Letters from the Earth

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Letters from the Earth [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mark Twain, ed Bernard DeVoto.

Twain Letters from the Earth

The cover of my paperback copy of Letters from the Earth boasts “new uncensored writings by Mark Twain” with a little more significance than such labels usually hold. The contents of this volume were the very first to be edited for posthumous publication by the Twain literary estate, but Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens’ misgivings denied publication to the book until 1962, after the editor’s own death! By then, several of the individual texts included had seen individual publication in periodicals and a book of Twain scholarship.

Although she gave as her motive the concern that the book’s contents would misrepresent Twain’s actual ideas as she understood them, a reader will readily infer that Clara’s fear was chiefly about offending against conventional piety. Nearly half of the book consists of satires grounded in biblical mythology: the title piece (largely in the voice of the angel Satan), the “Papers of the Adams Family” thus organized and titled by editor Bernard DeVoto, and the brief “Letter to the Earth.” The first of these, and apparently the most finished in Twain’s own manuscript, is clearly modeled on Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, in which a traveler from a distant land reports back to his own people on the bewildering and exotic features of the culture shared by the reader and the actual author of the text.

“Letters from the Earth” at one point refers to sex as “the Supreme Art. They practiced it diligently and were filled with contentment. The Deity ordered them to practice it. They obeyed, this time. But it was just as well it was not forbidden, for they would have practiced it anyhow, if a thousand Deities had forbidden it” (25). Satan supplies a sober and accurate appraisal of the Christian revelation: “… as the meek and gentle Savior he was a thousand billion times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament–oh, incomparably more atrocious than ever he was at the very worst in those old days!” (46)

The “Papers of the Adam Family” treat antediluvian society with attention to the premise that the long lifespans of characters in Genesis–even assuming that they waited a few extra decades before parenthood–made for a society many living generations deep, and thus strangely dense and hierarchical. Several of these “translations from the Adamic” are in the voice of Eve, “the Most Illustrious, Most Powerful, Most Gracious, Most Reverend, her Grandeur, the Acting Head of the Human Race” (91-2). There is also a focus on the early tenth century as clocked from Eden, consisting mostly of thinly-veiled satire on Twain’s own time, which certainly had catastrophe imminent.

A number of short pieces include a whimsical cat-focused story (where Twain in passing vaunts his own “conscience torpid through virtuous inaction,” 113), a merciless criticism of the prose style of James Fenimore Cooper, a reasonably funny parody of etiquette instructions, some travelogue from England, and a few other essays.

The book concludes with its longest and strangest item. “The Great Dark” (title furnished by the editor) is a horror story that hinges on its protagonist’s efforts and failures to assign reality to his actual circumstances after being subjected to a dream-world of simulation. Latter-day readers might see this piece as a precocious Matrix sort of story. (Who needs wetware and full-body VR when you have a Victorian microscope?) But of course the central conundrum goes back to Chuang Tzu and probably to the dawn of reflective thought.

They listened, and they believed him. They had always believed him. It scared him, the way they believed, almost as if they were half asleep, or some part of them were missing. Truth be told, he, too, felt as if he were half asleep or half real.

Michael Poore, Up Jumps the Devil [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Poore Up Jumps the Devil listened believed always scared half asleep part missing truth told felt half real

Engines of Desire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doktor Sleepless: Engines of Desire [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Warren Ellis and Ivan Rodriguez.

Ellis Rodriguez Doktor Sleepless Engines of Desire

This volume contains the first eight issues of Doktor Sleepless, plus some endmatter consisting of painted cover art from individual issues, and print snapshots of the wiki at Doktorsleepless.com. Having started in this vein, I plan to follow this title in trade paperback format, though goodness knows there’s enough meat to each issue to make it worth reading in individual comics. 

