Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burrougs

Cover art from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Ric...Image via Wikipedia
A Princess of Mars is the first book in a series from the author of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's another one of those books which I took to as an adolescent. It is available, freely, at

I'm not entirely certain what it is that attracts me to these books. Perhaps it's the mindless escapism which it provides. Well, there are many mindless avenues for the restless mind to escape down. I suppose it is a bit like rewatching an old favourite movie. I can watch some Disney favourites such as Mary Poppins and really enjoy the story and songs that I loved when I was a child. But ones that I did not see do nothing for me. For example, I cannot watch The Sound of Music, which I never watched as a child. So, perhaps it's the value of nostalgia that draws me to Burroughs' books.

I guess I wanted a simple adventure story, today. That's what I got. Narrative features of A Princess of Mars is extremely straight forward. It's written in first person. The main character is John Carter. A bit of a warrior on Earth during the American Civil War, he becomes very much like a super hero. Burroughs certainly had some significant knowledge of that Martian planet. For example, he used the knowledge that Mars had a significantly lower gravitational effect than Earth. This imbues his hero with great strength. So, as Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts who made it to the moon, he moves in great leaps and bounds. However, this effect is greatly exaggerated. The moon has less gravitation than Mars, but the astronauts could only make modest leaps. On Mars, John Carter is able to leap like the original Superman who could leap over a tall building in a single bound. Well, not quite that great of a jump, but high enough to make it to a second or third story building. So, compared to the various Martian races, of which there are several, he is unnaturally strong.

Once on Mars, he meets some giant green men. Despite their great size, he writes that their size is not equal to their strength. On Earth, Carter voices doubts as to whether or not they would be able to stand up, let alone fight. With a single blow to the chin, he manages to kill not one but two of the olive-green Martian race roughly similar to large trolls and orcs. They are hatched, rather than born alive. What's more, as eggs, they grow from the size of a goose egg to the size of a child over a period of ten years by absorbing energy from the sun. By killing the first and then second of the green warriors, he is able to win their titles and belongings. While a part of their company, he masters not only the spoken language of the Martians which is used by all the races of the planet, but he also learns telepathy. He can read their thoughts. However, they cannot read his. Eventually, they capture the woman, Dejah Thoris who is to become the object of his desire and subsequently affect the adventure in this book.

Dejah is a princess of a red skinned race. He falls in love with her while she is in captivity, and eventually he helps her escape. Her escape leads to another capture, and so John leads the green orc-troll-warriors to invade the city-state that had captured her.

The dialogue of the characters is so wooden and stiff, it is hard to stomach at times. The super human abilities of John is a bit more difficult to swallow than the antics of Tarzan since the story is written in first person. After he has won the day for Dejah's people, they shower him as he parades down the street with precious jewels. (not flowers! I guess everyone has a lot of gold, silver, platinum, and precious jewels on Mars!) It is such a silly story. I am sure I have had my fill of John Carter. At least until I am ready for another story of one dimensional characters, wooden and mechanical dialogue, and intense one-sided-super-hero-type action.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs

Cover of "Jungle Tales of Tarzan (Found i...Cover via AmazonJungle Tales of Tarzan is the sixth book in the Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This book can be found for free at This book, unlike the first five, is actually a collection of short stories about Tarzan before he becomes Lord Greystoke. I will write about each of the stories as I read them.

Tarzan's First Love

The first short story is "Tarzan's First Love." I really enjoyed the slow buildup of tension when Burroughs began to describe Teeka. He does a wonderful job of describing her beauty. But slowly, we begin to realize that what is turning Tarzan on for his first crush is not a human at all. Rather, it is one of the hairy apes with whom Tarzan grew up with.

Then, there is the unfavourable comparison between Tarzan and the beauty of the regular apes. His eyes are small and white rather than bloodshot. His nose is narrow and small rather than wide and large. His skin is smooth and hairless, while theirs is very hairy. The comparison and contrast treatment between Tarzan and the ape is favourable for the ape. Somehow, that is quite a brilliant bit of prose. After all, is not beauty in the eye of the beholder? How aptly he describes how beauty is truly a matter of perspective.

He has a great fight with one of the bull apes who had been his friend over her. But, even as he fights with him and wins his right for her, even as Targa, his competition is stolen from the tribe of apes by a tribe of human warriors, and he puts his arm around her hairy form, he realizes that they are too dissimilar from each other for him to start a physical relationship with her.

The Capture of Tarzan

In "The Capture of Tarzan," Tarzan puts himself at risk for Tantor, the elephant who is his friend. The tribe of warriors are trying to kill his friend, Tantor, for his tusks. They lay a large pit filled with spikes along the path of Tantor. Then, they try to chase him into it.

