Genre Eclectica

“I beg your forgiveness for this unexpected change to the evening’s proceedings. but we find ourselves confronted with the urgent need to conduct an impromptu séance for reasons of national security.”

feaster.jpgThe Feaster From the Stars by Alan K. Baker is a strange blend of multiple genres.

It is a science fiction/  horror/ mythic/ Faerie/ occult/ crime story set in a Victorian era, where new technologies have been borrowed from alien civilisations.

It’s a Victorian England, compatible with Wells’ War of the Worlds, where both Mars and Venus are inhabited, and their citizens have made their mark on earth.

Many Victorian “interests” collide within the book, which seems to be written in, and inspired by, the  style of the macabre literature of that time.

I first came across this book via an ad for The Martian Ambassador, another novel by Baker. When I followed that book up with local book sellers, I saw this one also on sale, for around half price.
I ordered both and this one was delivered first. They are parts of a “Blackwood and Harrington” series.

After starting to read this book, I realised it was the more recent of the two, with several semi-spoilers for the other book being revealed throughout this story.

Thomas Blackwood, Special Investigator from Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Clandestine Affairs, is sent to investigate strange events in the London Underground railway, assisted by Lady Sophia Harrington, secretary of the Society for Psychical Research and Detective Gerhard de Chardin from the Metropolitan Templar Police.

Rail workers report an increase in ghostly activity throughout the rail tunnels, and a train driver has an encounter that leaves his mind broken, and he is committed to the Bethlem Hospital. The only clue to what he experienced is his utterance of the word “Carcosa”.

Blackwood recalls this is the name of a mythical place in literature. A place that the investigators discover is actually a planet in a distant star system.

A link between the underground events is made to Carcosa, from which there is an approaching, imminent danger to the earth .

Aided by psychics. mediums and occult scholars, as well as Faery royalty, the investigators have the challenge of saving earth and countless other civilisations from a powerfully destructive entity known as The King in Yellow.

I thought the blending of science fiction and crime investigation, with a dash of ghostliness would make a compelling story. However, while the book was relatively easy to get through, I found too many genres swirled together with almost every kind of supernatural character imaginable (aliens, faeries, ghosts, angels…) made for an overall, disappointing reading experience.

A third story in the series was also published but it seems to be very hard to obtain. It must be out of print. Second hand copies are available however they aren’t cheap, but after reading this one, I wouldn’t be interested in it anyway.

This book and the one before it (The Martian Ambassador – which is still on order) will be more than enough for me.

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Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Green MarsThis is science fiction with the emphasis on the “science”.

Robinson is either a polymath, able to weave countless obscure, genuine scientific concepts into his work, or he’s incredibly inventive, able to create plausible (though fictional) ideas into the narrative of his books.

Or maybe there’s a combination of the two at work.

For me his science (actual or imagined) tends to get in the way of story-flow. To others with a harder scientific leaning that is probably not a problem, but even though I have an aptitude for science (albeit not exercised for a while), as I read the book I long for more story and fewer scientific labels and references.

Apart from having familiarity with the many geological and botanical references used, it may be helpful to read the book with an atlas of Mars at hand. But then, I’d have to ask which places are genuine and which are fictional before trying to follow journeys along invented landmarks.

As I write this I’m about a quarter of the way through and on my second stint of reading it after already taking a few week’s break from the book. I’m being tempted to put it down again, but want to persevere for as long as I can. Hopefully I can finish it before the end of the year, but I suspect I’ll be turning to another book or two before I get there.

Along with the science, Robinson dives deeply into the likely politics of an earth suffering the stress of increasing population and decreasing resources, and a Mars with the potential to ease both. But who should make the decisions, who should be in control?
The nations who initiated the exploration and colonisation?
Or the commercial entities who have become more powerful and wealthy than nation states?
And what about the settlers, and subsequent generations of Mars residents, whose links with earth grow increasingly distant?

With this series (this is the second volume) Robinson demonstrated significant optimism in his timetable for the visiting and colonising of Mars. That optimism continues in the degree and speed of technological advancement portrayed in the books. To me the series’ main failing is giving its events dates, such as first man on Mars in 2020, and the beginning of colonisation in 2026.
The series could have been made more plausible by avoiding an out-dateable timeline.

Alongside this fictional account of man’s exploration and exploitation of Mars, I’ve been listening to NASA podcasts about the work being done in their space program with the intention of a crewed mission to the red planet. One of those podcasts in particular highlights the extreme difficulty of going to Mars, (Mars is hard, here’s why) that further emphasises the optimism of the author’s timetable.

mars

Reading Slowdown

I have three books under the heading “Reading Now” on my current “Reading List” page:

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, James Runcie
Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein

sidney chambers.jpgThe James Runcie book has been there for several months. It’s a book of short stories and so far I’ve only read the first and wasn’t engaged enough to want to rush on to the next one. I leave it on my list because I’ll get a round to the next story eventually.

