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Archive for February, 2017

Latest Reviews (20/ii/2017)

Reds in the HeadThe War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)

Canine the BarbarianThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

Star-StuffThe Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)

An Island of Her OwnThe Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon & Schuster 2016)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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war-of-the-worlds-by-h-g-wellsThe War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)

You don’t read some books: you live them. Treasure Island (1883) is like that; so is The War of the Worlds. Both books appeared before true cinema, but they have the vividness of films and more besides, because cinema can’t evoke scent, smell, taste and sensation as language can. Words create worlds in your head and the best writers, like Wells and Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. I first read both books as a child and both have stayed with me, so that every time I re-read them I can remember how it felt to read them that first time.

Or rather: I can remember how it felt to live them. I had heard the rustling feathers of Long John Silver’s parrot in Treasure Island; I had tasted the bitterness of the red Martian weed that smothers large parts of London in War of the Worlds. Both books are written in the first person and they’re both full of twists and surprises. That first person – the constant “I, Me, Mine”, as George Harrison put – helps explain why they’re so vivid, but it took much more than that. Stevenson and Wells were literary geniuses, masters of creating worlds from pure imagination.

After all, Stevenson had never lived in the eighteenth century and gone sailing on a treasure-hunt. Wells had never experienced an invasion by Martians. But you will if you read War of the Worlds. Wells captures the way it might have been with great skill and subtlety, from the mysterious lights and flashes seen by astronomers on Mars to the landing of the first cylinder containing Martians. Every time I re-read I know exactly what’s coming, but the narrator never does and I experience the story through him, so that it never fails to seem fresh and exciting.

Or horrifying. The Martians are like red octopuses, but they seem harmless and even pitiful at first, struggling to cope with the stronger gravity of Earth. Then suddenly they turn into death-dealing monsters, with a military technology far in advance of Victorian England’s and the will to use it without mercy. Or does “mercy” apply to creatures from another world? That’s one of the questions faced by the narrator when he sees the Martians at work, whether they’re slaughtering humans with their heat-rays and poison gas or capturing humans for food. The Martians aren’t men and our standards don’t apply. We matter to us, but why should we matter to them?

Because I’m living through the narrator, the ending of the story still seems surprising. Man was helpless, but Mother Nature wasn’t, as the narrator suddenly learns. Wells is good at shifts of perspective that make you see human beings and the world in a new way. Arthur C. Clarke learned that from him, but Wells was a greater and more grown-up writer. Today we know that Mars isn’t likely to invade, but The War of the Worlds remains an excellent adventure story and a continued warning about the “infinite complacency” with which men go “to and fro over this globe with their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (“The Coming of the Martians”).

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call-of-the-wild-and-white-fang-by-jack-londonThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) were two of the most powerful books I ever read as a child. I had strong memories of the suffering of the sled-dogs and the cruelty and callousness of the men in the former, of the ruthlessness and viciousness of the dogs in the latter. And I had strong memories of the savage cold and snow of Canada in both.

Re-reading them as an adult, I’ve discovered that Jack London is like J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary talent didn’t match his literary ambition. Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. You could say that London’s and Tolkien’s books are better than they read. Their ideas are interesting, their themes massive, but their prose lets them down. Otherwise they might have been among the greatest writers, rather than just among the greatest story-tellers.

The Call of the Wild and White Fang are certainly good stories. They’re complementary, the first telling the story of a tame dog that has to learn to be savage, the other the story of a savage dog that has to learn to be tame. In the first, Buck is a powerful, thick-pelted family pet living “in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara valley”. He doesn’t know that his power and his pelt have suddenly become very valuable:

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost. (The Call of the Wild)

And so Buck is dog-napped, treated cruelly for the first time in his life, and transported to the far north, where he learns “The Law of Club and Fang” as he works pulling a sled. White Fang, the hero of the second book, knows the Law of the Fang from the beginning, because he’s born in the wild, part dog, but mostly wolf:

The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. (ch. V, “The Law Of Meat”)

Later, when he’s captured by Indians, he learns the Law of the Club. He also learns about cruelty, sadism and hate. Finally, he learns about love, when he acquires a good master and is tamed by kindness.

But he always knew about another kind of love: the kind explored in the short story “Love of Life” (1906), which is also included here. It’s about an injured gold-miner abandoned in the Canadian wilderness who drives himself through “frightful days of snow and rain” to the coast in search of rescue. He nearly starves, he’s nearly killed by a wolf, and his feet become “shapeless lumps of raw meat”, but he’s sustained by “Love of Life”.

