“The Sword of Lincoln” by Jeffry D. Wert reviewed

1 May 2009

Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2005. 404 pp.

The Sword of Lincoln

The Sword of Lincoln

The Sword of Lincoln is a competant Civil War history but breaks little ground for anyone who qualifies as a Civil War buff and isn’t accessible and broad enough to be an introduction to the conflict.  The book focuses exclusively on the Federal Army of the Potomac which the author, Jeffry D. Wert, calls “America’s most star-crossed army [who] would be cursed, even damned, with the burdens of defending Washington, inept leadership, and a splendid opponent.” (3)  In the same line, he quotes military historian Williamson Murray, who said that “The Army of the Potomac had a record of unambiguous failure matched by no other unit of equivalent size in the history of the United States Army.” (414)  Murray said the army only won two major battles, lots twelve, and drew one (Antietam) during the course of the conflict.  The book looks in more depth at the reasons for the army’s failures and how it eventually got to Appomattox.

The book’s many pages describing the battles are good enough, but nothing special.  The book has only about a dozen maps, but they’re not as helpful as they could be and none show theater-level features.  The book also has problems in the picture department.  It features 20 pictures between pages 178-179 and then the same exact 20 pictures again between pages 370-371.  I’m guessing that the book was supposed to have a different second set of images; as it is, the book lacks images of George McClellan, Joseph Hooker, and Ambrose Burnside, an otherwise inexplicable omission (there are no images of Confederates).

The book is good when describing the evolution of the army and when analyzing the army’s ever changing commanding generals and their relationship to President Lincoln and the political situation in the North.  The army did not start off very auspiciously;  when they first showed up in Washington to defend the capital they completely lacked discipline.  (Wert doesn’t mention this, but some Massachusetts troops being bivouacked in the Senate chamber bayonetted Jefferson Davis’s desk; it still bears the marks today.)  After their first combat at the Battle of Bull Run, William Tecumseh Sherman opined that “Our men are not good soldiers. They brag, but don’t perform, complain loudly if they don’t get everything they want, and a march of a few miles uses them up.  It will take a long time to overcome these things, and what is in store for us in the future I know not.” (28)   The early officers weren’t any better. The first commanders were basically just guys who happened to be at hand at the time—one guy tapped to command a division hadn’t been in the military for 30 years, but happened to be in Washington at the time.  This basically doomed the Union forces to lackluster and incompetant leadership until better commanders, like Sherman and Grant, could rise up.  Unfortunately, while Wert points out that the Army of Northern Virginia had much better leaders almost from the start, he fails to address why they ended up with so much abler commanders.

The author does a good job examining the strengths and weaknesses of George McClellan and his successors, like Joseph Hooker and George Meade.  His analysis is fair, and he pays due regard to their strong points, which were mainly apparent off the battlefield on the organizational and administrative side of things.  One interesting revelation from the book concerns the endurance of the men’s fondness for McClellan, even after he was dismissed for the second time by Lincoln.  Even shortly after the Army of the Potomac won it’s greatest victory at Gettysburg rumors were easily spread within the army that “Little Mac” was coming back.  Given how little regard history has for McClellan’s leadership, this is surprising to a modern reader.  Wert explains that the poor showing of McClellan among the troops when he ran against Lincoln for President in 1864 was due to a plank in the Democratic platform to negotiate with the South.  A book exploring the exact feelings of the men in the ranks for McClellan could be quite interesting based on these points.

Lincoln, of course, had less and less patience for McClellan’s reluctance to engage the enemy as the war went on.  When McClellan used the excuse that the army’s horses were too tired, Lincoln’s reply is classic: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”  The President took to calling the Army of the Potomac “General McClellan’s body-guard.”  (177)  After Lincoln visited the army after Antietam and judged that he was more popular with the men than McClellan, Lincoln had the confidence to dismiss him for good.179)  Wert, who calls McClellan “the most controversial commander” of the army, explores some of the other excuses and reasons that Mac had for his less than fierce leadership style but breaks no new ground there.  What he does present that I found interesting concerns the president’s view of the military situation:

Lincoln saw, however, that neither Burnside nor any other general in the army seemed to grasp a truth about Fredericksburg.  There was, he told a secretary, an ‘awful arithmetic’ to the conflict.  The disparity in casualties between the Federals and Confederates in the battle had been staggering.  But in Lincoln’s reckoning, if the two armies fought each other every day for a week and sustained a similar casualty rate, the Rebels would be wiped out, and the Army of the Potomac would still be ‘a mighty host.’  According to his secretary, the president asserted, ‘No general yet found can face the arithmetic, but the end of the war will be at hand when he shall be discovered.'” (208)

It seems that most Civil War books have an inherent point of view that they’re pushing, and this one isn’t an exception.  Wert seems to strain to find praise to lavish on the Army of the Potomac, even when little is due.  After their poor showing at Bull Run he says that from that battle “came the beginning of one of the army’s enduring characteristics—a resiliancy in the aftermath of a defeat that approached defiance.” (28)  Of course, the Union army had many advantages in recruiting and materiel that the Rebels didn’t have and it was those factors, more than the army’s “resiliance” that ultimately decided the war in the North’s favor, factors that Wert doesn’t examine in much depth, due to the level of his analysis.  He also fails to really comment on the effect of men leaving the army at the expiration of their terms, which many men did in 1864 on account of their three-year enlistments.  Fortunately for the North, many subsequently re-enlisted, but often only after returning home and being out of the war for months. 

Those looking for a good overview of the Civil War obviously won’t find that here.  This book focuses only on the Army of the Potomac and mentions other theaters and aspects of the war only in passing (and in a way that presumes some knowledge of the larger war).  This book failed, for me, to sufficiently explain the political factors that weighed on the book’s subject, “Lincoln’s sword.”  Northern sentiment is hardly touched on and the word Copperhead doesn’t even appear.  The analysis is no more in depth than the claims that (1) Lincoln didn’t want Washington, D.C. to be captured and (2) Lincoln needed victories in the war to maintain public support for said war.  The book’s observations and analysis of the Army of the Potomac is insufficiently skilled and insightful to make up for the book’s narrow focus.  I’d recommend readers turn elsewhere for a good Civil War read.

“The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien reviewed

26 April 2009

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien. Ballatine Books (1977). 369 pp.

One of the covers for the Ballatine edition

One of the covers for the Ballatine edition

The Silmarillion is not a novel, despite that word appearing on the spine of my paperback edition; it contains the mythology of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world, Middle Earth.  The stories are often only loosely connected and don’t form a unified whole; they were intended for eventual publication, but it fell to Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, to put the material into final form.  As one might imagine, the results are mixed, but those completely in love with the world of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit may beg to differ.

For me, the high point of the work was the first of it’s five divisions: Ainulindalë (which translates to “The Music of the Ainur” in one of Tolkien’s many made up languages).  It is a creation myth which tells of how Ilúvatar, God, creates the world.  It is a work of stunning beauty and I cannot resist quoting it’s opening:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.  And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.  But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly.  Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent. (3)

The myth is clearly informed by Christian mythology, most notably in how one of the Ainur, Melkor, wishes for greater prominence and tries to gain control of creation, an obvious parallel to Satan.  Melkor, a.k.a. Morgoth, is the work’s villian; he spends the whole Simlarillion trying to screw things up for everyone else.  In the Ainulindalë when he tries to take control of the music of creation, Ilúvatar chides him “thou … shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.  For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (6)  It is interesting to note that Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, conceived of Ilúvatar as a fictionalized portrayal of God as described in the Christian tradition.  This being so, the work can inform us of Tolkien’s theodicy, which seems close to that given in the Book of Job; he elsewhere declares that, ultimately, “evil [will] be good to have been.” (113)  While that’s not necessarily copied consciously from Job, other aspects of the story very probably are.  Ilúvatar destroys much of the world due to the wickedness of men echoes the Flood and, more subtlely Aulë’s creation of the dwarves due to his impatience is possibly a reference to Abram’s impatience for children.

The second division of the book, Valaquenta (“Account of the Valar”) continues where the creation account leaves off; some of the Ainur enter the world, at which point they are called Valar, which are basically gods with a small g.  Oh, and some other beings that are basically the same but less powerful also exist and they’re called Maiar, one of which becomes Sauron later on.

