Book Review – The Book of Strange New Things

In my experience, there are two major kinds of sci-fi stories to be told. One is an action story. Think Battlefield Earth, Princess of Mars, or Dune. The driving force is the things that happen, the rising tension, potential sabotage, the question of whether or not the protagonist will finally defeat the big bad bugs with their own laser guns or go down in a blaze of glory.

The other kind is a thinking story. Examples here are Speaker for the Dead, or even Frankenstein. In these kinds of books, there isn’t so much action driving the reader on, it’s an intellectual understanding, an investigation into the human condition viewed through an external lens. As such, it may offer elements of introspection that action stories cannot, and should not be asked about.

The Book of Strange New Things falls into the second category. In this story, Michel Faber has transplanted a naïve, if well-intentioned, Christian minister named Peter from some generic English Presbytery to the far-off planet of Oasis. While there, Peter is to be the chaplain to two groups of individuals: the residents of the USIC base on Oasis, and the native Oasans themselves.

This is not an action story. It is a story about relationships: Peter’s relationship with USIC: a for-profit company doing whatever it can to salvage an investment, thus their recruitment of Peter. The relationship between USIC and the Oasans: who is dependent on whom in this situation? Who profits? And at what cost or at what critical threshold? Peter’s relationship to the Oasans, who view him as, not necessarily a savior, but as someone who can finally help them understand the Book of Strange New Things, which, strangely enough to Peter, is the Bible, because, news flash! They already had a chaplain before, and where is he now?

This is a story about Peter’s relationship with his left-behind wife, Beatrice. It is a story about one-dimensional relationships, about one-dimensional communications, about censorship and the internal mental gymnastics we go through (but never actually reveal) when communicating with people we care for. Or don’t.

This is a story about Peter’s relationship with God, or his image of God, or his ideal of God. Peter is a broken man – by his own admission, he comes from a hard life, of drugs, of sex, of lawbreaking. But God cleaned him up, saved him, gave him purpose and a wife and a church, and now God has given him a mission, so he will, by golly, do everything he can for that mission, even if it means he must sacrifice his own self and his prior commitments, and rationality be buggered.

To be honest, I didn’t quite know where this book was going most of the time. A lot remains undefined, like what USIC stands for, how the Oasis environment would have allowed the ecosystem to develop, or even things often described in sci-fi like the “first contact” experience and subsequent information transfer. Many of these are just taken for granted, and, while I suppose the author thinks they aren’t critical to the story, I found myself just confused at times.

In terms of style, I will admit that the initial impression I got was of a very nice, very safe style. Something warm and comforting. You know how you read a book and you often have a narrator in your head, a voice that you hear reading the words to you? [If you don’t, just play along.] For the first 2/3 of this book, I could not hear anything but Winnie the Pooh reading to me. For some reason the tone just struck me as unassuming, a reserved “Oh bother” type of narration. It did change a bit near the latter part, but perhaps that was because I had experienced enough of Peter to start to hear the narrator in a more masculine voice.

Anyway – I’ll give this book 4 of 5 stars. Interesting ideas, good for a read now, one that I didn’t want to stop reading and stayed up late to finish, but not something I’ll read again or buy to have on my bookshelf. Read if you wish; I’d love to have a discussion.

Writing Practice – 4/16/2018 – Please

Please…

Please. Pleas. Bargains. Questions. Hopes. Dreams. Recognition of power. “If it may please you,” means nothing more than “You have the power in this relationship. I bow to that power, and I beseech you to stop down off your throne of authority, I beg you to reach into the cesspool that is my life, I implore you to darken your flesh with the stench of my own experience, I fall on your good graces, I humbly lower my head in shame at what I am, unequal, unworthy, and I place myself at your mercy.”

Please – a simple word, with much power. With power, and authority, and tradition behind it. And it, too, it has magic. Is that not what we tell our children? “What’s the magic word?” “Say, ‘Please,’ and you can have it.” Are we teaching them that we are the authority, or that they are? Aren’t we instilling within them, by our insistence that they say “please” and “Thank you,” that anything in the world can be theirs, just for the asking? What a horrible set-up we’re putting on them. What a terrible failure of expectations they are about to receive, when they get out into the “real world”, (however that may be defined, wherever that really is, whenever that happens to show up), when they get out there and they find their selfish conceit confronted by another, who, just as selfish, just as conceited, has also grasped onto that bright, shiny, attractive thing and refuses to let go.

