Thursday, February 23, 2012

For Pleasure: Winter

Since I happened to finish several books I've been slowly reading for the past few months, it seemed like time for an update.  My bedtime reading was mostly Robert D. Richardson's Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986.)  It looks like I've saved his first biography for last, after starting with Emerson and then William James.  In this book, Richardson is perhaps less ambitious but just as successful, although it may be that Thoreau's quiet life lends itself to a quieter treatment.

The book relies a great deal on Thoreau's journals, and it is chiefly a chronological treatment.  It's quite an achievement to retain reader interest in a life that was so solitary, but that's one reason I keep reading Richardson--he's a beguiling writer.  But there is a sense of the real world Thoreau lived in, like his involvement in his father's pencil-making business, for which Henry made several important (and profitable) innovations.  Or the reality of Walden Pond, skirted on a side near Thoreau's cabin by railroad track, and the regular passage of steam engine trains.  The suddenness of the book's end mirrors the suddenness of Thoreau's death at a comparatively young age.  It seems he was becoming more of a systematic naturalist, yet had he lived a few decades longer, there's no telling what further visionary literature he might have produced.

I also finished Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, The Years of Rice and Salt.  Having been pleasantly surprised by his science fictional historical novel on Galileo, I moved on to this one, which is an alternate history of no less than human civilization, based on the "what if" of the Black Death effectively wiping out Europeans rather than killing a third. Over the centuries the civilizations contending for world power are Islamic and Chinese, then India and the civilizations of the New World, the South American tribes (Inka) and the North American tribes united in the Iroquois confederation. 

Robinson tells this sweeping story with an intriguing device--he adopts the metaphysics of Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, that posit reincarnation.  So he follows essentially the same group of characters, as they are reincarnated in different countries and cultures, their fates yoked together.  In between they meet in "the Bardo," a kind of limbo where they are assigned their next incarnations, and where they discuss whether they (or humanity) are actually making any progress at all.

History in its broadest sense doesn't turn out too differently--there are struggles for empire, technological advances linked to trade or war or both, as well as the struggles of individuals to pursue science, justice and humanity's best potential.  There's something like the Great War, though it lasts a generation, and the possibility of atomic bombs is discovered, but perhaps the reality is avoided.  Within the story there are utopian visions for which Robinson is rightly noted.  I read this long and complicated novel in spurts--it was just too much to handle continuously, as I had read his other novels.  But I knew all along the way that this is a true literary milestone,  perhaps his most impressive novel as literature of any kind.  It's his best written, virtually without the slackness that sometimes rolls by as I race through the story.     

I also just finished Jim Harrison's most recent collection of novellas, The Farmer's Daughter (Grove, 2010,) which I acquired in hardback upon its ascension to sale book status.  I actually read the first two novellas (the title one, and "Brown Dog Redux") pretty quickly, but deliberately decided to save the last one for later ("The Games of Night," a story which apparently uses Harrison's research on lycanthropy for his script of the Jack Nicholson movie, Wolf.)  I look forward to the Brown Dog novellas being collection in one volume.  Otherwise these have the usual rewards of Harrison's fiction, which are considerable.

After "always meaning to," I finally read We, the classic dystopic novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin.  I see why it is a literary classic as well as an historical one, coming before Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm,  and Huxley Brave New World , but after H.G. Wells and The Time Machine.  I also read some of Zamyatin's essays, including the very perceptive one about Wells--it is among the best short summaries with insight into the full range of Wells' fictions.

But I didn't stay so high minded, indulging in several Star Trek novels (which I usually save for traveling, but...) and my first Captain Future novel.  I didn't even know there were Captain Future stories when I adopted this as my Internet screen name (though I thought there must be.)  Then I found online articles about Edmond Hamilton's novels published in pulp magazines, and copies of their covers.  So I finally ordered a facsimile copy of the Summer 1942 issue of Captain Future: Man of Tomorrow with the "novel" The Comet Kings.  It's actually a long story, which takes up about half of the magazine. (Though the cover has nothing to do with the story.)  The whole magazine is great fun, with a vision of the future that includes "radium lamps" for lighting!  There's also an origin story for Captain Future and his Futuremen (a floating brain, a robot and a cyborg, plus a couple of pets) that's a frontiersman saves Indians from thieving white traders set on Mars.  But it does establish Captain Future as a hero of the downtrodden, a hero template set by Superman, Flash Gordon, etc. in the 30s and 40s.  And thank god for that. Despite the populated solar system planets, there are interesting elements in the cosmology of Captain Future's universe that are curiously similar to certain theoretical models derived from quantum theory.  Hmmm.


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