Saturday, July 19, 2014

On "The Shadow" by Hans Christian Andersen (4726 words) ***

This tale has more of a feel of Poe in its absurdity. It's about a man whose shadow decides to live on its own and whose shadow eventually overshadows the man, so that the two swap places. There are obvious metaphors here to the way that one's position in society can switch around as well, but it's a fun ride, at least until its rather disappointing and predictable end. Read the story here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

On "It Was Written in Blue" by Emmanuel Iduma (3048 words) ****

So much fiction is written about small moments, little tawdry things. It takes a story like Iduma's to shock us back into knowing that the world is writ large, that the issues, for many, are those of life and death. Obinna had an affair with his brother's love; they haven't spoken in four years. He's changed. Can he be forgiven? Stick these events amid Christian versus Muslim, and the whole idea of forgiveness becomes something much larger than that of one family, unless one is talking about the family of man. Read the story here at Sentinel Nigeria.

On "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" by David L. Holmes *****

I came to this book after becoming familiar with Holmes's volume on the faiths of the postwar presidents. In this volume, Holmes discusses the religious beliefs of the first five presidents of the United States, as well as a set of others responsible for the foundation of our nation. He also gives background to the state of religion in the United States and the colonies during the Revolutionary period. In all, he aims to be debunk myths that have sprung up around the founding fathers with regard to their religious beliefs, enough to anger both evangelicals and some atheists. Proving exactly what the first five presidents believed, however, is perhaps more difficult than might be initially supposed. This is because we are limited by what these men left behind in their writings and by what others say about them, and these things do not necessarily speak to what went on in these men's minds.

Holmes makes the claim that the first five presidents of the United States were Deists. This claim is easily proven in the case of a man like Thomas Jefferson, whose views on religion and Christianity and fairly well known and represented in the writings that he left behind. Such a claim is a bit more difficult in the case of someone like George Washington, whose views and actions in some ways contradict such an interpretation, or someone like James Monroe, who was simply silent on religious matters.

Holmes begins by discussing the religious culture of the times. Most Americans were religious, and most were protestants of some sort. Anglicanism actually had a much larger hold on the country than I had realized, and Catholicism, which one tends to learn in school was well-founded in Maryland, actually had little hold (the leaders of Maryland were Catholic, but the people were Anglican). Unorthodox views were heavily present in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania, where there tended to be greater freedom of religion. Deism was popular among the educated classes and supplanted the teachings of denominations at many of the denominationally sponsored universities during this time. Hence, the nation's leaders were often Deistic in their persuasion--or at least heavily influence by such ideas (the latter is much easier to prove than the former).

Next, Holmes moves on to the individual men. There seems little doubt that Franklin and Jefferson were Deists, though both men saw the Bible as a source of great wisdom and believe in a power that had forged the universe. Washington, however, was a churchgoer who encouraged others to go to church. Holmes sees Deistic tendencies in Washington because the man rarely talked of Jesus (he used, rather, terms Deists would more often use to talk of God, such as Grand Architect) or of personal salvation, and there is some evidence that he did not take communion. His attendance at church, furthermore, was sporadic (though his lack of attendance usually occurred when he was living in the country, far from available churches). I came away feeling like Washington could have as likely been a lukewarm Christian as a Deist. What is clear, though, is as Holmes points out, Washington's myth was rewritten by later generations to make him into a more religiously Orthodox man than he actually was.

John Adams and his wife were Unitarians. For Holmes, these seem more or less to equate with Deist. Holmes splits Deists into two camps: Christian Deists and non-Christian. As such, Adams falls into the former camp, save that Unitarians aren't technically Christians, if we are to follow the line of thinking that Christians must belief in the Trinity and other orthodox beliefs (Unitarians rejected the Trinity among other beliefs). As a Unitarian, Adams believed essentially in Arianism, the idea that Christ was a created being rather than coeternal with God from the beginning. However, unlike Jefferson, Adams believed in miracles and other various aspects of scripture. Still, Adams has as much trouble with the ideas of overly religious people as he did with overly Deistic people, such as Thomas Payne.

