Category Archives: Books

Books for Non-Readers (and a small rant)

Go look at this list and before you go I’ll give you my opinion: this list is mostly BS. It always strikes me as strange how it seems always to be women giving advice on ‘reading-reluctant boys’ or ‘how to be a gentleman’ I sometimes wonder if this isn’t because men don’t care; but rather because a lot of women are nosey-parkers who don’t feel right unless they are giving advice to males… Whew! that wasn’t very nice of me, was it…

Let me continue complaining for a bit: ‘reading reluctant boys’ is actually fairly offensive. To make up a euphemism for someone who doesn’t like to read, and then talk about it only for boys is, well, forgetting that girls don’t read anything either. (…and thrill-loving girls, says the sub-title.) It is also a bit dumb to imply that boys need anything other than a well written, interesting story which is the exact same thing that a girl who doesn’t read needs. How about instead: books for children who haven’t learned to like reading? Or, books for anyone who doesn’t like to read but might want to give it a whirl… I guarantee that a large number of adults don’t read either.

As for books recommended for those who don’t like to read, The Woman in White is NOT one of them. The Woman in White made me almost want to give up reading as a pastime it was so boring and irritating. Also, the Horatio Hornblower books are formulaic and badly written. The only winner in the bunch is Dracula by Bram Stoker, and perhaps A Princess of Mars, which was entertaining, though perhaps neither are what I would recommend for someone who doesn’t really like reading yet.

So I will make two lists, one more tailored to young-ish audiences and one for adults who say ‘Oh, I don’t read…’ The criteria are very simple. In fact they are so simple that I have the same criteria for both lists.

1: Interesting 2: Well-written 3: Worth the time

That’s it.

Young-ish

#5 Farmer Giles of Ham

Dragons, common folk doing uncommon things… an intelligent horse… and a dog that talks vernacular (while the people talk Latin… 🙂 )

#4 Sure, let’s leave Dracula on the list

The original bloodsucker. Who 1) tolerates sunlight just fine and 2) is indisputably evil. None of the anti-hero BS.

#3 Ender’s Game

The movie misses the book entirely in pacing. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but the movie should have been less accurate to the book. The pacing and the moving around works for the book, but the movie is mostly a jumble.

#2 Nightmare City

Perhaps one of the best YA fiction. I read it without knowing for sure that is what it was intended for.

#1 A Journey to the Center of the Earth (Or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

Jules Verne is the best. After this one, and 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea, you should definitely pick up The Mysterious Island

‘Oh, I don’t read-ers’
Well, maybe sometime, when you wonder what do do with a tad bit of leisure, pick up one of these and try reading again: not for school, not because someone told you to read it, but because it will actually be fun. and worth the time. (As opposed to TV which may be fun, and is almost never worth the time.)

#5 Hey let’s put Dracula here too!

Yay! Dracula.

#4 The Scarlet Letter

I included this one because so many people think they know the story. So many people think its about sin and unjust societal retribution. In fact, it is about forgiveness and the human condition. And it is well written, and it is interesting… and obviously worth the time 🙂 This is, in fact, the first book I ever sacrificed sleep to read. I read the entire book starting just before bedtime, and (not wanting to sleep) I read it after bedtime until around 2 am to finish it. I think I was 12(ish).

#3 Just after sunset

A collection of short stories/ novellas that are fast paced, interesting. I especially recommend ‘N’.

#2 A Killer in the Wind

This book is also a fast paced thriller (duh, read the title) but it is also perceptive and philosophically deep without ever losing the thriller pacing. quite an accomplishment.

#1 Out of the Silent Planet

C.S. Lewis has to make every list at some point… (perhaps we can leave him off the ‘brilliant physicist list… 🙂 ) Read this one, then read Perelandra, then you will be ready for That Hideous Strength.

2014 Christian Novel Contest

Well, the move is finished now. (The move out, the move in is a gradual process…) I just felt like reminding any readers who come by about the novel contest I help judge. (I probably should have said something sooner. 🙂 ) The deadline s in a few days, September 3rd. If anyone has a novel they wrote and think they can win, you can see the submission details at that link. That’s it for now, but considering that the move is more complete, I should be posting more interesting things soon.