By chance and perhaps from curiosity about the activities of those black men, Tarzan discovers the purpose of the trap. He knows that Tantor is about to stumble into the trap. He therefore steps in front of Tantor's path and sends him through the jungle to safety. Unfortunately for Tarzan, however, he himself loses his footing and falls into the pit to be captured by the warriors.

The tribesmen prepare for a feast for which Tarzan is the main course. Earlier, though, he had heard Tantor call for Tarzan, and Tarzan returned the call. Tarzan manages to work his way through the ropes which had bound him so that he could fight his captors. However, he was not strong enough to resist all of them. At the last moment, Tantor wrecks his way into the village and rescues Tarzan.

The Fight for Balu

 Balu is the Kerchak word for 'baby.' Balu is the baby of Teeka. The family of Balu, Teeka, and Taug, make up a family which Tarzan envies. He envies the affection they have for each other: The ape-boy craved affection. From babyhood until the time of her death, when the poisoned arrow of Kulonga had pierced her savage heart, Kala had represented to the English boy the sole object of love which he had known. One might say that he is like the swan growing up amongst ducks.

The God of Tarzan

The word 'god' confused Tarzan. He reads a lot about the deity, but cannot find pictures or any information that can help him find what god really is. The apes of his tribe try to tell him that the moon, Goro, is god. However, no matter how hard Tarzan tries, he cannot seem to reach the moon. He calls on it, but it does not listen.

Briefly, he becomes interested in the ritual practices of the tribe as he wonders if there is a relationship between god and the practice of the witch doctor. He concludes, however, that it is all fake. After it is revealed to him that the tribe did not live up to the idea Tarzan had concocted in his search for god. As a result, he is angered, and moves to kill Mbonga, the chief of the village. To save his life, Mbonga begs to be spared. This begging actually stops Tarzan from killing him.

A little later, Histah (the snake) attacks Teeka. Teeka, despite the danger to herself, launches herself at the snake to save her baby. Tarzan throws himself into the mix and saves her.

Ultimately, these two experiences brings Tarzan to believe that God is he that makes people or animals do things that are good. He is also the one that creates the things that are good. But, a moment later, he finds himself wondering who it was that created the hateful creature, Histah.

Tarzan and the Black Boy

The feeling of loneliness grows in Tarzan. He attempts to make a Balu for himself out of a black boy, Tibo, from the neighbouring tribe.

Ankara Amusement ParkImage via WikipediaThis story had a few problems with it for me. The primary problem that I have is with the seeming treatment of blacks as inferior to whites. This can be found where he wrote: Tibo, the little black boy, lacked the divine spark which had permitted Tarzan, the white boy, to benefit by his training in the ways of the fierce jungle. In imagination he was wanting, and imagination is but another name for super-intelligence. This was a sad paragraph to read. At times, in the earlier books which I had read, I thought that the black tribesmen had been given a higher elevation than the white man because of his ability to survive. However, in this case, it seems clear that he is saying that a black boy and a white boy dropped in a tribe of apes would have had a remarkable difference due to this idea of the lack of an imagination. However, he kind of contradicts this idea when Tibo is stuck in a cave, trying to hide away from a couple of hyenas which are trying to make a quick meal out of him: Real and apparent dangers are less disconcerting than those which we imagine, and only the gods of his people knew how much Tibo imagined. If Tibo, being black and therefore lacking an imagination, truly lacked an imagination that allowed him to reach the intellectual height of Tarzan, then this excerpt would seem to contradict that idea. How might he imagine so many terrors beyond if he lacks an imagination?

Later, in the story "Tarzan Rescues the Moon," he rescues a brave black man because of his admiration of the man's courage. However, that does not mean Burroughs is making up for the racist remark concerning the lack of creative and imaginative ability inherent in the black man.

In any case, Tarzan fails to rear his adopted son. No matter how hard he tries, he comes to realize that there's not a lot that he can do to take the place of Tibo's mother. Tibo does not grow to become stronger, but rather weakens. He cannot enjoy the repast that Tarzan tries to provide to him. The mother, on the other hand, is shown to be a woman of remarkable courage. She is painted as ugly to my own sensibilities. However, her courage in trying to find her son is quite remarkable. She will stop at nothing to save her son. Inevitably, Tarzan realizes that he must give up Tibo into the care of the mother.

The Witch Doctor Seeks Vengeance

In the previous tale, Tibo's mother, Momaya, had agreed to a price with a terrible witch doctor should he return her son to her. However, before she reaches the village, Tarzan returns Tibo to her. However, the price of the rescue Bukawai demands. She refuses to pay him, as she knows he had nothing to do with Tibo's return. However, he has everything to do with his second disappearance.

