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Monday, February 8, 2016

Herman Melville & Ron Howard Go To Sea

In 2010, I attended Readercon, a science fiction and fantasy convention held each year in Massachusetts. Afterward, my wife and I spent a week touring the state, and soaking up the local history. One of the towns we visited boasted a Herman Melville room in its public library. There, amid many relics of the America's whaling history, I saw copies of all the books Herman Melville had written.

Herman Melville? I thought he just wrote Moby Dick?

The memory of that visit stuck with me, and last year I finally decided to do a little follow up. I read Melville's first novel Typee, in which a young man finds life aboard a whaling vessel more than he bargained for. So one day, when he is granted shore leave on Nuku Hiva, one of the Marquesas Islands, he flees the town along the shore. He climbs into the nearby hills, and hides from the search parties the captain sends out to bring him back to the ship.

Once he reaches the top of the mountain, which forms the center of the island, he finds himself amid barren surroundings. All he has is the remnants of the ship's biscuits he hid away in his clothing, along with the tobacco he had brought to trade with the natives. Unfortunately, it rained heavily during his climb, and much of the biscuits have seeped into his clothes, or merged with the tobacco. It's an unsavory mess, which doesn't last him long. 

The man has to make a choice: remain atop the mountain, where nothing grows, or climb back down a little, and ply the natives for food. Those nearby, in the remote area of the island, who are less likely to hand him over to the captain, have a reputation for cannabalism. But what choice does he have? If he doesn't eat, he will die. Better to risk being eaten, than to slowly starve to death.

In director Ron Howard's recent movie "In the Heart of the Sea," Herman Melville begs an old man to tell him about his time serving aboard the Essex. This ship had a terrible history, in which the ship and crew were attacked by a great white whale. So harrowing was their encounter that none of the survivors have dared speak of their trials. But Melville assures the man that, while he wants to hear the truth of the man's story, he will not publish a nonfiction account of the Essex. Instead, he will use the man's factual account to write a novel. He's particularly keen on the title Moby Dick.

So the old man tells his story. Like Melville, who also served aboard a whaling vessel, the Essex left Massachusetts, and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in search of whales. After awhile, the captain realized they couldn't find enough whales to secure the needed oil. So they sailed around the tip of South America, and there, in the vast Pacific Ocean, they found a rich hunting ground. This was an area that Melville knew well, as the whaling ship he had served aboard also traveled to the Pacific, which is how he visited the Marquesas Islands, and so was able to utilize that experience in his novel. 

Typee and its sequel Omoo make clear how difficult it was to catch and harvest whales. Of those who sailed aboard such vessels, only a few actually got into the small boats and tried to harpoon the whales. Those who did so often suffered injuries, loss of limbs, or died in the process. In neither novel does Herman Melville actually describe what it was like to capture, kill, and harvest a whale. In fact, the most glaring aspect of both novels is the the poorly-run nature of the ships he served aboard. So it makes sense, even if it is a little ironic, that despite serving aboard a whaling ship, Melville still felt he needed to study the history of the Essex, and learn all he could of their experiences.

What? Study history? Seek out first hand experiences? Really, is that necessary? I thought fiction writers just thought stuff up?

Dragon Dave 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Herman Melville & Janet Evanovich

In the previous post, I shared with you the three novels I finished last week. These were:

1) Omoo by Herman Melville,
2) Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich, and
3) Nova Classic: Volume 1 by Marv Wolfman.

Of the two literary novels on my list, the one that seems best suited to the values society prizes at the moment is last year's Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich. 

As women make up a larger percentage of readers than men, Tricky Twenty-Two seems ideally suited to today's market. This novel, as with all in the Stephanie Plum series, plays on the romantic triangle of heroine Stephanie Plum, her cop-boyfriend Joe Morelli, and her rich, handsome mentor Ranger with a mysterious past. It also offers up bucket-loads of humor. Yet, as the overall plot is structured around Stephanie's career as a bounty hunter, the books are shelved in the mystery section. According to a recent survey, conducted by the Sisters of Crime organization, sixty-eight percent of mystery readers are female. So it makes perfect sense that Janet Evanovich's novels about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum have sold so well, and made the author a household name.

I suspect it would be impossible to count how many books have been bestsellers throughout the centuries. Many of those celebrated authors are no longer known to contemporary readers. Some of those books may be available in print or online to varying degrees. Even more are most likely lost to history. Stories designed to slot into a desired category don't necessarily survive the passage of time. Will Janet Evanovich's books survive, to take their place alongside those of Herman Melville, Jane Austen, or H. G. Wells? Would Herman Melville's novels still survive, had later critics not revisited Moby Dick, and decided it was one of the most important novels of the nineteenth century? 

Who cares? And does that even matter? Janet Evanovich sells lots and lots of novels, whereas Herman Melville was forced to stop writing for a living, after Moby Dick failed to catch on with the readers of his day. One thing's for sure. As long as Janet Evanovich continues writing those entertaining Stephanie Plum novels, I'll keep reading them. But I'll also keep reading other novels, by authors long since gone, to remind me that great stories can be about contemporary tastes, demographics, and values.

