Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance – A Book Review

Several places where I read on-line had praised Vance’s book so I decided to read it.  I already knew basically what it was about but I guess I wanted to see what all the excitement was about.

J. D. Vance’s family came originally from Appalachia, specifically Jackson Kentucky. His maternal grandfather and grandmother moved to Middletown Ohio after WW II to let him get work in the steel factory there and his family became part of the boom economy in the industrial Mid-West that followed the war. But as that economic expansion slowly collapsed into the Rust Belt reality of the 1970s and beyond, his family more and more shared in the dislocation and finally the hopelessness of life in that blighted region.

Through the personal history of his family he presents evidence and draws conclusions about what internal and external factors led to the train wreck that is the Rust Belt.  And he tries to back up this evidence by including general information on the socio-economic and cultural characteristics of the white working class and specifically Appalachian people in question.

The personal story of his family and the details of their lives is poignant and honest and draws sympathy from anyone who came from a family that is full of complicated people who struggle and succeed and fail and generally make a messy story to tell.  It’s about the love and hate and anger and fear and confusion that consumed the first decade and a half of his life.  It’s got colorful characters like his grandparents who swear and spit and brandish guns and break down doors if strangers seem to threaten their family.  It’s his mother who tried to find a middle-class identity for her small family but was too damaged to even save herself from drugs and broken marriages.

In the final analysis I think that the point the book tries to make is that the people who left Appalachia were so ill-suited to live in the modern world of nuclear families and suburban society that only the post-war boom allowed even the illusion that they had assimilated into the Mid-Western lifestyle.  Their people were shorn of the support that multi-generational family units provided to them back in the hills and were surrounded by people who had been raised in and could take of advantage of the community resources that exist in middle America.  Vance’s family was always suspicious and angry at the school system and the police and the other government entities that could provide assistance to people in need.  Their independence when stripped of the extended family support structure meant isolation and poverty and an endless string of failures that reinforced the sense of hopelessness that eventually led to drug addiction and despair.

I think it’s a pretty interesting story.  And I recognize the components that he brings up as existing in the real world.  But he does let the powers that be off the hook to a degree that I think is unrealistic.  The post-war boom was a result of government policy that encouraged the harnessing of the human capital that had been freed up by the end of World War II.  Tens of millions of enlisted men were brought back to this country and it had been so thoroughly transformed that only massive top-down control allowed for the re-integration.  Thirty years later there was no similar top-down planning to continue that existence once the earlier generation disappeared from the work place.  The corporations were allowed to shift into a globalist mindset and because those Rust Belt workers were inconvenient because they made too much money or weren’t desperate enough to work like Japanese or Chinese workers they were dismissed from the plans of industry.

Vance may slightly touch on this but his thesis is that personal responsibility and family support systems are what saved him.  When his mother’s chaotic lifestyle came close to destroying his chance at building a healthy life his grandmother stepped up and provided a stable and supportive home in which he was able to re-apply himself at school and finally prove to himself that it was possible for him escape from the cycle of failure and break through to the normal world.

Okay.  His emphasis makes sense based on his experience and world view.  I think there is another side to the present crisis and he somewhat touches on this too.  Some say he is blaming the victims.  I think that overstates it.  I think it’s an interesting book.  I know it made me reconsider some things in my past.  And the anecdotes about his grandparents and that generation of his family are fun to read.  His family is somewhat in volved in the Hatfield and McCoy feud interestingly enough.  I’m not sure that this book is for everyone but if you are interested in the dynamic that has laid waste to the Rust Belt it might be something for you to read.

Battle Ground – A Novel of The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

Spoiler Alert.  All my reviews are spoilers.  If you wan to avoid them go down to the end and just read my recommendation.

For anyone coming to this review without any background to the Dresden Files, Battle Ground is I believe the seventeenth book of that series.  Jim Butcher has created quite a complicated and very entertaining world that centers on a Chicago that is embedded in a reality that has several kinds of vampires, two faery realms, werewolves, sasquatches, Norse mythological characters, Knights of the Cross, Fallen Angels and wizards.  And in particular Harry Dresden is the extremely conflicted and always wise-cracking Wizard of Chicago.  If you want to delve into the series, I guess it would be much more sensible and fun to start at book one but to each his own.

Battle Ground is the conclusion of the story arc begun in the previous book, Peace Talks.  And for all intents and purposes this book is taken up by the Battle of Chicago.  A really angry Titan named Ethniu has decided to destroy Chicago as a way to turn the human world against the supernatural groups that were parties to the “Unseelie Accords” that acted as a council to ensure that humans do not discover the hidden creatures all around them.