The bulk of The Silmarillion, about 276 of its 369 pages, is the Quenta Silmarillion (“The History of the Silmarils”).  This is a collection of somewhat connected myths dealing with the Silmarils, three crystals made by a craftsman that contained the light that used to be emitted from two giant trees before a giant spider killed them, necessitating the creation of the Sun and Moon.  There are 24 chapters that somewhat stand on their own but for the most part do clearly belong in a series, albeit loosely.  Here is where a problem arises: there are far too many names—almost all of them oddly spelled and/or hard to pronounce—for one to follow what is going on with any degree of ease.  Consider the following passage, which is fairly typical:

At that time Beren and Lúthien yet dwelt in Tol Galen, the Green Isle, in the River Adurant, southernmost of the streams that falling from Ered Lindon flowed down to join with Gelion; and their son Dior Eluchíl had to wife Nimloth, kinswoman of Celeborn, prince of Doriath, who was wedded to the Lady Gladriel.  The sons of Dior and Nimloth were Eluréd and Elurín; and a daughter was also born to them, and she was named Elwing, which is Star-spray, for she was born on a night of stars, whose light glittered in the spray of the waterfall of Lanthir Lamath beside her father’s house. (290)

According to my count, that passage contains 105 words, of which 36 are proper names.  And since most of these names are made up words, often with odd accent marks, and often differing by only a few characters—Eluchíl, Eluréd, Elurín—it becomes very difficult to keep track of who is who, a task made even more difficult by the fact that one also needs to keep track of whether the character is a god, an elf, a dwarf, a human, or something else. The book does contain an index of names to try to make this workable.  It is 53 pages long and contains 799 entries.  So, there are 799 proper names and terms in a book that is just 369 pages long—that’s over 2 new names and terms per page that you have to keep track of.  Good luck keeping track; Tolkien rarely introduces characters in a way that reminds you who they are.  Oh, and some of the characters, like the aforementioned Melkor/Morgoth, have multiple names, which the author switches between at will.  The worst offender in this regard is Túrin, a.k.a Neithan, a.k.a. Gorthol, a.k.a. Agarawen, a.k.a. Mormegil, a.k.a. Wildman of the Woods, a.k.a. Turambar.  Does he really need seven names?

I realize, of course, that this is precisely what attracts many readers to The Silmarillion, the sense of a richer and more interesting world that this implied history implies.  I have no problem with that and am glad that they enjoy the book.  However, I am not one of those people and this just alienates me from the text; I don’t like the storyline enough to make that massive investment needed to keep track of all this stuff.  So for me it’s just “That guy with the A name attacking the people from the N place.”  Who are these people?  I dunno.  I think the A guy is the good guy though.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in 1972

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in 1972

Anyway, enough criticizing; there were many things I liked about the book besides the creation myth.  Ungoliant, the aforementioned giant spider, an ancestor of Shelob from The Lord of the Rings, was interesting.  Melkor manipulated her into killing the two magic trees that lit up the world and then she turned on him when he wouldn’t let her eat the Silmarils.  Tolkien writes that some say “she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda”, (80) an archetypal reference to light and dark that will be pleasantly familiar to any reader of Tolkien’s magnum opus (or any one of a number of major works of world literature, including John’s Gospel).  She is so voracious that “she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last.” (90)  Melkor was also an interesting, if  two-dimensional, character.  I kept wanting to see some sign that he would eventually be redeemed, but none ever came.  Of course, this is only a history of Middle Earth up to a certain point, and what comes after can be left up to the reader.  It was interesting that several times it is noted that the ultimate fate of men after their deaths is unknown, (327, et al), unlike the fates of other races, like the elves.

My favorite story from the Quenta Silmarillion was “Of Maeglin,” which had a manageable cast of characters, no massive battle scenes, and involved no supernatural intervention from the gods, which is almost always an ad hoc way to write yourself out of a problem. Of course, the logic of myths doesn’t follow the logic of history or of everyday life.  However, the Silmarillion is supposed to be both myth and history, and it doesn’t work as both.  For instance, when the two light-giving trees are killed, and when the Silmarils are stolen, one wonders why replacements can’t simply be made.  Answer: some things can only be done once.  Now, in a myth, that is a perfectly acceptable answer, but in considered in the light of real life there’s no apparent reason why that is so.

Or consider the Silmarils themselves.  They are so good and pure that they burn anyone evil who touches them.  So, of course, Morgoth, the most evil person ever, puts them in a crown and wears them on his head.  Then, at the end, two of the Silmarils end up in the hands of two evil guys and said hands are then burned.  So, notwithstanding that they have just about the greatest thing ever that everyone has been trying to get for ages, the guys just chuck the crystals into a deep chasm and the ocean, respectively and the Silmarils are history.  As a myth, that’s a beautiful story.  As history, it’s silly.  And that’s generally what happens when you take a myth and try to make it literal: you don’t make it more meaningful, you make it ridiculous, or even contemptible.  I do not, however, think that this issue will present itself to many of the work’s readers, and one can certainly read the book as pure mythology.

In summation, the writing style makes the book much less accessible than it could have been.  I would only recommend it to people who really loved The Lord of the Rings, especially the songs and implied history therein.  (But note that if, like me, you are curious to learn more about Ancalagon the Black, he is disposed of in a single sentence.)  Lots more maps (there are two in this edition) and a chronology would  have been extremely helpful and made the book more accessible.

“A Reporter’s Life” by Walter Cronkite reviewed

19 April 2009

A Reporter’s Life by Walter Cronkite. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1996). 382 pp.

A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite

A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite

Published in 1996, Walter Cronkite’s memoirs, A Reporter’s Life, document an exciting life and career and reveal an engaging and decent man.  He begins, naturally, with his early life.  His childhood was a happy one and isn’t dwelt upon too much.  He quickly became involved with the media; he started out selling newspapers but rapidly progressed to being a cub reporter and then to more serious assignments.  He clearly loved the industry, writing fondly about “the heavy odor of printer’s ink and pulp paper and melting lead, and the building-shaking rumble of the big presses.” (33)  His journey to being the first news anchor and “the most trusted man in America” took him to Houston, Kansas City, Europe—including Soviet Russia—and other places, while going from newspapers to radio and back before landing on television.  Along the way, he shares a number of great stories and observations that are interesting and often quite insightful about how the news industry has changed.  For instance, he argues that competition between newspapers is good for accuracy: readers—and editors—can compare stories between newspapers, providing great incentive for the reporter to get it right.  With few cities now supporting multiple newspapers, this incentive is largely diminished or absent.

During his lengthy career Cronkite had innumerable exciting and unique experiences.  He met Bonnie and Clyde’s partner in crime, Ray Hamilton; he was also forced to vote—twice—by Boss Pendergast’s political machine in Kansas City; and he had a number of adventures in WWII, which he reported on from a number of angles.  He went on a bombing raid, serving as a gunner in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which require reporters to be non-combatants.  He also flew on a sub-hunting mission to Iceland and back; they bombed a whale, having mistaken it for a u-boat.  And on D-Day he flew with another bombing mission, but that time they didn’t bomb anything due to clouds.  Later, he flew into France with some infantrymen on a glider, which he doesn’t recommend as a way to go to war.  One of his best wartime experiences happened when riding with Patton’s Third Army to the relief of Bastogne.  Patton stopped his tank when he saw Cronkite riding in a jeep without a helmet.  The reporter had to sheepishly admit that it had fallen off… and rolled into a minefield.  Upon learning that Cronkite was a war correspondent and not a soldier, Patton simply cursed and drove on.

Like everyone of that generation, Cronkite was effected by his experiences of the war.   He expresses internationalist views, which are also influenced, I imagine, by his many experiences working and living all over the world.  He writes that:

The world is unlikely to survive a third world war, which would almost certainly bring universal nuclear devastation.  If we are to avoid that catastrophe, a system of world order—preferably a system of world government—is mandatory.  The proud nations someday will see the light and, for the common good and their own survival, yield up their precious sovereignty just as America’s thirteen colonies did two centuries ago. (128)

He doesn’t develop these views, and one suspects that his own views don’t extend much deeper than that to all the difficulties that world government would entail and the obstacles to forming one at this time.

Cronkite’s insight on the many U.S. presidents that he knew is very interesting.  He writes that, as many are now coming to realize, Eisenhower was not the lazy, hands-off chief executive that had previously been portrayed.  He says that Nixon was easily “the most complicated personality to occupy the Oval Office”, but the reporter got along well with the 37th president; Cronkite was later disappointed not to have made his “enemies list.”  (224) The author says Nixon’s successor, “President-by-accident” Gerald Ford, was “one of the more affable, straight-arrow presidents,” though Reagan “won the affability contest hands down,” (238) though Cronkite largely disagreed with Reagan’s laissez-faire, trickle down policies.  Some of his observations are more surprising.  For instance, he says that

Of the presidents I have known since Herbert Hoover, the best brain was possessed by Jimmy Carter.  I base this not on his political or administrative skills, which clearly were wanting, but on his incredible ability to read complicated material and file and catalog it in his memory so that it could be instantly recalled when needed. (225)

He shares an anecdote when Carter extemporaneously “delivered an excruciatingly long dissertation on the history of all agricultural supports with facts and figures relating to every increase in milk prices since World War I.” (226)  I also found Cronkite’s thoughts on would-be president Adlai Stevenson, who he covered during the ’52 campaign, to be interesting.

I became a great admirer of his intellect, his personality, his gentlemanliness.  I also decided he would probably not make a good President.  He was almost too bright, too humane, too liberal (in the best sense of the word).  He saw and understood, it seemed, all sides of all issues. (181-2)

Cronkite seems fair in his assessments of the various politicians he covered.  His own views seem to be pretty centrist; he refers critically to the right wing several times, but has nothing against Republicans per se.  He is also not a leftist, writing critically about “confiscatory inheritance taxes” that he had to deal with. (374) Various people at different times wanted Cronkite to become involved in politics by running for office, without even knowing his positions on the issues.  He always turned them down—including Senator Ted Kennedy, who wanted Cronkite to run for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1968.  Cronkite worried that “once there a prominent network anchor ran for public office, the people might suspect all news anchors of doctoring the news to satisfy secret political ambitions. (259)  He says “I can go Sherman one step further. … Not only if nominated, I would not run, and if elected, I would not serve, but if perchance I did serve, I would be impeached.” (210)

The chapter dealing with coverage of the space program was quite interesting, as were his dealings with Apartheid-era South Africa and the Middle East peace process, which was somewhat facilitated by one of Cronkite’s interviews of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.  Cronkite’s work also took him to the rain forest, the Himalayas, and 8500 ft. to the ocean bottom in the Alvin.  He also came close to going into space; he was one of 40 finalists to be NASA’s first reporter in space before the civilian in space program was ended when its first participant, teacher Christa McAuliffe, was killed in the Challenger disaster.

