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the mouse

I decided recently to reread a few of the Narnia books, which I hadn't looked at in many years. On the whole, I have mixed feelings about Narnia. I tend to sympathize with Tolkien's complaints about the mishmash of different legendary and invented beings; and I feel that Lewis has too much tendency to lecture the reader, either in his own voice or through that of Aslan. Really the story often loses its dramatic tension when Aslan comes on the scene.

On the other hand, there are things to like in Narnia. In particular, my favorite book in the series was always The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; and rereading it this time, I saw that the most important reason for this was the character of Reepicheep.

Reepicheep is the chieftain of the talking mice of Narnia. He stands two feet tall, and carries a miniature rapier. This is something of an anachronism, a bit of French ancien régime gear and manners in a world that is otherwise a mix of ancient and medieval; and I find it a bit surprising in that Lewis wrote explicitly, in "On Stories," that he had never been able to take any pleasure in The Three Musketeers, which seems like the obvious model for Reepicheep's courtliness and insane bravery. It's as if Lewis managed to extract something he liked from a story full of intrigues that he couldn't stand.

Reepicheep's courage is an elegant paradox. The classic comparison is "as brave as a lion," but courage in the ordinary sense of the word isn't the main thing Aslan personifies. And really, it's not that hard for a huge beast with teeth and claws to face danger. For a mouse to do so is much more impressive. But Reepicheep has the physical skills to take care of himself, as we see what Eustace, a boy from Earth, grabs his tail and swings him by it; and he's also eager to confront danger. Nor is his courage only physical; there's a crucial scene where he stands up to Caspian, the king of Narnia, and tells him that Caspian must not do something that Caspian desperately wants to do, and that if Caspian tries to do it it will be Reepicheep's duty to physically restrain him.

Beyond that, Reepicheep has other admirable qualities. For one, some time after the clash with Eustuce, at a time when Eustace has gotten himself into a seriously bad situation, Reepicheep is the one who befriends him and tries to encourage him, which is a fine illustration of nobility of character. For another, there's the scene near the end where Reepicheep, at the point of gaining his heart's desire, takes off his sword and throws it into the sea, saying he won't need it any longer. I really can't think of any other character in Lewis's fiction who, for all his faults, so unhesitatingly does the right thing.

quotations from Orwell

Earlier today, I happened to think of a well-known line from Orwell, to the effect that there are some things so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them. This time, I decided to do a Web search. I didn't find those exact words, but I did find what I think is the original wording, and its source. It also turned out to be a plausible source for another famous Orwell line, about people sleeping peacefully in their beds because rough men are ready to do violence on their behalf. Again, those exact words didn't turn up—and I think I've seen it said that Orwell never actually said it—but I did turn up a line that expresses very much the same sentiment.

The source for both was an essay Orwell wrote in May 1945, "Notes on Nationalism," which can be seen here. In it, Orwell says that One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. And a bit earlier, he gives a list of obviously true beliefs that adherents of various systems of ideas cannot accept and therefore cannot admit; one example, for pacifists, is that Those who "abjure" violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf. I think each of those is plausible as an original source for the lines I referred to.

found art

The New York Times has published two maps: One of the United States without the areas that voted for Clinton, and one without the areas that voted for Trump. The second was kind of an archipelago, rather like Earthsea, which started me thinking of these as settings for fantasy novels.

And it hit me: The map of Trump America was recognizably the same land area, but eroded away along the coast and the Great Lakes. It would be fairly plausible as a setting for a story in a future world where the icecaps had melted and the sea levels had risen! A vast, somewhat sparsely populated land with a somewhat familiar shape. . . .

Goldenhand

I learned, just recently, that Garth Nix had written a new novel in the Abhorsen series, about the further experiences of Lirael. I have loved this series since I first happened on Sabriel, so the new book was one of my first requests from the county library. And I'm very happy with it.

For one thing, it brings together several threads of story from previous books, and resolves them: Lirael's grief for the Disreputable Dog, Nicholas Sayre's curiosity about the Old Kingdom, the fate of Lirael's mother, and the fate of Clariel, an Abhorsen of the far past who came back from death to be a major threat.

