Archive for the ‘Books I’ve Read’ Category

Out of the Silent Planet

April 7, 2014

Sometime in the 1930s, C. S. Lewis and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien were complaining about the state of contemporary English fiction. “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories”, Lewis said to Tolkien, “I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves”. After some discussion on the subject, the two writers agreed that Tolkien would write a time travel story while Lewis would try his hand at a space travel story.

The results were typical of the very different styles and personalities of the two men. Tolkien was a perfectionist who was never satisfied with anything he wrote and his proposed story was never finished. Lewis was more energetic and managed to write the three novels that make up his “Space Trilogy” in less than a decade.
Out of the Silent Planet is the first book in the trilogy. The story begins when Elwin Ransom, a philologist who is spending his vacation walking around the English countryside, comes across two men, Weston and Devine, trying to force a retarded young man into some structure. Ransom rescues the young man, only to be taken himself on what turns out to be a space ship traveling to a planet called Malacandra, or Mars. Along the way, Ransom discovers that Weston and Devine intend to deliver him as a sort of human sacrifice to the Malacandrans and as soon as they land, he escapes.

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ransom quickly encounters the Malacandrans and learns that they are not the savage, primitive monsters he had been led to believe they were. There are three species of Malacandrans; the seal like Hrossa, the tall, wise Sorns, and the handy Pfifltriggi. A fourth race, the invisible Eldili live in space and are more like spirits or angels. All three races are unfallen and thus lack the inclination to evil that the inhabitants of our Earth or Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. The only word in the Malacandran language that Ransom can find to express the concept of evil is “bent”, perhaps the most apt word to describe the problems or humanity that I have ever heard.

 

There is not much action in Out of the Silent Planet, and there are slow places, but the plot is far from dull. I think the depictions of the extraterrestrials are among the best I have read in science fiction. The science is badly dated, though Lewis made the best use of contemporary theories and knowledge about Mars available at the time. In the climax, Ransom is brought before the ruling eldil of Malacandra, the Oyarsa. He discovers that the Oyarsa of Earth is bent and confined to Earth’s immediate region in space. As a result, Earth is inaccessible to the Eldil and is named Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. Ransom answers the Oyarsa’s questions about life on Thulcandra and affirms things are very bent indeed. Weston and Devine are brought forward, but they insist on treating the Malacandrans like ignorant savages, even speaking in a ridiculous pidgin. This scene is a send up of modern man’s pretensions of superiority over “primitives”, and Ransom’s translation of Weston’s speech asserting Human superiority over the Malacandrans is priceless.

 
Out of the Silent Planet seems to be a promising beginning to the Space Trilogy and can stand on its own. I am not sure if it can really be classed as properly science fiction so much as a theological fantasy, or an up to date medieval romance, but however you might classify it, it is worth the effort of reading.

 

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The Story of Mohammed, Islam Unveiled

March 28, 2014

After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, many of our political leaders took pains to assure us that Islam is a religion of peace. The nineteen men who committed the atrocities on that date were said to have followed an extreme version of Islam, a version not shared by the vast majority of peace loving Muslims. Many people, however, cannot help but wonder whether a religion whose adherents are responsible for most of the terrorism in the world today might not promote violence in its teachings. Being a religion with more than one and a half billion followers, contemporary Islam is of course very diverse. There are many, many Muslims who are indeed peaceful, and many who are not. How, then, can we determine whether the doctrines of Islam promote peace or violence?

One way, might be to go back and look at the founder of the religion. After all, a tree is known by its fruits. The Prophet Mohammed in Arabia founded Islam more than fourteen centuries ago. To this day, Muslims look upon him as a perfect man to be emulated. Stories of his sayings and deeds, known as the Hadiths, are second only to the Koran as a guide to Muslim behavior. So then, learning whether Mohammed was a man of peace or of war should go a long way in determining whether Islam is a religion of peace or of war.

That is just what Harry Richardson has done with his book The Story of Mohammed, Islam Unveiled. Mr. Richardson tells the story of the life of Mohammed using Islamic sources including the Koran. Along the way, he shows how Mohammed’s example is used by terrorists to justify their actions. For, Mohammed was not a man of peace. He and his religion were peaceful enough when they were a small sect in Mecca. After the move to Medina, where Mohammed took power, the new religion quickly became very violent and intolerant. Under Mohammed’s rule, any atrocity or betrayal was justified if it furthered the cause of Islam. As Mr. Richardson shows, this same ends justify the means mentality is still used by all too many people in the Islamic world.