Tarzan gets involved when Momaya starts to cry and wail. When he is on the verge of killing the woman who made the horrible noise, he realizes that it is the mother of his briefly adopted/kidnapped son. She begs him to return the boy to her, but he does not understand anything. It is only later he chances upon the trail of the boy and the witch doctor that he pieces together the reason why Momaya was begging him for something. He does not know their language.

The End of Bukawai

By chance or by fate, Tarzan happens to be sitting in the very tree which is struck by lightening. This sends Tarzan to the ground, unconscious. Bukawai happens upon Tarzan, and binds him to feed him to his hyenas. Before it is too late, however, Tarzan escapes and returns the favour to Bukawai.

The Lion

In this tale, a lion makes off with one of the apes of Tarzan's tribe. Tarzan faults this tragedy on the lack of an organized defence on the part of the ape tribe. While the other apes of the tribe are ready to let nature take its course, to allow the she-ape to become the lion's dinner, Tarzan realizes that if they allow the cat this dinner, the cat will return for more of them until, perhaps, there are none of them left. Thus, he does all he can to harass the lion and steal his meal from him. Of course he succeeds.

As a joke, he steals a lion skin and fur from Mbonga's tribe. With it, he tricks his ape tribe into believing that he is a lion looking for a new prey. He is convinced that they have already forgotten his admonition to stand vigilant against predators. However, he is mistaken. This very nearly results in his destruction. Only Manu, the little monkey whom Tarzan has formed a relationship with, manages to rescue Tarzan from the onslaught of apes who are about to kill him.

The Nightmare

Tarzan has been very unsuccessful at getting fresh game. As a result, he is very hungry. Mbonga's tribe has happened upon a dead elephant, and taken it back for consumption. Tarzan makes his way into the tribe after it has partied and mostly fallen asleep. He steals some of the meat.

However, Tarzan's stomach is not used to fermented meat. It causes him to have terrible nightmares and makes him sick. He very nearly loses his life when he does not believe a gorilla wants to kill him. This dream begins what will soon become a regular outing to his subconscious world: It was indeed quite preposterous, yet he saw it all with his own eyes--it was nothing less than Histah, the snake, wreathing his sinuous and slimy way up the bole of the tree below him--Histah, with the head of the old man Tarzan had shoved into the cooking pot--the head and the round, tight, black, distended stomach. As the old man's frightful face, with upturned eyes, set and glassy, came close to Tarzan, the jaws opened to seize him. The ape-man struck furiously at the hideous face, and as he struck the apparition disappeared. 

At the conclusion of the story, he swears himself off of eating elephant meat.

The Battle for Teeka

A wandering ape from another tribe happens upon Teeka, and decides that he wants her for a mate. Though he cannot catch her, he is able to catch her baby, Gazan. As a result, he is able to snatch her. Gazan is left for dead. But, Tarzan finds him still alive.

Taug and Tarzan make chase, ultimately overtaking Toog. A battle ensues in which, of course, Teeka is rescued.

A Jungle Joke

I do like Burroughs' sense of irony in his treatment of those who choose to be cruel to the animals. This concerns Mbonga's tribe and their efforts to trap a lion so that they might torture it before killing it in a mock hunt. They place a goat in the cage in order to draw a lion in. Tarzan steals the goat, and decides to eat it for himself.

Tarzan manages to capture the witch doctor and put him in place of goat. So, when the tribesmen return to the cage, they find that a lion has been captured, and that the lion has mauled to death the witch doctor, Rabba Keba. The tribe decides to kill and torture the lion that night despite the loss of their witch doctor.

As a joke, Tarzan dresses himself as the lion with the costume he had stolen before. He then enters the tribe and frightens them half to death. He then reveals that he is in fact Tarzan. After recovering their courage, they try to kill him. But, he escapes momentarily. When he returns, it is to release the lion kept in captivity. They think that it is Tarzan, again, playing his trick. Of course, it's the lion which returns to the tribesmen their just desserts.

Of the stories in this collection, I would have to say this is perhaps my favourite. I do hate animal cruelty, or any type of sadistic cruelty at all.

Tarzan Rescues the Moon

This was another interesting story. The tribe has grown overtired of Tarzan, his tricks, and his unusual behaviour (for an ape), and has managed to chase him out of the tribe for trying to save a brave black man from their assault. Well, this is but one of many odd behaviours which collectively made the tribe weary of Tarzan's existence with them. While gone, the moon undergoes an eclipse, and disappears. The tribe believes this to show that what Tarzan had thought was true. That here was evidence that the moon was indeed being devoured by the lions and panthers that made up the stars.