Anyway, all of that is sort of interesting and adventuresome, but Cronkite’s observations and views on the evolution of the media and its place in a democratic society are the most thought provoking parts of the book.  He points out that back when political bosses selected the candidates, they did the screening; but now that candidates are selected not by party leaders but by voters in primary elections, the role of the press is much more important—since people are choosing their own candidates, they must have the information necessary to screen those men and women themselves. (197-8)  Unfortunately, the evening news is not a good way for voters to do this.  The average sound bite for presidential candidates during the ’92 election was just 8.2 seconds, and “naturally, nothing of any significance is going to be said in seven seconds, but this seems to work to the advantage of many politicians.” (376-7)  Cronkite, who is most famous as the first news anchor  (indeed, the term was coined for him, but was slow to be adopted in Sweden where such people were called “Cronkiters”) is very frank about the limits of TV news.  “The nation whose population depends on the explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who can prey upon the semi-informed. (380)

The autobiographer at his CBS news desk

The autobiographer at his CBS news desk

He points out that Germans after WWII claimed not to have known the holocaust was in progress.  Since the press had been shut down, these claims have some validity.  However, Cronkite does not absolve them of responsibility, since the German people acquiesced in the Nazi dismantling of the press; they made themselves ignorant. (268)  He is also critical of British officials who maintained excessive secrecy during the Falklands War and American officials who did likewise during the U.S. invasion of Grenada and actions in Panama and the First Gulf War.  Most notably, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was criticized by the Defense Department’s own official review of press relations for “an excessive concern for secrecy.” (269)  Cronkite points out that a free press is important for informing not just the citizenry, but also the government about what is going on. (298)  The Soviet government wouldn’t have needed so many spies and informants in their own country if they’d simply had a freer press.

Having an informed public is very important to the author.  He laments the state of history education, writing that “understanding the issues on which citizens of a republic are expected to vote is impossible without an understanding of the past.”  He says that those who have an opportunity to impart this knowledge but fail to do so “can be accused of sabotaging the democratic process.” (28)

And another thing—geography!  They don’t even seem to be trying to teach it anymore.  Maybe, now that we are homogenizing the world via television and the airplane, knowing where you are and where you’re going and what the place and people are like wherever you are isn’t considered as important as it once was.  But surely this knowledge is fundamental to understanding our place on this planet, philosophically as well as physically. (28)

The book is a light read and the life reported on is an interesting one.  His stories about changes in the news media as they enter the television age are also interesting, and will call to mind parallels with the current shift to the internet.  The reporter’s observations and views give meaning to the disparate adventures he has and he’s a decent gentleman that you’ll be glad succeeds.  If you want a light read filled with true adventures, give this book a try.

“Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller reviewed

7 April 2009

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Thomas Nelson Publishers (2003), 205 pp.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I first heard about this book about three years ago when several of my friends were reading it.  They recommended it, but I didn’t get around to reading it until a friend obligated me by giving me a copy.  Anyway, the book is basically a memoir that contains lots of autobiographical material, and its subtitle, “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” is apt.

Like most memoirs, the book lacks a clearly stated central thesis or argument to push; Miller prefers to relate his own experiences and observations and seems happy to raise questions and get his readers thinking.  For instance, he raises the question “Why would God want to call Himself father when so many fathers abandon their children?” (His own dad played very little role in his life, as he explains.)  He proffers no suggested answers for his question—which is a very good one—and humorously remarks that “all the vocabulary about God seem[s] to come from ancient history, before video games, Palm Pilots, and the Internet.” (4)  One quickly realizes that Miller has a good sense of humor and it comes across well throughout the book.  (And in his other writings too. On his website, he says he’s going to use the money from his next book, which “might be the greatest book ever written,” to go into space.)

One of the book’s main themes, and the closest it comes to having a thesis, comes up early, when Miller is recounting his thoughts about the genocide in the Congo.  He writes that “Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.” (23)

The problem is not a certain type of legislation or even a certain politician; the problem is the same that it has always been.  I am the problem. … The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest. … True change, true life-giving, God-honoring change, would have to start with the individual.  I was the very problem I had been protesting.  I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM.” (20)

Miller says there is nothing more progressive than embracing the fundamental idea that the problem in the universe lives within us.  He develops this idea throughout the book.

Another major theme is the need for authenticity, or the need to be genuine, which is often hard to achieve in our society which emphasizes appearance so much.  He says that “Everybody wants to be fancy and new.  Nobody wants to be themselves. … If there was a guy who just liked being himself and didn’t want to be anybody else, that guy would be the most different guy in the world and everbody would want to be him.” (29)  Elsewhere he diagnoses one problem with our culture:

I think we have this need to be cool, that there is this undercurrent in society that says some people are cool and some people aren’t.  And it is very, very important that we are cool.  … The problem with this is that it indicates there is less value in what people believe, what they stand for; it only matters that they are cool.  In other words, who cares what I believe about life, I only care that I am cool. (105)

He laments that “even our beliefs have become trend statements.  We don’t even believe things because we believe them anymore.  We only believe things because they are cool things to believe.” (107)  He goes on to say that true belief requires commitment and costs something, as opposed to the cheap, trendy variety.  He adds that if you believe something passionately, regardless of what it is and whether it is right or wrong, people will follow you, “because they think you know something they don’t, some clue to the meaning of the universe.” (109)  That’s one reason why believing things that are true is so important.  He adds that “if we believed the right things, the true things, there wouldn’t be very many problems on earth,” like the genocide in the Congo. (107)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Much of the book details Miller’s adventures among people who are not only not Christians but are actively suspicious of them.  He discusses his time at Reed College, which is known for its secular and libertine culture.  He and others from the school’s small Christian community set up a “Confession Booth” on campus during the annual Bacchanalia.  The twist was that they confessed to the students who came in, not vice versa.  They apologized for not living up to the message of Jesus and for ways in which Christians have historically not been very Christlike.  His observations from the time he spent with the hippies in the woods are also interesting. One passage I found very powerful concerned a student at Reed College who had a speech impediment and a question that Miller fielded from someone asking how he could deal with all the immorality at the school.  He writes that

I never thought of Reed as an immoral place, and I suppose I never thought of it as an immoral place because somebody like Nathan can go there and talk like Elmer Fudd, and nobody will ever make fun of him.  And if Nathan were to go to my church, which I love and would give my life for, he would unfortunately be made fun of by somebody somewhere, behind his back and all, but it would happen, and that is such a tragic crime. (224-5)

He describes his experiences living alone and living with a group of other guys, saying he finds it “interesting that God designed people to need other people.” (154) Miller stresses community a lot throughout the book.  He describes hell as “a place where a person is completely alone, without others and without God,” (171) which contrasts with Jean-Paul Sarte’s view that “hell is other people.” (226)  He says that “the words alone, lonely, and loneliness are three of the most powerful words in the English language. … These words say that we are human; they are like the words hunger and thirst. But they are not words about the body, they are words about the soul. … Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body” (152)

Miller stresses love for others, not coincidentally, just like Jesus did.  He writes “I think love is a bit of heaven,” (cf. his description of hell) and says that when he was in love “there was somebody in the world who was more important than me.” (151) He stresses that we shouldn’t love others in order for them to like or love us, or in order to get anything whatsoever from him.  He said he hated the idea of befriending people in order to get them to go to his church—but he liked the idea of loving people just to love them, with no other motives attached. (135)  The passage on page 150 which concludes the 13th chapter is also informative on this topic.

Towards the end of the book Miller deals just a bit more directly with the topic of God and our relationship to the divine.  “It comforts me to think that if we are created beings, the thing that created us would have to be greater than us, so much greater, in fact, that we would not be able to understand it.” (201)  He says that in the face of such “big beauty” we have two choices: terror or awe; he recommends the later, adding “I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.” (204, 206)

Don Miller suggests, but rarely directly states, a lot of good questions in the book, mostly concerning how the church has screwed up, is marginalizing itself, and is detracting from what should be its very powerful—and important—message.  But sometimes I wish he’d come out and be a bit more straightforward with criticisms and critiques.  Still, this is a good book for anyone, Christian or not, to read in order to have their view of what Christianity is and can be shaken up just a bit; it’ll keep people thinking.  The book is a light read; his writing style is conversational (as demonstrated) and humorous; the book doesn’t deal with deep metaphysical or theological topics; it is very practical.  It’s also short, at just 205 real pages, so few will have excuses.  Especially if a friend gives them a copy.  Recommended for anyone who wants an introduction to the new emergent movement within American Christianity.

“The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius reviewed

6 April 2009

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Penguin Classics. Victor Watts trans. 164 pp.

