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Impossible Futures: An Anthology

April 7th, 2014 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Impossible Futures: An Anthology, edited by Judith K. Dial and Thomas EastonImpossible Futures: An Anthology, edited by Judith K. Dial and Thomas Easton (Pink Narcissus, 2013).

There was a time where science and technology were what science fiction was all about. There in the pages of magazines such as Amazing Stories, plot and character were vehicles for bold new inventions, scientific discoveries, and the march of progress. Then science fiction became relevant. As much as the genre has evolved into many sub-genres and threatens join the ranks of serious literature, the golden age of innocence has long since past. And with it a bit of optimism died along the way.

Dial and Easton have brought together some of the most prominent contemporary science fiction writers to return to that earlier age. Sometimes they rework themes of earlier writers (such Allen Steel’s “Locomotive Joe and the Wreck of Space Train No. 4” and Debra Doyle & James D. MacDonald’s “According the Rule”) at others they just pick on more contemporary themes in the voice of an earlier time (such as can be seen in “Private Shrines” by Sara Smith and Justus Perry or “City of Beauty, City of Scars” by Paul Di Filippo).

The conceit of Impossible Futures is that while science fiction often has made stunning predictions about future technology, it makes so many predictions that most of them never come to pass and much of science fiction, especially of the golden age, is just impossible. So, one would think that these stories are about some of these spectacular failures. Some hew closely to this premiss. Space trains (as least as described in “Locomotive Joe”) clearly fail when it comes to the weight to thrust ratio. Others (such as the invisibly costume in James Morrow’s “The Amazing Transparent Man”) just seem more impossible than they may really be. Most of the writers don’t really seem to care if their stories are impossible or not. What they deliver, however, are stories that make impossible (or at least very improbable) seem plausible and entertaining. Perhaps being presented with the plausible impossible can assist in reviving optimism, even if it is all in good fun.

The Doctor and the Kid: A Weird West Tale

April 15th, 2013 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Doctor and the Kid: A Weird West Tale, by Mike Rasnick The Doctor and the Kid: A Weird West Tale by Mike Resnick (Pyr 2011)

Resnick has followed up the entertaining The Buntline Special with an even more polished take on a Old West yarn. This is the story of how Doc Holliday gunned down Billy the Kid. What, you declare, Pat Garrett was responsible the Kids’ early, but well deserved, demise. Just remember, this is an alternative history. Medicine men, such as Geronimo and Hook Nose have prevented the United States from expanding beyond the Mississippi with the use of magic. Besides, Resnick’s Holliday is far more engaging than our Pat Garrent. Resinick is just doing what the old dime novelists did, create an Old West that was better than the real thing.

The background of the tale is that the confederation of medicine men that have been holding the United States at bay is starting to show some wear. For reasons Resnick never explains, the Indian tribes start to settle old grievances that they have had with each other rather concentrating on their common foe. They have also started to act independently in their struggle against the white-eyes. Hook Nose has taken it into his head to protect Billy the Kid, if for no other reason but because the Kid is an unwitting fifth column. The Comanche medicine man, White Eagle, is protecting a rail station because the land under it is claimed by both Apache and Comanche and is sacred to the Apache. Geronimo wants the station gone, but doesn’t know who is actually protecting it and is willing to trade with Holliday. Holliday will be protected while he tries to kill Billy the Kid, if Holliday (along with Edison and Buntline) can get rid of rail station. Why would Holliday want to kill Billy the Kid? Because he is flat broke. Interesting how a simple premise can really complicate things, huh?

Fortunately, Resnick pares down a lot in the telling. Magic moves the story along without taking it over. There are no vampire bats or zombies or such to deal with. Resnick has also reduced the number of characters he has to deal with. Most of the ones we knew from The Buntline Special are either dead or are no longer one speaking terms with Holliday. Resnick does introduce us early on to Susan B. Anthony and Oscar Wilde and then drops them. One suspect that he may have wanted Anthony to take the role of a later character, but that very independent Anthony would have nothing of it. The sad thing here is, that Resnick reduces that crusader for Woman’s Suffrage to a mere prude. It would have absolutely delicious to see more of Wilde, save for the fact that it would hard to believe that Wilde’s wit would have been bested by Holliday. As we already learned from The Buntline Special, it is Holliday’s air of gallow’s humor that keeps the reader turning page after page. Holliday has to get the best lines.

