Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Fresh Breeze and Spring in Your Step

kw: book reviews, poetry, aging, humor

Perhaps best known for the children's book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst is at her most delightful best as a poet. A few years back, her Suddenly Sixty (and Other Shocks of Later Life) provided fuel to the cry, "Sixty is the new Thirty."

Her latest, I'm Too young to be Seventy (and Other Delusions), continues the tradition. I think as a children's author, she has remained better connected with the RIGHT NOW mind of a child, and clearly sees how the luckiest of us recover such a mindset once we're old enough to be free again.

Her poems are short, which suits me. They smack of Ogden Nash: the lines usually vary in length, but tend to rhyme sooner or later. A favorite of mine, "The Secret of Staying Married" exemplifies:

Still married after all these years?
No Mystery
We are each other's habit,
And each other's history.

Whether wise or wicked, languid or lascivious, these lovely little poems hit the reluctantly gray right where they live.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Some stories don't belong in print.

kw: book reviews, fiction, anthologies, rejects

The title story in The Human Fly and Other Stories by T. C. Moore is edgy, but at least entertaining. The second and third are edgier, and go nowhere. By the fourth story, the author has crossed the bounds of decency, and a quick peek of later ones indicates he never makes it back.

One of the few books I'm sorry I ever cracked open.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Genius is as genius does.

kw: book reviews, science fiction, juvenile literature, humor

My favorite comics character, Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes, lives in his imagination. A bundle of close second places, for the same reason, includes Snoopy and Garfield. Here is a delightful book for grade schoolers that really blurs the border between imagination and reality. I guess Frank Asch, author of Star Jumper: Journal of a Cardboard Genius, remembers his childhood better than most!

Alex, bugged by his (evil) little brother Jonathan, devises a plan to escape to the other end of the universe. Getting boxes and building his Star Jumper isn't much problem: with his plastic bins of useful stuff, and a bit of rummaging in the attic, he finishes by midafternoon. He'd be done even quicker, without Jonathan's 'help'.

But he needs a space suit, which takes a bit more time, and an Atom Shifter so he can get Star Jumper outside without opening a window. Halfway to the moon, he realizes he'll need a defense system, so he returns, and the fun just gets more fun.

The author does his own illustrating, and I must say the journal pages beat my own all hollow!

Friday, April 21, 2006

Killer Armadillos

kw: book reviews, science fiction, cloning, genetic creation

A cover blurb from Alternative Words boasts, "Better than Jurassic Park!" Better how? More guts and gore! Stronger soldiers! More cussing! Bigger weapons! Stupider politicians!! Fiercer monsters! Even less likely plot twists! More dastardly betrayals! Prettier scientists in peril!

As a cliffhanger yarn, The Genesis Protocol by Dayton Ward is hard to beat. While Michael Crichton's novels have thrills aplenty, Dayton Ward's books are like the X-Games compared to the Olympics. (By the way, with me that isn't a plus)

The premise: It all began with an innocent idea, "Let's make a jungle in an isolated Utah desert area, where plants and animals that can metabolize pollutants can be developed"—by direct DNA creation, apparently. Of course, nothing funded by Washington can get away without the military getting a horn in. And of course, as the techniques are perfected, the generals get more and better, and more scary, ideas of how to use them.

Thus, the book begins with this secret jungle, full of all kinds of lab-created plants and animals, that has become quite risky to even enter, because of the toxins there the creatures are adapted to ingest, and their own toxic by-products from such ingestion. At that point, I find myself asking, "OK, I thought the idea was to turn poison into water, air, and salt. What's the idea of making bad poisons into worse ones?!?"

The culmination is a set of animals termed "harbingers", supposedly so named for a Victor Harbin, the main military meddler in the background. Of course, for once, you can see the author's machination here, naming a character such that he can name his chief monsters a word meaning "one going before" and "omen". Opens the door to a dandy sequel, no doubt, as does the final chapter, even more.

As science, of course, it is infinitely less plausible than anything in "Jurassic Park", which is already on the bleeding edge of infeasible (see The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World by Rob Desalle & David Lindley). As an escapist adventure story, however, it's quite a romp for the rough at heart.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Niche-marketing religion...the third-oldest profession.

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, alternate christianities, history

Beliefnet's eclectic approach to spirituality is reflected in their "Beliefnet Guide to..." series. To date they've tackled Islam, the Kabbalah, and Evangelical Christianity. Their forté is a kind of hit-and-run survey of a religion or religious phenomenon.

