Indecisive

Several years ago, I wrote a critique of a book styling itself The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games – one supposes there are other “Mammoth Books” of various other things out there – in which I mainly criticized it for its selection – or perhaps presentation – of games that turned on one or two brilliant moves (or inaccuracies). I also found the notation off-putting, and the game notes uneven, but the lack of variety seemed its greatest drawback.

I am working through the volume again – the games, after all, are certainly among the best played, though other authors might make other choices – and would now mute that criticism somewhat. It’s still true that the notes tend to find a single “turning point” in most games, and true that the notes will often claim a certain key error, and then spend most analysis on another move instead. But what I noticed this time was a lack of clarity of purpose about the book.

Each game is followed by summary “Lessons from this game”, and if one supposes the work was conceived, choosing games exemplifying one or two key principles each – easily identified in a critical move or mistake – makes sense. There are certain stylistic problems that remain: many of the “lessons” are facile (the authors religiously adhered to at least three per game, leading to the inclusion of observations such as “Capablanca was a genius!” where other points are not easily found), while others are overly technical.

The “one key move” focus, though, could be somewhat excused as a teaching technique; but to make this case I am assuming the book was repackaged in some way for actual publication, which is not actually evident from any of the introductory material. And the second problem, that plagues discussion of many competitive events, is whether “greatness” in competition is most accurately found in a convincing display or superiority, or in an evenly contested struggle. These authors seem to lean towards the former – possibly influenced by looking for “teaching moments” – in this volume, despite claiming to seek “quality and brilliance of play by both contestants”.

Whether the selection is quite justified or not, the presentation, even on a modified view, does not quite live up to the task the authors set themselves: my explanation is a multiplicity of purposes not well represented to the reader.

Similarly plagued by a lack of single purpose is Dr. Gordon H. Clark’s small volume titled Logic, published in the 1980s. Though published by the author, it reads much like the hypothesis sometimes made to account for our versions of certain texts of Aristotle, which is that what we really have amounts to lecture notes. Clark attempts in some 130 pages to do no fewer than four things, which are: to defend the study of logic from a Christian point of view and against Christian critics (one supposes, Biblicists); to teach the Aristotelian or syllogistic system of logic; to introduce his own new system of logical notation; and to defend the the Aristotelian system, at least for ordinary use, against the intrusion of the logic of propositional calculus (especially as represented by the works of Bertrand Russell).

It is perhaps unsurprising that the work founders, as a whole. The first goal is largely accomplished in a short introduction. The didactic part of the work is contained in the first eighty pages, and is a reasonable outline of a textbook for a semester’s study, but not actually such a text itself. The next thirty pages or so are devoted to historical notes; miscellaneous logical topics not strictly Aristotelian; and a defense, possibly sufficient but not entirely clearly stated, of Clark’s own system against Russell’s approach – or at least, an approach to logic for which Clark is content to single out Russell as a key figure to blame. (Russell’s own lack of humility may have made him the target of choice, I would guess.) The final pages return to theological considerations, adding proof texts but otherwise nothing significant that was not stated more succinctly in the introduction.

The book – as might be guessed from this summary – drifts in tone. The introduction and preliminary instructional material seem written for high school or even middle school students; by the end, he is engaged in collegiate or even seminary wrangling. One supposes – as he was a college professor – that the latter represents the true intended purpose of the work; but the beginning makes me suspect his students may have found him patronizing. I also wonder whether those students – to say nothing of the additional audience gained by publishing the book – were quite as familiar with Latin as he assumes throughout: not that he uses much if any of that language, but he makes fairly frequent reference to its study.

The greatest weakness is clarity in the final third of the book. On the Aristotelian matter, Clark is clear enough, if leaving quite a a bit to work out “as an exercise for the reader”, as the books say. But his own notation is not entirely accessible, and gets muddled up for the reader as he tries to defend it, partly through his contention that Russell and others did not actually develop their own propositional notation correctly. It becomes hard to untangle what Clark intends to promote from his attempts to demonstrate the unsatisfactory results of others by correcting their systems and then demonstrating the error. I think, incidentally, that Clark has a point here! But I don’t think his system quite works out either, and in any case you don’t get much of anywhere by constantly jumping back and forth between topics.

But the first two thirds really would be worth somebody’s reworking them into a teachable text.

Miscellaneous

I’ve got less time to write with school starting up, but here are short reviews on a few things leftover from the summer.

