Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book Review: The White Goddess: An Encounter, by Simon Gough

       I’ve posted a shorter version of this review on Amazon and Goodreads, but for publication on my blog, I’ve added some additional remarks and examples.  In fact, this review really belongs on my other blog because it focuses on myth in literature, but I'm posting it here, hoping it will accrue more attention that way.
       I have sometimes thought that all fiction of merit contains elements of fantasy and Simon Gough’s The White Goddess: An Encounter is no exception.  The author, a grandnephew of the writer Robert Graves, calls his book an “auto-bi-fantasy,” a term that makes for an accurate description.  The piece is autobiographical, but it also inhabits fantasy worlds.
       Graves was foremost a Poet with a capital P, but he was also a novelist and a classical scholar, writing what I consider to be the essential distillation of Greek myth, entitled (appropriately) The Greek Myths.  He also wrote his own White Goddess, a book of poetic theory in which he details how poetry and myth are related (and I sympathize with Simon’s attempts to read that book: he writes, “It’s a bit like fighting one’s way through an impenetrable Welsh forest in pitch darkness.”  Personally, I’ve never managed to fight my way all the way through; I’ve mostly just dipped into it.)
       In both works, Graves sets forth his personal, quirky views of poetry and myth.  First, the poet must have a Muse, who can be a human woman who incarnates the White Goddess (the ancient female principle whose worship Graves believed to have preceded Zeus worship) and inspires him to great feats (he states that all genuine poetry is about the Goddess).  Second, he develops the concept of the death of the year as embodied in the myth of the Twin Kings, one of whom is killed at the Goddess’s whim at the winter solstice and replaced by the other.
       Gough’s White Goddess contains two fantasy worlds that arise straight from Graves’ familiarity with and personal view of Greek myth.  The Island of Majorca and specifically the region around Deya where Graves lived for the greater part of his life, palpably embodies the Golden Age of Greece, when gods and spirits walked the Earth in harmony, permeated by the archaic worship of the Triple Goddess but presided over by Zeus.  In this case Zeus is the mighty Graves himself, who emerges as an Olympian figure – intellectually and physically all-powerful, yet rife with the brutish nature of humanity, even as were the Greek gods:  he farts, sneezes and hacks, blows his nose on his fingers, takes out his false teeth at the table in order to clear out pips that are hurting his gums (in a memorable scene).  Graves is larger than life, overwhelmingly charming, straightforward, and supportive toward the ten-year-old Simon, yet always dangerous, ready to fling lightning bolts.  If one were to novelize Greek myth, Zeus might be endowed with those very same qualities.
       On a darker note, Graves also becomes the Minotaur, in the climactic chapter entitled the same.  Simon even approaches his final confrontation through a grotto.  It’s a powerful scene, mirroring the bullfight scene in Madrid, which occurs at another climactic point in the story:
       “ ‘And you knew!’ he bellowed, his monstrous dark forequarters twisting round in front of me as he grabbed the arms of my chair –
       “I nodded dumbly, paralysed by my awful vision of him, his huge head still twisting around, aligning the horns of his hatred, his fury, to my heart, my head – 
        The golden world of Deya dominates up to the point where the 18-year-old Simon leaves for Franco’s Madrid of the 1960’s.  This is the second, contrasting fantasy world – a dystopian cityscape of horrors – an underworld presided over by an unseen Hades (Franco?) with his legions of demon guards, and inhabited by grotesques whom Simon encounters when he first arrives alone in the city.  Is the porter of the pensión Cerberus, rattling keys to the underworld?  Is the legless beggar in his cart, whom Simon placates with coins, Charon conducting the spirits across the Styx?  There is even the requisite descent into the Underworld in the visit to the catacombs, complete with guide (Alastair), and Simon brings back a token from that place to prove he has completed the anabasis.  Of course, no exact correlations can be drawn here between myth and reality, but for me these implications add mightily to the weight and suggestiveness of the book.
       Strangely, while Simon’s vision of Margot Callas (the incarnation of the White Goddess herself – or is she, too, only a metaphor, a wish fulfillment?) is often erotic, there is no explicit sex in the book.  One is not sure with whom Margot has had sex, or even whether she has ever had sex with anyone.  Just what aspect of the Triple Goddess is she?  Aphrodite or Athena Parthenos?  Or is she the Crone, the Death-Giver?  Most likely, you could call her Hecate, the Triple Goddess, embodying all three aspects.
         As to style, it’s florid in the extreme, loaded with similes and metaphors which are highly effective but which gush out at a breathless pace that can be exhausting.  The book also exists at a high emotional stress level.  The characters never do anything halfway or with restraint.  Part of this is the point of view – Simon is so young and so full of raging hormones, expected to behave with a maturity he couldn’t possibly possess.  And the author makes heavy and obvious metaphorical use of the weather – the violent lightning storm in Madrid at a moment of intense passion, the sirocco in Deya near the end when the Golden World is falling apart. 
       I could give many examples of the use of metaphor in the book, but I’ll limit myself to only two.
       One of the most memorable moments comes when Margot is first revealed in her Goddess state:
       “Once they’d gone, I glanced around at Margot – but she’d vanished again, not physically this time – she was palpably standing there, facing into the sun from the step above me – but her face was sphinx-like, still, and so suffused with evening sunlight that the source of it appeared to be buried deep within her.  Some trick of the light had turned her eyes into liquid gold, their moltenness overflowing, not as tears, but as a tegument, a golden mask, set forever in that instant –
       “Whoever she was, or said she was, and wherever she said she came from, the face I’d just witnessed belonged to another time and to another world.  Whether or not it had been a trick of the light, I knew that I could never see her in the same light again; there was more than one of her… and sometimes there was none.”
       One thinks instantly of the golden “Mask of Agamemnon” excavated from the ruins of Mycenae.
       In fact, staring into the sun is a noticeably frequent occurrence in the book; at one point Simon almost blinds himself doing so.  Who is not blinded by staring into the face of the Goddess?
       Another striking example of metaphor occurs after Margot has departed and Simon and Robert are walking down to the sea for a swim:
       “We were walking along the bank of the torrent now, in the deepest part of the gorge, the dry riverbed choked with elephant boulders and dead trees, strangely ominous in the silence of its violent past, the dripping limestone caves on the far bank leaking a deep rust-red trickle from oxidization, like menstrual blood seeping from the womb of the mountains behind us –
       She was here – still – as she had always been!  I had to believe it!”
       What could be a clearer evocation that the Goddess inhabits and pervades all things, but particularly the body of that magical, ancient island called Majorca?
        To descend from the sublime, I want to speak of a major oversight in the Kindle formatting of this book: the lack of a linked table of contents.  It doesn’t even have an unlinked ToC, and it’s a long book (450 pages in the paperback version); if you lose your place, there is no easy way to find where you left off.  And I never got a real sense of the shape of the book – for example, whether there is any coherence or sequence to the way the author names his chapters.  What I should have done was to write down the Chapter headings and Part titles as I went along so I could make use of the search function on Kindle.  The word “Chapter” isn’t even part of the headings, so you can’t use that for a search.  It would be helpful to future readers if the publisher republished the Kindle version with a linked ToC added. 
       At Amazon, the book is available only on Kindle, although some Expanded Distribution sources for the paperback do appear there.  For a new paperback, you need to go the publisher’s website, and that would require shipping from the UK.  It would be more convenient for Americans if the publisher placed the book for sale on Amazon.  I don’t find it in Barnes & Noble, either, although I’m sure any regular bookstore would order a copy for you. 
       For me, being captivated by both Robert Graves (whom I'll never look at quite the same way again) and by the function of myth both in literature and in our lives, this book had an unforgettable impact.  I will certainly read the promised sequel, and I strongly recommend the work, particularly for anyone who shares those interests with me.

