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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Forty-One, in which is presented the fifth Review of the Slaves of Golconda

In an introduction to one of our many volumes of H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov finds the earliest examples of science fiction in Johann Kepler, Cyrano de Bergerac, Mary Godwin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne, who popularized the genre. The biggest difference for Wells seems that he wrote at a time when the studies of science and technology were increasing, expanding, and gaining more interest and acceptance than in the past. He took many subjects that were hot topics in England and explored them, turning what was then known as scientific romances into what has become the science fiction of today. Though Verne was harshly critical of Wells' work, Wells was the more imaginative, and has proven to be the more prophetic, writer.

For extra credit, in addition to the selected title, we also read The War of the Worlds (the translucent review concerning which has previously been posted) and The Time Machine. This second novel began its existence as early as 1888, and reportedly evolved from three distinct ideas into the final form, in 1895, we know today. The distinctive elements we recognise right away are the theory of time travel, the experiences of a Time Traveler, and a future vision.

Wells begins by laying out the theory of travel through time plainly and believably by comparison to travel through space. The experiences of the Time Traveler follow, recounted to a group of friends, though as an uninterrupted narrative for the reader. The vision comes at the end, when the Time Traveler goes back to the future, and beyond, millions of years hence. Instead of the great technology-driven worlds of microchips and interstellar life, Wells discloses a shrouded desolate landscape inhabited by monstrous crustaceans that, we are led to believe, has come about by some withering of man, first into placid leisure, and then into extinction. Having progressed to conquer all challenges and losing the ability to adapt, mankind doomed itself to atrophy.

In The Island of Dr. Moreau, first published in 1896, when Wells was thirty years old, we find the contemporaneous controversy of vivisection mixed with the future controversy of gene splicing; questions in morality of experimentation on animals; the hazards of sea travel; the evils of empire; evolution and creationism; and we also find the more broader issues of religion and existence. There also is the theme of transformation similar to another of his novels, The Invisible Man. The common thread in all Wells' writing seems to be a sort of debunked utopian outlook. Is the striving to reach beyond ourselves worth the trouble?
Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau's cruelty. ... Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau--and for what?
Prendick, the man whose discovered narrative makes up the tale, is considering the creatures that have been born of Moreau's experimentation; yet he may also be addressing Moreau's condition: as a man, Moreau was perfectly adapted to his station in life, but in trying to understand something he could not--creation--he now faced constant fear, of his own handiwork.

The novel has much of the flavor of a writer at odds with religion. Dr. Moreau is referred to by his creatures as Him. We also watched the film version of the novel, starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, in which the point is taken even further, as the creatures call Moreau Father. Prendick even thinks Moreau has hypnotised the creatures into believing he is their god. For humans today who do not understand, are they not the beasts to God's Moreau? Is God nothing but a mad scientist? The screenplay makes a few adaptations to the novel, most notably the addition of a love interest for Prendick (who is also renamed), a young woman he tries to save from reverting to beasthood, a subplot which adds nothing of substance to Wells' story. In the film, Moreau uses electical implants to control his creatures, while in the book they are heeled only by the whip and the Law--a set of rules unnatural to their beastly instincts, as precarious is the Bible and other religious tracts in restraining
men from their most natural instincts of survival: fear, flight, and fight.

At the end of the novel appears a lifeboat of the ship from which Prendick had been cast off. Inside he finds dead the captain and another man from the ship. The irony is, if Prendick had not been cast off the ship and suffered the horrors of Moreau's island, he would have died. Perhaps there is a message there, that only by facing up to the darkness of men can we hope to survive. Though Prendick has seen the worst, he also nows sees hope. Wells realised much that was horrible in human nature, yet the world's worst conflicts were still far in the future. In this and other stories, he reveals the darker shades of humanity, with hope just a glimmer of possibility. That hope is fragile, as if he wishes a better fate, but has little faith in civilization. The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine are works of doomsday fiction.

Though not transcendent works, these novels are interesting and thought-provoking, and in many ways remarkable when considering the time during which they were written. For a reader of broad interests ploughing through two thousand pages of A la recherche du temps perdu, some other of Wells' novels, like The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon, and The Food of the Gods might be quick intermissions between Swann in Love and Within a Budding Grove. We will keep those books at hand confident of a good story for when the need arises.