Madison's beliefs are a bit more difficult to fathom out, but his heavy association with Deists suggests that he leaned toward this set of beliefs, at least during the years in which he was on the political stage. Later in life, he apparently returned more toward orthodox Christianity. Monroe's silence, for Holmes, is an argument for Deistic beliefs, something I find a bit hard to buy as an argument (just because someone doesn't talk religion doesn't mean the person is fill-in-the-blank of what you want him to be). Also pointing to Monroe's possible Deist impulses was his membership in the Freemasons, an organization among with Deism was popular.

While the men may have been Deists, most of their wives, save for a few notables, fell more into the orthodox Christian camp. Holmes speculates on reasons that men made up most of the Deistic movement, while women stayed more closely aligned with churches. Holmes then turns to men who were very clearly Christian in outlook who helped forge the country: Samuel Adams and John Jay among them. He spells out how to "spot" a Deist versus a Christian. And then he closes with a chapter on our contemporary presidents. What is clear is that in the early Republic, while presidents tended to go to church (even if nonbelieving), they were not as outspoken about religion compared with the general population as our contemporary presidents are (who often espouse quite staunchly Christian beliefs in order to appeal to the electorate).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On "What Happened in the Library" by Nancy Stohlman (885 words) ***

Years ago, the television show Trying Times explored the idea of a person being hired to party for a person who doesn't have time to party (with Steven Wright as the partier extraordinaire). Stohlman takes a similar tact in her story about the library. You know all those books on your shelves you intend to get around to reading one day? Yeah, hire a reader for yourself. The results don't turn out quite as expected. (A companion story explores living in a museum.) I like Stohlman's attachment to the zany. Read the story here at Connotation Press.

On “The Collaboration” by Ben Urwand *****

I preface Urwand's book by saying that there are some things I dislike about being human—and most especially being an adult. One of those things is ethical dilemmas, or more precisely the dilemma of choosing whether to follow one's own ethical standards or to follow the money or the boss. One might idealistically say that one should always follow one's ethical standards, but what if what one does for a living often brings you into conflict with those ethics, or brings to sets of ethical beliefs into conflict. It's easy to say one would never work at making missiles, but what of making guns, which have practical uses as well as illicit ones? This type of conundrum comes up often in artistic fields. You work as a producer of a music album, and you might disagree with the contents of a particular song. Do you allow the artist to have his or her say? Do you refuse and thus force the artist to compromise or possibly lose out on the artist's work completely? As an artist, do you cut the illicit song to sell the album or do you give up on the contract and the possible career to stay true to your art?

In the case of 1930s American movie studios, the CEOs chose wholly to remain wedded to the dollar and to making films, compromised films, rather than risk losing a chunk of their audience and the accompanying profit margin. And for that, Urwand provides a very damning portrait, a portrait that seems to show what is wrong with corporate America in general, that in the case of caring about people versus caring about money, the latter always wins. (But of course the issue isn't always as easy as that. Had studios condemned the actions of a particular nation, they'd have lost not only money and access to markets--those working for them would have lost jobs. At what point do you stop collaborating and start attacking? Where exactly is that border? Sometimes, it's hard to say.)

The issue at the heart of Urwand's book, the “collaboration” that takes place, is between Hollywood and Nazi Germany. “Collaboration,” may be something of a strong word. Hollywood didn't set out to make movies for the Nazis. However, it did compromise with the films it did make to appease Germany. At first, Urwand's case seems a bit weak. Even today, films are edited for particular foreign audiences. But as he pushes his case and moves us forward in history, the choices the heads of the studios make seem more and more dubious.

In the lead-up to World War II, Germany passed a law that studios that made movies that were anti-German could not only see those films banned but all their films. Germany would also squeeze others to avoid distributing the movie (and as it took territory would extend bans to the new lands). This resulted in Hollywood studios not only censoring scenes from movies but eventually abandoning some projects wholesale.

