Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: The Webs of Varok by Cary Neeper

The best science-fiction/fantasy novels are ones that lie outside the stereotypes of either genre.  I abhor reading fantasy just for fantasies' sake.  Why escape to another world when you return to the same world as the same person?  I like to have meaning in my books, something with meat on it, that I can rip away and take with me.  Certainly, there will be a few times when Anne McCaffrey's books will call to me, something light, but usually, I want something more along the lines of Orson Scott Card, where larger moral issues are addressed.  In fact, when I read and review books, especially of the sci-fi variety, my question always is, "How would OSC write this?" If I find the answer is, "Just like this," then I know I've found a good book.  And such is The Webs of Varok by Cary Neeper.

What surprised me was that this wasn't the first book in this series, but the second.  Neeper wrote a book about Alien first contact in 1975, called A Place Beyond Man (which was redone in 2011 as The View Beyond Earth). However, it's not completely necessary to read the other book to understand what's going on.  The prologue does an ample job of getting everything set.  Further, the forward tells us that what Neeper is trying to do is to create a society with a self-sustaining environment, incorporating population control, a regulatory business trade, and a Utopian system of government based on the idea that citizens are content to live their lives within the confines of regulations in order to prevent the previous cataclysms where ecological and economical systems spiraled out of control.  In fact, the book is more about this idea than anything else, leading one to believe that the plot means nothing and that it's going to be the author preaching at us the whole time.  This is very far from being true.

The characters, Tandra, the human, Conn, the Elll, and Orram, the Varok, are all very well constructed, done with dialogue, much as OSC would do.  In fact, Neeper does an amazing job creating all of the sentient beings on Jupiter's hidden moon.  Ellls are aquatic beings who survive on land using clothing that remains wet.  They are sensuous beings, outgoing and social.  The Varoks, for whom the moon is named, were the main sentient beings until whatever cataclysm befell upon them (a biological war, as it turns out), ripping apart their sense of touch.  They have relied upon their development of mental communication, reading each other's minds.  In fact, this is the main crux of the novel, that Varoks cannot lie to each other.  This keeps the world in check, for no one is able to do anything illegal without being caught.  This is the same outcome of Clarke & Baxter's technology of wormhole usage in The Light of Other Days. Thus the world can operate completely differently than Earth.  The downside of this is that Neeper (as the characters in the book) would recommend using the same regulations of Varok here on Earth, in present day society.  This, of course, is impossible, because human nature will not acquiesce to total regulation by a government.  It was tried before, called Communism, and it didn't work, for precisely that reason.

I remember walking through the park here in Conyers, and trying to come up with a society that could live in harmony with the beauty that I was seeing around me.  And having read Ayn Rand and being against governmental control of the individual, I tried to overcome the weaknesses of Rand's world and our own.  The only way I could do it was with population control and economic controls that would forbid companies from making forced obsolescence a part of the economic system (see my blog on the forever light bulb coming from Clifford D. Simak's book Ring Around the Sun.  In fact, when I stopped thinking about it that day, I had come up with a society very similar to Neeper's Varok, but with the large problem of making people honest with themselves and others.  Only a biological or technological breakthrough would accomplish this.

I give The Webs of Varok 4/5 stars on the systems of Goodreads and others because of a couple of plot issues that happen late in the book that threw me off. It might be that something distracted me at the sentence where Orram's disappearance happened, or something.  It's not always the book's fault, but I can't reconcile it. I do recommend the book, even to conservatives who would find reading a book written with liberal ideas repulsive.  You'll like it.  You'll even agree with most of the ideas in the book.  They are ideals that conservatives and liberals must strive for (and the goals are usually the same, just arrived at in two totally different ways). I have the first book (75) version, and will get the '11 version, too, and see what differences there are.  It looks like the '75 book deals with the differences between the three species, especially those of social and sensual nature.  I hope that these books are done as well as this book.  I look forward to reading them.  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Flying Dreams

