30 September 2016


Within eleven days, I lost two things that were part of my life: my gallbladder and my wife's granny.

I've never had surgery before, not really. I had a broken arm once, I had stitches twice. I never even had my wisdom teeth out. But now I was losing a part of my body.

It's because part of my body had turned on me: I'd had three episodes of terrible abdominal pain, two of which sent me to the emergency room, where I was diagnosed with gallstones, little deposits of fat in your gallbladder that can block a duct if they end up in the wrong place. Mine did; that's what causes the pain. It's the worst pain I've ever been in. After the second attack, I was on the fence about surgery; after the third, which put me out of joint for the next forty-eight hours, I knew it had to go. In the meantime, I was on a low-fat diet, not that it always worked-- the last attack was triggered by a tofu bahn mi, which feels grossly unfair.

In one of my writing courses this semester, I'm having my students write papers about various forms of violence, often papers about how violence is written about. Once they were supposed to bring in writing where someone advocated for or justified violence, like a declaration of war. One brought in a general piece on self-defense, that argued self-defense was like surgery. You cut off a limb to preserve a body; you hurt a person to preserve the social body. I flipped the analogy around-- was it self-defense to destroy my gallbladder? Was it a form of violence?

The actual surgery was pretty anticlimactic, thanks to anesthetic. Anesthetic is weird, it's not like falling asleep. One second I was in the surgery room as everyone busied themselves getting ready, the next second I was somewhere else, in pain, and I no longer had a gallbladder. A part of me was gone, in less than a moment of time.

Some people say that when someone close to you dies, it's like losing a part of yourself. I'm not so sure. I've lost a part of myself. I destroyed a part of myself in self-defense. Watching my wife mourn, and remembering the two times I lost a grandparent, I'd rather lose an organ than a loved one. My gallbladder, according to the pathology report, was a small one, 6.5 by 2.4 centimeters. (Not to mention, "irregular [and] somewhat distorted.") A loved one leaves a much bigger hole. A hole that's possibly bigger than your own self.

Loss of a loved one can be anticlimactic. My wife's granny wasn't gone as quickly as my gallbladder, but she was gone fast. A few hours passed between when my wife got the text that her granny was on her way to the hospital and when she got the call that her granny hadn't made it. (By contrast, my grandfather died across the period of several weeks.)

But even a sudden death lingers. A passing thought (she said, she'll never get to know our children), a visit to her home (it feels strange to enter a space that so markedly belonged to someone, and know they'll never enter it again), seeing her body at the funeral home (I always find bodies weirdly lifelike, because of course they are our lives), can all spark the loss again. The only way the loss of my organ lingers emotionally is in the sense of joy I experience when I bite down into a hamburger again.

The loss of an organ occurs in a moment, and heals pretty quickly (my last steri-strip fell off the same day we heard about her granny), but the loss of a loved one remains an open wound much longer. And the hole that's left behind is the size of a lifetime.

29 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Early Fiction of H. G. Wells by Steven McLean

One last H. G. Wells-related text in my massive backlog of unreviewed books for my continuing celebration of Wells's 150th, this one not by the man but about him:

Hardcover, 242 pages
Published 2009
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
The Early Fiction of H. G. Wells: Fantasies of Science
by Steven McLean

Steven McLean is part of a group of Victorianist literary scholars of serial publication. When discussing the writings of H. G. Wells, for example, he doesn't consider them as sort of Platonian ideal objects, but as products of the nineteenth-century periodical press. This necessitates not just reading Wells's novels in their serial versions (where relevant), but also reading what other material appeared in those periodicals, and reading what H. G. Wells was publishing elsewhere. There's so much, largely ephemeral, material out there that can illuminate the world in which these novels were being written and read. He charts three stages for Wells's early science fiction: 1895-96: pessimistic Darwinian fables (The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau), 1897-98: recognizable social settings (The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds), and 1901-05: future directions for humanity (The First Men in the Moon and A Modern Utopia).

What you get from all this is a very solid monograph, one that shows how Wells was interested in what science could say about society: whether society was evolving (and how), how science could be used to shape a better society, what role scientists had to play in society, could eugenics improve society, what did evolution have to do with imperialism, and so on. This is a set of well-articulated perspectives on six H. G. Wells novels, the kind of thing that can be a very helpful grounding when you go off to write about those novels yourself. I should cite it more!

28 September 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part XVIII: House of Secrets Omnibus

Comic hardcover, 733 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 1996-2001)
Borrowed from the library
Read April 2016
House of Secrets Omnibus

Writer: Steven T. Seagle
Artists: Teddy Kristiansen, D'Israeli, Guy Davis, Duncan Fegredo, Christian Højgaard, Dean Ormston, The Pander Bros.
Colorist: Bjarne Hansen
Letterer: Todd Klein

About two years ago, I read Foundation, the collection of the first five issues of the 1990s revival of House of Secrets. At the time, the omnibus of all 25 issues plus assorted extras had recently come out but I was unable to source it via interlibrary loan, but on this pass back through Sandman tie-ins I was able to finally secure it. It's a mammoth work: at 733 pages of story, plus unnumbered behind-the-scenes pages, you could really do damage to someone else with this book. Or to yourself if you carry it around in a backpack.

There's a lot to take in here, so probably this review will spiral out of control; I'll begin by not reviewing the opening arc Foundation again, since I already have. (Click on the link in the first paragraph if you care.) I should note that the issues are reordered from publication order here, apparently hitting some kind of ideal reading order, and I read them in the order they're placed here. As a result, book opens not with Foundation, but with what was originally issue #7, "Blueprint: Elevation A," which chronicles the building of the house that eventually became the House of Secrets, intertwining tales of the architect who designed the house, the actual builder of the house and the owner's wife, the House itself, an Indian tribe who used to own the land it was built on, and the blueprint. As you might imagine if you've ever read a 1990s Vertigo comic, they're all dark stories that end in tragedy, but they entertain in a sort of macabre Twilight Zone fashion.