To rescue the moon, Tarzan shoots his arrows at the night sky. Soon after, they watch the moon reemerge and believe that the lions have released the moon. This gives him a higher status. They thereafter believe him to be greater than they are.

I actually rather enjoyed this book. It was a good light hearted read. Enough time has passed between my first reading of these books and the last that it is very much like reading them for the first time. A diet of all Balzac is no better than an exclusive diet of Burroughs and his ilk. Somewhere there is a happy mixture of the light and the heavy, the simple and the complex. It really is a good escape from the real world into a fantasy where one gets to enjoy a view of the world from a near super hero.

The Ramshead Algorithm, KJ Kabza

The first issue (Fall 1949) had a cover illust...Image via WikipediaAs mentioned in the previous post, this story is what was given freely from Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine which I gave a preliminary impression of before I got into the free story, "The Ramshead Algorithm," by KJ Kabza.

My overall impression of the magazine got off to a very bad start. At the top of the page, it is written "Novelets." What kind of proofreader or editor can live with himself after misspelling a header like that? How embarrassing! But perhaps this omen should have been heeded well. It certainly would have saved me the hour or so it took me to get through this story.

When I was a kid, I was really enamoured with a number of stories based on doors to other worlds. Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series, and Terry Brooks' series about the Magic Kingdom of Landover, are just two series that readily come to mind which heavily used this tool to bring us from earth proper to another much more interesting and magical land. The whole novelette read like it was really supposed to be an opening to one of these types of series, but then got chopped off at the end.

To boil the tale down, it's the story of a father who wants to tear down a maze of bushes in his backyard to close the gate to another world. His wife and the mother of his three children is from that realm. However, she hasn't come back for so long that he is ready to tear down the gate forever. His son, however, does everything, and succeeds in, stopping him from destroying that gate.

I suppose it's not a really bad tale. However, there are a number of things that bothered me. The first that comes to mind is the author's apparent inability to write distinctive dialogue. All of the characters in the story seem to have roughly the same voice. The other thing that was a little burdensome was all the unnecessary descriptions of expensive items belonging to a family which is wealthy almost beyond imagination: think Bill Gates or Carlos Slim. Descriptions of $400 dollar pants or this designer or that designer item might make sense from the perspective of someone who is not rich, but not from the narrative of the main character who is wearing them and unbelievably wealthy. That is to say, when I put on a pair of jeans, I don't say to myself, "This is a pair of $20 jeans" or "these socks cost $3." In some parts of the world, this is an expensive wardrobe. For other people, it is very much a lower class wardrobe. But, I don't think of the value of these items all the time. I don't think a billionaire would always be remembering the cost of every item of his or her wardrobe either. $900 to a billionaire has less value than $20 does to me. In any case, due to this, it just seems that the author enjoyed putting him or herself into the shoes of the wealthy. I suppose in this way, one might conjecture that it was a fantasy. But, when I read a tale that is fantasy, I expect something closer to a full ensemble of the fantastic. I want to see dragons, wizards, and unicorns (or something along those lines.) Of course I wouldn't object to someone building a new superset of fantastical creatures, but one does not accomplish that sort of thing in a novelette.

I guess what I'm saying is that if this is the best that this edition of Fantasy and Science Fiction has to offer, I will not feel tempted to part with my dollars. Am I too demanding as a reader?
Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1, 2011

Hannes Bok's 1963 wraparound illustration of R...Image via WikipediaFantasy and Science Fiction is a very long running publication. I don't know if I've ever picked up a copy of the magazine. That, however, all changed tonight when I found a free copy at, courtesy of the website, Kindle Review. However, one thing to note is that the sample might very well be limited to nonfiction and one fiction piece.

Just some initial thoughts about the magazine. This is the first Kindle book I've had that looks like a book. The only thing it's really missing is the page numbers. What I mean by that is that a lot of the things one normally sees in a print on paper book are often missing in the ebook, in terms of headers and footers. In this magazine, it is interesting to note that both headers and footers are available. The header gives information about the section, the name of the article or story that is being read at the moment, toggles for 'prev article' 'next article' and the title of the next article as well. That's kind of neat. I have often thought that it was too bad that this information was missing in other things that I have read. I do wish they'd have the page numbers, though, so that I could include page numbers in my references to particular passages in the stories that I write about in this journal.

There also seems to be a generous quantity of reading material. Of course, quantity is nothing without quality. If this magazine has both, I might very well buy the next copy that comes out.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Bargain for Frances, Russel Hoban

Cover of "A Bargain for Frances"Cover of A Bargain for Frances

I have been an ESL teacher for around five years. I've gone through quite a number of books in that period of time. One of the best books I've found to date is this slim volume which is rated for children who can read at level two.

