Friday, October 25, 2019

Ahead of the Curve (Tolkien in NCP)

So, while on my recent trip to Arkansas, at the end of a long and exhausting day of travel  I was watching the day's news at my uncle's house when I saw in the news crawl at the bottom of the screen something about the impossibility of long-range space flight. I was considerably sleep impaired at the time, having had an early morning flight, a layover in Atlanta (not the most direct route between Seattle and Little Rock, but by far the best deal) and little sleep the night before that, so I failed to jot down the exactly wording, but assume the story thus referred to was along the lines of the following piece, which I hunted down a day or two later:

This is of course quite similar to what Tolkien had argued back in 1944, where the opening section of his unfinished Time-travel novel, THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS, argued among other things that good science fiction had to hold itself to a standard of scientifically credible fact and singled out starships as an example that failed to meet that criteria. I was away from my books at the time, but now that I'm back at my desk I've searched out some of the salient passages, which are given below.

The chief omission in the following wd be that I've left out the various speakers' names in the give-and-take of the original discussion; these are readily available, for anyone interested in these specifics, in Tolkien's original text (in HME.IX.143ff).


. . . no one has ever solved the difficulty of arriving, of getting to another planet, no more in literature than in life. Because the difficulty is in fact insoluble, I think. The barrier cannot and will not ever be passed in mortal flesh [.162–163]

An author's way of getting to Mars (say) is part of his story of his Mars . . . It's part of the picture.  [163]

I'm talking about credibility . . . I don't think space-ships [exist], or could. And anyway, if you pretend they do, and use them for space-journeys . . . they'll land you in space-ship sort of adventures. [163]

I want to be made to feel that the author has faced the difficulties and not ignored them. [165]

Any one who touches space-travel now has got to be much more convincing:* if indeed a convincing machine is at present possible . . . the problems have become more complex, and not simpler . . . A gravitation-isolator won't do. Gravity can't be treated like that. It's fundamental. It's a statement by the Universe of where you are in the Universe, and the Universe can't be tricked. [166]

Scientists are as prone to wishful thinking (and talking) as other men. [166]

[touching lightly on effects of zero-g (and greatly increased gravity)]: I . . . find it difficult to believe that a machine like our body, made to function under definite earth-conditions, would in fact run on merrily when those were greatly changed—and for a long time, or permanently. [166]
I don't doubt the possibility of sending a rocket to the Moon . . . I'll even admit the eventual possibility of landing undamaged human goods on the lunar landscape . . . But the Moon is very parochial. Rockets are so slow.  . . . even the speed of light will only be moderately useful . . . you'll have to plan for a speed greater than light; much greater, if you're to have a practical range outside the Solar System. Otherwise you will have very few destinations. [167]

[to sum up]:  
[Question]: people cannot leave this world and live, at least not beyond the orbit of the Moon
[Answer]:  I believe they could not, cannot, and never will [169]
[Conclusion]:  a space-travel story ought to be made to fit, as far as we can see, the Universe as it is.

--John R.
--current reading: a Dorothy Sayers festschrift (1993)

*the reference here is to H. G. Wells' Cavorite, which had been part of the Notion Club's discussion

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

chicks, ducklings, baby quail, and beehives

So, the rest of my trip to Arkansas seems to have just flown by. We did make it to Franke's up on the Cantrell Road, my mother's favorite restaurant,* and had a good-sized gathering of the family: in addition to my wife and myself there was my mother, uncle and aunt, sister, brother in law, both cousins on that side of the family and one cousin-in-law. All three of my nieces made it, plus six members of the next generation: two great-nieces, and four great-nephews. The eldest among us was eighty-seven, the youngest about two weeks old (and, with fond great-uncle-ing I must add that both he and his not-yet-two-years-old sister were very well behaved amid unfamiliar surroundings  and mostly unfamiliar people).

Another highlight of the visit was time spent with my sister. The town square has undergone something of a revival recently (the local college is establishing a presence downtown), and we segued from walking around the revivified section to poking around in a few blocks just off the old downtown and not yet restored: the old library building and county jail, the now-derelict coco-cola bottling plant, an alleyway with mimosas and some unfamiliar vines with odd pods, a not-yet-opened local history museum in the Longino House.** The town square was decorated with scarecrows in interesting variety, thanks to a Halloween contest sponsored by local businesses. My sister took pictures of them all; my two favorites were a pair of skeletal bride and groom and a realistic Dorothy Gale, complete with ruby slippers.

One side trip worth mentioning: I'd gone by Atwood's with my mother renewing her stock of birdseed and seen beehives for sale:*** something I don't ever remember seeing in a store before. Janice for her part had discovered that they sold baby chicks, ducklings, and baby quail. I've seen feed stores and some farm/pet stores that sold chicks and baby ducklings before, but baby quail was a new one for me, and I'm glad I got to see it.