"To sleep--perchance to dream." Yes please!! I've never understood why so many people, including myself, would put off the sweet hours of sleeping just to play some meaningless game on their computer, or waste their lives away in a bar until 3am (not me), only to get involved in some potential nastiness afterward.  To me, there are worlds and experiences that can never happen in this world, just waiting inside of our own minds.  It's as if the creative juices in our minds swirl and take on images of their own.  It's the pleasure of writing during the day, knowing that, the potential creativity will set off some wonderful, bizarre plots in my head while I snore and the TV replays the latest sports highlights or some long ago episode of Suite Life on Deck. I often find myself in the mall (and as I've said before, the food court is huge!), usually working at Borders, which has never closed in my head. Or I'm at college (or some learning place) and I'm going to class, going around the large glass elevator in the middle of Atkinson Hall or around the Olympic-sized swimming pool in what was the old English building, but was torn down in a massive pile of rubble to make way for the library.  Those are the dreams I'd just as soon never wake up from, as they are quite wonderful.  To learn, to work at a bookstore, that, despite having to show customers where Sex Chronicles was way too many times, and cleaning up the children's section after the tornadoes (that were 3 year old children and their parents) hit, I would never want to work anywhere else.

Dreaming is so vital to our waking lives, because during that time, the brain can restore chemicals that keep us happy during the day.  Seratonin, Dopamine.  It's one of the things I always look at when someone has depression, because if they're not dreaming, they're gonna get cranky (see Star Trek: TNG episode "Night Terrors", Season 4, Ep. 17).  Now, it usually regenerates, but if I have a nightmare, say, me stuck in a classroom teaching, with students going out of control, then it will just as easily drain, and when I wake up, it feels like I've been run over by a bus. Then there's the dreams where I'm visiting an old friend, and I wake up in a nostalgic state of bliss.

There's no better dream, however, than the flying dream.  Look up "Flying" in any dream dictionary, and it will tell you that it's a symbol of escape, that something in your life was restricting you, keeping you chained to the ground.  Or it's a symbol of freedom, of having escaped from life and enjoyed some ubiquity for a time.  I can understand both those ideas, but when you've had the dreams, even in waking times, of being able to fly (and I'm sure most everyone has, ever since man saw a bird fly and wished he could do the same), sometimes it's just flying.  I remember looking out of my mom's 76 Mustang, as we drove on I-40 down through Oklahoma City, out the side window and imagining myself flying along side the car, whipping through and in and out of the power lines and the few trees that were there.

Dream flying is interesting, because I don't always fly the same way.  Sometimes, it's hard to get off the ground, frustrating, as if my weight kept me slow and struggling to get even a few feet into the air. The dream-symbols would interpret this as some sort of frustration I would have with my weight, but I doubt that.  Then there's the idea of going just a little too far off the ground, and being afraid of falling.  The falling dream is another thing all together, but I don't usually have those.  But those feelings of having your brain up atop your head, and being too high up, those feelings come regularly, if I get to high from the ground.

The best flying dream is the free-from-all-restrictions flying, and would look something like Bastian riding on Falcor from the Neverending Story.  Those are amazing journeys past lakes and cities and forests and straight on till morning.  Nothing could ruin my mornings after those dreams.

(I had to make that video large, and I switched it to the Atreyu-Falcor scene. Turn the volume up, I love that soundtrack!) Anyway.... Why I mention this now, is that we are all used to looking at things on the ground, with the trees and buildings attached to the soil and then going up. We don't see the world as birds see it, Until now. Google has changed the way we look at the world. With Google Earth, and Google Maps, we can now see world as the crow flies. And I'm quite addicted to it, willing to look at my county for hours on end, seeing the roads and where they go, finding trails that run deep into the forests, following railroad tracks for miles. I can fly to other cities, even ones that friends live in, and see their shops and streets. I've flown over roads in the middle of Spain, finding villages that clearly exist outside of the 21st century. Add that to the "Street-View" idea, and I can land and walk down those faraway roads. Travel without even leaving my chair. It makes my dreams even more real, because now my brain has a blueprint of how things are supposed to look from the sky, and it fills in those experiences when necessary. The best thing? I can fly anywhere I want, in worlds real or imaginary, and I will never lose my luggage.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Reading List for Thinkers and Dreamers

[Wrote this as a list for a friend needing recommendations for reading. She told me to "overload" her, so I did. Feel free to use any of read any of these yourselves. I could have included pictures, of the book, but I'm not gonna. Better to click on the links of the ISBN numbers.]