The story rotates through each story, one half-page panel at a time, each with its own distinctive style of lettering.
from House of Secrets vol. 2 #7 (art by Teddy Kristiansen)

Foundation is followed by The Book of Law, a six-part story that fills in the backstories of the dead souls who make up Rain Harper's fellow members of the Juris, the mysterious court in the House's pantry who judge people for the secrets they hold. These are Digol, a Babylonian warlord-turned-court-official; Ruby, a black woman from the 1960s South who gets involved with a white man; Pfaultz, a Middle Ages charlatan who exploits fears of the plague to get money and sex; NiAn, the wife of a dead Japanese warlord suspected of his murder; Clius, a young Roman who gets sexually involved with the Emperor; and the concept of the number five. I liked most of these stories on their own merits-- each draws a nice, one-issue tragedy, some about sweet characters (Ruby) and some about genuinely awful ones (Pfaultz). Though Teddy Kristiansen drew most issues of House of Secrets, The Book of Law lets some guest artists step in to enhance each story with its own distinctive tone, most successfully, Guy Davis (of Sandman Mystery Theatre fame) on Ruby's story. But it was a little weird for the narrative to swerve into covering five side characters after only five issues of the series's regular characters. I think these would have worked better interspersed throughout the series (like the "Times Past" segments of Starman) as opposed to all at once.

27 September 2016

Review: Doctor Who: Genesys by John Peel

Acquired March 2010
Read June 2016
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Timewyrm: Genesys
by John Peel

This novel, the first of the New Adventures, is somewhere between "not very good" and "terrible." I'm not sure where, but even at 230 pages, it was a slog. The Doctor and Ace wander around slowly for a long time doing things that don't really matter, and the ending is a load of nonsense where the seventh Doctor has to become the third to do some technobabble stuff. That the Doctor could be searching for the Timewyrm and then not know who this mysterious goddess entity in ancient Mesopotamia is beggars belief. Even without the gratuitous nudity (there are two scenes where Ace-- who I am pretty sure is sixteen around this time-- gets naked, and that's just the tip of the iceberg), this wouldn't be a very good book.

Next Week: I'm all caught up on my Doctor Who reviews (still haven't read the next New Adventure, Exodus, yet), so I'll be switching tracks to another reading project: the IDW Transformers Humble Bundle!

26 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: H. G. Wells in Love

My celebration of H. G. Wells's 150th birthday continues, with a discussion of the "postscript" to his autobiography that wasn't published until 50 years after the rest of it:

Hardcover, 253 pages
Published 1984
Acquired February 2014
Read June 2016
H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography
edited by G. P. Wells

This book covers the details of H. G. Wells's personal life omitted in Experiment in Autobiography, and it contains three main parts. First is Wells's introduction to The Book of Catherine Wells, a compilation of his wife's fiction he edited after her death. Then there are the accounts of his various extramarital love relationships. And then finally there's the diary he kept following the conclusion of the Experiment, keeping things up to date.

In my discussion of Wells's personal life after the Experiment, I commented, "a lot was being held back. Not only were there no mentions of his affairs during his second marriage, but there was scarcely any mention of his personal life at all as the book went on. [...] [T]he death of his second wife is revealed in only a couple passing asides, and his children may as well not even exist for all the role they play in his life once they are born." I had known why his discussion of his affairs was being held back, but I thought it was weird how little he said about the death of his wife, Amy Catherine "Jane" Wells. Well, upon reading the introduction to The Book of Catherine Wells here, it's clear why he said little about her death in the Experiment, as he had already said it, and he had said it beautifully.

The account of her life is good enough, and supplements some material covered in the Experiment, but what truly impresses is the account of her dying days. It's sad to see her dying after all the time I spent with loyal Jane in the Experiment and here, and the very last bit, where Wells takes the advice of George Bernard Shaw and watches the cremation, is a brilliant, moving bit of writing from a man who often skirted around emotion.

The middle section of the book is fascinating, but in a totally different way, as he discusses why he loved so many women, and delves into short descriptions of the more important affairs, with Amber Reeves (who, with Jane, seems part of the model for Ann Veronica), Elizabeth von Arnim (who should have been a friend with benefits but wanted more), Rebecca West (with whom, as with Reeves, he had a child), Odette Keun (with whom he built a villa in France as a symbol of their love, which turned quite tempestuous), and Moura Budberg (a Russian spy, whom he wanted to marry). These accounts are a mix of amusing anecdotes (Wells and Arnim had outdoor sex on an issue of the Times decrying the immorality of the younger generation), heady passion (Wells and Reeves decided to have a child together in a fit of defiance at the world that didn't really pay off), harsh invective (things really didn't do well with Keun), stinginess with money (he seems impressed with his own generosity), and dispassionate analysis (sometimes he understands himself, sometimes he doesn't).

Each of the stories is compelling in its own way; Wells is a good storyteller, and I found myself regaling my family with anecdotes as I read. The stories of Reeves, Keun, and Budberg are probably the most interesting, as those relationships seemed to encounter the most difficulties, both externally and internally imposed. The story of how Wells couldn't quite tear himself away from Budberg even when he was certain she was lying to him is gripping, and I really want to read a biography of her now.

You could probably psychoanalyze Wells a million different ways, but he comes across to me as a man obsessed with sex but rarely emotionally intimate. Or maybe dispassionate about sex, in that he likes it, but isn't attached to how he gets it. (He talks of going to prostitutes, including when he's in Washington D.C. and decides to find out what sex with a black woman is like.) Or maybe a man in search of a connection he can never quite find, possibly because he's dissatisfied with whatever he can actually have. His sexual appetite was as capacious as his intellectual one, and though he portrays himself as pretty egalitarian (he's all for everyone having as much sex as they want), there are times it seems he wants a helpmeet for His Great Work, not an equal partner. Jane was supposedly accepting of all his affairs, as she wanted an emotional connection, not a sexual one, but I'd be curious to get a take on Jane not from Wells's own perspective.

