Argent'horn

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Location: Newark, Delaware, United States

My name is David P. Bellamy. The only significant thing not mentioned elsewhere here is, I think, that I almost always prefer to read a book instead of watching a movie.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Reviews

I don't think I have written a book review of a novel since I wrote book reports in school; papers in college English literature classes are not the same thing. However, I have read three fascinating books over the last few months which I want to discuss. The books are: (In reverse order of publication, I think) Love in the Time of Unraveling, by Franetta McMillian, Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson, and Broken Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin.

Franetta McMillian's and N. K. Jemisin's books are parts of trilogies; Nalo Hopkinson's is a stand-alone. While searching for these on Amazon, I discovered that Broken Kingdoms is the last volume of a trilogy. I have read the first one but not the second. However, this review involves only Broken Kingdoms, although much of what I say applies also to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which is the first of this series. Love in the Time of Unraveling is the first book of a trilogy; it is the author's first published novel.

One aspect of myth, perhaps the defining aspect, is that it involves the relationship between mortals and immortals. Magic, or Magick, is often seen as a power of immortals which may or may not be given to select mortals under some circumstances. These three books deal with this in dramatically different ways. All of them are wonderful blends of sf and Magickal fantasy, written by black women authors. SF and fantasy by black women nowadays seem to me to be the most exciting current part of science fiction and fantasy. These books form a tripod of approaches to the relationship between humans and immortals; even though they have different styles and characters, and probably draw upon different Pantheons for their mythic underpinnings, the three of them taken together provide a more complete picture of the human/deity interface than any one or two of them alone.

Broken Kingdoms is another example of Jemisin's continuing break with the Celtic, or more generally Mediaeval European, settings for heroic fantasy. This was so long overdue that it is a real breath of fresh air, in my opinion. (I wish I had read this entire trilogy; I will do so soon.) The overwhelming political intrigue and larger than life heroics makes this book satisfying in a standard way. The focus is on the political intrigue, and phenomena far more important than the individual characters' problems. The interaction between humans and the assorted gods, demigods, and demons provides a depth and texture that I find really satisfying.

Sister Mine is at the opposite extreme. The issues around which the story revolves are personal ones. They involve sibling conflicts, family dynamics involving disturbing or strange relatives, and the problem of being mortal humans who are closely related to immortals. This one gets more closely at what someone (Joseph Campbell, maybe?) says in effect is the archetypal Creation Myth. There are issues of cosmic significance in the setting, but they are peripheral. To avoid spoilers, I will not say more about this. I will ask, however: Who knew that kudzu could have such mythic importance?

Love in the Time of Unraveling takes a third path. Gods and goddesses do not appear as characters in the book, but they are always present and accessible to the characters through ritual invocation. In this sense, this book is the most realistic of the three, since this is how most of us encounter deities, if we encounter them at all. It is also the most dystopian, since it takes place on a future Earth where the air is so polluted and toxic that it is the rule rather than the exception for ordinary people, not wealthy enough to afford extreme remedies, to die young of environmental diseases. I am eager to read the rest of the trilogy when it becomes available. In Love in the Time of Unraveling and Sister Mine, I find myself deeply caring about the characters; I want to spend more time with them. I am thus sad that Sister Mine is not part of a larger work. In Broken Kingdoms, I am most absorbed by the plot and story arc. The characters are interesting, but they do not captivate me as those of the other two books do. All three of these books make it clear that deities are not necessarily superior to mortals, but they are very different. They have different challenges, different abilities, and different needs from humans. I am absolutely thrilled by all three of these books; and I am very glad that I happened to have read them all, one after another, which led me to see the complementarity that I would likely have missed otherwise.

If any readers here have not read them, please get them as soon as possible and do so!

[In the interest of disclosure, I will say that Nalo Hopkinson and Franetta Mcmillian are friends of mine. Jemisin I have met only once, briefly. I want to thank Nalo for help with the html coding, after the review was written. I apologize that the links do not work, but the books should be easy to find.]

Friday, August 17, 2012

Hmmm. It has been almost 13 months since I posted here. Too long. It is a curious fact that fifteen or so years ago, in my early fifties, i could not wait to retire. Now, in my late sixties, I have no desire at all to retire. Somehow, the work I am doing has become fun again, as it was in the 1960's and 1970's. I am not sure why, since the working conditions are no better. Our students are somewhat better than they were around 1990, on average, but I am not inclined to consider that too big a factor.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Apollo 11

Forty two years ago today, July 20, 1969, two men walked on the moon for the first time. No one has been there at all since the early 1970,s. My students this morning had no idea of the significance of the date.

It is a tragedy that space explorations have been abandoned except for near earth orbit and robotic probes for scientific purposes. A defining part of the American character has been the need for a frontier, for most of the history of this country. Space, beyond Earth, is our frontier these days. It is a profound tragedy that very few people seem to care that we are not pursuing it nowadays. The retirement of the shuttle fleet is just the most recent of the lack of vision, the malaise, that seems to pervade our psyche. Some optimists have argued to me that for example, it was a century and a quarter between the first European contact with the American continent and the establishment of the first permanent [English] settlement. This is not a valid comparison, really, since there were already people here who were conquered by the English and other Europeans. There are no such people on the moon, for example. The land is there for the taking. But, I hope their optimism is justified, nontheless.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Initiation from childhood into adulthood

I posted this entry a few years ago in another venue. It just came to my attention again, and I thought it would be useful, perhaps, to edit it slightly and post it here.