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Harry Richardson covers most of the same ground as Robert Spencer does in his books about Islam. I think though, that Richardson’s approach is more accessible than Spencer’s. He begins with the assumption that the reader knows little or nothing about Islam and explains the results of his own research referring to his sources. Although Mr. Richard may have begun his studies knowing little about Islam, he was clearly spent a lot of time and effort educating himself. He is also less confrontational than Robert Spencer often has been.

I can strongly recommend that anyone interested in what is going on in the world of Islam read this book and then go on to read the Koran and other Islamic scriptures. If we are to prevent more attacks, we need accurate information about those who regard us as the enemies of Allah. Our leaders are not interested in telling us the truth about Islam, so we must educate ourselves. Harry Richardson’s book is a good place to begin.

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Intellectuals

March 19, 2014

In his Republic, Plato had Socrates arguing that in order to create an ideal city-state of perfect justice either philosophers must be kings or kings must become philosophers. In other words, the only rulers of a truly just state must be philosopher-kings. Only the philosopher has the inner vision required to rule justly.

The example of history seems to have shown that rule by philosopher-kings is more likely to be the worst and most tyrannical form of government. There have been few, if any, actual kings who have been philosophers or philosophers who have been kings, to be sure, but governments ruled by an inner vision of perfect justice have proved to be devastating in terms of human lives and freedom. The history of the twentieth century ought to have proved that beyond any doubt.

Despite the example of history and common sense, there remains a class of individuals who believe that they and they alone, possess the inner vision needed to reform or remake society into a utopia of perfect justice. These individuals have seldom possessed political power, but through their writings and thoughts have had an enormous influence on the society around them. These individuals are often referred to as intellectuals.

Paul Johnson profiles a few of these overly influential people in his book Intellectuals. As Johnson notes at the beginning, there have always been people who have held themselves as having a special capacity to determine proper behavior and beliefs and to use this capacity to enlighten their neighbors. These intellectuals, generally priests or teachers were limited by tradition or official doctrine. A preacher could try to create heaven on Earth, but his view of Heaven was determined by scripture or tradition. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the influence of religion in the West declined, and the cleric was gradually replaced by the secular intellectual.

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These secular intellectuals were quite different from their predecessors. Rather than upholding traditional rules and authority, these new intellectuals sought to tear down the old to make way for a new world based upon their inner visions of justice and reason. It is these people that Johnson writes about. He begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and continues with such diverse individuals as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. These individuals have been very different in their ideas and lives, yet there are some striking similarities, as Johnson notes. These intellectuals all believed that they should not be bound by the same rules as others. Instead, they needed complete freedom from mundane cares to work out their ideas. They professed to be great lovers of humanity, yet didn’t seem to like the people around them very much, often using their associates as tools.

Some might object that Paul Johnson spends too much time on his subjects’ scandalous private lives. One might argue that a thinker ought to be judged by the quality of his ideas rather than the sordidness of his private life. To a great extent, this is true, yet a person’s private and public life cannot really be separated that easily. The private lives of these intellectuals were either a reflection of their philosophy, in which case that life shows the real-life effects of that philosophy, or they were unable to live up to the ideals of their philosophy, which implies that perhaps no human being could live up to such ideals.

Most of the people profiled by Johnson might be considered somewhat “left wing” in their politics. This might be because of Paul Johnson’s own political prejudices, but I think that it is also likely that the sort of person who wishes to remake civilization according to his own wishes is far more likely to be drawn to progressive politics. A conservative intellectual, would perhaps, be more inclined to defend and preserve traditional institutions rather than tear them down to be remade. One exception to this rule might be the example of Ayn Rand. She was not a defender of tradition despite her defense of capitalism and she sought, through her Objectivist philosophy, to undo the past two-thousand years of “altruist” Judeo-Christian ethics, so perhaps she fits the pattern of the intellectuals better than it might appear at first glance. It is a pity that Paul Johnson did not include her with the intellectuals since the unreality of some aspects of her philosophy and her wretched treatment of most of her associated made her a better example than some of the people he did include.

I have no complaints about Intellectuals, however. It is a book that anyone who believes that the right sort of ideas or the right sort of people could usher in a perfect world would do well to read this book.