Humankind

It’s a game mimicking Civilization-style gameplay. Two major differences are the inclusion of a “hunter-gatherer” phase before you’re allowed/able to actually found a city, and the ability to establish “outposts” without committing to a whole city. It’s also much easier to incorporate the neutral tribes (analogous to more recent Civ releases city-states) into your empire. In fact I haven’t finished a game yet but judging by game status I’m really not sure how you’d lose on normal difficulty.

I quite like the artwork, but it’s a little harder to follow the terrain – in part because there are multiple levels navigable. The interface doesn’t make it very obvious how to implement your different options or take advantage of resources/features, either. (I started with tips set to the level supposedly appropriate for having played games like this before; I wonder if extra tips would have helped? But in that case those tips aren’t very well calibrated.)

The computer’s combat AI is much, much better than I’ve seen from Civ games. I haven’t tried the “manual tactics” mode to see if it makes a difference, but computer forces are very good at targeting units they’ll defeat. I don’t mind the way the “retreat” mechanic works but I think it’s bugged – your units will automatically back away until some kind of condition is met in the programming, but this can end up with them halfway across the continent – distances that ought to take 7 or 8 turns. You’re also basically forced to keep up skirmishes in order to maintain your “war support” meters, which annoys me.

Overall, it’s got some neat features, and is a little more transparent in places than especially recent Civilization releases, but I don’t think it’s unseating the titan any time soon.

Moby-Dick

He just kept talking in one long incredibly unbroken sentence moving from topic to topic… quite hypnotic. Of course Melville doesn’t actually confine himself to a single sentence, but it really is a little bit like listening to somebody who just won’t shut up – and you don’t quite want him to.

I started reading this years ago on a college visit and was fascinated by the first fifty pages or so I read. I’ve kept meaning to come back to it. I’ve finally gotten around to it, but admittedly still haven’t finished it. I will; but so far I find it hard to believe I’ll ever re-read it afterwards.

It reads a bit as though it was published serially, although I don’t believe it was; my thought, honestly, is that Melville was a short story writer with delusions of novelistic grandeur.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

Like a couple other Zelazny novels, this one seems to have been cobbled together from previously-written short stories, possibly not intended to be related. The plot tying them together deserves, I thought, a little more reverence and pathos than Zelazny actually give it. The writing is that of the author at his most elliptical except for certain obscene details; I read it, and then immediately read it again just to figure out what actually happened. It is, in short, not to my mind a success as a book, whatever the effect of certain scenes.

The universe of the book, incidentally and anachronistically, reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Iain Banks; apart from certain unmistakable stylistic elements that mark it as Zelazny’s work, one could easily believe it a juvenile effort of Banks, before he mastered his own distinctive style – which is effective through realism: Banks leaves you convinced that the absurd and despicable might really exist side by side. But Zelazny’s style highlights the incongruities in the story compared to our expectations, and the end result here is highly unsatisfying.

Starliner

A stand-alone novel by David Drake, best known for his military science fiction, it might be one of his better efforts. The dedication calls it “a book I wanted to write”, and I can only speculate as to the reasons. Oh, there are fist fights and gun fights and mercenaries floating around – there’s a certain resemblance to the early Hornblower books – but on the other hand, there’s not that much sci-fi floating around out there glorifying customer service. I’m inclined to think Drake wrote it just to prove he could do something different.

But then there are the twists – and break-neck pace – of the last couple chapters, which leave you rather wrung out and wondering if the book was more serious after all. Watch carefully when the question of duty is raised – and Drake gives an answer, but he seems to me to be positively inviting criticism and discussion.

Review: The Rings of Saturn

I received an email notification yesterday that the due date for this book did not automatically renew – I suppose someone else had a hold on it – which bumped it up my reading list, though I still had plenty of time, given how quickly I read and that it’s Summer break right now. Yesterday evening I meant to read for a bit and then watch a movie: instead I finished the book.

The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn) is a recent (1995) masterpiece from German author W. G. Sebald. (The W. G. stands for Winfried Georg – one wonders what his friends call him but authors are entitled to initials in these circumstances.) I am not in a position to comment on the original but Michael Hulse’s translation work – although apparently supervised by Sebald himself – deserves commendation.

The work is framed by a trip – mainly walking – along the Suffolk coast, a year or so prior to the book’s publication. The sights and events of the trip serve as prompts for discursions on all manner of topics from herring fishing to Belgian colonialism. As nearly as I can tell, there are no fictions perpetrated, though the selection of facts is Sebald’s and to actually verify his accounts would require duplicating his research. The tone seems to owe much to Thomas Mann, although something indefineable makes me suspect Sebald was also familiar with Izaak Walton.

