Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Grandma Gatewood, new book about the AT legend

Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where has this book been? Why hadn't some Appalachian Trail junkie not already written it? It's hard to fathom why the saga of Grandma Gatewood and her pioneering 1955 Appalachian Trail thru-hike has not been turned into a stand-alone book before now. And from my perspective as an avid hiker and an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker myself, it's a little disappointing that, when the tale finally was told, it was not by one of 'us' in the fraternity. It took an enterprising but non-hiking reporter to find and fill this gap in Appalachian Trail lore.

Fortunately Ben Montgomery was up to the task. Despite starting as an 'outsider' with no demonstrated attachment to the Appalachian Trail or to the hiker culture that bonds all of us who have lived the experience, Mr. Montgomery did his homework. As a result this book is a first rate documentary.

What Montgomery lacked in hiking experience he made up for with his well-honed skills as a Pulitzer Prize nominated reporter. He sought out Emma Gatewood's surviving children, gained access to her hand-written journals and accounts of her hike. He dug into the fascinating, gripping story of the pre-trail life of this remarkable woman. And he went to the trail and walked in her footsteps--at least enough to begin to understand: He climbed Katahdin, and he even visited Mt. Oglethorpe, which was the southern terminus of the trail in 1955 when 67 year old Emma Gatewood undertook her historic walk.

Were I to have written this book, it would have been tempting to take the facts and extrapolate--to try to get into Emma Gatewood's mind as she experienced her hike, to empathize more with her love of nature, of solitude, of the pure joy of being free of her extraordinary 'real-life' burdens -- the daily grind of raising eleven children and dealing with an abusive husband. The book I would have written would have been infused with much more emotional immediacy. But Ben Montgomery scrupulously avoided taking this route. It's the reporter's instinct, I'm sure, and I have to praise him for taking this course. He stuck to the facts -- presumably closely paraphrasing Ms. Gatewood's written journal and resisting all temptation to embellish or read between the lines. As a result, I find myself trusting the story completely. There's no whiff of 'historical fiction' here.

Grandma Gatewood in her eighties, reproduced from 'Hiking the Appalachian Trail', James R. Hare, ed., 1975

Did Emma Gatewood 'Save the Appalachian Trail' as the subtitle claims? This is my greatest complaint about the book. I think that claim is hyperbole. I think it's there to sell books. Montgomery briefly makes his case near the end of the book with a peculiar 'straw man' sort of argument. He points to the claims that Ed Garvey, and his highly successful, widely read 'Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime' was the turning point in public awareness of the trail. Then he uses a weak, cherry-picked statistic to knock down this straw man.

In my opinion no one individual 'saved the trail', and Montgomery presents no evidence that the trail even needed saving. True, it had fallen into relative neglect and disrepair during WWII when people had more important things to expend their energy doing. But it was the organic evolution of American culture after the war--the same mindset that popularized Frodo Baggins's epic hike to destroy the Ring of Power--that made the AT what it is today. Naturally the early thru-hikers played an especially prominent role. The title of 'savior of the trail' surely could be more appropriately bestowed on Earl Shaffer or Gene Espy, whose hikes preceded Emma Gatewood's by seven years and four years respectively, and who were both very active supporters and proponents of the trail after their hikes.

Hyberbole aside, Emma Gatewood is a memorable character - destined to be a larger-than-life legend if she isn't already. And she deserves it for multiple reasons. She was sixty-seven years old when she accomplished her feat. She did something no female of any age had done before. She has a compelling, even heart-wrenching personal background, and she undertook her hike with a sort of back-to-nature minimalism that is reminiscent of an ascetic monk on a holy pilgrimage - ultra-cheap, ultra-simple gear, no maps, spending just $200 during the 146 day trek.

Thank you, Ben Montgomery, for telling this story, for bringing it to the public at large in the most professional manner possible. If 'Wild' was worth making into a movie, then surely the story of Emma 'Grandma' Gatewood is too. And I'll be first in line at the theater on opening day.

Meanwhile I highly recommend the book.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reinventing the Novel: Thoughts on Publishing in the 21st Century

(Updated September 2023)

When the 'Novel' isn't novel any more ...

... where do we turn for the bright ideas that can reinvigorate this fading art form?  The surprising answer: to the very technology that's destroying it.  And no, I'm not talking about AI - just the opposite - the exploitation of real human intelligence--that of the author.

Nor am I talking about eBooks here.  I'm talking a complete revolution in the way we think about publishing.  It's a revolution that has already begun, though the battle lines and alliances are shifting so rapidly that it seems almost impossible to imagine the final outcome.  But that's what I'm here to attempt to do.

Books are quaint old things--nothing but bulky lumps of stained wood fiber that lost their revolutionary status half a millennium ago once the world embraced Guttenberg's movable type.  Yet they live on.  Honestly, sometimes it amazes me that the simple paper book has outlived the vinyl record and the floppy disc as staples in the average person's household.  The latter two are information devices with roughly similar storage density as books but with far better interconnectivity, yet they are museum pieces today.  What's the deal?  Books don't connect with anything but the reader's mind.  To call any book 'novel' in this digital age is, to say the least, a stretch.

The term has become an oxymoron.  The word 'novel' comes from the Latin 'novellus', diminutive of 'novus', meaning 'new'.  A novel is literally 'a little something new'.  My obsolete ten-pound door-stop known as Webster's Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, 1986, defines the noun 'novel' as "an invented prose narrative ..."

Invented ... an invented work of prose narrative.  An author has a 'light bulb moment' and proceeds to turn it into an epic tale, as George R.R. Martin did when the idea of a set of siblings adopting wild dire-wolf pups became his mega-successful 'Game of Thrones' franchise.

Thomas Edison, I think, gets the credit for connecting invention and light bulbs in our cultural vernacular.  And ironically it was another Edison invention--the phonograph--that began the novel's slow decline as an art form.

Before there were books, the "invented prose narrative" was the exclusive purview of the storyteller.  What Johannes Gutenberg did for the written word, Edison did for the spoken.  Suddenly the oral storyteller was back in business.  Cold, impersonal black-and-white print now had an equally distributable competitor with value added: voice inflection, sound effects, even musical accompaniment.

If "video killed the radio star," then radio surely killed the novel, no?  If audio was the first nail in the novel's coffin, then today's cheap, ubiquitous, digital multi-media must certainly have cremated the novel and scattered its ashes to the four winds.

Not exactly.  Here's the case for the defense--exhibit A:  Long before Gutenberg, books had already proven their potential for supplemental content.  Cloistered monks devoted their lives to creating heavily illuminated volumes--visual works of art of highest caliber, complete with multi-color illustrations.

"But," the dour prosecutor raises a pointed finger and remonstrates, "illustrations cannot properly be considered 'narrative', and certainly not 'prose'."

"Sir," the defense calmly responds, "Have you heard of the 'graphic novel'?"

We'll leave the little courtroom dramatization hanging there, with that last parry as a rhetorical question -- 'question as answer'.  Even before the digital revolution, professional critics such as our prosecutor were already forging coffin nails and holding wakes: "The Death of the Novel !!!" they proclaimed. These pundits played at parsing definitions (such as the definition of "narrative"), setting up straw-man criteria for judging what is and is not a novel so they could create a sensational 'headline' and sell an article to a broadsheet.  Even today that practice continues - see this recent high-brow essay by Will Self.

