Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Back to Books

Well Readers Mine, it’s been a bit of a dry-spell, blog-wise, and I don’t think the rainy season’s upon us yet. I’m moving into the last month of the semester, and on top of the homework, exams, and papers associated with school, the national PCA/ACA conference in San Antonio kicks off on 20 April, and I’m presenting a paper on Breaking Bad on the 21st, so I’ve managed to get at least one too many plates spinning as usual. The long and the short of all this is that Solomon Mao’s is going to be sliding a bit further down the priority list than I might like, but I’ll try to slip in a pithy post every now and again, and get back to meatier fare ASAP. In the meantime, here’s a quick look at a favorite subject.

Quatermain Returns! Never fear that in the recent bout of political postings that I’ve given up the reading life for a more activist role. Reading is the one thing I manage to make room for no matter what, and a day without a book is… well, there’s just no such thing as a day without a book. Lately I took the opportunity offered by Spring Break to return with great pleasure to the world of H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, and regret to report that with Miawa’s Revenge: or, the War of the Little Hand, I have now read the complete series. I really kind of hate that, but luckily, it had been so long since I had read King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain (which are the last books chronologically in Allan’s world while being the first ones written in ours) that I was able to start all over again. The up side is, thanks to Amazon and the Kindle, I have some 50 other novels by Haggard, so maybe I’ll discover untold treasures in new worlds to come.

Ancient Empires! On the non-fiction side of things, I’m about half-way through The Might That Was Assyria by H. W. F. Saggs, an exquisite overview of ancient Assyria, by a man who possessed a great facility with words, deep knowledge of his subject, and a sense of humor that shines brilliantly throughout the book. Here’s a sample:

“The reader will notice that I actually like the Assyrians, warts and all: I make no apology for this. Though the Assyrians, like the people of every other nation ancient and modern, were sometimes less than kind to their fellow humans, I feel no compulsion to be continually advertising my own rightmindedness by offering judgment upon their every action or attitude in terms of current liberal orthodoxy.”

Or this on Assyrian trading concerns in Cappadocia:

“Who were the local consumers of these products in Anatolia? …What was the system of native government in Anatolia and the relationship of the Assyrian merchants to the local government? The threat is never far distant of one of these problems, or others of like nature, festering into a Ph. D. thesis.”

Lovely stuff. As to the subject matter, the book provides the best single volume look at the Assyrians I’ve ever come across, and reveals a nation and a culture that is too often ignored by historians and distorted by Biblical scholars intent on what was a very small piece of a very large Assyrian Empire.

Operas in Space! During an unexpected hospital stay last week (about which more later), I had the opportunity to read Echo, the latest by Jack McDevitt. One of my favorite contemporary SF authors, McDevitt specializes in a kind of Lonely Universe sub-genre, where the galaxy is vast, humans are moving out through it, and discovering with extremely rare exceptions, that we are alone after all. Oh there have been others, but by the time we’ve come along what’s left of them belongs to the fields of xeno-archeology and –anthropology. Meanwhile, human technology and society has advanced to the point where life can be lived pleasantly by everyone on most worlds. Perhaps too pleasantly. In one of the more interesting themes in recent SF, McDevitt is examining the consequences of a society that, while not exactly decadent, is comfortably complacent. The first excitement of interstellar colonization is long past, and the exploratory urge and curiosity sparked by the development of relatively fast interstellar drives has faded in the face of centuries of human life in space, and the discovery of only two extant intelligent alien species in that time. The extraordinary has become commonplace, and why spend months cooped up on a ship to go see a twin binary system up close when you can see any number of astronomical wonders in a single evening from the comfort of the living room via immersive holography? Human society has turned inward again, and begun a soft retreat from the stars.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, and the dream of becoming an interstellar pilot still burns strong in some, only to be somewhat dampened by the reality of routine travel routes well within explored space that make up the lives of most pilots, and keep them away from family and friends for months at a time. McDevitt’s characters are the Victorian Adventurers of this far-flung future, rooted and glad to be so in the civilized life of the advanced worlds, but also willing to follow a mystery, or just their own curiosity, out beyond the edges of the known. It is an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable world, as the reader can’t help but draw parallels between McDevitt’s ‘verse and our own. Echo is a return to the lives of two of McDevitt’s perennial heroes, the roguish gentleman-scholar and antique-dealer Alex Benedict, and his partner and pilot Chase Kolpath. Benedict and Kolpath have been McDevitt’s protagonists for three other novels, and Kolpath again serves as the narrator for the book, which follows the series’ usual structure of Alex and Chase being drawn into mystery, intrigue, and danger by a strange, ancient artifact, their investigation set against a magnificent backdrop of deep space. Echo is more pensive than the other books in the series and the tone throughout is somewhat melancholy, but there is something beautiful there as well. In any event, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read over a hurry-up-and-wait weekend in the hospital, so McDevitt remains near and dear to my heart. Give him a try.

Well, that’s it for now, and it took long enough to get even this bit o’ fluff written. I’ll try and catch up again soon, so in the meantime, be well.