Like much of Mann’s writing, this is not a cheerful work. The overall effect is much like listeing to a sad old man yarn in a tavern. Sebald presents an occurrence of illness – apparently mental – as the impetus for beginning the book. With much of the other introductory material it is then dropped and never mentioned again, but melancholy – as his Victorian biographical subjects might have said – pervades the work. Those subjects seem also on reflection – although it does not obtrude often – to have been selected at least in part through some fascination on Sebald’s part with real or suspected homosexuality. As the account wanders on, dreams and dream-imagery, often bordering on nightmares, occur with increasing frequency. Even real happenings – assuming them actual – become odd: it is really quite strange as an American to find ghost towns (or the next thing to them) in Auld England.

But in fact, while evidently written with elaborate care, the end of the book is not quite satisfactory. The trip never quite wraps up; its events become confused in the narrative – as I said, this is clearly deliberate – with those of an earlier visit; the final digression as written evidently relates much more closely – as it touches on Germany itself – to Sebald’s own concerns than it does to the history of the area he has toured through, which is a marked departure from the majority of the book.

The work demands re-reading but not, perhaps, very soon. I find on proof-reading I have not even mentioned the work of Thomas Browne – another framing device which, apart from Browne’s interest in (and creation of) the fabulous I do not profess to understand.

Review: Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel tells the story of Klara, a fully intelligent robot designed as a companion for a child. The style is simple but clear enough. The plot is suspenseful, and characters are compelling despite being lightly sketched: since there are only a few main characters we understand their personalities through their interactions.

I thought overall the effect was something like a short story – I particularly was reminded of Ray Bradbury – expanded to the length of a novel. The novel is a story and only a story. Ishiguro neither makes ethical or philosophical asides himself, nor allows his characters to digress. However, it’s not an adventure, and the conflicts are muted, meaning the book has the tone of stories “about” some theme, which I associate with the short story genre: the reader is invited to draw conclusions, or make arguments, about the choices of the characters. Possible candidates for a theme could be: religion and superstition (which I would argue seems to dominate the narration); personhood and uniqueness; and risk, success, and social duties.

I found this a difficult read in places as the plot eventually revolves around an illness – the existence of which as a fact I deal with very badly in my own life, perhaps partly due to having avoiding virtually any serious hurt myself. I was fascinated by how Ishiguro handled this in story – or rather that he doesn’t “handle” it: like the rest, it is just there, an element of the story which must be accepted, starkly unsettling as it can’t be ignored or explained away or minimized.

The other thing worth mentioning is the unique way Klara speaks, especially when compared to her internal narration (the book is written as her first-person account), although that also has its idiosyncracies, which mostly serve to illustrate how she experiences the world.

At the final verdice, Klara and the Sun is a good book. It’s the first I’ve read by Ishiguro: if one assumes his prize-nominated and -winning novels are even better, they also are certainly worth reading as well.

Review: Ellison’s Invisible Man

Reading Invisible Man produced an odd sort of emotional whiplash. Ellison’s prose is wonderful, and the reader is brought to identify with the struggles of his protagonist, who is misled by a series of abusive, hypocritical, or simply thoughtless superiors – as might happen to anyone. But Ellison, being and writing a black man in America, constantly considers not only his individual circumstances but his – or the character’s – role in relation to the racially-defined classes of his America and the power relationships – equally hypocritical socially as individually where we have said “all men are created equal”.

The emotional difficulty is this: Ellison’s wonderful prose creates identity between his narrator protagonist and the reader. But much of the tenor of discourse about racism today suggests that the identity is false – that for a white reader to perceive an identity with a black author’s concerns, especially about race, is not possible. I don’t believe this myself – Seneca’s dictum that “nothing human is foreign to me” is the right approach – but it colors the cultural atmosphere from which I read. That we all can identify with Ellison’s lament is in fact the point, and what makes the additional abuses heaped on his narrator’s life purely by an accident of skin color so horrific.

“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” So Ellison writes in the epilogue, and a lovely thing it is to have said. But I am not sure if Ellison believed it; and his protagonist surely does not. Or, does not at the end; or, has found the certain defeat too certain, and is content to abandon humanity. Society having failed to respect his manhood – having failed, in the metaphor begun in the title, even see his humanity – one can only pity the descent of gullible youth into paranoia or perhaps insanity; the novel is a classic tragedy in somewhere between three and five acts depending on your inclinations.

Ellison’s writing is magnificent, and I highly recommend this book to any mature reader prepared to deal with a certain amount of obscenity, not so much of language but in fact of scene, both sexual and otherwise.