I'll tell you what I think of people who parse definitions for a living.  For one thing, they're not novelists.  They do the opposite of inventing prose, they eviscerate it.  In addition to the light bulb and the phonograph, the 19th century saw the invention of the term 'scientist' (in 1834), whereupon the art of parsing all aspects of reality went rampant and even acquired its own name: reductionism.

This was the dawn of the 'age of the expert' - an apparently short lived era in which a 'credential' in a narrow field of specialty was required to express a worthy opinion, and during which the generalist/naturalist (the Renaissance man) lost favor.  I argue that we have, thankfully for the field of the "invented prose narrative", entered the 'post-expert era': a term I first heard used by Amy Luers just this year (June 2014).

Screen shot from Google.com, showing the relative frequency of use of the word 'Expert' over time.

Cheap, ubiquitous, real-time digital multi-media has democratized public discourse.  The emergence of sophisticated AI tools such as ChatGPT have made textual information nearly worthless as a stand-alone product.  The expert's perspective is drowned and marginalized beneath the din.  And the same chaos threatens the extinction of the novel by engulfing it in creative alternatives.

That is, unless the Novel can become novel once again.  Unless the "invented prose narrative" can be re-invented.

The medieval monks cloistered in their cells with pen and parchment pointed the way to comic books and graphic novels.  Journeyman actors and actresses take night work recording audio-books.  High-profile screen-writers/directors turn novels into blockbuster movies and television series.  Cross-pollination is good.

So here is my idealized seven-part 21st-century publishing plan for my epic fantasy/sci-fi novel 'Eden's Womb':

1. Small installments.  Instead of starting by doing any sort of static 'publishing' of a 'book', the author releases the novel a chapter at a time and adds value from there.

2. Free.  The reader can partake of valuable content completely free.  Readers will not even be distracted by advertisements on the page.  Purely free, no strings.  This is part of a 'loss-leader' or 'market seeding' strategy applied in an unprecedented direction.  See item 5 below.

3. Multi-media.  The blog posts will include not only text but illustrations, videos, links to external content, to an index and to appendix and glossary pages.  Among the videos could be the author reading from the manuscript and/or offering commentary.

4. Interactive.  Each installment will be dynamic--changing to add new content.  Fans can contribute artwork, videos and written commentary, including questions, critiques, and suggestions for improvement.  There will be contests and giveaways and other promotions.  Courses could be created and taught, covering topics from world building to individual characters to plot analysis.  The author goes on speaking tours, appearing live at book signings, gets on podcasts, approaches media providers of all kinds about interviews.  Here is where the human element will always out-compete the growing competition from AI.

5. Subscription based:  As demand develops, further installments or advance views may be made available first through subscription on a 'members only' section of the web site.  Note that major software publishing has converted from packaged CDs to monthly subscription.  

6. Branded.  'Eden's Womb' will not just be the title of a novel.  It will be a brand.  The paperback book will be one of a suite of products, and not the first one.  As/when demand develops, other merchandise will be produced--t-shirts, decals, action figures, etc. etc.  Sale of the rights to a movie producer is, of course, a significant part of this.

7. Entrepreneurial.  A successful novel becomes an ongoing enterprise.  But if less successful, the modest start-up (a domain name and web site, social media presence, etc.) need not cost the author a penny.

Now, here's the reality check.  The above seven steps comprise an occupation, a business, a 'brand name'.  It involves a lot of hard work and a lot of common sense that goes far beyond skills at writing prose.  Typically, start-up businesses like this fail 80% of the time.  There are plenty of entrepreneurs out there eager to 'help' you market and promote your work for a fee, or to help you to learn to do so yourself through courses and coaching.  The opportunities to throw money at the problem are boundless and any you use need to be carefully evaluated beforehand.

So ... why has the print book remained a (barely, and admittedly fading) commercially viable commodity while the vinyl disc has dwindled?  Why do we remain so enamored with the old-fashioned printed word--so nostalgically loyal to a half-millennium-old technology?  My short answer is that there's something very fundamental about symbolic expression that defines us as civilized humans.  Symbols have 'magic' - a real-world sort of magic that is emergent, entirely different from the impact of spoken words, and shrouded in the mystery of human consciousness.

Will the magic last?  Will the print book survive to see the 22nd century?  With the seven-part strategy that I've outlined above, an author can hedge bets while still embracing the newest developments.  Novel becomes hyper-novel.  Seems like a fun idea to play with.  It's an experiment--an epic adventure in its own right.  And I welcome you to come along for the ride.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Cracking the code of the 'Game of Thrones'

In what key is the 'Song of Ice and Fire' composed?  No minor key, that's for certain.

I've just finished a six week 'total immersion' experience, reading all five available books in George R.R. Martin's famous fantasy novel series, 'A Song of Ice and Fire'.

This was an epic adventure, and I'm not just talking about the plot.  It was quite a feat of reading.  We're talking about plowing through five volumes--roughly 1000 pages each--in 42 days.  I estimate that I read 40,000 words a day.

And now that I've 'finished' - meaning only that I've caught up to the present (the series has two more books yet to be released) - I'm here to report some of my reactions to what I read as well as some insights into the man behind this truly epic project.

What I write here is not exactly a book review, but it's not exactly not a book review either.  Specifically, it's a list of seven subjective, sometimes off-beat observations.  Let's call it "Seven Keys to the Seven Kingdoms": a look into the dungeons and secret passages in the hidden, unexpected underbelly beneath the castle--the untold 'story behind the story'.

There's a lot of buzz about author George R.R. Martin right now, coming in conjunction with the October 28th 2014 release of his Christmas-gift-worthy coffee-table-book, The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones.  Martin has given several new interviews, both in print and on TV.  Here's a link to a fine fifteen-minute interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos broadcast late last week.

The headline of the ABC interview provides the first of the unexpected keys:

1.  George R.R. Martin had his first 'fifteen minutes of fame' long before he started writing 'Game of Thrones'.  He made his first TV appearance in 1987, four years before he even conceived of the 'Song of Ice and Fire' novels.  It happened as a result of his position as one of four screen-writers of the short-lived TV series 'Beauty and the Beast'.  He made a cameo appearance sitting in a restaurant chomping a cheeseburger while reading one of his own books.

In the Stephanopoulos interview, Martin says that it took eight takes to get the scene right--that meant eight big chomps on a soggy, luke-warm, microwaved cheeseburger.

The larger take-away point from this:  George R.R. Martin did not just burst on the scene out of nowhere.  He had been writing and publishing novels since the early 1970's and when his career in fiction stalled, he became a reasonably successful Hollywood screen writer.  Then in 1991 he had the germ of inspiration for the 'Ice and Fire' novels ... and that leads to the next interesting observation ...