All in all, a good trip. I had hoped to make a visit to my aunt on the other (Rateliff) side of the family but through poor planning on my part wound up not having enough time. Next time I'll know better and plan this for the beginning of the trip and not its final day. 

--John R.
--current reading: various bits by Dorothy Sayers

*we've been going there so long that it's now in its fourth location since we started there, back when we actually lived in Little Rock over fifty years ago.
**which has connections with both Logoly and Frog Level, once the local plantation.
 ***bees not included.

Friday, October 18, 2019


So, yesterday I went to the Magnolia Bake Shop (the oldest business in town, dating back to the 1920s) and ordered a german chocolate cake. I've failed at this seemingly simple request the last three times I was in town. One time they told me 'the machine is broken' as the purported reason, which has passed into the category of catchphrase between Janice and myself, shorthand for somebody offering a reason that went beyond ridiculously implausible to verge on the surreal.

Then Janice came up with the great idea of ordering ahead. German chocolate cake? they said. No problem, they said. How about I swing by and pick it up around one o'clock? they said. I gave them till two just to be on the safe side, and not long later was digging in. A major infraction of the low-carb diet, but oh so worth it.

Then it was out to the cemetery to see how the flowers already out there were holding up so we'd know whether we shd add to or replace. Then we went by a florist and picked out what we wanted, to be picked up tomorrow.

Late in the afternoon we went out to Logoly (pronouncd LOW-Go-Lye), once a boy scout camping ground,* then an abandoned park, now a cleaned up state park, v. pleasant for those in need of a long walk. Among things we spotted were cypress knees (which I'd first seen in this park years ago), a little lizard that was not at all afraid of us, a meandering creek, a granddaddy longlegs (which used to be a spider but aren't anymore), deer tracks, and some oddly scorched trees. I looked but did not see any sassafras.

Perhaps the most interesting part was the most historical one. Upon a time, a century and more ago, there was a spa called Magnesium Springs on the site that is now Logoly. The hotel for those who came to take the waters is long gone, destroyed in a fire, and I haven't been able to locate a photograph or floorplan yet. But the old open-air soaking area from the onetime spa survives and has been refurbished, albeit without the water (the water level having since fallen).

Today we took flowers out to the cemetery, where we cleaned up family graves, and spent time at the yard, where I set out some winter pansies in the yard next to the little mimosa. The wildlife I spotted today was either very large or very small. At the large end of the scale were two buzzards or turkey vultures hovering over the neighborhood (common in the area, rare to see in town). The small were grasshoppers (which we also have out in Washington) and crickets (which so far as I know we don't) and a dirt-dobber (which I think was hunting ants). Have to say I'm enjoying the coffee shops that have opened up downtown in the last year or two.

Tomorrow comes the big family get-together, and a planned visit to what I suppose must count as one of my two favorite restaurants.

--John R.
---current reading: still Sayers.

*in my time it was Camp Desoto over near El Dorado we used for our week at summer camp.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

D&D celebrity mini-documentary

So, recently I was thinking of Chauncey Gardner, Peter Sellers' character in BEING THERE,* whose catch-phrase is "I like to watch".

What sparked this was my seeing a short (twenty-minute) documentary online about the growing popularity of watching people play D&D.

Here's a link to a piece including a link to the video:

On the whole I found this an interesting piece that helped put in context the 'Shadows of the Crystal Palace' CTHULHU BY GASLIGHT I watched a while back.

The one point where I had to restrain myself from hooting  in derision was at their claim that Third Edition was hard (true) and  Fourth Edition was hard (true!) but Fifth Edition is easy ("easier" rather than "easy" wd be closer the truth). The unstated implication was that Second Edition AD&D and First Edition AD&D were easy. They weren't. Complicated in different ways, perhaps --easier to start playing but harder to master; more open to customization.

--John R.
--current reading: BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON

*both the original book and the movie based on it: quite different but highly recommended

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


So, I've now arrived in Arkansas for a week's visit, by way of Atlanta.

Last night was some very enjoyable visiting with family up in Little Rock, while today after a late start we drove down to Magnolia.

Tomorrow and Friday will be here around town, while Saturday we're having a big family get-together back up in Little Rock.

Signs  That-Show-You're-Back-In-the-South

--Seeing the first mockingbird of the trip: late morning today in the parking lot outside the Barnes & Noble/Starbucks in Little Rock: it came up and perched near us on a car.

--Coming across Xian faux-rock stations.

--Seeing those weird birds I've never been able to identify* at the Love's truck stop in Prescott.

--Standing next tp  a mimosa: this afternoon in Magnolia on the lot where the family house used to stand.

--John R.
current reading: THE SPIDER STRIKES! by Michael Innes (good concept, but takes forever to get started), also BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON by D. Sayers (re-reading a minor work).

