Sir Francis Bacon

Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.

--Of Studies--

The Valkyrie Tragedies

~ 800 words

indigent - adj - lacking the neccessities of life because of poverty; needy; poor; impoverished

interlocutor - noun - a person who takes part in conversation or dialog

duplicity - noun - decietfulness in speech or conduct; double dealing.

So I finished the Poetic Edda over the weekend. I must say, it is an excellent book in all respects. I'm on to Pride and Prejudice now. Never thought I'd see the day when Austen made it to the top of my list, but a friend of mine was rather insistent. I'd like to take a few moments and mention a couple of the really interesting characters that dwell in the Poetic Edda.

The heroic tragedies are divided into two discrete units. First you have Helgi Hundingsbani, who is likely the older archetype on which other variants were based. The second is the Volsung saga, which follows several characters, all related to each other somehow.

Helgi Hundingsbani is a hero, whose auspicious birth was overseen by the Norns (female spirits connected with fate) and who was ready for battle at the age of one day (similar to the god Hod, born to avenge the death of his brother Baldr). It depends on which version you adhere to, as a couple versions of each story are contained in the book, but Helgi falls in love with a valkyrie named Sigrun. Valkyries are interesting, and there is a great deal of modern adaptation of the term to things that have little to do with the actual function of a valkyrie. Valkyries were semi-divine women who determine who falls in battle and serve mead in Valhall, Odin's hall where the spirits of great warriors gather for the final fight of Ragnarok. These are often human women who forgo mundane life for the life of a valkyrie. Helgi falls for Sigrun, but he must first thwart her suitors. Being hand forged from pure awesome, he wins handily, but is subsequently surprise-attacked by Sigrun's brother to avenge their father whom Helgi apparently killed at some point.

More interesting to me are the Volsungs. These more or less start with Sigurd, purportedly the most heroic hero ever to rescue damsels. He is the only hero in the entire book to slay a dragon. The dragon's name is Fafnir, he slays him to reclaim the rightful inheritance of the dragon's brother (who is a dwarf by the way). He finds the dragon's drinking pond, digs a hole over the dragon's tracks, and scores a direct hit when the dragon comes to have a drink.

The sword he uses, which the dwarf brother forged for him, is so sharp, if you dip the tip into a stream and allow unspun wool to float across it, it will part the wool as if it were water.

At any rate, he subsequently saves the valkyrie Brynhild from Odin's wrath (she allowed the incorrect combatant to win in battle), and promises himself to her (for keeps). He subsequently (and conveniently) drinks the ale of forgetfulness, forgetting that he promised to marry Brinhild, and marries another swingin' gal (and valkyrie) Gudrun. Brynhild persuades Gudrun's siblings to kill Sigurd, which they do, and Gudrun is out a husband. She is then fed the ale of forgetfulness and married to Brynhild's brother, none other than Attila the Hun. Brynhild sort of says "Oh, he's dead now isn't he..." and kills herself and a dozen servants.

Attila is beset by Gudrun's brothers, whom he summoned to his court. He intends to steal Fafnir's treasure, which passed to Gudrun's brothers after the death of Sigurd. He murders them mercilessly, cutting the heart out of one and throwing the other in a snake pit. Gudrun is at this point rather peeved with Attila, so she murders their children and feeds them to Attila and his men. She then kills him and burns down his hall and everyone in it.

Gudrun then throws herself into the sea, trying to drown herself, but ends up with still another king. She has two sons who own magic armour, and who set out across the land to avenge the death Svanhild, Gudrun's daughter by Sigurd. They go, knowing it's their doom. They meet their half brother on the road, who is full of wisdom, but also rather annoying. They kill him a few stanzas after meeting him and proceed to the enemy's hall. Though hopelessly outnumbered, their magic armour serves them well. They cut off the king's arms and legs, but the king tells his warriors to use stones to kill the two of them. Apparently the magic only deflected iron, so they say to themselves, "Oops, I guess we shouldn't have killed whats-his-face thirty stanzas ago.

You heard it here first. A brief summary of Old Norse tragedy complete with dragon fighting and child cannibalism.

Reflections on Crime and Punishment

~ 1300 words !!!Major Spoilers!!!

bravura - n - a display of daring, a brilliant performance

sacrosanct - adj - sacred or inviolable

conspectus - n - a general or comprehensive view, survey

I finished Crime and Punishment this week, and I have to say it is definitely one of (if not the) best book(s) I have read.

In the first place the ending was fantastic. This man, crippled by ambition, intelligence and circumstance, finds redemption. If you've read the book this comes as no surprise, and you might even have thought it a bit corny. Love saves him in the end. Well, I'd just like to point out that love is not what saves him. At the end of the book (after going to prison), Raskolnikov falls ill, a sort of lack of will or purpose in life. Psychosomatic illness occurs frequently throughout the book. He misses his visit from Sonya (who followed him all the way to Siberia) because she is ill (notable because it is one of only two occurrences of illness caused externally in the book. The other is Katerina Ivanova's tuberculosis). She has a cold. At this point he realizes how much he relies on her for emotional support, he had been snubbing her up to that point, more or less. Of course, realizing his love for her is only the first step. On her next visit, when none of the guards are looking, he throws himself on her feet. In the end, he overcomes his pride, which up to that point had prevented him from making public (or any) displays of emotion. I thought that was a very good ending. Raskolnikov learns that just because you have an idea, that doesn't make it a good idea, even if you can rationalize it. It takes him the murder of two innocents, incarceration in Siberia, and him causing the death of his mother for him to realize this. Lots of people, young people in particular, could benefit from this wisdom I think.

I would also like to share with you a paragraph that appeared near the end. It really stuck in my mind for some reason.