Along with her amphibious allies the Fomor who have a settlement under Lake Michigan they attack the city and with the power of the “Eye,” that Ethniu wields, they begin destroying the city and killing the population.  Standing against this systematic destruction and murder of Chicago is Harry and his allies.  I won’t say friends because many of them fear and/or hate him.  He has an Italian American mobster turned supernatural power broker named Marcone providing significant infrastructure, manpower and significant strategic support.  He has his current boss the Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab the Winter Queen, providing her troops and her own very considerable magical powers.  There are Harry’s nominal brothers in arms, the White Council of Wizards that are always right at the edge of expelling him for all the unorthodox and insubordinate actions he takes.  This includes his grandfather Ebenezar McCoy who is more or less the head of the Council and who always seem on the edge of either throttling Harry or apologizing to him.  There are the Knights of the Cross who are Harry’s friends and possess power that can stand against the evil that the enemy represent but even with these allies Harry and his friends are hopelessly overmatched.

But Harry has one ace in the hole.  He has a magical resource that if he can lure the Titan to a certain spot would allow him to capture her permanently.  But in order to do that Ethniu would have to be lured in by targets that she wanted to destroy and the destruction that she would accomplish would be ruinous.  And that is what the book is about.  As Harry and his allies go block by block saving civilians and battling monsters the Titan levels the city skyscrapers on her way to confronting Mab and the other powerful leaders.  And it’s a long book, over four hundred pages and the overwhelming majority of the book is this battle.

If you’re a fan of the series, and obviously if you’re still reading at book seventeen then you are, you will like this book a lot.  Sure, there are parts of the battle that seem kind of repetitive or at least maybe overkill.  And I have never been a big fan of Harry’s romantic attachment to Karren Murphy.  For whatever reason it never seems to keep my interest.  And there are a few scenes where some of the characters sound a little too touchy feely with too much “I’m here for you,” and all that.  But there is plenty on the battle side and on the personal side of this story to satisfy fans of the books.  Some questions from Peace Talks get answered and some things that were left hanging remain that way.  Some old friends and enemies die.  Others change their relation to Harry and further complicate his life.  And some characters that do not have a major part in the action still provide a needed presence.  I always enjoy the character of Michael Carpenter.  He’s the retired Knight of the Cross who is probably the most grounded character in the series and also provides sanctuary for Harry’s young daughter when horrible things come looking for Harry.  And Harry reaches a kind of crossroads with respect to his stature in the supernatural world.  He is now a heavy hitter and has gained respect and even some wisdom.

What can I say?  You’re going to like most of this book. And there will be few things that you won’t care for.  But if you’re a Dresden fan you will have to read it.

Observations from the Gulag Archipelago Relevant to Today – Part 1 – Show Trials

Solzhenitsyn’s epic history of the Soviet Union’s war against its own people is a crippling experience for the reader.  The first ninety pages are a seemingly endless list of purges that went on from 1917 to well into the 1950’s.  The scope, the strategies and the tactics that were used to terrorize, imprison, torture and mostly murder these poor human beings is almost beyond comprehension.  In Solzhenitsyn’s own words “If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible what was the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men had forgotten God; that is why all this has happened.’”

To try and understand how a government of men would choose to decimate and more than decimate its own people is very difficult.  But it is telling that in every society where radical socialism has taken hold it follows the same pattern and causes monstrous suffering.  Because this same ideology is now loose in our own society, I thought it would be useful to select specific details from the Gulag Archipelago and elaborate on how they relate to our time and place.

I’ll start off the series with the concept of show trials.  Among the many purges there was a period when a decision was made to go after engineers.  They were selected because previously they had been given a certain immunity due to their usefulness.  Because of the backwardness of pre-revolutionary Russia and because of the agricultural disruptions that occurred due to the collectivization of the farmlands, having men who could manufacture and repair and improve modern equipment like tractors and automobiles was quite important.  Sending them to the gulag was quite counterproductive.  But at a certain point logic ceased to be strong enough to prevent the next victim group from being fed into the maw of the meat grinder.

And it was quite easy to incriminate engineers.  By definition they were intellectuals, a classic category of counter-revolutionaries.  Also, most of them had studied at the universities during the czarist period so there were all kinds of associations and attachments to people and organizations that had already been condemned and consumed in the earlier purges.

But the technique that the authorities wanted to most use was to find someone innocent of any real crimes and tell him that if he would denounce himself and all his fellows of some absurdly improbable crime in a public exhibition then he would get a lighter sentence.  And so, we got the show trial.

At the trial the accused had to go through the full histrionics of denouncing himself and confess to all his crimes and accuse all of his co-conspirators.  In the best case all of the other equally innocent men would also confess to their inhuman crimes against the collective.  And finally, they would finish off by demanding their own deaths as the only fitting punishment for their atrocious crimes.  And ironically, despite the assurances that they had received of a lighter sentence, often death was awarded to them.  But either way this theater of the perverse was conducted and make-believe crimes were punished and more fodder was fed into the killing machine.

Amusingly, these trials came to an end when during the show trial against the ceramic industry the defendants as a body decided at the last minute to deny all charges.  And since the prosecution had no actual evidence to produce against them at this very public trial, they were exonerated.  It just goes to show sometimes courage is rewarded.