Comments: Giles’ Six Old English Chronicles

I picked up this set of translations by J. A. Giles, some-time fellow of Oxford’s Corpus Christi college, in a used bookstore at some point. I’ve tagged this post “comments” rather than “review” because I my own lack of expertise and the nature of the compilation make the traditional review all but impossible. If I were either a fully-trained and practicing Latinist, or an authority on British history, I might be able to form more definite conclusions.

The six works included are translated from Latin originals, and mention in some form the invasions of Saxons et al., although beyond that I cannot conceive what particular theme was thought to unite them. I have no standing to dispute Giles’ claim that they are “all of essential importance to those who like to study history in the very words of contemporary writiers” – a noble goal – and yet the erratic arrangment of the resulting book leads me very much to doubt Gile’s primary claim was scholastic. I suspect, in fact, that he began the project as a dabbling in his spare time and eventually published out of vanity, or – less believably on the basis of likely sales – monetary need, or the request of some superior that he publish something, or that of students that his expertise be preserved.

My chief grounds for this suspicion are as follows:

  1. The apparent absence of any additional editing beyond Giles’ own. George Bell and Sons (the credited publisher) seem to have faithfully set the text they were sent, ignoring such howlers as the fact that the six chronicles are listed in a different order in the preface than the title page and the actual book.
  2. The openly amateur nature of the translation at times, most notably Ethelward’s Chronicle. The Latin, however corrupted, can hardly justify the choice to neither translate nor leave in the original text in several places. Similarly, the spurious account attributed to a “Richard of Cirencenster” has an absolutely muddled – and extensive – set of footnotes, some of which are evidently the original “translator”‘s and some of which must be Giles’ own, but I am unable to tell reliably which are which. Finally, Giles openly admits he had recourse to older translations, and in places as much as states he simply copied them, perhaps adjusting archaic language, when he thought they were already good enough.
  3. Giles himself seems undecided whether his work is driven by scholarship or interest. His preface takes pain to clarify his disbelief in Geoffrey of Monmouth and “Richard”. But the footnotes to Geoffrey are for the most part as painstaking in detail as for the works more “historical” to his own view, only occasionally protesting how vehemently he believes in its inaccuracy. He is inclined to believe Geoffrey at least thought his own sources were historical. Giles seems to encourage the reader to supposing that Geoffrey’s source may have been an expanded version of Nennius, whose work he is oddly content to take as fully historical, at least in intent, merely noting known inaccuracies despite the two telling remarkably similar stories. Geoffrey he seems to suspect of indulging a patron. Similarly, while he states in his preface that is “Richard” entirely spurious, he appears to actually suspect that that work is less fabrication than compilation, noting that much of it is copied or corrupted from Roman historians, chiefly Caesar – that in fact the only false representation may have been the pretense of the “discoverer” having knowledge of a specific original author. The “Iter”, or a record of travels (commonly kept, it appears, by Roman tax and military officials), Giles in fact excerpts entirely from “Richard”‘s narrative and treats as a completely legitimate copy of some other, otherwise unknown, source.

As regards the translation itself – at least where, as in parts of Ethelward and occasionally Geoffrey and Nennius, he does not just give up – he appears to have done a rather good job, at least in capturing author’s different tones, and also in presenting a unified voice for each, despite his own use of older translations. Ethelward’s is primarily genealogical, apparently sent in several installments to a relative married to some German king, and cramped by overly stylized familial affections. (The other works suggest it would be possible to figure out which king, and Giles thinks he’s worked out the right one, but I leave that aside for now.) Asser’s Life of Alfred is straightforward and inspiring, and if the reader does not quite believe all the legends I am not sure whether to blame Asser, Giles, wisdom, or a cynical age. Geoffrey is purely exciting, if incomprehensible in places, mainly due to the Merlinic prophecies. Gildas’s work is less history than sermon, and I recommend it – if not necessarily in this edition, which might be hard to find – to anyone as a corrective measure for today’s necessities. He was a man willing to blame his own “side” for their predicaments and chastise kings for their sins – a practice which seems to have eventually gotten him exiled to France.