The final section of the book is mostly the "Looseleaf Diary," notes about the progress of his life that Wells would update periodically. Intervals range from a couple months to a couple years, and the diary covers 1935 to 1942 (he died in 1946). After I'd spent around 900 pages in Wells's life between this book and the Experiment, it was melancholy to watch him finish out his days. It comes across as much more unguarded that most of his other personal writings, just jottings every couple months about what he's doing these days and how he's feeling. He kept feeling he'd "really said what I have had in me to say" (222) again and again, convinced that this book is the last, and then writing another. He veers between optimism and pessimism; the Second World War brings out his anger at humanity in general and Britain in particular, and he really begins to doubt in the achievement of the World State. He talks about making films, and Moura flits in and out of his life, as he slowly grows to accept that he can never rid himself of his obsession, no matter her deceptions. But he also seems to grow closer to his family and appreciate them more as his life becomes more memories than predictions.

Even though he felt he had said everything he could, he was ready to do more. Referring to the suicide of a friend and fellow writer, he wrote in April 1942, "I know there is work and urgent and important work I may presently be called upon to do, and that I cannot go like that. I am here with all my books and a loyal household at hand" (228). Indeed, after writing that sentence, he wrote four more books, plus a doctoral thesis in science, irritated that his honorary doctorate had been in letters. He never stopped loving, and he never stopped working.

In Two Weeks: More H. G. Wells! More love! Find out the true story in H. G. Wells & Rebecca West!

23 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Experiment in Autobiography, Part 5

Finally, my week-long review of H. G. Wells's Experiment in Autobiography comes to an end with a discussion of that obsession of Wells's late life, the World State. Happy 150th birthday, H. G. Wells! Sorry there's no World State yet.

Hardcover, 718 pages
Published 1934
Acquired December 2010
Read June 2016
Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
by H. G. Wells

The World State

Like I said in earlier parts of this review, Wells really wants a World State to come into existence. It's impossible to read his discussions of why the World State is what humanity needs, and not recall the current context of Wells's own nation exiting the European Union, which I've no doubt Wells would have strongly praised as a genuine step to the World State.

Wells links his brand of socialism with science, which is nice. For me, I mean, since much of my research concerns those who use scientific vision as a justification for their actions. Wells contrasts his current beliefs (as of 1934) with the ones he held in his youth, when he first came to socialism (to the extent of wearing a red tie!), saying he "did not at first link the idea of science with the socialist idea, the idea, that is, of a planned inter-co-ordinated society. The socialist movement in England was under the aesthetic influence of Ruskin; it was being run by poets and decorators like William Morris [...]. These leaders were generally ignorant of scientific philosophy and they had been misled by Herbert Spencer's Individualism into a belief that biological science was anti-socialist. I do not recall any contributions on my part, in those early years, to correct that misunderstanding" (192). There's probably a book to be written (I assume someone has already written it) on how we got from the aesthetic socialism of Morris's News from Nowhere to the scientific socialism of Wells. (Though I should note that Engels called Marx's socialism "scientific socialism," and I imagine that Wells, based on the comments I quoted above, would disagree most vociferously!)

Red tie? Some kinda socialist!

Wells goes on to sound almost like a Comtean Positivist, proposing the existence of Professors of Analytical History: "Instead of presenting the clotted masses of un-digested or ill-digested fact which still encumber academic history to-day, my Professors [...] would be human ecologists; indeed Human Ecology would be a good alternative name for this new history as I conceive it." These new human ecologists wouldn't be in competition with old-fashioned historians, for "[t]hey would be related to the older school of historians as much as vegetable physiologists[,] ecologists and morphologists are related to the old plant-flattening, specimen-hunting, stamen-counting botanists. The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis. The clearer their new history became the nearer they would be to efficient world-planning" (552). Perhaps there was never a clearer statement of the idea of idea of a scientific reconstruction of society that I often encounter in fiction-- though I'd like to track down what Wells thought of Comte, because I bet it's not flattering.

Wells predicts that something like human ecology will take over sooner or later, supplanting our focus on history as a series of documents to be memorized and great figures to be canonized, which he says lacks any educational value. I guess this is much like that physics professor he hated, but I don't think what he wanted to happen ever did, at least not in the way he might have hoped for. Wells, in classic Wells fashion, even posits that he's better at history than actual historians. For example, when he discusses his work pushing forward the idea of the League of Nations, he claims, "because I was not a 'scholar' and had never been put under a pedant to study a 'period' intensely and prematurely, and because I had a student's knowledge of biology of of the archæological record, I had a much broader grasp of historical reality than most of my associates" (612-3). The thing about Wells, though, is that when he's cocky, he's still often right; I need to get around to reading The Outline of History and finding out if his arrogance is justified in this case.

Wells actually later wrote a book called The New World Order.
It's almost sad to realize to what extent Wells's dream of the World State is not coming to pass. He's decidedly optimistic when assessing the work he and his colleagues have done:
There is no proof that the seed we have already sown has died. On the contrary, the signs of vitality increase. Now it is a series of lessons in some elementary school; now it is a string of broadcast talks like those of Commander King-Hall; now it is a book for children or the newspaper report of a provincial lecture, that comes reassuringly, another fresh green blade forcing its way to the light. The new ideology creeps upon the world now. [...]
     [T]he realization of a new day comes to thousands before it comes to millions; at first the illumination is almost imperceptible, everything is touched by it while nothing stands out; there is a slow leisureliness in its manner of approach that belies its steady and assured incessancy. (624)
Though there are other times he's a little more guarded, saying, "Sometime I feel that generations of propaganda and education may have to precede it" (668). He was hugely disappointed in the path negotiations took after the Great War, thinking Europe had a real opportunity to create a genuine League of Nations that could coordinate human affairs, and instead it was squandered because of timidity and vengeance.

Whatta guy.
At the time he wrote the Experiment, Wells saw two big sources of centralization: the USSR and the USA: "the end sought [in both countries], a precisely more organized big-scale community, is precisely the same" (678). As a result, he arranged interviews with both FDR and Stalin. FDR was the fourth US president Wells met, after Teddy Roosevelt (who liked The Time Machine), Warren Harding, and Herbert Hoover. Wells's impressions of Stalin are particularly interesting: "I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest, and to these qualities it is [...] that he owes his tremendous undisputed ascendency in Russia. I had thought before I saw him that he might be where he was because men were afraid of him, but I realize that he owes his position to the fact that no one is afraid of him and everybody trusts him" (689). Hardly what I would have imagined! Wells seemed to admire both men, but also be disappointed that neither saw themselves or their countries as playing a role in the increased centralization of humankind.