Most writers who do children's literature write stories with trivial plots and empty characters. Whatever happens in those stories is too often limited to talk about much in the classroom beyond the superficial plot and a general skin deep analysis of character. This book, A Bargain for Frances, is quite the opposite.

The story starts with a young raccoon who is off to a tea party with her friend, Thelma. Her mother warns her that Thelma is not a good friend, but Frances dismisses her mother's warnings, and goes anyway.

The invitation to the tea party, however, was something of planned swindle. That is to say, Thelma most likely knew that Frances wanted a new tea set, and had planned on selling her the old plastic tea set that she already had so that she could buy a better china tea set. By convincing Frances that the plastic tea set was good and that there were no more china tea sets, she swindles Frances out of her savings.

Gloria, Frances' younger sister, knows everything. She knows about the tea sets on sale at the candy store. She knows that Thelma knew about the tea set sale as a friend of hers had shown Thelma the new tea set. Thus, it becomes apparent that Thelma knew all along what she was doing when she invited Frances to her house.

Frances is not without wit, however. She manages to make Thelma want to exchange the plastic tea set for the new china tea set by suggesting that Thelma had accidentally stored a valuable item or even money in the sugar bowl. Curiosity killed the cat and brought Thelma the tea set that she wanted.

What makes this book particularly good is the ability to delve into the characters. We are able to see that Thelma is a bad friend, and what makes a friend a bad one. But we are also able to peer into Frances' faults. That is to say, she is too quick to believe everything she hears. She is naive. However, as she says toward the end, it is better to have friends that you can trust than friends that try to trick each other.

For those with children at the reading level of this book, I highly recommend it.

One critic of the book at wrote, "the story keeps pounding the three dollar price of the tea set, which is of course wholly unrealistic." Unfortunately for the critic, he had not taken the time to look for the copyright information. If he or she had, it would have been noticed that the story was written in the early 70s, and known that $2 was a reasonable price for a tea set. $2 in those days might be the equal of $30 today in terms of buying power.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, August 8, 2011

Writing Your Novel, Brenda Hill

I took a very brief look around for the author, Brenda Hill, through a Google search. Unfortunately, I could not find anything that stood out. The first result on Google was, "1240 people named Brenda Hill in the US: White Pages." First thing to learn from this search: if you're going to be a writer, pick a less standard name. Of course, it's also possible that some folks have become famous despite having a common name.

In any case, I picked this book up at It was listed as a free book at the Kindle Review. They list free books as they become available on A search for Brenda Hill on Amazon brought forth a slurry of novels ranging in price from 99 cents to around $40.This particular book, at this time, is listed at 99 cents. Not a bad price at all. Perhaps she does know what she's talking about. It's a nice looking cover, that's for sure.

Now, I am not a published author. Obviously, she has published more novels and books than I have. Thus far, my writing has been limited to being a simple hobby. Well, that's not entirely true. The truth is that I spent a lot of money on getting some children's stories illustrated and one of them has been put together by a graphic designer. They're just awaiting the final touches. So, it's not exactly a lightly taken hobby.

In any case, without further pussyfooting, I shall get into my first argument that she makes. She wrote about one of the cardinal rules that says that thou shalt write about one knowest. She writes that she does not believe in this rule. She says that if folks only wrote about what they knew, they wouldn't need to use their imaginations to write those great stories. However, I disagree entirely. Not because those writers write exactly their experiences, but rather that there is a method to using experiences and applying a simple formula, using symbols, and allegory, one can take ordinary experiences and make them extraordinary. Someone who gets in your romantic business can become a witch, a bad cop can become a terrible dragon, ogre, etc. Another way to look at it, a car becomes a spaceship, etc. Another thing one might do, is to help flesh out a conception of a space, or the setting. Draw a picture, make a 3D model if this setting is used often. Draw the image of the actor or actress so that you don't forget what they look like. The more you can do to develop the visual part of the story, the better able you'll be able to translate that into words so that the reader can then see in their mind's eye what you see.

However, Brenda Hill does bring up two important points that are quite interesting. The first I'll mention is the idea that writing, the act of becoming an author, is a lot less about being gifted by a deity with a magical pen and a lot more to do with working on developing a skill. She mentions having taken many classes, read many books, and she continues to do so. She really points out that this is the road to authorship: hard work. I think she's right on the money with this observation.

