Everything is Oll Korrect!

An eclectic bibliophile's journal…

Tag: novels

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

My introduction to Robert Heinlein came during a class I took back at college on the literature of science fiction, the same class where I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The timing was perfect, since I was a Libertarian at the time and Heinlein is fairly well-known for his broadly Libertarian views, which feature prominently in his work. That ideological sympathy wasn’t enough to make me a fan of the novel selected for the class, Stranger in a Strange Land, though. The story had some interesting moments, enough that I am glad that I read it, but it features a hippie version of Libertarianism with free love and such, which even then I had little patience for.

The novel was good enough, though, to make me check out another work of his shortly after, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The premise alone, a Libertarian revolution on the Moon against Terran authority, was like catnip to me at the time, and the book is full of ideas and speculation, mostly expressed through dialogue and the story itself, on what a more-or-less Libertarian society might look like. There is still some silly, “lolbertarian” stuff, like the rather unorthodox marriage arrangements, but also touches like private, commodity-backed currency competing with government-issued fiat, private courts, and a discussion on how to frame a constitution.

Now, so far this may sound less like a novel and more like a political allegory, like St. Thomas More’s Utopia or parts of Plato’s Republic, but a large reason why the novel works is that this is all presented naturally as part of the story or in the interest of world-building, and Heinlein never goes off on overly-lengthy tangents. So, the private currency is mentioned only in a few lines here and there to give an idea of how the colony is faring economically. The private courts only come up when a character is introduced by being dragged into one. The speech on framing a constitution does go on for a couple pages, but even that doesn’t extend longer than is needed for the plot. In short, there’s enough of these ideas to satisfy those who enjoy political speculation, but at no point does it feel preachy or interfere with the story. Those with an especially low tolerance of Libertarianism, or Liberalism more broadly, will almost certainly find some of the social Liberalism grating, as I did, but the rest of the story is good enough that I’m perfectly willing to overlook that. For what it’s worth, Heinlein himself seems to realise that even if this sort of society could come about, it’s not necessarily sustainable long-term.…

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Lewis Carroll, the Alice Novels, and Sensible Nonsense

`As to poetry, you know,’ said Humpty Dumpty, stretching out one of his great hands, `I can repeat poetry as well as other folk, if it comes to that — ‘
`Oh, it needn’t come to that!’ Alice hastily said, hoping to keep him from beginning.
`The piece I’m going to repeat,’ he went on without noticing her remark,’ was written entirely for your amusement.’
Alice felt that in that case she really ought to listen to it, so she sat down, and said `Thank you’ rather sadly.

When it gets late in the year and with Christmas coming soon, I always find myself in a nostalgic, and somewhat lazy, mood. It’s a time when my reading goes back to old favourites, and these past couple weeks I’ve revisited a couple of my favourite novels from yesteryear, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Now, I went through The Annotated Alice, which is my favourite edition of the novels, and in the introduction editor Martin Gardner makes what seems, at a glance, a startling claim: “The fact is that Carroll’s nonsense is not nearly as random and pointless as it seems to a modern American child who tries to read the Alice books. One says ‘tries’ because the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England, can read Alice with the same delight as gained from, say, The Wind in the Willows or The Wizard of Oz. […] It is only because adults […] continue to relish the Alice books that they are assured of immortality.”

There are two claims here, so let’s start with the first: are the Alice novels really no longer children’s books? To be honest, I didn’t read them as a child, but first read them when I was about fifteen, coincidentally the age Gardner mentions above, though I do remember liking Disney’s adaptation of them. I can say that it’s not hard to find editions of the novel aimed at children, or at least older children, as well as at least one alphabet book. Gardner says that “Children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice’s dreams.” The books are surprisingly violent in parts and almost every character is a jerk to some degree, with the White Knight (very likely a stand-in for Carroll himself) and perhaps the Cheshire Cat as the only exceptions, but I’d hardly call either Wonderland or the Looking-Glass world “nightmarish,” and how frightened a child is would depend on the child. I’d have probably loved it.

It is true that children today won’t catch much of the referential humour, but recognising the source of Carroll’s various song parodies and such isn’t critical to enjoying the parody, and even if a reader misses one joke, there are so many throughout the books that it won’t be long until he comes to another one he may enjoy. Take, for example, the parody “You Are Old, Father William,” which Alice repeats for the Caterpillar:

`You are old, Father William,’ the young man said,
`And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head–
Do you think, at your age, it is right?’

`In my youth,’ Father William replied to his son,
`I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.’

`You are old,’ said the youth, `as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door–
Pray, what is the reason of that?’

`In my youth,’ said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
`I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment–one shilling the box–
Allow me to sell you a couple?’

That’s the first half. Do you recognise the source? Probably not, but it doesn’t really matter. Carroll himself, as the narrator, even shows some awareness that he’s writing for a young audience. During the trial at the end of Wonderland, for example, we have this incident, with authorial commentary:

Here one of the guinea-pigs cheered, and was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court. (As that is rather a hard word, I will just explain to you how it was done. They had a large canvas bag, which tied up at the mouth with strings: into this they slipped the guinea-pig, head first, and then sat upon it.)