Currently, examples of show trials in our country are only the thinnest of ghosts of what the Stalinist regime could perpetrate.  A recent example is New York Times science writer Donald McNeil Jr.  He was denounced for the use of the black ethnic slur that shall not be repeated unless you are black.  He was on a trip with students in Peru, for some reason, and one of his students finked out another of the students for having used the black ethnic slur that shall not be repeated unless you are black (tbestsnbruyab).  When McNeil said tbestsnbruyab in the context of condemning the use of tbestsnbruyab he was reported by those present of using tbestsnbruyab.  He was condemned by his colleagues and the incident was forgotten.  But two years later the retroactive punishment for this offense became capitol and his colleagues demanded his firing.  And being the good progressive that he is, he made a statement applauding his professional lynching.  Now admittedly this is poor stuff compared to shipping him off to a labor camp or putting a bullet in his brain.  But it’s a rousing start when it occurs in the so-called land of free speech.

I expect there will be other examples of looney lefties denouncing themselves.  And I think we’ll also see that after the fact they’ll be heard caterwauling at the gates of the Emerald City claiming that they weren’t given a chance afterward to be re-educated and rehabilitated.  But it’s a funny thing.  Once you’ve been cast out into that void it’s really hard to get the “good” people to take your calls.  Contamination from bad thinking is much scarier than COVID.  They’re going to have to get back to you sometime in the future.  And that future sure isn’t tomorrow and chances are it’s never.

So, as you can see, we are only at the very beginning of the great revolution that the Russians perfected.  But I will continue this series and I’m sure we’ll use our Yankee ingenuity to innovate and who knows even show the masters a thing or two.  So, stay tuned comrades.

Mutiny in Space – The Thousand Worlds – A Science Fiction Book Review

Back in 2015 and thereafter there was a titanic struggle to liberate science fiction and fantasy books from the iron grip of the social justice school of fiction writing that controlled the publishing and awards for writing in these genres.  You can read about these things here.

Vox Day has a publishing firm called Castalia House and he has attempted to promote authors who practice old time science fiction and fantasy story writing.  Mutiny in Space is published by Castalia House and is the first volume in the author, Rod Walker’s “The Thousand Worlds” series.

In the description on the back cover of the paperback edition Castalia House explicitly states that Mutiny in Space is written in the style of Robert A Heinlein’s series of books for young adults (or juveniles, as they were described in the old days).  Now Heinlein wrote some really excellent fiction back in his day.  Here’s a link to my thoughts on his writing.  In a nutshell if someone were to successfully write science fiction in the style of Heinlein’s juveniles, I would think these stories would be very sought after.  So I bought Mutiny in Space intending to see if it lived up to this representation.

I’ll cut to the chase.  It does.  Now I don’t mean it reads exactly like Heinlein.  In fact, far from it.  Rod Walker has different characters and different plots and a different voice.  There are similarities in the universe that he has built.  The way that his interstellar drive works approximates the multi-jump method used by Heinlein in his book “Starman Jones.”  And the emphasis on technical skills among his heroes as opposed to the dependence on rhetorical ability among his villains is also reminiscent of Heinlein’s style.  And the pairing of a father figure and an orphaned young man is also familiar to Heinlein readers.

The story is the adventure of sixteen-year-old Nikolai Rovio leaving his unhappy life on New Chicago for the promise of a new life as a technician on an interstellar freighter the Rusalka.  But the unsettled politics of New Chicago aren’t left behind when he boards his ship and he quickly learns that trouble can find you even after you stop looking for it.

I won’t dig into the plot details.  The book is short by today’s standards, about 180 pages.  But that is actually very much like the length of Heinlein’s juveniles.  It isn’t deathless prose but it is a straight up adventure story very much in the tradition of the older style of science fiction from the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties.  I can recommend this book for a young reader or anyone who like the old style of science fiction that I grew up on.

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 3 – The Various Races or Peoples of Middle Earth

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 1

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 2 – Tolkien’s Creation Story

In the Lord of the Rings and his other writings Tolkien speaks of races and peoples to mean what we would call different species.  The major division between the Children of Illuvatar was between the Elves and Men (the Eldar and the Edain).  Within these two groups there were further subgroupings that I guess could best be described as tribes or nations.  But the differences between Elves and Men are profound.  The Elves do not grow old.  Therefore, unless they are killed by accident or illness they can live indefinitely.  And even when they die their spirit is constrained to remain within the Realm of Arda which is under the control of the angelic powers, the Valar.  In fact, it is hinted at by Tolkien that eventually the spirits of Elves that have died will be returned to life in Arda after some very long time.  Men are mortal just as humans are on Earth.  In Tolkien’s theology men do not remain in Arda after they die.  Their spirits leave Arda altogether and return to Illuvatar outside of the jurisdiction of the Valar.