 

Zombies

After a long hiatus of vacation, it is time to talk about zombies. I have never really liked zombies for monster stories, there are so many issues, like the fact that something that spreads via biting is perhaps the worst way for a disease to spread. From an author’s point of view, you cant just infect large amounts of people by having unknowingly infected walking through an airport… very convenient for flu pandemic stories, but Zombies… Also there is the problem that as corpses they should decay into static threats very quickly in summer heat. I always say that the way to survive the Zombie apocalypse is to lock the door and let the sun do the work. if everyone did that, there would be no zombie hordes to knock the doors down.

But upon reading this post from Michael Totten (Not even zombies can save the middle east) He is talking about the international griping that Israeli’s are portrayed positively in the movie World War Z, and this line stuck out “Most of the kvetchers are tired and predictable, are they’re over-reacting. World War Z is a popcorn movie. It doesn’t even pretend to be a serious geopolitical film. The novel is complex and brilliant.” that coupled with this piece of information: ‘In the film version, Israel is one of only two countries that survives the initial zombie outbreak. The other is North Korea. Pyongyang pulls out the teeth of the entire population in 24 hours, making it impossible for the virus to spread. But Israel is not a totalitarian police state. The Israelis survive the initial wave intact because they have a clever intelligence tool at their disposal that no other country in the world possesses.’ made me want to read the book. The horribly accurate portrayal of what a totalitarian regime like N. Korea might do in a zombie outbreak made me curious. And the Kindle edition was only ten dollars.

Well, I must say that the book is complex and brilliant. What I found most impressive was the strong feeling of reality, that countries were behaving in a manner consistent with both the individual cultures of the countries and with the commonality of human nature. (What follows might be construed to be mild spoilers… but its a zombie apocalypse story, of you can’t predict 80% of what will happen, you need to pay more attention to what you read. Also, despite the general framework of the zombie apocalypse story being generally as expected, the story is unique, another discussion for another time.)

The outbreak starts in China. Why China, well because this solves the problem of spreading the zombie disease. Also, because it works really well. If the outbreaks had started in Topeka, Kansas, it would have died in Topeka, Kansas. everyone for hundreds of miles is armed, and everyone would know what to shoot on sight like everyone used to know about rabid dogs in short order. However, China is all about fact suppression and secrecy, the government’s power depends on it, an lo, the author uses the truth about the world to further the story. the story is fragmented, but essentially, China had an all out epidemic without anyone really knowing. China even starts a small shooting war to give reasons for its zombie suppression teams reasons for their movements. Also, in the real world, the source of most black market organ for illegal transplants is China… any guesses to a disease spreading mechanism? Also, for a long time in the story, China is undergoing the epidemic and its neighbors are absorbing refugees not knowing anything… So at least some of the zombie spread is reasonable.

Another interesting incident in the story is the result of about 5 million Americans fleeing to Cuba, the infection of freedom that they bring. There is a line that says:

‘Freedom isn’t something you have for the sake of having, you have to want something else first and then want the freedom to fight for it. That was the lesson we learned from the Nortecubanos (the Americans who fled to Cuba). They all had such grand dreams, and they’d lay down their lives for the freedom to make those dreams come true.’

Anyway, the story is also exciting and interesting. It is rather episodic being a ‘compilation’ of ‘interviews’ rather than a linear plot, however the interviews make up a well formed plot, with humankind as the protagonists and zombies and selfishness and chaos as the antagonists. If you enjoy apocalyptic type stories, I think this one plays on the same field as  Alas Babylon and The Postman. I guess I will have to give the movie a try too, and see if it is a decent popcorn film…

The Looking Glass

Let’s take a look at the world, and its ‘recent’ history.  It is a history of European aggression: of armies from a powerful continent raping and pillaging lands and peoples in pursuit of ever more power and wealth. In the modern world, this cadre of ‘western’ countries monopolizes the weath, inflicts its morality and worldview on everyone else and uses force to get what it wants from oppressed and beaten down third world countries. These westerners pollute and waste the world they tyrannize, all while poor people in Bangladeshi die in workplace accidents and Arabs in Egypt starve. It is all from the injustice of the west dominating everyone else, like petty emperors.

