Friday 31 December 2021

Book Roundup

I thought I better make some sort of post this year! Here’s some books I’ve read which may or may not be of value to DMs.

Glory Road - Robert A. Heinlein, 1963

When I were a lad, I had quite a few Heinlein’s on the shelf and while I liked his work I often found it a bit too right-wing military-worshipping for my taste. Over the years of moving house and multiple consequent de-clutterings, I noticed that the only RAH left was Glory Road. So I decided to crack it open for the first time in about 40 years and have a read.

Broadly speaking, it’s terrible.

More narrowly, it’s great.

There is a fun, pulpy, Appendix-N worthy short story about an Earth man who is whisked away to perform a mission on behalf of and with a beautiful warrior-woman and her loyal henchman.

Unfortunately, this short-story is embedded in a full-length novel which is padded out with long, tedious discussions of sexual politics as well as some on the topic of political politics.

Heinlein was very much an anarchic monarchist at heart. His idea of an ideal government seems to have been one where the government exists only to preserve individual freedom. That individual freedom extends to the person in charge of the government, so the goal is to find the right person and give them absolute power safe in the knowledge that they will only use it very sparingly and always for good. A lovely notion, I suppose.

At the level of men and women, all interactions are consensual and considered. Contracts of various sorts feature in the story and trouble arises from our hero not understanding when an implicit, social, contract has been entered into. This gives Heinlein the chance to discuss the sexually liberated ideal societies in the book by the central character’s spluttering shock at discovering he has created insult or injury by assuming that 1950’s American standards of decency have no place in the wider scheme presented here.

The story is told from this person’s point of view, which allows pages of reflection and self-analysis which is really the author justifying the imagined morals in the best light possible.

Outside of that, the characters ostensibly are on a quest to find the Egg of the Phoenix for reasons which are not made clear to the hero until after it is obtained (I’m assuming that no one is expecting a pulp hero to fail). Dragons are faced, mystical gates transport the trio to worlds and demi-planes infested with golem-type constructs, fire-breathing dragons are fought, wards are set, and Cyrano deBergerac puts up a heroic defence of the Egg.

Spoilers ahead.

I really struggled to get through the politics but then Heinlein does something at the end of the book which changes the whole tone of what has gone before.

After the Egg is obtained we switch back to science fiction and it, and the beautiful warrior-woman turn out to be cybernetically linked.

The woman who has been called Star throughout turns out to be the Empress of a huge trans-dimensional empire - the wielder of absolute power over not just her world but Earth and every other world known to her hyper-advanced science. The Egg is a device which allows her to access a thousand years of the Empire’s records - not just facts and figures, but stored personalities of previous emperors and a handful of empresses which she, as a relatively newly assigned ruler needs to absorb in order to improve her ability to rule, mainly by knowing when her predecessors intervened without good reason. Heinlein’s view is that improvements to governance generally take the form of reducing the frequency of its actions.

The man. Well, the man’s name is the subject of a baffling amount of discussion in the story. His full name is Evelyn Cyril Gordon so he is sometime referred to as just “Gordon”, sometimes as “E.C.”, and sometimes as “Easy Gordon”. But generally he’s just called “Oscar”. Huh? The author cares an awful lot more about all this than I ever did, I can tell you.

Anyway. Oscar has apparently faithfully presented RAH’s views on sexual equality and freedom throughout the novel. He has played the part of the manly-man doing manly things for a couple of hundred pages, often to the utter boredom, not to mention sneering, of this reader.

Now we’re back on Star’s ruling world (“Center”) and we see a glimpse of her view. Oscar is a pet. A lovely pet, but compared to monitoring twenty universes for signs of trouble, he is simply not that important; nothing to do with Star as a person is very important compared to her duty. Star had to go along on the mission for several not-entirely-convincing reasons but perhaps the unspoken one was that she could not trust the Egg to anyone.

Oscar’s life on Earth is revealed to be a sort of eugenics project - one of many, all intended to find someone with the ability to go and get the Egg. He is not the first to attempt it, not by a long-shot, and his predecessors all died in the attempt, as did many scouts who obtained the information about where the Egg was hidden.

I finished the book last night and I’m still working though the implications for the story of these final revelations. I still feel that there is far too much of Heinlein’s politics put down on the pages, but I wonder now if part of the reason for that is to give him a chance to satirise himself at the end. “This is what I think,” he may be saying, “And look how egotistical it is to believe that one man has the perspective to make declarations about what is and what should be.” Which fits, in a neatly circular way, with what is being said.

I have not read Starship Troopers in an even longer time than Glory Road, and I don’t have a copy but this ambiguity is very similar to what I see in online debates about Trooper’s meaning.

I find myself wondering if a book I really struggled to get through was in fact a work of genius.

Worth a read.

Pilgrims - Matthew Kneale 2021

There’s one iron-clad rule when browsing books in a bookshop: anything printed on the cover which is not by the author is wrong.

This goes doubly so for anything attributed to a newspaper review, and triply for any newspaper review which says the book is a comedy.

Newspaper book reviewers are generally very dull people, likely to laugh hysterically at a fart-joke. Consequently, they often mistake a humorous remark by a character as being enough to classify the entire work - and all this applies to their film reviews too - as a work of hilarity.

