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The Alice Books

The two books that are perhaps the most famous children’s books of the Victorian Era were written by an unlikely author.  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pronounced DOD-son–the “g” is silent) was an Oxford don–a professor of mathematics, specifically–a skilled amateur photographer, and a deacon in the Church of England.  Despite the expectations of his father, Dodgson did not emulate him by going on to the priesthood.  Rather, taking advantage of an exemption made for him by the dean of the college, Dodgson remained at Christ Church College, Oxford, for the rest of his life, lecturing in mathematics and occasionally preaching sermons as a deacon.

Dodgson never married nor had children of his own.  However, throughout his life he had many child-friends, mostly young girls.  One in particular, Alice Pleasance Liddell, made him famous.  Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, and a formidable classical scholar (he was co-author of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, still in use after 175 years).  Dodgson became friends with Alice and her two sisters closest in age to her, Lorina and Edith.  They would often go on excursions, during which the girls would plead with Dodgson to tell them stories.  He was always happy to comply.  On one such excursion in 1862–memorialized by Dodgson as the “golden afternoon“–Dodgson, accompanied by his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three girls on a boat ride down the Isis River.

As usual, Dodgson, at the girls’ request, told one of his stories.  This time, at the end of the day, Alice implored Dodgson to write it down.  Eventually he did so and presented the result, Alice’s Adventures Underground, to Alice Liddell.  Later, at the suggestion of his friend George MacDonald, he expanded and reworked the book for publication.  The result, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name Lewis Carroll (by which Dodgson is usually known), was a sensation, and has never been out of print since.  In 1871 Dodgson published the equally well-known sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  In 1876 he published the long comic poem The Hunting of the Snark, which, in modern parlance, takes place in the same universe as the Alice books; and in 1895 he published the two-part children’s novel Sylvie and Bruno.  Sylvie and Bruno is largely forgotten, considered by most to be Dodgson’s weakest work.  The Alice books, along with The Hunting of the Snark, are his masterpieces.

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Quote for the Week

The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

–T. S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent; courtesy of Wikiquote.

A Slight Side Excursion on Fanfic

Someone I follow on Tumblr  had a post recently discussing what makes for good writing in a fan fiction context.  The conclusion was “good technical skills”.  The idea is that, while writers and readers of fanfic may have different criteria of what makes a fic “good” than do the gatekeepers of “mainstream” fiction, and while those differing criteria are valid, good technical skills are universal, allowing you to develop the story you want to tell and to say what you need to say.  Technical skills may not be the end-all and be-all; but you have to be able to control what you’re saying if you want to get anything across to the reader.  I totally agree with this.

Anyway, I reblogged and added a response dealing with an aspect of fanfic that I think isn’t often realized or understood.  It occurred to me that it might be worth putting up here, too, especially since I’ve been discussing pop culture–which of course includes fanfic–in the course of writing my series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality“.  I have edited it very lightly for publication here, but it’s substantially the same as the original form.  Enjoy!

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Mass Media and Lifestyle Fantasy

Last time we looked at the effects of the Enlightenment and the final disenchantment of the world, as both organized religion and everything perceived as being “irrational” were banished from polite society; or at least from the worldview of the elite.  The perfectly rational, logical man of the Enlightenment who would shake off the superstitions of his ancestors and move confidently into a Utopian future of reason and humanism never materialized, though.  Human nature being what it is, the loss of the transcendent and the supernatural left a void that needed to be filled.  Nietzsche expressed this poetically in his famous writing about the “death of God” (the quote below is from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of The Gay Science):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche’s answer–that we must become gods–foreshadows his idea of the übermensch, the “superman”.  As we’ve seen over the last century and a quarter since Nietzsche’s death, that didn’t work out so well.  The void remained unfilled.  What could fill it?  At this point, we must leave that question hanging for a bit while we look at another of the great societal changes to come out of the Enlightenment.  In the last post, we looked at the religious and philosophical changes brought on by the Enlightenment.  Here I want to look at a change that was partly technological, partly educational, and partly cultural–the rise of mass media.

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Quote for the Week

Well, I’ve worried some about, you know, why write books … why are we teaching people to write books when presidents and senators do not read them, and generals do not read them. And it’s been the university experience that taught me that there is a very good reason, that you catch people before they become generals and presidents and so forth and you poison their minds with … humanity, and however you want to poison their minds, it’s presumably to encourage them to make a better world.