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Consolation of Philosophy is a fairly well-known little work.  Wikipedia has good background information on it and it’s author, Boethius.  He was a sixth century Roman patrician who’d lost the king’s favor and wrote the book while in prison in 524 or 525 awaiting execution and musing on his fall from grace.  Though a Christian, he drew on classical themes and motifs for the work, which is fundamentally a theodicy.

The book is a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, who is personified as a woman and contrasted with Fortune (cf. the image of Wisdom as a woman and Folly as a harlot in Proverbs—the work isn’t wholly uninformed by the Christian tradition).  Boethius, who had previously served as Consul and in other high positions while he had the king’s favor, complains to Philosophy that he had “never been moved from justice to injustice by anything.”

You and God, who has sowed you in the minds of wise men, are my witnesses that the only consideration to impel me to any office was a general desire for good.  This was the reason why I had no alternative but grimly to resist evil and why in the struggle to defend justice I have always been indifferent to the hatred I inspired in men who wielded greater power than mine—an indifference inspired by the knowledge that I had freely followed my conscience. (10)

He feels betrayed by Fortune, which had previously blessed him with respect and success.  “I cannot deny the speed with which I rose to prosperity.  It is the very thing, in fact, which makes me burn with grief as I remember it.  In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy.”  Philosophy consoles him that Fortune hasn’t changed her attitude towards him, she is the same as always: changeable.

The author goes on to examine the things that he had lost and why he ought not to lament his dispossession of them.  He looks at wealth, and how people who pursue it above all else never have enough and end up serving their money and stuff rather than vice versa.  “No good thing harms its owner … but wealth very often does harm its owners.” (36)  Power likewise is not the summum bonum; it doesn’t bring happiness or safety, but frequently the reverse.  His insights on those topics is good, but I most enjoy his analysis of fame:

Just think how puny and insubstantial such game really is.  It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all. … This is the tiny point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour. (41)

I can’t help but wonder if Carl Sagan was thinking of that passage when he wrote Pale Blue Dot.  Beothius further comments out that

Many men have been famous in their time but their memory has perished because there were no historians to write about them.  And yet the very histories are of little use when like their authors they become lost in the depths of time which make all things obscure. … If you think of the infinite recesses of eternity you have little cause to take pleasure in any continuation of your name. (42)

He then analyses the good, identifies it as the summun bonum that all people desire and are drawn to, and identifies it with God.  These passages owe much to Plato and need little explanation for anyone familiar with his concept of the good.

The passages in the work on the problem of evil (or the problem of undeserved suffering) are interesting.  He states the problem quite well:

The greatest cause of my sadness is really this—the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world, evil can still exist and even pass unpunished. … But there is something even more bewildering. When wickedness rules and flourishes, not only does virtue go unrewarded, it is even trodden underfoot by the wicked and punished in the place of crime.  That this can happen in the realm of an omniscient and omnipotent God who wills only good, is beyond perplexity and complaint. (85)

Later, he calls the problem of evil “the greatest of all questions, a question that can never be exhausted.”  He says that “when one doubt has been removed, countless others spring up in its place, like the hydra’s heads.”  While the statement of the problem is excellent, The Consolation hardly the definitive solution.  Philosophy answers Boethius much as God answered Job out of the storm: “It is because you men are in no position to contemplate this order that everything seems confused and upset. … It is not allowed to men to comprehend in thought all the ways of the divine work or expound them in speech.  Let it be enough that we have seen that God, the author of all natures, orders all things and directs them towards goodness.” (106, 109)  As for suffering that the good endure, “in the very short space of a human life, nothing can be so late in coming as to seem to the mind long to wait for, especially as it [the mind] is immortal.” (97)

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune, from a 15th century manuscript

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune (Rota Fortunae), from a 15th century manuscript

But Boethius goes beyond this; he offers arguments that all things, both those apparently good and those apparently bad, are for the better, because “all fortune whether pleasant or adverse is meant either to reward or discipline the good or to punish or correct the bad. … [therefore] all fortune is good.” (111)  While there is a bit more to his argument, it is unconvincing and few readers will accept his claim that “evil is [only] thought to abound on earth. … if you could see the plan of Providence, you would not think there was evil anywhere.” (110)  The arguments he adduces to prove the nonexistence of evil are sophistical and detract from what preceded them.

The last matter dealt with is divine foreknowledge as it relates to free will, a topic which I normally find it useless to discuss, an opinion that Boethius does nothing to modify.  The penultimate sentence of the work reminds me of the verses appended to the end of Ecclesiastes: “Avoid vice, therefore, and cultivate virtue; lift up your mind to the right kind of hope and put forth humble prayers on high.”

The Penguin Classics edition contains the 1960s translation by Victor Watts, who adds a 26-page introductory essay that provides context and interpretive help for The Consolation. The poetic passages that intersperse the dialog parts don’t seem particularly skillful, and only a few lines stand out for their beauty, images, or form.  I don’t particularly recommend this edition above any other, but the work as a whole is well worth reading for anyone familiar with classical philosophy.

“Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: 1905-1931” reviewed

3 April 2009

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: Family Letters: 1905-1931. Edited by Walter Hooper. Harper Collins. 983 pp.

Volume I of III

Volume I of III

At 983 pages, excluding the helpful biographical appendix, this is a pretty big book—and it’s just the first of three volumes of C. S. Lewis’s collected letters.  The man wrote a lot and this volume contains 95% of the extant letters that he wrote between 1905, when he was seven years old, and the fall of 1931, shortly after his conversion to Christianity.  While tedious at places, it contains interesting biographical details and accounts of his early life and reveals an impressive intellect and strong personality.

Much of the material is, of course, quite quotidian.  One letter, sent from school in January 1915 to his father, says “Yes; I did change my socks. No; there are no holes in my shoes. Yes, thanks, I have plenty of warm underclothing.” (101)  Almost half of the letters in the first 200 pages were sent to his father and until he became a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford requests for funds were a staple of his letters, along with itemized lists of expenses for which the money was needed.  His father, a solicitor, once apparently suspected Jack (as all of C. S. Lewis’s friends and family members called him) of cheating him out of about £1 and Lewis wrote a point-by-point letter arguing that the charge was illogical and contrary to the facts;  it was  probably more than what was called for (see p. 135-6).

The author’s mother died when he was ten and when reading his letters to his father, one wishes to have the other half of the conversation and to know more about just what sort of relationship they had.  Lewis wasn’t above pointing out how smart he was.  To his father he says he  “often wonder[s] how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?” (85).  They often debated abstract matters, Lewis once claiming that “no further disputation is possible after my crushing and exhaustive demonstration” (93) and elsewhere that “one of these days you will come round and ‘see my point'” (213).  These seem likes things one would write to an equal, not a parent.

Probably 90% of the letters in the first third of the book are either to his father or to his lifelong best friend, Arthur Greeves, with whom he shared many interests in music and literature.  Lewis similarly thought he won all of the arguments with Arthur: “How funny that I always prove everything I want in argument with you but never convince you! … be good and talk sense the next time you do me the honour of arguing with me” (129-130).  Of course, their relationship was very close and their philosophical conversations were vigorous but never mean spirited.  Some of the most interesting exchanges they had concerned religion and Christianity.  Lewis was, of course, an atheist from the age at which he was first able to form his own beliefs and make his own decisions and Arthur was a Christian, though he played relatively little direct role in Lewis’s later conversion.  The two best letters to examine for Lewis’s beliefs at this period are the ones to Greeves dated 12 October 1916 and its follow up dated 18 October of the same year.  To quote the former at length:

You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.  All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention—Christ as much as Loki. …

… Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it, though usually outwardly conceding it for convenience.  … ones views on religious subjects don’t make any difference in morals, of course. A good member of society must of course try to be honest, chaste, truthful, kindly etc: these are things we owe to our own manhood & dignity and not to any imagined god or gods.

Of course, mind you, I am not laying down as a certainty that there is nothing outside the material world: considering the discoveries that are always being made, this would be foolish. Anything MAY exist: but until we know that it does, we can’t make any assumptions.  The universe is an absolute mystery: man has mad many guesses at it, but the answer is yet to seek.

Lewis also pointed out how ideas of God evolved throughout the Hebrew scriptures from a tribal diety to a universal one (206) and often took opportunities to tweak Arthur, for instance pointing out that another person is “a rather violent athiest, so I suppose I shall meet him by ‘the fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” (240).

Lewis in 1947

Lewis in 1947

These disagreements notwithstanding, Lewis and Greeves had much in common.  Many of their letters involved planning visits to each other, and discussing the good times they enjoyed in each other’s company.  And it is almost disconcerting the vast number of books that Lewis mentions reading in his letters and the analysis he brings to them, frequently recommending works to Arthur. Lewis was not found of Thucydides, who he called “a desperately dull and tedious Greek historian” (145)—an assessment I disagree with—and also disliked Cicero and Demosthenes.  He did, however, enjoy The Histories of Herodotus, who he said pleasantly combined both history and romance (284), and also recommended The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (447).

The volume also contains a smattering of references to historical events, such as the appearance of Comet Halley in 1910 (14), the Battle of Jutland (204), and the 1918 influenza epidemic (416, 430, 442).  Regarding World War I, Lewis echoes the sentiments of his tutor, William Kirkpatrick (the inspiration for the Professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) and wrote in 1914, when the war was only three months old, that

one of the most serious consequences of this war is what Kirk calls ‘the survival of the unfittest'[.] All those who have the courage to do so and are physically sound, are going off to be shot: those who survive are moral and physical weeds—a fact which does not promise favorably for the next generation.

