Revelations

Watership Down

I don’t know whether Richard Adams wrote any other novels, or books of any other sort, for that matter, but this one is a masterpiece. If all you know is that it’s about rabbits, or even (as I’d vaguely assumed) something to do with the English countryside, the pathos of the storytelling will come as a surprise. These are particularly heroic rabbits!

The most curious thing about the novel is Adams’ careful attention to keeping his plot very nearly to the strictly plausible. There are of course fantastic elements – this is a “talking animals book” after all – but the critters are much less humanized than I’d have expected.

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, and Other Stories

Along with the opening story that give the volume its name, this collection of Roger Zelazny short stories features the other stunners “The Keys to December” and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – along with other quite good material that still comes off, by comparison, as so much filler.

This collection also served to crystallize an understanding of Zelazny’s work as a whole: he was simply fascinated by genius, supermen in a practically Nietzschean sense. Virtually all of his work that’s not purely comic – and some of that – features one or more. It’s taken a while for this to sink in, simply because of the range of variations he plays on the theme.

It’s an interesting – or amusing – contrast to his own workmanlike and carefully planned-out writing career. It did make me wonder what we might have gotten had Zelazny gotten a chance to write some actual Superman stories.

Rebecca

There are apparently a lot of books with this title. The one I read is the one by Daphne du Maurier. I don’t know that I can quite do it justice. I’ve not read another book that manages to quite capture the socially petrifying imagination – of scenes gone wrong; of scenes gone right but obviously impossible, and baffling even if possible – that characterizes her protagonist narrator’s self-image particularly in the first part of the book.

Weirdly – at least without spoilers – the best impression I can give of its tone is by comparison. It owes quite a deal to Jane Eyre; in fact, one can almost interpret it as Jane Eyre for a later generation. Which later generation I refer to can best be explained by saying that everybody being force to read The Great Gatsby ought to read this instead. (Except that du Maurier was not American, a qualification without which nobody would ever have to assign The Great Gatsby in the first place, but which also prevents Rebecca‘s entry into that lists.)

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.

Reviews: Unicorn Variations, The History of the Franks

In what will probably be the final review in my year-long project, I add in a couple different books – one a collection of short stories (science fiction and fantasy) and essays by Roger Zelazny, and one a quite antique book of European History.  It’s been a little bit interesting to have a reason to note what I’ve been reading: my chief discovery was how very much I actually re-read; the other thing I noticed was that I rarely seem to have fewer than three books in progress at a time – if nothing else, I’ll have a bit of light reading, a more serious work, and then some other book at school for downtime – and this is without considering any devotional reading.

Unicorn Variations

A major theme of this collection is foreign intelligences – alien, man-made, or mythological.  Other stories are perhaps better thought of as Zelazny’s thought experiments on sex and death – not that they don’t overlap.  Most stories are introduced briefly, and interspersed with the stories are some short essays on writing fiction (some specifically addressing science fiction).  Not all feature Zelazny as his best – in particular, the lead and titular story “Unicorn Variation” is somewhat meandering, perhaps a result of having too many ideas attempted in too few pages.  (Alternatively, because the actual story is, at the length it is told, fairly uninteresting.)

Although this has nothing to do with the collection as a whole, I did notice with some surprise that when I read the story “Home is the Hangman”, I recognized it – from the very first Zelazny I ran across, a novel of sorts (which someone else had brought along to round-up for a high school Shakespeare adaptation) called My Name is Legion.  Having taken a look, I found that Legion is a rather artificial construct – three short stories featuring the same character (perhaps originally only similar ones?) strung together.

The History of the Franks

Gregory of Tours’ work, on the other hand, is a fairly scholarly piece of business written in a popular tone – to the point I wondered whether the translator ( Lewis Thorpe) might not have overdone it a bit in places.  To go through it properly would take a good deal of time and some careful note-taking to keep all the names straight.  It’s an enjoyable read, not too long: Gregory takes a section to go through the entire history of the world (as he understood it) and then gets down to the rather gory business of the Frankish kingdoms’ politics and occasional ecclesiastical disputes.

The book produced a number of impressions, of which I will mention the most notable.  First, Gregory’s history covers quite a bit of his own time, and it is curious how self-effacing he is when dealing with political matters, especially when contrasted with his lengthy narratives of a few ecclesiastical or religious controversies.  Second, it serves as a useful reminder to be careful about our self-evaluations: despite the History being mainly one of chaos and civil war, at one point Gregory calmly declares how much better off the Franks have been than those heretical Arian Visigoths (the Spanish kingdoms), whose king had to put down a rebellion by his son.  Third, remarkable mainly because of the weather this year, for several years in a row Gregory notes that the Winter was much warmer than usual.

A curious fact is the number of things Gregory (or his later copyists) managed to get wrong, despite all his evident care – the most startling are his misnaming or misarranging of Biblical persons in his introduction (the translator suggests that he must have felt confident enough to work from memory), but evidently (judging from the footnotes) Gregory’s account does not entirely agree with other contemporary works as to the names or order of various dynasties.  However, those same footnotes also mention periodically – perhaps a dozen times – that one or another of Gregory’s sources has, sadly, since been lost.