What Tolkien seemed to be mirroring with the Elves and Men was the distinction between men who lived before the Christian era who had no chance of redemption from the Christian perspective and those who lived after.  The Elves would be like the Valar in a way.  They could serve Illuvatar and share in the smaller creation that was Arda but within Arda they were not in direct contact with Illuvatar.  Men were meant to escape Arda after their lives and then return to Illuvatar.  Despite the profound differences between Men and Elves Tolkien allowed for the possibility of love and even children between Men and Elves.  But what would the children be, deathless Elves or mortal Men?  Tolkien decided that they would be permitted a choice.  If they chose to be Men then that was a final choice for them and their children.  But if they chose to be of Elven-kind then their children also had the choice to make and in the same way.  Now what this means to me is that any child of a Man would always have the choice to choose to be Human.  And I think this is because the Fate of Man is the higher fate.  The Elves are halfway between Valar and Men.  And despite the tremendous power of the angelic Valar their fate is less than that of Men.

Then there are the Dwarves.  According to the Silmarillion the Dwarves were not created by Illuvatar but instead were the unsanctioned creation of Aulë, one of the Valar.  When Illuvatar spoke to Aulë about what he had done Aulë realized that what he had created weren’t independent beings but only shadows of himself, puppets.  Aulë was about to smash them when he saw that Illuvatar had turned them into living beings with souls of their own.  This makes the Dwarves sort of adoptive children of Illuvatar.  I believe they are like the Elves in being bound to Arda and under the authority of the Valar.  And they are odd in other ways and always seem to be at odds with the natural children of Illuvatar.  They are not naturally evil but the properties that Aulë endowed them with put them at odds with Men and Elves.

The Hobbits are sort of like nature spirits that inhabit English folklore like Puck or Robin Goodfellow but based on Tolkien’s characterization in his books I have to say I believe the Hobbits are human.  They are mortal and beside their stature they are in all ways human.  Maybe Tolkien intended to make them bound to Arda like the Elves and Dwarves but based on the Hobbits we meet I wouldn’t think they should be left out of human heaven.  They’re just too human.

In the Silmarillion Tolkien tells us that the Orcs were made by Morgoth by capturing Elves and corrupting them through his evil influence.  This always made me wonder then if Orcs also did not die of old age.  We are never shown any female Orcs which is probably a blessing but I assume they must exist.  The idea of a corrupted race is a little hard to understand theologically.  For instance, it seems possible that just by chance, an Orc might be born that wasn’t particularly evil.  And if he managed to escape the evil influence of his tribe might live a virtuous life.  I’ve heard people talk along these lines and mock the idea of “good Orcs” and based on what we see in the Lord of the Rings it does seem patently ridiculous but since Tolkien was a Christian writer, I’m sure he thought about that possibility.  Suffice it to say that no “good Orcs” ever show up anywhere in the Tolkien tests.

Dwarves and Elves are pretty standard creatures of Northern European folklore and Tolkien adapted as needed for his use but one of the most original characters that Tolkien place in his Middle Earth was the Ent.  They are the “Shepherds of the Trees.”  They resemble trees.  They are gigantic in size and have great physical strength.  Their ability to rend stone is compared to a much-accelerated version of the action that roots have for infiltrating and cracking stone that they come in contact with.  Ents also appear to live indefinitely unless killed by violence.  But they can become senescent and become completely tree-like.  It seems that the Ents must be another race of creatures like the Elves that are restricted to Arda forever.  But from their description in the Silmarillion, they are never described as Children of Illuvatar.  Possibly Tolkien never left any notes about the status of the Ents because he invented them later on than the Elves and Dwarves.  Whatever their place in the theology of Middle Earth Tolkien designed them with a distinctive and entertaining character.  They are extremely slow and methodical in their actions and extremely long winded in their method of speech.  They think of normal action by any other race as extremely hasty.  This must be to mimic the immobility and permanence of trees in the landscape.

And finally, the last of the other major peoples of Middle Earth are the Trolls.  Trolls are a well-known creature of legend but how Tolkien fits them into his creation is not well defined.  I can remember hearing the explanation that they were Ents that were twisted by Morgoth into evil creatures just as the Elves were turned into Orcs.  Honestly this seems singularly unconvincing.  There doesn’t seem to be much Ent-like character to Trolls.  But I haven’t heard any other explanation so I’ll just leave this as a loose end.  In addition to being evil the main character trait of Trolls seems to be stupidity.  But they are enormously strong and tough so they come in handy for war scenes when something special is needed.

Based on the status of the various races of speaking peoples in Middle Earth what it seems is that Tolkien has Christianized the folklore creatures of Norse mythology by giving them a place in the Genesis story of his world, Middle Earth.  It is not at all clear what the final status is of the Elves, Dwarves, Ents or even the Orcs and Trolls.  They seem to have souls like men and are judged on their deeds, good and evil.  But it is far from clear whether even the Elves can gain Paradise in this theology.  Instead, they seem to be permanently attached to sub-creation of the Valar, the Kingdom of Arda.  And that may be Tolkien’s intention.