The second point she makes is that a story needs to have a good hook. Hill uses questions to hook the reader. She writes the first few paragraphs in such a way that the reader now has to have an answer for a question that is created in the opening. Using that curiosity pulls the reader in. I think this is a clever tool that she uses and it is one I have not thought of before.

There is not a lot to her book. This is not a course on how to become an author. This is just a few thoughts from a professional who has made the craft work for her. It's just a few tidbits. But, you get what you pay for, right? It's 99 cents. I think it is not a bad little read for a little bit of information which might go a long way to helping an aspiring author through their journey to their dreams. I think, perhaps, she ought to have included a pointer to folks looking to read more on the topic. Maybe some books that had helped her on her way to literary success.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Hated Son, Honoré de Balzac

Portrait of Honoré de BalzacImage via WikipediaBalzac has become a sort of new favourite to me. The previous books of his that I read were really brilliant. His character sketches are quite brilliant. It is fortunate for me, and for those who love his work, that he was such a prolific writer. This story, The Hated Son, is the next object of my study. It is a book of short length or perhaps a novella. It is available freely on

What is quickly becoming 'a long time ago,' when I was in Concordia University, one of the pieces of literature which was required reading was Sir Robert Browning's poem, "My Last Duchess." This poem bears a striking resemblance to Balzac's The Hated Son. After a bit of research, I discovered that if there is any influence at all, it would have been Browning having been influenced by Balzac. "My Last Duchess" is a short poem which illustrates the ferocious jealousy which a Duke has over his late Duchess. The girl is described as beautiful and free loving, in the innocent way of thinking of it. The Duke does not like the way the girl handles herself, and it's assumed that he has her killed for it.

Balzac's short novel paints an even more brutal picture for the antagonist. The story starts off with a young girl, nineteen years of age, sneaking about her fifty year's old husband for fear of waking him. She wants to escape, but cannot. She is terrified that her husband will end up killing her and her unborn child, or her and her child when it will be born.

When she does have the baby, it is premature. It, or rather he, is born small and weak. This makes him hateful for the count. However, his true love is for neither the woman nor the child: it is for the rich dowry that he got through his marriage to her. This same dowry is what saves both her and her child from annihilation, as the Comte d'Herouville would have to return that fortune to whomsoever would inherit it upon her death.

When she is about to give birth to the premature boy, the count goes off to pretty much kidnap a 'bonesetter' to deliver the baby. The bonesetter himself is described as selfish and brutal. But, somehow there is something noble about him. For example, the majestic lion which is a horribly brutal creature, somehow inspires feels of admiration. Yet, he has those moments of softness, when he wonders why it is that the soft and warming emotion of love cannot be felt for him by his wife. But, he does not waste much time thinking on that.

Etienne, the son of the count become duke, is banished to an ocean side cottage. He is described as being incredibly delicate. A child of the ocean and poetry. He is so weak that a stern word is said to be potentially fatal to him. Later, the duke fathers a second son, who is robust and strong. He takes to tyrannizing those who are under him as a kind of past time. He, like his father, is a man of war. But, as he lives by the sword, he also dies by the sword. The duke believes his name to be doomed with that death, having long forgotten his first son, Etienne. But, Etienne is so weak, that he cannot handle his father's vital energy.

Etienne is referred to as poesy, poetry, and that sort of thing. But also, of being so delicate, like that of a woman. I don't know why poetry and poets need to be associated with weakness. It's hard for me to respect a man who is so weak. While I did not relish the cruelty of the father or the son, there was a certain animal association with it that still gives them a certain amount of respect. But a weakness or being so fragile like a tiny flower grown sheltered from the wind is a little harder to appreciate.

In any case, Etienne finds a lover, but one as fragile as himself, and much lower in rank. Hence, the romance is doomed to failure due to the Duke's heavy hand. The duke's greed knows no bounds. I cannot help but think, at this point in the book, that their affair is doomed to failure. Balzac is unpredictable, somewhat, in how he concludes his tales. In general, however, the rule is that they fail to achieve a happy ending.

Sure to my instinct, the old Duke is so furious at his son to obey his order to marry the woman, he lifts his sword to kill his son, who dies before the blade descends along with the girl, Gabrielle.

