla’s coming portends upheaval.


As Mog-ur sat alone on the open plain watching the last of the torches sputter and die, he thought of the strange girl Iza had found and his uneasiness grew until it became a physical discomfort. Her kind had been met before, but only recently in his concept of reckoning, and not many of the chance meetings had been pleasant. Where they had come from was a mystery – her people were newcomers to their land – but since they arrived things had been changing. They seemed to bring change with them.


Of course, he isn’t wrong.


This was a fascinating and enjoyable read. I empathized with Ayla immediately. I’m confident that was Auel’s intent, Ayla being the more “modern” human. Just as Creb sensed change, the reader senses the process of natural selection at work on the cusp of a change in human history.


My rating: 4 out of 5 stars


This novel satisfies the “NFL Team” category (title must contain the name of an NFL team) in the What’s in a Name 2024 challenge.





Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare

The Winter’s Tale is a comedy by William Shakespeare, written in the early seventeenth century.

Or is it a tragedy?


It could be either. It is one of my least favorites, primarily due to this ambiguity.


Leontes, King of Sicilia, is hosting his childhood friend Polixenes, now the King of Bohemia, for some nine months. When Polixenes declares he must return to his realm, Leontes tries to dissuade him but fails. He sends his queen, Hermione, who persuades Polixenes to extend his visit. The queen’s success evokes suspicion in Leontes, which in turn produces tragic consequences. But by the fourth act, in true Bardic fashion, a series of comic capers set all things right.


Excepting the dead prince.


Meh, For me, it mostly didn’t work.


I probably missed them, but I didn’t notice any of Shakespeare’s aphorisms that have become part of our current vernacular. Though there is one delightful stage direction…


Exit, pursued by a bear


That didn’t turn out well.


The title doesn’t say much either. It is taken from one character stating…


A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins.



Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino

One of the blessings of being a reader is that people give you books as gifts. Or is that a curse? My “to be read” list is literally over 2,000 titles, and the gifts are often not something I would pick up on my own.


Cinema Speculation is such a book: a gift from a friend and not in my normal wheelhouse. But it is a blessing because it is sometimes good to get out of one’s comfort zone.


Cinema Speculation is Quentin Tarantino’s examination of a select group of movies from the 1970s. At first, I thought they were his favorite films from the era and his adolescence, but while some are probably among his favorites, others are not. I think they represent films that were formative for the future Oscar winner and that represent, in his speculation, a new era in Hollywood filmmaking.


Some are Oscar winners (Bullitt, Deliverance, Taxi Driver), others obscure (The Outfit). Some are iconic (Dirty Harry), others all but forgotten (Sisters, Hardcore). Some I’ve seen, others I’ve not, but with one exception, I now want to.


I’m not a film buff (reader after all), and I feared this book would be quite esoteric. But it’s pretty accessible. Tarantino does drop a lot of names I’m unfamiliar with, and he refers to many other films for comparison, often films I’m not familiar with. Still, it was a pretty easy read. He does a good job of speculating what made a film work or fail – almost always a combination of screenwriting, casting, acting, and directing. Things that, for me, a casual filmgoer, are largely transparent and not something I give a lot of thought to.


For example, after discussing Martin Scorsese’s gritty masterpiece Taxi Driver, Tarantino speculates on what the film would have been had Brian De Palma directed it. In Scorsese’s version, the cabbie is perceived as a bit of a nut but also a sympathetic hero. Tarantino speculates that in De Palma’s version, he would have been more of a deranged killer.


Tarantino brings out many points I’ve never considered, like Taxi Driver was a thematic remake of John Ford’s The Searchers. I see it now.


Well, there’s much more: lots of anecdotes about changes in actors, screenwriters, and directors and how they changed a film. Or how a movie almost wasn’t made and how and by whom it was rescued. Again, this is mostly stuff I’d never thought of before, and much of it insider stuff I couldn’t know unless someone like Tarantino writes about it.


A very thought-provoking read. Warning: this shouldn’t shock anyone, but Tarantino drops the F-bomb…A LOT.


And as the friend who gifted this to me said in his inscription, it…”will also make you want to rewatch these 70s classics.”






Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (novel #226)

The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast


The Screwtape Letters is an epistolary novel: a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon, as he mentors and advises his nephew, junior tempter Wormwood.


It is commonly referred to as a Christian allegory or apologetic, but I don’t agree with either designation. I don’t believe Lewis was describing something unreal to explain something real. I believe he was describing something quite real, with fictional characters, that occurs very nearly as he describes it. Oh, I doubt there are physical letters exchanged between demons, but I believe the methods of deceit, confusion, despair, and temptation they use are very similar to what takes place in the unseen spiritual realm. Neither does Lewis seem to be making a defense of Christianity.


Further, I don’t think of this as a novel even, at least not in intent. I think it is more of an instructional warning of the intents and wiles of the demonic hordes.


I don’t feel adequate to synopsize beyond one central point: Screwtape does not take much satisfaction when Wormwood gets his ‘patient’ to merely sin. The senior demon is more concerned with getting humans to disbelieve.


Excepts, all the words of Screwtape to Wormwood:


Do remember you are there to fuddle him [the patient]. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!


Keep his mind off the plain antithesis between True and False.


Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous – that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.


It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.


Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours.


Looking round your patient’s new friends I find that the best point of attack would be the borderline between theology and politics.


We thus distract men’s minds from who He [Jesus] is, and what He did. We first make Him solely a teacher, and then conceal the very substantial agreement between His teachings and those of all other great moral teachers.


…you soon have merely a leader acclaimed by a partisan, and finally a distinguished character approved by a judicious historian.


…the strongest and most beautiful of the vices – Spiritual Pride.


What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity and’. You know – Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.


So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven that our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or ‘science’ or psychology, or what not.


END Excerpts


I’ve wanted to read this for years. It was fascinating. Lewis said of it…


Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment.


I can understand that. He dedicates it to his friend J. R. R. Tolkien. The version I read includes the addendum Screwtape Proposes a Toast, added years after the initial publication.


My rating: 4 out of 5 stars



This novel satisfies the “Double Letters” category (title must contain double letters) in the What’s in a Name 2024 challenge.



Sunday, February 18, 2024

Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World

or...Foxe's Book of Martyrs

It is a grim read, though I’m glad to have read it. It may not be completely reliable in every detail, though the names of the Martyrs and their fates are generally accepted.


Foxe records four primary points of dispute between the reformers and the Roman Church. The reformers:

  • Denied the value of pilgrimages
  • Refused to worship the saints
  • Insisted on reading Scripture for themselves
  • Denied the physical body of Christ was present in sacramental bread


For these points, hundreds were put to death.


Foxe’s treatment of the chief perpetrators, Queen Mary [1553-1558] and Edmund Bonner Bishop of London is certainly fair.


According to Foxe…


No other king or queen of England spilled as much blood in a time of peace as Queen Mary did in four years through her hanging, beheading, burning, and imprisonment of good Christian Englishmen.


The Martyrs remind me of something the writer of Hebrews [probably the Apostle Paul] wrote about Old Testament Martyrs:


Of whom the word was not worthy.