*they look like slim grey grackles but act more like sparrows

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Antiquarian Book Fair

So, I did get to the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair this year, along with Janice and Stan, and spent about four hours looking through many, many interesting books. In the end I came away with three books: one by Clark Ashton Smith, one by H. P. Lovecraft, and one by J. R. R. Tolkien.

The Smith was THE DOUBLE SHADOW AND OTHER FANTASIES (1933). This was actually CAS's first book,* published by Smith himself. It's essentially an oversized (8 1/2 by 11) pamphlet collection of six stories, printed by the local newspaper and sold by Smith by mail-order. I've seen this before but never been able to buy it, given that it's usually been priced at about three times what I paid today. The difference is that most copies are signed and this one isn't. So while it'd be nice to have a signed copy, it's better to have this unsigned copy that I can afford than no copy at all.

The Lovecraft was THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH, a pamphlet edition from Necronomicon Press. Not as nice as the old Randy Everts edition, but it'll be good to have this copy as a back-up in case the other gets too fragile at some point. I don't think much of Lovecraft's poetry aside from the famous couplet from the Necronomicon, but I make an exception for this sonnet sequence, which makes for a good read-aloud.

The Tolkien was a copy of THE SILMARILLION. I've had a copy of this since it first came out, of course  (I ordered it from Land of Legend in September 1977, just as I was beginning my first semester at Fayetteville). But forty-plus years on my copy is starting to show some serious signs of wear and I'm worried it may come apart. Now it can go into honorable retirement.

Mine was the American first printing first edition while the newcomer is the British first edition, with a much nicer cover (see below). I never have figured out why the US edition had as its cover art a colorized piece taken from THE HOBBIT rather than some of Tolkien's SILMARILLION art like the British edition.

    The best thing about the Book Fair is that you can find interesting books at reasonable prices if you were looking for good reading copies, as well as rare and famous books priced accordingly. For example, they had a copy of a first edition of Poe's THE RAVEN for $15,700. It's rather surprising that there was a three volume first edition LotR in really good original dust jackets for more than double that: $37,500. And these were not signed or inscribed or associational copies: just attractive copies of a much-in-demand book. When the bookseller granted permission for us to take a picture of them, she cheerfully pointed out they were displayed at the most prominent attention-getting spot in the booth for a reason.

Both Janice and Stan said the most expensive item they'd seen was priced at $100,000, but neither cd remember afterwards what book it was. Later that night Janice remembered: a deluxe three-volume biography of Prince Albert (he of the Albert Memorial),** which Queen Victoria presented to John Brown. That she wd give a book glorifying the first love of her life to the second love of her life is odd, but then so is the whole Victoria/Brown story.

I was glad to see Tolkien well represented: two more sets of LotR, an American first of FARMER GILES, a TREE & LEAF, a third-edition HOBBIT with facsimile dustjacket, and two different dealers both offering up the first volume of THE BOOK OF LOST TALES, seeming not to realize this was half of a two-book set. No letters, but I wdn't have been able to afford them anyway. Still, it's always interesting to see what he has to say in each uncollected letter you come across.

And then there were the ones that got away: a nice hardcover of Jack Vance's DYING EARTH (a too much for just a reading copy, and I'm not likely to be doing any work on Vance in the foreseeable future), a first edition of VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS (surprisingly ordinary in appearance, considering what how iconoclastic it is inside), the Arkham House huge omnibus of all four of Hope Hodgson's novels (available from three dealers at widely ranging prices, all of them outside my budget).***

I'm not a collector of CSL but wd like to get more of his literary criticism.**** Last time I'd been on Whidbey Island I'd seen a copy of ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY EXCLUDING DRAMA but been put off by the price; the same copy was here at the show but still expensive ($400), as was another volume from the same dealer: SELECTED LITERARY ESSAYS ($300). I saw a smattering of other Lewis (a set of Narnia) but no Charles Williams at all.

I'd gone in thinking how nice it'd be if there were a booth in there offering rare and unusual rpg items, but as suspected it turns out I'd have to go to other venues than this.

--John R
current reading: GAUDY NIGHT by Dorothy L. Sayers (re-reading, third time through)
*and thus I think the first book by any of the three major WEIRD TALES writers.
**one of the most overhonored men in history.
***the same was true of the two Arkham House Clark Ashton Smith collections I don't have.
****I find these days the less seriously I take Lewis the more I enjoy him.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Sounds Strangely Familiar (Gygax and Adams)

So, I've just finished reading WISH YOU WERE HERE, a biography of Douglas Adams by Nick Webb (2003). I'd been surprised by the date, not having realized it'd been so long (2001) since Adams died. It was good to see that Adams was the subject of not one  but two full-length biographies (having pulled this one off the shelf and carried it off and checked it out, I've forgotten the author and title of the other). This one focused on putting Adams into context with other British comic writers of his time (e.g. some mentoring by Monty Python) rather than his fellow science fiction writers (who get far less attention than science fact).