This along with the other Slave reviews can be found at The Slaves of Golconda. Go there to read or join in the mining.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Forty, in which two Books are finished

Joy and rapture!

Your Bibliothecary has finished the reading of Swann's Way and The Island of Doctor Moreau. There was no deadline for the first--or the informal one was long past--and the second is due next week, so we have time to gather our thoughts and draft something at least publishable, if not insightful. We have been lax in our fleshing out of The Slaves of Golconda blog, but Stefanie, having selected our current title, has proceeded to gather some information and links which may interest.

Having finished Swann's Way and begun Within a Budding Grove, some further thoughts on Proust are in order. In case you have not read this far yet, I will say only that I was surprised how things turned out for M. Swann.

Read the rest of this mind-boggling chapter at Involuntary Memory.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Nine, in which Proust is read with Binoculars

Roger Shattuck, in his book Proust's Binoculars: A Study of Memory, Time, and Recognition in "A la recherche du temps perdu", posits that this novel is a book of disenchantments.

The privileged moments experienced by the narrator define his "profoundest sense of reality--a fleeting recreation of the past in the present, conferring a rare and pleasurable sensation of timelessness."

The narrator speaks of looking at his experiences at the Guermantes' dinner party through an "interior stereoscope." He speaks of seeing things double in time as one might see something double in space. This is the basis for Shattuck's theory, that Proust's idea of memory is a "stereoscopic or stereologic consciousness which sees the world simultaneously (and thus out if time) in relief." He makes the meaning of this idea clear, and reveals the form and reason of the novel's structure of interval and forgetting: "Merely to remember something is meaningless unless the remembered image is combined with a moment in the present affording a view of the same object or objects. Like our eyes, our memories must see double;..." The novel is structured, and the narrator's experiences revealed, in the binocular nature of human vision: "the disagreement between the two different versions of space which reach our consciousness from two separated eyes." It is the combination of slightly dissimilar images in memory that provides the most accurate perceptions.

Part of the feeling of intimacy so many have noted may be a result of what Shattuck calls "a series of inconglomerate thought processes" by which we identify and follow the narrator. It is an unusual mixture of personal memories described with the thoughts as they happened, and past events reconstructed with thoughts in hindsight.

Proust's first uncompleted novel, Jean Santeuil, was discovered about twenty years after his death. Justin O'Brien found in it the germ of In Search of Lost Time, although Proust "has not yet learned to orchestrate his themes. The greatest value of this volume ... is to make the world appreciate at last the ingenious composition of his more familiar definitive work--the very quality upon which, as it was least apparent at first, he himself most insisted." In a letter to Paul Souday, Proust wrote, "My composition is veiled and its outline only gradually perceptible because it unfolds on so vast a scale."

Shattuck believes that forgetting in the novel is just as important as remembering, that having forgotten provides the temporal distance between memories that gives relief similar to that rendered by the spacial distance between our eyes. As a working formula for the novel, we can see the reason behind its length, and are provided with a clue in the brilliant final paragraph of the overture, which closes the opening so satisfactorily that it could stand alone, while at the same time acts as the most beautiful opening sequence to the grand drama which follows, most specifically:
I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy....

Read the rest of the sweet and saucy chapter at Involuntary Memory.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Eight, in which Booksellers are squeezed

eBay was one of the pioneers in establishing the internet as a healthy marketplace for goods. They began with auctions of a fixed duration. When success brought clout, they expanded to include store listings of infinite duration. Now they have changed their fee policies, which might seem only to affect sellers. However, how can this not affect buyers?

If you haven't heard about this, it may be because eBay did not release this change as a press release. Instead, sellers received this notice directly. You can read the entire announcement here. We are also happy to bring you some highlights, as follows:

The announcement opens stating
in the interest of the eBay marketplace's long-term vitality - we've had to step in and implement new policies, introduce new formats, or make changes to our fee structure to create needed incentives for eBay members
As we read further, we begin to suspect certain key phrases were deleted from this opening: that the major concern is not the vitality of the marketplace, but the vitality of the company; and that the incentives are for eBay members to refrain from dilution of the company stock price.