Since his death, the EU came into existence, which I suspect would have furthered his optimism. Now, of course, the USSR is no more, the UK has voted to leave the EU,* and Scotland even voted on whether or not to leave the UK! Plus you have states like Yugoslavia that came into existence during his lifetime but no longer exist. Now, I'm not convinced of the need for the World State per se (maybe if his science of human ecology had taken off, someone could have proven its necessity to me), but it does seem sad that the thing he devoted the last three decades of his life to is if anything further from realization now than in the 1930s.

* Though, Wells did say that he "had become accustomed to looking westward for the definitive leadership of the English speaking community-- and anywhere but London for the leadership of mankind" (678).

Here's the links to all the parts of this lengthy review:
1. Wells in the Twentieth Century
2. Ways of Seeing: Science and Education
3. Wells's Writing and Wells on Writing
4. Wells's Personal Life
5. The World State

Be Back Monday: I'm not done with H. G. Wells yet, because it's time to hear about his many and varied romances in H. G. Wells in Love!

22 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Experiment in Autobiography, Part 4

Hardcover, 718 pages
Published 1934
Acquired December 2010
Read June 2016
Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
by H. G. Wells

This week, my normal rota of blog topics is taking a backseat as I work through a lengthy review of H. G. Wells's autobiography in honor of his 150th birthday yesterday. (Here is yesterday's post.) Today's topic is:

Wells's Personal Life

One of the things I knew going into H. G. Wells's massive autobiography is that it was only part of the whole. Leaving aside that it was published in 1934 and Wells didn't die until 1946, I knew that Wells omitted many of the details of his personal life to prevent scandal, and that they were eventually published in a "postscript" almost fifty years later edited by his son, called H. G. Wells in Love.

I was surprised, then, that sexual matters were discussed pretty frankly, especially for someone born during the mid-Victorian period: Wells mentions his childhood experiences with masturbation, describes a couple affairs he had during his first marriage (including the one that became his second marriage), and even makes it clear that his first-ever sexual experience was with a prostitute! So I couldn't imagine what was held back for the postscript.

Wells and Jane shared tangerines in 1894, and not again for seventeen years. Wells drew this "picshua" in 1911, positing what they would be like when they got to eat tangerines again in another seventeen years, in 1928. Jane died in 1927.
(from Experiment in Autobiography, p. 379)

But as the book went on, I realized a lot was being held back. Not only were there no mentions of his affairs during his second marriage, but there was scarcely any mention of his personal life at all as the book went on. What takes it over was Wells's obsession in the twentieth century, the coming of the World State. The latter chapters of the book are almost entirely about things Wells said and did in support of this endeavor; the death of his second wife is revealed in only a couple passing asides, and his children may as well not even exist for all the role they play in his life once they are born-- all this in strong contrast to how much attention he gives his parents, especially his mother, in the early chapters of the book.

I think two things drive this. The first is that Wells couldn't afford to talk about his personal life with honesty in 1934. Too many of the things he was writing about affected people who were still alive, and would have repercussions. I'm only a couple chapters into H. G. Wells in Love at the time I am writing this, but I can already see this with clarity. The second is that I think, having been a man early in his life and career accustomed to throwing stones at others' glass houses, Wells erected his own. He really, fully, earnestly believed in the necessity of the rise of the World State and felt that to not devote the latter parts of the book to it would be dishonest, as it seems the World State came to be the only thing he thought about that was not sex, in contrast to the young, imaginative, voracious, polymathic thinker and writer he had been.

Wells sort of tries to paper this over with the subtitle of the book: it is ostensibly about the development of his brain. For example, a lot of the experiences of his youth he ties into his adult way of thinking (connecting a childhood interest in war games with his contemporary disgust at the growing power of Hitler, in one case). Thus, his personal life drops out as it becomes less relevant to the development of his brain. When he discusses politics, he supposes some readers will object "that this is political discussion and not autobiography. It is political discussion but it is also autobiography. The more completely life is lived the more political a man becomes" (668). You may or may not buy this as a justification; I didn't. It's an odd sort of autobiography that barely mentions your children, I expect.

"What is this? Why do the people in the tram car shrink from his presence? Why, in this hot weather sit there in a heap together? Can it be-- Satan? Or the Hangman? Or the Whitechapel Murder[er]? No-- it is none of these things. It is simply a young biological demonstrator who has been dissecting with a large class that particular for of life known as the Dog Fish (scylla canicula). HE STINKS."
(from Experiment in Autobiography, pp. 313-4)

That said, the book is considerably enlivened by the inclusion of a number of "picshuas": this was Wells's nicknames for humorous little doodles he would draw his second wife, usually drawing one every day. They're not all comprehensible, but a couple of them are quite charming. Apparently there's a book collecting a significant number of the existing picshuas; I'll have to seek it out.

Be Back Tomorrow: H. G. Wells on the World State!

21 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Experiment in Autobiography, Part 3

Happy Birthday, Herbert George Wells! Today, I celebrate the 150th birthday of one of my favorite authors by continuing my lengthy review of his lengthy autobiography. (Access part 2 of the review here.)

Hardcover, 718 pages
Published 1934
Acquired December 2010
Read June 2016
Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
by H. G. Wells

Wells's Writing and Wells on Writing

Of course, his literary career is a frequent topic of the book. It's interesting, the extent to which he obviously doesn't rate his scientific romances. The Time Machine gets a bit of discussion, but I suspect only because it had a sort of complicated genesis, and it was his first substantive work of fiction. The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds get only passing asides-- Wells mentions the 1933 film of The Invisible Man (saying it makes the book as well read as ever) and he alludes to biking around Woking looking for places for Martian to blow up. But that's about it, while his more "literary" works get pages upon pages devoted to them, reminding me of how many more of these I have yet to read.

One of the most interesting parts of his discussion of literature was a fourteen-page section titled "Digression about Novels," where he lays out his theory of the novel, especially how he disagrees with Henry James's conception of it. Wells saw the novel as an "ethical enquiry" (410), while James "had no idea of the possible use of the novel as a help to conduct. His mind had turned away from any such idea. From his point of view there were not so much 'novels' as The Novel, and it was a very high and important achievement. He thought of it as an Art Form and of novelists as artists of a very special and exalted type" (411). This feels very much accurate to what I know of James, and I'm always happy to read someone skewering his pomposity.

