Poul Anderson's "The Broken Sword"

Readers of my blog are aware of my respect for fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his tales of the albino anti-hero Elric. In his book Wizardry and Wild Romance, Moorcock points out a book that he holds in high regard: The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson. Anderson is a well-known scifi/fantasy author, but The Broken Sword, published in 1954, is not so well known.

The Broken Sword, set in a supernatural and mythological Scandinavian past, tells the story of a man, living among elves, and the troll-born changeling with which he was exchanged at birth. Each man struggles to fit into the world in which he lives. Once their paths inevitably cross, these struggles only grow more fierce. The story overflows with sorcery, Vikings, epic battles, Norse gods, and sadness. The eponymous Sword, Moorcock admits, influenced his own creation of Elric’s sentient sword, Stormbringer.

As Moorcock points out, The Broken Sword is a true tragedy, something not often seen in modern fantasy. It echoes of Shakespeare, with its somewhat (intentional) archaic style. This style works well, even if it does make for slower reading. It is also reminiscent of Greek tragedy - particularly when a pair of lovers discover they are actually brother and sister.

Moorcock calls The Broken Sword “Anderson’s finest dramatic achievement.” After reading this high praise, I had to read the book. It was a great read; I highly recommend it.

Creatures and Illustrations Thereof

Illustrations of creatures, both real and imaginary, have been part of human culture since the dawn of time. From the wall paintings of aurochs, deer, and horses on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France, to the whimsical creatures dreamed up by early explorers and depicted on old maps, capturing the essence of animals has been a fascinating part of human history.

I still have — though it is now tattered and without a cover — a copy of Francis Wardle’s Zoo Book, a gift to me over sixty years ago, before I could even read. I loved browsing through this book as a child, and I probably appreciated it more once my mother started taking us to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. From there, I graduated to the “How and Why Wonder Book” series. Like most kids, I was thrilled by dinosaurs. Even today I have an illustrated book about dinosaurs (Dinosaurs: A Visual Encyclopedia) waiting patiently on my shelf to be read.

Imaginary creatures have been our close companions since childhood. If not the Monster Under the Bed, it was Jess, the imaginary dog my parents let me have (because it made no noise, didn’t have to be fed, and didn’t have to be walked by someone). Authors and illustrators like Dougal Dixon have extrapolated from real creatures of the present to their possible evolutionary descendants of the future (see After Man: A Zoology of the Future, and other books). Illustrator Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials and Guide to Fantasy provide great visuals of creatures we will never meet except between the covers of a book.

But the creepiest book on imaginary creatures I’ve seen in a long time is E. B. Hudspeth’s The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black, a reference book by a fictional scientist with “comprehensive illustrations and explanatory texts regarding the musculature and skeletal systems [and] viscera” of “the lesser known species of the animal kingdom.” The anatomical diagrams in this book are presented as one would expect to see in a human or veterinarian anatomy book, showing the skeletal and muscular structure for almost a dozen mythological creatures, including a sphinx, a minotaur, a dragon, and a harpy.

"The Ban of Irsisri" - on Kindle for 99 cents for a limited time!

For a limited time, my epic fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, is on sale for 99 cents for the Kindle version. Just go to https://www.amazon.com/Ban-Irsisri-Epic-Fantasy-ebook/dp/B07FK2SF6K. If you’re new to my blog, here’s the scoop on this novel:

The Gauntletbearer, The Swordbearer, and The Tribesman. Three men with quests to save the world from The Gatekeeper, the man trying to rule it.

Long ago, with dusty rites and moldy tomes, a powerful artifact known as the Gauntlets was fashioned for a sorcerer's hands. Promising untold power, the Gauntlets were taken and concealed for safekeeping. For ages they were lost, but now, the sorcerer Raethir Del has tracked them down. If he ignores the Ban of Irsisri and takes them, he will rain death and destruction across the lands. Three men embark on separate quests, and only their actions can enforce the Ban of Irsisri and avert the rise of incredible evil.

Enkinor, bearer of the Gauntlets, lost to the world, imprisoned by a spell transporting him from one nightmare to the next.

Visylon, warrior and Swordbearer, on whose power prophesied judgment depends.

Longhorn, nomadic tribesman, charged with the impossible - bringing these men together.

One must sacrifice desire for duty.
One must embrace healing over harming.
And one must escape the Dreamtunnel.