He lay in the hospital all through the end of Lent and Holy Week. As he began to recover, he remembered his dreams from when he was still lying in feverish delirium. In his illness, he had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish except for a certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men's bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgements, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, and could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate. People killed each other in some sort of meaningless spite. They gathered into whole armies against each other but, already on the march, the armies would suddenly begin destroying themselves, the ranks would break up, the soldiers would fall upon one another, stabbing and cutting, biting and eating one another. In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious. The most ordinary trades ceased, because everyone offered his own ideas, his own corrections, and no one could agree. Agriculture ceased. Here and there people would band together, agree among themselves to do something, swear never to part--but immediately begin something completely different from what they themselves had just suggested, begin accusing one another, fighting, stabbing. Fires broke out; famine broke out. Everyone and everything was perishing. The pestilence grew and spread further and further. Only a few people in the whole world could be saved; they were the pure and chosen, destined to begin a new generation of people and new life, to renew and purify the earth; but no one had seen these people anywhere, no one had heard their words or voices.

The first time I read this I thought, this is Dostoevsky's vision of a world consumed by the philosophical forces he sought to counter. As I read this again, however, I'm not so sure. Certain elements certainly have an anti-rational lean (such as the epidemic having the ability to reason), but in general it's almost like the tower of babel all over again. For those in my listening audience unfamiliar with the story of the tower of babel, it occurs in the Bible after Noah's flood. Essentially, a bunch of people band together after Noah's flood to design and build a gigantic tower that would protect them from another great flood. In punishment for their insolence, God makes it so that no person can be understood by any other. To a person "love" may mean "hate", and "war" may mean "peace". Stymied by their inability to communicate with each other, they all sort of meander off and went back where they came from, and that explains why all sorts of different languages exist in the world.

Among Biblical stories, this one (in my humble estimation) is extremely influential. Off the top of my head, "babble", our word for incoherent nonsense, bears striking resemblance to "Babel". The organism that slips into your ear and translates for you in the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the Babel Fish. In Final Fantasy II, one of the core environments is the tower of Babel, which supposedly reaches all the way to the moon. It's an interesting game, what with the whole walking on the moon thing, but final fantasy almost doesn't count in this regard. It seems to me as if the people who make those games actively pursue world mythology to integrate into their content, no matter how obscure the source. Granted the old testament isn't exactly obscure, but I've seen references to Homer's Odyssey (in the form of Scylla).

Here is a picture:

Not exactly congruous with the description in the Odyssey (something about seven heads), but undeniably final fantasy material.

Oh, and while I have you here, I'd just like to mention that my good friend Jeff Chapman (his blog) has a short story in an anthology up for preorder! The anthology is The Midnight Diner Volume 3 and the story is "The Princess and the Vampire", which I believe I mentioned actually. Jeff has a sample of his story up on his blog, so check it out if you have a taste for astounding tales!

Also, he has had another short story accepted, "The Master and the Miller's Daughter". I haven't read it myself, yet, but Jeff given the quality of Jeff's fiction (and the fact that it was accepted after all), I have reason to believe that it is very good. Check it out if you get the chance!

The image today came from a pop art blog if you can believe it. It's unfortunately been derelict for more than a year, but still has an interesting archive of pop art. I don't know if it's really art, I'm not exactly an expert, but here's the link anyways.

Necrology 2

~ 700 words

New Interesting Words!

salutary - adj - favourable to or promoting health.

solecism - n - a breach, error, impropriety or inconsistency, esp. in grammar or etiquette.

inimical - adj - unfriendly, hostile, adverse in tendency, harmful.

This post, as one might gather from its title, is the second in my Necrology series, based on a series of essays contained in "Death and Dying: Challenge and Change", edited by R. Fulton, E. Markusen, G. Owen, and J. L. Scheiber. Today's blog post is based on the essay "Life and Death in the USA" by Melvin Maddocks.

Let me preface by saying that I am not American in the traditional sense. That is to say, I'm Canadian. Thus, some of the more regional themes were not readily apparent to me as I read this essay, but thankfully the majority of the article is not of regional interest.

Maddocks' purpose for this article is mainly taxonomic, as he is almost exclusively interested in segregating people into groups based on their views and beliefs about death. While such systems beg for exceptions, it is interesting to note the author's perception of general trends in society. This article was originally published in 1974, so one might argue that the 70s were an entirely different time and place. I would stipulate that the 70s were the last social revolution I'm personally privy to, and much of what was decided forty years ago is still relevant in today's society (not only because people who lived through the seventies now run things. Scary thought?). We still make references to hippies, though they have long been extinct, or at least, the only surviving specimens are kept in captivity.

He groups people into three categories.

1) The Pragmatist.
These are people who act to thwart death wherever it occurs. Immortality is possible if you try hard enough, or at least, death can be managed out of existence. Hence you get a plethora of how-to books, guides, handbooks, pamphlets etc. all espousing their particular theory on death and the grieving process (which you pay for of course, they are pragmatists after all). Maddocks calls this politicizing. Here's one of those how-to books for free.

manuscript: How to Die for the Incurable Imbecile

-Step 1-

Stop breathing.

end manuscript

2) The Optimist
These are interesting folk who hold that death "could be the best thing that ever happened to you". Death is not a disease, it is the natural course of life. You are going to die anyway, you might as well embrace it. Life's end can be a beautiful experience, as beautiful as life's beginning. These are the sorts of people who tend to pull the plug on people on respirators. Why would you suffer, they might say, when you could simply die and end your sufferings. It is from this mode of thought that power of attorney came into being. You should make your wishes known. You should have the right to choose the manner of your death.

3) The Existentialist
This group, comprised primarily of young 'uns (according to Maddocks) are melancholics. Suffering is to be honoured, case by case, and death gives meaning to life. Death, therefore, is authentic, and kids these days crave validation. Hence, Maddocks neatly explains his theory of teen suicide. I think kids still crave validation, correct me if I'm wrong. I die, therefore I am. To these sorts of people, if they are authentically depressive by nature and not simply lured in by the lethargy of melancholy, the possibility of living forever would be philosophically castrating.