`I’m glad I’ve seen that done,’ thought Alice. `I’ve so often read in the newspapers, at the end of trials, “There was some attempts at applause, which was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court,” and I never understood what it meant till now.’

Some young children probably would be disturbed at stuffing guinea pigs into a sack and sitting on them, even if done by other animals about the same size as a guinea pig, but this is certainly no grislier than many fairy tales, at least in their traditional forms.

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The Man in the High Castle (75 Books LXI)

I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle back in college, and at the time I loved it. The recent hype around Amazon’s adaptation of the novel made me think of it again, and I decided to re-read it to see how it holds up.

Overall, it’s still very good. The setting is 1962 with an obvious alternate history premise where the Axis Powers won the Second World War, with Germany occupying the Eastern United States, Japan the Western, with a more-or-less autonomous zone between them. How this apparently came about is plausible enough, though I must say that some of the things the Nazis have been up to are rather far-fetched. They apparently have a space programme going to Mars, have drained the Mediterranean, and have wiped out most of Africa (though something apparently went wrong with this project, but details are never explained). They’ve only just invented television, though, so reality has the advantage in idiot box technology.

Anyway, most of the story takes place in Japan-occupied San Francisco. Dick could’ve turned this into a propaganda novel and made it an outright dystopia, but the main problem for white Americans is the loss of confidence accompanying being an occupied nation; blacks and Jews do, however, have bigger problems, though much less so in Japanese territory than German. One sees this most in Robert Childan, who runs a shop selling American antiques and collectibles to Japanese clients. He’s constantly fretting about how to deal with his customers, how to show proper respect, and so on, and at one point feels guilty for selling his country’s art as curiosities to foreigners. In one interesting scene, he goes to visit a prospective client, and even speaks in a noticeably Japanified manner. When he offers this customer and his wife a gift, for example, he says, “Bagatelle for you. To display fragment of the relaxation and enjoyment I feel in being here.” This sounds like a student’s understandable-but-awkward attempts at conversing in a new language, not the speech of a native-born American.

One major theme of the book is uncertainty about what’s real and what’s not, which Dick also covered in other works like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but it’s more fully developed here. Childan discovers that many of his products are counterfeits, two different characters have secret identities, not counting a Jewish character who’s had surgery and a name change to pass as white, and most importantly the ending, which I won’t spoil, calls the reality of everything else in the novel into question in an extremely metafictional way.

It was that ending that really sold me on the novel back in college, though it’s so out of left field that it’s more clever than satisfying as a conclusion to the story. In fact, one possible criticism of the novel is that this conclusion is only known to one character, Juliana, and the story could probably have starred only her. If Dick had written the story only about Juliana, completely writing out the other characters except for some references to her ex-husband, the story would still be complete and thematically coherent. I’m glad the other characters are there because I enjoy their stories a lot and they do expand on the themes, but strictly speaking they could be considered almost as an “expanded universe” for the novel. I don’t consider this a problem, really, it just means that the plot isn’t as tightly constructed as it could be. The only other problem is that I don’t buy Juliana’s behaviour near the climax of the novel with Joe Cinnadella, but this is only one scene in an otherwise-excellent book.

So, High Castle is just solid, A-level fiction, and it’s still one of my favourite novels. Even if you’re not generally interested in alternate history stories, this one is well worth the time to read.…

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The Castle (75 Books – XX)

Is it fair to criticise a book that the author left unfinished at his death? Well, it was published, so I suppose so.

Most of Franz Kafka’s The Castle doesn’t really feel unfinished, anyway. There are a few spots that could use some editing, I suppose, but I wouldn’t have guessed that the author died before completing it until the book stops. That’s probably the main problem, really, which is hardly Kafka’s fault – though there is a note at the end of my audiobook edition about how Kafka intended the novel to end, the manuscript we have just stops in the middle. I sense that the story was likely nearing a conclusion, but obviously it’s still frustrating to have a story just stop with no conclusion at all.

Not that I mind the novel ending soon, so much; it started getting tedious to listen through well before the stop. The majority of the novel consists of the protagonist, K., going from conversation to conversation trying to sort out his position in this town where he was summoned to work as a land surveyor, only to find that this was likely a mistake. One problem is that most of these dialogues take the same basic form; one character relates some event, interprets it, the other says, essentially, “Ah, that’s what you think it means, but actually it means this…” Conveying the tedium of K.’s efforts is part of the intended effect, but unfortunately Kafka may have succeeded a little too well.

Also, I may have missed something here, but it’s not entirely clear to me why K. can’t just leave the town, aside from stubbornness. He talks about the difficult journey to get there, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he’s not going to be able to work as a land surveyor, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing keeping him there. I’d assumed early on that he must have a hidden reason for wanting to stay, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Perhaps Kafka planned to add some explanation later, but I can only take the novel as it is now.

I listened to this in an edition published by Naxos Audiobooks, and read by Allan Corduner, who does a fine job narrating. He’s actually the first narrator I’ve encountered whose work I’d listen to just because he’s the narrator. My only problem, and this is very much a minor issue, is that the main character’s name (or initial, I suppose) is pronounced with the German name for the letter, “kah,” instead of the English “kay,” so it took me a while to figure out what his “name” actually is. Everything else is fine, though, and the narration was probably the highlight of the book.…

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