That, at least, is the worldview that is implicitly and explicitly taught in schools and texts and believed by many people running the country today.  However, let’s go through the looking glass and try to see this recent history through other, alien eyes. Let’s follow the little white rabbit of demographics first. I saw this the other day. Not sure exactly if it is true, but China (1,349,585,838 people), India (1,220,800,359 people), Indonesia (251,160,124 people) Bangladesh (163,654,860) are all inside the highlighted circle as are Japan, the Philippines and probably Pakistan too. (Numbers are from CIA world factbook)

circle

I think the people who had posted that (wherever I saw it I don’t know… it just shows up in places.) Were making an argument that other places should be less important. Why, for instance, does Canada have more ‘importance’ than Laos? Surely it must be the bigotry and xenophobia of the ruling western cadre. However, the looking glass looks back at us, and everything is flipped around and we must be left to wonder why most of the world’s population lives in a dirt poor country without much influence outside its own borders? North Korea has to threaten nuclear war to get attention, whereas Canada probably would only have to politely clear its throat. The answer of the bigotry of western countries is a hollow answer, since that would imply countries cooperating in their own marginalization.

Aha! You say, aha, the West has dominated them and forced them into cooperating with military power. The looking glass looks at you, and the real question comes up. If they are forced to comply with western bigotry, the question is: How? This population disparity is not new.

Think back to  ancient history. This is the Roman Empire.

Roman_Empire_Trajan_117AD

What you may not realize is that what is today France, Spain, and England were the frontier of the Empire. The cities and the wealth were all Rome and east, which is why the capitol was moved to Constantinople, and probably part of the reason why the eastern empire lived on longer than the western empire.

So we get to the real point, at roughly the time of the fall of Rome (and the emergence of Byzantium in the east) the people that have dominated the world for the last few centuries were tribal barbarians with a thin (oh so thin) veneer of Roman civilization and organization on them. At the same point in time, China in 609 is supposed to have had 46,019,956 people in:

Cheui_Dynasty_581_CE

The Merovingians (Early France) were at about the same time, but I cannot find a population estimate. However their successors (with a double sized empire, 1-200 years later) were supposedly 10-20 million people.

Frankish_Empire_481_to_814-en.svg

Basically, for all of recorded history of the peoples that dominated the world from the 17th century through today, the vast majority of people have NOT been these people. As opposed to the Mongols who brought armies larger than most Europeans could imagine these people were relatively few in number, and just ever so little past tribalism. Why, then, did not China dominate the world? Why did not India?

This is where we fall into wonderland, and as Alice, we wander around in stupid amazement. What if the summary of these past centuries actually goes more like this:

The globally disadvantaged minority in terms of population, organization, and land area suddenly, somehow, dominate. Though they fight each other and slaughter each other for very little reason, though their cultural roots only run back a few generations to wild war-cult pagans, though their armies are numbered in tens of thousands whereas Chinese armies were in the hundreds of thousands, they somehow conquered effectively the entire world. They also manage to dominate for hundreds of years.  That would be this:

Europe_orthographic_Caucasus_Urals_boundary.svg

Conquering this:

800px-European_Empires.svg

(Color code and each separate empire cataloged at Wiki)

You may make the argument (and you may have good arguments too) that this conquest of the world was wrong, but you cannot deny that it was spectacularly improbable. By any rubric of population and organization, the maps should be of worldwide empires should have been Chinese and Indian. You also cannot claim with much credibility that only westerners are power hungry enough for world empires. That kind of racism so strange it is funny, as if genetics have anything to do with it.

There is an explanation for this, but you will have to read Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson.

He explores this looking-glass world for what unique attributes this rag-tag group of countries had that made this even possible. He explores the western culture by analyzing the western way of war, for his contention is that cultures cannot hide their true natures in battles (and he is a war historian). It is an excellent book.

My short answer is that innovation and liberty and property rights breed cultural power. Whereas despotism and tyrants breed insecurity. An example from Carnage and Culture given by VDH is from the battle of Lepanto. Ali Pasha (the commander of the Ottoman fleet) had almost his entire net personal wealth on board his galley, whereas the Christian leaders fought penniless. Ali Pasha was afraid that the Sultan, in a fit of displeasure,  would take his stuff while he was gone, while the wealthy leaders of the Christian fleet knew that their belongings, their money and property were almsot certainly protected.

Another sign is that in the cases where non-western armies slaughter western ones, the non-westerns loot the weapons from the western bodies. This never seems to happen in reverse. It is like today, China does a vast amount of cyber war and intellectual property theft. We don’t steal their intellectual property or military technology, probably because the only things they have worth stealing, they stole from us. No matter how well educated a population is, no matter how large it is, unless its people are free to innovate, and free to keep and use the fruit of their labor,  un-free societies will always be behind the free ones. In fact, I think it is entirely possible that in an oppressive society a large population is a problem while in a free society, a large population is undoubtedly an asset.