Still, that wit has to play off of someone. Edison and Buntline aren’t up to the task. They are far to optimistic. Resnick resolves this problem with a bounty hunter. Not only is this bounty hunter going after the same quarry as Holliday, but is also a woman. Charlotte Branson is not only clever and has a certain affection for Holliday, but like Holliday is familiar with a life unmoored. The Kid killed her husband.

It wouldn’t be giving anything away to say that Billy the Kid is gunned down. There are some things that happen in every alternative history. Who goes down in history (this or any other) as having dispatched the Kid is another matter. It should also be of no surprise that Edison and Buntline make some progress in learning how to counteract the magic that has been hampering west-ward expansion. Progress is progress, after all, and stories have to go somewhere. Take The Doctor and the Kid for what it is, a light romp with the grim reaper. When you are done—and that will be all too soon—you will be looking forward to the next installment.

Fate of Worlds: Return from the Ringworld

February 25th, 2013 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Fate of Worlds: Return from the Ringworld by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner (TOR 2012)

A common complaint about Niven’s recent offerings has been that they fall short of their illustrious predecessors from forty years ago or so. Let us concede from the start that Fate of Worlds is not the ground-breaking work that Ringworld or Protector were. However, anyone else should agree that few otherwise excellent instances of science fiction can match the audacity of a world that is the equatorial section of a Dyson Sphere or an extraterrestrial species, such as the Pak, that could conform with and at the same time work against our understanding of human evolution or our place in the universe. What Niven and Lerner have done is fill in yet more details and extended the history of Known Space. Fate of Worlds is for those of us who care about the Humans and Puppeteers we have meet in the past as much as the science around them.

Fate of Worlds follows Ringworld’s Children, so the Ringworld has moved itself—against all known physics—into hyperspace to parts unknown. The Human, Luis Wu, and the Puppeteer, Baedeker, have escaped aboard the Longshot, itself a ship that defies what is understood about hyperspace. The disappearance of the Ringworld has more or less shifted the previous interstellar Fringe War to the Puppeteers’ Fleet of Worlds, to Hearth itself. Hearth is in more danger than it knows. Known to very few of the trillion or so Citizens of Hearth, their worlds are not their own. As previously related, the megalomaniac puppeteer Apollo had betrayed Hearth to the Gw’oth. The Gw’oth vaguely resemble octopi and individually are no more intelligent than Puppeteers but are capable of joining in a single group mind. Unknown to everyone is that Apollo’s attempts to regain power not only heightens tensions with rival species but is creating an intelligence that would rival the Gw’oth and has only instrumental use for Hearth. Perhaps the only redeeming feature of this intelligence is that it has the good taste to steal one the most quoted lines from a certain iconic science fiction movie of 1968.

Into the mix are drawn the citizen of New Terra (formally a human colony enslaved on what had be Nature Preserve Four of the Fleet of Worlds) whose leaders would just assume remain anonymous, even from Earth. Here we are reintroduced to Sigmund Ausfaller, Alice Jordan, and the Puppeteer Nessus.

If one can suspend belief for a moment and accept both hyperdrive and that intelligent beings would travel across the galaxy with a technology they don’t understand and which their creators don’t use, the science is solid. This isn’t a space opera, but the science doesn’t take center stage. Through all the various plot twists, one really does come to care about the characters. One rejoices in reunions, is left in dumbfounded grief at sudden loss, and cheers at small victories (one involving a shipload of manure). One even starts to have a greater affinity for the Puppeteers than the Humans (which may be saying something, given that they are cowardly, two-headed herbivores).

In the end Niven and Lerner tie things together nicely and convincingly. Things seem pretty well settled, save for the loose end only the reader knows anything about. So, if you want to go where no science fiction has taken you before, look elsewhere. However, if you are after a satisfying addition to a series you may have come to both love and loath, by all means include Fate of Worlds.



Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon

February 11th, 2013 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder (Pyr 2011)

Expedition to the Mountains of the MoodIn Hodder’s final installment of this steam punk trilogy, we again meet Sir Richard Burton near the conclusion of the tale, which in turn takes place about forty years prior to we left him off in the second book, The Clockwork Man. We (and Burton) are not given long to dwell in the past before Hodder spirits us away to 1914 and World War I. Unlike our Great War, this one has already gone one for considerable length of time and British are making a last stand in East Africa (Just forget about the British Isles. Those had been long lost to the Germans and Kaiser Nietzsche).1 Burton should, and had been, long dead. Time travel is funny like that. This world war, if not more hellish, is certainly more unnatural than the one that almost no one now remembers. It certainly have nightmares of its own. If the reader may recall from The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, two classes of innovations arose centuries before their time—some in defiance to the laws of nature. One followed a biological path (the geneticists) and the other a physical or engineering path (the technologists). By the conclusion of TheCurious Case of the Clockwork Man, Britain had abandoned genetic research in favor of technology and Germany, in a quest to arrive at the Superman that would transcend nature, worked exclusively in genetics. The range and scale, as depicted in Expedition, to which plants and animals can be made into weapons and engines of war is truly horrifying. One weapon in particular, in which the victim is transmogrified into a plant but where the properties of each are blurred, figures predominately. Fortunately Hodder’s prose does not extend as far as his imagination, so that the reader who does not wish to be compelled to face the full force of these horrors need not do so.

There is a certain relief, then to return to the present of 1863 where Burton and Swinburne are sent to find the last undiscovered Nāga black diamonds, which as we learned from the Clockwork Man, allow for—among other things—time travel.2 The cover-story for this mission is that Burton is off once more to find the source of the Nile. Burton brings with him all our favorites from the past two books. No explanation is made about how a poet, a number of policemen, and a mechanical philosopher (just to name few) fit into the official story. The crew, however, would give the promise of excellent company and wit over what would prove an arduous expedition. It is a promise unfulfilled. Everyone is always repressively grim. Early on, Swinburne takes on the role of avenging angel. Burton is forever serious. Almost every member of the expedition dies off in one way are another, without the relief of gallows humor. One might of expected that when Burton’s old love, Isabel, joins the team as the leader of a small army of Arab Amazons, that something interesting would happen. Yet too soon Isabel reverts to form, developing a stiff upper lip. Hodder even misses opportunities with the villains. As with the race to find the source of the Nile in our time, Burton is in a race to find the black diamond against John Speke. It is clear, almost from the moment we encounter Speke that he is not of nefarious material. Instead, the blame can be shifted to the Germans and the Babbage machine that occupies half of Speke’s brain. Even George Lucas knew that we needed to be loathed and intrigued by Darth Vader until the Sith Lord redeems himself at the very end. The Germans, are easy to hate—if only because Hodder has uniformly made them such tedious monsters. One gets the impression that Burton’s exhaustion in is quest is matched only by Hodder’s single minded determination to finish the series. It is enough make one wish to return to the World War.

That wish is granted, since most of the time one is bounced between 1863 and the years 1914-1917. At least the World War has the benefit of a fresh character, H. G. Wells, war correspondent. Wells (who goes by Bertie) is interesting enough, but can’t hold a candle to the previous installments of Swineburne, drunk or sober. Swineburne, whose mission of vengeance was mercifully cut short by his presumed demise in 1863, does reappear in the World War, not a mere plant but an entire jungle. In the last few chapters, and all too briefly, we can at least hear the voice the delighted us in the past two books, if actually meeting him is not unlike discovering Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors.

Burton does make his way back 1840 to stop the assassination of Queen Victoria and the madness that Edward Oxford bequeathed to the past. Hodder does manage to pick up the pace here and Burton stands on the knife-edge of either resetting events back into balance, merely reinforcing the horrors Burton has witnessed, or adding a new voices to the cacophony. In the end, Burton (and apparently Hodder) make the mistake in concluding that is the assassination of the monarch is pivotal and not Oxford’s retreat to 1837. In an attempt to work against the reader’s anticipation, Hodder manages to dissolve his first and best effort in this trilogy in to roiling gray ether of his final entry.

1You may recall that I previously complained about Hodder’s treatment of Nietzsche. Things have not improved.

2And in the process answers the question of how it is that a historian, such as Spring Heeled Jack could travel through time.