2.  'The Song of Ice and Fire' sold before even two percent of it was written.  This proved to be a bad idea, in my opinion.  Though he never intended to do so, Martin played 'bait and switch' with his eager publisher.  Here's more detail:  After writing just the first 100 pages of the first novel and a two page general summary of the rest of the plot, Martin sent his agent out to seek a publisher.  The result: four different major publishing houses bid on it.  He had a contract and a commitment, but hardly any actual written manuscript.  He naively told his chosen publisher that he might take a year to get out the first book.  Three years later (1995) he finally delivered the first volume, 'Game of Thrones'.  And twenty-five years later we're still waiting on the sixth and seventh volumes ('The Winds of Winter' and 'A Dream of Spring').  This leads to another unexpected point ...

3.  After 1.85 million words, nothing is resolved.  For God's sake, the Christian Bible only took 783,137 words (KJV) to tell a pretty epic story in its entirety.  Yet after more than twice that length, Martin still leaves a dozen or more plot lines hanging at the end of the fifth book.  This is the result of his decision to follow the points of view of so many different primary characters.  The result ...

4.  You can't tell the players without a scorecard.  The scope and ambition of this saga is unprecedented, as far as I know, in the entire history of alternate-world fiction.  By Martin's rough count, he has written roughly 1000 characters into the story, all of which have back-story and entanglements with the main characters and with each other.  Each of the five volumes published thus far has an extended appendix--an organized list of the characters and their relationships.  These are EIGHTY PAGE rosters, consisting of nothing but lists of names.

I chose to read the books without referring to those lists.  If I didn't remember who somebody was (which happened often), I just assumed they weren't important enough to matter.  That made some of the multi-page stretches of political scheming rather tedious if not downright boring but ... surprise ... it didn't cause me to lose the important threads of the plot.

My take-away reaction: Martin could have written a 'normal' sized novel with far fewer characters on the page and, in my opinion, it would have been tighter, cleaner, crisper, with better pace.  Would I use the word 'bloated' to describe the product as written?  Would I do that?  Nahhhhh.  The readers adore Martin's attention to detail and the depth of the story as it is.  The avid fans love being immersed in all the political nuances and intricacies.  That these books continue to increase in popularity with every new release tells all that needs to be told.  There will be an honored place in the history of literature for this work.

One wonders whether some future author will try to outdo this feat.  Just imagine ... !  Imagine an appendix the size of the New York City phone book.

For Martin, the characters and their entanglements matter more than anything.  He once said that his ultimate aim in writing was to explore the internal conflicts that define the human condition, and he described that as the only reason to read any literature, regardless of genre.  So ...

5.  The fantasy elements were (practically) afterthoughts.  Yes, Martin's prime inspiration came from his dual-middle-initial counterpart J.R.R. Tolkien, but this little tidbit intrigued me:  At one point during the writing, Martin was not going to include dragons.  It took the prompting of a writer friend, Phyllis Eisenstein (to whom he dedicated the third book) to change his mind:  "George, it's a fantasy - you've got to put in the dragons."

Martin himself has said that early in the process he was considering it as just a pseudo-historical-fiction story modeled after the War of the Roses - what I'd call a medieval soap opera.  And in my opinion 90% of the final product remains that--not Fantasy but historical-style fiction.  The themes of family and power far outweigh the impact of magic and supernatural elements.  Even Tolkien's influence on Martin largely comes from the quirky post-climax ending of the Lord of the Rings trilogy - the tale of the 'Scouring of the Shire' where gritty, uncomfortable reality trumped the simple good-wins-out-over-evil paradigm of the primary plot.  Martin likes to keep his readers uncomfortable (in suspense) regarding the fate of their 'favorite' characters.  And this preference goes back to some of his earliest writing experiences ...

6.  The key word is not Ice, not Fire, but Blood.  Martin relates that as part of a high school essay assignment he rewrote the last scene of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum' to create a hideous bloody ending where the victim is slashed by the pendulum and dies in a pool of blood.  Subsequently the rats come and eat out his eyes as the body festers.  Sound familiar?  His teacher praised his originality, and that positive reinforcement, coming as it did during those vulnerable formative years, has stuck with him to this day.

In my review of the first volume, which appears elsewhere on this blog, I noted that Martin manages to include a bloody element in virtually every scene.  One of the things that I did as I read, beginning with the second book, was to circle every occurrence of the word 'blood'.  On average it shows up at least once per page.  It seems almost an obsession with him.

Martin has stated that he wants his novels to have the 'gritty feel of historical fiction', and he succeeds at that. Uncomfortable cruelty is a common theme throughout the books, with characters who seem critical to the story being brutalized, maimed, and/or just plain killed off.  Furthermore, almost every significant character has some fatal flaw that, if it doesn't actually kill them, leads to bad decisions with major negative consequences.  And underlying all that real 'grit' is the ubiquitous greasy slime of blood.

The unexpected, often brutally sudden twists in plot come so often that - well - you begin to expect them.  But let us hope that one particular unexpected twist does not happen ...

7.  The mortality issue.  There are three epic fantasy authors who have projects of seven books length or more who were born within 1 1/2 months of one another in the fall of 1948:  George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan (whose endorsement helped 'Game of Thrones' become a success), and me (audacious, aren't I?).  We're no longer young.  We're on Medicare--we are officially senior citizens.  I'm doing okay--I exercise regularly, have a Body Fat percentage around fifteen, and seem to have good genes.  Both my father and mother remain alive and in decent health in their 92nd years of life.  Martin, on the other hand, is 100 pounds overweight.   And Robert Jordan did not survive long enough to go on Medicare.  He passed away in 2007, leaving his epic 'Wheel of Time' series unfinished.  On his blog, back in 2009, George R.R. Martin wrote:
"After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don't want me to 'pull a Robert Jordan' on you and deny you your book. Okay, I've got the message. You don't want me doing anything except A Song of Ice and Fire. Ever. (Well, maybe it's okay if I take a leak once in a while?)"
Just so long as you're not leaking blood, George.  Live long and prosper.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Unlocking Nature's Code--the secret message in plain sight

Here’s the short version of this post: Nature’s Code is our DNA. It is the first language. It carries God’s oldest, most fundamental message; so it is the true ‘bible’. In order to live to our full potential—to find happiness, wellness, and peace—we must learn to ‘listen to our bodies.’ People call it instinct, or intuition. It is far more than that. It’s about getting in sync with four billion years of practical wisdom on how to succeed in life—written in a four-letter language at the core of every single cell in our bodies.

(Updated 7 October 2023)

This page, along with the Firestorm in the Wilderness tab, the Paradox tab, and the Great Stream tab, are where I “go deep”, delving into what I believe—the basis of my ‘religion’ or more accurately, the way I try to live and interact with my world.

In simplest terms ‘Nature’s Code’ starts with our DNA when it is first constructed (from sperm and egg) and our individual being is created as a single cell in a very protected environment (our mother’s womb). Lucky us. Cruder life forms send their spores to the wind and they’re immediately subject to the full gauntlet of threats and destructive forces that make up the rest of ‘Nature’s Code.’ More on that later.

For me, the three-billion-letter document that comprises our DNA is the original ‘bible’ and the most practical manifestation of God. It contains 1000 times more information than the Judeo-Christian bible (a paltry three million letters), and it has undergone far more rigorous real-world testing.