Nennius is, as mentioned above, an earlier and more sober Geoffrey, though even he is hardly contemporary with the events he details: claiming to write in 858 AD. Giles states that various other authorities suggest alternate dates differing by up to a hundred years on either side – but on what grounds are unclear, as in date-keeping in their own time the chroniclers are rarely off (from our own estimates, or at least from Giles’ footnotes) by more than ten years, if that. “Richard” I suspect really is a spurious character, as he represents himself as a monk cribbing notes together in spare time and much reprimanded for such worldly pursuits by a superior – but I, like Giles, would like to think the actual collection of partial sources probably did exist somewhere, perhaps crammed on the back shelf of an abbey library, then abducted and subsequently forgotten for a hundred years by some Tudor lordling, finally being brought to light by some over-clever younger son. Giles does not illumine us as to who foisted “Richard” on the public, and I am not now in the mood to ruin my supposals by searching the internet.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery from these chronicles was the realization that Kipling’s would-be emperor Maximus, supporting character in the Roman portion of his Puck of Pook’s Hill, was an entirely real person – and if Kipling idealized him, perhaps not unbelieveably so, and his faults in Puck are his historical ones, if not all of them.

I would have gotten a better understanding from reading through with a map of Britain to hand: though it might not have resolved all difficulties, as the British geographers’ sense of place grows steadily more absymal as they get farther from Wales and Cornwall; the Saxons are as bad moving away from London; the number of towns no longer in existence or doubtfully identified or both is enormous; and Roman numerals, as Giles explains (for once quite clearly) are notoriously unreliable to read and copy and read again.

Altogether a fascinating volume to read, as the length of these comments may suggest, and the works – even Ethelward – are likely deserving of further attention and one can only thank Giles for introducing them, despite my intention to look for other editions next time.

Review: Scrooge

Scrooge is a musical version of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. The film from 1970 is a lot of fun although there’s a lot of over-acting and the music is for the most part second-rate. Albert Finney is quite good as Scrooge; the Cratchitts are all very well acted, and are a convincingly happy family. Marley’s Ghost – played by Alec Guinness – is rather a disappointment, though the costuming and effects perhaps are mainly responsible. Kenneth More’s Ghost of Christmas Present is rather better, though his seasonal trinketry, much like the other effects, is cheap and a bit dated. The director was also perhaps a little too enamoured of flying wire effects.

But that’s about it for the negatives. It sells the story – which benefits from the exaggerated tropes of musical theater. Actually my favorite thing about the film might be that the period costumes – although I rather doubt a consistent period is achieved – actually are carried off as clothes being worn and not just costumes. There is, I think, often a little disbelief that people would ever have actually worn such outrageous old fashions; in this film, especially during the party scenes, the effect really is something like, “Oh, those clothes really would be worn by real people.”

About the only memorable tune in the thing is the instantly recognizeable ear-worm “Thank You Very Much”, which gets some startling use the first time it shows up – a bit of black comedy one doesn’t quite expect but which very much works – and sets up the later reprise quite well also.

I’m not sure it’s quite a Christmas classic but it definitely invites a re-watch or several.

Review: The Brothers Karamazov

Earlier this year I undertook to re-read Dostoyevkey’s rather long novel. In theory I had gotten through it before, although it took a few tries, so I knew what I was getting into and I took precautions: I made sure I would in fact read it within a month or so, and made sure to get from the library the newer translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, rather than attempt the slog through the older one again. As a matter of fact I had virtually no recollection of the text after the first hundred pages or so.

The book remains a puzzle. The beginning is a terrible bore; the end is a terrible muddle; and the events in the middle are simply terrible. The story is – as the introduction suggests – clearly unfinished at the end of this one volume, which makes it hard to judge where the plot might have gone next, but this is then the only judgment to pass on the novel: incomplete.

The opening third of the book seems to set up a philosophical contrast. The elder Zosima with his advice of love and humility, to – in the more Biblical phrase – carry other people’s burdens, to consider oneself a sinner, the sinner, is contrasted with Ivan’s proud supposal in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor that in organizing society a class of overlords could carry sin, could take away guilt, from the masses. As a protest against God, Ivan’s description of the suffering of children is much more effective; placing his Inquisitor knowingly in the presence of Christ the claims of saving society amount to blasphemy, a claim that men could do what the Christian faith says Jesus has done already.

But it is hard to see how this in any way relates to the actual plot, such as it is; and in contrast to either philosophy’s grand intentions, Zosima’s disciple Alyosha accomplishes nothing of note, while Ivan for all his posturing can only be said to flee impending unpleasantness. One could perhaps wonder from the ending whether Dostoyevsky was preparing or implying something like the parable of the two brothers – the one who claimed obedience and did nothing, while the other who refused his duty actually carried it out.

On this point is rather obscured in the actual plot – by “plot” I mean the things that happen, as opposed to merely being talked about: jealousy, murder, flight, guilt, arrest, trial. Dostoyesky tells it rather well, only this is where things are left unfinished. Alyosha’s side-quests – well, one doesn’t expect all parts of a real life to fit together neatly, but other than the fact that Dostoyevsky’s narrator has decided to tell about a whole family it’s rather unclear what they have to do with anything, and if two brothers get such detailed treatment of their activities why not the third? It’s all rather tangled to contemplate.

