Yesterday’s fiction

Robert Cedric Sherriff, circa 1928. Source: Hear the Boat Sing.

Unless a novel becomes a classic, it will become obscure. It may or may not show up on book lists. There probably won’t ever be a Gutenberg edition. The review industry, of course, is concerned with what’s new. How might we discover now-obscure books that were published before we were born?

With R.C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript, first published in 1939, a kind of miracle brought it to our attention. The publisher brought out a new edition, and the Washington Post wrote about it: “The moon falls to Earth in a 1939 novel that remains chillingly relevant.”

I ordered the book immediately, of course. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel that never showed up on the many lists of post-apocalyptic novels that I had scoured. I bought a used hardback copy on Amazon that I assumed would be the 1939 edition. But when the book arrived I was surprised to discover that it’s from 1963 and is some sort of book club edition. That means that there have been three editions of The Hopkins Manuscript.

I’m only 52 pages into the book and will write more about it later. It’s beautifully written, something we might expect from an author who was educated at Oxford and who also was a playwright.

Yesterday Ken, who knows I’m on the lookout for memorable science fiction and fantasy that has fallen into obscurity, sent me a link to an article about Hope Mirrlees: “Hope Mirrlees and her curious masterpiece.” Mirlees was a lesser-known member of the Bloomsbury Group. One of her poems was published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. The novel is Lud-in-the-Mist, first published in 1926 and now in the public domain. I’ve ordered a copy of Lud-in-the-Mist from a used book seller. I assume it is the 1926 edition, though someone — I’m not sure who — has reprinted it in paperback now that the book is in the public domain.

Why was it so easy to find good science fiction and fantasy up through the 1980s? Was it only because, 35 years ago, there was so much that I had not yet read? Or has something changed, either in what people want to read or what publishers choose to publish?

I’m very suspicious about the current state of the publishing industry. This piece in the Times of London increased my suspicion: “Publishers cower in fear of ambush by woke critics.” (Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall. I read it through my subscription to Apple News.) As I’ve said here before, as very much a liberal I’m in accord with the principles that conservatives deplore as “woke.” But that doesn’t mean that I want to read novels that have been pre-policed to make sure they don’t offend anyone. While I’m gasping for a good space opera (which were plentiful in the 1980s), that’s not the sort of thing that publishers seem interested in these days. (I do note, though, with some optimism, that John Twelve Hawks reported on Facebook yesterday that he has finished the draft of a new novel.)

The classics are always there for us, if publishers let us down. I greatly enjoyed the time I spent reading seven of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. Thus I was particularly amused to find this passage on page 42 of The Hopkins Manuscript:

“But I knew that I must do something to preserve my sanity, and after long thought I resolved upon what may seem a pathetic attempt to alleviate my awful loneliness. I resolved to read from beginning to end the works of Sir Walter Scott. I possessed these in thirty volumes, and one a week would carry me far into the winter — even until the day when I should no longer need to nurse my secret.”

The Hopkins Manuscript is often laugh-out-loud funny. I understood the passage above to be an example of Sherriff’s dry humor: Just how pathetically bored would someone have to be to read so much Walter Scott, which lots of people possessed in thirty volumes, but none of which had been read? You can still buy those sets, complete or not, on eBay and in used book stores.

Is there someone, somewhere — part historian and part booklover — whose mission it is to keep obscure old novels from being forgotten? It would be hard work, and it would require access to the right kind of libraries. These days, shops that sell out-of-print books list them on Amazon or eBay. But how do we figure out what to look for?

As an aside, I might mention here that the World Science Fiction Convention, also called WorldCon, will be in Glasgow next year (August 8-12, 2024). I’m overdue for a trip to Scotland, so I’m hoping to attend. Maybe I’ll be able to pick up some intel on what readers are thinking versus what publishers are thinking. There has been a good bit of protesting at WorldCons during the past few years, mostly from the right.

I’m rooting for Oxford, not for the cars

Bicycles at Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons. A third of the people of Oxford don’t have cars.

Slate Magazine has an excellent piece this morning on the town of Oxford’s plan to stop cars from overwhelming its medieval streets: How One City’s Traffic Plan Kicked Off a Global Right-Wing Freakout.

The problem that Oxford is trying to solve is easy to see. Too many cars in central Oxford are causing so much congestion that every other kind of traffic is obstructed. The streets have become more dangerous for people who are walking and cycling. And that’s not just a few people. More than 60 percent of the people in central Oxford are walking, cycling, or riding buses. Oxford came up with a plan to try to make the streets faster and safer by restricting cars during the day.

To right-wingers, it’s socialist tyranny. And not only that, it’s an opportunity to come up with conspiracy theories about how it’s all part of a global socialist plan to “herd people” and control their movements.

We all value individual freedom. But if individual freedom always overrides all other values, then how do we solve collective problems? Do those who are protesting Oxford’s plan acknowledge the problem? If so, what would they do about it? The American solution would be to put cars first, knock down some of those old buildings, displace a bunch of poor people, and build more streets. In a place like Oxford, that kind of solution is not an option.

Whether it’s a local problem such as Oxford’s or a global problem such as climate change, for every collective problem that we deny or refuse to solve we move closer to a Hunger Games world. If that Hunger Games world were a world in which individual rights were equally and justly preserved for all, then the miseries, as well as the individual rights, would at least be equally shared. But some of us know that that would never be the case. I think I know why. I think it’s because there are some people who assume that they’ll always be at the top of the order, as lords over those below them, whose portion of the order is the misery. So of course it’s not just bicycles and cars. It’s two incompatible ways of ordering the world. In a place like Oxford, I think I can guess who will win. But in a thousand other places that magazines don’t write about, I think I can guess who’s losing.