If you are devoutly religious, I have a little quiz for you:  Who wrote your faith’s foundational document? Did it have as many contributors as your DNA code has? If you had to choose between them, and trust only one, which would it be?

If your answer is “I trust my faith’s written scripture…” (more likely you’re Christian than Hindu or Buddhist, where no definitive canon exists) “…because it is the distillation of the greatest truth and comes from an omniscient supernatural source,” then I still would ask you to read on, because you are not wrong. It’s just that the miracle of an omniscient supernatural origin to all things does not give you a ‘pass’ to ignore the instructions of your DNA code. Did it not also come from that supernatural source?

I’ll take a quick aside here to discuss the position that … well … maybe human DNA was corrupted along the way—tampered with by … some other (evil) supernatural source that sprang from the original unified omniscient and omnipotent creator. Still not wrong. Still not a ‘pass’ to reject the instructions of your DNA. Some of the instructions do, indeed, tell you to do ‘evil.’ Just hang on a little longer.

Back to the simplest physical story. ‘Nature’s Code’ starts with our DNA as we ourselves start as a single cell in a very protected environment (our mother’s womb). Lucky us. Cruder life forms do not seem to be given a ‘soul’ before they are sent out into that full gauntlet of threats and destructive forces that make up the rest of ‘Nature’s Code.’

What is a soul? Supernatural or not? Nobody knows. Science hasn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for what it calls ‘consciousness’ or for what it calls ‘intelligence’.

The religious discipline called ‘Science’ rejects anything and everything supernatural and simply leaves many questions unanswered. Most of us don’t like having such big empty gaping holes in our conception of reality, so we fill them with answers provided by our faith.

What is faith? Now we’re getting down to it—distillation of the greatest truth. Faith is what our ‘soul’ is made of; and it does not have to be considered supernatural but merely a part of reality that cannot be resolved by logic or by the discipline of the sciences.

Science is still our friend here, though. Science has proven in more than one way that its own discipline is incomplete—not because of the many things we haven’t learned yet, but because we HAVE learned that there are things that it is not possible to learn. In pure math, we have Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and Bertrand Russel's Paradox. In quantum physics we have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the amazing ‘Measurement Problem’, which tells us that what we see actually shapes what is real.

Let’s look in on a scientific lab in action. A scientist is making a measurement. S/he has chosen the experiment with care, establishing a hypothesis about some unknown phenomenon, designing an experiment to test it, and is now making the measurement to see whether the hypothesis is confirmed or must be rejected.

A hypothesis is a conjecture about reality. It is not truth and never was. Where did these claims—these ‘fantasies’, these supernatural constructs about reality—come from?

The answer is ‘consciousness’—intuition, inspiration, imagination—and it is a faith-based process deeply rooted in our subconscious and underlain by the four-billion-year training of our DNA. Yet progress in science critically depends on it.  It is our species' big advantage.  Our DNA has given us the ability to construct imaginary ‘models’ of reality in our head—fantasies that sometimes give us a competitive edge.

The stone-age hunter waits at a waterhole, knowing (i.e. believing) that the oryx will appear at sundown. S/he hides in the bush, having never seen this particular animal before. And here it comes. A spear whooshes toward its mark, the prey falls, and dinner is served. The hunter survives and passes on his/her skills to the next generation.

The ’vision’ of the imaginary prey coming to the water hole is the scientist’s hypothesis. The experiment is each individual hunt. The chosen place for the experiment is the water hole. Around the fire that night, the hunter declares that God has been merciful and provided the prey. The scientist will probably form more hypotheses about oryx behavior and send a bunch of summer interns out into the bush to study them. In response to all the kids swarming around in the bush, the oryx might become skittish about the human presence and stop coming to the waterhole. This is a simple example of the ‘Measurement Problem’. What you choose to study affects what you learn. And it is a simple example of two very different religions. ‘God provides’ or ‘if you delve deeper, you’ll find the physical truth.’

Well, science has delved *much* deeper and found that the ultimate answer is bound up in an entirely unfathomable realm where there is no physical truth, called the quantum foam.  What you see emerging from the quantum foam depends entirely on what you're looking for.

Does ‘God provides’ tell you anything different? The oryx comes to the waterhole because it is driven by the programming of ‘Nature’s Code,’ rooted in the origin of life itself and lost in the hazes of time.

At the beginning of this discussion, I equated Nature’s Code with God. I think I’ll rest my case here.

DNA’s complex message, written using just four simple letters, defines us, guides us, and makes us who we are. It is always there, providing the ‘instinct’ that we use to respond to our surroundings, and so it is the single greatest influence on our lives.

Yet we modern humans often deny our instincts, forcing our lives in unnatural directions. Our DNA has taken us in the direction of forming a very complex brain, but is that a good thing or a bad one? More than any other living thing, we have tuned out our genetic guidance, drifting away from the strong currents that make up the course of true, long-term success. We think too much—create our own mental models that are always full of flaws and omissions. Losing ourselves in these models, we use our minds to drown out the deeper, older messages that nature has put in place to guide the Venerable species down the right channel in that ever-shifting Great Stream of life.  DNA does make mistakes.  Species go extinct from time to time because the course that their DNA has set them on was not sufficient.  Yet the Great Stream flows on all the stronger for these branches that go astray.  It is the greatest self-correcting instruction code ever conceived.  The skills at logical thinking that it has given us *ought* to give us a distinct advantage.  We can learn from the mistakes of others without being hurt ourselves.  We can test different courses with our mental models and choose the best of them.  But the key is keeping the DNA guidance at the heart of each decision--the good of the species, the good of the greater web of life.

Our DNA isn’t going away. Even if we aren't paying attention to it, it remains in place, waiting patiently. Its message is constantly, quietly, trying to influence us to follow the right course. Other ways of saying this same thing have been expressed by many of our established religions. The Christian God wants us to find salvation. The Buddha wants to show us the way out of suffering. The very word “Islam” is an appeal to still our thoughts and submit to the message of God, to surrender ourselves (our busy, self-centered minds) in order to find the course to joy, wellness, love, and happiness—the 'Way of the Great Stream'.

Throughout history human messengers have been inspired to spread the word (Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, etc.). The similarity of themes in their messages demonstrates a common origin. Their inspiration comes from what Judeo-Christians call the "Holy Spirit"—the very real strength, confidence, and positivity that we feel when we are ‘on course’, living or conveying a message we know is true, important, and helpful to those around us. I find it useful to personalize that Spirit. I call her Dalle, from the French and old Norse roots meaning ‘channel’—the strongest currents in the eternal Great Stream of Life. Dalle’s voice becomes ours when we heed God’s message. Dalle’s currents flow strongest when we are following the Way of the Great Stream through life. She is like a megaphone—an amplifier—giving greater strength to every word we speak, every action we take, when it is in tune with the deep-seated message of our DNA.

We all know this to be true. We’ve all felt the surge of strength and sense of well-being that comes from doing right, from pursuing a cause larger than ourselves.