To peruse the full list of what I've read this year, see the sidebar feature to your right labeled Books I Enjoyed in 2016.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Recent Reads & an Appearance by Stan Lee

Every Thursday on her blog, American Fantasy author Jane Lindskold hosts a conversation with a reader from New Zealand. Then, every Friday, she shares what books she's been reading lately. Last week's conversation covered how readers often judge older stories by contemporary values, and criticize such works if they fail to live up to current standards. On Friday, I shared with Jane Lindskold the novels I had read that week in her Comments section. Given their discussion, I thought it would be fun to judge these novels as critics might if they had been written today. 

1) Omoo by Herman Melville. (Published 1847) No strong female characters. Whaling Industry Employees stereotyped as layabouts and scoundrels. Assessment: Must be rewritten for today's diversity-conscious readers.

2) Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich. (Published 2015) Stephanie seems more capable than ever before. Her mother reveals herself as a kick-ass heroine. Morelli portrayed as weak and fragile. Conclusion: suitable for today's readers.

3) Nova Classic: Volume 1 by Marv Wolfman. (A graphic novel, made up of comics published in the 1970s). Early adventures of Nova, who gained his powers from the Nova Corps on Xandar, as shown in the recent movie "Guardians of the Galaxy." Bronze Age superhero fare in the tradition of Stan Lee's early Spider-Man stories. Sadly lacking in strong female superheroes, naked people, or characters with TV sets for heads. Warning: Reading Volume 1 could lead you to purchase Volume 2.

With regard to Nova, my remark regarding a lack of naked people, or characters with TV sets as heads, was intended as tongue-in-cheek. One of the books Jane Lindskold listed in her weekly reads was a graphic novel compilation of issues of Saga, a Science Fiction comic book series geared to adults. I read the first issue, and a few later ones, and didn't feel attracted to the story, let alone such outrageous character types. But others find value in  it. Not only is the series successful, but the first graphic novel compilation of Saga issues won the prestigious Hugo award in the Best Graphic Story category. 

Regular readers may remember my posts on Sam Alexander, the newest Human to bear the mantle of Nova on Earth. Sam is a fun character, created by author Jeph Loeb, and subsequent writers have preserved the young boy's charm. His adventures tug at the heart, as he seeks to defend Earth, find his father (a retired Nova who has gone missing), and keep up his grades in school. These stories, while original in themselves, build upon the stories contained in Nova Classic: Volume 1, in which Marv Wolfman introduced readers to High School student Richard Rider. 

When a dying Nova Corps agent arrives in Earth orbit, he transfers his powers to Richard. Like his successor, Richard would fight to defend his fellow Humans from super villains, preserve a family struggling financially, and keep up his grades. Unlike Sam, he had close friends, and when those friends were threatened, he used his powers to come to their aid. Also unlike Sam, Marv Wolfman created new villains to fight his new superhero. There's even one episode where Richard flies to the Marvel Comics office in New York, and tries to convince actual writers, artists, and production staff to portray his real life adventures in their comics. Who should ultimate axe this brilliant idea? No one other than Marvel's sunny Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee!

With its preponderance of male heroes, villains, and supporting characters, Nova Classic may not represent contemporary readers' hunger for strong, female characters. But it's a lot of fun, and shines a light on life in the 1970s. Unlike Saga, it features no nude characters, or people with TV sets for heads. But hey, it features special appearances by Marv Wolfman and Stan-the-Man Lee. And really, what could be better than that?

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
Falling in Love with a New Nova: Part 1
Falling in Love with a New Nova: Part 2

Related Internet Links
Jane Lindskold's blog

Monday, February 1, 2016

Pride And Prejudice And H G Wells: Part 2

In H. G. Wells' novel, Love and Mr Lewisham, our protagonist unexpectedly reunites with Miss Henderson in London. Although Mr Lewisham is still smarting from the blows to his academic hopes, he has landed in a school for science teachers. While his prospects have fallen, he still holds high hopes for the future. Yet he finds himself as deeply attracted to her as before. While she begs him not to pursue her, he cannot restrain himself. She eventually relents, and lets him into her life. They spend their dates walking along the streets of London, or enjoying the parks. 

Mr Lewisham and Miss Henderson wandered along
the Serpentine arm-in-arm, over sixty years before
WOTAN took over the Post Office tower
in the Doctor Who story "The War Machines."

As their romance builds, his scholastic endeavors suffer. Eventually he gives in to his feelings and marries her. What little money he has saved quickly slips from his bank account. 

Of all his early novels, H. G. Wells reputedly worked hardest on Love and Mr Lewisham. He wished to tackle a serious subject, and he touches upon some notable social trends in England at the turn of the twentieth century. Despite Mr Lewisham's academic capabilities, one wonders if he could have achieved the goals he sought, without money and family to properly back him. His rejection of religion, and his steadfast belief in the superiority of science and socialism to guide mankind surprise him by acting more as impediments to his career than the pluses he had anticipated. Yet Mr Lewisham and Miss Henderson clearly love each other, despite never having been properly introduced. They thrill to the fact that they have found each other, even if, in doing so, they have violated society's expectations. 

