Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May's a Wrap


Well, now that my evening job is on hiatus until tax season reboots in six months, my days are somewhat back to normal. May was a very productive month, and I’m very pleased with what I’ve accomplished.

I got to spend time with my girls again. We watched a slew of movies. I also got to see two of Little One’s track meets (she runs the mile and half-mile). Patch tried out and made the town’s travel soccer team. We enjoyed the middle school spring concert, with Little One on clarinet. A pair of girl scout meetings for Patch, who also helped me with the yardwork one beautiful spring afternoon.

I’ve been able to read in the evenings again. Put away nine books alone this month! (The Mote in God’s Eye, Quantum Fuzz, Power vs. Force, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Downward to the Earth, Peace with God, The Little Book of String Theory, Nightwings, and The World Inside, if you must know.) Not only that, but I started working out again: curls, push-ups, leg dips, that sort of thing, plus walking every now and then with the girls. Haven’t dropped any weight, but I’m not as squishy looking as I was over the winter.

You might have noticed that three of the books listed above pertain to physics. Yeah, the physics bug has bit me again. This past month I must’ve averaged an hour a day reading that stuff. Love it. Fascinating, thought provoking, and bittersweet, ’cuz I did go to school for this stuff before dropping out. Oh to spend eight hours a day in front of a chalkboard instead of payroll software. Now I’m thinking about cleaning out the garage and building a supercollider in there …

Had an interesting Memorial Day weekend. As usual, we drove to visit my father-in-law down the Jersey shore. My sister-in-law and her twin two-year-old boys were also there. The first day I stayed at the hotel readin’ and studyin’ and relaxin’ while they all hit the beach. I did the beach thing Sunday, collecting shells with Little One and playing soccer with Patch. That night we had an awesome dinner at a steak joint (I chugged two massive 22-ounce beers – maybe that’s why it was awesome?). However, the Memorial Day parade, a staple the kids look forward to since everyone marching throws out candy, got rained out. We returned early to get ready for the week.

So, I gotta give May a good grade. Only black mark is that the weather hasn’t been so May-like. We had a hot few days the beginning of the month, forcing me to put the ACs in early, and now it’s been rainy and 60s-ish for the past two weeks. Hopefully June will be springfully hot, and not rocket us into the mid-90s too soon.


See ya!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review: Nightwings


© 1968 by Robert Silverberg

Winner, 1969 Hugo Award for Best Novella



The time: Late “Third Cycle,” several centuries – possibly millennia – in the future.

The place: Earth, long suffering through several cataclysmic surface-changing events from directed climatic alteration gone wrong. Specifically, three cities, Roum, Perris, and Jorslam.

The background: A broken, lost society, longing for the glories of the Second Cycle, held together with the glue of the guilds: dozens if not hundreds of fellowships giving meaning to the fleeting existences of the masses. All is guild, from Dominators to Servitors, Rememberers to Watchers, Fliers to Changelings to Neuters, Vendors to Transporters to Clowns.

Our hero is a nameless Watcher, tasked to scan the skies via some strange sort of astral projection, thrice daily week after month after year, alert for alien invasion. Though Earth is sort of a low-budget tourist stop for alien life, Watchers stand lonely on the lookout for an ancient prophesied attack. We catch up to the Watcher midstream nearing the end of his life, en route across the Land Bridge from Agupt to Talya, specifically the once-yet-still-grand city of Roum.

Accompanying him are two others, the blithe fairy-human Flier, Avluela, and the cagey shape-shifting Changeling Gormon. Old Watcher is in love – mostly in a paternal way – with Avluela, and bone-wary of Gormon. Still, on a world of nomads such as Third Cycle Earth, it is more dangerous to travel companionless than companioned, so the trio together enter the great golden city.

Then, all hell breaks loose.

How to convey a wonderful tale without spoilers, since I know not whether you will ever read this book? Like all Silverberg to me, I could not put it down, for who could set aside a story with seemingly a surprise – a legitimate, unforeseen surprise you realize you should’ve seen coming – in every chapter? The tale turns twists a lesser author would botch; several times over the three nonstop days I journeyed with these characters I had to pause in wonder at their fates, bidden and unbidden, and equally their resolutions.