In tone, half the book one gets details of thought and conversation but nothing happens – even things that do “happen” are buried under the tide of philosophic reflections; while in the other half – the half, or not quite, in the middle – lots of things happen with virtually no comment at all. The book is not quite the one thing or the other, and leaves the reader confused. None of the main characters are admirable, but their vices are too petty to themselves to pitiable to be really villainous. The philosophy is unclear and in any case lies dead on the page. Other than an account of what we’d mostly like life to really not be like – despite a creeping suspicion it often is – it’s not clear to me what exactly one is supposed to get out of this book.

The Worst Honor Harrington Book

I’ll start with the warnings.  First, this is a rant, and it’s a rant by a fan.  There will be spoilers.  Second, this is not actually about the worst Honor Harrington book (that I’ve read), which is Cauldron of Ghosts, but that’s properly a side story and not the main line.  And if I think David Weber’s been letting Eric Flint influence the main story too much, let alone the side story that’s mostly Flint’s own creation and responsibility, well, that’s not really the point here either.

Third, this isn’t really even about my complaints about certain ‘verse-building choices – the addition of treecat sign language, the title character’s developing psychic empathic powers, or even (since it doesn’t even show up in the book in question) the use of Mesan nanotechnology as a deus ex machina whenever Weber or his co-authors write themselves into a corner that requires something really implausible to get out of.  Or occasionally something really implausible to set up future conflicts.

No, this is about the problems with War of Honor, in which a number of David Weber’s authorial weaknesses combine in unfortunate ways, as well as one gigantic mistake by his characters that even Weber’s having them point out as a mistake they made doesn’t keep it from being a major problem with the plot.

I’ll get this major plot hole out of the way first.  The climactic battle only works out in Harrington’s favor because a heavy reinforcement for her understrength Manticoran force is sent to her unofficially from Grayson.  Yet the opposing Havenite fleet commanders knew the reinforcements were missing from their normal post on a “training” mission, and never even ask if the destination (or exercise area) is known.  And these are supposed to be the smart opponents, not the dumb ones that have been thinned out over the course of the series.  Of course these mistakes do happen in war – but this one is just a little too convenient, made in the execution of a plan that’s supposedly been worked over with several of the proverbial fine-toothed combs.  It sours the taste of the final victory – and piling on another improbable scouting coincidence that let Harrington know a surprise attack was coming and set a trap only makes it worse.

So the plot, as it concerns Harrington, has a rather hollow core.  But if the only problem were the military implausibilities, it could be shrugged off.  The history of military operations is in some respects nothing but a collection of really stupid decisions from people who should have known better, or others who just got absurdly lucky, from Carrhae to Agincourt to Midway.

No, what really grates is the Manticoran politicos.  For a change, the opposition parties (from the perspective of most of the main characters) have charge of things – and there’s not a reputable viewpoint among them.  Which, from Weber, whose work is distinctive in large part because of his dedication to presenting antagonists as openly – and mostly fairly – as possible, is an awful falling off.  His Havenite oligarchs that we start the series with are hardly sympathetic, but they’re as invested in trying to control the tiger they’re stuck riding as merely continuing to make a profit – not nice people, but not abnormal, and unsentimentally aware they’re stuck with a poor system, as far as they can see – or dare to see, at least.  His first batch of revolutionaries are presented symapthetically, even though their behavior is modeled on some of the worst excesses of the French and Russian revolutions.  The rather blatantly named Rob S. Pierre, in particular, is a fairly well-done portrait of an extremist with good intentions trying to deal with the results of his own initial success.

Of course one can write a series in flatter tones, with villains and heroes plain to see if not quite color-coded.  But that’s not Weber’s reputation: so when that’s the tone for the heroes merely domestic antagonists (while the foreign enemies and allies retain their respectful presentations – mostly), the book as a whole is jarringly out of place in the series – or the series as it was to that point.  As noted in passing above, I think Eric Flint’s influence as a co-author has had an over-simplifying effect on the series (to say nothing of Weber, partly because of Flint’s side series, ending up having to write himself out of a hole dug by not wrapping up the story where he originally intended).  But Flint writes openly uncomplicated stories with over-the-top hijinks: by way of cheap comparison, he plays Errol Flynn to Weber’s Humphrey Bogart.

