Friday, November 27, 2020

The War of the Jewels

JRR Tolkien
Completed 11/27/2020, Reviewed 11/27/2020
4 stars

This is the eleventh volume in the History of Middle Earth series by Christopher Tolkien.  This one focuses on the development of the later Silmarillion works after the publication of The Lord of the Rings.  This was a companion piece to volume 10, Morgoth’s Ring.  Together, they cover most of the works of Tolkien’s legendarium.  It is not quite as tough a read as Morgoth’s Ring, but it’s still only for the die-hard fan looking for intensive detail into the development of the stories.  The only part that I had trouble with was the final chapter, which was a detailed description of roots and stems of the different Elvish languages. 

The book begins with the Grey Annals, which are a year by year history of the region known as Beleriand.  The biggest sections deal mostly The Children of Hurin, and a little on The Fall of Gondolin and Beren and Luthien.  There are more detailed accounts of these three later in the book as well.  They are also the stories that Christopher Tolkien recreated in separate volumes, kind of creating its own trilogy. It is interesting to see the development of these stories in Tolkien’s later years.  He’s mostly concerned with details here, specifically, the names of the characters, the spelling of their names, and the correct years of the events occurrences.  Sometimes it gets a little tedious, like when the name changes from change an “n” to and “nd”, or vice versa, or the substitution of an “a” for an “e”.  Once again, it shows how he got lost in the details of his work and gives some sense of why the Silmarillion was never published in his lifetime.  It also has some comments by Christopher as to changes he would have made to the Silmarillion had he done more extensive research into all the scraps of writings he found in the many years he spent getting this HoME series out. 

One very interesting section of this book was the story of Hurin after his children had died and he was released from Angband, Morgoth’s realm.  This was never included in the Silmarillion, or published before this point.  He goes first to the ruined halls of Nargothrond, then to the people of Haleth, his not-so-distant kin, in the forest of Brethil.  Rather than treated as a war hero with respect, he’s arrested and being contemplated for execution.  How this plays out is very interesting, as he reveals himself, the tragedy of his family, and the illegitimacy of the ruler.

But it is clear that the story of Hurin’s children, Turin Turambar and Nienor Niniel, is perhaps the most profound work to come out the works of the Elder Days.  It shows how devious the evil of Morgoth is.  It is also an interesting meditation on the nature of fate.  It seems that no matter how much Turin tried to overcome the evil, he seemed to fall into its hands until fate was fulfilled.  It’s truly a depressing tale, but rich and complex. 

I give this book four out of five stars, as I do all the HoME books.  Even when the reading is difficult or tedious, the wealth of information is staggering.  There’s always something new to discover in each of these books.  But at last, I’m nearly done with the series.  I only have volume 12 left, which I will be reading after a break with a book for book club. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Postman

David Brin
Completed 11/15/2020, Reviewed 11/15/2020
3 stars

I watched the movie version of this book right after finishing it.  What a mistake.  The movie is nothing like the book; it kept just the barebones concepts.  It made me realize just how much I appreciated the book.  It’s not a great book, but it was very good:  interesting, suspenseful, and kept me reading.  The prose was cold, reflecting the stark atmosphere of the post-apocalyptic setting, as well as the weather outside the days I was reading this (haha).  Normally, I wouldn’t like this kind of writing, but it matched the mood the book was trying to create.  I also thought the whole concept of using the mail as a unifying force for the disparate communities surviving after war, plague, and nuclear winter was pretty great.  This book won a couple of awards and was nominated for a few others. 

The story follows Gordon, a loner, trying to survive in a desolate Pacific Northwest USA.  He survives by performing what he remembers of Shakespearean plays and singing songs in the tiny communities he comes across, in exchange for food and shelter.  This doesn’t always work, as many of these communities are suspicious of strangers.  He comes across a mail truck with the clothed skeleton of a mail carrier.  Drenched from the cold rain, he gets in the truck and puts on the mail uniform.  Gordon poses as a mail man for these small communities and is welcomed in readily. 