The current volume, Gnosticism and Other Vanished Christianities by Richard Valantasis, surveys a significant assemblage of religious competitors to "orthodox" Christianity during its first several centuries. Dr. Valantasis, an Episcopal priest and professor of Theology, has summarized a wealth of primary source material that opens a little window into the beliefs and lives of vanished Christian (and semi-Christian) traditions.

So, who were Gnostics? What did they believe? It is a little like asking, who are the Baptists, or the Pentecostals. Gnostic groups ranged from near-orthodox elites to wholly non-Christian mystery cults that occasionally mentioned Christ. They shared two characteristics: Dualism, the struggle between good and evil, meaning for them, between spirit and matter; and Elitism, the belief that some people were by nature "pneumatic" and could thus learn the esoteric knowledge (gnosis) needed for salvation, while the rest could not and never would.

Gnostics aren't so extinct as one might think. I've witnessed one definite incursion of elitism-plus-dualism into a congregation of which I was a part. It's a seductive mix. People get to feel special, and they get a simple explanation of "how things work," even though that explanation is made to seem mysterious and esoteric, secret knowledge. In the end, however, any esoteric movement turns out to be the propagation of the pecularity of one person and a number of followers who share that peculiarity in some measure.

In biblical terms, this kind of "rampant peculiarity" is like all the eyes, for example, getting together in a club that excludes all non-eyes, saying to the rest of the body of Christ, "I have no need of thee." Too late, the eyes find out that without feet, they can't go anywhere to see anything, and without hands, they can't do anything about what they might genuinely see.

What is peculiarity? It is any soulish counterfeit of seemingly spiritual virtues; something one person may naturally be good at that looks spiritual but is actually natural. James the brother of Jesus was famed for wearing holes into the floorboards near his bed with his knees, by long praying. So, should we all pray until our knees are wooden and the floor wears out? Perhaps James really had a spiritual gift of prayer, or perhaps he was simply good at mindless kneeling. But God doesn't need millions of people who can kneel for hours, so there's no use everyone trying to be like James (downright boring, in any case).

I happen to have a good memory, and I notice details. In a discussion once about an article for a Christian newspaper, someone asked how to quote a certain saying of Jesus. Someone else replied that it was found in Matthew and Mark both, but the words were the same, "so take your pick." I responded, "They are differently punctuated; check with the Greek for both." Another burst out, "You Pharisee! I can barely recall the words; how d'you remember the punctuation?" I didn't answer. I've learned not to say too much about details; they usually aren't as important as all that, not worth getting bogged down with. (And for those thinking this is an instance of inconsistency in Scripture, the real detail to learn is that Jesus said things more than once to different audiences; Mark was recording one incident, and Matthew a different one, in which Jesus used a saying he probably used frequently.)

OK, so, who were the Gnostics? They were special-interest groups. Just one vaguely related group of Christian spin-offs among many. Don't think denominationalism is a modern phenomenon. Selling faith to narrow markets has gone on long before the Gnostics and various heretics (notice I didn't say "other heretics"; most Gnostics weren't heretics) brought it into the Christian realm.

They were mostly rather unpleasant people. They despised the "non-pneumatic," and were often more rigid in their own practice than the "orthodox" against whom they rebelled. I guess they needed a reason to feel special, because without that, few of them would get any respect.

Monday, April 17, 2006

A happy trip

kw: random comments, church conferences

Sunday evening my son and I got back from New York, where we'd attended a conference for church Young People. About 300 attended the whole three days, and another couple hundred came for a day here or there, mainly Sunday morning.

The subject was "The Lord's Coming," but the main thrust was getting ready not by becoming privately spiritual (what one might expect), but by caring for others, shepherding others, and being willing to receive care and shepherding. This is a good word for today's independent-minded teenagers.

One good item: If you don't want to fall in an open well, don't walk around it. Teens who say, "I know my limits," and "I can handle it" are always either lying or self-ignorant. If you stay too far from the well to see it, only then are you safe. This is how to treat sin and the world.

So, they've had some amount of vision on the mountaintop. We'll see how they work it out in the next few months, in their daily lives, before the longer Summer conferences in July and August.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Year's Best SF 2004.

kw: science fiction, collections, anthologies

I look for The Year's Best Science Fiction most years. The 2004 collection (the 22d) is edited by Garner Dozois. SciFi to me is about ideas. This collection has more ideas and less existential musing than I have seen in a long time. There's hope for SF! As John Campbell advised more than one struggling author, "Pose a problem, then fix it." Best formula ever devised.

