2020 Just Reading: March

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Completed reads for March:

  • The Cosmic Doctrine, by Dion Fortune
  • Theurgia, or the Egyptian Mysteries, by Iamblichus
  • Dracul, by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker
  • The Life of Pythagoras, by Porphyry
  • On the Faculties of the Soul, by Porphyry
  • The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Isle of the Torturers, by Clark Ashton Smith
  • Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde
  • Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones
  • House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Gon, by Masashi Tanaka
  • Red Moon, by Sein Ares

Iamblichus’ Theurgia is Wilder’s translation. Porphyry’s Life of Pythagoras and On the Faculties of the Soul are Guthrie’s.

Poe and Smith are re-readings of short stories, but I thought I would list them for completeness.

On an unrelated note, you may be wondering about the yellow-and-black symbol at the start of my recent blog posts. It’s simply a Quarantine flag – a wee reminder for posterity of the lockdown circumstances those posts were written under, and a present reminder for non-essentials like me to Stay At Home.

A Breath Through Silver – It’s Back!

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In an actually… pleasant… bit of news, my sword and sorcery piece, A Breath Through Silver, has returned to the internet via a reprint. It’s also my first ever reprinted story, so huzzah. I’m clearly moving up in the world.

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As a reminder, A Breath Through Silver first appeared back in July 2017, but due to the vagaries of the internet, it eventually became unavailable, and I had to store it in the purgatory of the Bonus Stories section. Not ideal.

The original version of the story is currently featured as a four part serial, across Issues #849 and #850 of Bewildering Stories.

(A revised and slightly expanded version may be on the way too, over the next few days).

Addendum: The revised version is now available at the above first link, replacing the older version.

Apocalypse Reading: Helping the Little Guy

Physsil gestured around reception. ‘Why not sit here with me and drink to the end of the world? I’d offer you tobacco, but the tin’s missing.’

– Wise Phuul

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Most of you out there think of me as a blogger – and, to be fair, I am. Most of the traffic I get on A Phuulish Fellow is Tolkien-related, and, yes, I like to blog about him in particular. It’s a fun hobby – I’ve never actually made a cent off this blog, but it’s not about commercial considerations.

But apart from the blogging, I am also a writer in my own right. One novel (with another in the works), and a fair number of short stories. And being a writer is a pretty handy thing when the world is going to hell… it’s something you can do any time of the day or night, without having to break quarantine.

And as a writer, I also owe a lot to my publisher, Inspired Quill, the small British press who accepted Wise Phuul after it had been rejected some thirty-five times. The book publishing industry is a pretty cut-throat world, remember – there are only five major publishers in the English-speaking world – so small presses have to be very good at what they do. Inspired Quill also put a lot of emphasis on giving back to the wider community, being a “social enterprise”:

“Social enterprises are businesses that trade to tackle social problems, improve communities, people’s life chances, or the environment. They make their money from selling goods and services in the open market, but they reinvest their profits back into the business or the local community.” – definition from Social Enterprise UK.

Times are tough out there, what with the Covid-19 chaos. Many of you – like me – are currently stuck in government-mandated lockdown, waiting out the storm. I have previously pointed out Project Gutenberg as a source of free reading material to keep people going. However, if you want to help out a currently-operating Little Guy within the publishing industry, please also consider checking out the Inspired Quill catalogue (or following up the titles in question on the online book-seller of your choice).

The selection is mostly Speculative Fiction – fantasy, science-fiction, and various other imaginative fields – all produced by small authors through a small socially-conscious press. E-books are plague-proof, and there are certainly worse ways to spend your time in quarantine!

Meanwhile, thanks for reading. We will get through this. 🙂

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Rob’s Revenge: Rebuilding Fortress New Zealand?

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The international economy is currently undergoing a bit of turbulence. To put it mildly. Whole sections of the industrialised world have literally stopped functioning, frozen in suspension, in what at least one commentator has described as a financial ‘ice-age.’ Sure, the fiscal and monetary authorities of the world are pumping in cash on a scale that makes 2008 look tame, but no-one yet knows if it will prove effective. We have fallen off the edge of the map. ‘Here Be Dragons’ indeed.

How this affects New Zealand is, naturally, of interest to me. You see, New Zealand is a small, trade-based economy. We export dairy (seriously, we are basically a dairy farm with a country attached), together with meat. This is bolstered by the tourism industry. In return, we import most other items: the abolition of trade protections during the 1980s and 1990s have made us very free-trade orientated, and committed to the notion of Comparative Advantage. That is, we specialise in dairy because we’re good at it, and use the earnings derived therefrom to pay our way.