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Soylent Green

February 2, 2014

A little while back I made a reference to the movie Soylent Green while writing on a very different subject. I’ve been thinking about that movie ever since so I might as well write about it. It must be around twenty years since I last watched Soylent Green on video so I only remember the general plot. Soylent Green was based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 science fiction novel Make Room!, Make Room!. I’ve read the book more recently. The movie and book share the same setting, an overpopulated, polluted, dystopian world and mostly the same plot, a detective is investigating a murder in the impossible circumstances of a dying New York City. There are a number of differences, though. Make Room! is set in the year 1999 rather than 2022. I guess the producers of Soylent Green thought that adding another 23 years might make the setting more plausible. Soylent green is not made of people in the book, it is plankton. The murder that the Charlton Heston character is investigating had nothing to do with the corporation or with the environment. The victim was a mob boss and the only reason the police want his murderer is because the New York mafia is afraid that a rival organization is moving in and they are putting pressure on corrupt officials to learn if this is the case.

The book is a whole lot more depressing than the movie. Harry Harrison works to make the world of Make Room!a world of poverty and misery, without any hope for improvement. All people have to hope for is the world might end. In fact, one of the characters is a crazy hermit who expects the end to come when the year ends. When 1999 becomes the year 2000 without incident, he can only despair. Water and food are tightly rationed and diseases of malnutrition, such as kwashiorkor are widespread in the United States. Cars, no longer working because there is no more gasoline, sit abandoned in parking lots, to be used as shelter by the large population of homeless people. Freight is transported by wagons pulled by people. Overpopulation is only getting worse, since the masses of permanently unemployed people have baby after baby to qualify for larger welfare benefits. It goes on and on.

There is, of course, a certain amount of preachiness throughout the descriptions of the miserable life of the future. At one point the Edward G. Robinson character discusses how the world came to be in such awful shape. He laments that if only people started to take overpopulation seriously about thirty years before (when the book was published), the world wouldn’t have been ruined.

These sort of sentiments were widespread throughout the sixties and seventies. This was the era of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and The End of Affluence. It was widely accepted that unless major changes were made, the world of the future was going to be nightmarish. We couldn’t afford have the luxury of an affluent lifestyle, or even basic freedoms if we wanted to save the planet. This sort of messaging was always in the background while I was growing up in the seventies and early eighties and I believed it. I worried about global warming, overpopulation, and the depletion of natural resources. I considered myself an environmentalist.

What changed? Well, if you look around, you might happen to observe that the world was not an overpopulated dystopia in the year 1999 nor is it likely to become one by the year 2022. As I grew older, I couldn’t help noticing that none of the horrible scenarios predicted by the environmental alarmed ever seemed to actually occur. We always had just ten years to save the planet. When ten years elapsed, we still had just ten years to save the planet. I also actually read some environmentalist literature and even got a degree in Environmental Studies. I took what I call my environmentalist wacko class. That helped me to learn just how anti-capitalist, anti-technology, anti-science, anti-American, and anti-human many environmentalists actually are. I have since developed the deepest skepticism about environmentalist claims of doom and gloom. I am on to them.

This is why I am a global warming skeptic. There are some who have suggested that I should defer to the experts. I am told that ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that drastic action is needed right now. I am not impressed. I happen to possess a functioning memory and very little of what these people are saying is any different than what they were saying forty years ago. Their solution to the crises is the same: the masses must live like medieval serfs while an all powerful government of the elite decide what’s best for everyone.

At some point, you realize that the boy cried wolf is a liar, especially when he seems to have an agenda which involves getting the villagers to hand over wealth and power to the only boy who can save them from the wolf only he sees.

 

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The Peshawar Lancers

December 30, 2013

 

In The Peshawar Lancers S. M.Stirling writes an exciting adventure story set in an alternate history in which a comet strikes the Earth in the year 1878. The impact and the ensuing severe cooling of the climate caused by the dust and water vapor thrust into the atmosphere causes the death by starvation of most of the inhabitants of the Northern hemisphere and the collapse of civilization.Cover of "The Peshawar Lancers"

By the year of  the story, 2025, the world has almost reached the level of technology it possessed before the Fall. The British Empire has survived, based around its former colonial possessions, especially India. The Empire has even recolonized the British Isles. The French established themselves in Algeria and the Japanese have conquered China. The Russians have also survived after turning to Devil worship and sacred cannibalism of their subject peoples. The rest of Europe and most of North America is still inhabited by savage cannibals. In this world, Athelstane King is a captain of the Peshawar Lancers. Along with his aide, the Sikh Narayan Singh, his sister Cassandra, a mysterious Russian seeress Yasmini, and the Royal Family, King finds himself trying to foil a Russian conspiracy against his family with the fate of the Empire, and the survival of humanity at stake.

