Deeply hidden characteristics in other souls can be perceived by this organ, but their truth depends on the attainment of immunity from the above-mentioned illusions. For this purpose it is necessary that the student should control and dominate everything that seeks to influence him from outside. He should reach the point of really receiving no impressions beyond those he wishes to receive. This can only be achieved by the development of a powerful inner life; by an effort of the will he only allows such things to impress him to which his attention is directed, and he actually evades all impressions to which he does not voluntarily respond. If he sees something it is because he wills to see it, and if he does not voluntarily take notice of something it is actually non-existent for him.
Rationalism swept through Germany, more especially the illusion that man’s faculty could establish and secure a single, true, and salvation-guaranteeing religion. This rationalism expressed itself in pamphlets, in systems, in conversations, in secret societies and in many other institutions. It was not satisfied—indeed it did not even bother—to deny the distinctive doctrines of the Catholic church; its basis was rather the simple assertion: nothing in positive Christianity is acceptable except its “reasonable morality,” the doctrine that God is the father of all things, and the proposition that man’s soul is immortal; what goes beyond these three assertions is either poetry or superstition or pure nonsense.
At first glance, the title and table of contents for this book make it look like a set of disparate fantasy stories in a shared setting, but it is in fact an integrated novel. Each “Tale of” people and doings in Nevèrÿon ends up linked to the others on multiple levels, and all of them take place over roughly a single generation.
This fantasy is imaginative, but far less “fantastic” than most. There are no supernatural elements, no storybook giants or fairies.* If Tolkien’s Middle Earth was a step closer to our world than Dunsany’s Pegāna, Delany’s Nevèrÿon is a considerable stroll in our direction. I was a little puzzled by the characterization of this book in the appended note on the author as “sword and sorcery,” since there is certainly no sorcery in it at all. But on reflection, it does represent a new turn for the sort of fabulous prehistory supplied by Robert E. Howard’s seminal stories of that genre, and I can easily imagine that Delany was responding to them (among other fictions and factualities) when writing Nevèrÿon.
The appendix (“Some Informal Remarks on the Intermodal Calculus, Part Three,” alluding to the appendices of his prior science fiction novel Triton) summarizes some fictional scholarship to place Nevèrÿon in our actual (pre-)history, via the study of the apocryphal Culhar’ Text. The effect of this retroactive framing–in combination with the philosophical motifs of the main text–is positively vertiginous.
The epigrams for the individual tales are drawn from post-structuralist philosophy, while the book as a whole is paradoxically concerned with the imagined origins of cultural systems: language, money, gender roles, slavery, politics, and so on. There are nested stories and digressions that highlight these concerns, but the characters of the general narrative are unusual and vivid, and the setting is carefully developed, so that the book doesn’t degenerate into a string of deconstructivist parables.
Those chiefly seeking escapism from their fantasy reading should avoid this book, while philosophical readers will find much to enjoy in it.
* I realized on my return to this review that the key characters Gorgik and Small Sarg might be read as a “giant” and a “fairy” respectively. But not in the customary fantasy sense.
The brilliance of the human species lies in our ability to put collective interests ahead of our own. We have the opportunity, every day, to contribute to collective efforts and others’ lives. These contributions will live on, well beyond our brief life span here on earth.
The struggle is so (beat) pointless. We live exactly as insects, and yet we look on them with horror, because they are us without justification, without the endless need to do things. The conscious mind is a freak accident, a program for double-checking cause-and-effect logic extended far beyond its purpose, an anti-virus program gone out of control.
The jacket copy promising “every conceivable abnormality” had me expecting a more comical romp than the wry and profound storytelling McDonald provides in his first novel. Although in many ways the most science-fictiony of science fiction–a story set on Mars during a period of human settlement–there are many other literary veins enriching Desolation Road. The little serendipitous town by the train tracks certainly has a 19th-century-US Western feel to it that gave the book a steampunk vibe (this well before the coinage of the genre label). Some readers have accused McDonald of “magical realism” in this Martian novel, which nevertheless intensely engages religious and political themes. The net effect for me was something like a hybrid between Little, Big and Dune.
