Tag Archives: review

The Centauri Device

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Centauri Device [also] by M John Harrison.

Harrison The Centauri Device

Harrison The Centauri Device SF Masterworks

The jacket copy on the back of this book begins “Bastard son of a port whore …,” and gives an impression of this book’s contents that is unusually accurate among 1970s SF paperbacks. Its setting is a twenty-fourth century in which an interstellar cold war is heating up, and the rival superpowers are both terrestrially-based: the Israeli World Government and the Union of Arabic Socialist Republics. Protagonist John Truck is an alienated loser, who the reader soon finds out is also descended from an alien survivor of human-perpetrated genocide. The “device” of the title is an enigmatic find from the ruined Centauran homeworld, which the agents of the competing powers each think will give them the edge. Other players in the game where Truck seems to be a pawn include a cabal of space anarchists led by a aesthete, an interstellar drug business and its kingpin, and the evangelical cult of the Openers, who have windows surgically installed to reveal their innards.

Although Harrison seems not to be especially proud of this early effort, saying it was from before he “learned to write,” it still stands out as bucking the trends of space opera in interesting ways. The antihero John Truck is not too unusual in the new wave science fiction set that Harrison participated in. I enjoyed the surprising passel of Swinburne references, especially to Atalanta in Calydon, along with allusions to Huysmanns and other decadents. Admittedly, most of what Harrison does well in this book, he does again far better in the more recent Kefahuchi Tract novels.

The Theatre of the Occult Revival

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Theatre of the Occult Revival: Alternative Spiritual Performance from 1875 to the Present by Edmund Lingan, part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History series.

Lingan The Theatre of the Occult Revival

Edmund Lingan’s scholarly monograph on The Theatre of the Occult Revival treats a worthwhile topic. The specific case studies which account for the bulk of the book concern the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society headed by Katherine Tingley, the Anthroposophical Society of Rudolf and Marie Steiner, Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship of Alex Mathews, and Gerald Gardner’s witchcraft. A final chapter also explores the theatrical aspects of more recent neopagan and occultist scenes.

The author uses a contemporary academic framework for his understanding of “the Occult Revival,” crediting Faivre and Hanegraaff for much of his information on Western esotericism, and Hutton and Barker for Wicca and neopagan movements. He has also done a lot of valuable archival research on the subtopics with which I was least familiar, such as Tingley’s theatre and the ROCF. In addition, he took the praiseworthy step of “field research” interviewing contemporary participants and auditing performances in the persisting occultist milieus of Anthroposophy, Thelema, and Wicca.

Lingan emphasizes and reiterates throughout the book that the founders and societies of occultism have had an important orientation to theater as a modality for religious expression, instruction, and integration with the larger exoteric culture. He does not enter in to the question of whether this makes them more or less like other, more well-known religious bodies and traditions. He does a reasonable job of distinguishing the spectrum from ritualistic theater–for which his paradigm is furnished by Symbolists like Maeterlinck–to theatrical ritual produced by occultists. But he is fuzzier regarding any possible boundary between theatrical composition and religious liturgy, an issue that might have been brought into greater relief if he had used traditional Christianity as a comparandum.

Despite the inherent interest of the material, the prose style of the book is not especially engaging. It is useful for someone who has an existing curiosity trained on one aspect or another of its subject matter, but it is unlikely to serve to cultivate such interest. I found this book well worth my time, but I would only recommend it to others who share the intensity of my research focus touching on its contents.

The Thoth Tarot, Astrology, & Other Selected Writings

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Thoth Tarot, Astrology, & Other Selected Writings by Phyllis Seckler, edited by David Shoemaker, Gregory Peters, and Rorac Johnson.

Seckler Shoemaker Peters Johnson The Thoth Tarot Astrology and Other Selected Writings

This beautifully bound book is obviously intended to enshrine the work of Thelemic initiate Phyllis Seckler as an occultist legacy. It is issued by the College of Thelema of Northern California, a successor organization to the school that she organized herself, and thus also serves to bolster their own pedigree.

The two treatises on the Thoth Tarot in this volume were each previously serialized in the College of Thelema journal In the Continuum. The first, on “The Thoth Tarot and Psychology,” is very much a matter of Jungian analytic psychology, uninformed even by other aspects of the psychoanalytic tradition, let alone more diverse modern schools of psychology. It takes the surprising but therefore illuminating approach of treating the Trumps in ascending numerical sequence, i.e. the qabalistic path of creation rather than initiation, in order to chart something like a developmental narrative. Seckler has made thorough visual contemplation of the cards, and calls out details I had never observed, although she also makes errors (such as taking the pelican in the Empress card for a swan). She occasionally presumes to explain quotes or passages from The Book of the Law, and these explanations are sadly not very inspired.