The dog Bâtard, in the story of the same name (1904), is sustained by hate and his desire for revenge over his cruel master. Dogs aren’t really dogs in Jack London’s stories: they’re furry humans on four legs, vehicles for London’s Nietzschean ideas about combat, cunning and will. Richard Adams is much more successful at putting himself into the lives of animals, or keeping himself out, but I’m pretty sure that London’s stories were an inspiration for Watership Down (1972).

I’m even surer that they were an inspiration for Conan the Barbarian. I was reminded of Conan a lot as I read and Robert E. Howard was fascinated by the same things: violence, fighting, cruelty, the struggle for survival, and the relation between civilization and savagery. White Fang might have howled in agreement at this, from the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (1935):

The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

Howard was a better writer than London, but I’m not sure that he was as complex and interesting a thinker. He certainly didn’t live as interesting a life. Part of the power of London’s writing comes from the knowledge that he had experienced what he wrote about: life-and-death struggles between man and the elements, between man and man, between man and beast. He was influenced by Nietzsche and may have influenced fascism in his turn. He certainly had racial and social ideas that horrify many people today.

Those ideas aren’t prominent in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which helps explain why these are now by far his most famous books. That they are animal stories helps even more: they appeal to children and children don’t notice the clumsiness of his prose. But he was a prolific writer, despite dying in 1916 at only the age of forty, and I want to try more of his work.

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the-universe-in-100-key-discoveries-by-giles-sparrowThe Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)

Possibly the best book I’ve ever read on astronomy: text and images complement each other perfectly. Even the solidness of the book was right. It’s a heavy book about heavy ideas, from the beginning of the universe to its possible endings, with everything astronomical in between.

And everything is astronomical, if it’s looked at right. The elements vital for life were cooked in stars before being blasted out by supernovae. We are star-stuff that has the unique privilege – so far as we know – of being able to understand stars.

Or trying to. This book was first published in 2012, so it’s inevitably out of date, but many of the mysteries it describes are still there. And when mysteries are solved, they sometimes create new ones. Even the behaviour and composition of a celestial body as close as the Moon is still impossible for us to explain. But sometimes it’s easier at a distance: the interior of the earth can harder to study than galaxies millions of light years away, as I pointed out in “Heart of the Mother”.

In every case, however, understanding depends on mathematics. Astronomers have been building models of the heavens with shapes and numbers for millennia, but the models had to wait for two things to really become powerful: first, the invention of the telescope; second, the development of modern chemistry and physics. Whether or not there is life out there, celestial light is full of messages about the composition and movement of the stars and other bodies that generate it.

But visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum and modern astronomy probes the universe at wavelengths far above and below it. The more data astronomers can gather, the more they can test the mathematical models they’ve built of the heavens. The best models make the most detailed predictions, inviting their own destruction by ugly facts. But when predictions fail, it sometimes means that the observations are faulty, not the models. Cosmological models predicted much more matter in the universe than we can see. Is the gap accounted for by so-called “dark matter”, which “simply doesn’t interact with light or other electromagnetic radiations at all”? (ch. 98, “Dark Matter”, pg. 396)

Dark matter is a strange concept; so is dark energy. Astronomy may get stranger still, but the cover of this book is a reminder that human beings inhabit two kinds of universe. One is the universe out there: matter and radiation, moons, planets, stars, galaxies, supernovae. The other is the universe in here, behind the eyes, between the ears and above the tongue. The cover of this book offers a vivid contrast between the swirling complexity and colour of a star-field and the sans-serif font of the title and author’s name. But the contrast is ironic too. The stars look complex and the font looks simple, but language is actually far more complex and difficult to understand than stars.

Consciousness may be far more complex still. In the end, is the value of science that it expands consciousness, offering new physical and mental sensations of discovery and understanding? The powerful and beautiful images and ideas in this book could only have been generated by science, because the universe is more inventive than we are. But without consciousness, the universe might as well not exist. Without language, we’d never be able to try and understand it. Then again, the universe seems to have invented language and consciousness too.

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The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon &the-phantom-atlas-by-edward-brooke-hitching Schuster 2016)

I love maps. There’s something magical and mind-transporting about them, but the maps in this book are even more special than usual. They don’t transport your mind elsewhere, they transport your mind nelsewhere – to places that never existed, but might have done.