If this sounds oblique, I am intending it to be so. If you are a science fiction aficionado and have not read this book, do so. A master class in storycraft. Normally in my “reviews” I drop some pretty hefty hints of what you’ll come across; heck, just read my review of Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth a week back for a sampling. But I do not think that appropriate for Nightwings

But I will say, should you open these pages, you’ll find –
  

Not one but two infidelities, both ending badly

First-person noncombatants in the fog of blitzkrieg

Ethereal bodies soaring in the twilit skies

A lamplike squidlike alien decapitation

50th-century optical prosthetics

Overbearing princes, oily merchants, poetic overlords

Fortune-tellers who foretell the present

Starstones to decipher the will of the Will

And man with his back against the wall who sells out mankind


But, glorious of all, redemption. Redemption for both the Watcher and the planet. For, like Downward to the Earth, there is re-birth in this world, too, with similar concomitant risks and rewards. Although in Nightwings the redemption is more transcendent, more transformative, more organic and more world-wide. It’s rebirth for not only the Watcher (who, in fact, changes guilds not once, not twice, but three times – possibly four – over the course of the novel) but simultaneously the World itself, mankind, in all its genetic variations, itself. The whole thing teetered toward hippie kumbaya for a sentence or two, and I got nervous, but it rightly righted itself and ended with an ending only slightly less shiver-bump inducing than Downward.

Grade: A+



Note: In hindsight, I learned that Nightwings was actually three novellas published in the pulps and patched together into a single work in 1968. The whole thing works seamlessly. It’s divided into three parts, for each geographic city where the action occurs: Roum, Perris, and Jorslam, where the rebirth takes place. It won the 1969 Hugo Award, was nominated for a Nebula Award, and won the Prix Apollo Award – for best SF novel published in France – in 1976. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

An Evil that Targets Children



Must be opposed by all means necessary.

Prayers, yes. Flowers, memorials, yes.

But no more hashtags. No more filters on Facebook photos.

Direct, amped-up action is required.

Let’s implement a permanent resolution to these cowardly, backward losers.


That is my prayer.



Thursday, May 18, 2017

Book Reviews by the Numbers


Crunching some numbers, I see that Tuesday’s review of Downward to the Earth is my one hundredth science fiction book review here on The Recovering Hopper! One hundred science fiction book reviews in a little over nine years … an average of just under one a month.




Totaling up all the other reviews I’ve done, I see that I am up to 194 (despite what that number on the left says; not all posts tagged “Book Reviews” are legitimate Book Reviews). That’s 1.8 book reviews a month. Which is about half of my reading consumption.

What’s the breakdown by subject?

Well …


Science fiction – 100

Science fiction short story anthologies – 8

Fantasy – 16

Westerns – 11

Horror – 8

Horror short story anthologies – 1

Classic and/or adventure fiction – 16

History – 7

Religious fiction – 4

Spy/action/espionage – 3

Theology – 3

Historical fiction – 3

Others – 14


Why this post? Because I love reading, and I love writing about the books I’ve read. I wrote a half-dozen or so book reviews in the months up to the creation of this blog in March 2008, so it was only natural that I continue. I suppose my dream job would be to get paid reviewing books, but I chaff a bit at that, considering I might lose a degree or more of freedom in what I wish to write.

Anyway, hope there are some of you out there who read them (somebody must be, as I have almost 200,000 page views to date) and, even more so, some of you who enjoy reading them.

Because I will keep writing them, if only for myself.




Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: Downward to the Earth





© 1971 by Robert Silverberg


Boasting the perfect paperback length for a science fiction novel, 180 pages, Downward to the Earth is the best book I’ve read in 2017. Probably the best since I put away PKD’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a book in which both share some broad themes, nearly a year ago. That’s a long dry spell, but it was well worth the wait.

What broad themes does Silverberg’s novel dance with? Redemption and transcendence, deep emotional needs I find within myself (though more transcendence than redemption, but redemption’s buried down there somewhere). Needs we all nurture and keep locked safely away. “Transcendence” is a feature large or small in many of Silverberg’s works (I’ve read ten or twelve of his 80+ published novels), and Downward ends on perhaps the most blatantly literal example of transcendence I’ve ever encountered. Such an ending might not even be publishable today.