Blaspheming "Blade Runner"

There are cult classics when it comes to movies, and there are cult classics. Blade Runner is one. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is another. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for sure. But why is that?

In my post, “Failed at Faulkner,” I confessed to not understanding the appeal of American novelist William Faulkner. In this post, I confess to not understanding the appeal of Blade Runner.

It took me several attempts over the years, but I persevered and finally succeeded in watching the original Blade Runner movie (in particular, the version designated “The Final Cut”). And for the life of me, I just don’t see why this movie has generated a cult of fans. For those few out there who have not seen Blade Runner, let me simply say that the story concerns a not-too-distant dystopian future in which “replicants” (think, cyborgs, artificial people) come close, through advanced biotechnology, to resembling humans. The replicants pose a danger because they will do anything to claim humanity and blend in with humans. Not surprisingly, the theme of the story concerns what it means to be truly human.

Perhaps I might appreciate Blade Runner more if I took a class in film appreciation. Then maybe I could fathom its impact (good or bad) on viewers and critics. Blade Runner seems to be a movie you have to study to best appreciate it, and I’m not accustomed to studying any movie. I can grudgingly admit the movie’s dystopian setting may have influenced the use of dystopian settings by later movies. That’s about the only positive thing I can say. On the other hand, while we all know a musical score can make or break a movie, unfortunately, the soundtrack by Vangelis felt spotty and didn’t move me.

So what about Blade Runner 2049? In this movie, replicants can procreate, and thereby claim humanity. I found the storyline easier to follow, but at times confusing. Sure, the setting was very familiar: dark, polluted, crowded, consumeristic, dystopian, post-industrial, just as in the first movie. But wouldn’t things have changed more in the thirty years since the time the first movie took place? And the soundtrack, powered by synthesizers, provided a connection back to the original movie. But the movie was too long, and the reappearance of Harrison Ford, who starred in the first movie, did nothing for me.

I’m afraid I won’t be offered membership in the Blade Runner cult. And I probably wouldn’t appreciate membership if I was offered it.

"The Calculus of Friendship" by Steven Strogatz

In The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding about Math, Cornell University math Professor Steven Strogatz shares some of the correspondence he shared over several decades with his high school calculus teacher, Don Joffray.

The book is short, and a quick read if you don’t try to follow too closely the mathematics the two correspondents toss at each other. The two men reverse roles over time — originally Strogatz was the student, but in time he becomes the teacher. Along the way, Strogatz and “Joff” share the joy of being challenged by interesting math problems. But their interaction, while lively, is also frequently sporadic. Neither man (particularly Strogatz) seems comfortable in becoming a friend who shares more than just a love of math and the highlights of day-to-day life. It is only as the two men grow older that they bridge the gap and communicate their more personal feelings. Both men suffered the kinds of personal losses common to most of humankind, but they each failed to share their vulnerability and need for emotional support. One can appreciate the special bond between these two men, even as one can imagine what a deeper relationship might have brought them.

Yes, mathematics is key to this story. But the real theme is friendship, what brings us together, and what we may miss out on by not opening up on a deeper level.

"Elric: The Ruby Throne"

I don’t usually read graphic novels, but I made an exception for Elric: The Ruby Throne, by Julien Blondel et al. Years ago I enjoyed reading Michael Moorcock’s fantasy tales of the albino anti-hero Elric, so when I learned Moorcock himself praised the illustration and story-writing that went into The Ruby Throne, I decided to give it a try.

Because I have so little experience with graphic novels, I can’t judge Elric: The Ruby Throne against others. But I can say that it was interesting, dynamic, and very well conceived. (I must add that this story is really only for adult readers — in showing the decadence of Melnibone’, the kingdom Elric rules, the writers and illustrators present considerable nudity, violence, and horror, as well as dashes of cannibalism and sex.)

Reviews of this book and its sequel on Amazon.com are polarized. In many ways, the Elric portrayed in these books is very different from the one in the original novels by Moorcock. Because Moorcock praised the graphic novels, the evolution of the original Elric to one far more dark suggests Moorcock might have crafted Elric differently from the beginning, if allowed. Or, perhaps his own imagining of Elric has evolved over the fifty years or more since the first Elric story was published.

The fact that I plan on reading the next volume following this one say a lot regarding how well I enjoyed this one.

Swords That Do More Than Kill

The most common weapon found in works of fantasy must surely be the sword. There are people who fight with one, people who carry one just in case they need it, and even some people who simply wear one as a fashion statement. Swordsmanship is often a key skill in many fantasy worlds.