The Stories, the Authors, and the Ideas:

Inappropriate Behavior by Pat Murphy. Autistic people can be gainfully employed in very goal-directed jobs...if you can find an appropriate supervisor. The placement of this story on some planet somewhere is irrelevant.

Start the Clock by Benjamin Rosenbaum. A virus has halted everyone's growth and aging; how will society respond? Decades later, a cure is found; how will the new society respond? One ugly, overly sexual scene could have been handled with more discretion, but I don't think subtlety is Rosenbaum's forté.

The Third Party by David Moles. When engaging in conflict over someone's fate, remember to count all the players.

The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe. Just how much control of a populace is possible; and can that control be removed? Also, vehicles are as sentient as pets, things are grown rather than built.

Shiva in Shadow by Nancy Kress. How real is "dark matter" anyway? If you hit some, will you know? Plus an interesting take on "If I could do this over, could I do it better?"

The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi. Human life once only humans remain...almost.

The Clapping Hands of God by Michael F. Flynn. How long does it take to get to know a person, or alien species, well enough to extend trust, or even sympathy?

Tourism by M. John Harrison. Post-apocalyptic dystopia has been done so much, another is boring. This one, in particular, begins in the middle, goes nowhere, and seems to be chapter one of a bad novel about bad people. Nearest thing to an idea: a professional fighter regularly spills his guts (unless he spills the other guy's), gets reconstructed overnight, at the tailor shop, to go lose again. Curious take on Tailor.

Scout's Honor by Terry Bisson. A better take than usual on Neandertal / Cro-magnon contact, with time travel thrown in...probably. The protagonist is, if not autistic, at least very, very self-absorbed.

Men are Trouble by James Patrick Kelly. Thirty years ago, aliens came and all males disappeared. Long enough for a new society to begin to arise, not long enough for the old to be forgotten.

Mother Aegypt by Kage Baker. Consummate con man meets ageless fortune teller. A new take on the Irresistible Force vs the Immovable Object.

Synthetic Serendipity by Vernor Vinge. I can't give this one away; it only looks like Cyberpunk... I wonder if we'll someday communicate with our external intelligence using shrugs and other gestures.

Skin Deep by Mary Rosenblum. What begins as a seeming paean to stem cell research has a turn that exposes its ethical ambiguity.

Delhi by Vandana Singh. A hindi-gothic fantasy of communication into the past and future.

The Tribes of Bela by Albert E. Cowdrey. 1) Can an ecosystem be built on a single genome? 2) Will the real alien please stand up?

Sitka by William Sanders. Alternative-history fantasy: Is "The Sea Wolf" autobiographical?

Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham. A possible future for wars? [My own prediction: within 3-5 generations either everyone will be Muslim, or nobody will be, not one].

The Defenders by Colin P. Davies. A distant prequel, perhaps, to Saberhagen's Berserkers: if the perfect defender is allowed to evolve, whom (or what) will it defend?

Mayflower II by Stephen Baxter. You can't run away forever, and considering the implications, should you want to?

Riding the White Bull by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Yes, there's life on Europa, and boy, are we sorry!

Falling Star by Grendan DuBois. A little post-apocalyptic gem, based on someone writing a computer virus that does in the hardware.

The Dragons of Summer Gulch by Robert Reed. Alternative-history; dinosaurs on steroids.

The Ocean of the Blind by James L. Cambias. Studying an ocean planet, whose sentient residents live too deep for light to penetrate; and what happens when everyone gets what they've all (but one) wanted...

The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fictional Romance by Eleanor Amason. Space wars and their effect on an alien species, told as fiction by one of the aliens—if that doesn't fry your brains, little could.

Footvote by Peter F. Hamilton. Put a gateway to a paradisical planet somewhere on Salisbury Plain, big enough for lorry after lorry, caravan after caravan to drive through. Who should go...and who actually will?

Sisyphus and the Stranger by Paul Di Filippo. Camus survives to middle age, France is the lone what?!?

Ten Sigmas by Paul Melko. What if the many-worlds interpretation of quantum strangeness were correct, and there were someone who could know himself in all 'nearby' world lines? By the way, "ten sigmas" refers to something that occurs about 7.6 times in a trillion trillion attempts, such as flipping a coin 77 times and coming up heads every time.

