The Servile State

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed an econ book though this is as much about politics and history as economics.

Essay: The Servile State, Hilaire Belloc, 1912.

I first came across the idea of distributism on Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor blog. Distributism was one of those attempts at a “third way” between capitalism and socialism or communism. In England, it was put forth by two noted writers, both Catholic, G. K. Chesterton and Belloc. In America, it was associated with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement.

My only previous exposure to Belloc was his alternate history essay “If Drouet’s Cart Had Stuck”. I got the vague impression that, like Chesterton, he longed for a return to the Middle Ages with the Catholic Church the predominant institution.

I still don’t know that much about Belloc, a very prolific writer. (You very well know some of his nursery rhymes and epigraphs without knowing it.) This short book, more of a pamphlet, is one of his books still discussed.

Distributism, of course, never caught on under that label though its tenet of decentralized economic power is still very much discussed. And, in this book, Belloc predicted it wouldn’t prevail. It’s a gloomy, concise bit of economic history which, despite some factors Belloc couldn’t see like massive immigration into western societies in the 20th century and automation, managed to be rather predictive.

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The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G. K. Chesterton, 1904.

This was Chesterton’s first novel, published when he was 25. 

It’s a strange book. I’m not sorry I read it, but I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend it either. It faded from my memory rather quickly after reading it only a few months ago though it is full of the wit and pithiness that makes Chesterton such a quoted author.

Technically, it’s science fiction (or, in the British context, a scientific romance), but only by virtue of its futuristic setting and not any scientific or technological extrapolations.

Set in a London around 1984, it takes place in a world where there aren’t really any nations anymore.

In fact, we meet, at the beginning, the last leader of Nicaragua. There is still a king in London though chosen by lot. In fact, the hero of the book is Auberon Quin, and he becomes king early in the story.

As others have noted, Chesterton loved paradox. 

That is certainly true here. 

Quin starts out as a romantic figure. His whole scheme of creating kingdoms – complete with walls, banners, and coats-of-arms, out of London neighborhoods is sort of an attempt to bring back the Middle Ages, but it’s also an absurd gesture by a man who takes nothing seriously except maybe art. Chesterton defends the medieval outlook in one passage. It talks of how men lived in the Middle Ages expecting signs and miracles. It wasn’t because they were ignorant. It was because they were too wise to live their humdrum lives expecting no wondrous relief.  (The bogus etymologies supplied for some names of London neighborhoods are amusing too.)

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Walking the Night Land: Awake in the Night Land

The series on William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land continues.

Essay: Awake in the Night Land, John C. Wright, 2014.

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Cover by JartStar

After reading William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, I looked up some reviews and criticisms of the work. I was surprised to learn that a devoted group of writers still pay homage to the novel over a hundred years later and have extended Hodgson’s story.

The most extensive and highly regarded such work is this collection.

In his introduction, “On the Lure of the Night Land”, Wright describes himself, post-college, as a somewhat jaded lover of fantastic fiction who was pointed to this novel by a friend. Wright had been working on a piece called “Nigh-Forgotten Sun” which his friend thought was a takeoff on Hodgson’s novel. Wright, however, had not read the novel yet.

In those days, Hodgson’s novel was only available in two volumes from Ballantine Books. He was immediately captivated by the first volume. It was years, though, before he got to read the second volume. Still, Wright’s sense of wonder was rekindled with the heroic tale of Naani’s rescue, the eerie menaces and features of the Night Land that were full of awe and impenetrable mysteries. He loved Hodgson’s archaic “formal and gravid” language which captured the “dark, heavy, grim and gothic majesty” of the Night Land. Continue reading

Written in Darkness

Review: Written in Darkness, Mark Samuels, 2017.Written in Darkness

Good weird fiction doesn’t lend itself to long reviews. The powers of the story are weakened when surprises are prematurely revealed. The effects of carefully paced narration are distorted or not conveyed. Latinate words like “alienation”, “identity”, “penance”, and “transformation” are cold and insufficient words of thematic taxonomy.

And Samuels’ collection is good weird fiction of a bleak yet, as Reggie Oliver notes in his introduction, exultant sort. The tone and effect may remind one of Thomas Ligotti, an author Samuels has called the greatest living writer of weird fiction. Yet Samuels rejects that writer’s materialistic nihilism.

So, I’m going to lightly touch on the stories first and then wrap up with some thoughts and analysis laden with spoilers. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 2

The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.years-best-sf-2

After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.

In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.

Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother. Continue reading

If It Had Happened Otherwise

I’m on vacation, but I’ll still post this.

It even has some World War One material relevant for today.

This was, I believe, the first collection of academic alternate histories ever done and featured various famous historians and literary writers of the early 20th century.

This is a Raw Feed, so my historical ignorance is not as great as 29 years ago.

Raw Feed (1987): If It Had Happened Otherwise, ed. J. C. Squire, 1931, 1972.if-it-had-happened-otherwise

“Introduction”, J.C. Squire — Brief comments on academic alternate history treatises.  Emphasizes importance of causality chain beginning with trivial event (brilliantly explored in Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder”) and how we almost always think of alternate histories as undesirable worlds to our own though this obviously depends on cultural/moral/political point of view.

“Introduction”, John Wheeler-Bennett — Brief comments on history of alternate history as literature and valid historical speculation. (His definition of alternate histories are peculiar. He includes political sf like Fail-Safe.)  He also writes on why he likes sub-genre.

If the Moors in Spain Had Won“, Philip Guedalla — Like most essays in this book promise to be, this story (told in excerpts from travel books, history texts, diplomatic papers, and newspapers) this is a rich source for alternate world ideas. The work not only develops its premise but wryly comments on historical study:  chance events of little seeming significance to change things drastically, the events of our history were not inevitable, over reliance on economic factors in studying history, and belief that events in our history were for the best.

If Don John of Austria Had Married Mary Queen of Scots“,  G.K. Chesterton — A rather muddled piece of writing (part of problem could be I’m not familiar with the fine points of English history) whose purpose seems to be less constructing an alternate history than an edifying Christian legend of true love (which, evidently, the rest of us mortals can not achieve due to the Original Sin) in Don John and Mary’s marriage. Chesterton’s portrayal of Mary (perhaps because he is a Catholic) seems very idealized though he does seem to validly suggest Mary was a charming, beautiful, vigorous monarch. Chesterton seems to think their marriage would have included England in a greater community (that would have been created with the marriage) of a Europe with Christian traditions and morality and Renaissance vigor and questioning. He seems to attack Puritan influence on England as culturally mordant and brutal. He does have a satirical wit in regard to the question of history and study. He also has a valid point when he says we should consider personal motives such as attraction (and, unspoken, sex) as well as great abstract motives of diplomacy and economics. (A similar point as to Ward Moore’s saying history is made by people obsessed with the trivial.) Continue reading