I also really like Wells's own definition: "I was disposed to regard a novel as about as much an art form as a market place or boulevard. It had not even necessarily to get anywhere. You went by it on your various occasions" (411).

Nice guy, Henry James.
James's big critique of Wells's novels, especially Marriage (which I haven't read, but is a sort-of sequel to Ann Veronica), is that Wells did not care about his characters as people, but as vehicles for ideas. Wells doesn't disagree with his critique of his character development, but rather argues that the novel can be other things than "this real through and through and absolutely true treatment of people more living than life" (413). For Wells, novels should have a free hand to examine big questions, and he even disparages the Victorian writers who dealt with social questions, but who he felt tacitly accepted the values of society; they just "assailed some particular evil, exposed some little-known abuse" (417), while Wells was examining the very values upon which ideas of evil rested. Which is all well and good, but I suspect there's a reason that the more directly Wells engaged with social ideas, the less lasting values his novels have had. We read The Time Machine still and The War of the Worlds (though neither book really has characterization either), but we no long read The World of William Clissold.

Anyway, were I to teach a class on the modern novel again, I would probably pair Henry James's discourse on "The Art of the Novel" with Wells's digression/rebuttal upon the same topic. His account of talking with Joseph Conrad is also amusing:
I remember a dispute we had one day as we lay on the Sandgate beach and looked out to sea. How, he demanded, would I describe how that boat out there, sat or rode or danced or quivered on the water? I said that in nineteen cases out of twenty I would just let the boat be there in the commonest phrases possible. Unless I wanted the boat to be important I would not give it an outstanding phrase and if I wanted to make it important then the phrase to use would depend on the angle at which the boat became significant. But it was all against Conrad's over-sensitized receptivity that a boat could ever just be a boat. (528)
Look, I'm not saying you're wrong, H. G., but we still read Heart of Darkness these days yet everyone seems to have forgot Love and Mr. Lewisham.

Wells does tell some good anecdotes about his early literary career: in particular, there's an incident where he wets an old hat to make it look new when he goes to see an irate editor that is particularly delightful. When you read too much of Wells banging on about the failures of feminism and the necessity of the World State, it's easy to forget that he can actually be quite funny if he likes.

Be Back Tomorrow: H. G. Wells on his own personal life.

20 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Experiment in Autobiography, Part 2

Hardcover, 718 pages
Published 1934
Acquired December 2010
Read June 2016
Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
by H. G. Wells

This week, my normal rota of blog topics is taking a backseat as I work through a lengthy review of H. G. Wells's autobiography in honor of his 150th birthday tomorrow. (You can access yesterday's kick-off here.) Today's topic is:

Ways of Seeing: Science and Education

It's interesting to note that for all he valued science, was trained in science, and even taught science, that Wells doesn't have a terribly scientific mind himself, as he occasionally admits. For example, he described his childhood friend Sydney Bowkett as "one of those who see quickly and vividly and say 'Look,' a sort of people to whom I owe much. [...] Without such stimulus I note things, they register themselves in my mind, but I do not actively note them of my own accord" (79). Wells does, however, recognize a good scientific thinker when he sees one, praising T. H. Huxley (who was Wells's biology lecturer at South Kensington) for his ability to "see life clearly and to see it whole, to see into it, to see its inter-connexions, to find out, so far as terms were available, what it was, where it came from, what it was doing and where it was going" (169).

I will never get tired of this picture of Huxley.
This is in contrast to a professor of physics he had later, who failed completely to do any of these things, as he was "devoid of interrogative liveliness" (169). My impression is very much that Wells wanted to see Huxley's inter-connected vision applied to all society-- which is a theme of Ann Veronica, for example, where the young female science student Ann Veronica (being lectured by Godwin Capes, a Wells stand-in, who was himself lectured by Russell, a Huxley stand-in) has glimpses of applying the organizing principles of biology to all society, as she realizes that biological science "was, after all, a more systematic and particular method of examining just the same questions that underlay the discussions of the Fabian Society, the West Central Arts Club, the chatter of the studios[...]."

However, the form of Britain's educational institutions worked directly against science education creating the kind of all-encompassing vision Wells hoped for; he claims that injecting science into the curriculum was counterproductive, as "when by means of clamour from without, such subjects as physical science and biology were thrust into the curricula, they underwent a curious standardization and sterilization in the process" (279). What should have been about teaching ways of thinking became something so uncontroversial that Wells observes at one point that you could take a biology course at university in the 1890s and never discover the existence of evolution!

I had known Wells was a biology lecturer; what I had not know until reading the Experiment was that he did not lecture at an actual school (though he did hold a couple school posts over the years, including one where his kidney was partially crushed playing, I think, rugby, which yields some entertaining anecdotes), but for a cramming service. The British universities did a remarkably poor job preparing their students for their exams, so Wells worked for a tutoring service that functioned mostly by correspondence (students would write answers to sample questions and mail them in for assessment), but he also did some lectures and demonstrations to allow for "an efficient drilling in the practical work" (283). He observes that the cramming service would make a good subject for a Dickensian comic novel-- he calls teaching students to pass biology exams "an absolutely different thing from teaching biological science" (283)! If he had written this book, there would probably be a lesson for our own testing-obsessed education culture somewhere within it. (He has a good anecdote somewhere about how his teaching of biology much improved once he stopped letting his students do actual dissections and just told them what an ideal dissection would be like.)

I should note before I end that Wells does believe physics can be interesting-- it's just not immediately applicable to daily life. Not necessarily in a bad way, just in a way that means it can't be the subject of his thoughts for a sustained period of time: "I realize that Being is surrounded east, south, north and west, above and below, by wonder. Within that frame, like a little house in strange, cold, vast and beautiful scenery, is life upon this planet, of which life I am a temporary speck and impression. There is interest beyond measure within that house; use for my utmost. Nevertheless at times one finds an urgency to go out and gaze at those enigmatical immensities. But for such a thing as I am, there is nothing conceivable to be done out there" (183). It's a beautiful little image he conjures here, I think. Wells may find his primary sphere of interest within the house, but that does not mean everyone has to.