A Universe From Nothing

September 20th, 2012 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss (Free Press 2012)

Lawrence Krauss has put together a fine introduction to the current state cosmology that is marred only by a provocatively metaphysical title to which exposition attempts to hew. Authors often lose control of their titles, and Krauss may have argued that subtitle should have read “How there is something rather than nothing,” or even better “How there is something in addition to nothing,” (which would surely be more consistent), but, really it is the metaphysics of “nothing” in the title that make it less than it could have been. But I get ahead of myself. Read the rest of this entry »

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

January 23rd, 2012 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man : (Burton & Swinburne In)
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man : (Burton & Swinburne In)
Mark Hodder, Mark Hodder; Prometheus Books 2011
WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

If you think you know what class warfare is, think again. A bit of perspective, let us take a look at that sensation of Victorian England, The Tichborne Affair. Roger Tichborne was the son of the baron, Sir James Tichborne, and heir to the estate. Roger was lost at sea in 1854 and presumed dead, save that his mother would not accept this. In 1862 (after Sir James’ death) Arthur Orton, a bankrupt butcher from Australia, came forward to claim the title . Never mind that Orton barely resembled Roger Tichborne or knew precious little of what one one expect Roger to know, the mother accepted him. Upon her death, Orton sued to be recognized as Roger (and lost) and then in turn was sued for fraud and perjury (and again lost). It was the most expensive set of trials to date and held that title for over a century. To top the expense is that the facts of the case seemed to be of little import to the public at large. The aristocracy would not believe that one of their own would ever sink to being a common butcher, and the working class saw the upper crust betraying one of their own simply because he had found an honest way to survive. Convictions were set in stone and facts be damned. A near riot ensued upon the conclusion of the second trial as it seemed the mob would attempt to rescue Orton from prison.

Mark Hodder uses this event to bring Sir Richard Burton and Alegernon Swinburne into another steampunk adventure. If you will recall from The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, what we would call the Victorian period has been dashed when a certain historian from the future intervened to foil a failed assassination attempt on the Queen and failed beyond his wildest nightmares with the death of Victoria. To compound matters, he planted the seeds for technology to run amok and for the development of social norms to spin wildly out of hand.

Although the historian is now dead and gone, he is still causing trouble. Not only is technology galloping at a laissez-faire pace but the very technology Spring Heeled Jack introduced is causing rifts in time. It seems that Sir James’ father brought back from South America and hid under his estate a fragment of what Burton knows to be the Eyes of Naga. Never heard of the Eyes of Naga? Well they are the stuff of myth and legend and won’t be unearthed from the Tichborne estate until sometime later this century—in this timeline. Jack, however, used these precious stones to power and control his time machine. His fragment is now (in the world Burton and Swinburne currently find themselves in) interacting with fragments across the world. The stones seems to have telekinetic powers and allow the past and future to interfere with each other.

This all makes life more difficult for Burton and Swinburne but far easier for Hodder, to the point where one might feel he is cheating. Things are harder for Burton and Swinburne because most of the stones are now embedded in the Tichborne Claimant. The stones magnify the near riot of history to a frenzy that would make the riots of Watts and Detroit and the confusion of New Orleans utterly inconsequential. Hodder also uses the stones to explain all the nightmare creature he could not possibly have included in his previous book. One could almost understand the werewolves of London in his last book as maybe a scientific possibility. However, having run out of the improbable, Hodder is left with the fantastic. Now there are ghosts and walking undead (the term “zombie” would be anachronistic here). There is even free-floating ectoplasm and fairies. Well, fairies don’t count. It seems that there are fairies, but the stones simply make them apparent. Now they don’t just torture Charles Doyle figuratively, but actually. It should also be mentioned that Hodder nicely insures that one cannot have zombies without ghosts.

As one might expect, the introduction of ghosts and the undead elevates the great riot to a zombie apocalypse. On the one hand this illustrates a problem often faced with sequels. The Clockwork Man is very much Spring Heeled Jack turned up and more contrived. On the other hand, Burton and Swinburne gel much better here. Oh, and while not quite Sean of the Dead, the undead are fairly entertaining.