The extrapolation of this, as seen by Maddocks, is that you get one of two futures. You either get a society advanced enough (remember, this was in the seventies, when resources were limitless and science would advance indefinitely) to create the "Anti-Death Machine", or you get a society sensitive enough to extract death's sting, the "Age of Compassion".

Anti-Death Machine? Unlikely. We are no closer to immortality now than we were forty years ago when the article was written. It all seems a bit like science fiction to me.

Age of Compassion? More likely. At the very least there's much less overhead. It could arise as a natural consequence of religious (specifically Christian) beliefs. Compassion is undeniably espoused in the Bible, and Maddocks says that "imitation of Christ [is a habit] that post-Christians have inherited in spite of themselves."

I would like to close with a little verse that closed Maddocks' article.

Xerxes the great did die,
And so must you and I.

Youth forward slips,
Death soonest nips.

Raskolnikov's Napoleon Complex

~ 800 words -- !Minor Spoilers!

New Interesting Words!

philander -v- to make love without serious intention, to carry on flirtations.

reticent - adj - disposed to be silent, reserved.

samovar - noun - A metal urn, used for heating tea in Russia.

10th post! Someone bake a cake!

This illustration, which I found on, is a rather artistic depiction of the crime in Crime and Punishment. For those of you who have not read the book (or have not read it in some time), Raskolnikov's first victim, that little old lady, was in fact brained by the blunt end of the handle, not the blade itself. So no, he is not holding the axe the wrong way in this illustration.

I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss some of the philosophical underpinnings of Crime and Punishment, while at the same time presenting some context to these ideas, as I'm sure was Dostoevski's intent when he wrote the novel.

Raskolnikov (our central character) is the quintessential melancholic. That is, melancholy as defined by humourism, an ancient mode of medicine that (on the grand scale of things) has only recently fallen into disrepute. Humourism divides a person's physical and mental health (concepts more closely correlated a hundred and fifty years ago) into four humours: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. The theory is very old (think ancient Greece), but later evidence arose to support it. Apparently, if you let blood sit for a while, it separates itself into four distinct layers, which resemble the four humours. Each humour is associated with specific personality traits, and many diseases were at one point diagnosed and treated as imbalances in the humours. Hence, you get practices like bloodletting. I digress. A person with too much black bile, under humourism, is irritable, depressive, independent, and takes his philosophy personally. This describes Raskolnikov's personality quite thoroughly. He often has half-mad depressions which cause him to lay on his couch fretting. He is frequently rude to nearly every important character. His most ardent desire is just to be left alone.

And he takes philosophy very seriously. In order to really understand any book written in the 19th century, you have to know who the author was arguing against. While I'm not educated enough to know who specifically he was fighting (though I'm sure the translators of my edition are), I'm familiar with the concept he makes his case against. The name of the game is rationalism, and if you don't believe me, check some of the quotes I've posted on my "Interesting Quotations" page penned by our friend Fyodor.

The murder, as an act, is perfectly rational and completely justified by some of the larger principles that were (and still are) natural consequences of rationalism. Alyona Ivanovna, the unfortunate axe-ee, is an old crone, a moneylender and pawnbroker, who jealously hordes several thousand roubles (currency, ten roubles will by you a thrifty but serviceable wardrobe including boots, one hundred kopecks to the rouble). Raskolnikov is troubled by the human suffering that he encounters in his daily life. At one point he comes into thirty five roubles (an advance on his mother's pension) and twenty five of it goes to the widow of a man run over in the streets by a carriage.

So he asks himself this question. If several thousand roubles could do so much good in the world, why is it allowed to stagnate in some old crone's stash where it does no good to anyone? If these funds were distributed among the poor, and their lives improved, would that not be worth the life of some bitter old hag? Can we equate the life of a human being, even one so stale and abusive of the poor, with the well being of dozens of families?

Combine this with Raskolnikov's Napoleon complex and you have murder and robbery. Silly guy doesn't even rob her properly though, stealing only pawned trinkets that he subsequently hides under a rock.

Raskolnikov writes an article, before the book's timeline begins, theorizing that the world is divided into two groups of people. First, you have ordinary people, for whom crime can not be justified. Second, you have extraordinary people, for whom crime can be justified. If one of these extraordinary people, by the performance of a crime, can remove a barrier to the betterment of mankind, then he has the right to do so. That is, not a legal right, but the right to a clean conscience. If by killing ten people an extraordinary person could improve the lives of one hundred thousand, Raskolnikov believes this would be justified.

Raskolnikov views himself as one of these extraordinary people, commits murder for the benefit of mankind, and spends 5/6s of the book being punished (and punishing himself) for it. Dostoevski is illustrating that there are more considerations than simply the faculty of reason, and that there are forces internal to the human mind that can rip a person apart if offended.

I haven't quite finished the book, so you can expect one more post from me on the subject.

Image credit to ~PoohateQ of, who posted this rather dramatic scene. It is apparently an image from the movie "Crime and Punishment" by Peter Dumala.

SF&F -- Distinction Through Modes of Plausibility

~800 words

New Interesting Words!

mien - noun - air, bearing or aspect indicative of character.

bedizen - verb - to dress or adorn in a showy, gaudy or vulgar manner.

catechism - noun - A statement of beliefs or principals, or a particular book, a summary of Christian beliefs and values in the form of questions and answers.

Let me start by saying that I originally conceived this article as bridging the great gap between these genres, but that quickly stepped in far out of my depth (literary criticism is a really deep well). Instead of doing something crazy (and dare I say academic), I will talk about things I have read and things I would like to read.