The Peshawar Lancers is, as I have said, an exciting adventure story, a little like Kipling’s best. S. M. Sterling presents an immensely imaginative background for the adventure with the details that makes the society come to life. The characters are, perhaps, somewhat two-dimensional with the villain, the Russian Ignatieff, being really, villainous, but they are likeable and their actions and motives are realistic. The plot moves along nicely with the right amount of suspense and action.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Peshawar Lancers and I hope the author might be persuaded to write more stories set in that world.

How to Think Like a Neandertal

December 22, 2013

Neandertal men, or Neandertals have intrigued people since the discovery of the first fossil remains were discovered in the Meander Valley back in 1856. Early ideas about Neandertals were heavily influenced by preconceptions about human ancestry current at that time and so Neandertals were believed to be the missing link between human and ape and so Neandertals were depicted as bestial, sub-human primitives. More recent research has revealed that Neandertal Man or Homo neanderthalensis was very closely related to modern Homo sapiens, perhaps even a subspecies of sapiens. More recent depictions of Neanderthals have tended to be more sympathetic, including Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and the Geico cavemen.

Paleontological research and the sequencing of Neanderthal DNA have taught us a lot about their appearance and habits, but not so much, what they were really like. How “human” were the Neanderthals? Were as intelligent as modern humans, or more, or less? Would they fit into modern society?

Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge attempt to answer these questions in their book, How to Think Like a Neandertal. Wynn, an archaeologist and Coolidge, a psychologist, go over the available evidence to try to reconstruct how Neanderthals really thought. This exercise necessarily requires a lot of speculation since there are no living Neanderthals to examine, but most of their guesses seem to be sound, based on the evidence they present.

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Wynn and Coolidge believe that Neanderthals were as intelligent as modern humans were. Judging from the artifacts they left, they were certainly not stupid. Yet, their intelligence seems to be subtly different from ours. Neanderthals did not innovate much. Their tools are much the same in design throughout their range. The tools were well made, but they lacked the sort of regional variations that are characteristic of tribes of modern humans who live far apart. The tools retain the same designs for tens of thousands of years, while the tools of even the most primitive modern humans show some development over time. Wynn and Coolidge speculate that Neandertals were very conservative in temperament and did not like the new or unexpected.

Neadertals were very strong compared to modern humans and lived hard and dangerous lives. Wynn and Coolidge assert that emotionally, Neanderthals were stoic and used to dangers and injuries. They took care of injured members of their communities. These communities or bands were rather small, perhaps no more than a dozen or two dozen individuals. Neadertals did not travel much and did not interact with other bands except on rare occasions. They do not seem to have engaged in any sort of trade between bands. Because of this, Neadertals were probably suspicious of strangers and less sophisticated in social interactions than modern humans who lived in larger communities that interacted with one another.

Neadertals almost certainly had language. They had the same genes that in humans control the acquisition and use of language. There is no way now to know what their languages were like and how they compare to the languages of our time. Wynn and Coolidge believe that their language must have been different from any language used by Homo sapiens, perhaps more context specific and with more use of stock phrases as part of their conservatism. Their humor might also have been different, more physical and maybe far less use of word play. I think, though, that this subject is the one in which their speculations are less well based on available evidence. I believe that unless a Neadertal is resurrected using “Jurassic Park” technology, we simply do not have enough evidence on which to base any speculations.

How to Think Like a Neandertal is an interesting book about an interesting people. I only wish it were possible to know more about the Neandertals.

 

Weapon of A.S.S Destruction

December 5, 2013

If you have not seen Alfonzo Rachel’s ZoNation videos on PJTV then you are really missing something. I do not believe that there is anyone out there so consistently and zealously making the case for conservatism as Mr. Rachel, or Zo as he is called. Think of Rush Limbaugh, only younger, more energetic and cooler. Zo’s rapid speed delivery anticipates and blows away the arguments that liberals make before they even have a chance to make them.

