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--

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.