You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


2. Among the ancient Turks, male animals were regarded as the most acceptable form of sacrifice.

5. Kumis is fermented mare's milk. Marco Polo says of the Tartars..."Their drink is mare's milk, prepared in such a way that you would take it for white wine; and a right good drink it is, called by them Kemiz."

15. Neyrek's escape from Bayburt is narrated in the next story, in which the infidel king who imprisoned him is not named but must have been Parasar.

27. It was an ancient Turkish belief that the best horses were those sired by a supernatural stallion which came forth from a mountain, lake, or sea.

43. Red is still the colour of the bride's veil at village weddings in Turkey, though urban girls nowadays prefer white.

57. Among the Kirghiz it is still the practice to make ninefold gifts, and the animals given as bride-price -- camels, horses, or whatever -- are still given in multiples of nine, up to a lavish nine times nine.

63 This does not mean that the enemy will not seek vengeance, but that they are outside the community within which blood money, rather than blood, can be exacted.

71. The sense must be that weeping was far from him but suddenly found him.

74. Azrael is the name Muslims give to the Angel of Death.

78. A fine earthy vignette: the lice were dislodged because the old man was quaking with fear.

91. The Vatican MS reads "I saw a man with six heads."

99. To the Turkish ear, the name of Goggle-eye's lair suggests "slaughterhouse."

131. Perversity seems to be a characteristic of the people of this infidel city, including the young women in the mysterious penultimate line of the passage...

144. The meaning is that the prince should not allow anyone who is not an accredited bard to perform for him, the next sentence being a thinly veiled threat of supernatural retribution if he does so.

159. Noah, like many other Biblical characters, appears in the Koran as a prophet. According to Islamic legend, the ant was the first creature to enter the Ark, the donkey being the last because Ibis was holding its tail. Noah became impatient and cried out, "Come on, even if the Devil is with you!" whereupon the donkey and the Devil came on board together.

Selected from the endnotes to
The Book Of Dede Korkut
Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Geoffrey Lewis
Penguin Edition

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I have over the past months read enough mid-century sf to notice several recurring themes, and to have settled on a favorite. Several novels involve The Next Step in Human Evolution, and possibly as a subset of these novels are those that hinge on the question, Is Mankind Ready to Join Intergalactic Society? There are both novels that describe an Apocalyptic Event and those that concerned with life post-apocalypse. And there are those stories, for the most part zany adventures, set in somewhat dystopian but recognizable future versions of our own society, or rather that which could be imagined by the first generation of Post WW II writers. (Everybody smokes in these stories.)

But my favorite genre centers around Man's Encounter with Alien Intelligence. The best book I've read, make that the best sf book I've read this year is The Cold Dark Years by Brian W. Aldiss. (See NOT A STUNT: SF (7) BRIAN W. ALDISS) This short, dark comedy describes our disastrous, for them at least, encounter with gentle, advanced beings who cover themselves in their own excrement and with whom we cannot communicate. Things do not go well.

The last two books I've read are Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg and A Case of Conscience by James Blish, two very different novels that concern earth's involvement with intelligent life on newly discovered planets.

Silverberg conceived his novel while in Africa in 1969. By this time, most African nations had achieved independence, and Silverberg's novel takes place on the planet Belzagor, formerly Holman's World, a decade or so after relinquishment. This is the policy adopted by earth to return planets with advanced life forms to their original inhabitants, ceasing whatever colonial or industrial activities we had imposed upon them.

Silverberg's hero, Gunderson, was an administrator on Holman's World. Haunted by his experiences of the place, he is determined to understand at last the mysteries of the Nildor, the blue, elephantine creatures that are the planet's dominant life form. He arrives with a small group of well-heeled human tourists, there for a package tour. They are the novel's comic relief. What he finds are the rundown vestiges of the colonial period, and a planet where what few humans stayed behind after relinquishment have in one way or another gone native. (Yes, the spirit of Joesph Conrad hangs over this novel, and Silverberg, after he wrote it, worried that it was nothing more than a pallid Conrad imitation. It's both more than that assessment while not being anywhere near the Conradian model.)

