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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Scarlet And Hyssop by E. F. Benson

This year got off to a slow start reading-wise, but included some highly interesting novels. Along with other places, the books I read in January transported me to England, Scotland, and Africa. While it is impossible for me to share with you all the fascinating discoveries I made on those journeys, I thought I would give you a little taste of them. The first novel I completed, and the focus of this post, was Scarlet And Hyssop by E. F. Benson.

Scarlet And Hyssop hails from Benson's early literary career. Published in 1902, it comes just nine years after his first novel brought him instant literary success, and is his twelfth published book of long-form fiction. By this time he had also published a collection of short stories, a nonfiction book, and would in the same year coauthor a book on physical fitness. So this represents Benson well into his early literary career, still eighteen years away from the publication of the first of the Mapp & Lucia novels, for which he is best remembered.

Police ride through Hyde Park
in London, England

Scarlet And Hyssop is a melodrama about life among the rich and powerful. Centered largely in London, most of the scenes take place in the houses of the characters. You'll meet interesting people of that time: a government worker being groomed for a Cabinet post, a wife who came from obscurity to steer her husband into the Admiralty, and a woman who throws extravagant parties for dozens of people. You'll attend these balls and gatherings. You will ride along on horseback, or sit beside them in their carriages, as they take their regular exercise and outings in Hyde Park. Most of all you'll get an insider view to the morality of the period, in which people marry for position, and look for love in other places. 

At first I thought Scarlet And Hyssop must refer to some of the characters in the novel. After meeting none so named, I researched the terms after finishing the novel. Scarlet and Hyssop are items used by the ancient Jews in their purification rituals. This put into focus scattered references by the characters to pollution in society. It also underlined the actions of one character who, when faced with the truth of her existence, decided to follow a higher line, no matter the personal cost in financial and societal terms. 

There are lots of reasons to underestimate, and even dislike this novel. I found it difficult to get to know the characters, as many of them have similar-sounding names. Also, the story relies more on dialogue than on action. This is not a simple story, such as Benson's first novel Dodo, A Detail of the Day, which focuses on a young woman who marries for money and position, and the young man who refuses to give her up. It does not focus upon the details of a financial scam, such as in Mammon and Co. It is not a coming-of-age story like The Babe, B.A., or the portrait of an aspiring artist wrestling with following his passion versus appeasing public taste, as in Limitations. Instead, Scarlet And Hyssop is more nuanced, and demands greater attention that such easy-reading novels.

Scarlet And Hyssop focuses on a society that has lost its way. Most of the characters are bland, and their lives uninteresting, because E. F. Benson is pointing out how form and etiquette have blinded the aristocracy to what life should really be about. Most of the characters don't really think through why they are pursuing such (largely) pointless schemes. They simply perform the roles expected of them, or fall into patterns of life because they are easy. Thank goodness none of us could be excused of such excesses, or blindly falling into traps, or being taught not to care about what really matters, in today's more enlightened society.

I'll discuss Scarlet And Hyssop more, and compare it to the popular TV and film creations of screenwriter and English Lord Julian Fellows, in my next post.

Dragon Dave

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Cache of Doctor Who Treasure

Recently, my wife returned from travel with a few special gifts. I say a few, but count them: there's eighteen Doctor Who novelizations, one of which contains two stories. Of the novels, there were five books retelling six first Doctor stories, and three novelizations from the second Doctor era. This is notable, as during this time period, the BBC had a policy of erasing expensive video tape after the show's initial airing (and perhaps one repeat), so they could reuse it to record other programs. Five of the six first Doctor stories exist only as reconstructions, combining photographic images with audio tracks that fans recorded off their TV sets at home. Two of the three second Doctor stories are also missing, and only exist as reconstructions. So reading the books will help me visualize those stories better.

I've already started reading Galaxy Four, the first book following the order in which the stories were filmed. It's an odd story, in which the Doctor and his companions land on a planet inhabited by two visiting races. These are visitors from other planets, and both crash landed on this planet. One race is represented by a woman and her cloned companions. Despite her beauty, she feels only distain for others. Her companions seem to feel little emotion excepting fear of their mistress. The stratified society she represents reminds the Doctor of that old fool Plato, who he met on a trip to ancient Greece. Apparently, he tried to tell Plato that he could not found a perfect society, or Republic, based on slavery. Like many the Doctor meets, Plato decided to reject the Doctor's advice.

The other book pictured is a novelization of "The Tenth Planet." It's notable for the final story featuring the first Doctor, and the first appearance of the Cybermen. These Cybermen were crude by comparison with the Cybermen the Doctor encountered on successive occasions, as the race improves the design of their mechanical bodies. Interestingly, recent news reports have hinted that the latest Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, will encounter Cybermen of this original design later this season. That should prove interesting to watch.