I was researching this article (surprised?) looking up science fantasy authors I seemed to recall, when I happened upon a pair of articles on the Internet that lend some insight on this topic. The author was Ursula K. LeGuin, whom you might know from the Earthsea novels, or The Left Hand of Darkness, which won both Hugo and Nebula awards. She has written quite a lot of prize winning science fiction and fantasy since the mid sixties, and has a very good website.

I had been researching her because I remembered her name appearing on a list of science fantasy authors. A couple of sources cite her as being mildly unconcerned with genre boundaries, but neither did I find a billboard declaring this or that novel to be science fantasy.

I probably should mention, stories that deliberately contain science fiction and fantasy elements have their own sub-genre called science fantasy. My excellent friend Jeff Chapman recently wrote an article clarifying the somewhat misty boundaries between sci fi and fantasy, which inspired this article, and I am here to expand somewhat on his classification. I tend to think of science fantasy as having two approaches, over-explaining fantasy or under-explaining science fiction.

There is one book that I will tentatively place in this category. It is a book I have been meaning to read for some time now, and have read a fair bit about. The book is The Iron Dragon's Daughter, by Michael Swanwick, and it says right in the first line of the wikipedia article that it "combines fantasy and science fiction."

So there you go.

Michael Swanwick was an author I first read in Best SF 14, an anthology of science fiction short fiction (with occasional novellas). The story was called "The Scarecrow's Boy", and it was about a world in which robots have more common decency than humans do.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter focuses on the misadventures of Jane, a young female changeling who is a slave in a dragon factory. She meets an rusty old dragon and they escape, and I believe she goes to school afterwards. The book is more or less a criticism of the rash of recent fantasy authors who prey on the success of J.R.R. Tolkien. That is to say, he takes all the tropes and archetypes of the elf-man-dwarf-dragon stories and turns them on their head. I believe there's also some social satire mixed in there as well, but as I've said I haven't read it. Yet.

So yes, when we find a book (or set of books) that doesn't quite fit in our set of pigeon holes, we create a brand new hole for it. The interesting thing to me is whether science fantasy gets listed as a sub-genre of fantasy or science fiction. Wikipedia's index of genres has a special category for "cross-genre".

One other note: more than once, when reviewing story markets on Duotropes, I have noticed that publishers will say something to the effect of "Cross-genre is more than fine" or similar. I could be mistaken, but it looks to me as if publishers want that sort of thing.


In her articles on plausibility in Fantasy and Science Fiction, LeGuin draws a clear line between the two by demonstrating the different methods by which they become plausible to the reader.

Fantasy, according to LeGuin, is made plausible through detail. Vivid, realistic description, reference to events in the past or the future, and above all coherence and stability in whatever rules govern the world are the staples of a plausible fantasy novel. She also says that ulterior motives completely spoil the mood. If the writer is a victim of wishful thinking, political intent or didactic purpose, fantasy stories are hobbled by their intent. In order to be a free expression of imagination, it has to truly be free from these harmful psychological influences.

Of science fiction, she says that it is very similar to realism. Science fiction relies on "accurate, honest observation and intuition of reality". Science fiction often avoids comparison with the present time, because contradicting the reader's experience of modern life seriously compromises the plausibility of the story. The most important question, when testing the plausibility of a science fiction story, is whether this might have happened, might be happening, or might yet happen, so the science fiction story must subjugate reality, but also keep its distance from it.

They are very good articles, I would encourage all my readers to take a look at her website, as well as her books.

Image credit to ~Rawbot of, who likes to draw ROBOTS (and is also pretty good at it).

Odin's Quest

~800 words

New Interesting Words!

signet - noun - a small official seal, as on a ring, sometimes used to mark wax seals.

spermaceti - noun - a waxy solid drived from the cranial cavity of sperm whales. Used as an emolient in 19th century cosmetics.

didactic - adj - intended to instruct or tutor.

Just one small administrative note. Some of the more observant of my loyal listeners may have noticed that a quote from the poetic edda has adorned my header for some weeks now. Well, I've decided to change it, so I've filed the old one away in a brand new page you are welcome to visit whenever you like. Clicking "interesting quotes" at the top of the page will bring this up. Similar to the interesting words, these will occur on an "as they appear" basis, and if it hasn't changed in a couple of weeks I'll pull some wisdom from the poetic edda.

Speaking of me being back from vacation...

It wasn't bad. Not bad at all. I had a little more time to sit around and read than I thought I would (plus!) so I actually managed to digest a sizable chunk of the poetic edda (now @ 119/263). You know, that book I've been raving about for weeks now. I've moved from myths to legends (the hero stories) which mostly involve evil kings, righteous warriors and valkyrie brides.

The Poetic Edda (or the Elder Edda) is translated from a very ancient manuscript called the Codex Regius. The codex was written in 1270 by an unknown icelandic author on fifty three pages of vellum, and the majority of poems contained therein appear no where else in the world. The book was written, and subsequently disappeared into history, re-emerging nearly four hundred years later as a gift to the king of Denmark in 1643, having lost eight pages. It was preserved exceedingly well until the nineteen seventies, when it was transported back to iceland to take it's place in the Árni Magnússon Institute.

It is interesting to note that the Prose Edda (or Younger Edda), another mythological text written by Snorri Sturlston in the 1220s, is likely to have predated the Elder Edda's actual transcription by about fifty years. So despite one being called "Elder" and the other "Younger", they were actually transcribed in the reverse of that order.

So, Norse mythology. The poems themselves are surprisingly coherant, and having recently dealt with terrible translations, I attribute this to Carolyne Larrington, who translated my Oxford World Classics edition.