Most significantly, to me, is that nothing I’ve said so far requires one shred of supernatural influence. DNA is a text that is more complete than any science book, more powerful than any religious volume, and more influential than the greatest inspirational speech ever delivered. Reading this text is not optional. We all do it all the time. It is what makes our hearts pump and our lungs draw in the fresh air. But its message holds so much more for us. Imagine, knowing all the mysteries that scholars explore as they interpret the bible, how much richer our lives can be if we devote more of our energies toward personally interpreting that great book written at the very core of each and every cell in our bodies.

Let the work begin. I pray that you will find your true path. May your days be filled with peace, joy, and wisdom walking the Way of the Great Stream.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hiking Moloka'i

Mokapu Island and Moloka'i's rugged north shore as seen from the Kalaupapa peninsula

Moloka'i (pronounced MO-lo-kah'-ee with a glottal stop--shut off all air output through your throat-- between the last two syllables) is one of the least visited and one of the most purely Hawaiian of the Hawai'i Island Chain.  I spent a week here in 1986 and several more days in 2009.  The memories are indelible.  And the best of them were experienced on foot, in places automobiles can't go.

On both visits I hiked the rambling undeveloped beaches of Kephui Beach and Papohaku Beach Park on the western end of the island, with views of Oahu just across the Kaiwi Channel:

Looking SW from Kephui Beach at sunset
Kephui Beach, looking N to the three lonely coconut palms
Sunset over Oahu, seen from Kephui Beach, western Moloka'i

And on both visits I walked the famous mule trail, which switches back and forth down a 1500 foot cliff to the inaccessible Leper Colony, home of the recently Sainted Father Damien, on the Kalaupapa Peninsula.  The trail starts at Pala'au State Park, famous for its sacred phallic rock, a place of pilgrimage for barren women, accessible via a quarter mile foot-only trail ...

... as well as the overlook to the Kalaupapa Peninsula and Awahua Beach:

The 2.9 mile trail does indeed descend the precipitous cliff you see in the foreground above and then follows alongside Awahua Beach, ending at the leper colony at Kalaupapa, the town in the forefront of the peninsula.  Here's a helicopter shot of the steep part of the trail taken from a post card followed by my own shot of the route of the trail, taken from the harbor area:

Most people travel this trail by mule, but I've done it four times now on foot -- twice down and twice up.

At the bottom, both times, I joined a tour of the leper colony where Father Damien served and ministered to the ill, eventually catching the disease himself and perishing.  He was canonized on October 11, 2009, just a month after these photos were taken:

Father Damien's grave beside St. Philomena Church in Kalawao
Panorama of Moloka'i's north shore with Okala Island at center
Father Damien mosaic beside St. Francis Church, Kalaupapa
Pristine Awahua Beach at the bottom of the 2.9 mile trail, accessible only by foot or mule
I won't extend this post into the other sights and cultural experiences on Moloka'i beyond pointing out my hands-down most authentic Island dining experience - If you stop at only one restaurant on Moloka'i, make it the Kualapu'u Cookhouse - a quaint little spot out in the country where locals gather for music every weekday evening, where the food is Island style with heaping portions, and the service is as laid back as you could hope for:

One of the books I found most helpful to understanding the natural beauty of Molokai was this one, chock full of color photos on every page, written by Ph.D. biological researchers who have scoured the island end to end.  My review is below:

Majestic Molokai: A Nature Lover's GuideMajestic Molokai: A Nature Lover's Guide by Cameron Kepler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a coffee table book in the guise of an ordinary trade paperback. It is full of color photos on every page and text written by scientists who have spent a great deal of time doing wildlife surveys on Molokai and other Pacific Islands. They cover the Island end to end, with heavy emphasis on nature, though the culture and people are also featured. It's a fine insider's look at this most Hawaiian of the Hawaiian Islands.

I have spent nearly two weeks on Molokai on two separate trips twenty years apart, and bought this book on the first of these trips. My first hand experience dovetails with the experiences portrayed by the authors in pictures and text. Although the book is dated (nearly a quarter century old now), and therefore does not discuss some of the more recent issues such as the Molokai Ranch water rights and wind farm issues. But as a guide to the island's enduring culture and natural beauty, it's pretty much timeless. If you're thinking of visiting 'The Friendly Isle', especially if you're going to do some exploring, I'd recommend you pick up this book to help with your planning.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Commuters - a delicious new novel by Patrick S. Lafferty

Patrick S. Lafferty has written a first class novel. Were I to categorize it—and that is not my strong suit—I’d call it a Suspense-Thriller-Murder Mystery, or perhaps an Occult Thriller that skims the fringes of both Historical Fiction and Fantasy. But those are only labels. What matters is that this is an engaging, pulse-quickening read from start to finish.

The only difference between ‘Commuters’ and some of the New York Times best sellers that I’ve read recently is that this imaginative, meticulously crafted story is better.

The plot lines of most novels, including the best sellers, have weaknesses that trigger my very sensitive “BS” alarm—that response in me that says ‘not plausible’ or ‘far too contrived.’ ‘Commuters’ triggered this alarm in only one respect: there were too many coincidences. But in response to this, Lafferty has an ‘out’: things are not all what they seem—supernatural forces are at work here. Regardless, for me stories such as these should not be trying to emulate the messy real world. Rather, they ought to strive to heighten reality, thus practicing the time-honored storyteller's art.

I can easily picture ‘Commuters’ becoming a Hollywood blockbuster. As the theater lights dim and the curtain rises, an opening prologue depicts a scene in a king's court from the year 1106 in the southern Iberian Peninsula. It is a ceremony of human sacrifice in the inner sanctum of the aging swart-skinned Sultan of Morocco, Yusuf ibn Tashfin and presided over by his fair skinned sorceress wife Zainab ben Ishaq al-Nafzawiyya. As Yusuf plunges a dagger into the victim’s heart, Zainab invokes the jinn, and these Islamic spirit-entities made of smokeless fire bestow immortality on the aged monarch—a covenant that must be renewed yearly with further human sacrifice.

As the credits finish rolling, the scene shifts to a deteriorating suburban center-town intersection where affluent Mitchell Treadwell, driving by in his BMW, notices his teenage son standing at the busy corner. They meet nearby at the curb and exchange a few inconsequential words. We hear Davis promising to be home in just a few minutes. The camera pans back as Mitchell drives away, then it follows Davis as he pulls his car keys from his pocket and walks into a dark alley, beyond which is a parking lot. A smaller man approaches. Words are exchanged. The man is soliciting sex. Davis refuses and continues toward his car. There is a scuffle, a blunt instrument slams against Davis’ temple and the screen goes dark.

This is how I imagine a screenplay writer might re-envision the opening of the story for big screen appeal. The written word requires a different tack, and it is not until 1/3 of the way through the book that the occult element begins to surface. Instead the book begins with this simple yet captivating sentence:

“Twenty-eight years ago Mitchell Treadwell witnessed his first murder. In just a few hours he’d witness his last.”