(Lewis would follow his older brother, Warnie, into the army and was injured in combat.)  Anyway, Lewis seemed to be something of an elitist, which is perhaps easier to understand if one remembers his privileged upbringing and education.  For instance, he criticizes a list of the 100 best books, saying he “abominate[s] such culture for the many, such tastes ready made, such standardization of the brain” (581) and elsewhere praises aristocrats for “having tradition in [their] outlook” and rues “the influx of commercial democracy” (746).  But a few months later he writes that “the aristocracy was not a bit better than the plutocracy that has replaced it” (772).  And while he evinces some disdain for socialism in several letters (see pp. 441 and 544), he wrote Arthur in 1917 saying “I am a bundle of contradictions, but I must say socialism does interest me.”

When you think of the way labourers in the factory live at home,—men & women slaving from half past five in the morning to six at night at hard, monotonous work in hideous rooms full of shrieking machinery year after year, with never a moments pleasure except when they are drunk (and you can’t blame them) it really does make you feel that the whole thing is wrong. Are you ashamed to think of us], blessed prigs, with our books and music and little grumbles about nothing, dawdling along … while half or more than half the people are slaves.  As much slaves as ever there were in Rome, their only liberty being to starve when the torture becomes unbearable!

Like all of us, C. S. Lewis was a product of his own time.  Thus, some of his letters from this period seem to reflect some of the racial views held by many of the time.  When writing to his brother who was serving in the Army in Sierra Leone, Lewis wrote “What a queer thing that black man … is: he’s been there as long as anyone else and has never adapted on quarter of a step.  Perhaps the really strange thing is that others have” (538).  Elsewhere, he refers to “an atrocious little blackguard of a French nouveau riche boy with negro blood in him and the manners of a swine” (613) and is critical of Chinese culture (see pp. 710-11 & 720n).

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

He was also not entirely comfortable around women, again probably because of his upbringing (his mother died in his childhood, he had no sisters, and he attended all boys schools).  For instance, when he was “bothered” into teaching a class of young women he writes to his father that teaching “girls, if one considers only their faculties, … might seem an easy task.  But then they would be reading for the same exams as the men: and that being so, the ‘weakness of the sex’ (assuming that they are dunces) would make the proposition all the tougher” (598).  He also wrote that “as a general rule, women marry their tutors,” but he wasn’t worried because in his class “the pretty ones are stupid and the interesting ones are ugly, so it is alright” (667).  As an Oxford don, he said he “did [his] duty” in voting for a resolution that “the university has a right to remain predominantly a men’s university” and was happy that it passed, being concerned that Oxford might become “the women’s university” and Cambridge “the men’s university” (702-4).  He also comments that “that mixture of Northern respect and Oriental suppression” is “not a bad answer” to “the female sex” (771).  These are all views which we would not be likely to entertain today.  However, he did say that women write very good novels (910).

Speaking of Lewis’s views of women somewhat naturally raises another topic dealt with in his early letters: sadism. Most fans of his work probably have no idea that Lewis entertained sadistic fantasies.  To quote from one of his biographies, C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia by Michael White,

In a letter written in January 1917 Lewis begins to explain that he is writing the letter on his knee and this seemingly innocent comment leads him on to a discourse on whipping and spanking.  He declares: “Across my knee … of course makes one think of positions for whipping: or rather not for whipping (you couldn’t get any swing) but for that torture with brushes … very humiliating for the victim”  Soon he was signing his letters to Greeves “Philomastrix” (“lover of the whip”) and detailing gruesome fantasies involving Arthur’s younger sister, in which he whipped her “for the good of her soul”.  In other letters he described a particularly beautiful girl he had seen in Oxford and what pain she would have suffered if she had received only half the torment he had inflicted on her in his imagination. (p 47)

Arthur later scribbled through incriminating passages in the letters, but those passages are restored (and noted) in the volume presently being reviewed.  In 1931, Lewis wrote Arthur “I am now inclined to agree with you in not regretting that we confided in each other even on this subject, because it has done no harm in the long run—and how could young adolescents really be friends without it?”  (Incidentally, Arthur was homosexual and, presumably, indicated some of his fantasies to Jack.)  At the time, Arthur indicated concern about confiding such details to paper, but Lewis wrote “if any person did read out letters, he would be an ill-bred cad & therefore we shouldn’t mind what he say” (274).  Hopefully he would except the present reviewer and his audience.  The material is certainly salacious, but I wouldn’t characterize it as “gruesome” as White does.  In any event, after considering some possible sources of Lewis’s interest, the biographer points out that that as an adult Lewis was somewhat embarrassed by his interest and

As far as anyone knows, Jack’s attraction to sadism never strayed beyond his own imagination, but no one will ever know what went on behind closed doors later in his life.  For the eighteen-year-old at least, these sadistic musings went no further than that: onanistic fantasies and bravura to impress Arthur. (p 48)

Anyway, some of the most interesting letters occur near the end of the collection, around Lewis’s conversion to theism in 1929 and ultimately to Christianity in 1931.  The roots of his conversion, which are familiar to anyone who read his autobiographical Surprised By Joy, are evident in his earlier letters.  For instance, in 1916 he wrote Arthur saying “I know quite well that feeling of something strange and wonderful that ought to happen, and wish I could think like you that this hope will some day be fulfilled.”  And to another friend, Leo Baker, in 1921: “beauty seems to me to be always an invitation of some sort & usually an invitation to we don’t know what.”  Though an atheist from the time he could form his own views until about age 31, Lewis was never a materialist, the main species of atheist that one sees these days.  He always seemed to sense that there was a “more” or something beyond the purely material, and that is was ultimately lead him to theism and Christianity, a journey described in his highly recommended Surprised By Joy and hinted at throughout the present volume.

This probably explains the interest he entertained in his 20s in the occult and magic, which he called “the burning subject” of the time and that it was difficult to obtain even enough evidence to disbelieve (543).  He said that he had “no doubt” that some people could see the future (640) but that astrology was “all rot” (597).

Some of the best passages come from his own self examinations, where he identifies his main sin as pride—which he calls “the mother of all sins”—and that he also experiences lust, wrath, and envy.

What I feel like saying … is “things are going very, very well with me (spiritually).”  On the other hand, one knows from bitter experience that he who standeth should take heed lest he fall, and that anything remotely like pride is certain to bing an awful crash. … Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be. (877)

He confides to Arthur that

I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realise I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me.  I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit—and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked. (878)

He says that fighting pride is like fighting the Hydra, which grew a new head every time one was cut off: once you stop one line of prideful thinking one is tempted to be proud of doing so.  The argument will be familiar to those who’ve read Lewis’s popular works, like Mere Christianity.  He also discusses his attempts to cultivate “the blessed sense of charity, so rare in me,” writing about an experience after Christmas Eve service in 1929, when he could view “even my worst enemies in college [as] funny and odd rather than detestable” (852).

The editor takes the opportunity of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity to bring the volume to a close, and I must say I am interested in obtaining its sequel.  I am especially interested in seeing how his views and outlook may or may not change as a result of his new religious views.  I also expect that theology will be a much more prominent subject in the two later volumes, once he becomes a well known theologian and apologist.  This volume, which you have gotten only a not particularly representative sample of in the above, is good in its own right, but is only recommended for those already familiar with C. S. Lewis’s popular works, especially Surprised By Joy, who want to learn more about the person behind them.

“Pebble in the Sky” by Isaac Asimov reviewed

22 March 2009

Asimov, Isaac. Pebble in the Sky. Del Ray Books. 1950. 230 pp.

Cover of the 1983 Ballatine Books edition

Cover of the 1983 Ballatine Books edition

Pebble in the Sky is the first written of Isaac Asimov’s three “Empire novels,” though chronologically it takes place last, long after the events of The Stars, Like Dust and The Currents of Space, books which are only very loosely connected. I had originally read Pebble about nine years ago and was looking forward to experiencing it again. Unfortunatly, it doesn’t hold up well.

The basic plot is that a retired tailor from Chicago in 1949, Joseph Schwartz, is accidentally sent into a distant future (“hundred of thousands of years” are alluded to) when the Earth is a backwater planet in the Galactic Empire. And he helps to save the galaxy along with a native Earth scientist, his daughter, and a visiting archaeologist. Structural problems arise from the fact that Asimov can’t decide wether Schwartz or Arvardan is his main character and the book’s hero, so one or the other spends large portions of the book with nothing to do even when they are on the page to remind the reader of their existence. Pacing is further disrupted when two months is skipped over without any reason, relieving valuable tension.

There are several points in the story that require one or more characters to act contrary to reason. For instance, the farmers that find Schwartz—who, of course, can’t speak the language and has no idea where he is—decide to take him to Dr. Shekt, the aforementioned scientist, who they heard is experimenting with a device that can educate people instantly. The fact that it’d never been used on a person and that 90% of the rats that were so educated died doesn’t deter them from “volunteering” Schwartz to undergo treatment. (Things are actually not as they appear, but the farmers don’t know that, so their actions are still ridiculous—and immoral.) The good guys then rely several times on a deus ex machina to elude the bad guys: said brain experiments give Schwartz psychic powers, so he can conveniently read minds, kill people, and control people as needed. Asimov usually doesn’t usually rely on such clumsy, ad hoc story devices to solve his problems.