The first four poems are wisdom poems, essentially listing out large swathes of information. The Seeress's Prophecy, for example, is a timeline of the major events in the history of the world, from creation to post-Ragnarok. In Norse myth, the world was created from the body of Ymir, the primordial being, the first humans were created of driftwood, and the varying realms of the world are connected by a gigantic ash tree named Yggdrasil. Ragnarok is concerned mainly with the slaying of various gods by various beasts/demons. Surt, a flame monster of the underworld, ravages the realms with fire in the final days. Fenrir, an inteligent and deadly wolf, does battle with Odin and defeats him, though Odin's son Vidar avenges his father. Thor is fated to fight the Midgard Serpent (or Iormungand), and they will kill each other. Midgard being the realm of men, Iormungand was a serpent that completely encircled Midgard, swimming in endless circles around the surrounding oceans. Another important beast/demon is Nidhogg, one of only two dragons I've encountered thus far (the other is Fafnir, who is slain by the hero Sigurd I believe), whose primary function is to gnaw on the roots of Yggdrasil and to suck on the souls of the dead. He is the only beast in the Seeress's Prophesy that survives Ragnarok, and that depends somewhat on your interpretation.

Odin is the primary figure in all four of thesee wisdom poems. He is roughly equivalent to Zeus in his role as leader of the gods, though in this case he indeed fathered most of the gods (except the Vanir). He is a source of great wisdom, and he is characterized by his endless quest for knowledge, particularily concerning Ragnarok. In Vafthrudnir's Sayings, he challenges a giant (Vafthrudnir) to a contest of wisdom in the giant's own hall. He wins of course.

I should mention two things. First, the giants are the rival race of the gods, they are comparable in both strength and wisdom, and it is from the giants that the gods are descended. Second, there are two main families of gods. The Aesir live in Asgard and include Odin, Thor, their wives, children etc. The Vanir are the rival house, living elsewhere, and include Freyr and Freyia who appear to be male and female fertility deities. Prior to reading this book I was under the impression that there were three important gods: Odin, Thor and Frey. As it turns out, "Frey" is actually two separate deities of opposite gender.

It is an interesting read, definitely worth the time. I can already begin to see ways in which this stuff influenced Tolkien, but I'll save that for another post.

Image credit to Luis S. Ramos of, your Odin pleases me!


Good Morrow Blogosphere!

Just two quick notes.

First, my good friend Jeff Chapman has sold his short story "The Princess and the Vampire" to Coach's Midnight Diner, a print anthology. Having looked the story over prior to his submission, I was certain it would do well. It's an interesting perspective on the recent teenage vampire craze, a cautionary tale, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone considering a love affair with a demon or demoness. Jeff's blog, as well as the full account of his victory, may be found here.

Congratulations Jeff, keep up the excellent work!

Second, I'm afraid I'm going to be off-world next week for a little respite from the daily trials and tribulations of the modern aspiring author. I'll try to get another post written, maybe post-publish it in the middle of the week. At any rate, I'll be taking the Poetic Edda with me, so I should have plenty to talk about upon my return.

Callisto is simply marvelous this time of century, that was my choice, but everyone else wanted to stay by the sulphur beaches of Io, and in the end I acquiesced.

Second Foundation - Physics versus Psychics

~1100 words

New Interesting Words!

Licentious - adj - Unconcerned with law or moral standards, especially a lack of sexual restraint

Crinoline - noun - a type of petticoat resembling a hoop skirt (19th century fasion)

For the past few years I have made it my business to familiarize myself with the important authors of science fiction. I have read selections from the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Orson Scott Card, and I am currently puttering my way through Issac Asimov's Foundation series.

In case you are not familiar with Asimov, he wrote a number of influential works, including the foundation series (naturally), the "greater" foundation series, which includes the foundation, robot and galactic empire series, and some of his works were made into fairly famous movies. You might remember "I, Robot" starring Will Smith, and "Bicentennial Man" starring Robin Williams. He established his reputation in the pulp science fiction magazines writing short stories, and by the age of 21 he wrote 'Nightfall', a work of social science fiction that brought him to the forefront of science fiction.

Some weeks ago now I finished Second Foundation, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The thing that amused me was not so much his wry wit (which was also very funny) as his deft and shameless plot contortions.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the the series, the Foundation, after which the series of books is named, is a scientific society dedicated to the physical sciences, planted at the end of the galaxy. The Galactic Empire, which has held for thousands of years, is crumbling, and this one beacon of enlightenment will shorten the thirty thousand years of barbarism after the fall of the empire to a mere millennium. All of this is based in a predictive, statistical science called "psychohistory", which can predict social trends for large groups thousands of years into the future. Somewhere in the middle of the second book (Second Foundation is the third ironically enough), a mutant, unpredictable by statistical methods, conquers the Foundation. That being done, the only thing left to do is to chase the rumor of a second foundation, which was concealed upon its inception. It's almost an underworld of intergalactic politics, a concealed organization dedicated to the preservation of "mental science", which includes psychohistory.

They communicate with their minds, inferring entire sentences from small facial gestures. At least that's the first theory. Later on Asimov seems almost to change his mind, relying the a latent psychic ability of the human animal.

The first Foundation is dedicated to the physical sciences. Anti-gravity ships, hand held nuclear devices, ray guns, that sort of standard sci-fi fare. These are all natural extensions of the sorts of things we have today. In these instances I always find it more interesting what a sci-fi author doesn't predict, as opposed to what he does.

For example, the Foundation universe is analog. People still use paper, data is stored strictly in read/write devices, and people do their math by hand. This is the future before the pocket calculator. Somewhere near the end he goes on for a whole paragraph about this device he has that is so much better than it's primitive ancient-earth version. The device? the logarithmic slide rule.

Completely analog. Also fantastic. The slide rule (in the right hands) can calculate multiplication, division, trigonometric ratios, square roots, logarithms, and more, depending on the model. They used these all the time in the days before the scientific calculator. Reading about slide rules sixty gazillion years in the future made me giggle like a little girl.