In a quintet of words, Downward to the Earth is an: SF-stylized take on Rudyard Kipling. The empire of Earth is in recession, and companies that have previously governed entire alien planets have withdrawn and conceded those worlds to their native inhabitants. Our protagonist, Edmund Gundersen, worked his way up the chain of command to rule Belzagor fifteen years ago, back when it had the company stamp of Holman’s World. He’s compelled to return to his old stomping ground by a heavy tormenting conscience, for he himself stomped over the native population in the quest to satisfy his masters at Corporate.

Belzagor is a unique world in that two sentient species share the planet, and it’s given that each are more sentient than mankind realized back in the good old days. The dominant denizens, the Nildoror, are philosophical elephant-like creatures whom in the past Gundersen and his compatriots treated no better than beasts of burden. The second race is a species of what I think are upright sloth slash leopards. Territorial, moody, taciturn, these creatures called the Sulidoror, seem to serve the Nildoror, though their true relationship is not quite clear until the book’s closing pages, a startling and unforeseen development that recalled the reveal that climaxed Hal Clement’s Cycle of Fire.

At unspecified periods of time, the Nildoror are summoned to make a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain in the mists of the North to experience the “rebirth.” Disillusioned and discontented, seeking self-forgiveness and perhaps the forgiveness of these spiritual creatures, Gundersen asks permission to make the pilgrimage himself – and possibly undergo risky “rebirth” – and permission is granted.

The lush world of Belzagor is a stand-in for India, and Gundersen is a Kiplingesque figure. The novel unwinds during the pilgrimage, alternating between deeply philosophic and troubling conversations between the man and his Nildoror guide and flashbacks to the abuses that occurred during Company-wide rule. An early memory is quite bizarre – the “snake milking station” where a deranged yet undoubtedly charismatic man named Kurtz (enjoyed that reference!) initiates a young Gundersen to the psychedelic properties of the alien poison. I thought perhaps I ingested some myself reading this chapter, where Kurtz warbles Hendrix-y riffs on an electric guitar, his partner-in-crime Gio’s flute accompanying the acid rock, the snakes drawn Cobra-like to the charmers to cede their venom, the altered states – and the shame – that follow …

Two-thirds in, almost as an afterthought, Silverberg spends three sparse pages detailing one of the most horrifying incidents I have ever read – and I’ve read dozens of novels and stories by King, Koontz, Poe and Lovecraft. It jarred me, jarred me hard, Gundersen stumbling over those two victims at an abandoned weather station, a scene I’ll not likely ever forget. Why did the author include it, since it does not involve main characters or advance the plot? Probably to show that Belzagor is far from an idyllic paradise – and that the Serpent is ever present, ever hidden in the Garden.

Gio – a relatively minor character – also suffers a gruesome fate, but his demise is only mentioned in passing by one character to another. Combined with the aforementioned horror, these deaths predate the “body horror” fad in cinema begun by Alien and which continues to this day. It’s an insider secret that good science fiction literature predates good science fiction cinema by ten to twenty years, and in this case the rule holds fast and true.

Well, I don’t want to reveal much else except the fact that, after some hesitation upon learning the terrible risks associated with “rebirth,” our protagonist decides to go forward. With equal measures of anticipation and dread, I eagerly burned through the novel’s final pages – and was rewarded beyond expectation. Silverberg pulls it off.

Grade: A+


Postscript:

I have decided to read through my entire backlog of Silverberg novels this summer: Nightwings, Tom O’Bedlam, Kingdoms of the Wall, The Face of the Waters, The New Springtime, Shadrach in the Furnace, and The World Inside (the last two purchased a day after finishing Downward to the Earth). Waters and Springtime will be re-reads, first traversed in the mid-90s. I am looking forward to it tremendously.

I even feel that maybe I should’ve used Robert Silverberg instead of Philip Jose Farmer for my 2013 Exclusive Writer Reading Project, where I spent three months reading a dozen novels and a dozen short stories of the latter author. Maybe this will be sort of a mini-re-version of that. More later …


Saturday, May 13, 2017

E. T. I.


“Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,” by Blue Oyster Cult.

Song I was infatuated with, oh, about 30 years ago, way, way back when I was just figgering out how to play that there electric guitar, and, coincidentally, seven years before the X-Files …




I hear the music, daylight disc
Three men in black said, “Don’t report this”
“Ascension,” and that’s all they said
Sickness now, the hour’s dread

All praise
He’s found the awful truth
Balthazar
He’s found the saucer news

Wait! There’s more!