View Max Cairnduff's review of this book here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

How Does the Poet Turn the Words into Poetry?

       No matter how different the form and objective, all poetry contains three elements: rhythm, sound effects, and metaphor.  We might say about a prose work, "This writer's style is very poetic," i.e. it makes good use of subtleties of rhythm, or it relies on extensive use of metaphor for effect.  Let's talk about rhythm first, using as an example the Robert Frost poem that was reproduced in the post "What IS This Thing Called Poetry?"  I'll reprint it here (I've also marked the rhyme scheme; we'll get back to that later).
Whose woods these are I think I know, [a]
His house is in the village, though; [a]
He will not see me stopping here [b]
To watch his woods fill up with snow. [a]

 My little horse must think it queer [b]
To stop without a farmhouse near [b]
Between the woods and frozen lake [c]
The darkest evening of the year. [b]

He gives his harness bells a shake [c]
To ask if there is some mistake. [c]
The only other sound's the sweep [d]
Of easy wind and downy flake. [c]

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, [d]
But I have promises to keep, [d]
And miles to go before I sleep, [d]
And miles to go before I sleep. [d]

       Poetic rhythm (meter) is quantified according to certain conventions.  It's usually measured in "feet," i.e. syllabic units with a particular stress pattern.  The Frost poem is classic iambic tetrameter, i.e. four feet to the line, with each foot containing two syllables, stressed "ta-DAH." Thus the first and last lines are quite regular and exemplify this scheme well:
whose WOODS | these ARE | i THINK | i KNOW. 
to WATCH | his WOODS | fill UP | with SNOW|. 

       A skilled poet will vary the feet within the selected framework in order to avoid monotony.  Thus, the second line  would never be read like this in normal speech:  
his HOUSE | is IN | the VILL | age THOUGH. 
It reads in a natural voice:
his HOUSE | is in | the VILLage | THOUGH. 
(If you interested in technical terms, "is in" is a Pyrrhic foot -- two unstressed syllables; "the VILLage" is an amphibrach (unstressed-stressed-unstressed); and "THOUGH" is a half of a spondee (stressed-stressed).  [I think a foot with a single stressed syllable has some other name, but I can't recall it or find it at the moment.]
       The third line reads (at least in my ear; this is not a cut-and-dried process) as:
he WILL not | SEE me | STOPping| HERE. You get an amphibrach, a trochee, another trochee, and half a spondee, all within the framework of tetrameter (four feet to the line).

       You might say (and I'm sure many students say it every day), why bother with this kind of boring analysis? My answer is that it can provide an awareness of how a poet achieves natural, conversational rhythms without losing the basic metrical pattern that he selected.

       You'll notice Frost uses a number of two-syllable words in the lines (village, stopping, farmhouse, evening, harness).  They tend to tie the lines together and ease up the "thum-PAH" of the designated meter.
       But then you get these two lines:
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
       The regularity of the rhythm here reinforces the sense of lulling quiet and smoothness of the process of wind and snow.  What if he had written the following (removing the contraction from "sound's")?
The only other sound is the sweep
of easy wind and downy flake.
       The first line there limps horribly; it almost hippity-hops, because you have to speed up to say "sound is the" in order to insert the extra syllable.  You've lost your handle on the meter and converted it into prose. This is where a lot of beginning poets falter; they have a tin ear for the rhythm. 
       Furthermore these two lines are run-on grammatically; all the other lines have a natural break at the end.  This also adds to the sense of hypnoptic smoothness.

       And then the final stanza: 
The WOODS | are LOVEly, || DARK and | DEEP. 
       You get iamb, amphibrach, trochee, spondee.  This line contains a cesura -- a slight pause after "lovely."  The isolation of the two heavy syllables near the end of the line reinforces the significance of the words.
But I | have PROMises | to KEEP. 
       "Promises" is the only three-syllable word contained in the poem and it's located centrally in the line, which is pretty much reduced to three feet.  This puts the emphasis on the word "promises."
       And then the final pair of lines, where the rhythm returns to very regular iambic tetrameter:
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
       That repetition is one of the most important elements of the poem.  The regularity of the meter combine with the repetition to increase the sense of that hypnotic weariness, that sameness -- putting one foot in front of the other in what seems an endless forward trudge.