The Postman and America

All of history is like a tangled mess of threads. You read about battles like Balaclava, or about the various intrigues of this or that king’s court, and it all feels rather pointless. It’s a mess of yarn a cat played with. I know all this sound nihilistic and fatalist, but it is often true about history. Sometimes, however, when reading a biography, or an original text or even sometimes a novel, a momentary glimmer appears of order in the chaos, of, perhaps, a plan in the mess: even a Divine plan. It is on those moments when history is transformed in the mind from ‘one damn thing after another’ to something with purpose, a beginning with an end, something whose order is so complex and huge that the mind cannot grasp it. It’s produces historical vertigo, and whenever it happens it is almost too bright for the mind.

Well I will get back to that thought, but about a week ago, our local library had its biannual book sale (last time I got ‘The End of the Affair’) and I bought this time a hardcover of The Postman by David Brin.

I had read it before a long while ago, and remembered really enjoying the story. This time, however, I was deeply impressed by the American-ness of the story.  And there was one moment, with a brief excursion to Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and the nefarious Aaron Burr. The whole book explores really two themes, taking responsibility, and a sort of three way battle between the very strong who wish to dominate, the weak, and the strong who wish to live their lives for little things, like their farm and their friends, and yet go forth when called to fight for big things like Liberty and Justice. In Archetypes it would be a battle between Julius Caesar, the Roman general/farmer Cincinnatus, and common folk.

While the discussions of feminism, flaws with American culture, and the exploration of what would cause a society to tear itself apart are complex (as they should be) and interesting, there was one section that struck me with historical vertigo, a sudden, and temporary feeling of seeing more in the history than is generally seen. The moment is when the hero, the Postman, is being held captive by the Holnists (followers of the fictitious Nathan Holn) who were basically worshipers of the strong. Rule was by the strong, for the strong, and the only rule for advancement in their fledgling barbarism was that your strength determined your status. The specific passage was ‘by’ Nathan Holn.  He discusses about Aaron Burr’s attempt to seize the territory to the west of the 13 colonies and create an empire of the strong. He also talks about how Burr was thwarted by Hamilton, and Franklin and an idea.

The idea was the Order of Cincinnatus and while I dont know how much influence that had, something very different did indeed happen just after America’s revolution. And so, all of a sudden in my mind came how every so often in America the drive of powerful people towards Empire has been a core fight, perhaps the core fight of the American experiment. How, as he says in the book, Aaron Burr and those like him did not envision new states, they wanted little empires of territory to the west. How the Democrats from the antebellum south desperately wanted Cuba to be annexed to be added to their constellation of slave states. How it is entirely possible that the Mexican War was started for just this purpose, that, in the mind of these almost Holnists, the whole western hemisphere south of the Potomac would be a slave empire, and the world north could do as it wished. And again, in my mind came the fact that despite this, the American people, who as yet still have nearly unprecedented power over their leaders, have, through recurring times of quiet courage, incessantly refused empire. If you consider all the territory America could have held and ruled if she had had any stomach for empire: Cuba, all of Mexico, the Philippines,  Japan, Korea, and who knows but half of Europe too… We may joke that some of these places would be better off if we still ran them, but America would have ceased to be what it is, a Giant among giant countries, with almost no appetite for conquest, so little in fact, that when some actual conquest might be necessary we frequently balk.

All this brings me around to something that I think about rather often, just one little observation: the American Revolution is one of the few that really worked. Compare and contrast the American Revolution and the French one just a few years later. Americans are now 236 years into our experiment. The French went through a massive, bloody purge during the Reign of Terror (thank you French Enlightenment) which was part of the 1st Republic, then they had an Empire (Napoléon) , then more Kings (last of the Bourbons), the 2nd Republic, another Napoléon/Empire,  the 3rd Republic, a puppet state Vichy France, and I think they are in the 5th Republic… Not a successful revolution. And I think the difference was that Washington, Franklin, Hamilton won out against the Aaron Burr types. It makes me wonder, if Rome had the same struggles to keep from becoming and Empire, and if we can continue having the Cincinnatus/ Washington /George Powhatan (from The Postman) types beat the Holnists who are ever present in our midst emerging as they do from basic human nature. As Ronald Reagan said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” I think this is what he was referring to.

To return at the end to The Postman, it is a fun book, sometimes a deep book, and the author clearly loves America, yet sees it ‘warts and all’.