The second section, on “The Thoth Tarot and Astrology,” includes some useful charts synthesizing tarot and astrology according to Crowley’s development of the Golden Dawn hermetic doctrines. There is general guidance on astrology that is very much at a primer level. The main body of this text is a full survey of the sun signs, with the zodiacal symbolism illustrated through the trumps and court cards of the Thoth Tarot. It is entirely restricted to the most pedestrian sort of characterological astrology, and I found it an unenlightening chore to read. It has no satisfying summation or synthesis; it merely rehearses details through twelve signs and then stops.

The third section of the book is a collection of correspondence. The editors evidently had a much larger archive at their disposal, and the principles guiding their selection here are not made clear, nor is the sequencing of the letters, which is not reliably chronological. The antagonistic character of some of these letters don’t seem to reflect all that well on Seckler, but I am grateful to have access to them for the light they shed on the history of OTO and Thelemic magick in the twentieth century.

At the end there is a longish interview with “SM” (Soror Meral, i.e. Seckler) from the year 2000. It has some worthwhile autobiographical reflections from Seckler, but entirely too much chattering on from the interviewer regarding her own views of OTO and then-contemporary occultism. This interview is supposedly the last one recorded with Seckler, and there are moments where the full significance of her remarks seems to depend on tone and attitude that the transcript fails to communicate.

The Sky Road

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod.

Macleod The Sky Road

In this novel, MacLeod again presents two linked narratives in different times. In this case, the one in the farther future is told by a historian, and it soon appears that the earlier story is the history that he is attempting to research and write. But tension is maintained for the reader by the fact that with each of these proceeding by their own internal chronology, what the characters in the twenty-first-century story don’t know seems to be exactly what goes without saying in the later period, when everyone knows it and takes it for granted. It’s a clever and effective structure. I think this is also the most Scottish of the four “Fall Revolutions” books.

In notes referred to the author, it is alleged that this final book of the series takes place in a continuity divergent from the second and third, because of an event in the second book that is somehow inconsistent with The Sky Road. I can’t figure it. Portions of The Stone Canal (the second book) take place both before and after the far-future narrative setting of The Sky Road. I see them all integrating well enough, though; there are explicit links to all three of the other books here, and at least cameo appearances of their principal characters.

Although The Sky Road was written and published last, its far-future portions serve to bridge narrative gaps between the other books, particularly helping to account for how the anarcho-socialist Earth society of The Cassini Division (the third book) came into existence. Now having read all four books in publication sequence, I think they could be equally enjoyed in any order whatsoever.

Twilight of the Serpent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Twilight of the Serpent by Peter Valentine Timlett.

Timlett Twilight of the Serpent

This final book of Peter Timlett’s occultist-inspired quasi-historical fantasy trilogy is set in Britain in the first century C.E. Chapter one introduces 10-year-old Jesus of Nazareth on a visit to England. I shouldn’t have been surprised, especially since an overture to this eventuality had been made in the second book (thousands of years earlier in narrative time). But neither Jesus nor the “Culdee” refugees from Palestine become central to the story told here, which is about the demise of British Druidry and the Roman conquest of Britain. The end of the book manages to tell the story of the Druid defeat after that of Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans–although the chronology was the reverse–by means of some “Akashic” shenanigans, and it’s an effective device.

In some ways I guess it’s no worse than the standard fictional convention used to present all of the ancient conversations in English, but it really bothered me that the characters in the book used C.E. dates to reference events in their time. When the Druid high priest refers to “when the Romans first landed at Richboro nine years ago in 43” (169) it makes me wince. I’m sure Timlett worked hard to get his history right, and that his academic sources used C.E. dates, but inflicting them on his pagan characters when Christians are a small persecuted sect at best is just too much for me. He didn’t have his prehistoric Druids in the second book use B.C.E. dates, and this was hardly less anachronistic than that would have been.

