Star (Cassiopeia) – C.I. Defontenay

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Image used for review purposes only. From ISFDB.

Imagine a world bathed in the light of five suns, where shrubs fly like birds and nuts swing from trees like pendulums. In the nineteenth century the French surgeon Charlemagne Ischir Defontenay did just that. Using the conceit of a fictional collection of alien documents found in the Himalayas, Defontenay traces an intricate history of a distant solar system across millenia, through the rise of nations, the development of space-faring technology, first contact between exotic worlds and the final blossoming of a wonderful alien civilization. Readers will delight at the inclusion of examples from this foreign culture, such as play extracts, prose poems and even myths.

The 1854 French original was titled Star ou Psi de Cassiopee: Histoire Merveilleuse de l’un des Mondes de l’Espace. Google translates this to Star or Psi Cassiopee : a History of the Wonderful Worlds of Space. I read the 1975 Daw edition, which changed the title to STAR (Cassiopeia). A shout and a whisper of a title, but an understandable decision as the main planet of the book is referred to by its inhabitants as Star. I should also mention that the Daw edition was translated by P. J. Sokolowski, who did a great job from what I can see.

If I were pitching this to a sci-fi fan, I’d describe it as somewhere between Tolkien’s Silmarillion and Olaf Stapledon’s Last And First Men. Star is a verdant world that would be capable of assimilating a hobbit or two, and the Starian’s obsession with beauty is downright Elvish at times. They also fly through space in these spheres called abares, which Defontenay describes as being stocked with supplies like food and air, and encounter imaginatively bizarre humanoids. My favourite are the near-invulnerable inhabitants of the gloomy globe of Rudar, who fear only the lethal floating orbs they call death. The totally transparent world of Elier was another memorable moment. All this wonder, along with Star‘s long timescale, make the novel a worthy predecessor to Stapledon and to a lesser extent Tolkien.

Star‘s biggest flaw is racism. You see this on the cover, the slim blonde woman being served by the blue slumping figure. This figure represents the repleus, the humanoid species enslaved by the Starians. Only Defontenay doesn’t use terms like enslave, he uses terms like domesticate. An extinction event gives the repleus an opportunity to build their own civilization, a culture described by the author only in the most insulting and animalistic of terms. Every time a repleu appears Star reads like Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. I’m not entirely sure what France was doing in 1854, I’m guessing they had colonies in northern Africa and south east Asia, but no amount of historical context could make Defontenay’s glowing praise for the enslavement of an intelligent species palatable for the modern reader. As I see it, the only way in which Star‘s racism could be redeemed would be if a modern sequel contested that the fictional documents mentioned by Defontenay were written by the Starian version of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m not sure if it would be worth it.

I recommend Star if you like stories about told on a massive timescale renders individuals almost invisible and turns cultures into characters. If you like reading about cool things that can only happen in prose, this might be for you  I’d also only recommend it if you’re willing to overlook a lot of racism.

I’m interested in reading more old texts that use modern science fiction tropes. Lucian’s A True History is a good example of this, since it’s basically the ancient Greek version of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. If any of my commentators are aware of anything else like Star or True History, i’d appreciate it if they left a hyperlink in the comments

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In Which The Economist Annoys Me

I think this pictures sets the tone of the post. Barry Langdon-Lassagne, Creative Commons 3.

Here’s an interesting article from the Economist, and when I type ‘interesting’ I type it in the sense that I think it’s a bit gimmicky.

The subheadings are the ‘In Which Things Happen‘ sort, which always feels patronising and pretentious to me.

I’d describe the visual style as ‘failed experimental’. You can switch between a normal webpagepretend book, and audiobook of the article. The audiobook is good and the webpage is fine, except that each time I’d get to a new section the audiobook would start yapping at me. I’m guessing the pretend book was made for tablets, because you can turn pretend pages! There’s even pretend coffee stains!

Reading this page got me onto Spritz. Spritz is this ereading thingy where you click on a little box, and single words dance before your eyes before disappearing. Mugatu could find a use for it. Spritz could make poetry indistinguishable from prose, if linebreaks don’t get a longer pause.