–“A Talk with Kurt Vonnegut. Jr.” by Robert Scholes in The Vonnegut Statement (1973) edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer October 1966), later published in Conversations With Kurt Vonnegut (1988), p. 123; courtesy of Wikiquote

Omar Khayyám


Appropriately, I begin this series with the patron of this blog, ‏‏غیاث الدین ابوالفتح عمر بن ابراهیم خیام نیشابورﻯ, in proper Persian transcription, Ghiyāth ad-Din Abu’l-Fatḥ ‘Umar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī.  In the West, though, he’s most commonly known as Omar Khayyám (in the Victorian era, when Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of Omar’s poetry became wildly popular, the custom for indicating long vowels in Persian transcription was to use the acute accent; nowadays, the macron is preferred; hence, “Khayyám” vs “Khayyām”).

Omar is best known in the west as the author of the Rubáʿiyát.  This is the plural of rubáʿi, which simply means “quatrain” (a verse of four lines).  The rubáʿi was a very popular genre of verse in Persia, and hundreds of rubáʿiyát are attributed to Omar.  Beginning in 1859, the English poet Edward FitzGerald translated a number of the rubáʿiyát attributed to Omar, publishing them under the title The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (for keen-sighted readers, I’m not being inconsistent.  The apostrophe, representing the glottal stop, should properly be between the first “a” and the “i” in rubáʿiyát–thus, it’s pronounced “roo-BAH-ee-yaht”, not “roo-BYE-yaht”.  However, FitzGerald left it out, for whatever reason.  Thus, when I print the title as he gave it, I’m following suit; but when discussing the genre as such, I’m leaving the glottal stop in).  Over the remainder of his life, FitzGerald produced five editions of the Rubáiyát.  This book became immensely popular in the Victorian age, and while less well-known now, it is still moderately popular, and has never been out of print.

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What Is Needed for Good Science Fiction

This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion.  There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind.  It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.

Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots.  I watched Star Trek:  The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged.  I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov.  Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references).  Certainly, Asimov knew better.  The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created.  It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us.  The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.

The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right.  This leads to the topic I want to talk about here:  What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy?  That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.

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Daily Whitman


Good-Bye My Fancy

  Good-bye my Fancy!
  Farewell dear mate, dear love!
  I'm going away, I know not where,
  Or to what fortune, or whether I may ever see you again,
  So Good-bye my Fancy.

  Now for my last—let me look back a moment;
  The slower fainter ticking of the clock is in me,
  Exit, nightfall, and soon the heart-thud stopping.

  Long have we lived, joy'd, caress'd together;
  Delightful!—now separation—Good-bye my Fancy.

  Yet let me not be too hasty,
  Long indeed have we lived, slept, filter'd, become really blended
      into one;
  Then if we die we die together, (yes, we'll remain one,)
  If we go anywhere we'll go together to meet what happens,
  May-be we'll be better off and blither, and learn something,
  May-be it is yourself now really ushering me to the true songs, (who
  May-be it is you the mortal knob really undoing, turning—so now finally,
  Good-bye—and hail! my Fancy.

The End

Daily Whitman


Unseen Buds

  Unseen buds, infinite, hidden well,
  Under the snow and ice, under the darkness, in every square or cubic inch,
  Germinal, exquisite, in delicate lace, microscopic, unborn,
  Like babes in wombs, latent, folded, compact, sleeping;
  Billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting,
  (On earth and in the sea—the universe—the stars there in the
  Urging slowly, surely forward, forming endless,
  And waiting ever more, forever more behind.

Daily Whitman

A beautiful forest at dusk.

Grand is the Seen

Grand is the seen, the light, to me—grand are the sky and stars,
  Grand is the earth, and grand are lasting time and space,
  And grand their laws, so multiform, puzzling, evolutionary;
  But grander far the unseen soul of me, comprehending, endowing all those,
  Lighting the light, the sky and stars, delving the earth, sailing
      the sea,
  (What were all those, indeed, without thee, unseen soul? of what
      amount without thee?)
  More evolutionary, vast, puzzling, O my soul!
  More multiform far—more lasting thou than they.