       Now of course the effect of a poem is not achieved entirely by meter.  Let's consider the elements of sound -- rhyme, assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), consonance (repetition of consonant sounds), and alliteration (repetition of initial consonant sounds).
       Rhyme patterns are usually described in terms of alphabetic letters.  Thus a basic four-line ballad stanza rhymes a-b-c-b, as in a stanza of a poem ("The Dowie Houms o' Yarrow"), which I used as an epigraph in "The Termite Queen," v.2:
Four he hurt, an’ five he slew, [a]
On the dowie houms o’ Yarrow, [b]
Till that stubborn knight came him behind, [c]
An’ ran his body thorrow. [b]
       In the Frost poem the rhyme scheme is more subtle; the rhyming words are very simple, but they are used in an interwoven pattern.  I marked the scheme in the poem printed above.  The end word of the third line of each stanza forms the basic rhyme of the next stanza, until one gets to the final quatrain, where all four lines pick up the third line from the third stanza.  This additional repetition acts as yet another reinforcement of the poet's weariness with the inescapable forward progression of life.
       Actually, assonance, consonance, and alliteration don't play that large a role here.  The phrase "watch the woods" is alliterative, but otherwise the only noticeable use of consonance is again in the lines:
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
       Also noticeable here is the assonance of sweep and easy, and sound and downy, again suggesting the smoothness and silence of the wind and snow.

       Finally we need to talk about the most important element of all: metaphor.  What is metaphor?  Technically, it's a figure of speech in which one item is totally identified with another, and it's usually contrasted with simile, which is mere comparison.  An example of a metaphor is Keats' wonderful line in "Ode on Melancholy," where a person is spoken of as one who "can burst joy's grape against his palate fine."  Joy IS a grape; if he had written, "Joy is like a grape that one can burst against his palate," that would have been a simile.  If something actually partakes of the identity of something else, that constitutes a much stronger statement.
       However, the term "metaphor" can also be applied more broadly, as any substitution of one thing for another, any symbolic representation.  I plan to use it that way in my discussions of poetry. 
       All poetry deals in metaphor in this broad definition.  If it doesn't, it can't be called true poetry.  Between the prosaic words of the metaphor and the reader's perception of the metaphor is the gap where the poetry lies.

       In the Frost poem, I have wondered at times about the initial remark concerning the owner of the woods.  Is this simply a nod to reality?  I've decided that the implication (metaphorical) is that, as part of the natural world, the woods belong to God, whose house in "in the village," i.e. the village church.  Maybe this is a standard interpretation; I haven't read any criticism of the poem, but however that is, I personally just thought of it.     
       I believe the "little horse" IS a way to connect the scene to reality, although "the darkest evening of the year" could imply that the poet is at the winter solstice of his life, in a dark and depressed state.
      Actually the entire poem is a metaphor, symbolizing the longing for death to take us beyond the distresses of daily life.  The poet never says, "Death is like a dark wood that makes us want to enter it, experience and yield to its darkness, and escape our responsibilities."  Obviously, that would be much weaker, more sententious, and even cliched.  Death is also seen as sleep -- nothing new there, but we have the implication of death from the cold; you lie down in the snow and you go to sleep peacefully and never wake up.  Death becomes a painless process of escape.  By couching that concept totally in a deceptively simple, narratively structured metaphor, Frost has written a strong and moving poem that becomes unforgettable.

       If anyone would like to add anything to my interpretation, I'd love to entertain remarks.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I've Been Nominated for a Versatile Blogger Award

Thanks so much to Angela Tjong ( for nominating my blog for a Versatile Blogger Award!
One of the requirements of accepting this award is to nominate 15 other bloggers in return - works a bit like a chain letter, I guess!  Here's my list of nominees (in no particular order, and I can only come up with 14):

1. Fel Wetzig, The Peasants' Revolt: everything you ever wanted to know about paranormal fiction
2. Sandra Tyler, A Writer Weaves a Tale: Ongoing narrative of a complicated life, plus some great writing advice, plus the Post Resurrection Blog Hop
3. Kathryn Anthony: versatile author of myth retellings, dystopian fiction, and romance
4. Eve Redwater (Stacey Busuttil), Redwater Ramblings: a brilliant new voice in the world of poetry, and she's a Far Eastern Studies scholar as well, all in her early 20s.
5. Dawn Storey, Alphabet Salad: a post a day on events of daily life 
6. Rossandra White: writer of memoirs, grew up in Africa
7. Tara Adams, Faith in Ambiguity: many interesting philosophical musings
8. Alison Strachan, Writing My Truth: writer and cogent (sometimes humorous) blogger from Down Under
9. Anne Godoy Organista, Writer's Space: "thoughts, insights, doodles of my mind ... "
10. E.C. Ambrose: another writer of cogent posts, working on "dark historical fiction" 
11. Mary Pierce, A Wilderness of Words: a beautifully written and sometimes quirky occasional blog    
12. Betty Markham, Artistic Expressions Photography:  all kinds of outsanding photographs on display
13. Vanessa Chapman: freelance writer and actor; one of the Limebirds
14. 'Trick Slattery: the wonderful doodler (also writes sensible and intelligent posts)

Another requirement is that I tell seven unknown facts about myself:

1. I attended first grade in Arizona and I graduated from high school in a small town in the Arkansas Valley of Colorado, both places where my mother was teaching.
2. When I was small, we sometimes cooked the Christmas turkey overnight and then had homemade hot biscuits and turkey breast for Christmas breakfast. Anybody else ever do that?
3. I wrote my master's thesis at Cornell University on "Freedom and Authority in Paradise Lost and Prometheus Unbound." Really? Come on! What made me qualified to write on such a rarefied topic at the age of 21?
4. I worked in the awesome Miriam Lutcher Stark Rare Book Library at the University of Texas before they chopped it up into office space. What a revolting waste!
5. I arrived on the UT campus to attend grad school the day after the Charles Whitman massacre in 1966. (FYI, Whitman went up to the 28th floor observation deck of the library tower and shot randomly down into the quadrangle, killing 13 people and wounded 32 others.) We almost turned around and went back to Colorado; the Stark Library where I was going to work part-time was located at the base of that tower.
6. I believe in wearing things out before replacing them.  In 1997, I was still using a black-and-white TV without a remote. 
7. My tastes in TV run to the popular (except for a number of PBS programs).  I've watched a lot of fantasy and SF series -- Xena, Highlander, Farscape, Babylon 5, all the Star Trek series, both StarGate series (let us not mention Stargate: Universe - terminally boring!).  Right now, I'm into Warehouse 13 and Alphas, and Haven returns this Friday.  Oh, yes, and I'm a fan of ice hockey!  Let's get that lockout settled, y'all!

Monday, September 17, 2012

What IS This Thing Called Poetry, Anyway?

       Max Cairnduff, on his literary website Pechorin's Journal (which I strongly recommend, by the way), recently posted a review of the novel "Leaving the Atocha Station" by Ben Lerner.  The book deals with the nature of poetry and this has induced me to make some remarks of my own on that topic. It's about to turn into a double post.  Today I'm going to discuss the qualities that make poetry effective.  In the next post I'll analyze some examples that show how that effectiveness is achieved.
       Sometimes in my rambles through other blogs I come upon a person who writes verse and posts it.  Occasionally some of it is passably good, but unfortunately most of it is awful.  I won't give specific examples because I really don't want to hurt people's feelings.  I understand that these people are immensely proud of what they've done -- they've written poetry -- isn't that wonderful?  But they can't see that what they've written isn't really poetry: first, they are too close to it; second, they are totally unfamiliar with any of the basics of poetic composition; and third, they have no sense of rhythm or metaphorical construction. 
       Their "poetry" is about as good as my figure drawing -- that is, embarrassingly bad.  I 've said before that my friend who is a trained artist informed me of that fact, and after she pointed out things that were wrong, like the proportion of the human body, I agreed with her.  But my point is, I couldn't really see it at first; I was proud of what I'd done because it was something I'd never tried before, but I was too close to it and I didn't have any technique.  I'm sure these blog versifiers can't see their flaws, either.  I'm not condemning them for that, but I do have to say, some of the stuff just makes me squirm.
     To make poetry, it takes more than simply adding some rhyme and limping meter to a sequence of words. So what does turn versification into poetry?  I'm going to quote a paragraph from Max Cairnduff's review.  The character in the novel, Adam, is living in Spain but he doesn't speak Spanish well at all.  Therefore: "For much of the book then the bulk of Adam’s conversations are notional. Things are said to him, but whether what he understands is what was meant is far from clear. That sounds potentially annoying but instead it’s very funny, and something more than that – it’s a metaphor for poetry itself. Adam understands Spanish as a reader understands a poem. Sensed meanings, which may or may not be intended. Multiplicities of interpretations, those chosen coming as much from what Adam brings to the conversation as to what was actually said. Adam’s conversations exist in the space between him and the words he understands, like poetry exists in the gap between the reader and the words on the page."  [My boldface in both cases] 
       With writers of doggerel, there is no such gap.  The sentiments expressed might just as well be rendered directly in prose, and probably better done so, because there wouldn't be all those distracting misapplications of rhythm and rhyme.
       I wrote that kind of poetry when I was in high school.  Some of it wasn't too bad -- I had a little poems included in a college anthology as the prefatory piece and one of my profs said it reminded him of Emily Dickinson.  However, my balloon was quickly popped when as an English major in my sophomore year I took the requisite Introduction to Poetry course.  I discovered what good poetry really is and I immediately said, "I can't do anything like this," and I quit writing the form.  I haven't written anything since except a few poems for one of the later Ki'shto'ba volumes, which were absolutely essential to the story.  Whether they are considered any good, only time will tell.  I can always use the excuse that they were actually written by a giant termite in an alien language and translated by Prf. Kaitrin Oliva in the 30th century, so I'm merely channeling them from the future! (LOL)
       What poetry does is to take words and put them together in special ways that suggest far more than the sense of the words themselves.   How this is accomplished I'll discuss in that later post, where I'll give examples.  Poetry is not easy and can't be understood with one superficial skimming -- to be appreciated properly, a poem requires strenuous attention.  In illustration I want to conclude with another experience of my own. 
       At one point during my college days, the Head Librarian Dr. Ellsworth Mason, who was a Joyce scholar and also taught in the English Department from time to time, asked a few students over to his house to talk about poetry.  One of the poems was the very simple and familiar "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost.  I'll print it here:
Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
       We all read the poem and Dr. Mason asked us to interpret it and we sat there and read it over and pondered, and the silence grew and everybody got embarrassed, or at least I did.  It's just a few words describing a momentary event in the day of a particular man, right?  And yet there is a shift of tone in that last stanza.  I'm happy to note that I'm the one who finally had the breakthrough.  I said something like this: the poem is about the allure of death, but the poet's sense of duty and responsibility wins the battle.  He rejects the escape that death would provide and recognizes that he must carry on to the natural end of the road before he can rest.  And Dr. Mason said that was exactly right.  I was so pleased! 
       That changed my view of poetry forever.  I never looked at a true poem as something superficial again.  The poetry of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" exists in that "gap between the reader and the words on the page."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Mythmakers: What is Religion?