I’m in fairy rings and tower beds
“Don’t report this,” three men said
Books by the blameless and by the dead
King in yellow, queen in red

All praise
He’s found the awful truth
Balthazar
He’s found the saucer news

Dead leaves always give up motion
I no longer feel emotion
Where prophecy fails, the falling notion
“Don’t report this, agents of fortune”

All praise
He’s found the awful truth
Balthazar
He’s found the saucer news

Monday, May 8, 2017

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye



© 1974 by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle


WW2 battleship personalities in a monarchial society do cold war first contact with Spongebob Squarepants a millennium in the future.


Yeah, to me, that’s The Mote in God’s Eye, a classic forty-plus year old SF tale by masters Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I’ve read and enjoyed other works by both authors, and with deity Robert Heinlein’s front page endorsement, it seemed a no brainer to delve into this novel. I was looking for a world to submerge myself in now that I have some free evening time. And they do create a detailed future world – er, worlds, as mankind has colonized, and fought wars of secession between, dozens of extra-solar planets. In fact, when I skimmed the timeline at the beginning of the books and saw “Downfall of the Sauron Supermen” in AD 2640, I had no choice but to read it.

By all objective measures Mote is a good story. It moves. The characters come to life, and with the possible exception of a forced romance their actions flow, but I don’t read these books for the love angle. I want hard SF, intriguing aliens, a compelling plot with a twist or two or three near the climax to resolve the seemingly insurmountable problems our heroes face.

Yes, it does have some neat hard SF, especially in what’s called the Alderson Drive and the Langston Field. The Alderson Drive enables starships to hop the light-years gulf between planetary systems, though they rely on non-“warp” propulsion to get to the various Alderson Point for each sun. And they in fact transport into the heart of the star, protected only by the Langston Field, an opaque black force field that surrounds the craft and keeps it impervious to the exponential heat at the heart of a star or an enemy’s carefully aimed laser cannon.




Immediately after suppressing a revolt on New Chicago, the starship MacArthur, helmed by rookie commander Rod Blaine, is ordered to intercept an approaching alien craft. Though mankind has spread throughout the galaxy the past ten centuries, it has never encountered any completely foreign entities. Now is the historic moment …

First contact is made, and nothing ever happens the way you think or expect it to. This is a good thing. Not to give away any detailed spoilers, but people are killed and things are lost, I did not foresee who would be killed or what would be lost, nor the manner of the killing or losing. And the second third of the novel definitely moved and had some excitement to it, after a build-up and the setting of the, er, setting in the first third.

It’s in the third third where I realized I didn’t like the book. Maybe didn’t like the direction it took would be a better way of phrasing it, for I had an entire Langston Field of goodwill with me. But it rapidly turned too “Cold War”-ish, right down to the point of dozens and dozens of pages focusing on ambassadorial diplomacy and negotiations. It lost whatever momentum it had in the early 300s (of a 560-page paperback), and with it, my enthusiasm. Or at least willingness to read further.

Yet I did finish it. And could only recommend it to true SF fans, from a historical literary perspective. There were too many things that didn’t win me over. The military crew speaking and acting right out of a 1940s Hollywood war movie I could deal with; it seems to be one of Pournelle’s things from what I’ve read. However, I found that, a thousand years in the future, whole peoples would be mirror reflections of purebred Scots and Russians, well, that didn’t seem realistic. I mean, I don’t carve wood picture frames in my spare time like my Italian ancestors, nor do I speak with a thick Neapolitan dialect, and this only goes back a century or two for my genealogy. Why would the Russian in charge of a starship drink tea from ancient Russian urns and decorate his cabin with Russian tapestries from the Middle Ages?

But the biggest roadblock to enjoying The Mote in God’s Eye was, for me, the aliens, the “Moties” as they’re nicknamed by the MacArthur’s midshipmen. The first image to pop into my mind upon the first description of a Motie was – Spongebob Squarepants. And if you google image “Moties,” what you’ll see is that most graphical representations of the aliens are to Spongebob what Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk was to Bill Bixby’s David Banner. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t get that fellow who lives in a pineapple under the sea out of my mind, and that hurt my suspension of belief as I read the book.

Sooooo … based on the good and the bad above, I have to grade The Mote in God’s Eye a B-minus.