The first Doctor Who story I ever saw was "The Genesis of the Daleks." As an early teen in America, I found it difficult to relate to the TV series. The fourth Doctor seemed an utterly incomprehensible figure, and the cliffhanger endings were just plain weird. After seeing "Star Wars" in the cinema, I was looking for more Sci-Fi in that vein. Shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica I could relate to better. Still, I watched the stories from the first season of the fourth Doctor, and read novelizations of other Doctor Who stories, and respected the long tradition of Doctor Who. Years later, after my wife and I married, I became a fan of the show via the third Doctor, a character I could admire and relate to. I love those fourth Doctor stories now, and especially "The Genesis of the Daleks." It'll be interesting to read the novelization, and compare it with the original recording. 

Two other novelizations I'm especially looking forward to reading are Logopolis and Frontios, both by Christopher H. Bidmead. Logopolis takes place on a planet populated by mathematicians who can change the structure of the universe by manipulating mathematical calculations. The TV version of "Frontios," a fifth Doctor story, features actress Lesley Dunlop, who would go on to play Zoe Callendar in a favorite British comedy May To December. "Frontios" transports us to a ravaged world, in which the Doctor attempts to make piece between the Human colonists and a race of giant, intelligent insects. I always felt that this story could have benefitted from a big screen treatment. It would have been great to have seen the devastated landscape on a vast scale, and the war being waged with the best special effects wizards in Hollywood. It will be interesting to see how the book compares with my vision for everything I imagine that story could have been.

Additionally, Christopher H. Bidmead read and commented on a blog entry I wrote about the Doctor Who story "State Of Decay." He wanted to give me his recollection of the dispute between himself, as Script Editor, and the writer of the story, Terrance Dicks. The fact that he would respond to something I wrote is another reason I want to read these two stories.

In closing, I must add that there's a part of me that asks "Why do you need all these novelizations? After all, you've got the TV versions to watch, or at least the reconstructions." But reading is a different experience from watching, and often novelists add scenes deleted from the TV programs, relate the scenes differently, or add additional detail to give you a fuller understanding of the characters and the world(s) on which they live. I look forward to immersing myself in the written versions of these Doctor Who stories, and coming away with an enhanced appreciation for the TV series I love.

Dragon Dave

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Gregory Benford, Allen Steele, and Lois McMaster Bujold on Cryonics

Here's my latest entry from 2011 Reading Recollections:

Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Cryoburn, in an odd way, reminds me of Gregory Benford and Allen Steele. Gregory Benford, as a scientist and science fiction writer, is a real believer in Cryonics. When he dies, he has apparently planned to have his body cryogenically frozen, in the hopes that in the decades (or more likely, the centuries) to come, medical expertise will allow him to be brought back to life. 

In Allen Steele's novel A King of Infinite Space, the protagonist awakes in the future. His aging body has been replaced with a young one, but all his carefully laid financial plans have gone wrong. He is now a slave, the property of the person who bought him as a commodity. 

In Bujold's novel, her popular character Miles Vorkosigan investigates a cryonics corporation. He discovers that bodies have been preserved using cut-rate fluids, materials, and other processes. In the process, many of the bodies have degraded so that the people can never be resurrected. 

Cryogenics offers us hope of another life, or potentially everlasting life in our mortal bodies. Cryoburn reminds us that while the emerging field of Cryogenics holds great potential, the potential of something going wrong during the physical process of preservation, storage, and reincarnation is highly probable, given the long span of time involved, and the all-too-Human natures of those charged with caring for our delicate bodies. 

Still, like the ancient Egyptians with their mummification techniques and their pyramids, we live, and die, in hope.

Dragon Dave

Friday, February 24, 2017

Allen Steele & Passengers

In the movie "Passengers," a mechanic awakens from hibernation to discover that his spaceship is ninety-years away from the new world he had hoped to colonize. Without being able to reactivate his sleep pod, he spends a year alone on the ship before giving into desperation and awakening another passenger. Together, the couple work through her anger at losing her planned future, and help save the five thousand sleeping passengers when the malfunction that awakened him threatens to destroy the ship.

A few years ago, I met Allen Steele. One of his most famous novels is Coyote, which tells about a group of people who make a similar voyage to another habitable planet. In one long section, a man awakens from sleep to discover that his hibernation pod has malfunctioned. Without a way to reactivate it, he will die of old age before the ship reaches Coyote, the world he had intended to colonize. Unlike the mechanic in "Passengers," he does not give into his loneliness and attempt to awaken another passenger. Like the mechanic in "Passengers," he constantly tries new things, learns new skills, and lives a fulfilling life aboard the spaceship. 