       In my August 20 Mythmaker post (which you can access here), I talked about the Mythmakers' agnostic/humanist view of god, which covered the first five Precepts.  This post will skip to Precepts 10 and 11 and will discuss the nature of religion, which is something quite different from a consideration of the nature of god or spirituality or belief.

10. The Right Way is universal; the Truth is parochial and divisive.
       Here the important thing is to define terms.  I define religion as the organized promulgation of a body of dogmatic beliefs that claim to be the exclusive truth, anathematizing all other beliefs -- turning them into the work of infidels who don't worship the True God and therefore should be either coerced to believe the "Truth" or else expunged from the Earth. That's the most extreme view, of course, but you can see the evidence of such situations everywhere in our modern age and, in fact, throughout history. Whenever a belief system is in its infancy, it is persecuted.  As soon as it attains dominance, it begins to persecute others. The Romans persecuted the Christians, who won the fight and began to persecute the Jews. Then Islam arose, and Christians and Muslims began to seek to destroy each other, each religion claiming to possess the ultimate "Truth" and calling the other "infidel." That's still going on in our own enlightened times.
       Of course, this doesn't happen only on a global scale; these religions can't get along within themselves, inevitably splintering into ever smaller groups, each of which maintains it has the one and only "Truth." Unfortunately, in my view of future history, the conflicts among these religious entities only get worse until all institutions manage to destroy one another and themselves (see footnote).
       The "Right Way" is a term found in many Mythmaker works.  It represents the common thread that human beings can draw from within themselves as to what constitutes right thinking and behavior.   But that Right Way of thinking and acting is not Truth with a capital T. The Right Way can be attained by many different paths.  "Truth" is an absolute term -- I alone (or the group with which I identify) knows what the Truth is and all other beliefs or ways of thinking are false.   Any person who in this way declares he has found the "Truth" is dividing himself from the rest of humanity. This is why the open practice of "religion" has been proscribed by the 28th century in my version of future history.

11. Institutions that grip souls merely for the purpose of gripping souls will always become destructive.
       This related Precept reinforces the dangers of institutions that proclaim they have found the "Truth."  Such groups can be religious in nature, or they can be political or social. "Gripping souls" implies proselytizing for one's "Truth" and converting (brainwashing) others into the same belief. Collect as many "souls for god" as you can. Destroy indigenous beliefs of native peoples because they aren't the "Truth." But since deity is unknowable, who are you to say which beliefs about deity have no validity?  The same applies to political ideologies. How many individuals have been destroyed in the name of the "Truth" of Nazism or communism, or simply to maintain the power of the regional tyrant?
       I want to make it clear that religious organizations are rarely evil in their totality; they can do a lot of good when they take a wider view and remain willing to tolerate others' beliefs. The doctrines of all religions and mythologies contain positive elements, and that's why the Mythmakers use the symbolism of myth in their writings. Since the paths of the Right Way are many, to reject all myths simply because they are promoted by misguided individuals would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In my future history, only institutionalized religions are banned; you can believe anything you like as long as you don't promote your beliefs publicly, practice them openly, or organize in order to force them on others.  Proselytizing is a imprisonable offense. 
       But "remnant religions" do still exist, either in manifestations to which EarthGov chooses to turn a blind eye, or under the guise of cultural phenomena, or in specially set-aside enclaves, within whose boundaries belief systems can be practiced openly.  I talk about all this a lot in "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," my big, formless, unfinished, impossible novel.  
       So, if you like, you can privately worship a big Termite Queen that dwells nameless among the stars.   But even my termites have their problems with intolerance and with "infidels."  You'll begin to learn about that in v.2 of "The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head."
       The next time I work on the Mythmakers, we'll touch on some of the Precepts that deal with social relationships.

Note: Here is an extract from "My Future History."  There is undoubtedly enough material in this paragraph to write a dozen works of dystopian fiction.  I did expand a little bit on one aspect of this part of future history in "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," but I don't know if it will ever be published.
       "The militant religionist movement that began early in the 21st century resulted in a succession of conflicts known as the Zealot Wars. Fundamentalist believers took over the organizational structures of all ancient religions, which fought openly both among one another and among splinter groups within themselves. The fanatical Romish Letin Revival of the 22nd century led to the first bombing of the holy Islemist and Judish sites in Arbia and Israil. This movement in turn saw its last Pope assassinated in 2310 by a faction of Kristen Scripturists. Later reconstructions of the Middle Eastern holy sites were ultimately obliterated in 2341, not by Kristens but by radiant bombing perpetrated by insane Islemist and Judish tyrants." 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Termites Can Be Real Characters, Too!