Be Back Tomorrow: H. G. Wells on writing.

19 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Experiment in Autobiography, Part 1

Before we get started on the Week of Wells, I have two reviews of recent-ish Doctor Who audio dramas up at USF this weekend: Nightshade featuring the seventh Doctor and Ace, and The Waters of Amsterdam featuring the fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan.

Hardcover, 718 pages
Published 1934
Acquired December 2010
Read June 2016
Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
by H. G. Wells

Anyone who knows me knows that my interest in (obsession with?) H. G. Wells has only grown with the passing of time. There is not an important topic of the Victorian era that Wells doesn't have something to say to, I reckon. So it's only natural that my review of H. G. Wells's autobiography is probably among the longest book reviews I ever wrote. Thus, in honor of H. G. Wells's 150th birthday coming this Wednesday, I'm running my review of it in five parts, breaking it up to cover five semi-distinct topics. First off is:

Wells in the Twentieth Century

Here in the twenty-first century I think we often consider the whole Victorian era to be of a piece: Charles Dickens coexisting with H. G. Wells, Fagin running from Martian tripods. But The War of the Worlds is closer to its own Cold War film adaptation than it is to Oliver Twist, and Wells lived more of his life in the twentieth century than the nineteenth, despite the fact that thanks to steampunk his early science fiction works define our imaginary of the nineteenth century. It's weird to read someone quintessentially Victorian discussing meeting Albert Einstein, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin, and having opinions on the women's suffrage movement and Karl Marx.

At one point, Wells prophesies humanity
will outgrow its love of personality in politics.
I guess that didn't work out so well.
Perhaps weirdest of all is in his discussion of Hitler, who he first brings up when covering his life at age thirteen. He describes Hitler as "nothing more than one of my thirteen year old reveries grown come real. A whole generation of Germans has failed to grow up" (75). In fact, his fantasy worlds at thirteen strongly resemble the kind of future-war fiction Wells skewered in The War of the Worlds and The War in the Air: "I was simple even in victory. I made wise and firm decisions, about morals and customs and particularly about those Civil Service Stores which had done so much to bankrupt my father. With inveterate enemies, monarchists, Roman Catholics, non-Aryans and the like I was grimly just. Stern work--but my duty...." (75)

This reminds me of the ends of novels like Angel of the Revolution, where the future-revolutionaries have selflessly taken on the burden of murdering millions to make the world a better place, and then they lay down a set of new laws, one of which is always something oddly specific that makes you think it must have had personal repercussions for the writer, like one of the Seven Laws for All Humankind being about landlord-tenant rights. I've often drawn a connection between the revolutionary impulse of books like Angel and Hitler, so it's nice to see Wells himself draw the same one. I should note that, as I said in my discussion of Little Wars, Wells lumps Winston Churchill in with those still trapped in this phase of development. I wonder if and to what extent Wells revised his opinion of Churchill after the Second World War.

Wells also didn't like Karl Marx very much. My impression is that he saw Marx coming at a similar problem to him, but in an overly simplistic fashion. He claimed Marx had a "plausible, mystical and dangerous idea of reconstituting the world on a basis of mere resentment and destruction: the Class War. Overthrow the 'Capitalist System' (which was never a system) was the simple panacea of that stuffy, ego-centred and malicious theorist. [...] Marxism is in no sense creative or curative. Its relation to the inevitable reconstruction of human society which is now in progress, is parasitic" (143). He also claims that Marxism mostly exists to sustain public anger in face of a very complicated problem: "To abandon the Class War theory of revolution is to give up the use of a very sustaining opiate and to face an intricate riddle. For many rough immediate purposes, drugged fighters may do better than clear-headed ones, but not in the long run" (626). Ouch!

Consistent with this, he claims Russia would have had a much better revolution without Karl Marx. It's interesting to see how Wells articulates a different between the kind of revolution he wanted (gradual, scientifically grounded) and the one he thought Marx wanted (rapid, emotionally grounded), especially given how many of Wells's novels feature massive destruction paving the way for a scientific World State. Here, he argues that "A constructive revolution [...] must begin fragmentarily, it must begin here and there, and it will have associated with it a considerable riff-raff of merely eccentric, extravagant, disgruntled and discredited individuals. [...] Revolution begins with the misfits" (627). I guess a sudden catastrophe was okay for utopian fiction, but not reality, and I guess scientific planning was good for the World State but not for the revolution to bring it into being.

If you know anything at all about Wells, you'll know that he very much liked to be right about everything. (I would uncharitably interpret a number of his works of fiction as establishing that he knew more about certain things than other writers.) It's probably no surprise, then, that he turns out to be a total mansplainer; there's a two-page diatribe about how he had better ideas about feminism than the actual lady feminists. He blames women's cultural inferiority on the biological disadvantage they possess as the child-bearers, concluding that there's no way to equalize it "short of the public endowment of motherhood. These things and not any petty political enfranchisement, I reasoned, must surely constitute the real Magna Charta of Women, and I set myself to explain this with the same tactless simplicity and lucidity that had already caused such inconvenience to the politicians of the Labour Party" (406). Yes, I can see how women would have loved you turning up and explaining why they actually didn't need the vote, H. G.

I guess he recognizes that he was tactless, which is nice, but on the next page he makes fun of their modesty and decries their methods, so twenty years on and he still seems to be acting tactless.

Be Back Tomorrow: H. G. Wells on science and education.

16 September 2016

Reading Roundup Year in Review, 2015/16

It's September, which means that another reading year has come to an end. Which means that it's time to do the numbers and see how this year stacks up to years past.

Year Books Read
2003/04  151
2004/05  129
2005/06  141
2006/07  129
2007/08  152
2008/09  161
2009/10  157
2010/11  139
2011/12  184
2012/13 195
2013/14 148
2014/15 146
2015/16 149
SUM 1981
MEAN 152.4

The past three years have been remarkably consistent. Apparently a book every 2.5 days is the pace I will always have no matter what. But actually it doesn't really work like that:
Click to enlarge.