Now it is a struggle – of wits, of pleas, of “please” and “thank you,” a battle to see who will back down, who will surrender, whose will shall crumble under the onslaught, the greater resolve of the other, finally triumphing, when one finally gives up, gives in, lets go, says, “fine, you can have it,” and the victory dance from the other, the triumphant exultative “Yahaaa!”, the jump for joy, the enjoyment of the shiny thing, becomes a final crushing blow, eliminating any chance of future happiness, because, once and for all, the blinders that we, as well-intentioned but incredibly naive parents installed through our teaching, of “magic” words, dissolve, allowing the poor, helpless, drifting, lonely child to see the world as it truly is – cold, calculated, measured, survival not of the fittest but governed by a different law – “survival of the survivors.” Rough awakening, to be sure. And those who do wake will at least be one slight step ahead of those who don’t. They will need it. They will need all of it.

Writing Practice – 4/11/2018 – Why I Write

A commentor asked me, “Is that not why you write?”

So, why do I write? The perpetual question. I ask this of myself ten times a year, at least. I never been able to answer it to my own satisfaction.

 

I write because I love the feeling of a pen in my hand – I love the feeling of creating, of bringing something out of nothing. I love the idea that my pen is a pregnancy, and my moving it along the page is a birthing, a resurrection, an excavation discovering hidden treasures beneath the surface.

See that blank page down there? Below these lines? That is opportunity. That is promise. That is fear, and hope together in one. That is a myriad of possibilities waiting to be explored, and as I cover the surface, as I bleed out ink onto crushed tree pulp, as I hesitate and start up again, as I continue to seek for the letting go, all of those possibilities that weren’t realized disappear – they break off and float out into the ether, waiting perhaps to be captured by some other stroke of another pen some other time. But – more likely, to continue to drift into the infinity, to expand and fall away, not down, but “away”, for they are further and further from each other.

Farther and farther from everything else, out beyond the reach, out into the solitude, out into the expanse, out into the void, where nothing is, where nothing was, where nothing came and nothing is going. Out there, it is alone, and it is forever alone. Even darkness abandons such places, not to be replaced with light, but taking with it the idea of light, the memory of light, the conception that there could be something other than darkness, not even so much that it is gone but that it never was, never could be, never would have been, never even existed as a potentiality in the minds of the greatest theoreticians this world has ever known.

So – I write to save. I write to redeem at least one idea, one experience, from the cold, pointless, suffering exhaustive death of obscurity, the drifted-away-forever experience. I allow all the other potentialities to suffer. I cannot save them all.

I cannot even save two. But I can save one. I can bring it to the surface. I can expose and create and birth it once, and for myself, and for others, and as a result, I can make the slightest recompense, the single absolution of regret for all those other ideas which I abandoned, with my tiny, insincere, insecure “Sorry, but I just couldn’t,” and they will drift away, they will expand and wave goodbye, resigned to their fates, and I will cradle my idea to my chest. I will love and cherish my actuality, and I will mourn those potentialities, for a moment, for a day, until they are so unceremoniously replaced, once again, with the next –

blank –

sheet.

What Should I Write About?

So, usually my writing practice topics are just made up on the spot. Occasionally I’ll do a series – See “Love Is…” (1) through (10).

Sometimes I’ll take a line from another piece of work and go with that. This is a good example: [from “In The Zoo” by Jean Stanford]

Other times I’ll just start with “I feel…” or “I smell…” and write about what’s immediately around me.

And then there are the lists of writing topics. Usually pretty soon after I start a new notebook I’ll have a day where my writing practice is just “write a list of writing topics”, and when I don’t have something in mind I can come to this page, close my eyes, point a finger somewhere, and see what happens. When I’m writing those lists, they might look like this: (these are all from 3/11/2018)

  • Write about a tree.
  • Write about family trees.
  • Write about family obligations.
  • Write about family reunions.
  • Write about class reunions.
  • Write about low-class reunions.
  • Write about high-class reunions.
  • Write about “putting on airs.”
  • Write about “putting on heirs.”
  • Write about “putting on hairs.”
  • Write about artificiality.
  • Write about superficiality.
  • Write about boob jobs.
  • Why haven’t penis enlargement surgeries received the same kind of market saturation as boob jobs?
  • How far would you go to achieve your happiness?
  • How much of yourself are you willing to change for someone you love?
  • etcetera etcetera …

Obviously I’m not going to write about all of these topics. I probably won’t write about more than 4 or 5 before this notebook is filled and I move to the next one. But the process helps me think of connections, helps to identify associations that might not have been readily present for most people.

So … I want to ask you, readers … What do you think I should write about? Leave a comment, and I’ll use those as prompts in the next couple of weeks. What greatness might we cultivate together?

Writing Practice – 4/8/2018

Inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin, Finding My Elegy, p 47.

Between us

is neither forgiveness

nor reparation

but only the sea waves, the sea wind.

 

Between us is a gulf

a vastness

a distance compounded by time,

that destroys consciousness with pity.

 

Between us is

nothing,

for we are bonded like ionic or

covalence or convalescents,

In a place not of our choosing,

surrounded by life not of our design.

 

Between us is

a rift, years old and fights wide,

stretched with each faint slight,

Deepened with each perceived snub,

Darkened with each impassioned plea for reconnection,

because of feelings of duty, an honor, and hobligation.

