Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Review: The Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg

I pulled this sci-fi novel from the depths of my bookshelves, looking for the magic that existed in the writings of the masters of the genre.  In so many science fiction books of the 50's and 60's, writers like Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, and Robert Heinlein concentrated on the ideas, the aspects of mankind progressing out of their own microcosm here and out to the universe.  Once in the stars, most sci-fi writers found that the universal themes they thought about were also at the very core of their own minds.  To go outward, you must go inward. Robert Silverberg did a fantastic job in combining Roddenberry with Jung.

Each of the main characters are introverted, brooding, well constructed men who decide the fate of the human race even while examining their own emotions.  Dick Muller, the damaged soldier who lives on the planet of Lemmos and its large, deadly maze constructed by aliens from a long forgotten civilization.  Charles Boardman, the confident manipulator of men, armies, worlds, whose weary nostalgia reveals an old man who tires in his actions even as he moves forward.  And Ned Rawlins, the naive, ideological crew member of Boardman who, as a child, knew Muller.  Boardman and Rawlins' mission is to retrieve Muller from his self-imposed exile in the maze which only he has mastered.

The maze is, of course, a symbol of the inner workings of a man's mind.  The maze is so well described by Silverberg, in direct prose that gives a vagueness of dimension and detail while allowing the imagination to fill in the rest.  (I say this because there are too many authors, like Terry Brooks, for instance, that will describe every tree in the forest. Sometimes it's best to let the reader's mind make some of it up.)  I also think that the 1978 Mass Market version which I have has the best cover, portraying the maze as an ornate, spiraling city of rooms and walkways, of endless deadly traps and machinations.

In chapters spread throughout are the histories of the three men.  What made Muller different, what the aliens he met did to him, and why he was shunned from the rest of humanity afterwards.  What desperate mission do they need him for, even to risking the lives of men who must go into the maze, knowing that one false move will send them into spikes, boulders, or lakes of fire.

In the end, we see mankind's outlook on his world and his future.  The stoic, the cynic, the righteous, even the epicurean.  It made me wish the book was longer, that the days spent in the maze were longer, the delving into the maze that is the human psyche was more complete.  I felt as if there was something Silverberg was looking for, and it was he that could not finish the maze, and so had to leave it undone, damaged somehow.  At the end, when Muller returns to the maze (and by saying that, I'm revealing nothing), he goes to retrieve something he'd lost.  And maybe that was what Silverberg felt as well.

I will say one more thing about the novel, which to me meant absolutely nothing, as I've come to expect this from most sci-fi authors.  The women in the story are simply sexual tools, empty bodies with breasts and long hair.  They are the short skirted crewwomen walking down the halls of the Enterprise. And while this would make the modern reader bristle with politically correct righteousness, I do not think it takes away from the book itself.  When you read sci-fi from the 50's and 60's, you must realize that there are few if any women characters with strong character traits.  You have to look at works by Sherri S. Tepper, Ursula K. LeGuin, even Orson Scott Card, to find them.  In other words, you pick the book up recognizing that the main characters will be men, and you find the underpinnings of the man's mind to be such.  Enjoy the dark, brooding characters, and don't let modern ideas about writing come into play.  It would be same as criticizing writers of times past from putting in strong, liberated African-Americans, or removing the prejudiced feelings of Whites from older books.  You have to read these books about the future as works from the past.  And find, like so many other classic works of literature, that their are lessons even in the oldest of writings.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Something Deep Fried This Way Comes

I do highly recommend, when the chilly wind starts up in the evening, when you put away the summer shorts and pull out the blue jeans, to take a look at Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, a veritable tribute to the month of October.  Bradbury mixed his usual lyrical writing with a chorus of nostalgia, and a verse of horror.  It's what he did best in any short story or novel, bringing alive the price of memory, nostalgia, and sorrow (Counting Crows sung a line: "The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings.").  You will not find any better book written than Dandelion Wine, a must read for anyone who longs for the more simpler times.  In SWTWC, William waxes nostalgic, and wishes to become younger, while Jim wants to grow older.  In comes Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show, the carnival with a merry-go-round that makes just those dreams come true, but at a cost.