Gunderson is there to witness the rebirthing ceremony central to Nildor culture, a ceremony they had always kept secret from the colonialist settlers. As he journeys from the tropic zone to the misty highlands -- this is all sounding sillier than it reads -- he encounters old acquaintances in their new post-relinquishment incarnations. There's Van Beneker, happy to be a tour guide until things break down completely. A very unfortunate couple at an abandoned outpost who have been invaded by a parasitic organism. It is using their bodies for the several year gestation period of its young. A former lover, once rather finicky about alien life forms, now walks around clothed only in a transparent, clinging amoeba that is both pet and garment. She tends to her husband Kurtz, who has undergone the rebirthing ceremony Gunderson has returned to experience. Kurtz is now a deformity in constant pain.

Gunderson's rebirth, when it occurs, goes rather better. He comes through it with only an inner transformation, a new, spiritual consciousness that gives him a messianic vision and purpose that I don't think readers are supposed to find as creepy as I did. As he leaves the mountains, he sees himself as "the resurrection and the light," and I thought we had already had one of those. With this religious denouement, Silverberg overplays his hand.

Religion is front and center in James Blish's A Matter of Conscience. Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is both a biologist and a Jesuit priest. He is part of a four-man team on Lithia, a planet that earth must classify as either suitable for human interaction or a hands-off zone.

Lithians are ten-foot tall reptiles balanced and their hind legs and with opposable thumbs that have gotten them pretty well advanced as a civilization. They are also an atheist's dream come true. Lithians are moral, peaceful, crime-free, and get along just fine with absolutely no concept of God or the spiritual.

Of the four men there to determine Earth's future relations with the planet, one sees its unusually high levels of lithium as a gold mine for the creation of nuclear weapons. Another thinks that for that same reason our policy should be hands off. One seems to be on the fence, and Father Ramon decides that the planet is the creation of Satan, designed to challenge humanity's faith. Their split vote ties up any final decision in committee where Father Ramon is relieved to assume it will languish for years.

Back on Earth, Father Ramon is excommunicated for heresy, since his theory about Lithia is a form of Manichaeism that grants Satan creative powers. But he has other problems. Just as his team departed the planet, a Lithian gave them an unhatched Lithian egg, which grows up to be a unruly young reptile with his own popular TV program and possibly the ability to muster the discontented youth of Earth into a seditious force. At this point I thought Egtverchi -- Lithians have unfortunate, unpronounceable sf names -- was going to become the Anti-Christ and Blish was prefiguring the Left Behind series. But no, Egtverchi stows away on a ship bound for Lithia, where, with his human concepts of right and wrong, he may prove to be the serpent in the garden of that particular Eden. The climax of the story can be interpreted either as God moving in his mysterious ways or a thermonuclear accident.

I don't go along with those reviews that call these books challenging and thought-provoking. That's the hermetically sealed sf world patting itself on the back for moving away from old-fashioned space operas. But I am beginning to find them irresistible entertainment, particularly when they are short, moderately well written, and feature lots of monsters.

Friday, October 15, 2010

NOT A STUNT: SF(10) Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (1970) has been my first encounter with hard sf. But this is not as spicy as it sounds. Hard science fiction is science fiction that takes its science seriously, or uses science as an integral plot element. This would distinguish hard sf from space operas, visionary fiction, social criticism, or those novels that are just zany romps through future worlds. Perhaps a few of the books I've been reading were "hard" to some degree, but I never took any of the science elements seriously. Mr. Anderson, however, is a trained physicist, and he is able to write persuasively about the predicament of his space pioneers.

What he writes about relativity and space travel all seems plausible, but then again I am an easy mark since I know nothing about the serious science at work here. Before reading this book all I knew about "tau" was that it was a letter in the Greek alphabet that appeared in crossword puzzles and came in handy while playing the various Boggle-style games I play online. (The fact you can add an "s" makes it doubly useful ) Apparently it is also a measure of speed when discussing the possibility of spacecraft approaching the speed of light. The lower the tau the faster the craft is traveling. Tau Zero would be the speed of light itself.

The fifty scientists, along with the crew members, have signed on for a trip aboard the Leonora Christine to check out an earth-style planet in a nearby galaxy. What for them will be a five year journey will use up 30 years of earth time. Even if they just go and come back they will find an earth void of most of the acquaintances and changed in God knows how many ways. If the planet is habitable, they are to stay, and eventually more colonists will join them.

Guess what? Something goes wrong. They pass through a previously undetected gassy nebula, and the jolt knocks out their retro rockets. In other words they continue to accelerate but have no means of stopping when they get to where they are going.