One troubling theme that began weakly in Spring Heeled Jack but is much more prominent in The Clockwork Man is that of technological determinism. In the former, the social deviation of the Libertines and the Rakes seemed to have a life of their own until co-opted by the technological classes. Now these social movements are simply dominated by technology. It is also interesting that while Herbert Spencer plays a pivotal and favorable roll, Hodder provides a glimpse through to the early 20th century, one where Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is ruler of Germany and Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin of Russia. Note only does this seem out of character for Nietzsche1, but Hodder seems to ignore the line of though and social development that runs from Kant to Hegel and then Marx. It is hard to believe that the time Hodder has created would be less hospitable to communist ideology than the one we know. The conceit here not only does technology shape ideology but that ideology has no affect on the technology we choose to pursue. The best he can come up with (as seen in the Eyes of Naga) is that there is something trumps mechanical determinism. He may, however, find himself trapped in the sort of quantum mysticism that some science fiction writer become prey to.

Hodder finishes The Clockwork Man with a promise of yet another tale (indeed it is already out). This volume suggests a collapse between this timeline and our own. Perhaps the third installment will deliver.

1Which makes his lament that Spencer is misunderstood galling, since this is exactly what he does to Nietzsche.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

November 28th, 2011 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder (Pyr 2010)

Spring Heeled Jack was a real character of the 19th century, or at least as real as alien abductors are. Jack first made his appearance in the mid 1830′s and while reports were concentrated then and in the 1860′s, sightings continued into the early 1920′s. Jack was described as having red eyes, a large helmeted head, a bat-wing like cape, stilt-like heels, and prodigious jumping ability. Some reports had him jump twenty feet in the air. Jack was also notorious for molesting very young women. With such a reputation, Spring Heeled Jack lived on through penny dreadful and pulp magazines, making an appearance in 2003 in the Dr. Who magazine. It should not go unremarked that the early appearances of Jack almost coincide with the failed assassination attempt upon Queen Victoria.

Mark Hodder recasts Jack into the realm of steam punk. Or to be more precise, Jack is responsible for making a world that we would recognize as steam punk. It would not give up too much to say that Jack, in an effort to remove the tarnish on his family’s name, seeks to erase from history the aforementioned assassination attempt and in the process assures its success. Albert becomes king and there is no Victorian age for the 20th century to snicker over. I am not giving up much because this event is not what changes history. Like Ray Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder,” it is a very little thing, that should have gone unnoticed that at once sends technology out of control and sets social forces to play that would make libertines look like choir boys. Not even 25 years after Jack’s first appearance there are steam-powered hansoms, personal flying machines (also steam-powered), roving incinerators, and more smog than can possibly be imagined. Darwin also was less controversial and Mendel started (and published) his work decades ahead of time. The result here would be a genetically enhanced menagerie the would rival anything seen in the “Flintstones.” One might suppose the cause for this would be to make the obligatory introduction of the werewolves of London more plausible.

Even at that, just as Victoria’s demise was of little importance to this steam-driven world, Jack is not even close to one of the main characters. That honor would be shared by Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Burton may be best know as the first European infidel to enter the Ka’ aba in Mecca and see the Al-Ħajaru l-Aswad. Swinburne was a Victorian poet of some note relished his reputation for deviance, a reputation that likely far outstripped the facts. In the Victorian age, they never met. But here, why not.

Burton has been assigned, by the Prime Minister, to investigate a series of abductions associated with the appearance of werewolves. The government feared that the technological class had become too independent. If he has time, he can also look into Spring Heeled Jack. These case (of course) converge. Those that know of Burton far better than I would know that after 1861 he spent a declining career moving from one minor diplomatic post to another. At least in this steam punk world Burton is able to bring talents to their best uses. These talents are considerable and it is the character of Burton that stands out. The pairing with Swinburne would seem odd (this Swinburne does live up to most his Victorian counterpart’s reputation). Burton is purposeful, clear-headed, and, well, might even best Chuck Norris or whoever the current testosterone-addled action figure might be. Swinburne is small, dissipated, and often muddle-headed. Nevertheless Burton sees something in Swinburne.

Hodder gives the reader a simply excellent yarn, engagingly told. In the Burton brings matters to a close, without exactly putting things to rights. That may not be so good for you and me (or humanity in general) but, it at least gives Hodder the chance to tell his next tale, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man. What Hodder does not do, however, is explain the reports of Spring Heeled Jack in our world.