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 2 – Tolkien’s Creation Story

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 1

 

J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Christian. He was a member of an informal Christian writer’s society called The Inklings that also included the likes of his old friend C. S. Lewis. In fact, Lewis and Tolkien had planned to divide between them a project to write fantasy and science fiction stories with a Christian world view.  Tolkien decided his story would go back to an earlier time and Lewis decided to go into outer space.

Getting back to Tolkien, when he started writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, he was able to set it in a world for which he had long ago written the Genesis story.  All of this background was finally published after his death by his son Christopher as the Silmarillion.  In this pre-history we are told that God (or as Tolkien called him Eru (The One) or Illuvatar (Father of All)) created the angels (the Ainur which are divided between the archangels (Valar) and the lesser angels (Maiar)).  Then He created the Universe (Ea) and particularly our world (Arda) and allowed the Ainur to build out the place where His children, the Elves and Men, would live.  Some of those Ainur were loyal to Illuvatar and some were corrupted with the idea of power over lesser beings.  The chief of these renegades was Melkor, originally the most powerful Valar, the equivalent of Lucifer.  He leads the fallen Ainur against the Valar and is defeated.  Later on, he is thought rehabilitated and brought back into the fold by the leader of the Valar, Manwe.

The Valar are supposed to teach the children of Illuvatar about Him and help them reach their potential in goodness.  And they attempt to do this with the Elves, the firstborn of the two races.  They bring them into the Blessed Realm where the Valar live and teach them the knowledge that they possess.  But even in this Blessed Realm, Melkor plots to destroy the happiness of the Elves and Valar.  He destroys the Trees that give light to Arda and steals the jewels, the Silmarils of Feanor, that contain the light of the trees.  Feanor, who is the most powerful and proudest of the Elves, disobeys the command of Manwe and sails from the Blessed Realm back to Middle Earth to defeat Melkor (or as he now names him Morgoth, Black Enemy of the World) and regain the Silmarils.  For this rebellion all of the Elves and Men in Middle Earth are left to the nonexistent mercy of Morgoth.  Essentially, they fight without the help of the Valar.

And in this rebellion of the Elves against the Valar is the start of the downfall of the world of Elves and Men.  For when Men appear, they too are drawn into wars against Morgoth and in these wars they all are thoroughly defeated and immiserated by the powers of evil beings.  Finally, a representative of Elves and Men, Earendil sails back to the Blessed Realm and successfully begs the Valar to defeat Morgoth and allow the peoples of Middle Earth to reclaim their lives.  And this is done.  Morgoth is defeated and cast out of Arda forever.

But in time evil reappears in the person of Morgoth’s lieutenant, Sauron.  He pretends to mend his ways but instead corrupts some of the Elves with the lure of knowledge and power and teaches them to forge rings of power.  Then he creates the One Ring to rule all of these lesser rings and makes war on Men and Elves for the mastery of Middle Earth.  But he is defeated by the Numenoreans.  These are the descendants of the Men who fought against Morgoth in that earlier war and were rewarded with a great island home, Numenor, halfway between Middle Earth and the Blessed Realm.  They were also rewarded with a lifespan three times that of mortal men.  They come to Middle Earth with a great army and defeat Sauron and take him captive.  But Sauron corrupts his captors too.  Fear of death was always the weakness of the Numenoreans.  They were friends of the Elves but they envied their virtually endless lifespan.  When the King of Numenor began to feel the end of his life approaching he gave heed to Sauron who told him he could wrest eternal life from the Valar by conquering the Blessed Realm.  When he attempts this war, the Valar, rather than be forced to kill Illuvatar’s children themselves, call on Him to act directly.  Illuvatar alters the world to remove the Blessed Realm from the physical plane of the world.  In fact, instead of a flat plane, the Earth now becomes a spherical globe from which only ships with special dispensation can any longer sail to the blessed Realm.  But this power is still reserved to the Elves in Middle Earth.  When they grow weary of the mortal lands, they can sail off the western shore of Middle Earth and find their way to the Blessed Realm which is now considered the proper home for the Elves.

As part of this reshaping and as a direct punishment for their sin, Numenor sinks below the sea.  Only the Numenoreans that had settled in Middle Earth and a few ships of the faithful who were not party to the King’s blasphemy were able to escape the downfall.  It is this remnant along with the remaining Elves in Middle Earth who now have to deal with Sauron.  Because when Numenor sank he lost his material form but his spirit returned to Middle Earth and joining to the One Ring which he had left in Middle Earth he was able to reform his body and then renew his war against Elves and Men.  And once again Elves and Men were victorious against him, though at a terrible cost.  The Kings of the Elves and Men, Gil-galad and Elendil are slain by Sauron along with the remaining strength of the Elves.  But Elendil’s son Isildur cuts the One Ring from Sauron’s hand, causing him to lose form again.  But Isildur refused to destroy the One Ring and it was lost in the Great River, Anduin.  And because it was not destroyed Sauron retuned and plagued Middle Earth until the time of the War of the Ring which is the subject matter of The Lord of the Rings.  And all down their long history the descendants of Elendil recreated the sins of their ancestors in Numenor and sought power and long life rather than wisdom and happiness.