I have often heard it said that we have no satisfactory formal rite of passage initiation into adulthood, for either boys or girls. I think this is true, and I think it causes us much trouble when teen gangs, groping in the dark, so to speak, attempt to create their own. I have friends who say that our culture's only boyhood-to-manhood initiation is military basic training, which only a minority ever experience. In some imperfect way, the self-reliance and original contribution to knowledge, followed by defending what one has created, in the course of earning a Ph. D. degree, plays a similar role. I have experienced this one, but not military basic training. Regardless, both are missed by the vast majority of young people.

It is popular in some circles to decry this situation and work to create rituals which meaningfully initiate young people into adulthood; I have participated in such in the Pagan community, and I think some other groups do similar things. I believe that these have SOME merit.

I think there is a deep and serious problem, however, which reaches far beyond the question of each individual's journey. In many societies, wild creativity is tolerated in children, but adults are required to think "inside the box" and to abandon the free-thinking of childhood. Saint Paul (for whom I have no love whatever) wrote (KJV, quoted from memory) "When I was a child I spake as a child, I thought as a child, and I understood as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.*" This pattern exists in almost every society, where adults become much more rigid in their thinking, giving up their childhood creative energy as irresponsible. I read an sf story years ago which had the thesis that gorillas do the same thing: Adults lose the playfulness and accompanying creativity which they possessed when immature.

It is easy to see how sociobiological selection creates extreme pressure in this direction. Unbridled creativity most of the time leads to disaster. Changing the tools or methods of hunting, gathering, or even agriculture will lead to extinction of the whole culture if it does not work, so keeping things the same is a major survival trait for cultures unless they have an abundance of resources and so can afford lots of mistakes.

Our own culture, having a lack of adulthood rituals, does not effectively initiate this rigidity of thinking which the vast majority of cultures do, at least not in every person. As we live in relative plenty compared to many human societies, we can get away with this. The result has been, in the past few centuries, the greatest flowering of creativity in art, science, and engineering that humanity has ever experienced. (Yes, the ancients in Greece, India, Egypt, and Rome, accomplished a lot in this regard, but they never came close to going to the moon or creating the Internet, for example.)

So I think this is a serious conundrum. We, individually, desperately need serious transition-to-adulthood rituals. But, if we create them in a way which is really satisfactory for individuals, we will lose the creative edge which has made our times so amazing in so many ways, and fall into a state of stagnation.

I would love to read the reactions of other members of this group to this. Does anyone else feel that there is an ultimately insoluble problem here, or does anyone see a way to have both needs met?

It seems to me that this is both our culture's greatest strength and, simultaneously, its greatest vulnerability.

*Aside footnote: I confess that I have never seen the connections between the first 10 verses of I Cor 13 and the text I quoted. My father always used the "When I was a child..." text to explain why it would be a sin for him to play with his three sons while we were children, even though when he did so, I think he enjoyed it. But he felt guilty afterwards. Since I no longer regard the Bible as an important sacred text, I do not expect to spend any significant mental effort to further understanding this particular Biblical passage nor any other. Admittedly, some of my fellow Wiccans and other Pagans think I am making a mistake with this attitude.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sex at Dawn

I have just finished another remarkable book, Sex at Dawn: The prehistoric Origins of modern sexuality. I do not have it at hand and cannot recall the authors, but it makes sense of a lot of confusing things about how people relate sexually. I was a bit skeptical when I bought it, but I had read two good reviews, so I read it.

I strongly recommend it. I am still too close to it to make any more thoughtful posts just now.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Oil on troubled waters?

I have the recurring thought that, disastrous as the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is, there could be a (tiny) silver lining. It seems to me that the energy transfer from warm water to air that strengthens hurricanes depends on easy thermal transfer, mediated via evaporation, no doubt, between water and air. If there is a layer of oil on the surface of the water, I predict that it will make this energy transfer less efficient, and will therefore make any hurricanes which form in, or move into, the Gulf far less intense this summer.

Oil both keeps water from evaporating and acts as an insulating layer.

I can only hope I am right about this; as has been noted by many others, a major hurricane spreading oil far inland could make the situation far worse than it already is.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Ballet

Fifty years ago this month, I began studying ballet, inspired by my sister who had been taking classes for years. All through the rest of high school and college (I was in ninth grade at the time) I was passionate and even obsessed with dance. It was difficult beyond anything I had ever imagined. I just lacked the basic musical education and musicality that was required, and what I now recognize as a bit of ADD made it more difficult.

An operation to remove a bone tumor in my left leg, at the beginning of my senior year in college, gave me a break which afforded some perspective. I faced up to the fact that I would never be successful as a dancer and begin to work seriously on mathematics, which before I had done just for fun. It has been wonderful having a career in mathematics, and I have achieved more than I would ever have dreamed in the pursuit.

Sometimes I wonder whether/how I should take this experience to heart in teaching my students in elementary courses who will never be mathematicians. I keep coming back to the conclusion that if they take math courses, whether for fun or as a requirement for graduation, they need to approach the discipline with the same single-minded passion with which I approached ballet. If they do not, I feel no responsibility for any less than stellar grades they earn. On the other hand, if they do so, I am willing to spend inordinate amounts of time to help them succeed if they still have difficulty.