Cowboy Angels

October 17th, 2011 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuly (Pyr 2011)

I must admit that I am not a fan of alternative history novels. There is first the problem how alternative history differs from fiction in general. The answer usually turns on a single event turning out differently that is in fact the case. To look a recent and painful incident, authorities might have connected the proverbial dots and foiled the 9/11 plot. Going back further, image that on August 23, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. came down with laryngitis, or more happily that he did not go out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968. One wonders what would things be like today. Unfortunately, such all-to-human counterfactuals, being unmoored from any covering laws, are such that almost any any alternative seems plausible, so that any such story we choose to tell says far more about ourselves now than how we might have been.

One might reply that this is exactly what fiction is suppose to do, that an alternative history is simply a devise that allows us to suspend disbelief that what is placed before is fiction and yet feels real. And if simply providing the illusion rather than reality, one might set aside any misgivings, but there is a more serious indulgence. For while the historian might stray and ask how things might have been different as if we could learn from our mistakes beforehand and so gather up some lesson from history with the hope that things could have been better and will having now been chasten, it is the conceit of alternative history that this is the best of all possible worlds. Fiction by its nature almost demands that this be so since it thrives on tension. A world better than the one we inhabit may be more pleasant to live in, but would make for dull reading. Our attention is lost at “happily ever after.” At best, such fiction is skewed to providing an inflated view of ourselves.

After such a scree, one would be forgiven if I summarily dismissed McAuley’s Cowboy Angels as being no more than historical fiction on stilts. This particular work includes not one but a couple dozen alternative histories readily at hand and a handful that we actually visit. Such pardon is unnecessary. The main alternative history (which following McAuley we will call “the Real”) avoided World War II, and the entire Cold War (this includes not having a Korean or Vietnam War) and in most ways is at least twenty years more advanced than are we and has at least one bit of technological far outside our grasp. People of the Real seem happier, wealthier, healthier, than we do, and it would appear that everyone that lived through the 1960′s remembered them.

For all that, Cowboy Angels is still engaging. What the America of the Real discovered was how to travel to alternative universes. Each of these alternate Americas are is a sheaf that has branched of the Real. What this Real America also discovered was it would seem that it was the best of all possible Americas. The conceit would seem to be vindicated. Faced with this, the America of the Real engages in clandestine operations and regional conflicts to liberate these alter-Americas into the image of the Real. The agency of the Real in charge of trans-universal liberation is—not surprisingly—the CIA. The parallels to this sheaf (which look almost but not quite like the Nixon sheaf of the book) are evident and in time such operations are shutdown following the Church commission (it is remarkable how parallel universes converge when space isn’t flat).

If you are afraid that I’ve just given away the plot, you are dead wrong. I’ve only given up the background. The real action involves the a retired agent, Adam Stone, and his travels across several sheaves to rescue a former colleague, Tom Waverly. Tom, incidentally, was presumed dead for three years before any of this action took place and manages to kill himself off at least once more before it is all over. That McAuley is having fun is evident. Adam Stone is rock-solid, Tom Waverly is, well, not, and the Real—counter to its “Its a Wonderful Life” pretensions—includes a Pottersville, New York. More than fun, McAuley provides a steady stream of action and the sort of spy-craft intrigue one would expect of a novel that involves the CIA in this, or any other possible world. Moreover, each sheaf Adam and Tom find themselves in is a case study in the merits of intervening in the affairs of others we judge less fortunate. To complicate matters, there may also be a plot by a splinter group of the CIA that want to revive the glory days with . . . time travel. You guessed that, didn’t you. Part of the fun, and part of what makes Stone’s job so difficult in accepting this possibility, is that it is hard to tell whether you are meeting a past or future self or simply a self from an alternative universe. Speaking of alternative selves, some are more constant than others. One of the more constant would be Elvis (but alas, not Bob Dylan). Apparently he is a performer in most alternative universes. The Real has imported several for themselves (and you thought ours died in 1974). Time travel and calculated intervention have dangers that go beyond the parallels with alternative universes, but McAuley does not really go beyond the confines he has already appointed and as such really doesn’t pursue any moral implications beyond what Issac Asimov did in the 1950′s with The End of Eternity.