Or did they once exist? That’s one of the fascinating things. In some cases, phantom islands have been seen by more than one ship and in more than one year. Sometimes reports came in for centuries. Sometimes phantom islands have appeared on Google maps, like Sandy Island or Île de Sable, “northeast of Australia” (pp. 206-7). Possibly first discovered by James Cook in 1774, it was “undiscovered”, as Edward Brooke-Hitching puts it, in 2012, when a group of Australian scientists tried to find it and failed.

But perhaps it really exists and was simply mislocated. Even the most skilful navigators could go astray in the long years before electronics and position-fixing satellites. Or perhaps it lived up to its name and was washed away. That may have happened to more substantial land-masses:

Tracing the cartographic history of the island of Mayda is like tracking a spy through a series of forged identities, although, as it moves about the North Atlantic over the years, adopting a range of names and shifting in shape, it never quite escapes recognition. Mayda is one of the oldest and most enduring of phantoms, stubbornly clinging to the skin of maps for more than five centuries; it was one of the last mythical North Atlantic islands to be expunged. But in a strange twist, it may be that the phantom label is too readily applied. (“Mayda”, pg. 158)

The strange twist, Edward Brook-Hitching goes on to say, is that a ship’s captain south of Greenland “decided to measure the depth” of the supposedly very deep water he was passing over, “perhaps noticing a variation in water colour” (pg. 161). Water that was supposed to be “2400 fathoms” deep turned out to be only “24 fathoms”: there appeared to be a sunken island beneath the ship.

Or was there? Probably not, but islands do indeed come and go, as volcanoes vomit them to life and the sea swallows them again. Mountains come and go too, but over much longer stretches of time, so it’s unlikely that any of the phantom mountains here really existed. The Mountains of the Moon certainly didn’t. They were supposed to be the source of the Nile and appeared prominently on maps when “virtually nothing was known of Africa by Europeans” (pg. 162). Sir Richard Burton tried to reach them in the nineteenth century, during the great age of African exploration, and helped prove they didn’t exist. By then, another African legend was long discredited: the Kingdom of Prester John had melted away into legend.

He was supposedly a Christian king who sent a letter to “Manuel I Komnenon, Emperor of Byzantium” (pg. 194) in the twelfth century, claiming “enormous wealth and power” and descent from the Three Magi of Matthew’s Gospel. The letter proved to be a forgery and historians have long speculated about the identity and motives of the forger. But belief in Prester John took a long time to die and his kingdom appeared on many maps before explorers laid it finally to rest.

Prester John is a legend that most readers will probably have heard of before, like Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu and El Dorado. But it’s good to have them collected here in one book with lots of more obscure legends, from “Crocker Land”, the “Isle of Demons” and “Australia’s Inland Sea” to the “Sunken City of Vineta”, “Wak-Wak” and the “Phantom Lands of the Zeno Map”. The maps and drawings are always interesting, often beautiful, and Brooke-Hitching doesn’t stick strictly to geographic phantoms: he also has chapters on the “Sea Monsters of the Carta Marina”, Olaus Magnus’s “hugely influential and imaginative map of Scandinavia” from 1539, and the “Creatures of the Nuremberg Chronicle Map” from 1493.

This book is indeed a cartophile’s delight, detailed in its text and delightful in its imagery, but I would have liked a little more than maps and cartography. The chapter on the Mountains of the Moon or the Kingdom of Prester John could easily have incorporated something about H. Rider-Haggard and King Solomon’s Mines (1885) or Alan Quatermain (1887), just as one of the chapters on the Pacific could easily have incorporated something about H.P. Lovecraft and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928). And something about At the Mountains of Madness (1936) could have gone into the chapter on Terra Australis.

As the maps were filled in and the phantoms were exorcised, imaginative writers like Haggard and Lovecraft invented new sources of wonder and mystery. R’lyeh is a phantom land in more senses than one and deserved some mention here. Lovecraft would certainly have delighted in this book and drawn inspiration from it. Its appeal is captured in a story about Pedro Sarmiento, a Spanish explorer taken prisoner by Sir Walter Raleigh. He was questioned about “his maps of the Strait of Magellan” and “one particular island, which seemed to offer potential tactical advantage.” Sarmiento replied that

…it was to be called the Painter’s Wife’s Island, saying that, whilst the Painter drew that map, his Wife sitting by, desired him to put in one Countrey for her, that she in her imagination might have an island of her own. (Introduction, pg. 10)

When we look at maps, we all have islands of our own.

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