Or so the theory goes anyway. In practice, New Zealand tends to fund its import consumption via a fair amount of foreign borrowing – we haven’t actually run a Current Account Surplus since the early 1970s.

Now, the immediate response to the 2020 economic crisis – which every Government, including our own, is following – is basically this:

  • Ensure supply chains are maintained. Food and medicine being the key here.
  • Prop up aggregate demand via extensive support. Make sure people in the shutdown sectors still have funds to spend on food and other essential items.
  • Prop up the financial system via a giant injection of liquidity. You really, really don’t want credit to dry up right now.

The biggest question mark is what will happen in the slightly longer term – a question none of us can answer, because we don’t know how severe the coronavirus will actually be. The optimists suggest that so long as the major industries can remain afloat (via government support), they can resume production once the epidemic is back under control. A quick recovery.

To my mind, that might be too much to hope for.

To bring the situation back to New Zealand, I would suggest that even if the coronavirus fizzles out in a month or so, the damage to our tourism industry is permanent. And, as mentioned, tourism is a major component of the New Zealand economy. This leaves agriculture as the only thing we have left.

To keep agricultural production running smoothly in the present circumstances will require war-time levels of oversight. Not least because large sections of the agricultural sector (especially fruit) are themselves reliant on migrant workers… who are suddenly unavailable due to closed borders. It would not surprise me if freshly unemployed tourism staff in Queenstown suddenly find themselves roped into Central Otago orchards.

(Meanwhile, if this crisis drags on, I think a degree of demand management becomes inevitable. New Zealand Supermarkets are currently limiting quantities purchased per person, but a more formal government-mandated rationing system – and price controls – should not be ruled out, depending on how things develop).

So infrastructure and supply chains are paramount… but we also face the possibility that international lockdowns will, over time, start affecting those very supply chains. Moving items around the world requires a complex web of interactions, and, well, those interactions are rather fraught right now. There is an enormous degree of interdependence going on here, and with interdependence comes vulnerability. Aforementioned Comparative Advantage relies on products actually getting through.

And this is where we move from discussing the prospect of a temporary wartime economy – with tight oversight of demand and supply – and towards a wider reconsideration of the current economic paradigm. “Never waste a crisis” goes the saying, and it is hard to see longer-term policy-makers not being influenced by the current predicament. Maybe scarred would be a better term.

Consider, for example, a situation where New Zealand’s impending four week lockdown is incredibly successful. The virus is eliminated within the country by the end of May… but the disease is still raging overseas. New Zealand would then have a functioning economy again, at least in terms of being able to mobilise its full resources… but its major trading partners are not so lucky. Borders remained closed for the foreseeable future. What happens?

Well, at this point, there would undoubtedly be pressure to disentangle New Zealand from its extreme reliance on international markets. It is all very well selling milk powder overseas, but if we have nothing to spend the proceeds on, we are rather stuck. Import substitution, a government willing (and able) to throw around subsidies and controls, extensive demand and supply management… why, we have been here before.

I refer to Fortress New Zealand, the regime of former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon (1975-1984).

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Rob Muldoon was not a pleasant man. His autocratic personality, in combination with New Zealand’s constitutional model of Elective Dictatorship, led to, well, abuses. Right-wing populism meets paranoid control-freakery is not a happy combination, especially when combined with blatant bullying. However, Muldoon – for all his faults – was highly intelligent, and in the face of the 1970s economic crises, he acted ruthlessly to try and maintain the social and economic order of the previous forty years – a full-employment-focused interventionist system, accompanied by a generous welfare state. Muldoon was conservative in the classical sense of ‘wanting to conserve’, and the antithesis of neoliberals like Margaret Thatcher.

The twin crises hanging over New Zealand during his tenure were the loss of our hitherto major trading partner (Britain joining the EEC in 1973), and the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. The former forced us to find alternative markets for our agricultural produce. The latter massively increased the cost of oil, with problems in terms of both import costs and inflation. Muldoon’s response involved car-less days to reduce demand for petrol, massive infrastructure projects like the Clyde Dam to encourage energy independence, subsidisation and protection of local industry, tight foreign exchange controls, and the occasional wage/price freeze. Amongst other things.

Now, Muldoon has traditionally been regarded as a failure. His initiation of a run on the New Zealand dollar after losing an election in July 1984 provided the political impetuous for Rogernomics – the massive economic liberalisation project of the 1980s (which extended, in its radical form, until 1993). More than three decades on, it is the free-market system introduced by Roger Douglas after 1984 that still defines this country’s economic framework, and, dare I say, Douglas has probably exerted more influence on the course of my life than any other politician. For good or ill.