Congrats to Chris Morrow

Last year, I greatly enjoyed judging the second annual ACM novel contest. (This year is in its judging phase, but that means it is perfect time to plan to submit for next year. All you have to do is write one little tiny novel 🙂 ) This contest is quite unique in that the finalists have the opportunity to work with one of the judges and improve their novels before the final decision is made. That final decision is based solely on the new version of the novel. Of course, every change is finally at the discretion of the author, and the judge generally refrains entirely from basic editorial comments. We try to help people see how to make their work more meaningful, more exciting, and more True. (See my previous post The Right Story Told True for what I mean.)

Now, enough bragging about the contest, I am actually here to brag about one of the authors I worked with last year. Actually, the only one I actually worked with, the others were less interested in continuing work on their novels. However, new author Chris Morrow was amazing, and I am actually posting to brag, not about the man, but about the novel, The Devil’s Choir. This was last year’s 2nd place winner of our novel contest is is available from Amazon and a bunch of different places. (that link goes to Amazon)

I will not really try to review the work, but I will talk about some of the aspects I thought were very good. I, of course, will not do too much talking about the plot, so that good part is left out. One of the most important things to talk about is enjoyability. It is well paced, (which means fast) and has thoroughly likable characters, inscrutable characters, and vicious characters. You get a faint wisp of some levels of an ancient conspiracy theory, but only enough to be intriguing. Another part of the book, patently about spiritual warfare, (The title should be a clue, but the website gives that much away.) is that probably every possible level of spiritual warfare is explored, clashes of Good versus Evil on many scales, in many dimensions. In some ways it harkens to Perelandra where the battle of Good and Evil came down to one middle age professor boxing another. I could mention many other strengths of the book, but I would likely give too much away. You can go to either the website or Amazon and read an excerpt or two (I think they may be different) and get a feel for the book. I definitely recommend it and after all, its only $5 (Kindle edition).

(I suppose a real blogger would say something like: Full Disclosure… I worked on this some… but I will have to say this: It may be possible that I am enthused by this book because Chris Morrow took so much of my advice that I began to think it might be good advice after all. 🙂 ) Here is the link again, you should at least go read the excerpt. I hope you enjoy it.

A Canticle for the Vatican

This article at National Review Online really struck a history buff nerve. It also reminded me of one of the great pantheon of ‘Good Books I Like’… The Vatican Secret Archive Unveiled.

Some of the documents — written on such various materials as parchment, vellum, paper, and birchbark (the medium for an 1887 letter from the Ojibwe Indians to the pope, “the Great Master of Prayer, he who acts in Jesus’s stead”) — bring to mind epic moments and historical turning points across ten centuries: the handwritten records of Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition; Pope Alexander VI’s bull Inter Cetera (which might be translated, “Among Other Things”), dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal; the 1530 petition from dozens of members of England’s House of Lords, asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that the Tudor king might marry Anne Boleyn; Gregory XIII’s calendar of 1582 with the “missing ten days” in October, an excision that rectified the inaccuracies of the earlier Julian calendar; a letter from Mary Queen of Scots to Sixtus V just before her execution; Polish king John III Sobieski’s 1683 letter to Innocent XI, reporting his victory over the Turks at the Battle of Vienna; letters from Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln to Pius IX during the U.S. Civil War.

My favorite is the letter on Birchbark… but this all reminds me of the fantastic book ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz‘. In the book, mankind has decided after a horrific nuclear war that knowledge and learning were the ultimate cause of the war, and so, with true human blindness, they burn every book, and kill every scholar. (Although the book is set much later, the events of this time are very interesting to me.) Basically, a man named Leibowitz founds an order of Catholic monks to preserve as much knowledge and books as possible. Eventually, in one of the books three parts, the world’s new scholars come to a monastery of these monks to learn what is left.

And now back to the Vatican archives. They should strike a reminder that rather than suppress the truth of history, the Church has been a consistent ‘rememberer’ of the past. I am sure suppression of the truth has happened in the Church… obviously, the church is made of people. But by and large, the church was the repository of learning and reading and writing and what history they could keep during the dismally dark and horrific time when the Roman armies were no longer keeping the barbarians out of what is now Europe. And now again, we have a whole class of people who would rather forget the past which is embodied in these documents.

