Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Atheism Among the People, Alphonse de Lamartine

Recently I decided to read more nonfiction from the same periods of the fiction that I typically read (free, expired copyrighted material). While I do read a lot of nonfiction online, often these are not entirely well written or offer any depth to insight. Thus, this is the first essay which I read. It is available freely at

First of all, I am an atheist. When I downloaded this essay, I had supposed that it was an essay about atheists. However, it is mostly just propaganda against atheism.

The author is French. He remembers Charlemagne in the best light as a symbol of freedom and religious belief, while Napoleon and other near contemporaries as those who have been lost to atheism.

The more interesting parts were his suggestion that atheism is driven by science and the complementary and associative disciplines (ie., math). Lamartine writes,
...the habit of believing only in the tangible. These are the beings who, so to speak, live and think in the dark.
Of course, this is ironic, since faith itself is based in the dark, and he is saying that scientists and the followers of science need to see evidence in order to have a belief in something. Of course, there is no evidence of the existence of God.

But what I liked most that he wrote was, "We have not perceived God in the smoke of any of our experiments." In other words, there's no way to prove the existence of God in any experiment.

Science and religion are opposed. Although there are many who practice religion who are also scientists or have studied science, in general faith in the science of the Bible (the date of creation, the age of the universe, etc), contradicts the hard science of geology and paleontology.

He also says that atheists cannot have morality, as morality is a religious law. However, of course, atheists do not believe in Godly appointed laws, but rather in laws of humankind. The laws of the Bible cannot possibly suffice for modern humankind, since, we now agree that women are people with souls. Homosexuality is not inherently evil.

Alas, atheism does not necessarily result in peace anymore than any religion has. China and the USSR are examples of atheistic nations which have great violence in its recent history.

I don't really recommend reading this essay. In modern terms, it is a 'fluff piece' with no real value.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Vampyre; a Tale, John William Polidori

This book, available freely for download at The authorship is quite confusing: on the one hand, I had thought that the novella was written by Polidori. Then, having read the letters at the front and back of the story, I thought that Lord Byron had written it. Having now read the Wikipedia article about it, I no longer feel confusion and understand why I was confused in the first place. Polidori, in an attempt (I assume) to promote his book, put Byron's name on the cover to help move sales.

The introduction, titled, “Extract of a Letter from Geneva” includes a rather negative comment about women writers. Or, rather, a compliment of one particular female writer, Madame de Stael, followed by comments disparaging other female writers:

...that astonishing woman Madame de Stael: perhaps the first of her sex, who has really proved its often claimed equality with, the nobler man. We have before had women who have written interesting novels and poems... but never since the days of Heloise have those faculties which are peculiar to man, been developed as the possible inheritance of woman.

I almost dropped the book on that paragraph. However, being a short novel, I decided to push through. I don't suppose the author of that letter (I don't know for certain if that is Polidori himself or someone else) thought it possible that writing and education were discouraged of women. Often, women would hide their true gender behind male names in order for their writings to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts.

Aubrey is born to wealth, but not to parents who are deceased. As a result, his head is full of the romanticism of poetry, and entirely neglectful of the harder realities of life.

He makes a friend, Lord Ruthven, who is a character described as gladly giving to charity only when those to receive the alms are wanting to 'wallow in his lust, or to sink him still deeper in his iniquity, he was sent away with rich charity.' He loses in gambling those who ruin the desperate, the very money that he has won from the desperate.

He receives a letter from friends warning him away from Lord Ruthven, but he ignores their advice.

Lord Ruthven's hobby seems to be to ruin the good. As a result, Aubrey becomes a target of Lord Ruthven, who sets up a scenario where he is wounded. He pretends to be on death's door and asks Aubrey to grant him a dying wish. He does so, and Ruthven requests that for one year Aubrey would not speak of him no matter what would happen or be said. He agrees. He does not know that he has made a pact with a devil.

Ruthven targets Aubrey's sister. Aubrey wants to warn her, to stop her from marrying him, but he is chained to his word to Ruthven. I guess he never thought that Ruthven had deceived him by pretending to die, and therefore it would annul his own bond. In any case, the day before he is to be released from his pact, Ruthven marries his sister, presumably lies with her (thereby taking her virginity/innocence), and is then able to do what vampires do.