Setting up a recommendation list requires a bit of organization.   Because I’m not sure what you’ll like, or what you’ve read in the past, (and because, I’ve read books in other Genres that I don’t usually read and have thoroughly enjoyed them, so sometimes it’s good to read outside the box), I’ll split it up into 5 areas.  Christian, Fiction, Kid’s, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and Other.  Of course, the Kids books are ones that they might be able to read, but that you’ll enjoy, too.  I’m gonna put ISBN links into this document  that will take you to the book on Amazon.  If you have an e-book reader, that might be the way to go, or getting them used would also the economical.

Christian Genre.  Unfortunately, I’m not very good at recommending Non-fiction books of Christian type.  I know what we sell at Lifeway, and what’s popular, but that’s about it.  The only Christian author I’ve read that wasn’t fiction is C.S. Lewis, whose book The Four Loves (9780156329309)was really good.

As far as Christian Fiction, you can’t go wrong with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, although I would read them in the order the movies have come (or would have come) out (2,4,5,6,1,3,7).  I also highly recommend George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (9781604594522). I once was sick, and had a rather high fever, and I picked up this book and read it all in one day. George MacDonald’s books are really good, if you can find the other ones edited by Michael Philips (North Wind is good in any form).  Also, I would read the classic Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, at least the first half.  The classic tale of Christian’s journey from home  to the gates of Heaven is one that is centuries ahead of its time, an outstanding read. And one you can get for free as an e-book through Amazon or Gutenberg project. (9781456569334).

The Song of Daniel  by Philip Lee Williams. (0345364694) Williams is a retired professor of Creative Writing at UGA, and lives in Oconee County. I so loved this book, but it is quite out of print now, but easy to get. It takes place in Athens, and deals with a young man who takes care of the cemetery and a College Professor.

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon (9780143034902) A mysterious bookstore in Barcelona, Spain, holds all of the worlds forgotten books.  The main character finds a copy of “Shadow of the Wind” in the stacks and, enthralled with the book, searches to find other books, or the author himself.  He finds a stranger who is destroying all the copies of the book, who then threatens Daniel’s life.  A gothic book set in 1900’s Spain.  Continued in two other books.
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (9780553277531) my favorite book!! Lyrical, nostalgic, amazing!!!
I’m sure there are other regular Fiction titles I have stuck in my head someplace, but they aren’t coming out, so I’ll leave this for now.

Science Fiction – Fantasy
Orson Scott Card – Most anything, really. Every time (well most, Pathfinder was a dud) I read his books, I read for hours, then I go to get something to  eat, and I go back to my room wondering what really amazing TV show I had just been watching, and I realize it was in my own head, through the words on the page.  His lesser known works are really good.  Try Homecoming: Harmony (which starts with The Memory of Earth)( 9781568650890)and Songmaster (9780812524864)

Anne McCaffrey – The Dragonriders of Pern (9780345340245) (or Dragonsong, 9780689860089) Dragons, music, and a great storyline through many, many books. What’s not to love!

Arthur C. Clarke – Songs of A Distant Earth (9780345322401) was a great sci-fi book, and I love Clarke as an author.  His Islands in the Sky (9780140305357), written in the 50’s, predicted everything that man has done in space since, and probably will do in the future. And with Stephen Baxter, he wrote The Light of Other Days, (9780812576405) which, while the plot is weak and the ending akin to Spielberg’s A.I. ,unneeded, brings about hypothetics that fundamentally changes the way we think about everything. 

Other books that, looking at my bookshelf in my room (which is where I keep the books I really like), I would recommend:  Steven Warnock’s The Magog Gambit (9781466435438), Vanishing Point (0312852134) by Michaela Roessner. (I love apocalyptic novels, such as this. I loved Dean Koontz’ The Taking (9780553593501) and Pat Frank’s classic Alas,Babylon (9780060741877)). Also check out The Legacy of Heorot by the Sci-fi team Niven, Pournelle, and Barnes (9780722164075). 

As far as Fantasy, I don’t usually read fantasy for fantasy sake, but there is some good stuff out there, now out of print. Dragonworld (9781596872332)was made back in the late 80’s, and the sequel was made as a video game. Riddle of Stars, by Patricia McKillip, was good too (B00005XT24).