I was glad to have the chance to read this partly because I think highly of Adams' work* and partly because I'm interested in writer's block, and he's one of those authors who suffered from writer's block to an epic degree,** writing little the last decade or so of his life. He did however waste a lot of time trying to get THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY made into a movie, and at one point the author describes Adams' experiences in Hollywood in the late '90s:

"he hung about the production office doing very little. 
This gave him an unfortunate appetite for doing very little
in California, a place where the rewards from a deal
are so mind-boggling that the investment of years of
doing very little (camouflaged, of course, as networking
or contractual foreplay) may seem perversely rational."
p. 205-206

This five and a half year period in Adams' life sounds strongly reminiscent, to me, of Gary Gygax's lost years in the early 80s, when Gygax spent years in Hollywood, living the high life but accomplishing very little.

One thing I learned that I'm glad to know is that, whereas I'd always seen Terry Pratchett as having taken Adams' schtick and shifted it from science fiction to fantasy, Webb shows the dates that prove Pratchett was already writing in his characteristic style before Adams broke into print, he just hadn't had any success with it yet.

All in all an interesting, informative, slightly wistful book, rather like Adams himself.

--John R.

*thanks to Charles N. for having recommended his work to me as far back as 1981
**like Tolkien, but more so because Tolkien never lost his engagement with Middle-earth (to the end of his days he was still engrossed in his invented languages).  Adams completely lost interest in the books his audience wanted him to write (more HITCHHIKER books), whereas he wanted to try new things like DIRK GENTLY (a colossal dud) and STARSHIP TITANIC (which sank without a ripple).

P. S. Fact I didn't know: Douglas Adams' sometime collaborator John Lloyd*** wrote an unpublished novel named GiGax, this being a term he coined meaning 'the greatest area that could be encompassed by the human imagination' (Webb p. 129); he only later discovered that there was a person (our Gary Gygax) who had that name (ibid.130).

***who co-wrote two of the original twelve episodes of the HITCHHIKER radio show when Adams had ground to a writer's-block induced halt.

Monday, October 7, 2019

A question for grammarians (Three Dog Night)

So, the other day I heard Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" on the radio and my attention was caught by the line

"If I were the king of the world
I tell you what I'd do
I'd throw away the cars and the bars and the wars
And make sweet love to you . . . "

Hearing this familiar line in a familiar song (I remember when it was first a hit), it struck me for the first time that car/bar/war was a kind of eye-rhyme. At least that's what I'd call it if I saw it written down in a poem. CAR and BAR definitely rhyme, and WAR is so similar in spelling it looks like it shd rhyme with the other two but actually doesn't. So my question is this: can it be 'eye' rhyme when you don't see it?

--John R.

--who wd gladly go along with getting rid of bars (as a prohibitionist) and wars (as a pacifist), though losing cars wd be hard; despite THE BOVADIUM FRAGMENTS I'd prefer fewer cars (and better public transportation) rather than no cars at all. --JDR

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Well, well, well

So, it's been several years now since I've been able to go to the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair. Not from any lack of interest: I've either been out of town or had a prior commitment elsewhere for that weekend. Which is a pity, since it's a real education to see so many interesting and unusual books first-hand.  Occasionally I've saved up my money and been able to buy one or more such books myself. This is where I've picked up most of the smattering of Arkham House books on my shelves,* like Clark Ashton Smith's ABOMINATIONS OF YONDO or one of Derleth's Solar Pons books. And, of course, the Tolkien letter.

 It was also at the Antiquarian Book Fair that I had an odd run-in and even odder conversation with someone whom I later realized had mistaken me for John Bellairs. It's a great place to go with a friend or friends, the better to split up and then later report on our individual finds -- like the year I went with Sue Weinlein and Stan Brown.

This year I was wistful to see the postcard in the mail announcing the time and place for this year's show. At first I thought sure enough it was scheduled so I'd just miss it. Then Janice pointed out that no, its timing would fit just between the trip I'd be getting back from and the next one that swiftly follows.

So, if you like books, and you've got some time on Saturday October 12th, 10am to 6pm, or Sunday October 13th, 11 am to 4 pm, come join the fun at Exhibition Hall at the Seattle Center.** Maybe I'll be lucky enough to see one of the two CAS Arkham House volumes I'm still missing. I know I'll have fun looking -- and in looking to see how high the prices for Tolkien have gotten.

--John R.
current reading: WISH YOU WERE HERE, a biography of Douglas Adams (another author with crippling writer's block).

*most of the rest I picked up from Norwescon, back in the days when I used to go to Norwescon.
**the old World's Fair ground.