The story is a good short fiction. It's also a first for the genre. There's something especially sweet about reading books or novellas which are literary firsts.

There is another bit at the end about Lord Byron and how great Lord Byron is for caring little about literary profit (easy to say when one inherits wealth, though I recall reading he managed to waste it all).

Apparently this was the first instance of turning the shallower vampire myth into the romanticized version we know today. I wonder, knowing more about it now, if the first letter was written in an attempt at voicing another opinion rather than his own. There is mention of Mary Shelly. So, I'm not sure about his true opinion on that matter (and opinions change).

A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle isn't exactly the first to develop the mystery (all hail Edgar Allan Poe), I do believe he was the first to create a kind of serial detective. Although, interestingly, Doyle mentions two other detective near contemporaries: Edgar Allan Poe, the father of the genre, and Émile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq.  Certainly, he is the most famous detective: more so than even Agatha Christie's formidable Poirot. A Study in Scarlet can be found at

Some interesting facets of Holmes is that he has no interest at all for any studies (aside from the violin) outside of those who help him to solve murder mysteries:

"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order."
A mystery comes and is solved by Holmes easily enough. The murderer was the taxi driver.

The second part of the novel is a novel in itself, correlated to the motivation, I suspect. At first I actually wondered if somehow this story had crept accidentally into the wrong book. After checking it out on Wikipedia, however, it is indeed a part of the story.

The story is about the founding of the Mormon Zion. A man is in the desert, his companions dead from dehydration, when the migrating Mormons, looking for a place to settle, discover them. They are then told that they can go with the Mormons as Mormons, or be left behind to die. So, of course he agrees.

There aren't enough women for the polygamous men in the cult. Thus, they go about raiding immigrants who are passing through, kidnapping the women and making them their own wives.

The narrative is quite fast paced and with almost no illumination into the minds of any character, including that of Dr. Watson, the narrator.

Wikipedia notes that Doyle regretted painting the Mormons in such a negative light, having relied on the common rumours of the day.

Years after Conan Doyle's death, Levi Edgar Young, a descendant of Brigham Young and a Mormon general authority, claimed that Conan Doyle had privately apologised, saying that "He [Conan Doyle] said he had been misled by writings of the time about the Church."
I cannot say of course whether these stories had any relation to truth. There are a lot of myths around the Mormons, both for and against.

In any case, it was an interesting short read. I recommend reading it.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Dark Tower, Stephen King

The Dark Tower was supposed to be the final book in the Dark Tower series. However, their is an eight volume. This seventh volume is a bit of a monster at 745 pages.

The birth of Mordred, son of Roland and Susannah, but more a minion of horror, is born. Whatever question I had about how he might turn out is quickly determined. His evil is not brought about by conditioning from the minions of Hell, but rather he is already a demon already. I recall how Sin gave birth to her child: it clawed its way through her belly. I had thought maybe something like that was in store for the Mia/Detta/Susannah collective that are the personality complex of this character. 

When Mia gives her breast to Modred (perhaps to be renamed later, or not), he shows what he truly is. His belly has a crimson brand like the belly of a black widow spider. Its darkest nature is eloquently portrayed by King in one of his divine (perhaps Satanic) displays of narrative poetry as Mia nurses her baby:
Blood had begun to pour fro her breast (where the baby had fed). The baby drank it like milk, losing not a drop... She (Mia) reached out and stroked the still-changing freak at her breast, the black spider with the tiny human head... Her cheeks and brow and throat, flushed dark with the exertions of childbirth only a moment before, faded to the waxy whiteness of orchid petals.
At this point, now, I am just over half way done this seventh volume. Main characters are dying. One, Eddie the junkie, dies from carelessness. Another, Jake the kid Chambers, dies saving Stephen King's life. While the books are fairly well written, I didn't find any hardness in my throat or tears for the characters. Despite 'knowing' them for such a long time, I guess I never really got into them emotionally. Their deaths, in particular, Jake's, are well played and the death scenes are well done. But, for whatever reason, the emotional connection just isn't there: a touch closer to the boy, but still the distance between characters and reader (at least for me) is too distant to feel the strength of empathy of character required. When's the last time a book made me cry? I can't really recall. So, maybe it's just me being hard hearted ('may it do ya fine,' King might add).

