The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Friday, December 29, 2006


Off on hols after 3 hard months without a break. Boy, am I looking forward to it. So a Happy New Year to one and all, in advance. Holiday reading is Huck Finn, New Arabian Nights by RLS, Henry V (I've been reading or re-reading some of Shakespeare's plays this year - Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, so far). I'll be happy if I get two of them finished. Also, a collection of poems by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), who's best known for "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" ("Gather ye rosebuds while ye may..."). I've been picking away at this for a couple of months now, and as ever with poetry, it's taken me a while to get what he's about, but it's coming. He can be very rude, and funny with it, as with Byron's epitaph for Castlereagh, which Yvonne quoted a while back. I daresay this one is popular among published writers:
ANOTHER [the previous poem is "To His Book"]

Who with thy leaves shall wipe (at need)
The place where swelling piles do breed:
May every ill that bites or smarts
Perplex him in his hinder parts.
Have a good one.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Have a bitchin' Yule, fool...

Thursday, December 14, 2006


k d lang is on record as saying homo sapiens is her least favourite species. Well, at least we just moved one place up the list.


The Key:
Bold the ones you've read.
Strike-out the ones you hated.
Italicize those you started but never finished.
Put an asterisk beside the ones you loved.

1. The Lord of the Rings(*), J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. Dune(*), Frank Herbert
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. A Wizard of Earthsea*, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer*, William Gibson
7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?*, Philip K. Dick
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions*, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories*, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
24. The Forever War*, Joe Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy*, Douglas Adams
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
31. Little, Big, John Crowley
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion*, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash*, Neal Stephenson
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

I can't really say I've hated any of them, although The Sword of Shannara left me pretty underwhelmed even at 15, and I found On the Beach a bit dry,
and The Book of the New Sun still felt like a chore after 150 pages, so I let it lie. Lots of portentous foreshadowing going on, which was irritating - "I meant this promise at the time, though I have broken it since, as with so many others" - that kinna thing. Howandever, John Clute and Ursula Le Guin among many other heavy-hitters think it's hot stuff, so I may well give it another go at some point. It does have a genuine sense of strangeness, of other-worldness, which most fantasy, ironically, doesn't.

Can't say I've really loved any of them either, except A Wizard of Earthsea and, at the time I first read it (age 12?) and for a couple of years afterwards, The Lord of the Rings. I have quite a few doubts now about many aspects of LotR, both in concept and execution, though the scale of it is still awesome, and its essence, which seems to me to be a fable about hope versus fear, and the pitfalls of pride, is laudable. These things are pretty much lost on a 12 year-old though, for whom it's just a very long, satisfying and totally involving story.

So an asterisk in brackets for it, then, and for Dune. Again, I loved at 15, but recently read a few pages at random and found it pretty long-winded, which made me understand a little better those who, like Harlan Ellison, have made many attempts on it with the best intentions, and have simply found themselves unable to get through it.

The other asterisks indicate either that I would recommend the book, or that I simply enjoyed it. If this seems an unnecessary distinction, I recently finished Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean, and while I'm glad to have read it, and think it's got a lot of good stuff in it, and would happily encourage other people to give it a go, I didn't actually have that great a time reading it - there's something rather flat about Maclean's writing - weird, when you consider how adventurous his life was between the ages of 25 and 34: Foreign Office, Paris, Moscow, Stalin's show trials, SAS in North Africa and Persia, with the partisans in Yugoslavia, liaising between Churchill and Tito.

A chance for Joe to get his own back, and (rightly) take me to task for not having read Alfred Bester. Of the rest, I would like to have read or attempted the Clarkes (I have Childhood's End somewhere), Sturgeon (ditto), Farmer, Smith and Bradbury.

Monday, December 11, 2006


Back in September I finally got round to reading Philip Roth's Shop Talk, a collection of interviews and conversations with a bunch of writers, many of them Jewish. One was Aharon Appelfeld, someone I'd never heard of. He was seven when the war started, was sent to a ghetto, then a concentration camp, from which he escaped. He then spent two or three years living in the wilds. In the passage I quoted from the conversation with Roth, he said he found it extremely difficult to write about his life 'factually'; then just a few days ago I came across The Story of a Life. Looks like he decided to give it a go. I'm reading it at the moment. Everything is reduced to the bare bones, and for this reason:
More than fifty years have passed since the end of the war. I have forgotten much, even things that were very close to me - places in particular, dates, and the names of people - and yet I can still sense those days in every part of my body. Whenever it rains, it's cold, or a fierce wind is blowing, I am taken back to the ghetto, to the camp, or to the forests where I spent many days. Memory, it seems, has deep roots in the body. Sometimes just the smell of rotting straw, or the sharp call of a bird, is enough to take me back, piercing me deep inside.

I say inside, although I still haven't found the words to give voice to those intense scars on my memory. Over the years I tried, on more than one occasion, to go back and touch the planks on which we slept in the camp, and to taste the watery soup that was doled out there. But all this effort yielded no more than jumbled phrases, incorrect words, disjointed rhythm, weak or exaggerated characters. Profound experience, I've already learned, is easily distorted.
You would think that with his war-child experience having become limited to, judging from this book, snapshots and fragments of narrative, reading it would be unsatisfying, like trying to reconstruct an entire play from a few scraps of parchment. Not so. Because so much has been lost to recall, what is remembered is told with clarity and with all the overtones and harmonics present. One of the effects of this concentration, this extremely tight focus, is to give everything in the book tremendous authority. You pay attention.

If that sounds facile, given the subject matter, I should point out that while Appelfeld does relate some terrible stories, others give reason for hope, and others are simply observations on the different ways people behave in extreme circumstances. Reaching a judgement, trying to give a critical assessment or a summary, is what seems to me to be facile. It's like trying to contain the uncontainable. Appelfeld relates: the reader pays attention. That's it.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


From "On the City Wall", first published December 1888
Whence it is easy to see that mere men of the flesh who would create a tumult must fare badly at the hands of the Supreme Government. And they do. There is no outward sign of excitement; there is no confusion; there is no knowledge. When due and sufficient reasons have been given, weighed and approved, the machinery moves forward, and the dreamer of dreams and the seer of visions is gone from his friends and following. He enjoys the hospitality of Government; there is no restriction upon his movements within certain limits; but he must not confer any more with his brother dreamers. Once in every six months the Supreme Government assures itself that he is well and takes formal acknowledgement of his existence. No-one protests against his detention, because the few people who know about it are in deadly fear of seeming to know him; and never a single newspaper 'takes up his cause' or organises demonstrations on his behalf, because the newspapers of India have got behind that lying proverb which says the Pen is mightier than the Sword, and can walk delicately.
Now check out the fate of Ahmed Urabi, who led a revolt against the European, particularly British, domination of Egypt. The entry on the Urabi revolt itself has more on the background, although I'd personally want to confirm this from other sources. Interesting to see debt being used, then as now, as a weapon.

Incredibly, there is a street in Pontypridd named for the deciding battle of the revolt, somewhat modified as Telelkebir.