Although there is no resolution to the steadily-intensifying plot in this collection, there is a climactic epiphany in the eighth issue. Doktor Sleepless invites comparison with Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, although the target is clearly today’s USA, rather than the Thatcherite UK of Moore’s dystopian fantasy. As in V, the central character is a self-caricaturing enigma who is engineering the collapse of the existing social order. He’s got a girl sidekick, and seems as much villain as hero. There’s even business with mass-distribution of masks — Ellis doubles down on that trope, in fact. 

Creepy, violent, and believable, this comic picks up and continues the outrage over injustice that Ellis exhibited in Transmetropolitan, while stripping the (always somewhat ornamental) science-fictional elements down to a bare minimum. A kindred cyberpunk comic would be Testament, but where Rushkoff uses the Bible to frame his tale of techno-sociological crisis, Ellis substitutes the Necronomicon (or something worse). 

Anyhow, it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ll be impatient for the next collection.

The Ape Who Guards the Balance

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Ape Who Guards the Balance [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Elizabeth Peters, book 10 of the Amelia Peabody series.

Peters The Ape Who Guards the Balance

In this volume of the fearsomely-long Amelia Peabody series, the second-generation Peabody-Emersons are no longer children. They are even given their own voices as narrators in the interspersed documents designated “Manuscript H” (Ramses, evidently, though he writes of himself in the third person), and “Letter Collection B” (Nefret). The majority of the text remains Amelia’s journal, although given the growing centrality of the younger characters, she is increasingly “Aunt Amelia.” More than many of the other books in the series, this one is anchored in previously-developed characters and plot strands. I don’t know if I have much confidence that it would read well as a stand-alone novel. 

After a fairly lively start involving a theft in England and the attempted abduction of Amelia herself, the bulk of the book takes place in Egypt. The archaeological focus is in the Valley of the Kings, with the Emersons somewhat sidelined by the antiquities establishment. There are kidnappings and murders, and the perpetrators and motives remain obscure for much of the book, with some perplexity resulting from the numerous past villains at loose ends in the Emersons’ world.

There’s a little more action and violence here than the average Peabody book, and plenty of humor — also, some heartache and sorrow. It’s definitely worth the read for someone who has enjoyed earlier volumes in the series.

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Galactic Empires: Volume One

Hermetic Library Anthology Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Galactic Empires: Volume One [Amazon, Local Library] ed Brian W Aldiss.

Aldiss Galactic Empires Volume One

This anthology volume is made up of science fiction stories mostly from the third quarter of the 20th century (1951-1975). It is constructed around themes within the general space opera subgenre. Its four subsections are titled “A Sense of Perspective,” “Wider Still and Wider …,” “Horses in the Starship Hold,” and “The Health Service in the Skies.” The themes were not as coherently demonstrated as I would have liked, and the book got off to a shaky start with two weaker stories from authors I like: R. A. Lafferty and Arthur C. Clarke.

It was interesting to me to read the original Asimov “Foundation” story in the text first published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1942. Although it has been decades since I read the Foundation novel, one difference was obvious: Hari Seldon was not the pioneer of psychohistory, but simply “the greatest psychologist of our time” (96). I suspect some actual psychologists set Asimov straight regarding the aims and limitations of their discipline. The cliffhanger ending made this piece an odd inclusion here, though.

It had been a long while since I had read anything by Clifford Simak, and I found his longish story “Immigrant” to be one of the more enjoyable ones in the book. I also appreciated the rather naïve romp of Coppel’s “The Rebel of Valkyr,” even though its plot twist was telegraphed quite obviously. It offered better star wars than Star Wars. With some exceptions, I found the longer stories more deserving of my attention, and the shorter ones tended toward negligibility.

Representations of gender in these selections are often painfully dated, if not downright reactionary by today’s standards. There is only one female author included, and her story “Brightness Falls from the Air” is a mournful one about interracial exploitation.

I have a copy of Volume Two of this collection. The first volume was good enough that I expect to read the second, but not so cohesive that I feel any special urgency to do so.