 

Between us is

a coffee table, with

two coffee cups, and

twelve ounces of coffee, and

three lumps of sugar in one,

and a dash of honey and two

creams in the other,

and two coasters, round, woven of some

brown wood-like material, gently

warming under the influence of

the mugs, and

two spoons, dripping, slowly dripping,

tendrils down their curved undersides

to pool on the ceramic surface of the table, and

a handful of napkins, unused, and

six minutes worth of tears, and

the unrealized expectations you

have now deposited upon that ceramic surface, seemingly designed for only this purpose, to comfort you, to catch your fall, to hold you up after I’ve done the incomprehensible, the unimaginable, the terrible, and told you I can’t have a baby with you, I won’t have a baby with you,

I already had a pregnancy with

you and I don’t any more.

Disgusted By Modern Life

A few weeks ago I saw a beautiful picture in the local weekly paper. A happy couple, dressed up in their finest attire, kissing with passion. I’m pretty sure it was these people:

2018-04-07
http://nostalgiaphotographystl.com/weddings

Now, I don’t have anything against weddings. Hell, I had one myself. Flowers, pretty dress, booze, rain, fraternity brothers hitting on sorority sisters, pictures in a book, tears, dancing, falling asleep before you could consummate, the whole works.

Weddings are fine things. They’re fun, they’re exciting, they’re a momentous occasion. I think they should be special.

I also think they should be reasonable. And what’s unreasonable about the picture I saw, in that newspaper, was that it was a full-page advertisement. For a bank.

Your Perfect Day

We’ll help you pay for it.

Wedding Loans as low as 4.99% APR

Special Rate through March 31

Ugh. Disgusting. We have now sunk so low as a society where this is acceptable. Where going into debt for an experience is considered reasonable. Where people who don’t have enough money to support themselves somehow think borrowing money is going to solve that problem.

Where bank executives, driven by profit targets, see an untapped opportunity and instead of counseling people to, perhaps, I don’t know, LIVE WITHIN THEIR MEANS!, reach out and collect interest from those who would likely be better off delaying the party for a year in order to save for it properly.

Where “investors”, a.k.a. you and me in our 401(k)s, seek ever higher and higher returns, driving bank executives to predatory practices, driving advertisement that indebtedness is a good thing to people who really shouldn’t be borrowing and are too naive to know better, driving dissatisfaction with life and the marriage, driving, ultimately, a negative cycle of emotion and action.

Don’t get me wrong – borrowing can have its good uses. Mortgage on a house, college loans, even auto loans are all using money to create more value for those who borrow. But borrowing to have a party? Putting yourself even further behind as you start your relationship? Seems ridiculous and short-sighted on the part of those who are taking out the loans, seems predatory for those who are making them, and seems negligent for those friends and family members who are sitting around and encouraging it.

Please stop this modern merry-go-round. I’m sick, and I want to get off.

Writing Practice – 4/4/2018 – Down and Out

Write about “Down and Out”…

Down – because the default is “up”, is upright, is standing, erect, ready, powerful, or at least appearing to be. Up, as in, upstanding, as in, upright, as in, uptight, as in, upset, as in, unsettling, as in, unsettled, as in, resettled, as in, reconnected, as in, restructured, as in, reconditioned, as in, reevaluated, as in, returned.

And. A conjunction. A contraction? No – just a way to connect two things. Thing one AND thing two. Thing three AND thing four. Things one hundred through one hundred ninety-nine AND Things two hundred through two hundred ninety-nine. together. Inseparable. Unbreakable. Once conjoined, never to be individuals again. This AND that. So much power. So much authority through so little an experience.

Out. Not in. Out. not special – not part of the elite, the chosen ones, the unique group of select few who shall become the ruling class after the uprising has run its course. Out. Out of touch. Out of line. Out of the habit. Negativity. Uncertainty; impropriety. Out of control, out of rhythm, out of the box. Anything good begins with “out”? Out of your mind? Nope. Out of this world? Closest thing to a non-negative, and that’s basically saying it’s just neutral.

Down – the low, the fallen, the ones whose position has been stripped of all authority.

Out – those who are no longer part of the inner circle.

AND – Bringing them together. The ones who once were high and now have been brought low, AND they are not privy to the special dispensations available as they one were. Oh, poor, pitiful them. Oh, weep for them, you fortunate souls, and tell your children and grandchildren their tales as a warning, as a behavioral modifier. “Beware, less you fall out of grace, like the DOWN AND OUTS!” Pity them, use them as a reprimand, but do not get too close – you would not wish their taint, their stain, to ruin your pristine image, too. After all, you have the UP AND IN status you have inherited to maintain. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to you. So be careful. Observe, warn, stay away, ensure you don’t catch their misery upon your lives as well.