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Desolation Road

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Desolation Road [Amazon, Bookshop UK, Publisher, Local Library] by Ian McDonald.

McDonald Desolation Road

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.

The Spiritual Life of Children

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Spiritual Life of Children [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Robert Coles.

Coles The Spiritual Life of Children

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.

The “music of decline” had sounded, as in that wonderful Chinese fable; like a thrumming bass on the organ its reverberations faded slowly out over decades; its throbbing could be heard in the corruption of the schools, periodicals, and universities, in melancholia and insanity among those artists and critics who could still be taken seriously; it raged as untrammeled and amateurish overproduction in all the arts.

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Hesse Glass  Bead Game music decline sounded over decades corruption schools periodicals universities melancholia insanity artists critics raged all arts

The Sacrament of Language

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Adam Kotsko.

Agamben Kotsko The Sacrament of Language

I have no prior orientation to the larger Homo Sacer project of Giorgio Agamben, in which The Sacrament of Language constitutes part II.3, and it might be argued that this brief text–a mere 72 pages in Adam Kotsko’s translation from the Italian–should have been published with other sections in order to justify its standing as an independent volume. But the topic, sufficiently attractive to get me to read this book, does stand on its own, and Agamben’s treatment is fascinating, albeit distinctly chewy

Rather than accepting the centuries-long tradition of viewing the oath as a rhetorical artifact of a primitive “magico-religious” culture, Agamben insists that the discursive spheres of religion and law were themselves produced by reactions to an essential experience of the oath, which he characterizes as “verediction.” (57) Although unremarked as such by Agamben, this state is also the point of departure for “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable” in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: “I, Plato, am the truth.”

The Sacrament of Language is crucially concerned with the coeval origins of law and religion; it contemplates the tripartite anatomy of the oath as invocation, affirmation, and curse; it details the relationship of the oath to the archaic functions of [con]sacratio and devotio; and it presents the oath and blasphemy as the two sides of a single coin. The theological observations of the book should be of great interest to Thelemites: among other interesting notes about pagan and Abrahamic religions, Agamben references Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas regarding the deity (qui es) invoked in the original anthem of the Gnostic Mass (53).

The supposed context for this entire discussion of the Archaeology of the Oath is a claim advanced by Paolo Prodi in a 1992 work (Il sacramento del potere) that recent generations of the West are participating in “the irreversible decline of the oath” (1). In the final sections of Agamben’s book, he outlines a scenario in which the postmodern condition dissolves the substance of Western ethics, and he proposes “philosophy” as the locus of instruction regarding our possible escape from the dilemma. I certainly appreciate and recommend his speculative philosophy, but it will be in vain unless it is seized by ones who are in fact consecrated and devoted, and put to use in the operative philosophy better known as magick.

Rose

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Rose [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeff Smith, a prequel to the Bone series.

Smith Bone Rose

This “prequel” to the Bone comics series is focused on a particular stratum of the layered story that Jeff Smith had composed in the original comic. It is entirely trained on the intrigue between the royal princesses Rose and Briar. There are no Bones from Boneville in this story, and the closest thing to comic relief is provided by Rose’s two dogs, with whom she has frequent conversations. But, especially at the end, these aren’t comic at all. 

Although far more intricate and poised than Smith’s drawings in the original series, Charles Vess’ art is wonderful and well suited to the subject matter. Smith’s characters are very recognizable, even in their decades-younger forms and in a far different style. The dragons are all appropriately awesome.

The lettering actually put me off a little. It is a sort of unical script with little highlights in each letter, which seemed too busy and distracting for my taste. The word balloons for the dogs (and for Rose addressing them in their ‘speech’) were blue instead of white, which was a very efficient convention for indicating linguistic difference.

On further reflection, it occurs to me that Rose follows a sort of rough Star Wars episode 3 plot trajectory with respect to the Bone series as episodes 4-6: think of Gran’ma Ben as Ben Kenobi and the Hooded One as Darth Vader. (But it’s something of a stretch to think of Fone Bone as Luke Skywalker!) The Lord of the Rings comparisons that seemed so obvious early in the original run of Bone have no place here.