Investments by Walter Jon Williams. Not all good decisions have good outcomes. Not even when the investment you own is a whole solar system.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Mr. Stanley, it's time to find Dr. Livingston again

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, relationships

The chapters have snappy titles, and in themselves, provide most of the content. A few of my favorites: "The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas," "Only bad things happen quickly," and "Not all who wander are lost."

The book is Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now by Gordon Livingston, M.D. Even in large print, it's a small book. A lot of folks really love Dr. Livingston. I found the book disappointing. Reminded me of Gertrude Stein's aphorism, "There is no there there."

Dr. Livingston, a psychiatrist and decorated Vietnam veteran, has lived through enough hell to earn his agnosticism. But it is the source of the emptiness of his discursions. I think if I lost my son, I'd also question God...but I reckon I'd recover. A life without faith is lonely indeed.

An aphorism of my own: All authors reveal themselves; good authors help us know others around us; the best authors reveal us to ourselves. I'd put this author on the border between the first and second categories.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Living in the mouth of a loaded cannon

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, safety, Alaska, avalanches

I've lived in California three times. I did my undergraduate studies at Cal State Los Angeles. When I did my graduate studies in South Dakota, one of my professors once said, "Visiting California is like walking in front of a loaded crossbow. Living there is like being tied to a chair in front of it." He was referring to earthquakes. I've been through a few, including one that rolled me out of bed at 6 am precisely (The "Sylmar Quake" that devastated areas of the San Fernando Valley). I've since moved out of earthquake country...relatively speaking, because there is nowhere on Earth that has absolutely no earthquakes.

I've also lived in tornado country, several parts of it, including the Buckle of the Tornado Belt, Stillwater, OK. I've seen a few, and once came close to being caught up in one. Tornadoes can be more destructive than any earthquake, over a much smaller area, but they give more warning of their imminent arrival. If you have a well-made storm cellar, you can ride out even the strongest tornado; though an F5 with 300+ mph winds leaves little but plowed land behind, it won't pull a good cellar out of the ground!

When I moved to Rapid City, SD, I was shown by a colleague how to recognize a flood-prone area. This was just a few years after the big flood of 1972 pretty much razed a downtown area. It wasn't hard to learn to recognize signs such as scraped bark and debris caught in forks, ten to twenty feet above ground. Early settlers only lived on the terraces above the floodplain, but later folks obliviously put houses anywhere they could afford a flat spot. Floods usually give some warning beforehand, and many arrive slowly enough to be escaped from...but not all.

An avalanche, more like an earthquake, arrives suddenly and is over in moments. Experienced observers can learn to predict that a certain place is likely to release an avalance soon, but too few people are experienced enough to see the signs of imminent danger. Each year, about 25 people die in avalanches in the Western U.S., and a similar number in Alaska, though the latter has a much smaller population.

Avalanches, like floods, earthquakes, and tornadoes, occur in certain places. One can learn to recognize an avalanche path. Mainly, it doesn't have many old trees at its bottom. There are even more signs of imminent risk, signs that "If you go there, you'll die." Jill Fredston and her husband Doug Fesler have taught avalanche awareness and avalanche safety courses for many years in Anchorage, Alaska. They codirect the Alaska Mountain Safety Center. They have no web site I can find, but has a list of courses, including theirs. Together they also consult with businesses and governments, when workers must go into a risky area. And, of course, they are called to many rescue efforts, and have helped dig out many victims...all too few were survivors.

Ms Fredston's new book, "Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches," tells the story of her avalanche education and the growth of the center. She shows us the power of avalanches through the stories of people who've experienced them. Sadly, many of these died. Considering their immense power, and the suddenness with which they occur, the surprise is that anyone survives.

Having trained people in the vicinity, wearing a radio beacon, and having knowledge of how to anticipate (and thus avoid) an avalanche-prone area, plus knowing what to do if caught in one, can give you a chance at living. But only a chance. Few people live more than a few minutes once buried in snow that immediately refreezes to concrete-like consistency. It takes a quarter to half an hour to dig someone out of a four-foot burial, and such shallow burials are the exception, not the rule.

The book's amazing and sobering stories make it a very readable companion volume to the more authoritative Snow Sense that she and her husband co-authored. Where that volume is matter-of-fact, factual, this one is for the heart as much as the head. I felt the fear and despair of many of the victims, the anguish of their families, and finally the frustration of Jill and Doug with the apparent determination of the majority of fellow-humans to live in denial, as a terminal condition. There is no doubt, where avalanches are concerned, denial is fatal.