Zo

Zo

Zo’s book, Weapon of A.S.S.Destruction began as an audio book and I believe that the printed book that I read is a transcription of that audio book. The book reads just as Zo speaks and I can almost hear his voice as I read it. The style is fun and easy to follow with Zo giving his take on one conservative issue after another. I was finished with Weapon of A.S.S Destruction almost before I even began.

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If Zo has a fault, and we all do, it is that he does tend to talk and write faster than he thinks. The views he expresses so well can be somewhat simplistic and he does need to take more time to establish the facts to support his positions and think through these positions a little more thoroughly. With that said, however, I can recommend Weapon of A.S.S. to any reader, especially the novice conservative and I think that it will make an excellent Christmas, sorry Holiday, gift to any liberal of your acquaintance.

 

 

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

November 15, 2013

The recent history of the country known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo is singularly melancholy, even by the depressing standards of colonial and post-colonial Africa. In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium somehow managed to convince an international conference held in Berlin to give him control of the region that now makes up the Congo. He made the entire country into his personal possession and named it the Congo Free State. Without any necessity of dealing with a parliament or any other institution that might limit his control over his colony, Leopold hardly made any pretense of bringing civilization to Africa, as the other colonial powers did. The Congo Free State existed solely to enrich King Leopold with its rubber plantations, by the most efficient or brutal means possible.

The situation in the Congo became so notorious that in 1908 the Belgian parliament took control of the colony from Leopold. The Belgian government ruled the colony somewhat more humanely than King Leopold had but the Belgian colonial officials made no effort to prepare the Congolese for self-government. No African was placed in any position of authority. The colonial army had no black officers. Needless to say, when the Congo achieved independence in 1960, there was virtually no chance that the new nation would be governed in an effective or democratic way. In fact, there was considerable political unrest until Joseph Mobutu or Mobutu Sese Seko as he came to call himself, took power in 1965.

The only good thing that can be said about Mobutu was that he was not a Communist and so did not slaughter his people by the millions, as Communists invariably do. Unfortunately, Mobutu was dictator and a kleptocrat. He changed the name of the country to Zaire and pillaged it, filling his Swiss bank accounts from the Zairian treasury. Despite this Mobutu might have died in peace, had he not made it a habit to intervene in the internal affairs of Zaire’s neighbors.

Mobutu was overthrow in the First Congo War from 1996-1997. This war and the following Second Congo War which was fought from 1998-2003 is the subject of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns.

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Stearns begins with the genocide in Rwanda that preceded and sparked the Congo Wars. After the Hutu massacred the Tutsis of Rwanda, Tutsi rebels took control of Rwanda and drove thousands of Hutus into neighboring Zaire. With support from Mobutu, the Hutus began attacking the Tutsis across the border. The Tutsis in response decided to overthrow Mobutu but assembling a coalition of southern African nations and arming Congolese, predominantly Tutsi, rebels. This first Congo War was a success as the rebels drove Mobutu from power and installed Laurent Kabila as the new president of the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Kabila turned out not to be very competent and the policies he favored seemed to be unchanged since the 1960’s. The Rwandans began to be exasperated with him, especially after he began harassing the Congolese Tutsis, so the Rwandans supported a new rebel movement against Kabila. Meanwhile, there was a falling out between the former allies Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Angola, and each nation supported its own movement in the Congo and fought over the natural resources of the Congo. This was the Second Congo War.

Jason Stearns writes the history of these two wars from the perspective of several participants in these wars and the aftermath. Some of these stories are from prominent players in the politics and fighting of the region, some are from people who were simply in the way. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is not primarily a military history but a story of a disaster that has blighted the lives of millions of people in central Africa. Stearns writes of mass murders and refugees as much as he does of troop movements and political deals, leaving the reader with a true appreciation of the scope of the suffering these wars brought.

The fighting in the Congo is mostly over now. Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent rules the Congo and has proved to be a relatively effective leader, though one reluctant to create the kind of institutions the Congo needs. The suffering of the Congolese people continues as they try to rebuild their wrecked country. Still, as Stearns points out in the end of his book, they have an indomitable spirit and may yet overcome the bad hand history has played them.

 

The Pilgrim’s Regress

October 29, 2013

The career of C. S. Lewis as a Christian apologist cannot be easily distinguished from his career as a writer. With the exception of two collections of poetry that would have been forgotten if not for Lewis’s later success, his career as a writer began with his conversion to Christianity and every one of his works, fiction or nonfiction has some degree of apologetics in it. The Pilgrim’s Regress is the first book Lewis wrote after his conversion and is his first book in prose. It was not a success, but it turned out to be a precursor of greater things to come.