As you can see, I had nine months that were below average, and three months that were above average-- but two of them were significantly above average, and made up a lot of ground at the last minute. If I'd read in July and August like I had the rest of the year, I'd have finished the year with 120 books, which would have been my worst year ever! I'm not really sure what happened to inflate my numbers so much late in the year. A combination of a bunch of comic books coming up on my list at the same time I began riding the bus almost every day again? (But I rode the bus a lot in March and April, and those don't really stand out.)

Here's what I've been reading this year: (I broke out series/authors only if I read more than one book of that series/author)

Doctor Who 9 0.8 6.0%
Star Trek 8 0.7 5.4%
Star Wars 8 0.7 5.4%
Media Tie-In Subtotal 25 2.1 16.8%

H. G. Wells1 8 0.7 5.4%
Other SF&F 9 0.8 6.0%
General SF&F Subtotal 17 1.4 11.4%

Batman 17.5 1.5 11.7%
Legion of Super-Heroes 6.5 0.5 4.4%
Birds of Prey 5
0.4 3.4%
The Sandman 4 0.3 2.7%
Supergirl 1.5 0.1 1.0%
DC Crisis Crossovers2 2 0.2 1.3%
Superman 1.5 0.1 1.0%
Batgirl 1.5 0.1 1.0%
Other DCU Comics 9 0.8 6.0%
The Transformers 12 1.0 8.1%
Thor 2 0.2 1.3%
Calvin and Hobbes 2 0.2 1.3%
Top Ten 2 0.2 1.3%
Other Comics3 6 0.5 4.0%
Comics Subtotal 73 6.1 49.0%

James Bond by Ian Fleming 3 0.3 2.0%
Victorian Literature 8 0.7 5.4%
Other Literature 5 0.4 3.4%
General Literature Subtotal 16 1.3 10.7%

Other Nonfiction4 18 1.5 12.1%

1. This actually includes both science fiction and literature by Wells, but I can't be bothered to separate them back out for the purposes of this report.
2. This also include novels about these comics-originated characters/premises.
3. Comics based on a particular series (e.g., Doctor Who or Star Trek) are included with that series's count.
4. Nonfiction connected to a particular series or author (e.g., Doctor Who or George Eliot) is included in that series or author's count.

I knew I was reading a lot more comic books these days, but I would have not guessed they accounted for almost half of my reading! (Last year they accounted for just under a third.) My wife says it's cheating.

As usual, I picked a book every month as the "Pick of the Month"; here's the full list in alphabetical order by author:
I don't think it's possible to do a "Pick of the Year" this year. The full list of "Picks" going back seven years is here.

Finally, here's my usual graph of my reading trends over time:
Click to enlarge.
Here's hoping for a more diverse 2016/17!

You can compare this to previous years if you're interested: 2007/08, 2008/09, 2009/10, 2011/12, 2012/13, 2014/15. (I didn't do ones for 2010/11 and 2013/14.)

15 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Shape of Things to Come

Trade paperback, 530 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1933)
Acquired October 2013
Read December 2014
The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution
by H. G. Wells

One of Wells's last novels, this covers human history from 1933 to 2106. It's not really a novel in the conventional sense, but a history written from the perspective of the future, complete with a frame narrative explaining how it fell into the hands of Wells in 1933 so that he could publish it, which feels a little old-fashioned. (A lot of future narratives in the nineteenth century had this, like Shelley's The Last Man, Loudon's The Mummy!, Shiel's The Purple Cloud, Fawkes's Marmaduke, Emperor of Europe, but once the idea of the future narrative was firmly established around 1900, it largely vanished.)

So it's the not most riveting reading-- this is an entirely different kind of science fiction to that which Wells started his career with novels like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. This is the fiction of ideas, not of sensations. If you're me, though, there's a lot of interesting stuff here. You get Wells's take on how future historians will view his own time (the first few chapters set things up with a discussion of the late Victorian era and the Great War) and then into the second World War, which Wells envisions as lasting from 1940 to 1950, followed by a devastating plague in 1956-57. From here, comes, of course, the World-State, that quixotic organization Wells spent so much of his late life advocating for. I don't love this book, but it's probably the most total depiction of the future-vision of the late Wells that I've read.

Some random points of interest:
  • As in his autobiography (I'll get to that next week), Wells disparages those who embrace war as too much like a game. He sees this type embodied in Winston Churchill, of whose writing his future historian says, "He displays a vigorous naive puerility that still gives his story an atoning charm. He has the insensitiveness of a child of thirteen. His soldiers are toy soldiers and he loves to knock over a whole row of them. He enjoyed the war" (65). It's a marked contrast to the way Wells viewed toy soldiers back when he wrote Little Wars. (What comes between the two takes was, of course, an actual war. In The War in the Air, Wells mocks those who fell victim to the nationalist vision of future war, but even he fell victim to it at times.)
  • The book suggests that after the beginning of the second World War, architecture had to belatedly adapt to the dangers of gas and aerial bombing. First there came "those usually ill-built concrete cavern systems for refuge" in Paris, Berlin, and London (60). This makes me think of the underground world of the Morlocks in The Time Machine, though Wells had no such idea of underground shelters in 1895 as far as I know. (However, the 1960 film of The Time Machine makes the Morlocks' underground world a nuclear bunker.) Additionally, towns are covered in massive carapace roofs, I guess kind of like giant domes. Basically no skyscrapers are built at all between 1945 and 2000. But in the world of 2106, "[w]e grovel no longer, because we are ceasing to fear each other. The soaring, ever improving homes in which we live today would have sent our great-grandfathers scurrying to their cellars in an ecstasy of terror" (61). Wells always has such great visuals; I wish he hadn't stopped telling stories with them later in his career.
  • Wells, as always, saw a massive catastrophe as the only possible prelude to the One World-State, which speaks rather poorly of the efforts he made throughout his life if you think about it! "Out of that medley of human distresses, out of the brains of men stressed out of indolence and complacency by the gathering darkness and suffering about them, there came first the hope, then the broad plan, and at last the achievement of that fruitful order, gathering beauty and happy assurance, in which we live today" (122). Here he's referring to the "Age of Frustration," the period after the Great War where it seemed like everything was about to fall apart because the complexity of social systems had exceeded the capacity of humans to organize them using their existing methods. (This picks up on some ideas Wells introduced in The History of Mr Polly.)
  • Wells attributes the problems of the early twentieth century to how once disparate groups were brought into close contact by technological advance: "Two or more population groups, each with its own special narrow and inadaptable culture and usually with a distinctive language or dialect, had been by the change of scale in human affairs jammed together or imposed upon one another. A sort of social dementia ensued" (198). Everyone in the world is so physically close, but they continue to insist on cultural and social separation, with disastrous results. This might be true, but it's difficult to see a way out of it: who are you going to convince to give up their culture? I guess that's why Wells envisions the One World-State beginning with an air dictatorship that just forces everyone to get in line. (He also describes hatred as a disease, and says it can be cured just like coughs can, but that was difficult to imagine in the Age of Frustration.)
  • Religion is depicted as inimical to the advancement of human happiness. In 1978, one of the first acts of the One World-State is to gas the Pope; a youthful priest is killed when he's hit in the head by a gas container, "the first killing in a new religious conflict" (346). He becomes Saint Odet of Ostia, the last saint of the Catholic Church, because the One World-State wins this war, also shutting down holy sites in Mecca and India, and closing the kosher slaughterhouses. "There was now to be one faith only in the world, the moral expression of the world community" (347). The argument is that if the new regime doesn't wipe away the systems of the old world, they will wipe it away before it has a chance to take hold.