Well,  A Canticle For Leibowitz has much appeal, with deep understanding of the flaws of mankind, and the work of God in Sanctification. Also, the depiction of mankind returning and ever returning to the same bad and evil ideas is very compelling. At every stage, God saves His remnant. It is a good book, go read it, its summer… you should have time 🙂

Ghost Story

So the other night I watched The Woman in Black and that started me thinking about ghost stories in general. For instance, I cannot figure out why people in ghost stories always run behind doors and lock them, they aren’t keeping out zombies. Ghosts can obviously appear behind you anywhere, they are haunting a location, that location is their playground, so beating a traditional ghost is simple… LEAVE! However, I am not actually hear to snark on the genre, it is too convention filled to mock. I like conventions in stories, like the grand sagas and ballads all had plot conventions. No, I found some parts of the film interesting from an altogether different viewpoint.

The Woman in Black is set in the late 1800’s and it set me thinking about this era, the Lunatic laws, the loss of faith in Europe, Matthew Arnold, and then back to the ghost story. The ghost in question was the mother of a little boy who was proclaimed a lunatic and had her son taken away. (See G. K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils)The film makes fairly clear that before her son was taken she was mostly normal, if a little obsessive. But as she is further and further removed from their son, she goes crazier and crazier until her son is lost in the marsh and his adoptive parents (her sister and brother-in-law) escape the car but desert the boy to the quicksand. So she hangs herself and becomes the ghost of the story, who is a ghost of horrible vengeance, who drives the children of the neighboring town to kill themselves.
Enter the hero, with his Victorian sentimentality. Once convinced his own son is in danger, he dredges up the body of the boy, and lays it in the tomb with his mothers body… which has no effect on the ghost at all. And thus we see the people of an industrial age, having lost their faith, and willing to believe in anything. The hero talks in vague terms about his dead wife waiting for him, and others toss about half-believed platitudes about souls going up to heaven, but no body believes anything, and everybody is grasping for something to believe.

Enter Matthew Arnold and Dover Beach.

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

So what interested me most about The Woman in Black was the final score. Ghost: at least 12, Sentimentality: 0. So I thought of another, this time American ghost story rather than a Victorian one. Bag Of Bones by Stephen King. (If you read it, it is pretty good just be ready to skip some pages when King gets horrible describing in minute detail the origin of the ghost.) In this case, the ghost takes a few children from each generation, all with names starting with ‘K’ as revenge for her child. However our hero is an impractical enough person to realize that a ghost seeking more and more vengeance cannot be satisfied. (A sentimental mistake of the Victorian lawyer who was the hero of The Woman in Black.) Our hero in this case, once he realizes that there is indeed a ghost, and a particular, very sweet little girl is the target (name starts with ‘K’ and descended from original villain from a century ago.) he comes up with a practical American plan, find the body of the ghost woman and pour lye on the bones… which works for the story. Ghost: Several every generation, Practical hero: 1. A much better score, for a different culture.
However, I leave you with a great very short ghost story. This one is quite good. (The ghost doesn’t do any killing… so there isn’t much scoring I can do…)
Andrew Klavan’s The Advent Reunion. Here is video one of about 6. Do listen, it is well done.

Agnes Mallory

It has become official; I am on a Klavan kick. I have now read 4-5 of his books, which are all well put together and enjoyable. Some are better than others, of course. The Identity Man was good, Corruption was just ok. The Uncanny was quite fun, as was Hunting Down Amanda, the first unpredictable and the second predictable, but both very enjoyable nonetheless. However, there is this one  that I have found to be excellent literature. I don’t think it falls for certain in any genre, but I suppose it would be classified psychological thriller perhaps. Agnes Mallory, I think, should, and perhaps will be remembered as an actual classic. A book whose content, storytelling, plot are so captivating, so well done: a book whose philosophy strikes so true, that it is can stand the test of time.

The narrator of Agnes is a loathsome man, Harry, who had been a relatively typical boy when he actually knew the eponymous Agnes (who is Agnes Sole as a child).  As one reads the book, you are ‘treated’ to the present day Harry, a man whose respectable outer shell has been removed, who has collapsed in on his own depravities as a recluse. You also get glimmers of the past, when as a child, Harry spent time with Agnes.