The ceremonial magic elements were consistent with the earlier volumes, but the whole affair of the sacred tradition has obviously and consciously degraded in this later age, so that the priesthood is a weak thing indeed. Even so, the primitive Christians do not benefit from comparison to the Druids, despite their destiny to succeed them as custodians of the Light. Chapter seven is an excellent thaumaturgical set-piece, for which the chief operator is Gilda the Witch-Maiden, whose lunar and herbal sorcery is marginal to the solar cult of Druidry.

This book was perhaps my least favorite of the three, but they did fit together into a suitable whole.

Horse Under Water

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Horse Under Water by Len Deighton.

Deighton Horse Under Water

Horse Under Water was Deighton’s second novel and a sequel to his first, The Ipcress File. It continues with the same unnamed protagonist, told in his droll, often circumspect voice, singling out relevant details and allowing the reader to stitch the picture together. The plot involves a great deal of “frogman” action, largely off the coast of Portugal. But there is also intrigue in London, with a fair amount of travel back and forth. Chapters are short, often just one or two pages, and their titles all have the flavor of crossword clues, consistent with the obscurity of the facts as the man from W.O.O.C.(P) tries to discover the real narrative behind the malefactors he encounters.

Baix of the (Marrakech) Sûreté Nationale …: “In any narcotics investigation we are most enthusiastic that the criminal is apprehensive.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. (211)

Ancient Light

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ancient Light by John Banville.

Banville Ancient Light

John Banville’s two previous novels about Alexander Cleave and his daughter Cass (Eclipse and Shroud) were synchronized with one another, so that neither was needed to appreciate the other, but either would “spoil” the other’s ending. I expected this third book, focusing on Alexander Cleave a decade later, to be a continuation of Eclipse for which Shroud would not furnish any explicit background. I had not reckoned on Banville’s ability to construct one of the most elaborate instances of dramatic irony I have ever encountered on the printed page. It started early, and continued for nearly the entire book within one of the two major plot strands. I don’t know how the book would have read in the absence of that very vivid irony, which depended entirely on familiarity with Shroud.

“Cleave” is aptly named in this book, split between memories of his sixteenth summer, when he had an affair with his best friend’s thirty-five-year-old mother, and his first movie role fifty years later, coming out of retirement from his stage acting career. Just as the titles of the previous books applied to their contents in over-determined polyvalent ways, so too does “ancient light.” The other titles appear again, subtly worked in to the closing passages, where Banville also quite overtly opens towards a possible further volume.

I liked Ancient Light better than Eclipse and perhaps not quite as much as Shroud. Consistent with the others, the prose is writerly, but still tailored to the voice of the principal character, and the book is filled with sensuous observation along with both epistemological and emotional difficulty. Critic Keshava Guha derided Ancient Light for its “vagueness,” but I found it to have a real precision in the construction of its characters and the development of its themes.

Conan the Free Lance

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan the Free Lance by Steve Perry.

Perry Conan the Free Lance

I had honestly hoped–and with good reason, I think–that Conan the Free Lance would be the worst Conan novel I had ever read. But I’m afraid that distinction still belongs to the same author’s Conan the Indomitable. The two do have formal similarities that are worth remark in the larger world of Conan pastiche novels.

Despite frequent invocations of the geography invented by Robert E. Howard, Steve Perry’s setting for Conan tales seems more like the planet Mongo than it does the Hyborian Age. It teems with intelligent species of widely divergent origins, and he seems happy to introduce two or more exotic races per book. In this one, we have Pili (naturally-evolved lizard-men), Selkies (thaumaturgically-created fish-men), and other creatures formed by sorcery: skreeches, eels of power, and the Kralix.

There is more use of a comic narrative tone than is customary in Conan pastiche, and not with Howard’s original sense of black humor. The various sexual incidents, although not presented graphically, have a sort of juvenile camp atmosphere. And the climactic battle in this book has more than a whiff of farce about it. The chief villain, despite his vast sorcerous power, is injudicious to the point of witlessness. Also, feigned archaic diction is thrown in with some unwelcome regularity, and it manages to sound “wrong” even when it’s grammatically correct.

The characters are flat, and the plot is unremarkable. All I got from this book was the satisfaction that it was almost as bad as I thought it would be.

Unflattening

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Unflattening by Nick Sousanis.