Most disturbing is the way that Jews were essentially written out of Hollywood films, even though the majority of the executives were Jewish. Nazis didn't want and wouldn't allow positive portrayals of Jews on screen; eventually, the Nazis didn't even want Jews working on movies that were to be released in Germany. So for a decade (and longer than that), the Jew disappeared from cinema.

Urwand spends time talking about which films were popular with the Nazis, which weren't, and which were not made because of them. Interesting passages discuss films that particular people took up trying to get made that never came into production because not only did the studios refuse to make them, but people in the industry refused to finance them or be involved with them. Even some Jewish organizations stepped in to keep such films from being made, so afraid were they that portraits of Jews might alienate others and contribute to anti-semitism.

A really interesting passage comes at the end, and it is this perhaps wherein Urwand's point seems the most damaging. After World War II and the defeat of the Germans, major studio executives took a tour of Germany. Their desire was that Germany no longer be allowed to make its own movies (they even urged Congress to ban film stock in Germany)--there were propaganda excuses for this, but essentially the real reason seems to have boiled down to having a captive audience to sell American movies to. Millions of Jews died in the war, and little was ever done for them by the industry; the only concern, it seems, was making money.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On "Mouth" by David Ryan (3139 words) ****

Ryan's "Mouth" hits on past, present, and future in a way that I haven't quite seen before. The story begins with a wedding of sorts, one brother visiting the other. And then, quickly, it becomes a story about an accident, the way that one comes upon such emergencies in real life, without warning. And it becomes about bodies and mouths and shame and hope and desire and dreams and fear. Read the tale here at Failbetter.

On "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan *****

Labeled a novel, this is essentially a short story cycle. Each chapter picks up on a minor character from one of the previous chapters and tells a tale from that point of view. The episodes are not in chronological order. As such, I had at times difficulty remembering who a particular character was or where I'd come across the character before.

I'm a fan of short story cycles. I feel like they give me something I love--short stories--with a bonus--short stories that build on one another. What I'm not a fan of is publishers' attempts to rewrite such collections as something they aren't: novels. Or "novels in stories." I mean, come on. Is the American audience so averse to short stories that we have to label collections of them in a way that hides just what is being read? And does such labeling really pay off? Someone looking for a novel is going to be dissatisfied, and someone looking for stories might well pass the book up.

The stories here center around music and publicity. Most of the tales mention a woman named Sasha or a man named Bennie. Bennie is a record agent. Sasha is his assistant. We catch them--through other characters or themselves--at various times in their lives. So the book begins with Sasha on her analyst's couch, discussing why she likes to steal and how that makes her actually feel. She is also discussing Internet dating--and most particularly a date with a man named Alex, who discovers her table of stolen goods. I'd completely forgotten Alex by the time I got to the end of the book, which closes with a tale about Alex himself, working as a publicity agent for Bennie, who by now has been fired by the label he started and is having to start "fresh" with an old friend with whom he played in a band as a teen, a friend whom he once dismissed when that friend was more or less homeless and Bennie at the top of his game.

In between, we get tales of Bennie's band, of Bennie's mentor (an older record executive with a penchant for picking up barely legal girls, marrying them, siring by them, and discarding them a few years later), of offspring of that mentor on safari, of the brother of Bennie's wife come home from jail and rediscovering his love for promoting causes, of the woman--an actress--who put that brother in jail for kidnapping and attempted rape, of a publicist who hires that actress to give a dictator a softer appearance to the public, of Sasha's uncle going to search for the twenty-something her in Europe (where she has gotten into drugs, thievery, and the sex trade), and of Sasha's children's obsession with the pauses in songs.

The tales themselves seem to be on some level about the passage of time and how we can never hold on to the things we once were, though we obsess about them, that wonderful, joyous, beautiful, painful past: our youth.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

On "The Sweethearts" by Hans Christian Andersen (803 words) ***

Arguably a seize-the-day tale, this story recounts the life of a top and a ball. The ball is too stuck up to marry the top, and then, years later, when the ball is past its prime and ready for a relationship, the top no longer has any interest. Cynical Andersen strikes again. Read the tale here.