But these are smart people, remember. Plans are made to go off course to an empty-enough realm of space that shutting off their radioactive shields will not incinerate the ship, make the needed repairs, and then go on...somewhere...some nice galaxy that may have a habitable planet.

Meanwhile, life aboard the Leonora Christine becmes a soap opera. It is the duty of these brave pioneers to choose up partners they can start procreating with on their new planet. As tension mounts with the various catastrophes, the ship becomes a kind of intergalactic Peyton Place. Who's going to be with whom? Who's restless with their first partner? What clandestine affairs are taking place? Is mutiny brewing?

This all plays out with the level of character development you expect from a TV series like one of the Stargate franchises. And that is how it should play out. Tau Zero is 188 pages long. The last thing I would have wanted while reading it is another 100 or so pages of serious character development, which Mr. Anderson, and I do not mean this in a mean way, would have probably botched.

The cool stuff is the scientific predicament. They make the repairs, but there is no where to go. The ship travels faster and faster. Earth, or at the very least human life, almost certainly no longer exists. They are by now hundreds of millions of years into the future, and as their speed increases so does their mass. The Leonora Christine is not longer a spaceship that goes really fast, it has taken on the mass of a small star, and those little bumps the passengers occasionally feel are the galaxies they burst through, leaving who knows what level of destruction in their wake.

Then guess what happens? (Should I be posting "spoiler alerts:" on these blog posts?) They have traveled so far, so fast, that the universe has begun to shrink, just like scientists always said it would, although I don't think they necessarily say that anymore. The Leonora Christine now has to stay along the edge of this contraction so they can find the sweet spot that will allow them to ride out the next big bang.

Think about it. Riding out the next big bang while trying to get back together with your old girlfriend. That is one hell of a plot device.

There is a happy ending. They survive the big bang, and they are still traveling so fast that all they have to do is find a new galaxy about five billion years old and look for a habitable planet. It may be unrealistic to think they get lucky their first time out, but Mr. Anderson cuts them a break. Tau Zero concludes on a green planet, with twenty-five couples ready to start making babies for a new civilization.

Poul Anderson is an author who takes up several shelves in the sf section of any used bookstore. Although I enjoyed this, I am not inclined to read any further into his oeuvre. I don't mind sf writers with right wing political agendas or the misogynist attitudes of their day. But I cannot forgive Mr. Anderson for being a founding member of The Society for Creative Anachronism.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Language might not have entirely escaped its origins. Since you can be understood even when you are not well-spoken, what is the point of being well-spoken at all? Perhaps speaking well is still, in part, a form of sexual display. By being well spoken I show not only that I am an intelligent, clued-in member of the tribe but also that I am likely to be a successful partner and helpful mate.
Jaron Lanier
You Are Not a Gadget (2010)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Abd Allah ibn Abi Qilaba the discoverer of the legendary city of Iram

Abu Murra literally, 'the father of bitterness,' meaning the devil

alif the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. It takes the shape of a slender, vertical line.

banj frequently used as a generic name referring to a narcotic or knockout drug, but sometimes the word specifically refers to henbane.

ghul a cannibalistic monster. A ghula is a female ghul.

al-Khidr "The Green Man," features in the Quran as a mysterious guide to Moses as well as appearing in many legends and stories. In some tales, this immortal servant of God is the guardian of the Spring of Life, which gives eternal life to those who drink from it.

Magian A Zoroastrian, a fire worshipper. In the Nights, the Magians invariably feature as sinister figures.

maisir a pre-Islamic game of chance involving arrows and in which the stakes were designated parts of slaughtered camels.

Malik an angel who is the guardian of hell.

Qaf Mount Qaf was a legendary mountain located at the end of the world, or in some versions one that encircles the earth.

rak'a in the Muslim prayer ritual, the bowing of the body followed by two prostrations

Ridwan the angel who is the guardian of the gates of Paradise

Shaddad ibn 'Ad legendary king of the tribe of 'Ad who attempted to build the city of Iram as a rival to Paradise and was punished by God for his presumption.

tagbut a term designating pagan idols or idolatry. By extension, the word was used to refer to soothsayers, sorcerers, and infidels.

'Udhri love this refers to the Banu 'Udhra. Several famous 'Udhri poets were supposed to have died from unconsummated love.

Selected from the Glossary to
The Arabian Nights
trans. by Malcolm C. Lyons
Penguin, 2010