What follows is the well-crafted and suspenseful action that surrounds and interweaves Davis’ abduction with several recent murders and a tension-filled fender-bender at an urban intersection. We are introduced to the players and the stage. Key characters, richly realized by the author, are Mitchell Treadwell, his police-woman sister-in-law Connie Wysczyzewski, Jenkins, her jerk of a partner, two city detectives named Brown and Watts who are working on three dozen cold-case homicides that they suspect may all be related, a ghetto king-pin named Willie Spence, an old African-American community pillar who everyone calls ‘Uncle Max,’ and a peculiar obsessive suburban ‘road warrior’ named Andy Walker, whose prime goal in life seems to be nothing more than to be a flawless driver during his twice daily 50-minute commute to and from a mundane job across town.

During these introductory scenes we are almost left wondering who the central protagonist is going to be. But it soon becomes starkly clear. The affluent and respected businessman, Mitchell Treadwell, has a secret life. Here’s another quote, words spoken to Treadwell by Connie:

“Sometimes you scare me, Mitch. Greek mythology. Serial killers. You know way too much about way too many things. Way too many creepy things.”

What follows is a heart-pumping page turner of the first magnitude as Mitchell seeks to learn the fate of his son—a fate that he may have inadvertently caused. I have not recently read a book that kept my attention more riveted as the deftly crafted plot unfolds and the unexpected entanglements reveal themselves. Highly recommended. Tell your friends.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Stephen King's 'The Stand' - fantastic, yet flawed

The StandThe Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stephen King produced a winner here. You certainly didn't need me to confirm that. 'The Stand' is an apocalyptic/post apocalyptic road story--exactly the kind of story I dreamed about writing as a teenager back in the 1960's - just the kind of story I have an insatiable appetite for.

Too bad it was written by an icon of the Horror genre. King has to throw in plenty of those contrived horror-style frightening moments. You know - a character looks at a fluffy white cloud and starts imagining that it's a malevolent ghost or spirit come to haunt him/her, gets heart palpitations, sees eyes looking back and feels some unspeakable sense of terror and foreboding, eventually screams and runs, looking for somewhere to hide - oh, wait, it's just a puff of condensed water vapor.

As you can see, I am no fan of the horror genre. Thankfully, 'The Stand' is not predominantly horror-oriented. I'd call it a dark adventure-fantasy that sometimes verges on a morality play. We pick up the story just hours after the accidental release of a government produced biological warfare virus called super-flu (and various other names). The disease is 99.9% fatal and kills within a few days. The story gels around the experiences of a number of survivors. King introduces a large number of completely disconnected story lines, so the book seems too disjointed at first. In this 'uncut' 1141 page version he also burdens the reader with way too many irrelevant anecdotal background vignettes for many of the characters. For me these became terribly tedious.

Despite King's protestations to the contrary in an introduction written specifically for this expanded version, the added material does not improve the story or make it richer. If anything it does the opposite. This is one good book I can honestly say is NOT a 'page turner', and is anything but 'fast paced'.

The main plot lines develop at a snail's pace. We eventually realize that the story centers on one man and one woman, Stu Redman and Fran Goldsmith and on two opposing quasi-human spiritual beings, the 108-year-old Mother Abigail and the apparently immortal Randall Flagg, representing the good and the evil impulses/guidance that tug at each of us.

The one common experience of all the super-flu survivors is that they are haunted by virtually identical dreams in which the two spiritual antagonists beckon. All the separate story lines converge on these two as the survivors make pilgrimage to their respective centers of power in Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada.

The story seems wonderfully poised for a grand confrontation of these two, but it never happens. Stephen King has written elsewhere that he suffered writer's block at this point in the story. I cannot believe he would have written this much without having had a firm conclusion in mind. But apparently he did not.

Yes, the author himself seems to have lost the plot.  Or lost his courage to exercise his imagination. The ending is rather disjointed and vacuous. It dissipates much of the potential that I was envisioning. A handful of characters from the 'good' camp travel to the 'evil' camp but accomplish nothing then either die or limp back home to Boulder while the two quasi-human spiritual beings meet their demise separately and without confrontation.  What a disappointment.

So, although I give this book five stars, it's really more like 4 1/2. It's an absolutely wonderful story despite the flaws, and I highly recommend it, yet it could have been so much better.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

'Galaxies like Grains of Sand' by Brian Aldiss - a review

Galaxies Like Grains of SandGalaxies Like Grains of Sand by Brian W. Aldiss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of short stories that Aldiss wrote many years ago, recompiled and republished recently. The stories stitch together the future history of mankind from the near future through to the galaxy's demise due to a form of proton decay. It is quaintly anachronistic, referring to 'reels' of holographic 3-D cinematography, intelligent machines communicating their digital information to each other by punch card, and using the term 'island universe' for the Milky Way galaxy--a term that fell out of favor in the first half of the 20th century.

Yet most of the stories themselves remain imaginative and fresh for this new generation audience. Aldiss' distinctive world-view (and the primary mode of human space travel he depicts) incorporates and heavily depends on elements of eastern religious mysticism. This is sure to irk hard sci-fi fans - there is no attempt to extrapolate these imagined 'technologies' from known science concepts. I think this is Aldiss' attempt to foresee what cannot be foreseen, and so I find it a laudable enterprise. I'm not averse to finding spiritual elements in my imagined future worlds, so I enjoyed this, but I would not choose to call this science fiction. For me, it crosses the threshold into fantasy.

A few of the stories suffer from a disease started by Isaac Asimov - I call it 'board-room-itis', a malady whose symptoms are the desire to write about people sitting about facing one another in a board room discussing the action and its futuristic settings rather than boldly venturing out into the rich, colorfully envisioned world itself and showing it to the reader first-hand.

I believe Aldiss may have been the first to explore the demise of the universe as we know it. At a time when most science fiction writers were content with envisioning events of the next few tens of thousands of years, Aldiss was seeking the end-game. For this alone, I believe 'Galaxies like Grains of Sand' is a worthwhile read.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

The Stars align for author MaryLee MacDonald

Talk about great timing.  A week ago, MaryLee MacDonald's latest novel, Montpelier Tomorrow was released.  It's a novel about a mother/caregiver who sets aside her own goals in order to care for a son-in-law suffering from ALS.  ALS. Yes, the book was released in the very midst of the current viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge craze.

And now, barely a week later, and therefore just in time to add to her well-deserved publicity buzz, MaryLee has won the Jean Leiby Chapbook Award for 'The Rug Bazaar', which I assume will lead to its publication in the Florida Review.  If you can't read the small print in the image above, here's the Judge's commentary:

The Rug Bazaar is a duet of stories, both of which concern American women traveling in Turkey. Both are love stories, and both seem to fly in the face of everything you'd think a love story could be. These are independent stories, yet, as a pair, they harmonize. In music, we might call this "call and response," how one instrument follows another, and, in following, comments on the first. I'll leave it to the reader to pick the order in which these two pieces might best be read. But, surely, read them both! Much of the beauty of The Rug Bazaar is to be found in the way each story complements the other.
The award is no fluke, and it's not her first.  MaryLee earned a Masters Degree in English/Creative Writing way back in the 70's but drifted away from writing as the demands of life intervened.  Once her children were out of the house and finished with college, she returned to full-time writing.  You can read her full bio here.

