Archive for June, 2018

Review: Stranger In A Strange Land

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

I hadn’t read Stranger in years, though like all nerds there were ideas and vocabulary from it that were part of my worldview.  Recent events incited me to have another look and refresh those old engrams.

Coming back to Stranger reminded me how much it challenges assumptions about religion and culture.  I found ideas in there that rewarded some thought and dissection.  My dissection was encouraged by their oblique presentation.  I’m confident that some of that was a stylistic decision to mimic the oblique writing style of so many religious texts.  Forcing readers to interpret vague text  draws them into the ideas and invests the interpreter in the meanings they form by dint of expended energy.  Noticing that aspect of inspirational writing was probably worth the reread.

I think of Heinlein as an idea generator – I often claim that he produces an interesting idea every hundred pages – and Stranger supports that.  It is speculative fiction in the best sense of that term.  Neither prediction nor prescription, but a reflection on humanity framed to encourage new thinking.  Ideas about the human condition, feminism, marketing inspiration, and carnival history are reverberating nicely in my skull now, which is great fun.

If Stranger is trying to sell its ideas on societal values, its literary constructions intrigue me.  Though there are nods to various underrepresented groups – e.g., women and a sympathetic Muslim character – it never felt inclusive to me.  I mean inclusive in a more broad sense than a purveyor of “Political Correctness” might construct it.  I don’t think Heinlein is failing to represent women, or people of color, or first nations citizens, or your favorite hot button name well; I think he isn’t representing humans well.  All of these characters feel like glib, educated, science fiction writers to me.  Even his allegedly charismatic Messiah is easily forgettable.  The only character I remember distinctly is Mary Sue, er, Jubal Harshaw.  And I don’t like him much, but he did evoke an emotion.

It’s possible that Heinlein intentionally kept his characters sketchy to act as symbols or manifestations of various counter points to his philosophical ideas.  I don’t see a lot of Bible characters as fully realized, either, so I believe this is a possibility rather than an excuse. That illuminates how I think about Stranger – I look at the ideas and presentation as parts of a manifesto that Heinlein tossed into the world.

There are ideas I find compelling in Stranger. There are ideas I disagree with. Any work with that density of ideas served up with a modicum of entertainment is worth my time.

Strongly Recommended.  If you want to punch Harshaw after 3 pages, you’re not alone.

Review: Desert Solitaire

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

I am tempted to describe Desert Solitaire primarily by analogy to other work, high concept style. It’s Classic A written by Great Author B.  I’m resisting that because that approach denigrates what Edward Abbey has written.  Solitaire captures ringing ideas with a unique voice.

Abbey’s book captures person, place, time, and outlook with clarity and power.

Ostensibly it is a memoir of Abbey’s two seasons as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah in the mid-1960’s. The text is not a diary. He is deliberately coalescing multiple years into a single progression, picking stories and moments to connect to larger truths, and capturing his time and outlook.

Beyond capturing himself and his times, he pays homage to the timeless and singular beauty of the high desert.  The blend of poetry and lore he brings to that homage tune Solitaire‘s song to the ears of the west and turn it into a siren call to desert rats and cowboy philosophers.

A must.

Review: The Comanche Empire

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

I don’t know much at all about the history of the American Southwest despite living in the region (broadly construed). I know the basic outline of Northeastern history much better.  I have been trying to improve this and when Patrick Wyman’s Tides Of History Book Club recommended Pekka Hamalainen’s  The Comanche Empire, I decided to pick it up.

Hamalainen sets out to upset readers conception of the Comanches.  In my case, that is easy – I don’t know much about them beyond recognizing them as Western Movie villains. My very limited understanding the history of this domain was informed by the conflicts between Spain, Mexico, France, and the US. Those players are here, of course, but most of the traditional narrative only recognizes the Natives as weather conditions.  Empire makes the situation clearer by animating the Comanches.

The traditional narrative of the region has gaps that become more visible as one considers them.  Some of those gaps include the factors that made Texas ripe for splitting from Spain and Mexico.  Why and how is Northern Mexico such easy pickings in the Mexican War?  What in the world is the story in New Mexico?  The answer to all of those is not “Comanches.”  But answers that don’t face the facts about the extent and power of these Natives are confusing and incomplete.  Empire fills in the negative space in the historical narrative.

The Comanches are interesting in their own right as well.  They are a powerful geopolitical player, as I mentioned above. The group  is also interesting in terms of their internal nearly federated government style.  Multiple loosely cooperating clans who share tribal customs and values are capable of combining efforts to remake their society and act effectively against technically more advanced states.

The Empire exists because they can change their way of life to move into the great plains, but they disappear as much because they cannot sustain the new style than because they are defeated in battle.  Explosive population growth without carefully husbanding resources – in this case horses and bison – failed catastrophically.  This is a cautionary tale worth significant ruminations.

The Comanches also traded in and supported themselves with slaves.  This was certainly a second fuse burning in their society, though the ecological failures seem to have gotten them first.

Overall Empire is an accessible introduction to a fascinating people.