One last one, if you’re up for it.  Take Plato and put him in a science-fiction setting, and you get Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.  The book is best when the plot is non-existent. In fact, it’s one of the few books (Clarke & Baxter being another) where the plot gets in the way, but it’s fantastic to sit, read, and contemplate. (978-0061474095) Don’t get the Mass Market though, the print is tiny! Get the hardcover, looks great on your bookshelf.

Kid’s Books (for Adults too!!)
Get these for your kids, and read them yourself! They’re amazing!! Better than most books above!!
Christopher by Richard M. Koff.  Only book he ever wrote, and I absolutely loved it as a child. Now long out of print, but every kid should read it! (0553153633)

Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe (9781421527734) Take any RPG, and put it in book form, and start it in real world Japan. A fabulous book, one I know you’ll love. (He wrote a book novelizing Ico, from the PS2.  I have to have it!!!!)

Under Plum Lake by Lionel Davidson (0394512529) A boy is led underwater to a strata of worlds underneath ours. In a short 100 page book with imagery not unlike a supposed LSD trip, I literally could not put this one down. The only book he ever wrote like this.

The Transall Saga by Gary Paulsen. Most known for writing The Hatchet, this one is survival with a hefty dose of Science-Fiction thrown in. Very good for those who don’t like to read. (0375873236)

As far as series go, I have two suggestions: D.J. Machale wrote a 10 book Pendragon series (having nothing to do with King Arthur) that is amazing! Plot twists that I didn’t see coming, and I actually haven’t read book 9 or 10 yet, cause I don’t want it to end.  The First book, The Merchant Of Death is linked here: (9781416936251)  And Diane Duane wrote a 9 book “Wizard” series, with the first book So You Want to Be a Wizard, which deals with other planets, wildlife, pollution, death, cancer, Ireland, and using Wizardry to keep the world in balance. A great series: (9780152049409)

Some great non-fiction books to read:  Dove by Robin Graham (9780060920470), a memoir about Robin, who, in 1965, sailed around the world, and found loneliness, love, and ultimately, God.
Anything by Neil Postman, which is the basis for a lot of my thinking, and helps to see the world via how we communicate, through TV, Internet, images, etc… His most known book is Amusing Ourselves to Death (9780143036531)

Hope this helps.  If you need more, I can recommend another 200 or so books.  J

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Naming Snowflakes

Ah, January in Georgia! The beginning of abbreviated winters, short flirtations with frozen precipitation, and many hours of trying to find just where you put the ice scraper last spring.  For nothing is as shocking as trudging out to the car some cold morning and finding the car covered with ice. Maybe the windshield wipers will take it off, so you sit in a cold car for 10 minutes, hoping the defrosters and the scraping of rubber against an immovable glacier, will give you some small hole to peep out of.  Woe be to the squirrels that run in front of the car that morning.  Or there's the bucket of hot water method, which, while fun, watching the steam rise from the pavement, gambles upon the windshield suddenly cracking and becoming one irritating call to the Auto Insurance instead of actually going to work.  My mom's method is using a credit card, which, amazingly, works.  Might as well use them for something other than quick runs to Taco Bell.

Watching the weather reports on the news, any time they put that little snowflake on the 5-day forecast, I know, even if it's just a few flakes on the top of Georgia's mountains, people will, without fail, drain every grocery store of bread and milk, even if they've never used milk in anything except Macaroni & Cheese.  Sure, their are hills here that, if iced over, prevents anyone from going anywhere.  But there's no need to panic if you're educated.  Snow never hits the Atlanta area from low pressure fronts coming from the north.  Even wrap around snow, when cold air squeezes the moisture out of the atmosphere, will only melt on the ground.  The ideal setting for snow (just so you know) is to have a cold front come through, with the Low riding on the Northern Jet Stream, and then have a Low riding on the Sub-Tropical Jet Stream (it splits in Winter) come from the Gulf of Mexico right after it.  For Conyers, a Low coming up from around Macon will give us several inches of snow.  The "Storm of the Century" in 1993 is the most striking example of such a storm.