Montpelier Tomorrow has debuted to high praise from readers.  As a caregiver herself, MaryLee knows her subject from the inside.  As she says,

I ... never thought that ALS would be a subject I would come to know so well.  ... Any caregiver, for any long-term debilitating disease, will recognize her or himself in these pages; but, this is not a diary, nor is it autobiographical. I hope it is, as Wordsworth said of poetry, "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."

Well said, MaryLee.  As the sages declare, we make our own "luck", and I have no doubt that the 'alignment' of the ALS Ice Bucket buzz and the release of Montpelier Tomorrow was meant to be.

I look for many more good things coming from this talented author. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Following my Muse - Tweet-sized poetry

Euterpe, Muse of poetry and song, playing her flute-like reed instrument, the Aulos: as portrayed in 1892 by the Belgian artist Egide Godfried Guffens

It's been a long slow evolution - my relationship with Twitter.  I'm sure I still don't actually 'get' it.  But I've found a niche--a challenge really.  And it is this:

I love writing very short poetic couplets in a style made popular by the likes of Alexander Pope back in early 18th century England.  I call them 'Tight Rhymed Fourteener Couplets' and I've blogged about them before.  In fact, this is by far the single most viewed post of all time here on this blog.

It's called a Fourteener because each line of the couplet is made up of just fourteen syllables with seven 'feet' or 'beats' using a style called 'Iambic Heptameter.'  And I call it 'tight-rhymed' because in addition to a rhyme that links the two fourteen syllable lines at the end, each line has an internal rhyme at beats two and four.  Okay, enough technical talk.  Check the post linked to above for more description and examples.

An exciting (for me) epiphany happened about six weeks ago when I started working on a light-hearted rhyme honoring the poetic achievements of Dr. Seuss.  The project took an unexpected turn when I realized that these tight little poetic gems usually meet the 140 character limit required as a tweet.  Here is how that whimsical rhyme turned out--somewhat of an ode to Twitter:

Fed Dr. Seuss some Twitter juice.  A silly song he sung
As viral toads on spiral roads snatched Hashtags with their tongues.

As you can see in the example up top, I can usually also fit a title and my chosen hashtag, #tightrhyme14 within the Tweet.

For me this is great fun, but it's also a good way to stretch those writing muscles.  It's a serious challenge to fashion 140 characters of prose into 'Flash Fiction'.  Good flash fiction tells a complete story while leaving much territory for the reader's imagination to roam.  And, of course, the added challenge of incorporating rhyme and meter makes it quite a mind-stretching exercise.

Here's another 'Flash Fiction' Fourteener - this one in the Sci-Fi genre:

Time Travel Man--his risky plan:  "I'll kill my young self first.
"New me's that roam the quantum foam will rise from bubble burst."

Instead of telling a story, a good Fourteener couplet could be like a proverb--a self-contained gem of wisdom.  Here are a couple of examples I recently tweeted:

When fire meets wood enduring good will scatter with the smoke.
Yet light from heat we gladly greet—The truth that Sages spoke

The primal seed must yield, by need, this one empow’ring thought:
When self-aware, our thought or prayer is why the seed was wrought.

If you are looking for more of these ... well, try my seven-book epic Fantasy/Sci-Fi novel series 'Eden's Womb'.  It features one of these Fourteeners as an epigraph at the start of each of its more than 300 chapters.  An epigraph presages or comments on the content to follow.  Here's a pair of them, which introduces Book One, 'The Return of Naja'.  Naja is a long-missing Goddess who makes some big claims:

Men knew me not.  Those fools forgot the Eye that opened first -
The voice that spoke when time awoke and Heaven's water burst

'Midst raging void, ere dark destroyed, 'twas I who stooped to nod
Gave form to place o'er waters' face ... and made their precious God.

Writing these little nuggets can be frustrating at times.  Imagine spending hours agonizing over a single 140 character Tweet.  But the reward, when the wording suddenly falls into place, is immeasurable--a sense of hard earned accomplishment: A mountain climbed on trails that rhymed, a lofty peak achieved ... the sudden gleam of self esteem can scarcely be believed!

Uh-oh!  Here I go again ...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review of 'Conversations among Ruins' by Matt Peters

Deep and intensely captivating from the first page, ‘Conversations among Ruins’ is a semi-autobiographical psychological thriller/drama/romance composed of two distinct parts: the deterioration of, and the redemption of Daniel Stavros.

I fell in love with part one quickly. The imagery is powerful, the narrative drive compelling, and the language wonderfully lyrical. Before moving into more detail I want to provide an example of Peters’ vibrant style:

“His uneasiness changed to anger. He stared at Gail’s raven hair and pale skin, the contrast of dark and light like chiaroscuro or a lunar eclipse. Gail had always seemed mysteriously beautiful, somehow high in the sky above him, casting shadows. But she, too, existed in darkness. He wondered how long he’d stay blinded by her silhouette.”

Daniel Stavros is a professor at a small university who has both an out of control drinking problem and a mood disorder that seems rooted in his difficult childhood and his aberrant relationship with his troubled mother, Sarah.

The tale opens in a detox ward. We learn that Daniel, though in utter denial and fiercely determined to continue his self-destructive path, is in danger of losing his job. Arriving in the institution is Mimi, young and overtly carefree daughter of a wealthy lawyer. Here begins an intense, sometimes dysfunctional romance that abets Daniel’s downward spiral.

Peters’ writing is richly descriptive. We do not just witness Daniel’s descent into utter depravity, we live it. We feel what Stavros feels. We understand his pain. Mimi is not without her own similar troubles, but hers are more in control. So she is there with him, propping him up as he descends, until at last she becomes his only link to sanity.

And then she dumps him.

Part two, though not formally identified as such, begins when Stavros’ empathetic boss hands him a key to an isolated mountain cabin during a poignant scene in which Daniel barely clings to reality.

Or perhaps he doesn’t. Part two is figurative and surreal. There is an almost Alice in Wonderland quality to the succession of scenes—a flow that feels like an amusement park ride.

Where will the ride stop? Will the roller coaster derail? Well, I can’t divulge that, of course, but I assure you, the ride is worth the price of admission.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review of 'A Walk for Sunshine', AT hike memoir

Yep, I own an autographed copy of this enjoyable Appalachian Trail hike memoir.

A Walk for SunshineA Walk for Sunshine by Jeff Alt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(4 1/2 stars, but I always round up)

Jeff Alt hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1998 for a cause near to his heart. His severely handicapped brother, unable to communicate or care for himself because of cerebral palsy, had to be institutionalized when the family could no longer care for him. The institution they finally settled on, Sunshine Inc. of Maumee, Ohio, proved to be a first class resource, and Jeff sought to help raise money to support their work.

He tirelessly worked toward a goal of raising $10,000 as he trained for his hike. He had not achieved the goal when he set out on his Appalachian Trail adventure, but by the time he finished he had raised over $15,000.

The good cause aside, this is a book written by a young man with a warm, open heart and a wonderful low-key sense of humor. Example: not long after being chased out of a pasture by an angry bull and ignominiously falling on his face in front of drive-by hecklers as he clambered over the stile and out of the field, he pulled out his lunch, which was a roast beef sandwich, and "savored every bite with symbolic pleasure."