The article itself is decent and if you’re looking for a potted history of books you should read it.

Locus Solus – Raymond Roussel, translated by Rupert Copeland Cunningham

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From Amazon.

An rich but eccentric scientist takes his guests on a tour of his country estate, showing them his teeth mosiac, his racing seahorses, his frozen corpses that mechanically act out the last moments of their lives, his tarot insects, and a whole bunch of other crazy stuff. Lacking dialogue and convincing characterisation, the nicest way to pitch this novel is to describe it as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory if it were written by Jorge Luis Borges.

This was a book I admired more than I enjoyed. Roussel’s ideas are brilliant, but the plot around them is not. There is an interesting structure, where Cantarel will show his guest a wonder, and the text will digress to the story behind that wonder. Roussel uses this structure to go all over the place, from Arthurian Romance to the French revolution. If I were adapting this series for television or radio, I’d use the tour as a framing device, Cantarel as narrator and the digression stories as the meat of the episodes. A bit like the old radio show The Black Museum.

Reservations aside, It might still be worthwhile picking this book up if you can get it for a reasonable price. I say that because I had a difficult time finding it in my university’s library. Rupert Cunningham’s translation seems to be the only one available in English, and there was only one copy on my entire university’s campus! Clearly this is not a book in wide demand. Still, the French surrealists liked it, and I can see why. It’s certainly a unique work.

Imajica – Clive Barker

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Picture taken from Goodreads.

Clive Barker’s Imajica is about the hedonistic artist John Furie Zacharias’ travels through surreal lands populated by bizarre cultures, while his ex-lover Judith uncovers a sinister conspiracy that hints at the forgotten past of both characters. Clocking in at over eight-hundred pages, Imajica is a treat for the dedicated fantasy reader.

Barker is well aware that fantasy, as a genre, contains possibilities beyond Tolkien knock-offs. Imajica demonstrates this by containing wonders such as giant snails, brutes with two hands for heads, and affectionate shape-shifting assassins.

I first came across Barker in his brilliantly illustrated Abarat series. Imajica is something of a predecessor to those books, concerning someone from Earth travelling through fantastic environments. The Imajica itself is a world-system that consists of five dominions, with Earth being the fifth dominions, separated from the rest. Two centuries ago, five magicians tried to reconcile the dominions, and that’s where the trouble begins.

The other dominions come across as a combination of Oz and the developing world. Although there was a city that recalled New York and another that was the ultimate capital city, no fictional location felt like an obvious rip-off of a real one. These were fantasy worlds that genuinely felt foreign.

While I don’t have any objection to any smart kids reading the overwritten sex-scenes, I think you’ll need to have reached at least the latter end of high school to fully appreciate how Clive Barker plays with sexuality and gender. Barker illustrates the inherent sexism of Abrahamic monotheism by having God travel the Imajica killing goddesses. One of the key characters, the aforementioned shape-shifting assassin, is a genderless being who takes the appearance of whatever its observer finds the most appealing.

Although Imajica impressed me, I’d only recommend it to readers looking for wonders with large amounts of time on their hands. If you’ve got cash to splash, I suggest buying the illustrated edition. Pictures make everything better, and Barker is a great artist.

Masculinities and Culture – John Beynon

Image from Google Books

Image from Google Books

I don’t know how to review an academic book like this. The premise of this blog is my reviewing each book I’ve read soon after I’ve read it, so I feel obliged to mention it.

I guess I’ll begin by describing the book’s topic – The Masculinities, an academic field that studies on male behavior and perceptions of masculinity within the context of gender ideology. It draws from sociology, mostly in the form of interviews, focus groups and surveys. Masculinities In Culture looks at how Western notions of manhood have changed from the industrial revolution to 2002. A key concept is that male gender ideology is guided and reflected in men’s magazines, an idea I’m skeptical of since I’ve never actually seen a man read a men’s magazine. Maybe it’s an English thing.

Since this book summarised other studies on masculinities, I found it very useful for writing my thesis. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an easy introduction to the masculinities.