But – courtesy of the economic crisis created by the coronavirus – the ghost of Muldoon might now have the last laugh. The next few years might well see the New Zealand Government returning to hitherto forgotten levels of state economic intervention. After all, if the supply of certain goods gets disrupted due to foreign lockdowns… emergency support for import substitution industries might suddenly look an attractive political option. And even if the immediate crisis is (by great good fortune) resolved quickly at the international level, the sheer trauma might well endure among policy-makers for years to come. The world now knows what happens when the heart of the modern economy stops beating, and just how complex and vulnerable the web of a globalised world is. In such a climate autarky might feel safer the next time a pandemic appears on the horizon.

Maybe after thirty-six years, that old Fortress is about to be rebuilt, in circumstances no-one could have predicted.

Going Into Lockdown

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It was inevitable, really. Shutting the borders was probably a bit too late, and we now have over a hundred cases (another fifty as of today). No deaths yet, so that’s something, but we’re in for a rough April and May.

As such, New Zealand is going into a four week nationwide lockdown from 11:59 p.m. tonight.

Supermarkets, doctors, pharmacists, vets, car mechanics, and other essentials stay open. Everyone else? We stay at home, and wait out the storm, and there will be police about to make sure people comply.

I am one of the lucky ones, to be honest – my life faces comparatively little disruption, and I see it as an opportunity to catch up on the twin joys of reading and writing. And we have the Internet too, which means my blogging will remain unaffected.

Speaking of the Internet, I ran across this yesterday, and really had to smile:

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(The epidemic in question was the dreaded Sweating Sickness, not Influenza. And Henry VIII was a bit of a hypochondriac – panic is not advisable. But the principle of self-isolation basically holds).

Surviving Quarantine: Plugging Project Gutenberg

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So we are all stuck at home for the foreseeable future, with all that entails. It’s not fun, of course, but it’s necessary.

What to do?

Well, it’s a great opportunity for catching up on those books that have been sitting on your shelf, unread for years. We all have them – I certainly do.

However, in the event that you are stuck without fresh reading material for a prolonged period of time, without access to libraries, I can strongly recommend Project Gutenberg. I’m a heavy user myself, and I suspect that most of you out there already know about it, but on the off-chance you don’t… it’s an online selection of Public Domain texts. Think older books, for which the copyright has long since expired, or which pre-date copyright altogether. It’s a great (and completely free) way of catching up on literary classics via the internet.

So go ahead and check it out. There are worse ways to spend 2020 than checking out old books from the comfort of your sofa. Meanwhile, stay safe, and don’t panic. 🙂

A Tale of Two Plagues: The Red Death vs The Silver Death

Chances are, you have heard of The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe (1842). A classic short story of the horror genre, and one that has become vaguely topical, given that a significant portion of the Western World are now cooped up in varying degrees of quarantine as an epidemic rages outside.

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Fingers crossed you manage better than Prince Prospero.

Less well known is The Isle of the Torturers, by Clark Ashton Smith (1933). Smith was an acquaintance of H.P. Lovecraft, but whereas Lovecraft drew his terror from a malign and unknowable cosmos, Smith revelled in decadence, having an almost cheerful fondness for ritualistic grotesquery. The Isle of the Torturers shows Smith in action… with the premise of the short story revolving around a strange and deadly disease, the Silver Death.

So we have Poe’s Red Death, and Smith’s Silver Death… why not compare them? Nothing like fictional reminders of one’s own mortality to pass the time, and both stories are significantly shorter than The Decameron.

(i) The Red Death

Poe’s plague – though clearly named after the historical Black Death – appears to be less bubonic plague, and more a fantastical accelerated ebola virus:

There were sharp pains, and a sudden feeling that the mind was rushing in circles inside the head. Then there was bleeding through the skin, though it was not cut or broken — and then, death!

The bright red spots upon the body and especially upon the face of the sick man made other men turn away from him, afraid to try to help. And the sickness lasted, from beginning to the end, no more than half an hour.

Prince Prospero and his aristocratic friends respond to this by locking themselves in an elaborate colour-themed abbey for six months, while the disease takes out the peasantry outside. Our protagonists spend their days enjoying themselves, but remain uncomfortably aware of the lurking shadow of time and mortality, as represented by the hourly chimes of an ebony clock. This clock is housed in a scary black room with red windows, and in contrast to the other colourful rooms, few venture inside.

Eventually, of course, the personification of the Red Death comes to claim them all, and does, because one cannot escape Death, no matter how you try.