That glitch aside, McAuley pulls off a masterful tale that until the very end takes the reader to the very edge of some sort resolution, sense, or even sanity, only to be pulled deeper into action where neither time nor space should make any sense at all and yet must. Presuming that this is the best of all possible worlds damns all other possibilities.

The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale

September 26th, 2011 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions
The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale by Mike Resnick, Cover and Interior Illustrations by J. Seamas Gallagher.

The Buntline Special

The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale by Mike Resnick (Pyr 2010)

Classifying The Buntline Special is something of a challenge. At first one might be inclined to file it under steampunk. It is set in the late nineteenth century (Tombstone, Arizona, 1881) and the internal combustion is no where insight. However, the reason that no such engines exist is because it would appear that it is going to be bypassed altogether in favor of electricity. Besides, in many ways the Tombstone of The Buntline Special is like the the Tombstone of the Old West. There are no pretensions of it being a dystopia, just a place that had but a nodding acquaintance with civil order. Perhaps the alternative history genre? After all, what can one say about a story set in Tombstone, where the United States ends at the Mississippi? Perhaps, but alternative history is normally based on some rather mundane event turning out differently. In this case, the United States does not extend further west because the Indian Nations have some very powerful medicine men who held the most powerful nation in the western hemisphere at bay by, well, magic, Geronimo being the most prominent practitioner, Resnick also introduces us to undead creatures (anachronistically called zombies to fit the current zeitgeist) and someone who is somewhere between a vampire and a werewolf. So maybe we are back to steampunk and specters spawned by the Victorian age.

What we don’t have here is a Western. Even though this is Tombstone, even if we Doc Holliday, the Earps, the Clantons, and the gunfight at the OK Corral, there isn’t a lot of actions or tension leading up to what action there is. There really isn’t that much science fiction either. Yes, it features Thomas Edison in Tombstone working feverishly on a technological way to counter the Indian magic. Yes, Tombstone has electric street lamps (which no other municipality can boast) and electric vehicles, but it provides no explanation of how Tombstone is generating all this electricity and it boasts something featured as super strong (bullet proof, in fact) super-light brass. Moreover, there is barely a clue as to how Edison is suppose to counter Geronimo and his ilk.

What there is, is dialog. Lots of it, wry, witty, understated, and just plain fun. As one might expect, Resnick gives Holliday the best lines, making almost everyone else a foil for his repartee. That all the living characters (and I dare say a fair number of readers) are clearly out of their depth without their even realizing it when confronting Holliday makes his wit all the more savory.  The art nouvelleque  illustrations by Seamas Gallagher also add a hint of mischief.  For that reason, I am not even going to give a synopsis of the plot, because while the plot makes sense and is well woven together, what really matters the characters that history (for the most part) and Resnick brought together for what is an enjoyable and diversionary read.

The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams

June 6th, 2011 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford 1990).

If God is almighty, all-knowing, and perfectly good, why do bad things happen? Depending on where one stands, such a question is puzzle, a mystery, or proof that the concept of a deity is unsubstantiated. The seeds of the problem can be seen with Epicurus in the 3rd century BCE and has been developed over the centuries. Although stated in many ways, the following argument should give one the gist of the issue at hand.1

  1. If God were all powerful, God could prevent any evil,
  2. If God were all knowing, God would know how to prevent any evil,
  3. If God were perfectly good, God would wish to prevent any evil,
  4. Evil is incompatible with an all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly good being,
  5. By definition, God is all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly good,
  6. Evil exists.
  7. God does not exist.

The argument took its modern form with David Hume and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion but perhaps took on its most rigorous and pithy incarnation with J. L. Mackie and his 1955 article “Evil and Omnipotence.” The following forty years so since the publication of Mackie’s oft quoted and reproduced article has spawned a renewed philosophical interest in and creative investigation of the question of evil.

Adams and Adams have selected twelve previously published articles or chapters (starting with Mackie) to show how the problem has developed and how landscape has changed. Yes, these are all previously published and one could, if one wished, go to the effort of assembling these for yourself, but they are so well placed with each other and the introduction so instructive that the book itself is well worth reading, whether one is an upper-level undergraduate studying philosophy or religion, a professor of the same, or an amateur philosopher.