The Pilgrim’s Regress is early Lewis and is therefore somewhat rougher than his later books. It is meant to be an allegorical and semi-autobiographical account of Lewis’s rejection of Christianity in his youth, his dalliances in Atheism and various fashionable ideologies of the early twentieth century, and his eventual return to Christianity. The title, Pilgrim’s Regress is meant to evoke John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Like the earlier and more famous work, The Pilgrim’s Regress describes a spiritual journey. I do not think it is as accessible as that earlier work. Bunyan was a self-educated tinker and his journey was perhaps closer to that faced by the ordinary Christian. Lewis, by contrast, was a very well-educated Oxford professor and his journey was more intellectual than most. Lewis was still young, both in age and as a Christian and he couldn’t resist the temptation to show off his erudition. These factors made his allegory more obscure than it should have been. Lewis also shows a certain impatience and even anger in this earliest book. Fortunately, in his later works, Lewis learned to be more humble and understanding of others’ faults.

The plot centers on the journeys of John, an everyman character. John is disillusioned by the hypocritical worship of the Landlord by the Stewards, represented by their putting on masks, and has a vision of an island that he desperately wishes to go to. John leaves his homeland of Puritania and stops believing in the Landlord. He never forgets the island, even though many of the people he encounters believe it to be imaginary. In his quest for the island, John meets such characters as the Clevers, Media Halfways, Mr. Sensible, Reason, the giant Zeitgeist, and many others. He finds his way blocked by the Grand Canyon, which can only be crossed with the help of Mother Kirk. John and his companion Vertue try to go around the canyon, but cannot. Eventually John submits to Mother Kirk, representing the Church, and learns that the object of his longing is the country that he has left. He is taken back to his home, but freed from the deceits of the false philosophies he has earlier followed; he sees the path as it truly is.

Cover of "The Pilgrim's Regress: An Alleg...

Cover via Amazon

I am not sure that I can recommend this book to anyone not already familiar with C.S. Lewis. The casual reader and even a Lewis fan may find the references to early twentieth century intellectual movements hard to follow and the book somewhat unsatisfying. For someone more familiar with Lewis, it is interesting to see some of the themes of his later books appear here in an early form. The island represents the feelings of joy and longing which led Lewis to return to Christianity and which he refers to in many of his writings. His belief that the pagan myths foreshadow the Gospel is another theme that appears in the Pilgrim’s Regress. Overall, I would say that the Lewis fan should read The Pilgrim’s Regress to gain a better understanding of Lewis, but it shouldn’t be the first book by C. S. Lewis one should read.

Rereading 1984

October 27, 2013

Generally when a book is called a classic, either it has stood the test of time for many years, centuries in most cases, and has had a significant influence on our culture and even language, or it is a recently published book that the publisher is trying to promote. George Orwell’s 1984 has not been around for centuries but considering the huge effect this book has had, it might be fair to call it a classic almost from the moment was published. If I say a word like Big Brother or double-plus good, or a phrase like Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, any English speaker will know instantly what I mean, even if they haven’t actually read the book.

I have just finishing rereading the book. Although 1984 is one of my favorite books, it has been some years since I have actually read it all the way through. With most good  books, you get something new out of the story with each rereading and I have found that 1984 is no exception. There are a few things I noticed which I hadn’t really thought much about before.

I noticed that Winston Smith is not a very good judge of character. It seems that his impressions of almost everyone he meets in the story are misleading. He believes Julia to be a sexless fanatic, O’Brian to be a covert member of the Brotherhood, and it doesn’t occur to him that the kindly, old Mr. Charington might be a spy for the Thought Police. He imagines that his neighbor Parsons is too stupid to be arrested for thought crime, you have to actually have thoughts, I suppose. With that in mind, I wonder if the impression Winston has of his estranged wife, Katherine as being “goodthinkful” is really accurate. He couldn’t admit the nature of his own heretical thoughts with the telescreens always monitoring them and the strong possibility that she would instantly turn him in to the Thought Police. Maybe she had similar thoughts about Winston.