The characters are two dimensional, so they don’t rescue the book. Arvardan is “tall and craggily, calm and self-confident … like an ancient marble statue.” Arvardan’s love interest, Dr. Shekt’s 20ish daughter, Pola, is “devastatingly desireable” (more on her in a moment). Their relationship has no real basis and obviously exists only so that the hero—or one of them—can “get the girl.” It’s hardly a surprise that they’re married in the epilog.  It’s forgiveable if you recall who the audience was for most 1940s-era science fiction.  Eventually, Asimov figured out how to write sensibly about romantic relationships, but much later in his career—long after Pebble in the Sky.

Isaac Asimov in 1956, shortly after writing Pebble in the Sky

Isaac Asimov in 1956, a few years after writing Pebble in the Sky

Pola’s character is typical of females the early Asimov corpus—she’s pretty, so she has to be silly and frivolous. She breaks down in tears five times in novel’s 230 pages, sometimes for trivial reasons, and constantly needs rescuing. She is seen as “weak” and “hysterical” by the other characters, and she spends most of the book with a “look of fear and exhaustion on her face” and experiencing “deep and pathetic disappointment” or “horror and fright.” Obviously, Asimov was a product of his time, but all of the attractive women in his early works are like this.  The ones who are intelligent, self-assured, and take the initiative (consider Bayta in “The Mule” or Arcadia in “—And Now You Don’t”) are deliberately described as being plain looking. For me, these attitudes date the story far more than the idea that they’d be smoking tobacco or reading paper newspapers in 100,000 CE—we aren’t even reading our news on papers now!

One thing that I completely missed nine years ago but enjoyed on my second reading were the numerous allussions to Jewish history in the book. Asimov was a big fan of the Bible—witness his 1300-page Guide to the Bible (an excellent book, by the way)—and took inspiration for Pebble’s setting from Roman-occupied first century Palastine. The novel’s powerful Society of Ancients were like the Jewish religious elite and the Zealots; their High Minister corresponds to the chief priest; and “the customs” are equivalent to “the Law” (Torah). They proclaim “the Second Kingdom of Earth is at hand” (cf. “the Kingdom of God is at hand”), are described as “extreme nationalists” and dream of past and future glory—just like Jewish nationalists in the first century CE.

Of course, the Galactic Empire stands in for its inspiration, the Roman Empire, and Earth’s governor, Procurator Ennius, is inspired by Procurator Pontius Pilate—and he even quotes him, declaring “I find no fault in this man”! (A direct quote from Luke 23:4 in the King James translation.) It is no accident that Earth was said to have rebelled against the empire three times over 200 years; the Jews revolted against the Romans three times: in 66–73, 115–117, and 132–135, and Ennius, like Pilate, is concerned with not crossing the elites, who control the mob and could stir up a rebellion. That almost happened to a prior procurator, when the insane Emperor Stannell II tried to put the imperial insignia in Earth’s Council Chamber. If you recall either your Roman or Jewish history (and Asimov loved both—see his two volumes on the Romans), you know that he’s referring to Caligula’s attempt to put a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple in 40 CE. The book is full of such references.  Even Ennius’s conversation with his wife, Flora, reminds me of Pilate’s exchange with his wife (Matthew 27:19). I’ve spent too much space on this, but I found discovering the allusions to be quite pleasant, and most people probably don’t even know they’re there.

Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend Pebble in the Sky to anyone except an Asimov fan; it’s far from his best work. Some of the structural and plotting problems may be due to its history—the 70,000 word novel started as a 40,000 word novella which was later expanded at his publisher’s request—but they’re there nonetheless. Check out The Foundation Trilogy, The Gods Themselves, or The Caves of Steel instead.

“Bush at War” by Bob Woodward reviewed

17 March 2009

Woodward, Bob. Bush at War. Simon & Schuster. 2002. 355 pp.

Published just 14 months after the September 11th attacks, Bush at War by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward covers the Bush administration on that infamous day and during the three-months following during which the Taliban was toppled in Afghanistan.  This was one of the first books out covering the War on Terror, and certainly isn’t the best out there now; like most such works by journalists—as opposed to historians—it is long on the who, what, where, and when and very short on the why: don’t look for a lot of analysis in this book.  Bush at War lacks a thesis, what it does is give an inside look at how top government officials, including the president, reacted to the attacks and how they planned and executed the war in Afghanistan.  The epilogue covers about a year and the lead up to the Iraq war (which hadn’t been launched yet when the book went to press).

Seeing things that we all saw from the outside from the inside view that Woodward provides is very interesting.  At just 9:44 am Bush told Cheney “We’re at war.”  “That’s what we’re paid for boys,” he told his staff.  “We’re going to take care of this.  And when we find out who did this, they’re not going to like me as president.  Somebody is going to pay.” (17)  He used slightly cruder language with the Vice President: “We’re going to find out who did this, and we’re going to kick their asses.” (18)

He wanted to be decisive and bold in his response to the attacks, not like the Clinton administration which limited it’s military response to terror attacks to air strikes.  Bush said “I don’t want to put a million-dollar missile on a five-dollar tent.” (I’d elsewhere heard that quote expanded to “I’m not going to fire a million-dollar missile at a ten-dollar empty tent, and hit a camel in the butt.”)  However, Bush told his communications director (Karen Hughes) to remove the phrase “this is not just an act of terrorism.  This is an act of war,” from the Oval Office address he gave that evening.  He wanted that speech to be reassuring, to be tough, and to show resolve, not to add to the country’s angst.  A speech that he gave to the UN the next year went through 24 drafts (and they displayed the wrong one on the teleprompter).

Bush at War gives in sight into its eponym’s leadership philosophy and style.  “I do not need to explain why I say things.  That’s the interesting thing about being the president.  Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”  Elsewhere, Bush says

First of all, a president has got to be the calcium in the backbone.  If I weaken, the whole team weakens.  If I’m doubtful, I can assure you there will be a lot of doubt.  If my confidence level in our ability declines, it will send ripples throughout the whole organization.  I mean, it’s essential that we be confident and determined and united.

Woodward reports that, in interviews, Bush made frequent reference to his “instincts” or “instinctive” reaction, saying “I’m not a textbook player, I’m a gut player.”  The author said that “[Bush’s] instincts are almost his second religion.”  These themes are demonstrated in much of what Bush does and says as recorded in the book.

Once the war gets going the book becomes much more interesting and faster-paced.  The president et al quickly realized that the War on Terror would be a different sort of war, and scrambled to adjust to fighting a guerrila organization in Afghanistan and a terror network around the globe.  During the 1991 Gulf War the military already had Operations Plan 90-1002 that they could dust off and follow.  But there was no plan in place for the situation in Afghanistan.  Much diplomatic wrangling with Pakistan and other countries for overflight and basing rights also had to take place.  The need for bases for search and rescue teams held up the air war, due to unwillingness to risk pilots being captured by the Taliban.

Several anecdotes are interesting, including an offer they made to an Afghan tribal leader that he couldn’t refuse:

$50,000 was offered to a commander to defect. Let me think about it, the commander said. So the Special Forces A-team directed a J-DAM precision bomg right outside the commander’s headquarters.  The next day they called the commander back.  How about $40,000? He accepted. (299)

Then there is the account of how Dick and Lynne Cheney spent Halloween at an undisclosed location with their three grandchildren, ages 2, 3, and 7.  The kids dressed up and went trick-or-treating in the bunker, knocking on the office doors of the staffers who were hiding out with them.  And who knew that Dick Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, could bench 330 lbs. six times (Bush was only benching 205 lbs.).

The most colorful figure in the book is Cofer Black, the Director of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center, who, as Woodward says, “had a penchant for dramatizing.”  He emphasized in early briefings that military action would be bloody, for both American and al Qaeda. “When we’re through with them, they will have flies walking across their eyeballs.”  (Other staffers subsequently referred to him as “the flies on the eyeballs guy.”)  Later, in reference to al Qaeda, he said that “we’re going to kill them. We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” (103) But he didn’t want all of their heads put on sticks; he told a CIA team “You have one mission. Go find the al Qaeda and kill them.  We’re going to eliminate them.  Get bin Laden, find him. I want his head in a box.”  Once said box was occupied by bin Laden’s head, he wanted “to take it down and show the president.” (141)

The information about Iraq—the invasion of which Paul Wolfowitz starting pushing on September 12th—is interesting, albeit incomplete, the book having been published before the invasion was launched.  Cheney also pushed for toppling Saddam, which Powell opposed.  Watching those dynamics play out in the epilog was informative, but much more research is needed on the lead up to the Iraq war—which hadn’t been launched as of press time—and historians will have their hands full with those events for decades as more information becomes available about what went right and wrong.

The book is okay, but is probably already dated as more scholarly books come out.  And if you want analysis of the Afghanistan war, check out Imperial Hubris by Anonymous (a.k.a. Michael Scheuer).  And if you want more details on the September 11th attacks themselves, see the 9/11 Commission Report (published July 2004).  Still, Bush at War holds some interest for it’s view of the administration’s decision-making process after the attacks and during the war in Afghanistan.

“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon reviewed

27 February 2009

Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Everyman’s Library. ca. 3590 pp. (Vol. VI: 650 pp.)

Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a work that most people have heard of but which few have read. The former is due to the excellence of this literary achievement, known for the quality and irony of its prose and its rigorous use of primary sources; the later is due largely to the fact that Gibbon takes six volumes to cover the thirteen centuries of history from the Age of the Antonines to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. While I cannot do justice to Gibbon’s 3000+ page magnum opus in this review, I do hope to avoid doing it a great injustice. Note that while this review applies to the totality of the work, I will confine the specifics to the sixth volume as it is freshest in my mind and most thoroughly described in my notes.

Firstly, Gibbon was an excellent historian; he was very rigorous about resorting to the primary sources in Latin and Greek whenever possible. The many footnotes often contain information on both these sources and his secondary sources along with quotations therefrom.  And though you can’t get the full effect of the notes unless you read Latin, Greek, and French, they are well worth perusing for Gibbon’s own comments, such as this epigram: “the true praise of kings is after their death, and from the mouth of their enemies” (120). In another note he takes to task the Hal Lindseys of his day: “The more pious antiquaries labour to reconcile the promises and threats of the author of the Revelations with the present state of the seven cities. Perhaps it would be more prudent to confine his predictions to the characters and events of his own times” (332). The editor of the Everyman edition also sometimes add clarifications of his own, especially in those few places where Gibbon’s own judgments were not born out by subsequent scholarship.

In addition to his writing ability and researching skill, Edward Gibbon brings his great wit and point of view to bear on his subject, remarking that history “is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” After thirteen centuries and six volumes, the reader is inclined to agree. I never fail to be amazed how, time after time, in just a paragraph—or sometimes a mere fragment of a sentence—Gibbon announces that 130,000 people were killed by Arabs (16), or that 300,000 crusaders died before they even captured a single city (57), or that 70,000 Moslems were killed in Jerusalem (95)—all of which occur in just the first hundred pages of this one volume. Later (page 364) we learn that Tamerlane constructed a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads in Baghdad, just three pages after he had 4000 Armenians buried alive. Such statements do not, of course, include all of the literally countless deaths from all of the wars and massacres, only those for which the author could come by reliable figures; for instance, the victim’s of the Tartar’s rampage, whose severed right ears filled nine sacks, cannot be accurately enumerated since the size of the sacks was not specified. The reader may be relieved to still be capable of shock if he or she pauses, on page 374, as the deaths of one million Chinese people are announced. “So familiar, and as it were so natural to man, is the practice of violence, that our indulgence allows the slightest provocation, the most disputable right, as a sufficient ground of national hostility.” Gibbon is right: “the paths of blood … such is the history of nations.”

The specific murders and mutilations of individuals or small groups, usually at the direction of some emperor or other, are equally horrifying: despite involving smaller numbers they can be imagined with greater ease.  For instance, 70 rebels were boiled alive by Genghis Khan, who had a harem of 500 wives and concubines (n.b. only half of Solomon’s total of 700 wives and 300 concubines). Elsewhere, a young Greek concubine is mutilated by having her lips and nose cut off. The Decline and Fall is so filled with murders, massacres, and mutilations that one almost laughs when given the opportunity to have the tension broken at the ridiculous contrivance of the Emperor Theodore, who sacrificed “the lives and fortunes, the eyes and limbs, of his kinsmen and nobles” to his own passions:

A matron … had provoked his anger by refusing to bestow her beauteous daughter on the vile plebeian who was recommended by his caprice. Without regard to her birth, or age, her body, as high as the neck, was enclosed in a sack with several cats, who were pricked with pins to irritate their fury against their unfortunate fellow captive. (248)

The matron’s ultimate fate is not recorded by Gibbon.  One hopes that she survived the ordeal.

Speaking of eyes, I was surprised at the great frequency with which men who had claims to the throne lose their eyesight (and/or ability to reproduce) at the hands of rivals, who are frequently their brothers or other relatives. Blinding, of course, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the claimant to oversee (no pun intended) and administer the government, effectively removing him from contention for the throne. In this concluding volume Gibbon finally gives some information on how the operation was usually conducted by referring to “the brutal violence of tearing out the eyes,” though it was also sometimes down by destroying the optic nerve with a red-hot implement. In a footnote, Gibbon dryly lists some of the more violent methods of blinding devised by “ingenious tyrants” through the ages: “scooping, burning with an iron or hot vinegar, and binding the head with a strong cord until the eyes burst forth from their sockets.” Absolutely barbaric to us, but not to so many of the potentates who furnish Gibbon with his material, since “in the balance of ambition, the innocence or life of an individual is of small account.”

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) circa 1779

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) circa 1779

Despite the vast amounts of immorality that it records, the Decline and Fall is a profoundly moral work, deeply concerned with right and wrong, and the reader with an ear for irony can perceive Gibbon’s scathing condemnation of barbarity on most of the pages where such crimes and follies are recorded. His harshest criticism is reserved for organized religion in general and those claiming to be followers of Christ in particular.  For instance, of the crusaders, who killed so many, he says “they neglected to live, but they were prepared to die, in the service of Christ.” When they capture Jerusalem and massacre those 70,000 Moslems Gibbon calls it a  “bloody sacrifice [that] was offered by his mistaken votaries to the God of the Christians.” Elsewhere:

such was the pious tendency of the crusades, that they [one group of Crusaders] employed the holy week in pillaging the country for their subsistence, and in framing engines for the destruction of their fellow-Christians. (212)

Note that Gibbon is most certainly not saying that Christians who pillage and kill are being truly pious—just as he wasn’t calling those tyrants geniuses for coming up with new ways of blinding people—or that those are things prescribed by Christianity; he is being ironic, and one gets the distinct impression that Gibbon, who was irreligious, was a great admirer of the Nazarene but bitterly disappointed with his followers, a sentiment indicated where he writes that “the God of the Christians is not a local deity, and … the recovery of Bethlehem or Calvary, his cradle or his tomb, will not atone for the violation of the moral precepts of the Gospel” (47) or that “the spirit of persecution is unworthy of a Christian.” (459)

Some of what came from his pen seems like it could have come from Christopher Hitchen’s keyboard. Consider Gibbon’s comments on the Popes, who came

from the mode of education and life the most adverse to reason, humanity, and freedom. In the trammels of servile faith, he has learned to believe because it is absurd, to revere all that is contemptible, and to despise whatever might deserve the esteem of a rational being; to punish error as a crime, to reward mortification and celibacy as the first of virtues; to place the saints of the calendar above the heroes of Rome and the sages of Athens; and to consider the missal, or the crucifix, as more useful instruments than the plough or the loom. (614)

Or elsewhere, where he mocks the mystical experiences of the monks at Mt. Athos: “the production of a distempered fancy, the creature of an empty stomach and an empty brain.” (299)  But such ridicule is not reserved for the Christian tradition alone; the whirling dervishes in Islam who “turn round in endless rotation” are called “fanatics [who] mistake the giddiness of the head for the illumination of the spirit.” (451)

Like many of today’s “new atheists” (a.k.a. “angry atheists”), Gibbon had a lot of anger towards Christians, never openly declared but easily detectable between the lines in his magnum opus. The depth of his feeling may be indicated by the fact that, less than a dozen pages after the quote on the popes above, he writes that “of the Christian hierarchy, the bishops of Rome were commonly the most prudent and least fanatic.” But the reader should keep in mind that Gibbon uses the term “Christian” for both people who truly follow the precepts of Christ and for those who only take his name for themselves. Thus he writes that “a Christian, a philosopher, and a patriot, will be equally scandalized by the temporal kingdom of the clergy,” referring to a true follower of Jesus.

Whether it contributed to his distaste for organized religion or, more likely, followed from it, Gibbon did not believe in the supernatural or miraculous and, as one reviewer put it, he “treated the Christian church as a phenomenon of general history, not a special case admitting supernatural explanations and disallowing criticism of its adherents.” Miracles, Gibbon wrote, were difficult to disprove, “except by those who are armed with a general antidote against religious credulity” and “such is the progress of credulity, that miracles, most doubtful on the spot and at the moment, will be received with implicit faith at a convenient distance of time and space.” Perhaps the reader can divine something of Gibbon’s attitude towards superstition, and gain some appreciation for his prose, in the following anecdote which he relates, where two competing schools came together to settle their doctrinal dispute in a trial by fire:

In the confidence of fanaticism, they had proposed to try their cause by a miracle; and when the two papers, that contained their own and the adverse cause, were cast into a fiery brazier, they expected that the Catholic verity would be respected by the flames. Alas! the two papers were indiscriminately consumed, and this unforeseen accident produced the union of a day, and renewed the quarrel of an age. (259)

Gibbon is most certainly an iconoclast, but I think he gets a lot of stuff right and was headed in the right direction with his moralizing.  The Roman Empire was a very barbaric place where a small number of very powerful people vied for power, wealth, and glory at the expense of their rivals and the people.  The story of the empire is one of endless wars, massacres, and murders with anyone who gets in the way being murdered or mutilated and everyone else being ruthlessly exploited.  Of course, “for every war a motive of safety or revenge, of honour or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors” (353) and I’m sure such justifications may have helped them sleep better at night.  But Gibbon says this about one empire builder: “Perhaps his conscience would have been startled if a priest or philosopher had dared to number the millions of victims whom he had sacrificed to the establishment of peace and order.” (378)