As previously stated, The Problem, starts with Mackie. For those, such as myself, who have seen Mackie and his argument invoked, summarized, and critiqued, it is good to have finally read the argument as a piece, if for no other reason but because the summaries not only abbreviate the main thrust of Mackie’s presentation but lop off most of his subsidiary critiques.

This in turn is followed by Nelson Pike’s “Hume on Evil,” which allows us to see the connection between Hume and Mackie. More than that, Pike’s argument, including his borrowing of Leibniz’s best possible world analysis paves the way the arguments that Alvin Plantinga would later refine in The Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom and Evil.

One pleasant surprise for me was Roderick Chisholm’s “The Defeat of Good and Evil.” Anyone who has read Marilyn McCord Adams’ numerous contributions to the question of evil will be aware of her distinction between balancing good against evil with good defeating evil. The technical distinction is found in this article dating from 1968, and Chisholm is know for nothing if not crafting every finer technical definitions.

The next two chapters, Alvin Plantinga’s “God, Evil and the Problem of Evil” and Robert Merrihew’s Adams’ “Middle Knowledge and the Problem of Evil,” are well paired. Mackie is credited with bringing new rigor to the problem of evil and setting the stage for subsequent discussion. Plantinga can take credit not only for answering Mackie but for taking the problem into a whole new direction. One simply cannot appreciate the various arguments regarding the problem of evil over the past twenty years without reference to this article. The key feature of Plantinga’s argument involves reviving (and recasting) an idea called middle knowledge. Adam’s critique of middle knowledge is important not in that overturns Plantinga’s argument but that it makes a atheologian’s task all the harder—though at the cost of jettisoning some long-held views of omniscience. This has created its own debated among believers.

The next three represent a debated between William Rowe and Stephen Wykstra. Rowe’s “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” along with Wykstra’s “The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering,” reflect not only a response to Plantinga in weakening Makie’s argument from logical to evidential but the believer’s agnostic reply. Basically Rowe’s argument is that on the evidence, one would expect either less suffering than there is or that there would be no suffering of a particular sort (Rowe presses the second here). Wykstra’s reply is that such an analysis depends on (a) what we are in a position to know or expect and (b) within some specific varieties of theism we would expect goods beyond our ken to arise out of evils. Some variations of this argument have been called the agnostic defense. Rowe’s rejoinder is that Wykstra is relying on an enhanced version of theism that depends on the more generic version that he, Rowe, has criticized. Consequently the enhanced version falls with the generic. Both evidential problem of evil and the “agnostic” reply have been hotly debated in the literature. What is also interesting here is that Rowe’s rejoinder neatly sets up Marilyn McCord Adam’s final contribution to this anthology.

Unlike much The Problem, he next installment, a couple of chapters in John Hick’s Evil and the Love of God, is out of chronological sequence. Although Hick’s book might be consider something akin to basic reading on the problem of evil, it does approach things from a very different direction. If you have ever heard the phrase, “vale of soul-making,” you can thank Hick. Discussions, such as Plantinga or Pike’s, which focus on the amount or balance of good and evil in the world are seen by Hicks as essentially aesthetic and do not address the situation of the sufferer herself. Hick argues that what the universe is about is the making and perfecting of souls and that this task requires suffering.

Diogenes Allen at once expands upon Hick and turns his analysis on its head. Allen argues (against Hick’s anthropocentric view) that an aesthetic consideration, if taken teleologically for nature as a whole is a valuable perspective that should not be cast off. In doing so, however, he does make a point, similar to that of Hick’s, that suffering has the potential to open us up to the love of God and so at least has the potential to be of some use.

One of the editors had been setting herself up to have the last word in this anthology. As already noted, a number selections point to Marilyn McCord Adams’ “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.” Adams article to one extent or another takes on most of what has come before and arrives at a provocative synthesis. What most noteworthy of Adams’ work, however, is how she pushes the point with examining evils which would seem to provide doubt that one’s life could provide oneself any great good (what she terms horrendous evils) and the defense of the hope that such evils are defeated by God in that God participates in our suffering with us as made evident in Jesus Christ.

1There is a very separate, and under-appreciated problem that asks that if God is the source of all being, how evil can exist if God is essentially good. If God is good, whence came evil?

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