People need to read radar.  Generations before us didn't have such luxuries, to stay in the comforts of the their own homes and be able to tell which direction the wind was blowing.  My stepdad was much more adept and just going outside and looking and feeling.  But since we have the technology to monitor storm systems for so many hours before they hit, it's easy to interpret Doppler radar and infrared-enhanced cloud tops to see exactly where weather is, and where it is going.   Take the spring weather, when Tornadoes are likely to strike (at least in Oklahoma, where I was born).   Gary England was (and still is) able to read the radar and pinpoint where the tornado was going to touch down, even down to the block level (yeah, in Oklahoma, they have "blocks," not windy roads).  Here in Georgia, the tornado "warnings" they issue are done by the whole county.  It could miss you by miles, so it's best to know how to read Doppler radar and track weather systems yourself.  It helps my mom with knowing when to come home, so she doesn't drive in blinding rain down the interstate.  But it's also necessary, especially when in Oklahoma, to listen to the  Meteorologists, like Gary England, because they've been doing it for a lot longer than what we have.  As a kid, I wanted to be a Meteorologist, to report the awesome power of nature to the world.  My math grades weren't so good, so that didn't work.  When we first got cable, I loved watching The Weather Channel.  24 hours a day weather, with the Tropical Update at 50 minutes past the hour (more on that in a minute).  And, in the beginning, no commercials! It was a service brought to us by the wonderful weatherpeople in Atlanta.  Well, now it's filled with "Weather-themed" shows and movies, and 30 seconds of weather with 5 minutes of commercials.  Added to it that TWC is now owned by NBC, which is now owned by Comcast.  So now it's all about ratings and shows.  No Weather! On the Weather Channel!  So if I need to see the radar or the weather, I never go to the Weather Channel, I simply get on the Internet.  Now, even if Cable goes out, we have access to weather on cell phones and tablets, unlike my childhood, where, if the TVs went out and the rain and lightning and hail pounded down on the house, we were forced to get out a small, battery powered radio and turn it to a country station to hear Gary England's reports of severe weather.  It's no wonder that I associate the band Alabama and "Elvira" to stormy nights with no electricity.

Back to the present.  I turn on the Weather Channel, because there's nothing else on, and they are talking about a Nor'easter that is bringing snow and wind to New England.  They call it "Freyer." Huh????? I didn't know if that was some obscure weather term or what, so I looked it up.  Turns out that the folks at the Weather Channel, in a ploy to get ratings, and possibly a power draw from the NOAA and the National Weather Service, decided to start "naming" winter storms.  "Freyer" is supposedly the Norse God of fair weather (possibly where we get the word "fair".)  Absolutely ridiculous!! I understand the idea of Personifying weather phenomenon, as Hurricanes have names, and you have the idea of "Mother Nature."  I've tried to keep the personification of weather out of this blog, and it's been harder than you might think.  I've been complaining for a couple of years about naming every cloud in the Atlantic, under the suspicion it might have a low pressure area and some wind.  And now they want to name winter storms as well?  Of course, there are political reasons for doing this as well.  I've long maintained the idea that the NOAA names more and more storms in an effort to increase the number of life-threatening storms in the Atlantic, and therefore pressuring Congress into giving more money to the organization.  The same thing would make sense for naming winter storms, as it becomes an easy way to refer to a certain set of damages for insurance agencies, and for FEMA to attach a personality to a set of loans, making it easier to get funding from Congress.  Let's just say that there's no scientific reason for Personifying weather systems, especially cold fronts.   If we are going to do that, why don't we name tornadoes as well??  A simple letter and number will suffice.  We could name snowflakes, or individual clouds, and they could be tracked and identified in the skies.  Oh look, there's Cumulonimbus Cloud Audrey, floating over the city!  It sorta looks like a raccoon, doesn't it?

We cannot control the weather, nor can we fashion it into our own image, giving them names and personalities.  We cannot give Nature sentience, that's God's work.  We can simply gaze at the power of nature, wonder at the sheer awesomeness of the forces at work on this planet, and feel as the Monk did, standing on the  shoreline of the sea.

Monk By the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich

From our Back Deck, 2010.

Front Yard, Colorado Pine, 2010