But with that book cover, how could you not want to read it?

The Night Sky



O mystic, delicate chalice of the world,
Jeweled with pallid moons! Exquisite arch
Of the quiet sky; carven ’twixt dusk and dusk
Of smoky Indian jade, a summer night,
By God the Artist, God the deaf and blind,
Who fashions masterpiece on masterpiece,
And through the Window of the Universe
Hurls them forever and forever …
Pale cup, wherein all tears and mirth of men
Distil, that men may drink of thee and live …
Thrice-precious Grail, that holds the Wine of Earth!
  
   - John Reed




Note: To the best of my knowledge the John Reed who wrote this poem is the John Reed who was a devoted communist in the early days of the Russian revolution. He was the subject of the Warren Beatty 1981 movie Reds and is one of only three Americans to be buried in the Kremlin. I completely disavow any kinship with the man’s insane devotion to an insane ideology. But I do indeed like the poem, like the holy references, and find it odd and disconcerting that it came from the pen of a man who supported future butchers like Lenin and Stalin.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Kilmer House



So Little One’s literature teacher (she’s in seventh grade) has them working on poetry. In particular, the poetry of Joyce Kilmer. For the longest time, I am ashamed to admit, I thought Kilmer was a woman. For eighteen months I lived on the Kilmer campus at Rutgers and never bothered to research the poet. Later I found out he was a man. And even later (this morning, in fact), I discovered he was killed in the Great War, by a sniper’s bullet tearing apart that creative mind of his.

I have never read any of his poems. This morning, I did, and I like this one in particular:


“The Thorn”

The garden of God is a radiant place
And every flower has a holy face.
Our Lady like a lily bends above the cloudy sod,
But Saint Michael is the thorn on the rose-bush of God.

David is the song upon God’s lips,
And Our Lady is the goblet that He sips,
And Gabriel’s the breath of His command;
But Saint Michael is the sword in God’s right hand.

The Ivory Tower is fair to see,
And may her walls encompass me!
But when the Devil comes with the thunder of his might,
Saint Michael, show me how to fight!


Turns out Joyce Kilmer is a local celebrity. His house is actually two towns away from where I live. My daughter’s lit teacher gave his class an extra credit assignment: whoever finds the house and takes a picture of it will get a few additional points on the next test.

So, we punched the address into her cell phone and tracked it down. Here’s Little One, posing in front of the house where Joyce Kilmer lived and wrote in from 1912 to around 1916 or 17 (when he entered the service and was shipped out to France).





Note: Kilmer was born Albert Joyce Kilmer. He converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism in 1913.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Who Are You?


Like this video for a couple of reasons.

First, I was into The Who in my early high school years, say, 1982-1984 or so. Listened to a lot of my uncle’s 8-track tapes and taped a lot of tunes of the local classic rock station. I eventually saw them on one of their numerous farewell tours (I’m guessing – 1989?) but I don’t remember much of that show.

Second, the video kinda conveys the weird mixture of monotony and fun of a recording session. Now, I never had monetary or commercial success doing the music thing, but me and my various band mates did go into the recording studio four times. The first was a pure learning experience, but the second and third sort of reflect what the video shows these guys going through. It’s a weird experience. You’re jamming along as you would in your rehearsal studio, but you’re separated by weird partitions, you’re hearing playbacks through headphones while you’re adding your own thing, and to make the hours bearable, you goof around with your pals.

Third, from 1990-1992 I played a black Les Paul guitar very similar to Pete’s – with the EXACT SAME black-and-white checkered strap, without being aware of it at the time! 





Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Worldly





Do not bestow your love on the world, and what the world has to offer; the lover of this world has no love of the Father in him. What does the world offer? Only gratification of corrupt nature, gratification of the eye, the empty pomp of living; these things take their being from the world, not from the Father. The world and its gratifications pass away; the man who does God’s will outlives them, for ever.

1 John 2:15-17


Monday, May 1, 2017

Post Judeo Christian


Anecdotal:

I find myself in a hotel / motel / lodge room two or three times a year. Usually, over the years, a desire to satisfy a slight curiosity leads me to pull out the furniture drawers in the room until I find the bible and perform a cursory inspection upon it (version, condition, estimated frequency of pages turned).

It has been four stays in four different rooms to three different establishments since I’ve found a bible.