The physicists are pitted against the psychics, who are guardians of the "Seldon Plan", a map through history of the Foundation's sociopolitical status. The idea is that today's encephalographic analysis plus the then burgeoning science of psychology yields scientific control over the mind. Once the first foundation re-establishes centralized galactic government, the second foundation will swoop in and become the ultra-intelligent ruling class that, by virtue of their powers over the minds of their proletariat, will rule indefinitely. Most of these mind games, interestingly enough, concern not blatant thought control, idea implanting or mind reading, but emotional control. That is, control over a subject's emotional state. Best way to stop rebellion? Give your troops an artificial loyalty to the cause. Best way to conceal your existence? Make everyone in the vicinity completely unconcerned with you.

Mind powers, unfortunately, have fallen into disfavour (even ill repute) in most science fiction these days. Having read this book, I can hypothesize a few theories which my commenters are more than welcome to prove false if they so desire. First, psychic powers are not scientific enough for science fiction. The whole "latent ability" argument doesn't really hold water because if it were true we would never have invented manual communication. Dolphins are a possibility though. Second, it is more difficult for a reader to sympathize with a character that is fundamentally distinct from normal human experience. You can't just say, "your brain is not capable of understanding this exchange", and expect the reader to say "wow! that's pretty awesome". They are more likely to say "wow! Now I don't know what to think." Third, the science of biochemistry and molecular biology has more or less demystified many of the gray areas authors of all sorts liked to play in. I would love to digress into how neurology has killed the ghost in the machine, but I'll save that for another post..

The Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Definitely worth the read.

PS: I noticed as I was writing this, the words "physics" and "Psychics" are almost anagrams of one another. All "physics" needs is another 'c'.


Sorry everyone, this isn't a real post. I need to publish a verification code for Technorati before I can be added to their indexes.

A shameless ploy to increase readership.

Here's the code:


I expect I'll have another post ready for my loyal blogonauts by monday or so.

Necrology 1

Just to let my loyal listeners know, I have set up a separate page on which I will post interesting vocabulary when I come across it. You may have noticed one such digression in my post "From Bleeding to Brooding." Well I have two more, and I am now keeping them in a neat and tidy, alphabetized list for quick and easy reference. Somewhere near the top of your page should be a little link that says "Interesting Words." It will actually likely be more interesting to people who don't read my posts on a regular basis, but having more content is a plus, even if it is recycled old content.

{insert joke about politicians / news media / re-run channels}

Might as well get the two I found out of the way then. I suppose I will try to begin each post with such an entry. We'll see how it goes. Depends on whether I find any.

moribund - adjective - 1. near death 2. In a state of stagnation or obsolescence

nescient ('nay-see-ent) - adjective - according to Webster's a bit of a catch-all, but primarily ignorant, uneducated, lacking knowledge or sophistication. Also, unenlightened, innocent, artless, gutless, and illiterate.

As in, my friend finds my opinion nescient.

I was having an interesting discussion today, stemming from a short story I've been working on. The story roughly concerns temporal mishaps, and without giving too much away, death is involved. He recommended a book called "Death and Dying - Challenge and Change", an anthology of essay excerpts, all about the various aspects of death as they relate to individuals and societies. Or at least, the individual and society thirty years ago when the book was written. It was a textbook for a course my friend had taken in University, and he was more than happy to lend it to me. It is organized into various sections (one or two of which I might skip), and the first concerns itself with the changing meanings of dying and death. The angle that interests me is how the changing meaning of death alters the underlying mythological framework of modern society.

The first article I read, "On the Dying of Death" by Robert Fulton, I will be blunt, was not Dostoevsky. His academic leanings were evident in his endless run-on sentences. Nevertheless he mades an interesting argument.

Fulton asserts that death is dead (or dying) due to the removal of death from daily life. He has some more provocative (and therefore more interesting) opinions toward the end of the article, but that is the main point. His attack is two pronged.

The industrialization of America (which effectively [and ostensibly] includes Canada, henceforward I will refer to them collectively as "the continent"), brought about a radical change to both the organizational structure and underlying philosophy of the continent. This included the centralization of medicine, whereby patients travel to doctors, doctors no longer travel to patients. Effectively, people die in hospitals far more frequently these days than they do at home. Back when the continent was predominantly rural, a person was allowed the dignity of cashing in their chips from the comfort of their own bed. In this case, the family would deal directly with the dying person as they were dying, and the family generally had to take care of the funeral service and burial themselves as well. These days, someone about to die is rushed to a hospital where select family members hold their hand in a foreign environment. Fulton suggests that this works against a natural and healthy grief cycle.

He also says that this continent has raised an entire generation (by now two) that is(are) emotionally stunted. Children are protected from death. They are often not allowed into the rooms of dying people, and are actively discouraged from attending funeral services (when indeed they occur at all). Children are denied the chance to engage in this ultimate expression of the natural course of life. This makes it very difficult for a person, later in life, to come to terms with their own mortality. Fulton says this is like sweeping the problem under the carpet. Programmers might call this the ostrich method. It is evident in the very language we use. We have one thousand and one euphamisms for death, and to discuss death is a social tabboo.

When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, or rather, when he constructed his absolutely stable society in which every adult was conditioned to achieve regulated emotional states, he recognized this need. I seem to remember a scene, the noble savage is in a hospital wing with his dying mother, and suddenly a whole class of four-year-olds are released into the room to be "death conditioned". Essentially, the children were exposed to death so they would come to terms with their own mortality, which destroys a great deal of angst and worry. I don't know if the reader has read Brave New World (I highly recommend it), but this utopia is all about not worrying about things. Just take a Soma holiday. These preschoolers are found repugnant by the noble savage, who represents the world as it was before the social apocalypse that produced the utopia. It is interesting, Huxley said we should abhor it, and Fulton says we should embrace it.

I just googled it, and apparently some drug company actually named a drug after Aldous Huxley's Soma. Incredible.