For another, it expands Nix's world. I was totally excited when I looked at the map in front and saw a facing page with a map on a different scale, in which the entire Old Kingdom was tucked into one small corner at the bottom. For an inveterate worldbuilding nothing can be more exciting.

But most of all, I liked the two focal characters: Lirael, the Abhorsen in Waiting, returned to her home and seeing it differently; and Ferin, a younger girl from a remote northern tribe with a really unusual background. Most of the novel alternates between their viewpoints, and does a brilliant job, with nearly every chapter ending a cliffhanger. Both of them are exemplars, but exemplars of different things; but Nix also makes some brilliant parallels between them. Nix has a really good sense of character, and he's at his best here. And there are also love stories woven into the plot for both of them. I was especially pleased that despite making two of the characters awkward, Nix resisted the temptation to hold things up by having them conceal their feelings for no good reason; there's enough real drama going on so there's no need for false drama.

Nix may be my favorite living fantasist. At any rate, I can't think of another I like more.

blindsided

At least in the Anglosphere, it seems that the public opinion polls, and the news media generally, are doing really badly at predicting political outcomes. A few months ago there was the Brexit upset; now there's the Trump victory. In both cases, before the vote was held, people were saying that the side that won had no chance—and were catastrophically wrong. I don't know if this will apply more generally than to the English-speaking world, but I've now seen the first assurances that Marine Le Pen will never win the presidency in France.

The response, in both cases, is to attribute the outcome to racism. I don't really think that works. You can't explain a variable response by pointing to a constant cause. Certainly there's racism in the United States; but there was racism when Johnson was elected, and Carter, and Clinton, and Obama, and it wasn't a powerful enough factor to tip the election. And each year brings in new voters who are, as a population, less racist. If anything, the racist vote ought to count for less than it did when Obama won in 2008 with enough support to dominate Congress the way Trump is likely to now. Whatever caused the unexpected results has to be something other than the familiar old dying bigotry.

And that's a natural lead-in to my proposing my theory. But I don't have one; I don't know enough. I thought that the people who were predicting a sweeping Clinton victory were overconfident—there was always the Bradley effect, for one thing—but I anticipated that this morning I would be seeing news of exactly that victory. I have no idea where things are going now.

in passing

C and I saw Doctor Strange today, and enjoyed it quite a lot. Here I just wanted to note one line that caught my attention: Early on, when Strange is driving to a speaking engagement, he's using his phone to discuss challenging cases he might take on as a surgeon. One of them is a man in his mid-thirties who suffered spinal injury while wearing a suit of experimental powered armor. That's right, Stephen Strange was offered the chance to operate on James Rhodes after his combat injury in Civil War!

rereading

Before we moved up to Riverside, I did some online research and found that the catalog of the county library system listed more current science fiction and fantasy than the catalog of the city library system. (This is very unlike the situation in San Diego, but no city in this county has anything like San Diego's share of its county's population.) So a couple of weeks ago I finally made my way out to the nearest library branch, the Louis Robidoux Library (named for a 19th-century settler), and got a library card: a little plastic widget that goes on my keychain. And now I've started taking out books. A lot of them are going to be books I've requested online, but when I was last out there I took a look at their SF shelves, and decided to come home with Michael Flynn's Eifelheim, which I hadn't read in years.

Eifelheim is a first contact novel with a difference: The aliens, an insectoid race, come to Earth, and they appear in Germany in the middle of the Black Death. And then they can't find a way to go home, and Earth life doesn't produce all the amino acids they use, so they're dying of hunger. And they get into a dialogue with the priest of the local village, a man who many years ago studied in Paris and has good knowledge of medieval mathematics and astronomy and natural philosophy, and they grope toward common understandings—during which a few of the aliens convert to Christianity.

Another part of the story is two present-day graduate students, a physicist and a cliometrician, who are put on the track of figuring out the events of that past encounter. There's a lovely moment when the physicist looks at a page of illuminated manuscript and realizes that it makes sense as a circuit diagram. . . .