The book seems written and edited by amateurs. There are some basic spelling and usage errors (e.g. 'stile' in the story above is spelled 'style'). This is particularly noticeable during the first third of the book - to the point that it was a bit distracting. But the writing significantly improved through the middle and the end. It is as if Alt was growing as a writer, but did not take the time to go back to the beginning and revise.

In the end the book completely won me over because of its content and personality. The story of his hike was peppered with heart warming vignettes, the humor hit its stride by the middle of the book and kept going, and the simple selfless warmth of the story teller shined through on nearly every page. It is a worthwhile read for anyone, and one of the better Appalachian Trail hike memoirs.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

'Hothouse' by Brian Aldiss. Book review and analysis

First published in the UK as 'Hothouse' this is the US Book Club edition from 1962
The Long Afternoon of EarthThe Long Afternoon of Earth by Brian W. Aldiss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First a personal note. Here is a book that I first read 50 years ago, at the time when it won a Hugo award. I loved it then. It made a lasting impression. It is enlightening to see how my memory of the book contrasts with my current impressions. Back then I was struck by the wildly imaginative setting and several of the vivid scenes.

What impresses me now, apart from the author's far-reaching imagination, is his skill at constructing the tale. Using a rich vocabulary and engaging prose, Aldiss actualizes a setting some five billion years in the future when the sun is about to go nova and burn all life on Earth to a crisp. He brings this world to the reader by populating it with well-realized characters who face conflict with a seemingly endless array of threatening new life forms.

This is a world dominated by vegetation. Plants have assumed the niches formerly occupied by most animals, and the animals have largely gone extinct. Some plants can see, though none can hear. Some are able to walk or crawl or fly, though always crudely compared to their animal counterparts. There is one vegetable creature, taking the form of a giant spider, that has conquered outer space and now spins its webs between the earth and the Moon. Is this plausible? Is it sci-fi? More on this later.

The plot centers on Gren, an inquisitive and rebellious adolescent male in a tribe ruled by women. The elders of the tribe declare that it is time for them to 'Go Up' - presumably to their death - leaving the youngsters to establish a new social order. In the uncertainty that ensues, Toy is the young woman who assumes leadership. Because Gren questions Toy's decisions, she banishes him from the tribe, and another young woman, Poyly, sides with Gren.

Without the support of a tribe, Gren and Poyly are not likely to survive in this hazardous world. But a morel - a brain fungus with the knowledge of a sage - parasitizes both of them and helps them successfully negotiate all challenges. However the morel has its own agenda, and therein lies the conflict that is the focal point of the rest of the story. To say more would be to cross the boundary into spoiler territory.

This book was first published in the UK under the title "Hothouse." I am delighted to note that "Hothouse/Long Afternoon of Earth" was recently re-released (2009) so that the current generation has a chance to experience this masterful tale. I hope this generation will come to the book without pre-conception, because it does not fit cleanly into the genre that Aldiss identifies with. There is an image problem.

The image problem can be crystallized by this example: There is a scene in the middle of the book in which Gren enters a cave where thought is corrupted, as if by a psychedelic drug, and into which beings are involuntarily drawn, as if by a pheromone on the wind. When Aldiss later explains the purpose of this cave, the explanation is more mystical than physical. The resulting processes utterly defy basic laws, such as that of gravitation. (Yes, this is deliberately vague, so as to avoid spoilers.)

Reviews of this book have a bimodal distribution. People generally either love it or hate it. The common theme among the negative reviews is that it is not science fiction. I have to agree. Though I don't pay attention to labels and don't make reading decisions based on them, I can see where others might be put off by unmet expectations. If this book were identified to readers as a Fantasy, no one would object to the metaphysical scenes and concepts.

That is the crux of the image problem. The more inflexible hard-sci-fi enthusiasts don't like their unswerving faith in reductionism challenged by an example of emergence and irreversible evolution that could undermine their static 'fact-based reality' paradigm, even if the example is fictional.

These poor vulnerable victims of the grand enlightenment should have been forewarned.

Brian Aldiss was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2000 and inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004.  He will celebrate his 89th birthday in August 2014. As far as I know he is still active and still thinking so far outside the box that "the box" is little more than a quantum fluctuation amid the profound diversity of reality. He has lived long and prospered. May he continue to do so.

Postscript and commentary:

Without giving away too much about 'Hothouse/Long Afternoon of Earth' or about my own distant future sci-fi/Fantasy novel series 'Eden's Womb' I want to note that Aldiss and I both share a thirst to explore the distant future, to speculate about the fate of mankind, and to understand our place in the cosmos.

Fifty years after first reading 'Long Afternoon of Earth' I cannot quantify the degree to which Aldiss's book influenced mine, because I ran across many other inspirational sources along the trajectory to my book, and because my original book concept was set just a decade or two into the future.

In 2001, after seeing a commentary that Brian Aldiss wrote in the journal 'Nature', I wrote him a fan letter.  To my delight he replied with an obviously personalized and thoughtful response.  This is a letter I will always treasure.

Personal letter from Brian Aldiss.  The addresses are obsolete.

The over-arching themes of 'Hothouse' and of 'Eden's Womb' are the same.  As you can see from the letter (and from Aldiss's original commentary in 'Nature') we both believe that humans find themselves effectively alone in the universe because of the unfathomably short time span during which we have been capable of interstellar communication using radio signals and the vast distances to other similar, putatively short-lived civilizations.

To guess the longevity of intelligent beings' radio technology, we have a statistical sample of one.  If we are anywhere near the center of the statistical distribution (and it is sheer fantasy to assume otherwise), one must conclude that the capability for interstellar communication among 'intelligent' beings lasts barely two centuries (one that we have lived through and one more that is to come as the ability tails away because of the possible forms of decay, including those discussed in the letter, social upheaval, economic crisis, global pandemics caused by mutated microbes, major earthquakes, and/or mega-cyclones).

We are a needle in an unimaginably giant haystack.  Two centuries is 0.0000014% of the life of the universe.  The probability that two civilizations will coincide--exist simultaneously in relative time--is therefore one in five hundred billion.  Current estimates are that there are *only* 8.8 billion habitable planets in our galaxy.  Rounding up to ten billion, that means that we would have to flawlessly separate cognitive radio signals from random noise coming from every one of the fifty nearest full-sized galaxies before we would have a 50/50 chance of finding just one civilization like ours.

The nearest major galaxy to us, Andromeda, is 2.6 million light years away.  How do you hold a conversation with somebody if it takes them 5.2 million years to reply?  Suppose we find that there is or once was microbial life on Mars.  Suppose we find fish in Europa's seas, as Brian Aldiss speculates in his novel?  We will glory in the knowledge that life is abundant, if not ubiquitous.  But we will still be without conscious friends or enemies.  We will remain sole stewards of our own fate.  So we better get used to it.  The road ahead is full of perils, and the vast majority of of them are self-inflicted.  Will we learn?  Will we successfully negotiate the 'Long Sojourn into Harmony and Balance' as the humans in my novel 'Eden's Womb' have?  It seems doubtful.  Yet if we do, that is still just the first step in an epic, epic journey.  Check my novel for more ...