As Gordon goes from place to place, his lie grows.  He begins commissioning new mail people and actually carrying the mail from town to town.  And he inspires hope for a civilized future.  But the biggest challenge in this post-apocalyptic world is the army of survivalists called the Holnists, named after their megalomaniacal founder.  The Holnists are trying to force a feudal governing system, enslaving most of the people as serfs.  Gordon tries to organize a resistance to combat them.  Despite his lies, he is constantly plagued by his own conscience to keep it going because it gives the people hope and the motivation to fight the Holnists.

Like the prose, the characterization is kind of sparse.  The story is told third person from Gordon’s perspective, so he is well drawn.  He’s is in constant conflict between maintaining the lie by carrying the mail and the message of hope versus just running off after being fed.  It makes him very realistic.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the same about many of the other characters since we don’t spend much time with them.  They end up being relatively two dimensional.  This is mostly a function of plot, as Gordon goes from town to town, meeting different people.  But I did like the situations the traveling put him into.

I don’t really have much else to say about the book.  It’s really good, but I think I was expecting something more.  I give the book three stars out of five.  I think I would have found it a four-star book if I thought more of at least a few other characters.  But the basic conceit and message is what’s awesome.  Something as simple as communication through mail reuniting a fragmented nation was genius.  It makes one think about what would happen to today’s society if we lost the internet and instant messaging, now that so few people keep in touch via the mail.  Thinking about how cut-off we feel now when the internet goes down for a few hours due to a storm or maintenance, I think people would be pretty lost pretty quickly if we lost it for good.  It makes me wonder what Brin would have come up with if he wrote the book now, 34 years after “The Postman” was first published.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Morgoth’s Ring

JRR Tolkien
Completed 11/12/2020, Reviewed 11/12/2020
4 stars 

This is the tenth installment in the History of Middle Earth series edited by Christopher Tolkien.  This volume features different revisions of the creation of Middle Earth.  Like most of its predecessors, it’s for the hardcore fans who want to see the evolution of the Tolkien Legendarium.  I found this volume tougher to read than some of the others, mainly because it contained a essays and fictional ruminations on the nature of the Elves, Men, and Orcs; good and evil; and life and death.  While it may sound interesting at first, one must remember that Tolkien was an Oxford professor, so his philosophical writing is very detailed and academic, even the fictional pieces.  He was exploring the deeper nature of his Legendarium as he was trying to develop The Silmarillion for publication.  I got bogged down in it as it seems Tolkien did himself.

A good portion of the beginning revisits the creation story of Middle Earth.  Here we have several retellings of the story of Iluvatar’s Music that generates the Valar, the Middle Earth pantheon, and designs the world, the Elves, and Men.  Some of the biggest differences in the versions have to do with Melko/Morgoth, the most powerful of the Valar, who dissents from Iluvatar right from the beginning, producing discordant music to Iluvatar’s master Music which the rest of the Valar are also singing.  Originally known as Melko, he gets the name Morgoth from the Elves when he deceives them and turns them away from the rest of the Valar.  The major differences in the versions though, and the discussions later on, have to do with the nature of Morgoth, how his evil plans play out, and how if he is so powerful can he eventually be captured and expelled into the Void.  It turns out that Morgoth imbues his own spirit into the earth, marring it and its creatures.  Also, he incarnates, taking corporeal form.  This slowly weakens him, but it is where the book gets its title.  Just as Sauron put his essence into the One Ring, “the whole of Middle Earth was Morgoth’s Ring”. 

A feature in this volume is the debate between Finrod and Andreth, a male elf and a human woman, as they discuss good and evil; life, death, and immortality; and hope and hopelessness.  At first, I was really into this piece, but this is where I began to have problems following the discussion.  It really was like an academic philosophical debate and I got bogged down in their details.  But I appreciated what Tolkien was doing here, exploring the morality of his own creation. 