I got the book because I heard an interview with the author who is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. The stories feature a C of E minister as the main character, who finds himself investigating suspicious deaths. The books were adapted into a TV series Grantchester,  which apparently takes a lot of liberties with the main character. The author mentioned in the interview, something along the lines that a real priest would have been thrown out of the church if he’d acted the way of the televised version.

Green MarsGreen Mars is the sequel to Red Mars, and continues the story of colonists on Mars.

In the series so far there have been some allusions to early America, leading up to the war of Independence; with the colonists growing to feel exploited by their home land (home planet) and developing a growing passion for an independent, self sufficient  new home, free of the exploitation of a distant colonial power.

I started this one several days ago, but have been distracted too much by other (non-reading) things to get far into the book yet. Maybe I shouldn’t have picked this one up straight after reading the first three volumes of the Dune series. Something a little less bulky may have been a better reading option than a 550+ page book midway through another sizable trilogy

noisnotenoughI started on Naomi Klein’s  No Is Not Enough because of some of those (political) distractions. I can only shake my head in disbelief at what has been going on in Australian politics, and I spent far too much time trying to keep up with the last few sitting days of parliament.  The cost of that has been my usual lunch-hour reading time.

Klein’s book shines a light on a lot of what is behind that current political situation from a North American viewpoint. Problems that aren’t restricted one particular nation, but are evident throughout the “western” world.

This book draws together the issues she’s written about in earlier books in greater detail. No Is Not Enough shows how all of those issues have become focused into a single point in the person and Presidency of Donald Trump.

However rather than merely add a negative voice of despair and opposition, Klein wants to look at positive answers to turn around the political and cultural systems that led to Trump’s political rise.

None of these books have maintained my interest enough to make me want to keep reading, so my progress through them has been slow, and my attention has been drifting towards other books. I suspect I’ll be finishing another book or two before I get to the end of any of these three. I’m already approaching the end of one about the manned Apollo missions of the late 60s – early 70s and have tentatively started another about the retrieval of the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia after it broke up on re-entry in February 2003 (so long ago, how time flies!)

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Children of Dune

CODI’d initially called my Dune Messiah post “They Lived Happily Ever After. Until…”

I’ll mention my alternative title for this post later.

Dune Messiah depicts the times and events after the “fairytale ending” of Dune where the protagonist had finally overcome the obstacles he faced.
After that apparent victory, reality starts to intrude and the promise of ongoing stability is shown to be a vain expectation.

Where Dune traced the downfall and restoration of the House of Atriedes, Dune Messiah showed the consequences of taking more power than what was originally lost.

With more power comes more responsibility and increasing dangers. New Emperor Paul Muad’Dibh has to face threats to his unborn heirs as other powers conspire to control the succession to the Imperial throne. Paul finds the only available solution requires great personal sacrifice.

Children of Dune picks up the story several years later after Paul’s sacrifice. His sister Alia has been made Regent until the twin heirs, Leto and Ghanima reach adulthood, but whose interests is she really representing?

Other surviving major characters from the previous two books return in Children of Dune, but all seem to get caught up in parts of different conspiracies; with plans within plans all of which lead to uncertain goals. I don’t think I’m revealing any “spoilers” if I say that no one seems to achieve the outcome they desired.

Above I said I’d reveal my alternative title for this post:

“I Created a World So I’m Going to Use It.”

After building a convincing, complex setting for Dune, including its landscape, ecology, technology, politics, religion, commerce and mythology, I feel that Herbert didn’t want  to cast all of that work aside – but wanted to make as much use as possible of his created universe; even if he didn’t quite have the same strength of story to combine with it.

The Dune series started with a book I loved so much in my teens that I immediately reread it. Going back to the book 40 years later I can understand why. I can also see why I never took to the sequels. Both have enjoyable moments and occasional hints of intrigue,  but as a whole they don’t work for me.

Dune had a definite, structured, compelling narrative that led to a purposeful conclusion. The sequels, perhaps moreso Children of Dune, seem more like part of an ongoing, unending saga with characters I decreasingly care about.

There are three more Frank Herbert penned books in the series. I’ll take a break and read other things before I think of starting on them.

And I think I’ll avoid the many prequels and sequels written by Herbert’s son, Brian.

 

Governments, if they endure, always tend increasingly toward aristocratic forms. No government in history has been able to evade this pattern. And as the aristocracy develops, government tends more and more to act exclusively in the interests of the ruling class – whether that class be hereditary royalty, oligarchs of financial empires, or entrenched bureaucracy.

– Politics as Repeat Phenomenon: Bene Gesserit Training Manual.

 

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

I can see why, despite my love of the book Dune, my teenage-self wasn’t able to warm to its sequel Dune Messiah.

dune messiah.jpg

The overall achievements of Paul Atriedes (Muad’Dib) in Dune now seem to have questionable merit, being driven into a position where the things most important to him are overwhelmed by consequences of leadership that he can’t control; such as the feared Jihad in his name.