        I'm going to post this on both my blogs, because I'm going to discuss not only characters from the "Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head" series but also some who are unique to "The Termite Queen." I've been wondering if, in spite of all past explanations, some of you may view a people evolved from social insects as mindless, colorless units in a mechanized society. My creations are far from that! They have real, individualized personalities, which allows them to play all the roles necessary in an epic adventure, and I would like for anyone who reads either of my blogs to understand that.
        In "The Termite Queen" the cast of Shshi is more limited, and the characters are more black-and-white -- more written to type. It's a story of good vs. evil, in fact. So we have the leader, the Holy Seer Kwi'ga'ga'tei, who personifies all that is good about the termite society, and we have her counterpart, the evil Mo'gri'ta'tu, who carries within him a touch of the Earthly Satan himself. Both are extremely intelligent in their own way, both know how to use words to offset their weak Alate bodies, and both are powerful forces. I personally think Mo'gri'ta'tu is one of the greatest villains of all time (but of course I could be prejudiced! LOL!)
        Then in that same story we have those who are manipulated by Mo'gri'ta'tu. We have the aging Commander Hi'ta'fu, who has been the fortress's mainstay for many years but who is nearing the end of its life and lives in fear of being supplanted and shunned before death comes. Hi'ta'fu is thus ripe for being lured into treason by a more subtle individual. Hi'ta'fu's Second in Command Lo'lo'pai, a Warrior who is not especially well-endowed intellectually, can't sense the forest for the trees -- Mo'gri'ta'tu is able to twist its perceptions in way that produces a true tragedy. Both Hi'ta'fu and Lo'lo'pai can be seen as heroes with tragic flaws. Is Kwi'ga'ga'tei a tragic character? Probably not, because she accepts her role as savior of ... Well, you'll have to read the books if you want to find out what her savior-role might imply.
        Finally, we have the Champion Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head -- an outsider brought in to fight -- what? In the beginning they think it is the Star-Beings, who came to the termite world, abducted and killed two members of the society, and returned in a flying egg that hatches into the most bizarre creatures the Shshi have ever seen. Later, they discover that the Champion -- that same mighty Warrior who threatens the position of the Commander Hi'ta'fu -- has really been called to fight the evil within.
        We get a good look at Ki'shto'ba in "The Termite Queen," but we don't get the full scope of its character. In the "Labors" series, Ki'shto'ba is revealed as the quintessential epic hero -- a Warrior of high moral character, who had a mysterious genesis and is the subject of prophecies. It shares the somewhat stubborn, single-pathed outlook of its Caste, but it rises above that through a native intelligence. Ki'shto'ba understands that there is a time to fight but that there is also a time not to fight -- a time to seek peace. The Shshi Way of Life is after all one of peaceful existence within the bounds that the Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name set for her insectoid creation.
        Ki'shto'ba's Companions each has its own carefully drawn character. Di'fa'kro'mi the Remembrancer, the narrator of the tales, is no fool -- he's astute, analytical, and pragmatic, but he has a streak of adventurous idealism, and he's always willing to consider another's opinions. And he has a strong sense of empathy, as well as a big sense of humor.
        A'zhu'lo, Ki'shto'ba's twin, typifies all the conflicts of a younger brother. Actually, it isn't younger, because it was hatched from the same egg as Ki'shto'ba, but A'zhu'lo is much smaller and less powerful and not very inclined to fight. It idolizes its mightier brother but it's always measuring itself against Ki'sho'ba and always coming up short. Now there's a recipe for some kind of ominous development, that's for sure.
        The Worker Wei'tu, one of the two Helpers from Lo'ro'ra who accompany Ki'shto'ba and Di'fa'kro'mi on the Quest, is another pragmatist and a bit of a cynic. Just the same, it is devoted to the task at hand -- of looking after the more needy members of the troop -- and it's a very good Builder, who becomes more and more educated to that task as the Quest proceeds.
        The other Helper, Twa'sei, is infatuated with Ki'shto'ba (da'roit'um| or twist-headed, in the Shshi language). It is very small, but it is fiercely devoted to the Champion and wouldn't give place to anyone when it comes to taking care of the giant Warrior. However, Twa'sei is also resentful that, because of its small size, everybody is protective of it and nobody will give it credit for being able to do anything significant. It wants an adventure in its own right. Twa'sei will have to wait for v.2 to get its opportunity to shine.
        And then there is Za'dut, who joins the Quest after the To'wak episode. Za'dut is a Worker, but it's also the quintessential con-man (or con-termite!) It's an outcast and a canny, glib liar -- a first-rate actor. It survives by its wits -- it can talk its way into and out of scrapes better than anybody in the universe. It cares for nobody but itself -- at least at first. Whether that changes, you'll have to decide for yourself by reading the books.
        There are other characters, of course, but these that I've discussed will be with the series from the start to the finish. I would be delighted if you would introduce yourself to all of them. See the sidebar for information about how to buy any volume of my works.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Re-post of "What Are the Termite People Really Like?"

Welcome to the Old-Post Resurrection Hop!  I first posted this piece back on October 26, 2011.  Now that more people are familiar with what I do, perhaps they would like to learn about my termite people.

The Shshi evolved from insects just as we evolved from hominids. They still live in termitaria (called fortresses), which are built of stone instead of earth, extend both above and below ground, and have built-in ventilation systems. They have a low-tech culture; they have never tamed fire and they use wood and stone tools to supplement their own mandibles. They haft the mandibles of dead Warriors and use them as cutting tools. They have evolved double-clawed front legs; the claws are jointed and can grip like fingers, but they have no opposable digits. They have the wheel, but they have never taken its use farther than making little wheelbarrows; they have no draft animals. Their mathematics is almost nonexistent; they count on their antennae, each of which has 18 knobs and they have no numbers beyond 36. Anything larger than that becomes "more than the two-antennae count" or "many-many." This lack of math, however, doesn't prevent them from being supreme engineers; the blind Builder Subcaste simply understands instinctively how to construct edifices -- the genetic heritage of their ancestors.
The principal species that I'm writing about in "The Termite Queen" do not eat wood; they lack the proper intestinal flora to digest it. Instead, they are fungivores, cultivating underground fungus gardens, but they also eat soft cellulose products, such as the flowers and leaves of a certain tree that they grow in orchards. And they also garner protein from practicing necrophagy. They are in fact the universe's best recyclers, just like terrestrial termites.
All Shshi lack auditory organs and the Warriors and the Workers have no eyes. Of course, they have other senses -- chemical and electromagnetic -- that compensate. The Warriors and the Workers don't differ so much from terrestrial termites, but the Alates have changed more significantly. Their compound eyes have evolved far beyond the norm for terrestrial insects and they are much more than short-lived reproductives; they live as long as their fellows (20-25 years). Their wings have evolved bioluminescence in order to provide light within the fortress. (I had to find some way to light up that pitchblack interior of the fortress. Another writer I once read used phosphorescence in the walls, and Bernard Werber in "Empire of the Ants" gives some of his ants infrared vision.)
The cultural level of the Shshi could be designated "Heroic Age," a bit like Mycenaean Greece without the metalworking. Each fortress resembles a self-sufficient city-state, with very little contact with other fortresses except for the occasional territorial war or the necessity to exchange reproductives. They have developed human qualities like compassion, loyalty, a sense of self, an eagerness to learn and to attempt to account for their world through myth. Their only art form is literary; they are passionate tale-tellers. It makes sense that a deaf race would have no concept of music and that a mostly blind race that lives in perpetual darkness would have little use for visual art.
Their mythology provides them with an explanation for the existence of Castes: to ensure that the members of the community are interdependent. Because of their physical and sensory limitations, no one Caste can exist without the existence of the others. The Warriors' huge heads and mandibles makes it impossible for them to feed themselves. The Alates are weak in body and need protection from the Warriors and physical labor from the Workers, but their acute vision gives them an edge. They are the most subtle in intellect and so are likely to gain an advantage in the governance of the fortress.
Each community has only one breeding pair, just like terrestrial social insects. The Workers and Warriors may have vestigial sex organs, but they produce no sex pheromones, so they are truly neuter and are referred to by a special pronoun that can only be translated "it." The Alates, from whom the breeders are drawn, retain some sexual characteristics, enough for them to be identified as male of female. fa is the nominative, singular, third-person personal pronoun (used for Warriors and Workers) and fai is the nominative, singular neuter pronoun (used for things, qualities, etc.). Alates are either ta (she) or ma (he).
The Shshi religious beliefs are centered on the female principle -- what else could an ILF worship in a situation where only one individual among a thousand can produce offspring? In effect, they worship the Great Goddess -- the Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name -- who lives in the sky and lays stars and who generally allows her creation to make its own way. But occasionally she interferes, particularly at times when the Shshi Way of Life is threatened or something really significant is about to happen in the world of her offspring (like being invaded by extraplanetary beings). And the Seers can communicate with the Highest Mother through the intermediation of a special hallucinatory fungus (and sometimes through their own inate abilities).