King's involvement in the story is probably one of the more interesting facets of this tale. His involvement has grown considerably, and the involvement in King's life of the characters has grown as well. As mentioned, Jake's sacrifice is what keeps the van from ending Stephen King and The Dark Tower series. Whether he is the creator of this world or not--the book says not, he's just a medium of 'Dan-tet,' a kind of fate or an oracle--however, if his telling of the story was of no importance to the development of this imaginary world, why would his life really matter (to this imaginary world)? The oracle doesn't make fate, does it? It merely provides a riddle which becomes unraveled throughout the telling.

An aspect of King's involvement in the story that is interesting is how candid he is in self description. He avoids writing The Dark Tower series because of fear. But it's also revealed that all of his books are in some way related to it, some more, some less.

At this point, I have finished the end of The Dark Tower. Originally, I think King meant for the tale to end here. Of course there is an eighth book (there should be 19 books in all...) The last book was pretty good. Everyone except Roland and his new buddy die in the end. But, Susannah manages to escape her own fate: she abandons the quest for the dark tower just before they come to it, and, unless book 8 yanks her happy ending away, she's reunited with another world's version of Eddie and Jake (who are now brothers and have been waiting for her).

For Roland, the ending isn't nearly so kind. He refers to ka so much in the book (King's word for fate). There is often talk about worlds that only go forwards whose timelines cannot be repeated. However, Roland is forced back in time to redo his adventure from the point where volume one begins: Roland hunting down Walter to avenge his part in destroying Roland's family and friends.

Maybe this was what drove his antagonist mad: the constant repetition of a hard struggle. Maybe this was why he was working so hard to destroy the dark tower and these beams of existence or creation.

King has been given a fun series to read. Earlier books had a certain poetry (sometimes feeling forced, at others natural and brilliant), middle books trudged through a morass of words, but the last two books were well written with book seven being the highlight at the end of the tunnel. I will get to book eight soon enough, but, since I read somewhere that it really belonged past the middle but before the end, I don't feel that same sense of needing to read it. There are so many books to read, so little time.

I'm thinking The Stand is next, or perhaps it'll be book eight after all.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Pirates of Ersatz, Murray Leinster

Pirates are often romanticized. I am not immune to the romantic image of the wild pirate who commands exciting adventures of misdeed and violence. Pirates, however, suffer from under representation in literature. I refer to the myth and lore, not the reality. They are better in stories than in real life. Certainly there's the great movies, The Pirates of the Carribean and a few other choice films that have dazzled. Thus, whenever I see the word 'pirates' somewhere in the title, I grab it. The Pirates of Ersatz is science fiction. It is freely available online at

Thus far, early on in my reading of this short novel, it is action packed. But surprisingly, what's more interesting is the character rather than the plot.

The main character, Bron Hoddan, lives in a Utopian society. However, the people of that culture are described as having a majority of psychopaths because they have nothing to do. I can't imagine that: life in a society where all the needs are furnished, is bored. I suppose the idea is that the struggle is a necessary part of a happy life. But, the author makes no suggestion of this.

He fought against his upbringing and culture. He is from a planet, called Zan, which is piratical. He didn't like being a pirate. It was simply too boring. So, he decided to become an electrical engineer and live on Walden (I'm sure this is a nod to Thorreau's walden). He invents a device that allows the society to extract energy without using carbon. They reject his invention on the basis that it creates change (an interesting perspective that applies to our current dependence on fossil fuels): The law accused him of a crime which will put him away for a long time. He manages to escape. The prison apparently is poorly outfitted to cage a rebellious inmate. He flees to a sanctuary at an embassy, successfully. It is there that the ambassador explains to Hoddan why it is his invention was rejected:
"You proposed to improve a technical process in a society which considers itself beyond improvement. If you'd succeeded, the idea of change would have spread, people now poor would have gotten rich, people now rich would have gotten poor, and you'd have done what all governments are established to prevent."
Back to character: he is from a pirate planet, but tries to escape. But he is to return to that planet (I'm guessing at this point).