As he demonstrated in his classic science fiction novels, H. G. Wells clearly had his eyes on the power of science and socialism to transform the world for the better. Yet I can't help but think that, like Mr Darcy, H. G. Wells felt society needed to be ordered and regulated by properly appointed gatekeepers, who would moderate social interaction between young people. Mr Lewisham and Miss Henderson might have waited forever to be properly introduced by people such as the master of his school, or her relations. Had Mr Lewisham honored the social contract, he might have entered and graduated from the universities and programs to which he had sought admittance. Even if he had ended up at the school for science teachers in London, he could easily have fallen in love and married Miss Heydinger, one of the female students there who admired him, and shared his interests in promoting science and socialism. 

After he fails to graduate,
Mr Lewishaw confesses that he is secretly married,
and says good-bye to Miss Heydinger,
on a quiet bench in Battersea Park.

His pursuit of Miss Henderson cost Mr Lewisham a respectable academic future. Consequently, he lost any hopes of earning more than a pittance for the rest of his life. Still, like Mr Darcy in Pride And Prejudice, who won Elizabeth Bennett's hand after rescuing her family from disgrace, Mr Lewisham earned his wife's enduring love. I have little doubt that, if you approached Mr Darcy or Mr Lewisham, and questioned either on this topic, both would tell you that the adoration of a faithful wife is one of the most precious treasures a man can possess.

That is, at least in Mr Darcy's case, assuming that you and he had previously been properly introduced.

Dragon Dave  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pride And Prejudice And H G Wells: Part 1

In his novel Love and Mr Lewisham, H. G. Wells introduces us to a young teacher at a boy's elementary school in rural England. Mr. Lewisham holds great academic aspirations, but he is poor, with no family or friends to support him. Although he earns forty pounds a year, he must pay thirty on room and board to his landlady. So every hour he is not at school, he sits in his tiny attic room, at a small desk made of boxes, and studies. 

Perhaps Mr Lewisham studies too hard. For one day he catches sight of Miss Henderson, a young woman who is visiting some relatives. Her beauty shines like the rays of the afternoon sun upon the coldness of his isolated existence. Suddenly he loses interest in studying. All he wants to do is be with her.

A chance meeting with Miss Henderson in the country lane only deepens his ardor. When the head of the school sees them together, he reprimands Mr. Lewisham. But the young man refuses to take his cues from the older school master. Although it is never stated, Mr. Lewisham knows he should never have spoken to Miss Henderson, or walked along beside her in the country lane, as they have yet to be properly introduced by her family or his academic superiors. 

Unable to control his passion, Mr Lewisham later refuses to take over a class for another teacher. This is because the headmaster wishes to take along another teacher, to a party being given by Miss Henderson's relatives. What if his colleague and Miss Henderson fell in love? Knowing her schedule, Mr Lewisham uses his free time that afternoon to meet with Miss Henderson again. When he realizes that she returns his affection, he convinces her to spend the rest of the afternoon together. Consequently, she doesn't return to the house by the time she promised, and misses the party. Likewise, he fails to oversee a scheduled class later that afternoon. Although they merely talk and walk through the surrounding farmland, and have tea in a nearby village, when they return that evening, Mr Lewisham and Miss Henderson find their reputations are in tatters. 

Taking tea with my wife,
in a cafe along the Serpentine in London,
while under the careful supervision of the Daleks.

Miss Henderson is looked down upon by all the other women in the village. They see her as a fast woman, someone of low morals. Her relatives confine her to their house after that, and never let her out of sight when they go out. Meanwhile, Mr. Lewisham finds the head of the school unwilling to forgive his absence that afternoon. Without his superior's recommendation, his applications to the universities, and the prestigious programs he hoped to enter, come back rejected.

In Jane Austen's novel Pride And Prejudice, self-important clergyman Mr Collins insists upon speaking to Mr Darcy at a ball. As Mr Collins holds close ties to Lady Catherine de Borough, Mr. Darcy's aunt, he feels sure of a warm welcome. Instead, Mr Darcy feels affronted, and rebuffs Mr Collins' attempts at conversation. While Mr Darcy might have spoken more kindly with Mr Collins, and even tolerated a little of the vicar's prattle, he is conscious that they have yet to be properly introduced. Under those circumstances, Mr Darcy feels it would be improper to speak with Mr Collins.

What do you think? Would society function more smoothly, and people get along more peacefully, if you and I refrained from speaking to people we had not yet been introduced to by our family and civic superiors? Or is that just a meaningless aspect of society that we have, quite rightly, dispensed with?

One thing's for sure. Had Jane Austen and H. G. Wells had access to the Internet, Facebook and Twitter would have functioned far differently than they do today.

Dragon Dave