I really loved some of the character portraits which Balzac so often paints so well. The honeyed romantic portraits, I am not so fond of. However, to dig a little more deeply, I cannot help but wonder if Balzac was praising love or denouncing it. How easily love, in this case, was destroyed by the father. Is love, therefore, also to be considered weak? Is it weaker than anger? It seems that this is the conclusion of Balzac in this tale.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Reflections on War and Death, Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...Image via WikipediaMany years ago, when I was studying critical theory at Concordia University in Montreal, I was exposed to a taste of Freudian psychoanalytical theory. It was just a taste. But, at the time, I had some extra time and had found a cheap copy of his book, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. In essence, it's an introductory course given at a university, or a recording of those lectures given by Freud. It was quite brilliant and really exposed me to a lot of ideas. I really enjoyed reading that book. Freud has a pretty bad reputation because of the feminists who disliked him for some of his theories concerning women. However, in terms of the body of his work, these hateful opinions of Freud seem simply to blind people against him for his very real contributions to the canon of academic study. That said, I found his essay, "Reflections on War and Death" to be too tempting to pass up. It can be found freely at They are actually two essays. They are only loosely related since war and death often go hand-in-hand.

Part I - The Disappointments of War

The setting in which this essay was written was post WWI Germany. My initial impression of this essay is that Freud is trying to come to grips with the reasons why this war took place at all. How does one rationalize the wanton destruction that happens at the hands of civilized nations, the resulting destruction of national treasures, wonderful monuments to construction and civilizations past brought down to rubble, on a scale unprecedented in history. Of course, he could not know how this would be repeated at a greater magnitude half a generation later.

He is surprisingly candid and unattached to any sense of patriotism in his analysis. Initially he brings up the concept of how the great white race which had elevated itself above the primitive huts found in the primitive cultures in what was then recently discovered civilizations. This belief in one's own culture has been clearly shown to be false by the fact that these same civilizations are able to descend into the very same warring primitivism which the barbarian or savage nation exercises. What's more, while men of the white race had made for itself rules of engagement concerning the practices of war, only to forget them in the heat of battle. 

One idea which he puts forth is something I have been thinking for awhile, in relation to current and recent American foreign affairs. Freud mentions that governments do not seek to eradicate the poor treatment of foreign peoples and nations, but rather seeks to monopolize them. "the state forbids (the citizen) to do wrong not because it wishes to do away with wrongdoing but because it wishes to monopolize it, like salt and tobacco." So, in essence, it is wrong to kill a neighbour over a good such as alcohol. However, America has no problem in conquering Iraq to get at its oil. While members of the UN will unify themselves in their opposition to the use of chemical weapons in the hands of certain weaker nations, it will say nothing at all when the US uses chemicals such as Agent Orange in its efforts against Vietnam.

After exploring the behaviour of civilized governments and showing that there is very little difference between them and the primitive nations which they seek to place on a lower rung of moral code.

He points out that while children are unnecessarily cruel, it takes many years to become as sadistic as an adult is. The civilized man, despite the facade that he has learned to wear, always contains the  repressed primitive savage that he is only too happy to let loose at the earliest excuse.

There is the theory that education may help grow a man's sense of good. A man who has an education, is more likely to feel empathy, become understanding of others, and accepting. However, this may just be due to the fact that the individual who does good now knows what act to perform in order for him to be seen as good. But, inwardly, he may in fact be no different than he would have been regardless of the existence of the privilege of education or not. He stresses that no matter how hard our understanding of what we ought to be, that uncivilized, irrational, sadistic self which is mostly repressed, will always be there, ready to spring out of the box and take over us.

In the conclusion of Part I, Freud writes, "It is indeed a mystery why the individual members of nations should disdain, hate, and abhor each other at all, even in times of peace. I do not know why it is. It seems as if all the moral achievements of the individual were obliterated in the case of a large number of people, not to mention millions, until only the most primitive, oldest, and most brutal psychic inhibitions remained."
Category:George Orwell Category:Nineteen Eight...Image via Wikipedia
I think if Freud had had the chance to read 1984, he might have come to understand how it is that civilized people are enabled to hate according to the whims of the masters of the government(s). One simply uses history and creates monsters and demons out of the past. In this way, the government can teach its citizens fear, anger, and hatred. Then, whenever the government has a target that it wants popular support against, it simply taps into this hatred. These days, what Orwell called "Hate Week" we call "Remembrance Day." That is to say, we are taught to hate and fear Nazis and Adolph Hitler. Once this hatred and fear is properly installed, it may be used however the government wants to use it.

I also think that Freud might have a valid point about having the two sides of humanity within us. That is, the beast and the civilized man. While in our own society, we must play the civilized man in most situations. However, when a villain is identified, today's worst being the child molester, it is easy to see the beast awaken and thirst for blood. Or when there is a nation that tries to stake a claim on either its own resource or competes for another's, the government uses that beast to fight its wars. From a personal observation, I can certainly admit to having dreams and fantasies which are vile and base. 

