26 September, 2013

Three from One

John Wyndham
I found a collection of six of Wyndham's novels a couple of weeks ago, at one of the charity shops in town, and snapped it up immediately; at one pound there was no question but that it would go with me. There is a bit of overlap with the three i already own, but it does mean that i'll be able to send one to Stephanie for her opinion of him. Mine own opinion, of course, is clear and without doubt: He was one of the best of the British writers of science fiction, whose control of plot may have been slightly less than perfect, but who forced the reader to think about consequences and ideas with every story he wrote. The Day of the Triffids, then: This is probably the most successful of his novels, from either writing period (before and after the War), both in terms of critical and cultural (and maybe financial, though i wouldn't know) success; certainly it is the one which has been the best known, having been made into a film (which i have never seen; one of those 'fifties sci-fi/horror genre, i suspect, it could have been appalling, but it was popular, i believe), and spawning at least one sequel which i read and reviewed about half a dozen years ago.

John Wyndham

A collection of short stories; i think this is the lesser of the (i think) two collections made in Wyndham's later period (not including The Outward Urge which could, arguably, be considered a novel), the other being Consider her Ways. I have read neither of them recently (well, not until i just reread this one, obviously), but it seems to me that Consider has the stronger stories in it. This is not to say, however, that those in this collection are weak; they are not, in the main. Wyndham clearly wrote attempting different styles and genres in these stories ~ he says as much in his introduction ~ with fair success. To my mind the better of the stories include the first (“Chronoclasm”), a romance between time-crossed lovers, “Survival”, a horrible development of the idea in Asimov's first published story, “Marooned off Vesta”, “Pillar to Post”, a very complicated story of time travel and body swapping which ends rather unsatisfactorily, and “Dumb Martian”, which shows almost more clearly than any fiction about actual racism the pointlessness and foolishness of prejudice.

John Wyndham

Though i can see flaws in it, this has always been my favourite Wyndham ever since i read it; i'm not altogether sure that i can pinpoint why, other than sheer pleasure in the clever simplicity of the plot and characters, along with, as always with Wyndham, a necessity for the reader to think about what would happen if.... It is hard to be critical in some reviews, and this is one, because i feel too invested in the book that i'm reviewing; i don't feel as though i can ever write less than effusively about Wyndham or, for a further example, Dick Francis, because i enjoy them too much, though, as i say, i can see imperfections in what they write those imperfections seem less important than the whole which surrounds them. So, clearly, i enjoyed reading this, and i'm glad i now own a copy, so i can reread it any time i choose.

20 September, 2013

Not Hornblower

C.S. Forester

I have, obviously, known C.S. Forester for many years as an excellent story-teller (the Hornblower books are old favourites). I had never come across him previously as a murder/suspense writer, unless i allow The Peacemaker (first read about forty years ago, before even Hornblower) to fall into that category; i clearly have to increase my understanding of his abilities.

This was a delightful, though horrible too, book, telling the story of a man who murders once to secure his future and comes to find that he is prepared to see it as a way of answering many more of his needs than he anticipated. Indeed, there are few characters in the book whom he would not be ready to murder should the need arise. Forester's skill is shown as he makes his protagonist, the murderer, while clearly an unattractive person, sympathetic to the reader, such that i was almost rooting for him to succeed, hoping that he'd have just one more successful killing. When i thought about it, of course, i was horrified; while immersed in the book, though, clearly Morris had my sympathy.

Undoubtedly a success by my criterion, i had not expected otherwise, knowing Forester's other work; i shall definitely look for his other works in the same genre.

07 September, 2013

"Lists" usually = "Goodness"

Matt Richardson

Just the sort of book i would write, and therefore find interesting ~ nay, fascinating ~ full of facts, trivial and otherwise, in this case about the British royal family, arranged in easy to consume lists. A couple of small annoyances to the thing: The adjective in the title is surely in the wrong place ~ they must have intended it to modify lists not book in order to make real sense ~ that i can put down to the publisher, though; the responsibility for error of fact, on the other hand, belongs squarely on the shoulders of the author, and leads me to question just how reliable he is in other facts, ones i didn't previously know, when he can give Richard II Edward II's dates. Such a simple error is really unforgivable, if for no other reason than that it is so basic, so easily verifiable. I have to admit, however, that this was the only real horror i found ~ though i wasn't looking for them ~ for which i was grateful. There is something about a list which is satisfying, to me at least, as it consists of almost nothing but information; the selection of that information does lend a certain amount of authorial interpretation to it, but a good list or series of lists is relatively complete, the selection is not biased, and the unmediated facts are pleasurable. This series meets these criteria.