(ii) The Silver Death

Smith’s Silver Death is even more fantastical. Rather than a variant on real-life diseases, this is literally a strange and alien affliction from a malign star:

Those who were smitten felt an icy, freezing cold, an instant rigor, as if the outermost gulf had breathed upon them. Their faces and bodies whitened strangely, gleaming with a wan luster, and became stiff as long-dead corpses, all in an interim of minutes.

The Silver Death moves so swiftly that one might wonder how anyone could actually be aware of it before it kills them, but Smith fudges this with the protagonist and his adviser knowing about the plague in advance. Astrology is nifty like that.

King Fulbra, via a magical ring, is protected from the disease, but loses all but three of his subjects. He ventures away from his city… only for a tempest to shipwreck him on the titular Isle of the Torturers. There he is subjected to endless agonies, both physical and mental, before tricking his captors into removing the ring.

As with Poe, the story ends with the plague killing everyone, but whereas Poe’s ending is horror, a grave comment on the human condition, Smith actually uses the disease to formulate a happy ending. As bizarre as it sounds. You’d never see that in Lovecraft.

(iii) Compare and contrast

It is hard not to see The Isle of the Torturers as a case of Clark Ashton Smith attempting a dialogue with Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Both stories feature mysterious colour-themed diseases, and both stories are obsessed with colour more generally. Poe has his seven shades of abbey, Smith provides lush colour descriptions of practically everything (including, unfortunately, the torturers themselves, who are identified as yellow-skinned). Both stories have a heavy gothic aesthetic hanging over them, though Poe is more Renaissance Gothic, and Smith is more Arabian Nights Gothic. There are some truly loving descriptive passages of macabre surroundings, to the point where both stories practically invite artistic depictions – the settings are more real and rounded than the characters who inhabit them. And, of course, both works are fantastical commentaries on Death.

Where they diverge is that Smith inverts Poe’s thematic message. Poe presents us with unsympathetic characters who frivolously (and callously) live their lives in the shadow of the Reaper… who will inevitably come to claim them. Poe’s Death is a reminder and a warning, as dressed up in gorgeous decadence. Smith, by contrast, presents us with a sympathetic protagonist, who, through no fault of his own, finds himself subjected to exquisitely detailed (and extremely exotic) tortures at the hands of his captors… until he uses Death as both release and revenge. The Silver Death starts as something to be feared, but by the end of the story, becomes a much-sought form of escape from a life too horrible to contemplate.  Poe presents us with a stern and inescapable master, bringing justice to terrible people, but Smith presents us with an unlikely friend and ally, a liberator of the oppressed.

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Death, as represented via fantastical imaginary plagues – not exactly a cheerful subject, but nevertheless a cornerstone of the horror genre. From the inspiration of the real-life Black Death, we have seen a pair of stories revel in the possibilities of the gothic aesthetic, as produced by a pair of authors who had a strange fascination with the nature of Death itself. For anyone whose literary tastes lean towards the purple, it is all good colourful fun, and in neither case is Death really presented as the villain – that would be Poe’s protagonists and Smith’s antagonists respectively. Humans are, in the end, the real bastards.

In any case, such venerable literary musings on Death as Inevitable and Death as Escape feel a tad more interesting than the wall-to-wall crisis coverage we are currently seeing in the news. The exquisite artistry of Poe and Smith feels rather divorced from mundane realities of Australian toilet paper shortages – an argument in favour of the fantasy genre if there ever was one.

And Now It Begins: Dunedin Meets the Corona Virus

Bugger.

Everyone’s favourite Flu Pandemic has now arrived in my home town.

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Worse, it’s a father and son… and the son is a High School Student. A school is basically tailor-made for the spread of infectious disease, so under a worst case scenario Dunedin could wind up in lock-down. Let’s not count plague victims before they hatch, but it is not a happy development.

Also, the supermarket shortages have started to manifest. We’re not on the scale of overseas, but as of tonight things are noticeably… different. For a start, there is no bread:

Bread on shelves

(Bread’s imported anyway, so it’s not that surprising. I’m rather happy I got my hands on a loaf yesterday).

There’s also not much in the way of pasta, rice, frozen vegetables, pies, or tinned soup. Or bananas, for some reason, even though other fruit remains untouched.

However, in continued news, we certainly aren’t running out of toilet paper:

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Which continues to make us more sensible than Australians, I suppose…

Stall Duty: Edge of the World 2020

This weekend saw Dunedin’s annual Edge of the World convention. Why, yes. We’re damned lucky that the thing was scheduled this weekend, rather than a month or two from now. Clearly, the Ides of March are a lucky time in these parts…

Anyway, I spent the two days behind the Dunedin Speculative Fiction stall, with Deb E. Howell.