I often wonder what it is, precisely, that inhibits my sinister side. What is it that inhibits me from murder or violence or rape? Is it a fear of retribution from police, or from some deity on the other side? It is a most perplexing question since I'm an atheist. Is it possible that the ethics I learned while a Christian, or the ethics I learned having lived in a Christian culture? Is there some part of me unwilling to let go of the idea that a bad person pays for his evils? Or is there some part of me that just prefers the self that does not do these things to the self that does? It is a question that I suspect will never be answered. But what if I had the opportunity to fulfill my darkest fantasies without risk? What if I had been raised in a different culture?

Part II - Our Attitude Towards Death

Death is the hell of a spectre which hangs over all of us. It does not matter whether you are rich or poor, live healthily or recklessly, inevitably our lives are brought to an end. I often think that the reason we invented religion was to help us deal with that inevitable theft of life.

Freud wrote that the primitive man was unaware that death was stalking him, or, "Our unconscious therefore does not believe in its own death; it acts as though it were immortal." Modern men, so very many of them, however, seem to be as unaware as the former. That is to say, many of us believe that despite the fact that we know that our physical bodies will inevitably be shed, we also believe that there is some deity or an assistant or enabler for a deity who will release us and welcome us to a paradise. Yet, those who believe in a divine deity are as often jealous of guarding the longevity of their own lifespans as anyone. If one truly believes in eternal paradise, how can one truly regret the end of ones life, let alone fear it?

Freud's conclusion does tie the two essays together, war and death: It is easy to see how war enters into this disunity. War strips off the later deposits of civilization and allows the primitive man in us to reappear. It forces us again to be heroes who cannot believe in their own death, it stamps all strangers as enemies whose death we ought to cause or wish; it counsels us to rise above the death of those whom we love. However, as I mentioned before, when it comes to justice, whether it's revenge against those who do harm to others, or those who appear different than us (even though they may be neighbours), or even those who compete with us, or simply a pretty girl who refuses our affection or lust, that facade of savagery falls away so very swiftly. This is especially true when we have no fear of repercussion. It just seems that, in war, the savage is idolized and turned into a hero as he makes victims out of those whom the state wishes destroyed.

These essays were an interesting read. I did not find any compelling new argument or observation. However, it did give me food for thought. Perhaps that is a good enough reason to read it.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Elephants of Poznan, Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card at Life, the Universe, & Ever...Image via WikipediaOrson Scott Card is another one of those authors whom I've seen on a variety of book covers in those second hand book stores that I used to frequent in the science fiction section, but I never got around to giving a chance. Thus, this story, "The Elephants of Poznan" is the first fiction of his that I have read. This selection is in Lightspeed Magazine, via It is in the January, 2011 copy.

The story is set in Poland at some point in the unknown future. A great plague has virtually wiped out the human race. There are only, as it is written, 50 to 100 survivors of the great plague. If one were to average that out to 75 per 100,000, then that would mean there would be 4.5 million people left standing from the six billion or so that we have now. Still a substantial population for a city. But it's hard to imagine a megacity like Seoul being reduced to 7,500 people. Further, those who are left alive are left unable to reproduce. No one is able to have children at all. At least almost no one is able to reproduce. The exception to this rule is the narrator, Lukasz and his wife. The child that is born, however, is highly unusual. It does not entirely resemble a human, and giving birth to it is too much for the mother, who dies giving birth.

crâne de l'un des individus de l'abri de Cro-M...Image via WikipediaFrom there, it gets a bit strange. Elephants seem to have taken over the earth.They're known to be everywhere. Europe, America, as well as their traditional habitats.

In the end, it is discovered that human kind has stopped existing to make way for a new race. It's a new race begun by a new Adam and Eve. This Adam and Eve are significantly different than the humans who were their ancestors. They have overcome the current difficulty that many women face in childbirth: the heads of babies are almost too large for a woman to bear. This is replaced by a kind of pouch where the baby can emerge. The children are also able to communicate directly with the elephants. What's more, the child, Arek, resembles the elephants as much as a humanoid might. His skin is described as grey, and when he is ready to mate, he secretes a kind of black oil which is the same as what real elephants secrete.

The story stands in a strange way as a kind of answer, far fetched though it is, to how cro Magnon and neanderthal were replaced. Despite the gruesomeness of the story, there is a sadness and dull hopefulness as well. Scott recounts how much mankind loves to fight terrible wars, and how he has all but destroyed the planet he lives on, and that this new type of sentient being that was replacing him would perhaps not do the same thing.

Of the stories I've thus read from this issue of Lightspeed Magazine, it is the first which may redeem spending nearly $3. It's quite intriguing. I don't know if it's mind altering, but it's definitely made me more open to exploring more of what Orson Scott Card has to offer.
Enhanced by Zemanta