Wow, that’s a long prologue.

If you look over that history what you’ll notice is that it parallels the Old Testament.  Of course, there are differences.  Fantasy elements like elves, and silmarils don’t occur in the Bible.  But you can find analogs for both types of angels, good and evil.  There is a flood sent to wipe out transgressors.  And the majority of the text describes a chosen people who forget their responsibilities and choose power and lust for earthly possession over wisdom and love.  And behind all of the misery stands Lucifer and his successful temptation of Adam and Eve.  And that is the basis for the story of Morgoth and Feanor and also the story of Sauron and the elven ringsmiths.  They were tempted by the lure of forbidden knowledge to trust the devil.

Tolkien wanted a fantasy history of the world that would allow him to incorporate the elves, goblins, dwarves and other creatures that inhabit European folklore.  But he wanted it to be a Christian universe.  And that is what he built.  In this world men must contend with a world in which evil is always present but can be defeated by the good people if they stand up against it and don’t allow the evil within themselves to corrupt their intentions.

And in the Lord of the Rings this can be seen in the fact that all of the greatest of the leaders of the good are afraid to even touch the Ring lest it corrupt them too.  It is only the simplest and least sophisticated of creatures, the hobbits, that can resist the ring the longest.

Casting this worldview behind the story allowed Tolkien the direction he needed to expand the Lord of the Rings into the epic length story it is.  In each of the chapters it is the challenge to ignite in each of the allies they meet, the determination to fight the evil no matter how impossible the odds may seem.  Often it is the simple hobbits declaring their simple-minded faith in doing the right thing that shames the sophisticated and jaded leaders who up until that point are almost relieved to surrender and allow evil to win the day.

And having the Christian framework behind the story also gives a sense of the familiar world that most of us have grown up with.  And also allows it to act as a contrast to the monstrous evil that Frodo and the other hobbits encounter.  So, although Tolkien’s story may resemble other fantasy worlds with respect to the creatures that inhabit it and the magic that exists, he has added a spiritual dimension that he believed would render the stories valid in a deeper sense.  From his point of view, they were in a sense true stories because they conveyed his understanding of how God interacted with mortals and angels in the actual world.  Interesting idea.

 

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 3 – The Various Races or Peoples of Middle Earth

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 1

Tonight, I was looking through my old posts to see if I had any unfinished series that I should continue on.  About three and a half years ago I wrote the first part of a review of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie series.  I called it “Tolkien: A Very, Very Long Story – Part 1 – On the Screen vs. the Mind’s Eye.”  That’s a good name for a review of the Jackson films.  But going over it, I realized that starting with the films would short circuit an enormous amount of material in the books that I would much rather discuss first.  So that is what I’m going to do.  When I get back to the movies, I’ll reference these posts on the books as a baseline for my opinions on Tolkien and his remarkable creation.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I read the Lord of the Rings over fifty years ago.  Over time some of my opinions of the work have changed somewhat.  But my enjoyment of the story remains intact.  The world building that Tolkien did provides the reader with depth and scope to enjoy the story on several levels.  There is the quest for the destruction of the Ring.  There is the story of Aragorn.  There is the fading of the elves and the other non-human beings.  There is the mission of the wizards.  There is the Shire.  And most of all there is the War of the Ring.  And under all these themes we have the panorama of Middle Earth.  The quaint Shire, the lonely wilds of Eriador, the harrowing heights and abysmal depths of the Misty Mountains.  The grassland of Rohan, the grandeur of Gondor and the shadowy horror of Mordor.  Tolkien brings all these things alive in our minds.  And he populates this world with a crowd of characters of all manner of creatures.  We have several kinds of men and we have several kinds of elves.  We have dwarves and hobbits.  There are wizards and orcs and trolls and ents.  There are undead creatures and intelligent animals of several types; wargs (a kind of wolf), eagles and even an ancient and giant spider.

All of these creatures, wizards, elves, dwarves and orcs are now common characters in all the fantasy books and movies around.  But people forget that Tolkien was the one who resurrected these creatures from fairy tales and returned them to the level of mythical creatures full of menace and wonder.  The Lord of the Rings was the template for every epic fantasy, both well-written or awful that has emerged in the last half century.  And not taking anything away from some well-crafted creations that some talented writers have produced, none of them has displaced Middle Earth as the touchstone of this particular type of fantasy world.  Because Middle Earth is the creation of a worldview that incorporates the myths of northwest Europe and imbues them with the moral philosophy inherited from medieval Christianity.  The Shire is Britain.  Rohan is the Germanic Tribes.  Gondor is the legendary Roman Empire, once spanning Middle Earth from Britain to the Near East now ceding territory to younger tribes and hedged in by Eastern and Southern foes.  Mordor is the infidel barbarism at the edges of the world.  Tolkien was a gifted philologist and historian of medieval Europe with a deep and wide knowledge of its literature and folklore.  And he was a devout Christian.