There must be many influences and allusions that flew past me. Critics commonly point to homages to Jack Vance and Ray Bradbury. The 1985 Terry Gilliam movie Brazil is “sampled,” if you will, in chapters 25 and 35. Cory Doctorow notes that the Catherine Wheel in the religion/planetary administration of McDonald’s Mars alludes to the music of David Byrne. It’s clear that McDonald has taken the old Clarke “indistinguishable from magic” saw to heart, and thus lays himself open to the charge of fantasy in SF drag, but if time travel is acceptable as science fiction, the rest of this kit should pass muster.
Sometime around page 150 I started to wonder, “What’s with all the characters being sexually active at the age of nine?” It wasn’t until I read about the grandfather of mature grandchildren thinking “the thoughts a man of forty-five thinks” that I realized these are Martian years! There are no C.E. dates in the book, but the story must start in the 28th century at the earliest, given some information about the timescale of “manforming” Mars. It takes place over roughly three human generations, each of which conveniently corresponds to a “decade” in Martian reckoning (i.e. 18.8 of our years).
McDonald very comprehensively adheres to the framing of Mars as “the world,” with the word “earth” used only to reference soil and planetary surface, while planet Earth is called “the Motherworld.” And still the Martian milieu is full of clever evocations of 20th-century mass culture.
The chapters are short and delicious, the vivid characters abundant, and the plot is so manifold that each of chapters 57 through 63 constitutes an independent climax, leaving room for a further half-dozen chapters of denouement and closure. It is a well-formed independent novel, and it does not in any way beg a sequel. The one McDonald eventually wrote (Ares Express) doubtless leverages the terrific world-building in Desolation Road, but I won’t be surprised if it is at a significant remove from the characters and events in its predecessor.
This is one of those books that I devoured rapidly, and then toward the end I started to feel sad that it would soon be over. I recommend it without reservation.
We are still faced with the challenge of understanding the complex ways race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, and ability are intertwined—but also how we move beyond these categories to understand the interrelationships of ideas and processes that seem to be separate and unrelated.
Angela Y Davis, ed. Frank Barat, preface by Cornel West, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]
Child psychiatrist and author Coles strongly identifies himself with a liberal humanitarian ethic, which isn’t what draws me to his work. In fact, it’s part of what defeated an earlier attempt of mine to read a different book by him, The Call of Service. Even so, I held out hope that The Spiritual Life of Children would be an entertaining and/or informative read for me, since it purports to offer intimate accounts of the religious and spiritual perspectives of children aged six to thirteen, a range which includes my own daughter at its lower end. While the book did have some value for me, it was mostly disappointing.
In the end, it seemed like the book was really about Robert Coles: how he negotiated his condition as a secular, skeptically-conditioned intellectual vis a vis pious and spiritually curious children. I did not object to (enjoyed, actually) the first chapter on the vexed and shifting status of the psychoanalytic tradition’s judgments about religion. Similarly, I appreciated the authorial reflexivity in the second chapter on method, describing his conflicts, hesitancies, and difficulties in eliciting children’s real views on matters important to them. But that matter became an unceasing refrain throughout the book while recounting his interviews with children, e.g. “I began thinking of some words to speak…” (50), “I found myself wondering…” (102), “I gave myself an inward lecture…” (214), “Now I felt impelled to speak” (282). Perhaps this mode of reportage is an inevitable byproduct of Coles’ psychoanalytic orientation, but I got seriously tired of it.
Also, despite Coles’ evident efforts to devote attention–entire chapters, even–to Jewish, Muslim, and vaguely secular children (plus one Hopi girl), there were far too many pages dedicated to kids talking on and on about Jesus. Certainly, this is no invalidation of the book relative to its likely readership. But while I was once a Christian child myself, Christian children are something I neither have nor want, and so their clearly dominant presence in the book became another source of fatigue for me as a reader.
In his effort to focus on “spirituality not religion,” Coles avoided any substantial discussion about children’s experiences of religious ritual or worship, and only glancingly addressed the issue of religious instruction. At the same time, all of the accounts in the book were overtly circumscribed by the religious affiliation (or lack thereof) of the children involved. The omission of their ceremonial and catechumenal lives was a significant loss, as far as I was concerned.
I didn’t regret holding on for the final chapters, one on “Secular Soul-Searching” and the last on “The Child as Pilgrim.” These had some of the more interesting conversations, as well as more general applicability to my own situation. The endnotes are constructed to direct readers to a wider range of texts that engage some of the important questions that could only receive passing attention in this one, and there may be two or three books there that I will pursue.