Being a person who occasionally reads obituaries, I have noticed a recent trend in ceremonial burial. A lack thereof. Increasingly people are rejecting funeral services, opting for direct burial or cremation without wakes or visitations, processes useful for the grieving family. Again, it is denial of death, an unwillingness to accept that grief has power over our lives. It is my opinion that insisting on a direct burial without thought for your family is narcissistic, but that is beside the point. Here is an experiment, ask your boss how many weeks you get off in the event of a death in your immediate family.

The net effect is that death, by and large, becomes meaningless for the average citizen of the continent. Look to the news. Death every day. Look to books and films. Violent, gory, tragic, sudden, comic, death. Real death is inaccessible and entertainment is filled with artificial death, I think to fill the void. It would be interesting to compare the number of deaths on television and in reality over a couple of months. The problem with this of course is that if death is meaningless, then so is life, and by extension the entire concept of immortality. Homer used to tell very long epics about immortal people. Today the only reason you would talk about an immortal is to prove their mortality.

Of course, I have been interested to note that Mario has gone from mortal to immortal. If you lose all your lives in Super Mario Brothers, you start again from the beginning. Ever since the "infinite continue", Mario has been effectively immortal. And don't even get me started on saving your game.

image by ~xiaobluexz of An excellent artist who posted an excellent study of human anatomy.

Cross Reference

I'm approximately halfway through book one of Crime and Punishment, which equates to about 1/12 of the book total (if you don't count the epilogue). I noticed some interesting things while reading, and I thought I'd share them with my loyal readers.

Before we start though, let me say that the story is engrossing. One does not usually think of 19th century translations thus, but this is evidently an exceptional case.

I must praise Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the translators for this modern edition of an old book. The prose flows easily from the page, and they include a large number of textual notes that elucidate the unschooled proletarians' understanding of the story. Whether they comment that Raskolnikov is wearing the same type of hat Dostoevski posessed, or that St. Petersburg experiences very little night in the summer due to its lattitude, they are all insightful and increase my understanding of the text.

Two such textual notes left me spinning a bit, as they consisted entirely of references to passages in the Bible. I find it interesting that in this day and age the translator would assume the reader have ready access to a Bible. These days one would just ask the Internet, but this 17 year old translation predates the widespread use thereof. At any rate, the house in which I live is the sort of place where one can find such books laying about on sideboards and writing desks, so I was in need of no such electronic assistance.

The references were twofold. In the story, an old drunk, Marmeladov, is soliloquizing his woes to the primary protagonist (also antagonist, depending on your perspective) Raskolnikov, including the fate of his daughter, forced to a life of prostitution to support her destitute family. He says that on judgement day his daughter will be selected among the chosen, forgiven for her sins because it was for love of her family that she sold herself to such an ungodly industry. The biblical reference, Luke 7:47, is as follows from the English Standard Edition:

"Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little."

It was as if he had to prove his argument, and did so by indirectly quoting scripture. Through the entire scene, what Marmeladov says to simultaneously assure and berate himself is more interesting than what he says to entreat Raskolnikov. In his self deprocating fashion, and in continuing with the judgement day theme, he says of himself and his kind (that is to say, drunks and oafs and layabouts) that they will stand before the lord like beasts and be marked and treated as such. The reference here is Revelations 13:15-16, which I will not quote here. Suffice to say it concerns the fate of man, decieved into worshipping the beast (read the devil). The passage itself was not what interested me. A few verses later, they mention the specific mark on the populace imposed by the beast, the number six hundred and sixty six.

I had always had a morbid curiosity concerning the origins of the mark of the beast, as it is still a very prevalent piece of modern mythology. I didn't exactly read the passage in context, but as with most things I imagine the symbology has been blown right out of proportion since it's original inception. It's all over the place really. In the first Harry Potter book, how old was the alchemist who synthesized the philosopher's (or sorceror's) stone when he died? 665. Try examining your local grafitti. My heart nearly stopped the other day when my lunch rang up six dollars and sixth six cents. I had thought the origins were most likely pagan, with a possibile nod to the apocrypha. Nope, turns out every bible I've ever held had the reference somewhere near the back.

Now, I call myself Christian, but I was unfamiliar with these two references. Both new testament, both cross referenced from my edition of Crime and Punishment. Hence, they are cross references. Hence the pun in the title.

From Bleeding to Brooding

I started Crime and Punishment today, even though I didn't get half way through the Iliad. Normally I would never flout the Schedule so openly, but I have simply had enough of my particularly abysmal translation.

I bought the book because I liked the Odyssey, more accurately a late 19th century translation thereof, and imagined that buying from the same publisher would yield a book of similar quality. I was wrong. My brother warned me of the peril of buying thrift editions. I ended up with a early 20th century translation that makes several grievous, systematic, and unapologetic offenses on my opinion of the degree of liberty a translator should have when interpreting a story.

Offense number one. The translator, in his infinite wisdom, decided to replace all of the Greek names for their roman equivalents. If I'm going to read the Iliad, I want to hear about the Greeks, not the Romans. If I want to hear about the Romans I'll read Cicero. Yes, they are essentially equivalent, and yes, I could have survived without the Greek names. It's just irritating.

Offense number two. He decided to take a plethora of the ancient Greek phrases and insert what he perceived to be their twentieth century equivalents. Everyone who has ever been in a high school English class will know that filling your work with cliches does not make for a very engaging story. No, I'm not even going to throw a cliche in there to prove my point. That is also cliche. The worst part is I have no idea what Homer actually said, and half the fun in reading an ancient text is learning how people used to speak.