Carnival Row

Vignette and Philo, before Philo got his ridiculous hat and his bad haircut.

When the “Carnival Row” series started in 2019, I ignored it because I misconstrued what it was. It’s fantasy. But because of the name, and because of the stupid hat that Orlando Bloom wears in the promotional photos (under which is a very unbecoming haircut), I assumed that the Orlando Bloom character was a carnival barker and that the series had to do with a bunch of dysfunctional people rejected by society who traveled with a carnival. I was wrong.

A second season starts this Friday on Amazon Prime Video. The first season is now streaming again, and I took a closer look. “Carnival Row” actually is the name of a rough street in an imaginary city that is a lot like a gothic, pagan, somewhat steampunk London of the 19th Century. The Orlando Bloom character, Philo, is a detective who tries to protect the odd people who live on Carnival Row. Philo has a secret (which is revealed in episode 3). Some of these odd people have hooves. Some have wings and can fly. The ones with wings are called fae, and they’re a lot like human-size faeries. One of the fae, Vignette (played by the very fey English actress Cara Delevingne), has a grudge against Philo (also explained in episode 3).

After four episodes (of eight) in the first season, I’ve discovered that “Carnival Row” is a good bit of fun to watch. The sets and settings are excellent. The cast, which includes Indira Varma, is expensive. If this series had better writers rather than writers who are somewhere short of excellent, it would be great. It’s the writing that falls short, with dialogue that’s just not quite good enough for the cast.

In short, “Carnival Row” probably deserves its weak Rotten Tomatoes score of 57/88. But when there’s not anything better to watch, it will do.

As for anything better, I am mystified why “The Last of Us” has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97/91. To my taste, it’s pure junk, nothing more than yet another lame zombie series, a useless genre that should have died twenty years ago. “Zombie genre” is a double entendre — a genre that keeps stumbling around and refuses to die. Yes, episode 3, which a friend persuaded me to watch, was completely different. But episode 4 (I won’t watch any more of it) went right back to the usual boring zombie nonsense. I wasted a lot of popcorn watching four episodes. Even perfectly popped Orville Reddenbacher with sea salt, real butter powder, and brewer’s yeast couldn’t make “The Last of Us” fit to watch.

Meanwhile, “Mandalorian” season 3 will start on Disney+ on March 1, a series that’s more than worth its popcorn.

Pearls before swine

Credit: CSpan

When in the same room as the abundant kindness and goodness of President Joe Biden, how can Republicans even stand themselves? I’ll answer my own question. Many Republicans are so far gone that they can’t even know what they are.

I did not watch Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Republican rebuttal. But according to Heather Cox Richardson, Sanders said, “The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy.”

I have little doubt, professional liar that she is, that Sanders is so blind that she actually sees things that way. And she is far too far gone to realize that normal people, aghast at such a voluntary public display of blindness, will instantly understand that Sanders is projecting, a psychological trick that is essential to maintaining stability in the right-wing psyche. If they didn’t project their own craziness and meanness onto other people, they’d have only themselves to hate.

I never go on Twitter, but several news outlets are reporting that George Santos, an amateur liar and swine so vile that even many Republicans can’t stomach him, tweeted: “SOTU category is: GASLIGHTING!” I’m glad that I can’t even imagine what goes on in the mind of someone who can be like that and think like that.

Kevin McCarthy deserves some credit here. He was completely civil all through Biden’s speech, and he even tried to shush the outbreaks of booing and heckling from the Republican side of the room. But McCarthy has made his bed, and now we will see how long he can lie in it. McCarthy has only two choices, really. He can become more like Biden. Or he can become more like Marjorie Taylor Greene. Increasingly I think that the best solution for the world’s Republican problem is for Trump to draw off all the lunatics into a third party, enabling everyone to see what a minority of losers the deplorables are. Then the losers can glory in the acid purity of their own meanness, as they dissolve in it.

For good and decent human beings, the challenge is how to be civil to such people. For Joe Biden, as president of the United States, the standard of civility is very high (not that Donald Trump ever had any such standard). But even Joe Biden baited them and made fun of their cluelessness. He got the best of them, too, right in front of the American people, though no doubt Republicans think the opposite.

President Biden did a brilliant job of describing his vision of an America that is more just, more equal, more fair, more kind, and more prosperous. And yet the Republican Party wants us to believe that Biden’s vision is crazy. Those of us who are not Republicans should be endlessly grateful that, by the grace of God, we are not like that.

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” — Matthew 7:6, King James version.

“The choice is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal and crazy.”

Big savings on both money and pain

My old WaterPik died after eight years of service. I ordered a new one from Amazon. The new models have some small improvements. The lid pops up and stays put rather than coming off completely. The water tube curls up inside the case when it’s not in use, saving a little space. I don’t yet know what the “massage” setting is, but my guess is that it drives the little rotating toothbrush that was included with the WaterPik. I can’t wait to try that out.

I’m a faithful flosser. But I learned that unless I use a WaterPik daily in addition to flossing, it’s hard to always get the numbers one wants in the periodontal gum scores done by your dental hygienist — that is, all 1mm, 2mm, and 3mm. I found that, with flossing alone, I tended to get a 4mm or two around a molar. WaterPiks finish the job that flossing and brushing begins.

Many people don’t realize that more teeth are lost to gum disease than to tooth decay. There also is a mysterious connection between inflammation of the gums and inflammation elsewhere in the body, including the arteries. As far as I know, no causal connection has been proven. But the odds are that if you have healthy gums, you also have healthy arteries and joints. WaterPiks pay for themselves many times over not only in savings at the dentist’s office, but also in misery avoided.