On “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner ****

This has been on my list for years, but our local library doesn't have it. Not long ago, a coworker of mine was talking about the book, and he had a copy, and he loaned it to me. The idea of the book is what drew me to it, and no doubt others, since it became a best-seller. Weiner travels to various countries to find out what makes the people in these places happy (or unhappy). I found the idea to be slightly more interesting than the execution. Weiner is an NPR reporter, and the chapters feel very much like a sort-of-tongue-in-cheek NPR report, the kind that's both engaging and annoying. I guess I was wanting something a bit more methodical; instead, Weiner sometimes often goes off on tangents--intriguing, but not necessarily germane to the point at hand.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. It definitely got through it quickly and had, at times, a desire to read past my daily allotment of time and pages. The book also made me think a bit about my own happiness or lack thereof and the places that I have lived. Weiner says that happiness tends to hit highs in childhood and old age; I'd heard that happiness, rather, builds with age, which means I should be happier in my forties than my thirties than my twenties, and so on. The point of this is that when I think of California and my childhood, I do indeed think of those days with a great amount of pleasure. I also think highly of Mississippi and of Georgia. The only place I did not enjoy my life in was Texas, and even there, I look back on those harder times with a certain fondness for the very hardness of them.

But of those places, in which was I happiest, and where would I choose to live if I could be in any one of them? The latter is what should be used, Weiner says, to declare “home.” I'm not sure I agree with that. Right now, I'd choose to live in Georgia, as I do. But there are circumstances and reasons for such thinking. Were resources not an issue, California still holds a great appeal, but partly it holds appeal for my history with it. Would I really want to live there? I love the town I live in currently, and most of my friends are here. I can't go back to the California of my childhood. In fact, I'd return to something more like the California of my young adulthood, where I increasingly felt that I didn't fit in. That is not a place I'd want to live in.

Recently, I married. I still love the place I live, but I have come to see it in some ways as having less importance than it once did. No longer single, I'm not as dependent on my network of friends; in fact, I rarely see them anymore. The need for places to go by myself is no longer there. Were circumstances to work out, I could see moving again. I see such with trepidation, given how happy I have been here and how connected to the community I feel, but my bride and stepchildren do not have that same connection (yet) and that in turn affects, to an extent, my own feelings about my current abode (though I can't say I have much desire to move to the snowy northern Midwest either).

Weiner's tour of countries starts off with those near the top of a list of the happiest nations on Earth. The Netherlands, where the study/survey was/is tabulated, ranks as the happiest of all, and it is there that Weiner begins, interviewing the professor responsible for starting happiness studies. Why, Weiner asks, do the Dutch rank as so happy? Perhaps it is the permissiveness of the culture? But then he goes to Sweden, a more uptight country, and finds people there quite happy as well. A trip to Qatar shows that money isn't everything in terms of happiness, as does its opposite, Bhutan, a relatively poor country I'd barely heard of that ranks relatively well on the happiness scale. The key for the Bhutanese is to not desire too much. A trip to Moldova is a trip to a supposedly very unhappy place, where everyone feels poor (perhaps, the key with riches is not to feel poorer than those around you, and poor Moldova rests within a sphere of richer countries--it also had a recent period of relative ease that it's lost out on; indeed, it is easier, I think, to be happier never having had most of the time than to have had and lost, though not always, since sometimes having had an experience is enough to make us happy simply to have had it and allows us to move on). Iceland is a country of heavy drinking and little sun, but people there are happy. British mask their happiness in a quietness and ease. In India, Weiner goes to an ashram and an anti-ashram to see what exactly such things have to do with our happiness. And finally, he returns home, suggesting that Americans are perhaps less happy than they should be because they move around too much (ironically, he suggests that people's ability to move is what makes for happy people in his afterword). The epilogue does a nice summation of all that Weiner has presented, and if you don't want the colorful human interest tales, it might just be enough to show you all of Weiner's findings.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On "The Traveling Companion" by Hans Christian Andersen (7456 words) ***