So, when I saw on the cover that the Financial Times felt that this book was “Uproariously Funny” my assumption was that it would not be, and I was right.

Pilgrims follows a group of, well, pilgrims from England to Rome towards the end of 1289. It’s a bad time of year to be travelling and naturally, since they all are sinners, they are a fairly bad-tempered group with the additional friction of class mixed in.

Amusing things happen, certainly, and some of the characters are people one could imagine travelling with and their company helping rather than making the hardships worse. Some are hypocrites, some take pleasure in others’ failings, some are misguided, and one is on the pilgrimage for what seems a very trivial reason.

But that’s not comedy - that’s people.

The humour that is shown is often of the very real sort of let’s try to get through this type that people resort to when they must do something that is very, very difficult.

Children die, people are lost in blizzards, secret’s are revealed which in the religious setting of the day represent the risk of being burnt at the stake. The Uproariously Funny book ends with a grim depiction of anti-Semitic ethnic cleansing.

But, yes, some people make funny remarks at times.

Generally, a nice depiction of mediaeval Europe and an insight into the degree to which there was an international cultural flow motivated by pilgrimages, and the mental spaces and walls in which people lived, loved, and died.

The writing is a bit weak at times but if this is a period or subject you’re into it’s definitely worth reading. If they’re not then it’s not going to blow you away, I think.

Thebes, The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece - Paul Cartledge 2020

A nice, simple, straight-up review: this book is shit. The author’s credentials suggest that he must know the subject but the text demonstrates that he has no idea how to present it clearly to a reader. It's a shame as the Greek Thebes does deserve a good book.


London Bridge and its Houses (2nd Ed) - Dorian Gerhold 2021

Just a bloody pleasure. The illustrations are clear and those which are representational rather than schematic are atmospheric. The text is clear and supported by hard data thanks to the fact that many records connected to the bridge have survived to the present day.

The idea of 600 people living on a bridge over a river for half a millennium seems straight out of a fantasy book or game (and will be appearing in one near me very soon), but it was a real thing in the capital city of England.

The data given here, including rents, tenants, construction methods and maintenance requirements, as well as what was being sold in the shops under the houses, is overkill for anyone thinking of putting such a thing into their own city but all together it is very inspirational despite the lack of fantasy elements.

I would never have thought of the houses on London Bridge having basements - still less the houses which were not situated over piers!

If you are planning a fantasy city, even one without a bridge, this is full of ideas about what would be found in the sort of pseudo-mediaeval period that typical D&D campaigns exist in. The book covers up to 1761 when the houses were removed and some anachronistic elements such as printing presses (truely enormous numbers of books were published on the bridge) could well be back-projected to an earlier fantasy date.

If you have any interest at all in mediaeval cities, you should buy this book.

His Dark Materials - Phillip Pullman 1995-2000

It’s tricky reviewing books which are aimed at younger readers when you are not yourself a younger reader. I found the first Harry Potter book to be completely without merit of any kind, but I’m not the target audience so I just shrugged and walked away.

His Dark Materials is clearly aimed at non-adults, despite what Pullman says. However, the books that make up the one-volume edition I read, are generally juvenile only in the characters they focus on being young teens and only really actively avoid depicting sex, in regard to "adult" topics.

Stop That!
Stop That!

The problem is that the story is actually about sex and not wanting to deal with that head-on means that there are scenes which are clearly leading up to sexual encounters or matters, where the reader can almost feel the “camera” being knocked aside to move onto some other time or place to leave the characters to get on with things.

The young teens of the story - Lyra and Will - are approaching puberty, which some people believe is an analogue of The Fall in Eden; a gateway to sin. Sin in this case seemingly represented by “Dust”, an almost L. Ron Hubbard conception of wilful magical material drifting between the parallel worlds of the universe but which do not accumulate on pre-pubescent children.

Will is from our world, Lyra is from a parallel world. Lyra’s world is magical, and every human is accompanied by a soul-companion in the form of a totem animal, called a “daemon”. Much of the deeper plotting in the book revolves around the question of what happens if a person is separated from their daemon and Pullman achieves a powerful sense of Evil when dealing with this matter. The book’s anti-religious stance is most clearly articulated in this central accusation that religion destroys rather than nurtures the soul and that The Church is parasitical on its congregation.

Where he is not so successful is in the bigger picture. It’s just too big, and he fails where Lovecraft fails. The reader’s mind (nor the writers) simply can not correctly grasp the scale of threats to reality, still less battles to save it which involve armies of angels and multiple-dimensions and worlds mobilised into physical conflict with each other and those angels. It becomes blandly repetitive.

In the turning point of the final movement God dies and reality is saved, but the narration is weak in the face of such cosmic events. When we return to Lyra and Will and the consequences for them, the book once more is able to move the reader in a way which the defeat of a demiurge simply does not. Perhaps such ideas are best left for poets like Milton, who is the inspiration for much of the conflict.

The ending is poignant. Believable and realistic, but sad even with the promise of wonderful things to come; the golden future not quite breaking though the immediate moment of loss.

Worth reading.