A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Allen Steele speak at a local convention. Later, when he signed my copy of Coyote, I told him I had particularly enjoyed that section of the novel. He said that section was close to his heart also: one of his biggest fears about embarking on such a long journey would be that his hibernation pod would malfunction. It was nice to connect with him in that way, and meet someone who had taken me on a wondrous interstellar journey through his novel.

I don't know if Coyote inspired the brain trust behind "Passengers," or Allen Steele was consulted, in any way, on the movie, but it was nice to see a movie that didn't rely on the normal Crash Boom Bang of Big Tentpole Sci-Fi Hollywood movies. It was intelligently written and visually stunning. It's the kind of film I'd like to see more often, and one I highly recommend.

Oh, and if you're interested in reading a great science fiction novel about colonizing another world, I've got a novel I can recommend too.

Dragon Dave 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Visiting Rye And Cambridge with E. F. Benson & Gregory Benford

As promised, I've occasionally checked in, and worked on my 2011 Books page. Here's two of the entries I did yesterday.

E. F. Benson's 500-year-old house in Rye, England

E F Benson: Trouble For Lucia In some ways, this sixth and final Mapp & Lucia book is my favorite of all. One of the most colorful characters in Tilling is a young spinster named Quaint Irene. Instead of limiting herself to realistic depictions of houses and landscapes, she peoples her paintings with nudes and other elements that rock local society. So while most look down on her as hopelessly out-of-touch, with no likely prospects of the future, she gains national recognition when one of her paintings becomes celebrated in London. She also spearheads a campaign to help Lucia get elected as mayor of Tilling. 

Another interesting aspect of this novel is a social one. Up until now, people in Tilling are limited to inviting their friends over to their house if they want to socialize. While this doesn't tax someone of Lucia's financial standing, others like Mapp, who calculate the cost of everything, prefer having friends over for tea because dinner is more expensive. Everything changes when Diva Plaistow opens a tea shop in her home. Her friends, including Mapp and Lucia, find it so much easier, and expensive, to gather there. Each person can order what he or she wants, and even if they pay for the party, it still costs less, and is more convenient, than hosting a party at their house. Thus we see the introduction of a social change which sweeps through England, that of the local tea shop where friends gather for tea, refreshments, and conversation.

Gregory Benford: Timescape Earth's ecosystem is collapsing as a result of pollution, the long-term effects of using chemicals in agriculture, and mankind's continual destruction of native landscapes to enlarge cities. So scientists from the present attempt to use knowledge of their mistakes to send knowledge back into the past. Nothing can save the ruin they have brought on themselves, but by alerting their earlier counterparts to the consequences of their actions, they hope to build a habitable future for themselves, even if their own future is doomed. The novel becomes a race against time, as present-day scientists at Cambridge University in England try to send these messages before their power and food supply runs out, and their air becomes unbreathable. Meanwhile, the young scientist at past-day University of California in San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla races against time to translate the messages he's getting, and convince his more established colleagues before they pull his funding and he loses the respect of the scientific community.

This is an interesting and award-winning novel. It gained such prestige that Pocket Books used the title as an imprint for noteworthy Science Fiction novels they published. I enjoyed reading it in 2011, and then reread it a few years later for a book group. While the story still resonated with me on a number of levels, I found it difficult to convey my positive feelings to others in the group. Nearly everyone in the group found reason to criticize it in nearly every way they could. They claimed Benford didn't know his San Diego geography, as a character couldn't see a landmark from where he stood in a given scene. They criticized his characters, and claimed he must be a woman-hater. They criticized his science and math, despite the fact that he made his living as a scientist and educator at UC Irvine. For whatever reason, they didn't connect with the book, and they blamed Gregory Benford for that. Given their disdain for the novel, I had to wonder why they chose to read it in the first place. Ultimately, I left that group after a few discussions, because I didn't connect with them. They're the kinds of folks I have no desire to associate with, regardless of whether or not a meteor storm is heading toward the Earth.

It's not surprising I read all the Mapp And Lucia books in 2011, as we visited Rye (which Benson fictionalizes as Tilling) during that year's trip to England. We'll be visiting Cambridge during this year's trip, so maybe I'll end up reading Timescape again. I'll probably also reread The Babe, B.A. by E. F. Benson, in which the author takes a loving look back at his alma mater. And then, I suppose I'll have to watch "Shada" again, the Doctor Who serial written by Douglas Adams in which the Fourth Doctor and his companions Romana and K-9 visit Cambridge. While all three options appeal, the latter seems essential, somehow.

Dragon Dave