This re-imagining of European history with the non-human peoples and the angelic and demonic creatures that are analogs of Christian theology make a very powerful mythic background to fill out the story of Frodo and his friends.  And that is the point I want to make in this introduction.  In future installments I’ll give my thoughts on various aspects of Tolkien’s story.  Since they’re my opinions I won’t apologize if I commit any sins against the Tolkien orthodoxies.  I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a very long time so I feel I have the right to have my say.  But I also welcome comments both agreeing and disagreeing with my opinions.

 

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 2 – Tolkien’s Creation Story

Mathematics, Its Contents, Methods and Meaning – A Book Review

Back in the times before the Great Flood, I was a lowly undergraduate student in a public university.  I started out as a chemistry major but credits back then were very cheap, almost free, so I ended up taking an enormous number of credits in mathematics too.  When I reached my senior year, I had taken all the requisite chemistry courses for the BS degree but I also had discovered that I found the lab work extremely tedious.  What was a nerd to do?  Well, I took a few more math courses and got my degree in mathematics instead.  Since I was planning on raising an expensive family with Camera Girl, I decided to get a job as an actuary at one of the many fine insurance companies in Manhattan.  Imagine my embarrassment to find that compared to being an actuary a lab chemist was like being James Bond.  These insurance actuaries were the most boring human beings that walked this green earth.  With two strikes against me I had to be careful what I did next.  I talked to some smart guys and they asked me what I thought of chemical engineering.  I asked them, “What is chemical engineering?”  Well, these wise men told me that it was the golden road to wealth, fame and happiness.  Since I’ve always been gullible, I believed them.  Where things went from there is a story for a long winter evening but suffice it to say that I abandoned science for the greener pastures of the engineering world.  In other words, I sold my soul to the devil.  But I earned enough to raise a family.

But I always hankered for the chance to take more math classes.  While I was taking my engineering courses I had the chance to speak to an old math professor of mine and described my regret that I’d be too busy for the next thirty years or so to take anymore math classes and wondered whether he could recommend a self-study text that covered all the fields of mathematics that I might be interested in.  I knew that this guy was something of a bibliophile and luckily for me he said he had the very thing.  He told me it was a Soviet Russian three volume set published in translation by the MIT Press.  It wasn’t too pricey so I bought it and stuck it in a corner of my bookshelf and there it sat mostly unread for thirty years.

About ten years ago I finally got my last kid out of college and paid off the house and I was looking at cleaning out all the junk I had accumulated over the years when I rediscovered this set of books.  On a lark I started thumbing through it and opened up the section on topology.  And quickly discovered that I still enjoyed mathematics.  Now you may think that engineering was a field where mathematics abounds.  But after almost thirty years in the field the mathematical content of what I did on a daily basis had degenerated from differential equations into spreadsheets to figure out equipment depreciation and maybe the odd pressure drop or heat transfer calculation.  I had become a lapsed mathematician.  So, it was with great pleasure that I scanned the various sections of the set.  Non-Euclidean Geometry, Topology, Prime Numbers and other equally useless but interesting things.  Now whenever I have time I delve into the books and lose myself for a few hours and enjoy the guilty pleasure of contemplating the whichness of what.  Today I was reading what these long dead Russians had to say about the relevance of Non-Euclidean Geometry when considering the details of our actual universe.  When a ray of light can be bent by gravity what exactly is the validity of the concept of the parallel postulate?  With our current understanding of particle/wave duality what exactly can we consider empty space?  These esteemed commies made a statement from what they call dialectic materialism and define space as the form of existence of matter.  Now what the hell does that mean?  From what I read they are saying that the concept of space only has meaning in the contest of matter.  Well does that mean there is no such thing as empty space?

This is great stuff.  It makes me feel young again and inspires me to want to write a science fiction story where everything in the universe is adjacent to everything else and therefore problems like faster than light travel are merely a matter of having the correct mental picture when attempting to go from your leather recliner to, let us say, a planet in the Andromeda galaxy.

Anyway, if you’re ever in need of a general reference on mathematics that might spark your gray matter, I highly recommend Mathematics, Its Contents, Methods and Meaning by A. D. Aleksandrov, A. N. Kolmogorov and M. A. Lavrent’ev.