One further remark: In the chapters of "The Termite Queen" that concern the Shshi, I tried to come up with a style that would provide contrast with the human story. I settled on writing it as a dramatic script -- writing a play, as it were. It didn't seem right to put in lots of wordy description when you're dealing with blind creatures whose dwelling consists of mostly unlighted underground chambers and corridors. So we have dialogue supplemented by minimal stage directions. We also have soliloquies. It was very easy to fall into a kind of Shakespearean formality and rhythm. I used a lot of Shakespeare quotations as epigraphs for the termite chapters. The villain Mo'gri'ta'tu is fully comparable to Cassius or Iago -- quite Machiavellian. In fact, as I was writing these parts, I humorously referred to my characters as "my Shakespearean termites"!


Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 1


       As relief from the serious tone of the last few posts, I thought I would introduce everybody to my unfinished novel, "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars."  It's a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrials in the 28th century (some 2.5 centuries before the time of "The Termite Queen").  I already posted the Prologue to that book, which you can read here. I've had almost 50 pageviews on that post, and I hope some of you enjoyed it.
       You will find that the style of this book is entirely different from any of my previous books.  I attempted to make it much more colloquial and profane.  "The Termite Queen" deals with highly educated characters who speak good English and so the tone is fairly literary (with Shakespearean overtones when the termites are on scene), and in "The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head" series, my termites tend to be speak with great formality (it's just the way they are).  But MWFB lends itself to a more informal treatment.
I present here the first chapter of the book.  Bear in mind that it's a WIP and I reserve the right to change anything about it if I want to!  Next month I'll post Chapter 2

I decided to risk posting one of my character drawings.
Wonder why I left off his left ear?