Worst of all, however – though it’s only a tiny detail in one sense – is that War of Honor begins in the middle of a truce, and despite these open villains taking charge of Manticore’s government, and being presented quite early as perfectly willing to present a selective view of diplomatic correspondence for public – or even wider private – consumption, Weber can’t quite bring himself to have Manticore commit the final falsifications of correspondence that bring the war raging back.  Instead it’s pinned for plot purposes on Haven’s new Secretary of State and his staff.  Now said official is ambitious enough for any three normal people, but that’s par for the course among politicians even in this universe.  But it’s never convincingly explained exactly what he thinks he’s getting from the changes made – which are not specified.  (And, to put the side-stepping cherry on top, in the sequel he’s conveniently discarded before the question can be forced in Haven of what exactly the diplomatic responsibilities are between President and Secretary of State – as what he’s guilty of – that we’re told about – is more or less making changes without informing the President.)

Fortunately for Weber, the next two volumes published in the Honorverse were side stories – one Flint’s creation, the other Weber’s own idea to continue the story after the main plot wrapped up – and much lighter in tone, so that when he got around to finishing At All Costs, the volume that was supposed to wrap up the main story – even if it had in the meantime been dragged much closer chronologically to the other now-continuing intended-to-be-sequel series than Weber had planned – I at least was ready to see what happened without too much trepidation and the bad taste of this one rather forgotten.  But it’s a really bad taste.

Three Reviews: Bruce, Morris, Van Til

F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (1988)

This work is a historical overview of the establishment of the Christian scriptural canon.  Bruce makes brief reference to but largely avoids questions of textual criticism.  Similarly, though a congregationalist evangelical himself, he does not spend any significant time on any discussion of the mode of inspiration or the formal relation of Scriptural to church authority.  The only real surprise is that he suggests Protestants ought to value the apocryphal books more highly, in view of the early Church’s opinion of their usefulness.  For New Testament works, Bruce supports early or apostolic dating, but is not tied to direct apostolic authorship where that is disputed.

The book is sensibly organized and clearly written.  I am not qualified to detect errors of fact or judgment, and I do not know what changes of opinion have been effected by the thirty years of scholarship and study since this book was written.  With that caveat, though, I would recommend this work as a good introduction to the history of the Christian Bible.

Charles R. Morris, A Rabble of Dead Money

Morris describes himself in the postscript as “an historian with a professional background in finance”.  In this history of the Great Depression, although he  begins with an overview of the social and technological conditions of the 1920s, Morris’s main task is to trace various financial decisions that contributed to and then alleviated the Depression.  I found the book immensely helpful for some of the details Morris traces: the development of electric and automobile machinery and marketing; the competing financial models and goals – to say nothing of maneuvering, some amounting to outright fraud – among the world powers (and huge corporations) in the 1920s; and the examination of the effects of Roosevelt’s programs during the Depression.

Although Morris clearly lays out a pattern of causes and effects, he is not here concerned to answer the (to my mind, serious) questions about legality, debt, or sustainability.  He would like to conclude, for example, that Roosevelt’s programs had essentially ended the Great Depression by 1936: he demonstrates that in terms of the financial markets and prices this is actually true.  But he admits that when Roosevelt cut back his “emergency” programs in 1937 on the theory that normal conditions were restored, he quickly had to reinstate them as markets destabilized again.  Morris takes this as a demonstration of the value of intervention, but never addresses the resulting government debt – or whether it is actually a good thing to have the government essentially “locked in” to supporting the economy.  In fairness, the sustainability is perhaps beyond the scope of Morris’s work; management of the debt through the 1970s suggests that such programs might be manageable under the lending-and-interest model of modern finance; but Morris doesn’t even suggest there’s a question, let alone address the legal questions.

Similarly, while his financial indicators may support his thesis, he is forced to admit that in terms of unemployment the “traditional” opinion that it took World War II to end the Depression is valid.  Even the figures counting relief work as employment show at least 9% unemployment persisting through 1940.  The only reason, though, that the failure to address these issues becomes a weakness of the whole book is that in his short postscript he undertakes to briefly analyze some of the failures that led to our recent “Great Recession”.  He attempts to draw parallels – but to draw parallels in four pages between two extended periods, once of which one has just spent three hundred pages describing, is a risky business.  Morris manages no certainty in this postscript, and only highlights some of the larger causal risks in the most general terms.

On the whole, I found this a valuable book.  If certain questions go unanswered, they are after all not the questions suggested by conventional modern finance.  The outline Morris provides of international monetary policies is the most valuable part of the book, as he lays out the differing programs with clarity even for those like myself who are financially uninformed.  He also has a great sympathy for almost everyone involved; he quote another writer to the effect that one ought not to expect anyone to have learned anything from the Great Depression before it happened.

Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism (1963)

Despite my own Reformed Christian beliefs, I do not believe I have ever read anything by Van Til, apart from excerpts featured in Sunday school classes and, if I am not mistaken, in one philosophy class.  The man’s reputation is rather weighty; so I was pleased to find this slim volume, with a title apparently indicating a subject matter of brief apologetic summary of his views.

However, this book is actually itself a review of books, though in the final part Van Til does lay out his own theories of apologetics in rather polemic style.  It seems that Westminster Press asked three theologians to prepare short books justifying their views of the Christian faith in terms of modern philosophic concepts: Horden advocating a “New Reformation”, DeWolf professing a “liberal” Christianity, and Carnell espousing the “orthodox” faith.  Van Til undertakes to show that the first two are not in any essential way different from each other, – and then that the “orthodox” theologian has not in fact made a good argument for his case despite (Van Til says) holding traditional dogma himself.

I will admit here that I do not have the philosophical or theological background to have fully understood either all of Van Til’s references or some of his arguments.  Van Til’s authors rely on Kierkegaard and Barth, neither of whom I have read; and Van Til accuses them all of being Kantians, while I am not sure I ever understood Kant and only vaguely remember what I did read.  Appeal is also made to other more modern authors, the majority of whom I had never heard of.  My following comments are therefore tentative, as made from a position of relative ignorance.

To my mind, the scheme of the book is essentially a failure.  Horden, whom Van Til treats first, appears from the included excerpts to be the most orthodox of the three: Horden’s scheme is, in professed reaction against Barth, to re-establish the Reformation dogmas in modern philosophic terms.  Based on Van Til’s criticism, he may in some methodological ways have anticipated today’s N. T. Wright; it is not clear from Van Til’s excerpts that he held any unusual doctrines.  In contrast, DeWolf is (at best) a self-confessed modalist; when Van Til accuses him of finding a “Christianity” which adds nothing to what man already knows, I am not sure DeWolf would have disagreed.  If Van Til wished to prove the man a heretic, his job was easy; if Van Til really thought he attempted refutation, the job is sadly incomplete.

Van Til then proceeds to contrast both of these authors with Carnell, the “orthodox” expositor.  This section is more baffling still, as Van Til does not confine himself to the work supposedly reviewed, but drags in reams of matter from Carnell’s other works.  Carnell appears under this scrutiny to have been a bit of a careless enthusiast: some of the passages Van Til cites are in fact alarming, though Van Til repeatedly assures the reader that Carnell’s actual beliefs are orthodox, and it is only his methods which are questionable.  Carnell appears to have thought that any common human mode of inquiry – philosophic, scientific, emotional – honestly pursued will lead at least to the recognition of God.  The grounds on which Van Til prefers Carnell to Horden are not at all clarified in this section.

In the final section Van Til lays out his own position, a statement of “Calvinism” which Van Til believes to be the true form of Christianity.  For Van Til, the evidence of Calvinism’s veracity is that it professes a “self-authenticating” God and leaves no room for human autonomy; he essentially rejects the entire project his three authors had embarked on, as not beginning with the fact of God’s existence and Christ’s testimony.  He criticizes Roman Catholicism not here for doctrinal errors but for supposing human philosophy might be useful or valid; he dismisses “natural theology” and by implication natural law as well, and seems only grudgingly to admit any effect or existence of common grace.

I am inclined to think Van Til misread Socrates, the apostle Paul, and possibly the authors he reviewed here as well: he makes Socrates’ question to Euthyphro on holiness evidence of a philosopher’s arrogance; he characterizes Paul as attacking Greek superstition much as Van Til here attacks modern philosophy, when a less-close minded reading of, for instance, Acts 17 would find Paul making the same kind of “natural theology” argument Van Til condemns.  Seeing this where I do know some of the material, but bot myself familiar with the modern philosophic terminology, I am not sure whether Van Til’s dismissal of all three author’s concern for the difference between known and unknown in God’s revelation is critically legitimate or simply unsympathetic.

Van Til’s book does not succeed as a refutation of the works he discusses; he refuses to participate in their dialogue.  I am sympathetic – as how could any Christian not be? – to his claim that all things are under the dominion of Christ; but I am not convinced by his axiom that any systematic inquiry which does not explicitly begin with the acknowledgment of that lordship is illegitimate and unhelpful.  He has some useful things to say about the meaninglessness of “systems” either of pure determinism or pure chance, and the contradictions implied in trying to combine them; but this philosophic critique is here swallowed up in pure rant.