What does an eBay shopper expect from the website? A vital marketplace, probably. We once went there to find auctions on things not available elsewhere; now we believe many people go there expecting to find everything and anything for sale. The announcement claims
we're improving the advantages of selling in core listing formats -- and taking action to manage the proportion of Store Inventory listings - to ensure that the buying experience on eBay stays true to shoppers' expectations.
The changes obviously encourage auction-style listings over store inventory listings. Unfortunately, auction-style listings, unless there is some prior advertisement, are generally not advantageous to the book seller. It is rare that those who are interested in a certain title, or any merchandise, will all visit eBay within the same seven-day period to bid. Does eBay have some sort of email alert system, so if we are looking for a DeVity painting, we will receive an email to tell us when one goes up for auction? We don't know, but that would certainly drive more people to bid. A permanent store listing reaches many more buyers. Is a preponderance of auction-style listings really true to shoppers' expectations these days? We thought eBay had grown itself to be more than that, beyond a mere auction site.
And for sellers, these changes will ensure that eBay remains a differentiated and distinct e-commerce channel with fast inventory turnover.
Sounding as if they intend to focus primarily on auctions, and giving up the complete marketplace concept to Amazon or other would-be players. Amazon is no longer just books. Amazon has stores with listings from individual sellers. If one wants to bid, go to eBay; but why go to eBay to shop when Amazon will have the most to offer? Also, as most booksellers know, books typically do not have a fast turnover. It is not uncommon for books to sit on shelves for years before being found by the right book-fancier.

What, then, is the cost to the book seller on eBay?
A typical eBay Stores seller who uses Store Inventory format - making no adjustments to his or her selling strategy following these changes - will experience an overall fee increase of less than six percent.
They must be using that new math we've heard so much about to calculate these figures. When we look at our inventory and sales, the overall fee increases come to about 215%. This typical seller will continue to use the same selling strategy following these changes, until it can be shown that selling there costs us more than we earn. eBay still remains another selling venue that some people prefer over the rest, and we sell books there that have not sold for years at other sites. However, from feedback we have heard, many sellers will be pulling some of their inventory away from eBay. For us, the decreased competition may be a good thing. For buyers, the decreased offerings will likely be a bad thing--and this may drive buyers away from eBay, ultimately making the decreased competition a bad thing for us.

Maybe we are misunderstanding the changes, simply fearful of something new or unhappy at the prospect of a diminished profit margin. We want to see this impartially, objectively. What do you, the shopper, expect from eBay? As they say in the opening of the announcement, the marketplace will decide the outcome.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Seven, in which Words are lost in Cyberspace

Well, your Bibliothecary apparently didn't make the cut this month. We submitted some drivel to Estella's Revenge, and though the thoughts were there, the time wasn't spent to turn them into anything of worth. Don't let that stop you from going to read anyway.

In the digital age, words don't end up in a pile on the floor next to the editor's desk. One keystroke, and they are gone. But where do they go? There is much talk about books that never were written, books that should have been written, books that were nearly not written. But what about books, or more basically, words that were written and no longer exist? Is there a place where rejected or banished books go to live, a literary Island of Misfit Toys?

As we noted, there were some interesting thoughts behind the effortless production of our drivel, and so we thought to post some of them here, to at least get a little mileage out of our fingers' work. Unfortunately, there is no copy of an outgoing submission, and there is no draft or final product saved anywhere on the massive mainframe at our International Headquarters. Without questioning our editor's judgement, questions arise. Did we even write it? Who cared less for what we wrote, we who did not save it, or my good editor who rejected it? Is there some sort of digital limbo for words that were once written and then deleted? Can words become ghosts and return to haunt us? Some posit that when a living being dies, its energy is returned to the great energy supply of the universe to eventually be put to use somewhere else. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie imagines a pool of words from which all stories are drawn and to which they can also return.

We have written things and then lost them, because of some glich, or perhaps human error. Rewrites never produce the same feeling of accomplishment--we always agonise that something is missing, and we just can't retrieve it. For one fleeting moment the thought or idea flourished, and then was extinguished. If such a loss is tragic, why does the idea of a manuscript, or any work of art, being consigned to flames seem romantic? Novels like The Shadow of the Wind and Farenheit 451 deal with similar questions.

Today we sit down and blog our thoughts and they are quickly disseminated, probably cached by Google forever, and, comments or not, undoubtedly read by at least one other soul. Try to imagine an ancient time when computers and the internet did not exist, and the countless words people commited to paper, in letters and journals, which were hidden in a drawer and then consigned to a landfill when those people died, forever unread.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Estella's Revenge

"Memory"....Issue #5

Go there to read my small contribution this month.