In one section of the book, Paul talks about leaders in the distant past who were responsible for the deaths of millions.  He compares this to the numbers killed under (despite?) his leadership.

“There’s another emperor I want you to note in passing – a Hitler. He killed more than six million. Pretty good for those days.”

“Killed…by his legions?” Stilgar asked.

“Yes.”

“Not very impressive statistics, m’Lord.”

“Very good, Stil … Statistics:  at a conservative estimate, I’ve killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others. I’ve wiped out the followers of forty religions…”

It’s a part of the book that made me feel very uneasy. While I assume it intends to lay out the scale of the atrocities committed in Paul’s name,  it also potentially minimises Hitler’s culpibility, as well as the scale of the atrocities for which he was responsible.

Paul’s problems aren’t resticted to the lack of control he has over his legions of followers and their jihad.

A secretive group of influential people meet to conspire against Paul, but the actual aim of the conspiracy (apart from Paul’s downfall) isn’t clear. Each of the group seems to have their own agenda, all of which appear to be at odds with the aims of the  others. The plan that unfolds potentially benefits only one of those conspirators.

Paul has a vision pointing to his own demise; and being forewarned gives the potential of being forearmed. Can he avert that fate?

One of the more direct personal costs he faces is the threat his position causes towards those he loves. Can he guarantee a secure future for his family and ensure there’s an Atreides heir to his Imperial throne?

Dune TrilogyCompared to the other parts of Herbert’s Dune series, Dune Messiah is a very short book, and seems more like a bridge to link the first and third parts than a novel in its own right. This time I’ve been reading the books in one volume collection, and in that context I think Dune Messiah makes more sense, and is more satisfying than when I first attempted it as a stand alone novel 40 years ago.

If there is a redeeming theme within this book itself, as a separate part of the overall story, it’s the depiction of the dangers arising when religion gains, and becomes, a primarily political power.

The horrific results of that can be seen throughout human history.

Dune by Frank Herbert

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.

– from the “Manual of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan.

How do I begin with my thoughts on Dune?

dune

A Science Fiction novel mixing a kind of medieval feudalism with advanced technologies, written in the 1960s, and yet seemingly cogniscent of current 21st century issues.

Politics. Religion. Ecological sciences. Religious wars. Conservation. Environmentalism. Exploitative economics…

“The historical systems of mutual pillage and extortion stops here… You cannot go on forever stealing what you need without regard to those who come after.”

Some of the main protagonists/antagonists within the novel are:

The House of Atreides is headed by Duke Leto who has been commissioned by the Emperor to govern the planet Arrakis, source of the empire’s most valuable commodity, the spice melange.
Leto knows the appointment is a trap, meant to cause his downfall, but it is a commission he can’t refuse. His son and heir, Paul becomes the central figure in the course events of to come.

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen has ambitions for the increased prominence of his own family that will require the destruction of the House Atreides He has particular ambitions for his nephew and heir Feyd-Rautha, a nasty piece of work who loves the thrill of gladiatorial combat – as long as the odds are nefariously manipulated to his favour.

The Bene Gesseret sisterhood are a  nun-like order who for centuries have surreptitiously controlled family lines by selective breeding, and have introduced religious teachings and myths into the lore of chosen ethnic groups, with the aim of producing and making way for the Kwisatz Haderach, a male messianic figure through whom they plan to increase their order’s power.

The Fremen are an underestimated, mysterious, fierce and resilient desert race on the planet Arrakis who know the secret of the spice and its production, and have adapted their ways to survive with minimal water.

I first read Dune in 1977. It is perfectly paced and structured, well plotted with strong relatable characters.
I picked it up whenever I could, always eager to get back to the story, not wasting a moment of my spare time on anything else.
When I reached the end, I immediately started it again. The only time I’ve ever done that.

42 years later I read it for a third time, and can see why I enjoyed the book to that degree in my teens.

Unlike so much science fiction, this story hasn’t dated. At times in the intervening years, events in the news stirred my memories of the book.
For example, it was in Dune that I first came across the term jihad, a word that has gained wide familiarity during the 21st century. Herbert’s use of it leans more on historical accounts of  real desert peoples, who were a clear inspiration for some elements of the desert people who play a pivotal role in this book, but when the word was used in the context of recent politics (the “war on terror”), I recalled its relevance in Dune.

Paul Atreides, later Paul Muad’Dib, has prescient dreams of armies conducting jihad in his name. As other dreams prove to be accurate premonitions, can he prevent the violence he foresees being done by his future followers?

I recall my teenage self longing to play Paul Artreides in a film version of the story: despite the fact I was no actor and had no chance of getting close to any film makers able to bring the book to the screen. And despite having no physical similarity to Paul .
The character seemed so real to me. I could identify with him to an extent that perhaps only a boy in his late teens, desiring adventure and meaning, could.
That is clearly an aspect of the book that doesn’t have the same effect when I read as a 60-ish year old, but my enjoyment of the book hasn’t diminished because of that.