Later, Tolkien has essays on these same topics, including reflections on the debate itself.  These were interesting, but again, I got bogged down in the details and the back and forth discussions.  Even something you might think is as simple as the nature of the Orcs was a heated topic for him.  Did Melko create them?  This was a resounding “No” as he doesn’t have the power to create life.  However, he could capture existing beings and corrupt them to mock the children of Iluvatar.  But there are still questions?  Do they have souls?  Sauron later teaches them language, so isn’t that a sign of sentience or having a soul?  It gets very complicated.  Were they corrupted Elves or Men or something else?  I don’t think that was ever really resolved, but he discussed Orcs in quite a few essays. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  Yes it was hard to read, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the earlier volumes.  But it still is an amazing collection of Tolkien’s other writings.  It’s very well constructed with good comments by Christopher Tolkien.  I think the main point of this volume, and I believe the next, is to see what prevented Tolkien’s completion of The Silmarillion, how he got too deeply into the details and philosophy of his own work.  I’m going to take a break with a science fiction novel, then come back to volume eleven, the companion piece of volume ten.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020


Sue Burke
Completed 11/4/2020, Reviewed 11/4/2020
5 stars

The book is like a collection of short stories about the founding and development of a colony ship from Earth that lands on a planet they call Pax.  The goal is to create a new Earth without making the same mistakes as they did on Earth.  In a way, this book is reminiscent of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, but the stories go together much more directly and sequentially.  They were not written independently like TMC.  This book is also about first contact, with the life on the planet and with another alien race that had settled on the planet about 400 years earlier.  It’s a marvelous book which sucked me in right at the beginning and held me until the end.  It was nominated for four awards, including the Golden Tentacle which is awarded for a debut novel that meets the criteria of progressive, intelligent, and entertaining.

A colony ship lands on a planet that has evolved one billion years longer than earth.  They find the plant life and some of the animal life to have some form of sentience.  They try to create a new paradigm for civilization.  At first, the plants seem to be symbiotic with them, then they turn against them, then they come to have a relationship with a rainbow bamboo plant that may be the largest living thing on the Pax.  Eventually, they learn to communicate with the plant, named Stevland.  They also find evidence of an alien race that lived in a city of glass bricks and domes whom they call the Glassmakers.  But as with any new group, there is fighting and dissent as they grow and develop, despite the name Pax.  And there is constant battle with the elements, some of the animals, and eventually, the Glassmakers.

The characters development is marvelous.  Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the characters of that generation, and I became attached to each one.  I hated seeing each chapter end because I wanted more info about their narrators.  But like a collection of short stories, they are each an amuse bouche.  The amazing thing is that each character is very unique as is their speaking style.  While I loved all the narrators, I particularly loved the rainbow bamboo, Stevland.  He (which I use because the other characters do) begins as an aggressive predator trying to draw the Pax community into a symbiotic slavery to care for and nurture it.  But as time goes on, it becomes attached to and eventually part of the community.  Daresay, Stevland becomes human.

The writing is faced-paced, with some sort of conflict propelling the narrative in each chapter.  It’s not very prosy, but Stevland’s narration is very descriptive in how it processes data in relationship to the humans, the other plants, and the native animals it has a symbiotic relationship with.  It’s quite astounding actually, and very believable.  Stevland also goes into detail on how it and other plants can modify themselves to produce substances in their fruit and other parts so that eaten, the consumers have the desired effect.  They can make poison, medicine, narcotics, and nutrients.  That’s how the plants manipulate their environment.  All of this sounds like hard science, but the author makes it all very accessible.  I did not stumble over the science and speculation at all.

The book is about community, change, and xenophobia.  It deals with the other as the humans form symbiotic relationships with the plants and animals of Pax.  The xenophobia becomes much more apparent when the community is confronted with the Glassmakers.  There’s infighting in the group as to whether they can establish friendship with them or should exterminate them.  It is not an easy choice as the Glassmakers see the humans as invaders as well. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  I really loved it.  I found it a fascinating take on first contact.  Reading other reviews, I guess the intelligent plants trope has been done before, like Day of the Triffids or more humorously in Little Shop of Horrors.  But I don’t know if it’s been done to this effect.  The book is very readable despite sounding hard-science-y.  This is the first book of a duology, so the ending is a little less than satisfying, but the ride was so good, I want to read the sequel.