For October is, amongst the chill winds and the Trick or Treating and the falling leaves, saying goodbye to Summer for the dark, dreary Winter months, the time of the local Carnival.  A last celebration, a sudden gasp of joy before it all goes away.  In Georgia, the Georgia State Fair has moved from the central-based town of Perry (near Macon) to the Atlanta Motor Speedway just south of Atlanta (in Hampton).  The hope is to draw people from the metro area to the fair (in my opinion, they probably could get rural folk to Perry easy enough, but high gas prices are hurting attendance.) In Oklahoma, the State Fair is located off Portland Ave. in the middle of Oklahoma City.  Everyone goes to the fair.  The schools have a teacher workday called "Fair Day" so that everyone could go to the fair.  Traditionally, the fair is supposed to be used for farmers bringing stock to a market to be inspected and sold (you remember Charlotte's Web? Wilbur was taken to the "fair" to be entered into a prize, and then sold for bacon).  In the meantime, the family ate, rode rides, watched rodeos, and made a day of it.

My memories of the Oklahoma State Fair begins with my grandmother, Mema, who worked counting tickets sold for the fair.  So we got in free. It's amazing I didn't get totally lost and separated from Mema walking around there, as I was my propensity every time I went anywhere (still do). I was young enough that the rides we went on were small merry-go-rounds in the shapes of cars, spaceships, etc... The goal was to get into a vehicle and have the horn work on it, or the buttons that made the lights work.  Those old machines were probably on their last leg then, but they were magical to us.  It was either that, or gaze high into the air where the grown-up rides were.  The Tilt-a-Whirl Pirate ship that went high into the air one way, then another, or the grand Ferris Wheel that stands above the fairground and can be seen for miles.  The main ride we loved going on was the tower that lifts you high above the Oklahoma soil and lets you see the whole city.  Reminds me of the Glass Elevator on Willy Wonka. You could see the Goodholm Mansion that was moved from Oklahoma City out to the fairground.  It was an old southern style house that the historical society wanted to save from Urban Renewal, and so they moved it to the fairgrounds as an exhibit. My grandmother said she lived in the house for a short while as a child. From atop the Space Tower, you could see all the way into downtown, and it was wonderful.

So, at the end of the month, it would be so worth taking a family out to the Georgia State Fair, to experience all the rides and the food and see the cows and horses and cars (it's on the Raceway), create memories that children will have for a long time.  It's a tunnel back to yesteryear, before electronic gadgets that keep kids walking head down while somehow maneuvering around poles and doors and stuff.  Get the kids to look up for once, to sights they'll never forget.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

White Chocolate Candy Corn; Book Christmas Trees

In 2006, a year after I began working at Borders, M&M's introduced White Chocolate M&M's, to coincide with the Pirates of the Caribbean Sea movie.  If you could have seen me when I heard the news, it would be one of the few times I've "fangirled" over something (the latest being the trailer for The Mysterious Cities of Gold, 2nd season.) Squealing with delight, I went to multiple grocery stores trying to find the elusive pieces of white heaven.  For it's the ironically named "White Chocolate" that is the greatest of candies. Having tasted it first as a white chocolate fudge  at the Cafe in Stone Mountain a long time ago, and letting it melt down my throat in explosions of creamy goodness (yep, I fangirled), it became seared into my memory as the best thing to experience at the big granite rock.