Sousanis Unflattening

Unflattening is a book-length comics composition–hardly a “graphic novel,” since it is a work of non-fiction. Author/artist Nick Sousanis adapted it from his own academic dissertation. The contents are highly reflexive, and consist for the most part of a discussion of parallax and its value in perception, epistemology, social change, and even biology. It is an inspirational book that is entirely free of supernaturalism or speculative “woo.” Although its first and primary explanatory paradigm is the hypergeometry intimated by Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, Sousanis does not insist on a fourth spatial dimension, only further conceptual dimensions beyond those of the reader’s conscious orientation.

Although the book has only eight short chapters, the individual pages are “long.” There is an exhibition of parallax in the complementary but non-identical content of the the words and images, a phenomenon explicitly discussed in the course of the book. Part of the “distance” between the verbal and visual contents is the difference in the form of citation. When the text cites a writer (e.g. Buckminster Fuller or George Lakoff), Sousanis mentions the source at the site of the reference. But when the images cite precedent visual sources (e.g. the Mona Lisa or Doctor Who‘s TARDIS) these are usually just verbally identified in the endnotes, if at all. (There are some exceptions: “after Boticelli,” “after Watterson.”) One or two pages might be enough for a single sitting, if one “reads” them carefully–attending to the images, reading the words, and reviewing both to see the ways in which they inform one another. The reader should be attentive to the full page as the unit of composition, rather than allowing the gutters between panels to restrict attention. Sousanis emphasizes the value of simultaneity in visual presentation, as opposed to the linear seriality of text.

This volume encodes a lot of valuable concepts, but none of them were really new to me. It expresses an outlook with which I am in sympathy, and it does so in a manner that I think is really admirable.

Don’t Hide the Madness

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Don’t Hide the Madness: William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg by William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, edited by Steven Taylor; due October 16th from Three Rooms Press.

I like the title of this book, but it’s not really transparent to the volume’s content. More lucid choices might have been The Exorcism of William S. Burroughs, or Old Beatniks with Guns, or most accurately Reminiscing and Cat Fancying with Bill and Al. It’s a carefully edited full transcript of about sixteenBurroughs Ginsberg Taylor Don't Hide the Madness hours of conversation between William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, at Burroughs’ place in Kansas over the course of four days in March 1992. The Naked Lunch movie release in England and Japan was the impetus for an “interview” that grew into the more relaxed-yet-ambitious project of capturing the conversations in this book, as sponsored by the London Observer magazine. Within the text, this circumstance isn’t mentioned until two days and over one hundred transcript pages into the visit, and it only occupies the foreground of a single conversational session. The transcripts were prepared from the tapes and edited by musician Steven Taylor, who had been working as Ginsberg’s assistant and a contributor to his performances.

Burroughs was pleased by Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, so that forms a focus for some of the discussion. During the course of Ginsberg’s visit, the two of them and some friends go to a local screening of the movie. Another principal activity is a brief trip to fire a few of Burroughs’ guns. But probably the most significant event during the visit was Burroughs undergoing an exorcism of the “Ugly Spirit” (so identified by Brion Gysin) that Burroughs believed had been responsible for making him shoot his wife to death in Mexico in 1951. The exorcism was performed by a Native American shaman named Melvin Betsellie. Discussion often returns to the health concerns of the two men. They review various mutual acquaintances and old experiences, and discuss a number of literary figures and social scenes. Occasionally one will read out loud from a book or an article, and Ginsberg and Burroughs both recite poems from memory. Burroughs very frequently breaks off to address himself affectionately to one of his six cats.

The lack of an index is disappointing in a book that is practically an orgy of name-dropping, and includes a fair amount of trivial conversational context. Some topical metadata to reference persons discussed are in Ginsberg’s synopses of the tapes, used as chapter headers and reproduced in the table of contents. But if you want to find the four mentions of Harry Smith for instance, you’ll just have to read right through. Likewise, a key to the abbreviations used for attributing speech would be very helpful. WSB and AG are obvious enough, but identifying the other speakers from their abbreviations may require careful reading of the editor’s introduction and the synopses. I was reading an advance review copy (via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program), so either or both of these failings of the editorial apparatus might be addressed in the actual first edition.

The cover art by R. Crumb is a lovely portrait of the two men, and there are some black-and-white photos of Burroughs taken by Ginsberg on the weekend of the conversation, along with some other photos of the men that are not credited.

I enjoyed this read, and it renewed my interest in reading some of Burroughs’ later novels. It’s definitely a book for someone who can bring to it an existing appreciation for Burroughs, at least. The reader also needs an ability to savor the conversational minutiae of old men, or failing that, some talent for skimming.