Winston is also a bit of a wimp. He and Julia spend their lives assuming that they will eventually be caught by the Thought Police, they will be tortured and they will confess to imagined crimes. They seem to be unable to contemplate any way of avoiding this inevitable fate. When the Thought Police arrest them, Winston never tries to flee to fight back. Granted, any attempt to fight the Thought Police would be futile, still he might have done something other than standing still and waiting for them to hit him. In the holding cell, when the voice from the telescreen tells Winston to be quiet or not cover his face, he complies. Why? What would they have done if Winston told them to “F— off”? Torture or shoot him? He really didn’t have anything to lose at that point.

I don’t think it was cowardice on the part of Winston Smith. Although he hated the Party and all it stood for, he was still very much a Party man and he accepted their basic premises and discipline. This is similar to the way the Old Bolsheviks that Stalin purged willingly signed confessions to imaginary crimes and humiliated and degraded themselves at the show trials. They were tortured and worn down by the NKVD, to be sure, but they had spent their whole adult lives under the discipline of the Bolshevik Party and when the party told them to sacrifice themselves, they lacked the inner reserves to refuse. I imagine that someone outside the Party would have a better chance of resisting the Thought Police, especially of such a person followed a competing ideology, perhaps a devout follower of some religion or a fervent nationalist. I believe this was often the case with the victims of Stalin’s torturers.

Winston Smith believes, throughout the book, that someday the Proles will rebel against the Party and overthrow them. O’Brian assures Winston that this is nonsense. Since the uneducated Proles have no knowledge of any circumstances but what they are familiar with, they cannot know just how miserable and oppressed they really are. This is precisely why the North Koreans have never attempted to rebel against their government. Until recently, they had no knowledge of conditions outside of North Korea and could easily be led to believe that life in North Korea was better than anywhere else. But, even if the Proles did learn that people in the past were freer or more prosperous, or perhaps that Eurasians or Eastasians were better off, they still could not do very much. Successful revolutions require some degree of organization and the ability to fight. The Proles could not organize without attracting the attention of the Thought Police and they have no guns or other weapons. They might be able to riot, but rioting is easily suppressed. They could not overthrow the Party.

On the other hand, O’Brian boasts to Winston that the rule of the Party is forever. I have to wonder about that. The purges described in 1984 could not really continue forever. Along with Winston, virtually every named character in the book who is not an agent of the Thought Police is arrested and presumably shot in the end. Who is going to replace these people? At some point there simply wouldn’t be enough people to keep the machinery of government functioning. This is why Stalin was obliged to ease up on the purges after a few years and why his successors never attempted to purge the party on such a disastrous scale again. At some point, Big Brother or his successor would have to scale back persecutions and allow a small amount of freedom of thought.

Winston Smith’s job involves “correcting” newspapers and books so that the Party is always right. It seems like a lot of effort to recall every book and newspaper in every library throughout Oceania to keep changing the text so that the Party’s propaganda can never be proved to be false. I am not sure how they could possibly be sure of getting every single copy for alteration. Surely there must be old books on some forgotten bookshelf somewhere or old newspapers that were used to wrap something decades before and forgotten. Actually, Winston’s job would be a lot easier with today’s technology. As information is increasingly digitized and put online, all Winston would have to do is rewrite the stories on news websites. Unless someone happened to have an older version cached on their hard drive, no one would ever notice any alteration.

Nineteen Eighty-four takes place in the area around London, England. I wonder what the rest of Oceania is like. Goldstein’s book hints that Oceania has a very decentralized economic and political system. It may be more a loose confederation than a very centralized state the way real Communist countries like the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China are. The official ideology of Oceania is supposed to be Ingsoc or English Socialism. I wonder how much that would go over in North America. Maybe there the ideology is called Amsoc or American Socialism. Or, since Americans have never cared for Socialism of any sort, maybe just Americanism. Maybe instead of Big Brother, Americans are warned that Uncle Sam is watching them. Maybe in Australia the ideology is called Ozsoc.

Of course, we shouldn’t take it for granted that anything that the Oceanian government says is actually the truth.It may well be that Oceania is actually an isolated state like North Korea consisting only of the British Isles. Eurasia and Eastasia along with the entire war could simply be fictitious. Winston Smith has no way of knowing and neither does the reader.

I have to say that in general, George Orwell was not a very good prophet. After all, 1984 has passed almost thirty years ago and we are hardly living in a world of perpetual war with a tyrannical government that is watching our every move. Wait a minute. Come to think of it, we kind of are.

I love Big Brother

I love Big Brother


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