Chapter 1: The Captain Eats Crow

(20 July 2766, Old Heathero Flight Port, Islands of Britan)
Minie was heading into the bathroom with an armload of clothes when her companion exclaimed, “Here, you forgot this!”
Something flopped against her back.  Turning around, she surveyed at the man who stood beside the bed, then stooped to pick up her breastie off the floor.  “Gaw, Robbie, you’re such a whizzer.”
Grinning playfully, her companion hitched up his pants and secured the fly.  “Aw, Minie, you ought to know by now what a perfect British gentleman Capt. Nikalishin is.”
She rolled a humorous eye.  “Is that what your consort thought, duck?” 
“Hell, I’ve decided I never really knew what she thought.”
Minie giggled and vanished into the bathroom.  Whisking an undershirt out of a drawer, the Captain pulled it over his head, then moved to the mirror to begin shaving.  With the shaver humming in his ear, he inspected his beardless face with the usual pang of regret.  His beard had been getting grizzled and Fedaylia hadn’t liked that …  Why would a man’s beard begin to turn gray before he was 35, while his hair stayed as black as when he was 20? 
But the truth of the matter was, it was the beard itself, grizzled or not, that Fedaylia hadn’t liked.  Tricking him into shaving it had only been another way to dominate him …
Robbie preferred the mask of a beard because he hated his chin.  It was contoured wrong – too soft, too short – and that damn dimple …  And while his nose had a decent bridge – he had never objected to his nose – it was proportionately too large to fit with that chin …
… although women seemed to like the dimple …  Minie would twist a fingertip in it and make baby noises – and Fedaylia had done something like that, too, although she tended to jab with a fingernail …
Hostel rooms didn’t include direct com links, so after finishing his shave, Robbie rang up the central desk.  “Capt. Nikalishin here, Ellen.  Any messages for me?”
“Just one … ”  For a moment his gut lurched.  Maybe it was Fedaylia – she could certainly find out where he was if she wanted to…
As usual, he was disappointed.  “ … from the Assignment Office.  No orders for you today, Robbie, but you’re to pay a visit to Maj. Nwinn at 1100h tomorrow.”
Annoyed with himself, Robbin Nikalishin thanked the hostel manager and deactivated the com.  Why could he never stop expecting Feddie to contact him?  Dammit, that was over, had been over for almost five months, and he had been forced to find solace with a girl like Minie – not that he wanted to belittle Minie – that wouldn’t be fair.  She had a kind heart and, after all, in his present state of disgrace, he himself was no prize … 
But still no flight orders – that was odd.  He had finally made stand-by shuttle commander a couple of weeks before and he had flown the maximum six missions during that time without any problems, but now for the last three days, nothing.  He couldn’t think of anything he had done to mess up his status again …
Minie emerged from the bathroom, threading the ribbons of her tunic blouse.  Coincidentally reflecting his thoughts, she said, “Are they sending you to the moon today?”
“It seems not – I’ve got orders to report in tomorrow.  Want to get some breakfast, or are you too hung over?”
“Come on, all I had last night was a couple of beers.    It’s hot as a laser today.  Why don’t you just leave your jacket here and go down in your shirtsleeves?”
“Because an officer in Earth Space Command needs to look the part.”
“Clothes won’t turn you back into a hero, Robbie Red-Breast.” 
“No, but they can help a man remember who he is, or who he should be.”
Sloe Hostel’s dining room was crowded with the Provisional Ensigns and non-coms who denned within Old Heathero Flight Port’s transitional residences.  The food was displayed on a counter along the back, dished up by youthful attendants.  Mother-henning them was a plumpish woman about forty years of age.
“Well, there’s my black-eyed Capt. Robbie!” she said as Nikalishin and his companion slapped down their trays.  “I swear, you look good enough to kiss!”
He leaned over to peck the woman on the lips as Minie said, “Don’t you be trying to steal him away from me, Wilda!  He’s mine, at least for a while.”
“Don’t worry, Minie – Capt. Robbie‘s heart is his own, to do with as he will.”
Nikalishin laughed and touched Wilda’s cheek with a fingertip.  Then, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he turned to an open-mouthed attendant.  “Are you just going to stand there gawking at me flirting with your boss, or can I get a scoop of that scramble?  Uh-h-h – looks nastier than usual … ”
Wilda watched the Captain and Minie head for the only available seating, at a table already occupied by a couple of callow-looking Prov-Ens.  At the sight of the pair of gold bars on Nikalishin’s collar, they jumped hastily to their feet.
“At ease, Cadets,” said Robbie.  “This is breakfast, not a dress parade.”
They all sat down, but the youths were staring at the name on the Captain’s pocket flap.  “Uh … uh … ” one of them spluttered, and the other croaked, “Blimey!  Capt. Nikalishin!  I’d heard he – you – was based here at Old Heathero, but … ”
“You better swallow some of that coffee, Mister,” said Robbie.  “You look like you’d seen a ghost, and here I thought I was still alive.  And by the way, it’s Nik-a-LEESH-in, not Ni-KAHL-ish-in.  That way, it sounds like a drunken man trying to say ‘colic.’”
The Cadet had turned as red as the trim on his uniform, then when Robbie said, “What wing are you assigned to, Ensign?” he went white.
“Holy grief, man, don’t faint on me!  You think I’m going to put you on report for pronouncing my name a bit off?  Believe me, there’s nobody on the Board of Discipline who would care!  I only asked about your assignment out of curiosity about why young chaps like you get into the space game these days.  Besides, breakfast goes better with conversation.  Takes the mind off the plasti-scramble.”
Back at the counter, Wilda said, “Watch it, clumsy!” as the gawking attendant let a spoonful of egg drop on the floor. 
“Ms. Murchy, is that really Robbin Nikalishin?  The Capt. Nikalishin?”
“Kinda surprised you, huh?  Earth’s most famous hero …  Yes, he’s lived here in Sloe about three months now.”
“What was it they called those first interstellar flyers?  Starpiercers?”
“No, Starchasers.  The Seven Starchasers.  SkyPiercer was the name of the project.”
”Yeah, that was it …  But why would a famous man like that be living here among all these bottom-feeders?”
“Ravi, I know your family just moved to Britan, but I thought the whole world knew about what happened.  There certainly was enough publicity.”
“Oh, I think I’m remembering – something really scandalous – like, he was drunk on the Bridge of his ship and punched an Admiral in the nose.”
“It was a Commodore.  But there’s a good deal more meat to it than that, of course.”
“How come he kissed you, Ms. Murchy?”
Wilda chuckled.  “Oh, Capt. Robbie and I go way back.  I’ve been working in Food Service here on this Base since he was a Cadet.  We had a bit of a fling once.”  She heaved a humorously exaggerated sigh.  “We’re just really old, good friends now.  That can be nicer than lovers, you know.  But you may be too young to understand that.”
“Well, there’s something else I don’t understand – how come he’s still got his Captain’s bars?  They must have court-martialed him, so was he acquitted?”
“Actually, it never got to the point of a real trial, because he pleaded guilty.”
“Then why wasn’t he demoted or discharged or something?”
“Well, just think who he is, Ravi!  One of the original Seven Starchasers, like I said!  And how many people exist who have ever commanded one of those sausage-casing ships that can fly beyond the solar system?  It’s four, that’s what it is, including Capt. Robbie.  And how many of those understand the technology – all that time/light/pod/fold/quanty gobbledygook – as well as he does?  I think maybe one, and she’s retired!  So that makes him too valuable to just kick back into civilian life.”
“But he must have gotten some kind of punishment.”
“That’s why he’s living in Sloe.  They sentenced him to a year of confinement within the perimeter of Old Heathero, on a Prov-En’s pay, with no officer’s privileges.  He lost his Mars command and was put to serving on Lunar cargo shuttles.  It could have been worse by a long shot, but still it was a pretty deep humiliation …  Ravi, will you pay attention to your job?  Here this P. O.’s waiting, and the scramble pan’s empty, and you’re just standing there!”
“Your fault, Ms. Murchy,” the young Inden dared to say, grinning as he disappeared into the kitchen.