Peace Talks – A Novel of The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

Back in 2018 I did a review of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files urban fantasy series.  In that review I enthusiastically recommended the series but noted that the last installment was released back in 2014.  This year Butcher published the sixteenth and seventeenth volumes in the series, “Peace Talks” and “Battle Ground.”  Somewhat unusually these two books comprise a single story.  So that means that the ending of Peace Talks is a great big “to be continued” notice.  Normally that would be extremely annoying but because the two books were released back to back it’s tolerable.  Another unusual situation is the fact that I haven’t read a Dresden Files book in several years.  For that reason, I’m having trouble deciding if the “voice” of Harry in the book is the same as it used to be.  I’m going to say that it isn’t the same.  Part of this may have to do with the changes in Harry’s status since his last story.  Now he is the “Knight” for Mab the dangerous Winter Queen and also the father of a young girl, Maggie.  I’ll have to go back to the previous book but I believe they have tamed down Harry quite a bit.

If you haven’t read the earlier books then you don’t want to jump into the series at volume sixteen.  Read my review of the series and decide if you want to start up with this very long but very good urban fantasy series.  If you have read the earlier volumes then I’ll report that the series is shaping up to be just as chaotic and crazy as ever.  As is Butcher’s way, the story starts out with an existential crisis developing in Harry’s life and then blossoms into the apocalypse.  Whenever something really bad happens the scramble to avoid catastrophe leads to a crisis that is orders of magnitude worse.  I will say that the pacing of the initial crisis seemed a little slow in spots based on my memory of how Butcher did these things.  And maybe that has to do with this being a two-book story.  But by the end of the book things were falling apart very nicely and Harry was right in his sweet spot, trying to save the world without any reasonable hope of even saving himself.  All his enemies were his only possible allies and all of his friends were alienated and hostile.  I won’t throw in any spoilers.  All the old characters are back and we see some of the damage done in the last book is still haunting the characters here.  Murph is seriously injured in a leg and arm.  She is no longer with Chicago PD and is awaiting additional surgeries and rehab to partially recover from her injuries.  Molly Carpenter is now the Winter Lady, Mab’s lieutenant and she has used her connections to provide Harry and his daughter with a home.  It is an apartment that is contained within a sort of embassy building owned and run by the Svartalves (dark elves) who are very serious about security.  This was necessary because in the last book the Red House Vampires finally burned Harry’s crummy home to the ground.  And his Volkswagen Bug was also finished off.  Now he’s driving a reconditioned and ancient hearse that he calls the Munstermobile.

I will say that the annoyance of having the book end in the middle of the story is acceptable because having Harry back is worth it.  I expect really good things from Battle Ground and if you’re a Dresden Files fan you have no choice but to jump in and enjoy the wreckage that Harry drags in his wake.  Highly recommended.

Horror Then and Now

My longtime readers know that I indulge myself in the run-up to Halloween with book and movie reviews that concur with my preferences for that holiday.  A couple of years ago I wrote reviews for all the Universal Classic Monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  I usually take the season as an excuse to reread Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and watch the movie for good measure.

But last year I reviewed Psycho and this year I intend to review the Thomas Harris novels that include the character Hannibal Lecter.  Many years ago, a friend gave me his copy of Red Dragon and I found it to be one of the most unsettling things I had ever read.  And although the violence and insanity were pretty extreme by the standards of that happier time, the thing about the book that truly frightened me was the plausibility of the killer’s method for stalking his victims and the impossibility of protecting your family from someone who was determined to kill in that fashion.  I guess it was the fact that I had a young family at that time and the idea that I might be powerless to save them that horrified me.  And that is when I first became aware that true horror always has a human face.  It won’t be a normal human but it will look out of a face that is attached to a driver’s license and a cellphone and a bank account.

So, there is a difference between the good old days and the bad new days.  We stopped trying to gently scare children and now we horrify adults by showing them what’s really out there.  I’ll be the first to admit that watching Frankenstein or Dracula doesn’t actually involve any fear for anyone over the age of ten.  It was natural that movie makers and writers would escalate the violence and cart out the gore to tempt adult thrill-seekers, mostly in their teenage years, to spend their entertainment dollars on the latest fright fest.  Back in the 1970s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the poster child for exploitation movies aimed at frightening audiences out of their seats.  Since then every year has upped the ante until lately the content has gotten so bad that the real name for what this represents has been designated.  These movies are portraying torture through grisly dismemberment.

I consider that a distinction can be made between these gore fests that are almost bereft of meaningful characters and plot and crime drama like “Silence of the Lambs” which while it does include the description of horrible violence and depravity is not focused on flinging gore across the screen to delight the demented.  It tells the story of people.  This includes the victims, the police and even the murderer.  We supposedly learn a little about what drives some of these characters to become monsters.

I’m not a devotee of crime drama or fiction.  As I said I was given the Red Dragon book long ago and because of it I went to see the Silence of the Lambs when it came out.  Out of a sense of curiosity I read the rest of the Lecter books and saw the movies and tv series.  I don’t think the later books were as good as the first two but I will review them all for general interest purposes.

But I have all the Universal Monster movies on DVD and I intend to watch them all with my younger grandsons as soon as the lockdown ends.  They’re the correct age and they’ll get a kick out of them.  And truth be told, so will I.