In the tradition of the bloodier fairy tales out there, this one tells the story of a man who happens upon a very helpful friend with magic powers. In the course of the tale, the man also happens into a village with a beautiful princess who also happens to be a witch. Each suitor has to answer of her three questions correctly, and she will be their spouse. Otherwise, they die. And many are the skeletons in the castle. She's really beautiful apparently, because the man decides to go for her regardless. Behind her power, we learn, is a horrible ogre. Things don't look so good. Sounds like a fairly typical attempt at a relationship. Read the tale here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On "The Body" by Julianna Spallholz (498 words) ****

This short piece seems more a poem than a story to me. But either way, what makes it special is the way the Spallholz makes me reconfigure and reconsider the world by putting everything not in an identity but in a mere body. Suddenly our physical presence seems to hold the most reality. Read the story here at Noo Journal.

On "Neuromancer" by William Gibson ****

On sentence level, this is one of the best-written books on my science-fiction reading list. Gibson seems genuinely interested in writing pretty words. I have on some level intended to this this book for decades, but on another level, it's always scared me a bit--seemed a bit too dry and detailed--and so I've stayed away. I'm glad I finally dared get past the first few pages. It is dense, but it's also a great read.

I wanted to read Gibson's work on the science fiction list in part because it is considered, so far as I understand, seminal in the creation of the cyberpunk genre. I never quite knew what that was, but now that I've read Gibson, I think I have some understanding. We're talking Matrix here, and indeed, much of what would later show up in those Matrix is anticipated here in Gibson, who himself writes of the Matrix and of people living in and out of a cyberspace world. Amazingly, this book was written back in the mid-1980s, when the Internet was the playhouse mostly just of the military and of a few true computer geeks (like some of my friends were).

The story revolves around a man named Case, who once did some high white-collar crimes, bilking companies he worked for of millions with savvy computer hacking. He might have had loads of money, but his accounts were frozen and the companies fried his brains to ensure he never worked in computers again. When we meet him, he is a drug dealer and a drug addict hanging on the streets of Tokyo.

Someone wants him to go to work for them. They want him badly enough that they offer to pay for surgery to correct his brain ("offer" may be a light word here--they more or less insist). In exchange, Case has to do some computer work for them. As it turns out, this computer work involves a lot of hacking into alternate cyberspace worlds, monitoring others, and searching for something. This is where things are a bit murky and dense and why Gibson's work demands close or second readings. Case doesn't know exactly who his boss is working for--and thus who he is working for--so he goes in search. In part, this is because the correction to his brain is temporal; if he quits, toxins will be released that will return him to his fried-brain state. Eventually, Case figures out that he's working for an artificial intelligence (that's right, for a computer), called Wintermute. Wintermute's got designs on the human race, on computer's generally. What exactly they are never became clear to me. At points, the narrative shifts so often between the computer world and the real world that the two begin to blur.

Nevertheless, it's a fun ride.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On "Rolls" by Alexa Mergen (1184 words) ***

This short piece excels in description. Having spent the first half of my life out west, it was wonderful to read someone's account of that fine desert and of those little far-out places in between the big cities. Perhaps I've read and seen a lot of disturbing pieces lately, but I felt a certain menace under the events here. A young adult takes a trip back across the country and gets stuck, the result of a car too old (been there!). Luckily, there are a few rolls to keep the person alive. Read the story here at Jenny Mag.

Monday, June 9, 2014

On "The Metaphor Pusher" by Aaron Fox-Lerner (6:36 seconds) ****

The second of two stories featured in this edition of the monthly audio literature magazine Bound Off, Fox-Lerner's piece is about a man coming to grips with a disappointing trip to Asia and about how literature can find a home even in our day-to-day experience. A street-side vendor pushes not watches but metaphors. (Reminds me a bit of a man back in California who would offer to write a poem for people: that was what he was selling on the street.) Listen to the story here at Bound Off.