As I mentioned before, the narrator (and dare I say, the main character) is an ‘inner man’. He has many characteristics of Dostoevsky’s ‘Underground Man’ (Found as the nameless main character and narrator in Notes From Underground: a chillingly accurate look at the nature of man.) He is entirely self-absorbed, he is petty. He is… unmasked. In all too much of modern writing and movies, the false facade that people put up is considered the worst part of a person which is based upon the idea that societies constraints make a person untrue to themselves. This last is, perhaps ironically, true. The true nature of the man without the socially enforced facade of kindness, selflessness, and forbearance restraining the ‘inner man’ is one entirely consumed by corruption and petty, or not so petty, evil.

The other very important person is Agnes (of course). Agnes is a brilliant sculptor, and also, well, crazy. The book does not give reasons for her insanity, but instead shows glimpses of shadows of reasons. I believe that Agnes is crazy because she cannot reconcile the greatness of mankind with its utter depravity. (Seen in the contradiction between the art of the West and Auschwitz.)

In the end, Harry is unable to save Agnes, and the books real power comes with the realization that even if Harry had been a good an, even if he had not been incessantly thinking of sex, and the repercussions of his moral and political corruption, he would not have been able to save Agnes. In fact, no man or woman could have done so.

I do not want to talk at all about the plot in any more detail than this, the book deserves to be read and found afresh, without someone else’s imprint. Agnes Mallory is spooky, is unpredictable, and beautiful in the paradoxical, sad, beaten, and yet still glorious fashion that depicts so well the state of man: simultaneously made in God’s image and cravenly fallen.  The book is worth the time and worth incomparably more than the money. Give it a read (or two) sometime.

SciFi and Demographics (Science)

I have been reading Shadow of the Hegemon recently. (Another library book sale buy.) It has reminded me of a very important rule for writing science fiction that seems often overlooked. This relates back to the idea that fiction should be ‘true’ in many ways like human nature, personalities, how nations respond to things, the causes of war etc. Everything having to do with human nature can be known from a study of history, which leads to books in which people behave convincingly as do countries, armies, leaders etc.

Obviously, Orson Scott Card does not make the amateur mistake of breaking the actual first rule ‘Obey your own rules: make your universe self-consistent’. In Shadow of the Hegemon, however, he does break another rule. (For the Julian Delphiki lovers, this is no indictment of the characters in the story J ) The rule Card breaks is this: ‘If you base your story in the real world, it should be… well… believable. Shadow is sometime in the near-ish future… maybe 100-200 years I guess. Every major country today is still extant in the story, there are no new made up ones… etc. So, when predicting major kinds of conflict likely to be stirred up by Achilles (the villain) and deciding upon which countries will be powerful, the author should at least glance at demographic trends and take that into consideration. Otherwise, one ends up creating a book with a surreal feel where Russia ends up splitting world hegemony with China.

See, the birth rate now matters to the world stage 150 years from now. China and Russia at about 1.5 children/woman leave shrinking and aging populations which are only about 50 years away for China, and I believe already occurring for Russia. To add to the problem, China at least has a deficit of women due to sex-selective abortion and the one child policy.

To forecast into the future is always too simplistic. However, considering that not one nation that has tried to raise its birth rate has yet succeeded, and that virtually every major incident imaginable (Civil war, famine, plague, War war… etc) decreases population faster, it is not unreasonable to guess that every nation with a birth rate under 2.0 (2.1 or so is the ‘replacement rate’) is going to undergo either extinction (breaking up into smaller states, getting absorbed by a larger one, or something of the kind) or massive national instability as immigrants take a large percent of the population. This last effect is only mitigated in America where almost everyone is an immigrant population. (And America’s birth rate is one of the few ‘stable’ ones, right around 2.1)  But in Germany, the German identity is ethnic as well as geographic, the same with Russia, Italy, China… etc. I think it is more unreasonable to assume that China and Russia will have power and influence in 2150 like they do now, than to assume that they will either be non-existent as we know them or preoccupied.

Basically, with trends like this, it seems very strange to set the world up to be dominated by two people groups who basically refuse to repopulate themselves. So this comes back to the most important rule of fiction: your story must tell the truth. This takes different forms in different genres, but the key stays the same. Every major element must ring true with the real world to feel true in the story.

All that said, Shadow of the Hegemon has been fun. However, I have not thought that any of Card’s books set in that universe even begin to compare the first Ender’s Game. Also, for a thorough treatment of demographics and how they affect nations, look at ‘How Civilizations Die: And Why Islam is Dying Too’ by David P. Goldman and ‘America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It’ by Mark Steyn. They mostly deal with the demographics of the Islamic World and the Western World, but the ideas and trends apply elsewhere.