02 September, 2013

Bizarrely Unsatisfying

Richard Dawkins

I was curiously disappointed in Dawkins in this book. For some years i have read about him ~ i think i've read one or two of his previous works, but i can't be certain ~ and read a number of refutations of him and, more particularly, this work, and he has been built up as a great and terrible foe of the Church, of God (or any god) and of religion. I expected, then, to be challenged, to be logically argued into submission, to read strong and convincing prose of a scientific nature. Not what happened. In fact i found that Dawkins wrote in a fashion that, to my perception, is surprisingly close to what he stands against with all his force: The book reminds me of nothing so much as an evangelical preacher ensuring that the choir stay convinced and and strangers in the congregation are whipped along into following him. I'm afraid that his arguments generally were, to say the least, unconvincing, and he attempted to cover that up by using rhetoric designed to bludgeon his readers into agreeing. Let me explain.

Towards the beginning of the book Dawkins writes that he amused himself by noting in the margin of a book he was reading the false arguments used by one or other of his opponents; i have a healthy respect for books, and library books in particular, so i did not actually do so, but i noted in my mind at least a dozen times during Dawkins debating points at which i would have written BISS in the margin as a comment on the paucity of his argument: It solely consisted of “This is so, Because I Say So”, which really is not at all convincing as a means of persuasion. He does this, for example, in dismissing the idea of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) as suggested by Stephen Jay Gould, among others. He does not really argue against NOMA, other than to say that there is no reason to think that, if there are questions science cannot answer, they may be questions religion is capable of answering ~ or even exploring. There are, as i indicated above, a number of occasions on which Dawkins uses this argument from authority; it's simply a shame that the authority he uses ~ his own ~ is not actually sufficient to support the argument he makes. It is possible that NOMA is a poor idea, but not possible to discover that by reading this book; as far as Dawkins' argument goes, there is nothing wrong with NOMA at all ~ except that he doesn't like it.

The second point at which i found the book frustrating is the style. I likened him earlier to someone preaching to the choir; to explain that image a little let me point out that he uses rhetorical devices which are frequently and usefully used by preachers on Sunday mornings in church services to carry the congregation along a path they already believe and travel willingly: humour, exaggeration, straw man arguments, appeal to authority, and others. The most annoying, maybe offensive, was the use of humour; i find it offensive, i'm afraid, from a couple of perspectives, because it feels as though i am being patronised since he clearly believes i'm stupid enough to be convinced something is wrong if i can be made to laugh at it, and because on many occasions his humour is more vitriolic than funny, especially when he is relating anecdotes (and when did a personal anecdote become a strong logical argument?) about how he either has or should have demolished his opponents with his wit. It may be the case, as has been argued elsewhere, that harm to someone else in one or another form is the basis of all humour; when taken to extremes, however, it serves no purpose other than to make me uncomfortable and to rather dislike the instigator.

To be honest, quite a lot of the book seems surprisingly personal to Dawkins, as though he takes it as a personal affront that anyone should disagree with him (i suppose that this links back to my feeling that BISS was his major argument). That this is so is illustrated by the anecdotes i mentioned above as well as by the authorities he tends to appeal to. It may not be that they are the most common in the book, but certainly high among his authorities are Carl Sagan, admittedly a scientist, though more of a science-explainer than an active discoverer, and Douglas Adams, an author (non-scientific) and comic. The two primary reasons Dawkins seems to appeal to them are that he liked them personally, and they both agreed with his point of view. Neither of these is a sufficient reason.

A further way in which the book seems personal rather than reasoned is the way in which Dawkins seems to go out of his way to be offensive to theologians for no other reason than that they are theologians. He argues that there is no reason to be polite about religious beliefs, that religion is given a free pass in society because people are not willing to offend one another over their God and faith. The truth, of course, is that, in fact, there are all sorts of things people do not say to one another (i cannot imagine, for example, that Dawkins would be comfortable saying to a stranger, “Goodness, your wife is ugly”, or “What a stupid daughter you have”), because we have evolved (within the species, genetically, or in society, through trial and error, i do not know) a certain self-censorship over what we say in order that society may function. Religion falls into this category of Things We Are Polite About, yet Dawkins is attempting to remove from the category with no explanation or justification. Indeed, he treats it as falling in the opposite category, Things We Can Be Vitriolic About, as he all but personally insults theologians. Not, i am afraid, the actions of the reasoned, reasoning man he would portray himself as.

In the end, as i mentioned above, i found reading this book disappointing. I expected a real challenge to my thinking capacity, but what i found was similar to a secondary school level response to Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian ~ from the other perspective, of course! Less than satisfying, i'm afraid.