The ambassador then goes on to explain why the people of Walden are so bored:
...the whole purpose of civilization is to take the surprises out of life, so one can be bored to death? That a culture in which nothing unexpected ever happens is what is called its Golden Age?
My criticism of such a philosophy is that such a state as that can only be possible in the most unimaginative people. The imagination is what takes us to these surprises. However, the problem with Hoddan is his urge to use his imagination to technologically improve the planet he is on. So, perhaps imagination is stifled, which in itself would make living in such a culture dystopic.

An interesting bit about the future of genetics:
We humans were designed for something like that. We prefer foodstuffs containing familiar amino compounds. Our metabolism was designed around them. And since our geneticists have learned how to put aggressiveness into the genes of terrestrial-origin plants--why nowadays they briskly overwhelm the native flora wherever they are introduced.
These days, with the jungle seen as an important part of the earth's ecosystem, it is ghastly to imagine a machine designed to go through it so carelessly, leaving behind loose tilled soil, ready for planting.
The uncrated machjine was a jungle polow. It was a powerful piece of equipment which would attack jungle on a thirty-foot front, knock down all vegetation up to trees of four-foot diameter, shred it, loosen and sift the soil to a three-foot depth, and leave behind it smoothed, broken, pulverized dirt mixed up with ground-up vegetation ready to break down into humus. Such a machine would clear tens of acres in a day and night, turning jungle into farmland ready for terrestrial crops.
The people are basically a sci-fi version of early American settlers. They'd been taken for fools, having had junk sold to them instead of the equipment they needed for an easy settling. He therefore takes it upon himself to play the role of Robin Hood, the pirate, by stealing and buying with the proceeds the equipment that these settlers need.

In Leinster's future, women are really nothing more than mates for the men. Their only thoughts are on finding the best marriage possible. They do not make repairs, lead, engineer, or do anything useful. He looks at women as like mice that get onto a ship. His grandfather critisizes Hoddan for having a woman on his pirate ship, and Hoddan replies:
"They get on," said Hoddan, wincing, "like mice. You've had mice on a ship, haven't you?"
It's funny that in Leinster's science fiction fantasy, things like loot: gold, gems, etc., are of such importance. Consider that there are entire asteroids made of platinum and entire planets where atmospheric pressure is so great that it turns carbon into diamonds. If ever there comes a day when the distances between distant stars can be overcome as trivially as a car trip across a major nation, then getting our precious metals and stones will be equally trivial.

All of the characters in this book are as three dimensional as a sheet of paper. There's nothing at all. The actions are wooden and dull. The bits and pieces here and there that are interesting make a poor case for reading this book. I don't recommend wasting your time. Stephen King mentioned in his book about writing that reading bad books is a part of reading. Well, that was a bad book.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Prospector's Special, Robert Sheckley

Mostly I've been pretty happy with the tales spun by Robert Sheckley. This one is not a favorite, but there are a few interesting bits. "Prospector's Special" is available online for free at

This is a story set on Venus. I guess at the time there was fairly little practical knowledge about the planet. It is closer to the sun, so therefore must be hotter. So it must be a big desert? That's essentially what this planet has.

The main character, Morrison, is on a high risk venture looking for something called goldenstone. He's spent his las
t dollars (and there's no credit; credit is illegal on Venus) on outfitting the trip. Unfortunately for him, despite some ultra advanced technologies, his vehicle cracks up and leaves him stranded.

He is able to order water from a company that is able to materialize water to pour into his container, for a price. When they find out that he's out of credit, they cut him off. Postal service comes from a robot that appears and disappears in a little tornado. At last, he is able to find a rich vein, but his phone is out of credit and they refuse to loan him anything. The postal robot, however, comes back. He asks to borrow the emergency phone, but the robot refuses, citing laws. He beats the robot up and threatens to kill it until the robot finally agrees to let him use the phone (what else would this emergency phone be for? Just for the robot? It wouldn't be built into the machine?) In any case, he's able to send a sample of the goldenstone to a company that is able to verify its value. They are able to rescue him and I guess he lives happily ever after. The story ends here.

The other bit that is interesting is that he is trying to save money for a farm under the sea. Was Sheckley thinking that earth would run out of land as the seas rise? I am not sure, but I wonder if global warming and global sea level rise was a concern when this story was published (1959).