A possible three, call it two point five, would be that he doesn't include all the epithets. I know they're there, I read the Odyssey. For those of you in the blogosphere who have no idea what I'm talking about, an epithet is a word or phrase that precedes a character's name to provide description. They were used abundantly in Homer's Odyssey and Iliad because the original Greek is in verse, not prose, so epithets were used to correct the metering. Some examples: clear-eyed Athena, god-like Odysseus, rosy-fingered Dawn (who is more than once personified in this manner), and my personal favourite, Aegis-bearing Zeus. Don't paraphrase/disperse the epithets! They are important!

The book was also getting a bit onerous to read, because for pages and pages you see nothing but detailed accounts of the gruesome deaths of every single soldier who died. I'm sure it picks up later on, but it is not unusual for me to pick at Homer. Homer is my Brussels sprouts. I know I have to read him, and I do, but in manageable pieces.

At any rate, I cast aside my Greek epic (at least momentarily), and pick up Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Having only read the introduction and the first chapter at the time this post was published, I can assure more detailed and interesting posts to follow.

Some months ago, I was in a bookstore, and saw a copy of Crime and Punishment sitting innocuously in the bargain bin. Having heard of the story (who hasn't?) and wondering what the fuss was about, I read the first page. I came to the instant conclusion that I must at some point read this book. That day has come. The first page was better than I remember it, and the rest of the first chapter was pretty good too.

I also read the introduction, which was informative but left me slightly apprehensive. I seem to have stumbled upon a multi-layered, multifaceted work of artistic genius that penetrates deep into the brooding soul of humanity. It was all a bit too ostentatious for me, I was more interested in Dostoevsky's political and philosophical leanings. The turning point in his life, as I gather, was spending ten years in prison for fostering anti-governmental sentiment. Before that he was a liberal-minded writer, pro-communist, and enjoyed arguing with people about their political opinions. shortly after being released from prison he wrote a book entitled "Notes from the Underground." I gather it was a condemning satire of everything, including itself, and a stab at rationalist thought. One quote they quoted which I now quote: "Two times two is four is no longer life, gentlemen, but the beginning of death."

I have another book on my shelf that is of similar opinion. It is called "Voltaire's Bastards", by John Ralston Saul, and it is essentially a criticism of the entirety of western society for the last five hundred years. More on that when I start reading it again, which, I'll be honest, might be a while. It's another one of those sorts of books I pick at now and then. To be fair though, the thing is a monster (in terms of length and density of text).

By the way, here is your word of the day:
Polemic(puh-'lem-ik)- noun - A controversial argument, or, one who takes up a controversial argument.

"Notes form the Underground" echoed itself in just about everything Dostoevski wrote from that point on. Crime and Punishment was originally a grand argument against the Nihilists. He later revised it (i.e., used his first draft for kindling) and it transcended his somewhat dubious philosophical debates.

Crime and Punishment, in case you hadn't heard, is a murder mystery told from the perspective of the murderer. What makes it interesting is that the murder is as mysterious to the murderer (if not more) than it is to everyone else.

Should be a good book.

My recent trip to the bookstore

It was 20% off everything day a few days ago at my local bookstore. It concerned me that such a momentous occasion might go unnoticed by the vast majority of the proletariat. Yet, the store was bustling with the happy bookworms, myself included, so some at least noticed that knowledge had gone on sale for the weekend.

I acquired some books I have been meaning to read for some time, in complete disregard for the Schedule of course. I, for good or ill, have at least two books that I simply must finish before I touch these recent acquisitions, which would be bothersome if they were not excellent books as well. I make a habit of reading as many excellent books as I can.

I almost picked up a little book full of Robert Frost, but two things stayed my wallet. The publisher, in their great wisdom, had decided to print the inside cover with little snowflakes. It seemed so childish, sort of like the playground bullies, who twist people's names around to do them mental injury. I'm sure they thought it clever, but I found it in poor taste. They also wanted too much for it, even with the sale.

The books I obtained were the Silmarillion and the Prose and Poetic Eddas.

Those of you floating around the blogosphere who have ventured into the vast realms of J.R.R. Tolkien should recognize the Silmarillion, or at least it should sound vaguely familiar. I expect the Prose and Poetic Eddas are less known.

The Poetic Edda is a very old book of poetry written in the 13th century, and is highly important to our current understanding of Norse Mythology. The Prose Edda is the compliment to the poetic edda. Also written in the early 13th century, it was an effort to prevent the dilution of Norse culture by the spreading influence of Christianity, given that these stories, similar to Homer's epics, were part of an oral tradition. Like the Odyssey and the Iliad, the Prose and Poetic Eddas are cup and spoon. One can scarce be found without the other.

I have been attempting to make a study of classic mythologies, and the Eddas are running parallel to some really nice Greek epics I have been working on intermittantly for some time now. More on those in another post. I have particular interest in Norse mythology, given the degree to which it has infused itself in various subcultures.

I forget where I read it, possibly wikipedia, but the Eddas were a strong influence on J.R.R. Tolkien as he was writing the about Middle Earth. The Silmarillion (which I have been grossly mispronouncing for years. My current approach -> Sil-muh-'rill-ee-on ) was compiled in the seventies by J.R.R's son Christopher, who put it together essentially by sorting through and editing his father's notebooks and scratchpads. It is the backstory to the Lord of the Rings. So, first I read the Eddas, the backstory to J.R.R. Tolkien. Then I read the Silmarillion, the backstory to the Lord of the Rings. Then, perhaps, I read the Lord of the Rings again (maybe the hobbit too), and see what crops up.

Tolkien could be safely considered one of the greatest and most widely influential writers of fantasy fiction who ever lived, so in my mind he deserves a second look. I was quite young when I first read them and likely did not absorb all there was to absorb. I'd hate to think I'm dissecting him, but if I find any noteworthy nuggets I will certainly share it with the blogosphere.

Regardless, the Eddas stand on their own merits, as does the Silmarillion, but together they form such a comprehensive study that I almost want to drop my current book and pick these up immediately. But I can't of course. There are rules to these things after all, so I must find a slot for them in the Schedule.