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We also did a short Q&A at 3 p.m. on the Sunday.

Review: Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (1992)

Years ago, I actually had another blog. I started it in January 2008, and posted daily in a short burst of activity, but ultimately the blog failed to retain my ongoing attention. I had yet to discover that blogging is harder than it looks.

After a short and uninteresting revival in November 2010, the blog vanished into the ether with a total of just nineteen posts to its name. I don’t miss it, and I don’t think anyone else would either. It’s one of those short-lived, eminently forgettable, and alas all-too common creatures of the internet: a Dead Blog that no-one ever read, as written by someone who had neither plan nor clue. At most, it was a learning experience.

Why am I mentioning it at all?

Well, hidden among the triteness was a single book review. That book review is the only remotely salvageable item among those nineteen posts, and in light of real-world events in March 2020, I think it has become quaintly topical, for reasons that shall soon become apparent.

It’s a review of Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (1992).

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For old time’s sake, here’s a re-post of that review, as originally written on 18th January, 2008. I’ve done some editing, for clarity, but otherwise, it is the voice of a younger version of me. One who actually found the calamity of plagues genuinely fascinating.

SPOILERS

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… I’m also intending to post some reviews of the books I’ve been reading over time (I do, after all, like reading). First up is the book I’ve most recently finished: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a book that in the early 1990s won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for science-fiction.

The first thing to note about Doomsday Book is that it is more of a hybrid between historical fiction and science-fiction than traditional science-fiction: the story centres around Kivrin, a mid-21st-century university student who travels back in time to study 14th century England first-hand. Unfortunately for Kivrin, a technological fault means that she finds herself in the midst of the 1348 Black Death, instead of 1320 as she had expected, with the result that her trip takes a much darker turn.

(The technology that is actually used to get her there and back again largely exists as a literary device. There is very little technological focus in the book – in fact, the portrayal of a very ‘low-tech’ 2054 kind of grates with the existence of time travel – but this doesn’t matter much in the overall scheme of things. The interest primarily lies in the ordinary people Kivrin encounters in her time in the Middle Ages).

These ordinary medieval people are where the strength of the novel lies. They have a worldview utterly different from our own (or from Kivrin’s 2054), yet at the same time they are portrayed as in a way that makes them deeply sympathetic and very human. C.S. Lewis once noted the tendency of people to engage in what he termed chronological snobbery – the belief that people in the past were somehow stupider than people in our own time.

Willis avoids this: the medieval villagers in her story are not stupid, but are rather creatures of the harsh and uncompromising world in which they live. Their superstitions are an attempt to make sense of a universe that they have no hope of understanding. This point is driven home by the fact that 21st century Kivrin, despite all her historical knowledge, finds herself every bit as helpless as anyone else in the absence of advanced medical technology. And, needless to say, the sympathetic nature of these people means that their plague-related sufferings make for some fairly moving reading towards the end.

What of the novel’s weaknesses? Well, chief among these is the parallel story of what is going on in 2054, the year Kivrin has just left behind. This serves to distract the reader from the far more interesting 14th century storyline, and results in the book ballooning out to around 700 pages: definitely over-long. In this 2054 storyline, Willis tries to present the reader with a 21st century outbreak of disease, which not only ties-in with the 14th century epidemic but which also complicates attempts to get Kivrin back home. Unfortunately, this ‘second epidemic’ tends to lack any real tension: once it becomes clear that quarantine and modern treatments are capable of dealing with the disease, the sense of fear is gone. Moreover, the characters who populate the 2054 storyline are far less interesting and sympathetic than those in the 1348 one; it becomes difficult to care about the fate of what pretty much amounts to a collection of caricatures.

Overall, this is a book that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. The plot is fairly predictable in the sense that once it becomes clear that Kivrin has ended up “28 years too late” we largely know what is going to happen. The technology exists to serve the plot, and for much of the framing story we are made to read about some rather dull characters. But this is largely redeemed through the deep feeling of loss the reader inevitably feels. The victims of the great plague of 1348-1349 acquire a face, as it were, rather than being simple statistics.

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Looking back at this review twelve years later, I can’t help but notice that the handwavy nature of the technology is treated as some sort of flaw. 2020-me would ask 2008-me ‘so what’? The story isn’t about the technology. Maybe I’d been binging Hard Science-fiction?

Anyway, this Review is probably not something I would have written today. I’m a different person now, in terms of both reading and writing, and the past (whether 2008 or 1348) is another country.

But, yes, I am sure you can see the current relevance of the subject matter. 🙂