14 September 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXXI: Free Country: A Tale of the Children's Crusade

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 1993-2015)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2016
Free Country: A Tale of the Children's Crusade

Writers: Neil Gaiman, Toby Litt, Rachel Pollack, Alisa Kwitney & Jamie Delano
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Mike Barreiro, Peter Gross, Al Davison & Peter Snejbjerg
Colorists: Daniel Vozzo & Jeanne McGee
Letterers: John Costanza & Todd Klein

It's probably impossible to discuss this book without discussing its means of production. Though it would be interesting to discuss it as a purely standalone book, its strange genesis will always influence anything you can write about. The Children's Crusade was a 1993-94 "annual" crossover, by which I mean a crossover through annuals of ongoing series (like Eclipso: The Darkness Within or Armageddon 2001), not a crossover that took place annually. It was Vertigo's first and last attempt at such a thing, spanning Black Orchid, The Books of Magic, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, and Doom Patrol. In addition to those five issues, it was bookended by issues featuring Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine, the so-called "Dead Boy Detectives" from The Sandman, which were (mostly) written by Neil Gaiman. The crossover has never been collected, I guess because the middle parts didn't make a lot of sense on their own, and didn't connect into the last issue in the way they were supposed to. But because printing Neil Gaiman is like printing money, DC has finally collected the bookends he wrote, commissioning a new middle chapter by writer Toby Litt and artist Peter Gross to bridge the gap between the two Gaiman-penned issues, covering all the ground needed to get you from The Children's Crusade issue #1 to issue #2. Litt and Gross also add extra pages to the closing issue, I guess to clarify or expand rushed aspects of it.

I actually meant to scan a different sequence of panels on the facing page, but I messed up and I'm too lazy to redo it, so this'll have to do.
from The Children's Crusade #1 (script by Neil Gaiman, art by Chris Bachalo & Mike Barreiro)

The opening issue is Neil Gaiman at his most typical and his best, aided by Chris Bachalo and Mark Barreiro on art. Charles and Edwin, the two boarding-school ghosts who eluded Death in Season of Mists, have set up a detective agency, finally answering a long-standing point of bafflement for me. Their first case is brought to them by a girl whose brother has vanished, along with every other child in their village, plus a huge number of children the world over. In typical Gaiman fashion, though, their investigations (such as they are; they're delightfully poor detectives) are interspersed with tales of lost or missing children from throughout history: a chronicle of the Children's Crusade, a boy telling the Victorian poet Robert Browning about the Pied Piper's visit to the town of St. Cecile, and a very grim story of how a group of children trapped in a pit managed to escape.

13 September 2016

Review: Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks by Ben Aaronovitch

The past day or so has seen three Doctor Who: Short Trips reviews by me appear on USF: Lucie Miller and the Eighth Doctor in "The Curse of the Fugue"; Steven Taylor, Dodo, and the First Doctor in "This Sporting Life"; and the Meddling Monk, Liz Shaw, and the Third Doctor in "The Blame Game."

Trade paperback, 211 pages
Published 2013 (originally 1990)
Acquired February 2016
Read March 2016

Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks
by Ben Aaronovitch

Remembrance of the Daleks is often held up as one of the best Target novelizations, and a forerunner of the broader and deeper style of The New Doctor Who Adventures, so I decided to read it before plunging into The New Adventures properly. But, alas, I didn't find this book to be all that. It's a perfectly competent novelization-- Ben Aaronovitch does a better job with his own scripts than I suspect Terrance Dicks would have-- but it doesn't really capture what I love about Remembrance, which is the television story that pushed me from "maybe this television program has something going for it..." to "I'm going to buy this on DVD and watch it forever." On screen with Andrew Morgan's direction, Remembrance is full of energy and verve; in Aaronovitch's prose, it feels much more normal than it did on screen. There are some neat details added here and there, but I was surprised to realize how much the characters of the Intrusion Counter Measures Group owe to the performances, as there's not much to them on the page. And that's just one example.

Here's a bit of trivia for you: the infamous (and awesome) Special Weapons Dalek gets a scene from its own perspective, where it reflects on its status in the Dalek hierarchy, where it, alone among Daleks, has a name, "the Abomination." This is actually a pretty great scene, as we learn it has a sense of selfhood no other Dalek posseses, for which its fellows want it exterminated. Only the will of the Emperor (i.e., Davros) permits its continued existence. Its exploits are recounted: "Pa Jass-Gutrik, the war of vengeance against the Movellans; Pa Jaski-Thal, the liquidation war against the Thals; and Pa-Jass Vortan, the time campaign -- the war to end all wars." A veteran of the Time War!? If I ever get to write for a Doctor Who tie-in, I'll have to slip in a reference to the Daleks calling the Time War the "Pa-Jass Vortan."

In Two Weeks: The New Adventures finally begin properly, when the Doctor and Ace meet the Timewyrm for the first time in Genesys!