Anyway, one thing I'd say about this book is that it's intensely moving reading. Flynn is good at this. I totally don't share the religious faith of his medieval people—in some ways, they're more alien to me than his extraterrestrial arthropods—but his portrayal of it says something to me.

One of the themes of this story seems to be the importance of law. The aliens don't really have law as we conceive it; they seem to think that "the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must," as Thucydides put it. But the medieval humans do have law, however imperfect it is. There's one striking scene where William of Occam comes by for a visit, and sets forth his political doctrines: That the prince's word is law, but only insofar as the prince is acting for the good of the people, and if the prince becomes corrupted, his word no longer counts as law. And the signs of corruption are denial of the people's rights, including life, resistance to tyranny, and property, though they may voluntarily give up property if doing so makes them happy. We also see people going through legal proceedings and actually gaining some protection from them; in fact, debates over legal rights are all through Eifelheim.

But beyond that, this is a book about theodicy, or as Milton said, "To justify the ways of God to man." The humans are dying horribly of plague, and cannot understand how God can inflict this on them. And the visitors are dying of malnutrition, little less horribly. There's a wonderful scene where the village priest and a dying alien sit outside, and talk about natural philosophy and astronomy, and then the priest is called away because his foster daughter has caught the plague, and when he gets back the visitor has died. And actually, the aliens have a theodicy, but not a comforting one: The fundamental natural constants allow the universe to contain life, and if they were even a little different, there would never have been life or mind, but if there is life, there have to be suffering and the things that cause it; even God could not have made a world with life but without horror.

And those problems aren't problems that arise for me, in my worldview, but Flynn makes it understandable emotionally how someone could struggle with them. That's good writing. I'm glad I reread this book.

source

For a long time now, I've used the saying, "Duty calls, in a shrill, unpleasant voice." Just yesterday, I paid my first visit to the Riverside County Library, acquired a card, and borrowed my first book, a collection of Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League stories. In one of them, a man on another planet says to one of the main characters, Adzel, "Duty calls," and Adzel answers, "In a shrill, unpleasant voice."

I had quite forgotten it, but that has to have been where I acquired that saying. . . .

a link to something funny

I've been following Scandinavia and the World for a while; its art style is pleasant and I like a lot of its comments on national cultures and viewpoints. But I particularly enjoyed the latest strip, which contrasts American and Scandinavian views on health care and their respective disadvantages. . . .

movie

Yesterday C and I went to the local 10-plex. This was the first time we've seen any movie since we moved up here. It's not a large theater, by present-day standards, and it seems to be run on a budget (you buy your tickets at the concession counter), but it was clean and there were no problems with the projection. It seems to be aiming at the student crowd, with scheduled showings of classics, both American and foreign.

What we saw, though, was an American film: The remake of The Magnificent Seven. This adds to my list of recent Western films where the central character is black (notable previous examples being Django and The Hateful Eight). I either haven't seen the original version or don't remember it, so I can't compare the two. (I had one conversation and overheard another one each involving a person who didn't know it was a remake!) On the other hand, I have seen The Seven Samurai, at least once and perhaps twice, so comparisons to it occurred to me.

This film was not out and out triumphal; more than one of its seven heroic defenders is dead by the end. On the other hand, it was definitely less ironic than The Seven Samurai. I think I prefer the more ironic treatment, and irony is certainly possible in Westerns, but I do have to agree that the sense of heroic legend is fitting in a Western. Really in a lot of ways this was a revival of classic formulas for a new audience; in particular, I was entertained by seeing a "training a village of noncombatants to defend themselves" montage, having written rules for that kind of scene for one of my recent GURPS books. I'd put this film in the high B range: Definitely worth seeing but not essential.

Of the various previews, the one that stood out for me was Passengers, which looks to be both a fairly hard science fiction film and a film with strong characterization. I'm hoping it will have the balance between action, characterization, and sensawunda that the new Star Trek fell so badly short of for me.

Elsewhere in the course of an afternoon off, we had our hair cut (we've found a place that's affordable and does satisfactory work), had an early dinner at Extreme Pita, and stopped at La Michoacana for ice cream (they're nearly as good as the Mariposa was in our old neighborhood). So now we're a bit decompressed, which we needed.

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