So it was with ginormous displeasure when I realized that White Chocolate M&M's were inferior and not worth getting.  I doubt I finished the sack I bought.  Here's why.  White Chocolate, when properly made, has a much lower melting point than regular chocolate. It doesn't do well in shipping in large trucks, even when refrigerated.  So, most white chocolate foods are made and sold during the winter months.  If you recall the White Chocolate covered Oreos that are always around Christmastime (which, by the way, are equally disappointing for a totally different reason. Oreos are meant to be dunked in milk, and yet the white chocolate covering prevents the cookie from dissolving inside the milk.  Thus, the Oreos are useless.  I actually threw the mostly uneaten container of WCC-Oreos away). The WC
M&M's were sold in July, and Mars company realized the issue.  They put some sort of chemical inside the white chocolate that prevented it from melting.  Wonderful..... except.... it didn't "Melt in your Mouth" either.  It wouldn't dissolve at all, leaving the flavor of the chocolate from covering every millimeter of my taste buds.  It was a major let down.

Now, I'm happy to announce, they've got it right!! White Chocolate Candy Corn M&M's, for the Halloween season, are great!  They added a little honey flavor to the sugar coating, and reconfigured the make up of the white chocolate in the middle. Great job Mars!!!  But good luck finding them!


For the Christmas season, I got creative and made a Book Tree for the Friends of the Library Bookstore at the Nancy Guinn Library here in Conyers, GA.  Got the idea off the Internet, looking for things to do with old Law Books.  Here is the result:


Monday, October 8, 2012

Replacement Refs and President Obama

So the replacement referees for the NFL goofed one up and cost the Green Bay Packers the game.  And so there were many backdoor meetings where things happened, and phone calls were made, and who knows what, and now the regular referees are now there to make games go as they normally would.  Great. But the damage is much more than just one game or a deal made by the NFL.  We have seen how people react with substitute refs., just as much as substitute teachers in high school.  Authority becomes useless when given to people that cannot demand respect.  This goes for sports especially.  If we have learned that replacement refs have no authority, by what means do we give regular refs that same authority?  Would the foundations of sports games be torn down just because we don't want to honor the social contract given to the people that regulate the game?  Football players, and even the spectators, have agreed upon the rules (else we wouldn't watch the game), giving the refs or umpires or the guys in black and white the ability to organize the game and enforce the rules, by however means necessary.  In an ideal world, the players themselves should follow the rules and no officials would be needed.  There are some instances where this happens.  Self-reporting in Golf, for instance.  In those cases, the act of what should be normal is heralded as supreme sportsmanship.  In most cases, it's get away with whatever you can to win the game and hope you don't get caught.

Obviously, we can take this beyond the realm of sports.  We must respect those who are put in positions of authority above us.  I might have thought that some of my former managers were jerks and idiots, but they had the position to run the store, to sign paychecks, and to hire and fire, and so they must be given that ability.  Now, there are different levels of that respect.  I am talking about the most basic adherence to the social contract that we enter into when we are hired into a job.  We have to accept the hierarchy inside the company.  Genuine respect, of which I have had with most of my managers.  The kind that makes me work hard and passionately wish that our store would succeed, that is earned by the leadership of those above me.  This goes for the people running our government.  Like Mitt Romney did in the debate a week ago, he acknowledged the power and position of President Obama, even while he vehemently disagreed with him.  If we don't agree with the social contract, or the people that are put in place because of it (in this case, the Constitution, the rules of our Government), we have the privilege and responsibility to either change the contract (which is hard) or change the people elected (which is much easier).  No matter who is there as Congressman, Senator, or President, you have to respect that position, no matter who is there.

This takes me back to the Replacement Refs and Substitute Teachers.  If you respect the position of the Referee and the Teacher, then those people who are put in place of the regulars should be given the same respect and obedience as those substituting.  But if they aren't given that, it says much about the respect for those in authority in the first place.  We have to be concerned when the even most basic power structure in our country breaks down because no one acknowledges the social contracts that are established.  If teachers, the police, judges, lawmakers, aren't respected, then what makes even more basic contracts secure?  If even parents are no longer respected, then the result is chaos and anarchy, loosed upon the world.  Far more important than complying with a Pass Interference call, but the idea is exactly the same.