Song of Susannah, Stephen King

Song of Susannah is the sixth book of Stephen King's series, The Dark Tower. Its length is listed at 432 pages. So, it is significantly shorter than the volumes before, but longer than the first two.

At this point I have read more than 3/4 of this volume. Although it doesn't quite have the beauty of some of the earlier volumes, I nonetheless have enjoyed it quite a bit better than Wolves of the Calla. There are some quite interesting aspects to it which I will get into shortly.

This book is centered around Susannah having Roland's demonic baby. She has been hijacked, yet again, by a new personality. However, it is different in that this is not one of her own personalities, but rather a new individual altogether. She has fled from the Calla in an effort to bring to term the pregnancy in another dimension of earth.

The ka-tet (Stephen King's expression to describe a kind of tightly knit posse, brought together by fate) is split into two: one to rescue or recover Susannah, and the other to obtain the property rights to the land in New York on which the sacred wild rose lives. Jake, Oy, and Callahan go in pursuit of Susannah while Roland and Eddie go after Calvin Tower, the owner of the New York property.

One scene disappointed me: when Susannah first appears in New York for the deliverance of the baby, she robs a lady of her shoes. I find the stereotype disturbing.

Probably one of the most interesting aspects to this book is the involvement of Stephen King as a character and plot twist. King writes himself in as a kind of God or conduit. The question of either being a kind of God or a conduit is never answered. Does Stephen King invent the characters, worlds, and events that take place in the books, or is he merely a conduit for them? When Roland and Eddie meet Stephen King, King knows less about what is going on than they do. King is at the point in his life where The Dark Tower series lies nearly forgotten in a box. He has, he says, essentially run away from the book, and speaks of his fear of it: is it the fear that he cannot complete the series? that he isn't good enough to complete the series? is it the fact of living within the story, as writers do as they are written, frightening to him? These are some of the other questions that I think he, the character and maybe the writer, come up with.

In any case, at this point of the story, I have enjoyed it quite a bit. There is none of the slow paced, pointless rambling that pained me through Wolves of the Calla. In King's phraseology, "Thank ye sai!"

I finished it! Good book. I really enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Sparingly, King indulges the reader in some terrific horrific imagery:
...the smell in the air hadn't been pork. The thing turning on the spit, brown as a squab, was a human baby. The creatures around it dipped delicate china cups into the drippings beneath, toasted each other... and drank.
 Susannah gives birth in the 19th chapter of the novel: quite fitting considering the repeating theme of the number 19. The story, for the most part, ends here. But then there's an interesting twist.

King writes himself into the story once again. How much of it is fiction, how much of it is biography? I don't know. I really love how he describes going over an old manuscript (The Gunslinger):
Usually working on an old story is about as appetizing as eating a sandwich made with moldy bread.
I think I would liken it to putting on dirty clothes after taking a long hot bath.

This last chapter seems to be a series of journal entries that somehow involve the creation and selling of the The Dark Tower series. Again, is this fact or fiction? I'm very, very curious. Curiouser and curiouser! One interesting thing he writes is, "...books were treasures you protected with your life." I can't help but wonder if that sentiment had anything to do with the creation of the book dealer. I can't imagine, having read what King wrote on working on an old manuscript that he could contemplate rereading his own journal and throwing in relevant bits and pieces. Surely they are fictional entries loosely autobiographical.

There's something particularly beautiful about this last chapter. It's the kind of last chapter that I wish all of my favorite authors of my favorite books had written: imagine Tolkien having a chapter like that after his Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit! Imagine Paradise Lost, and regained, by our great poet Milton, having a chapter like this? How about Asimov, or Heinlein, or any of the others? I think if all the books had sucked as bad as Wolves of the Calla and they had ended with this journey into the creation of this series, it would have all been worth reading. King has a fantastic narrative ability which transcends fiction.

This excerpt also gave me a good chuckle:
The worst thing to happen this week, I hope, will be my wife's bed coillapsing under the weight of our son and daughter-in-law--the idiots were wrestling on it.
I'm still laughing!

One of these days I'm going to do my '50 best novels' or 'writers' or something. You know, one of those lists that only means something to me. Kind of like this reading journal that I keep, the stories that I write, the poems that I wrote... I wonder where I'd put King. He definitely belongs on that list.