The overwhelmingly vast portion of those casualties are known but to God, but among them we must number the Roman Empire itself, whose end was caused and hastened by the wasting of the empire’s resources in combat with itself.  One of the authors and victims of the calamity called civil war “the deadly heat of a fever, which consumes without a remedy the vitals of the constitution.” (292)  Instead of using the wealth and strength that they’d inherited to further build up their society and their civilization, they used those resources against each other in a short-sighted and selfish attempt to grab more for themselves without regard for others and the whole.  The Romans who did this were like

the Indian who fells the tree that he may gather the fruit, and the Arab who plunders the caravans of commerce, … actuated by the same impulse of savage nature, which overlooks the future in the present, and relinquishes for momentary rapine the long and secure possession of the most important blessings. (525)

Gibbon spent two decades of his life researching, contemplating, and writing about the Roman Empire and its decline and fall, a task he was inspired to undertake, as he famously put it, “at Rome on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, [when] the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started in my mind.” That inspiration launched one of the finest written works in the English language (one shudders to learn he’d initially planned penning it in French); the six volumes first appeared between 1776 and 1788.  Gibbon, who had lifelong health issues, died only six years later.  His works and their abridgments will undoubtedly remain in print for years to come—but not forever.  As Gibbon himself muses, “the art of man is able to construct monuments far more permanent than the narrow span of his own existence: yet these monuments, like himself, are perishable and frail; and in the boundless annals of time his life and his labours must equally be measured as a fleeting moment.”

Indeed, that impermanence is one of the chief lessons of the Decline and Fall.  It is perhaps most poetically and poignantly suggested in the 71st and final chapter of the whole, where Gibbon relays the observations of Poggius, a servant to Pope Eugene IV, as he looks out over the ruined city of Rome in the 15th century:

This Tarpeian rock was then a savage and solitary thicket: in the time of the poet, it was crowned with the golden roofs of a temple; the temple is overthrown, the gold has been pillaged, the wheel of fortune has accomplished her revolution, and the sacred ground is again disfigured with thorns and brambles. The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill.

Desolation, the final painting in Thomas Cole's five-painting series The Course of Empire

Desolation, the final painting in Thomas Cole's five-painting series The Course of Empire

Not only the ideas conveyed but the language used by Poggius is evocative of that five painting series by Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, and I wonder if indeed that work was inspired by the passage in question.  Either way, the whole monologue, and the concluding chapter itself, are well worth reading, so I link to the full text here.

Thus concludes my review of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  I hope that my review has communicated something of the greatness of the work in question, but even if my review were flawless, and its subject greater still…  sic transit gloria mundi.

“The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 2” reviewed

9 February 2009

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. 360 pp.

This is the second of five volumes in the Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick series, which, as a whole, contains virtually all of his short writings.  This book contains 27 short stories, all of which were originally published between October 1952 and May 1954 with one exception: the title story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, which appeared in 1965.

“Wholesale” is certainly the best known story from this collection, largely since it inspired the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall. Plus, it is a really good story, albeit one considerably different from the movie that it inspired.  A small difference is the name of the main character: in the story he is Douglas Quail, not Douglas Quaid, as in the movie.  A large difference is that Quail never gets his ass to Mars, as does Quaid in the film.  Any fan of the movie should greatly appreciate the short story and will enjoy the many direct similarities, such as the quirky robot cabbie  and that most of the characters, like the director of Rekall, Quail’s wife, Kristen, and the Rekall secretary, are all straight out of the short story.

Speaking of the secretary, in an early draft of the movie’s screenplay that I read about a decade ago while home sick from school, she was either topless or wore a transparent top (I forget which).  I was surprised to see that this was faithfully adapted from “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” in which the secretary is “bare from the waist up” with her breasts spray-painted blue (42).  Later, “her melon-shaped breasts” are painted “an incandescent orange” and are “bobbing with agitation” (50).  I mention this, of course, simply to warn readers who may be offended or bothered by such descriptions; two or three others appear in this volume—including a mention of a “slim blonde [wearing a sideglance robe [which is] invisible out of the corner of the eye, but an opaque fountain when looked at directly” (192), which would perhaps alter people’s behavior at parties in interesting ways.  Again, these details are mentioned simply to produce a complete review of the work.

“Wholesale” is definitely the best story in the volume, which is why they subtitled the collection after it and they put “the story that inspired the hit motion picture TOTAL RECALL” on the cover.  (They further play off the movie’s popularity by making the guy on the cover look a lot like Schwarzenegger, whereas Quail in the story isn’t described as being very muscular.)

Many of the other stories are also quite worthwhile, such as “Jon’s World”, which takes place in the same fictional universe as “Second Variety”, a rare repeat setting in the Dickian ouerve.  The story involves a pair of men going back in time to try to alter history, which included a devastating war in which man-made machines ended up taking over and almost killing off humanity.  They end up meeting the scientist who invented the machine AI, which may remind other readers, as it did me, of Terminator 2 where the heroes meet up with Miles Dyson, inventer of the terminator’s AI chip.  “The Hood Maker” is another of the book’s best stories; it reminds me of both Dick’s story”Minority Report” (which is in Volume 1 of the series) and “The Mule” by Isaac Asimov, and, as most of Dick’s stories seem to, involves a main character who is always on the verge of being arrested.

Speaking of things that happen frequently in Dick’s stories, I hope you enjoy stories with a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting; if not, avoid, inter alia, “A Surface Raid” and “Breakfast At Twilight.”  Others take place during a wartime, such as “Some Kinds of Life”, which is a pointed critique of rampant consumerism for those with ears to hear, and “Imposter,” which is the second best story in the collection on account of its skillful use of misdirection.

Philip K. Dick (1928–1982)

Philip K. Dick (1928–1982)

Unfortunately, many of the stories have predictable twists at their conclusions.   For instance,  in “The Cosmic Poachers”, it was immediately apparent to me that what the humans thought were jewels being hoarded by the arachnid-like aliens were actually the aliens’ eggs (the story isn’t that good; this isn’t ruining anything for you).  As short fiction is really about the concept, as opposed to character development or setting, these stories aren’t as good as they would be if the endings weren’t so predictable.  A good conclusion or plot twist is one that (1) the reader didn’t see coming but (2) seems totally inevitable in retrospect.  Dick often fails at concealing his twists, but perhaps this is just due to my familiarity with his work and the conventions of the genre.

Another problem with many of Dick’s stories is the way the characters act; they rarely plan things out like they would in real life—even when they’re taking part in a massive government-led mission to travel through time or explore a distant star system—and they made odd decisions off the cuff even when the problems faced should have been easily foreseen and planned for.

Characters also act quite oddly, given their motivations.  The best examples of this occur in the story “A Present For Pat” in which Eric Blake comes back from Ganymede with what appears to be an alien idol but is actually the god itself (this is explained in a science fiction, not supernatural way).  His wife and friend act recklessly around it, even after the thing proves its great power, and are turned into stone and into a frog, respectively. Blake’s response?  He complains to the god: “This is the thanks I get for taking you off Ganymede.  Ruin my household and my social life.  Fine god you are!”  And later, he asks a robot cab driver, “What would you do if your wife had turned to stone, your best friend were a toad, and you had lost your job?”  Equally oddly, Blake’s boss accepts that this frog is his employee after just a few minutes—and no proof—and wants to rig up some equipment so it can keep working by spelling out words to communicate with them!  When the god asks if Blake wants him to restore his wife and friend his response is “Gosh, I sure would appreciate it!”  Despite all this, it’s a decent story—just don’t take it too seriously.

Note that several of the stories in the collection are fantasy, and not science fiction.  This includes stories where a man is killed by a cuckoo clock and another where a woman is killed by an elderly apple tree.  I am not a particular fan of such fantasy stories; they never seem to have any rules that guide what can happen.

Readers will also probably note many influences from the 1950s era they were written, such as the idea of apocalyptic war between super powers and the role of the good, June Cleaver-type housewife who lives just to wait for her husband to come home from the office to cook him dinner.  This collection is definitely pre-women’s lib and includes only one or two female characters of any strength or real interest.  Just recall that not too many women wrote for or read science fiction magazines circa 1953, which perhaps explains the mention of “full, rounded breasts” (141) and bare breasts that glow via some unspecified technology (96).

Being an author involves wearing two hats: being a good writer and being a good storyteller.  Dick is not a good writer—all of his characters speak in basically the same voice, among his other enumerated deficiencies—but he is often a good storyteller.  However, while the payoff for many of these stories is high, the setup for them is frequently awkward and gives too much away; if he were better at misdirection almost all of these tales would rank considerably higher in my estimation.  Almost all of them need more editing work; it’s a shame that Dick was always so close to financial insolvency and had to keep churning out work as quickly as possible just to stay ahead.

If you have something of a libertarian bent and you can overlook the lack of literary polish, you’ll probably like Dick. If you like the surreal and don’t mind paranoid stories where characters are often unsure if they themselves are even real, or if the world is real, then by all means check out Dick. If you don’t mind critiques of mob violence, government sponsored violence, and of people who are controlled by propaganda and materialism, this is a book you’ll like. I do recommend the collection, and am looking forward to volumes 3, 4, and 5.  Kudos to my friend who got me interested in Dick’s corpus.