On "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card ****

This one came highly recommended by someone when I noted that I was going to do a classic science fiction list. No doubt, this is one of the newest books on said list, but I did want some newer contemporary writers represented. I can see why the book was recommended. It's a great book in terms of propelling one along as a reader to want to read more and more.

The story is essentially that of Ender Wiggin, a child who is drafted into the army at the age of six. This is a world that is looking for a superhero, and Ender is just that, as were potentially his two siblings, Peter and Valentine. The problem was that Peter was too violent, Valentine not quite what the bigwigs wanted either. So Ender is it. He's a third, in a world where couples are allowed only two children, so he's already known as an outlier. This in turn means that he's likely to be beaten up by other kids--and by Peter.

One day, faced with a mob, Ender beats up the lead kid, beats him up so badly that the kid will never threaten him again--nor anyone. That's the goal. But he feels guilty about treating others like so, the way Peter would. So Ender has, in addition to proclivities to violence, a kind of empathy to tame it.

Along come the generals to take him off to battle academy. The academy essentially consists of playing battle games in zero gravity--something akin to laser tag of sorts. In between, there are classes and video games. As technically too young for the school, Ender is again an outsider, prone to getting beaten up. However, he's savvy, knows how to work the politics so that he gets what he wants, over and over. And he's good at the games too, which lends him respect, even when he's told, for example, not to fight.

Eventually, he works his way up at the school and then is promoted to commander school, where the battles become huge simulations of actual battles with the buggers, as they are known.

This is why Eros (i.e., Earth) needs a superhero. Twice, the buggers tried to invade Eros, and both times they barely were repelled. Unless humans prepare for the next onslaught and have a brilliant commander, there is no hope. Ender is that hope. And with each command battle, Ender proves why he is.

There are a few tricks Card drops in near the end of the book that I won't reveal here. Suffice to say that the ever-feeling Ender is a reluctant warrior.

Card treats his children like adults--or in other words, he writes them as if they are adults. They are precocious, and they aren't allowed to be children in this particular world, but still, they don't come across to me quite the way kids would, and in that sense, I had something of a hard time with the characterizations in this book. But if you can accept that or get beyond it, the story is an intriguing one. And the characters were well enough drawn that I actually found myself caring about them, despite how fantastic they seemed.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

On "The Guava Tree" by Darshan Baral (1755 words) ***

Mrs. Uprety has a tree that she takes much pride in, so much pride that she doesn't allow anyone to touch it, not even her husband. The results of this pride come to full bear when some neighborhood boys decide to eat a few pieces. Read the story here at Jenny Mag.

Friday, May 30, 2014

On "You Thrive Now" by Jordan Rossen and Paul Rossen (4928 words) ***

Vella is shaking, and so is her mom. Her mom is in an advanced state of Parkinson's, and Vella, not quite forty, fears that she is on her way toward the same. Meanwhile, she works trying to sell subscriptions to a theater, thinking back on a past in which she was sort of an actress, a past in which she might have had love, and trying to piece together what little of life might remain for her in the future. Settle for an alcoholic boyfriend? Sing for a convalescent home? Her mom's boyfriend seems to be doing much the same, clinging on to the memory of her mom more that the sick woman herself. Read the story here at Baltimore Review.

On "Second Foundation" by Isaac Asimov ***

This final book in Asimov's Foundation Trilogy is essentially a high-tech tale of hide-and-go-seek. It recounts the story of a band of fellows from the First Foundation attempting to find the location of the Second Foundation, and the Second Foundation attempting to remain hidden. Way back in the first book of the trilogy, a man named Hari Selden founded the Foundation as a means to maintain scientific know-how amid a crumbling empire so that civilization goes into the dark ages for a few hundred years rather than a few thousand. The Foundation is founded around men with a lot of physical scientific knowledge. Selden, himself, was a mathematician, but he used it to create sets of probabilities that could predict the future, and as becomes clear by the second book in the series, to control people's minds.

That there is a Second Foundation on the opposite side of the galaxy is a myth or rumor that has long existed. This Second Foundation, the rumor goes, belongs to people who can control minds and predict the future but who do not have any technical know-how.

A band of fellows come to the conclusion that such a foundation exists and decide that they must discover and destroy it so that the First Foundation will not falter.

Meanwhile, the Second Foundation is worried. It's worried because the future that has been foretold has been messed up by an individual. As a result, the probability that the galaxy will descend into complete chaos has risen to heights that demand action.

Since readers know that there is a Second Foundation, the book is intriguing mostly because readers don't know the actual location of the Second Foundation. Like the First Foundationers in search of it, readers move forward with excitement to see if the place where this foundation exist will ever be found. Asimov throws a number of twist endings in toward the last few chapters, as the First Foundationers reach various conclusions: that the Foundation doesn't exist, that it does and it's scattered or all among us, and so on. Each option seems plausible. But readers are in on an irony that the poor First Foundationers are not.

If the trilogy is seen as an exploration of fate versus choice, Asimov's answer seems to come down slightly in favor of fate. But to say that he wholly embraces fate would be difficult. After all, the probabilities, once the appearance of the Mule occurs in book 2, are stacked against what Selden had predicted mathematically, so to keep such events in line, they must be perennially fine-tuned by a set of men who pull strings. If so, then someone somewhere pulling the strings still have free choice, even if those being pulled along do not.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

On "Forecast" by Jen Bergmark (715 words) ****

The nervous preparation for a date--that's what this story is about, that anticipation and possible disappointment. OkCupid poses a question regarding whether a first date or an interview makes you more nervous. I choose the latter. Dates are supposed to be fun, so I don't tend to view them as something to be nervous about. The harder part for me is getting the date--that first call (will she answer?); that request (will she accept)--so if I'm actually going out, I'm quite relieved. But I know some people get quite nervous about dates, more than about jobs. What's interesting for me is once I'm on the date sometimes I'll feel a certain staidness, an inability to be myself--especially if I really like the girl and think there's potential. That's why not getting a second date makes me so depressed in such situations. But I'm sure that this woman, in making preparation, feels much the same way--only before the date even happens. Bergmark here does a magnificent job of catching that awkwardness. Read it here at Platte Valley Review.

On "Foundation and Empire" by Isaac Asimov **

This second book in Asimov's Foundation Trilogy covers the history of the Foundation as it rises to power and the Empire as it makes its final decline. Or rather, that is the story it tells in its first section. After that, the tale becomes mostly one about the Foundation.

Taking the story up where he left off, Asimov recounts how the Empire falls through means that are entirely predictable and beyond the control of any one person. A trader sets out to save the Foundation by destroying the Empire and learns later that his actions have no bearing on the Empire's eventual fall and Foundation's triumph. The seeds of the Empire's failure had already been planted and would flower no matter who came about.

Asimov debunks this idea, however, in the book's second half. Years pass, and the Foundation's rulers become greedy and selfish. A set of traders set out to overthrow this ruling class. However, in the midst of their planning, a mutant arises who goes by the name the Mule. This mutant has raised an army that quickly overwhelms the Foundation's strongholds, and now the traders throw their lot in with the Foundation rather than against it.

But the Mule is indominatable. Unpredicted in Hari Selden's mathematical proclamation of future history, this one man DOES make a difference, shattering the Foundation and bringing all under his control, including remnants of the old Empire. Society will not be what Selden had predicted, because one man can change history.

Asimov focuses then on a small cast of characters, including a clown who has escaped from the Mule and who chums along with some traders and a psychohistorian. They are on a quest to find the Secound Foundation, a set of psychohistorians (rather than the physical scientists of the First Foundation), both of whom were set up at the end of the previous Empire to guard society and bring about a universal government and peace faster than would be possible if chaos were let reign. The final chapters bring some surprises and major diagesis of the various ideas and themes. This is much more a book of ideas than of fine or interesting writing and characterization.