But there are swords that go beyond simple weapons. There are legendary swords, such as Excalibur. There are swords that are legendary within a particular fantasy universe, including several in Tolkien's tales of Middle-earth. Some of my favorite examples of magic swords include the following:

  • Stormbringer. The sword used by Michael Moorcock's albino antihero, Elric of Melnibone', is an example of a sentient weapon. It gives him strength and prowess and frees him from the need for life-sustaining drugs, but it must feast on the souls of humans it cleaves. And sometimes these humans are not enemies, but friends.
  • Changeling. This sword, appearing in the Morgaine stories by C. J. Cherryh, is capable of tapping the power from space-time Gates to send its victims to a place and time they would much rather not be.
  • The Sword of Helsinlae. This sword is obviously a favorite because it appears in my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri. It is pretty much an ordinary sword until its wielder, Visylon, chops down an evergreen growing from the grave of the ancient king Helsinlae. The sword is thus imbued with the power of this king, power that will play a critical role in the vanquishing of the sorcerer Raethir Del.

Though not an example of a magic sword, Terminus Est is a sword used by the executioner Severian in Gene Wolfe's series of science fantasy novels, The Book of the New Sun. This sword plays such an important role in these novels that it is almost a character in its own right.

"Birth of a Theorem" by Cedric Villani

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is a well-known cliche'. And it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to explain to someone who has no knowledge or experience to fall back on why something as abstract and abstruse as mathematics can be said to be beautiful. It would be interesting to conduct an informal survey to test the hypothesis that those who succeed in mathematical studies are those most likely to recognize the beauty of mathematics.

Frenchman Cedric Villani won the Fields Medal (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) in 2010 for his work, with former student and colleague Clement Mouhot, on "nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium for the Boltzmann equation."

I have no idea what this is, except I do know who Ludwig Boltzmann was, and that this work addressed a problem in mathematical physics.

But I didn't need to understand what this was about in order to follow Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure, Villani's story of his work in this area. Yes, there are plenty of equations about as comprehensible as hieroglyphics. But the reader does not need to comprehend the math in order to grasp what life as a mathematician is like, as Villani describes it. Villani describes the joy of discovery, the fear of making a mistake that could negate all his work, the struggle in wrestling a problem to the ground. As many wunderkinds do, he spends long hours absorbed in his work, trying to make sense of a small part of the universe. When he succeeds, the reader breathes a huge sigh of relief with him.

I grasped just the tiniest bit of the mathematics he describes, but it reminded me of the pleasure of seeing something unfold in mathematics. I only understood part of the esoterica presented on these pages, but it left me wanting to dig into old math books to decode and more deeply appreciate the mathematics. As a graduate student taking courses in theoretical statistics. I had glimpsed one example of mathematical beauty when I learned about the close relationship between the concept of moment in mathematics and the concept of moment in physics.

You don't have to be a mathematician to appreciate this book, but I must concede the obvious: only someone with an interest in mathematics may appreciate it.

Bugs Bunny

From 1940 to 1964, Warner Bros. produced 170 cartoons featuring the iconic cartoon character,  Bugs Bunny. I grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons as well as many other cartoons produced under the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies labels. Thursday nights, when I was little, we watched "The Bugs Bunny Show." My father enjoyed watching Bugs Bunny almost as much as watching the Pink Panther. When the show moved to Saturday mornings, it was the centerpiece of all the morning cartoons.

Bugs Bunny is a culturally-recognized example of the "trickster" archetype. On one hand, he's a friendly character who doesn't go looking for trouble. But on the other hand, once someone brings trouble to him, they better watch out! He is quite adept at devising clever tricks to play on those who have wronged him.

A few years ago, I decided to apply my inherited fondness for making lists, and I constructed a list of all the Bugs Bunny cartoons, drawing on the book, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald. One by one, I checked off the ones I had watched. When I needed a few more to watch to complete the list, I found them on YouTube.

Going back to watching many of the old cartoons was spurred by a trend that concerned me. Many of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, including Bugs Bunny, were being censored before showing on Cartoon Network. A shotgun blast to a character's face would be deleted, for example. I surmised that some group of concerned parents were influencing network executives to edit the cartoons for anything that might - as these parents believed - have a negative influence on their children's behavior. As I looked into this, I discovered that there were some entire cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny that have been banned because they depicted not just violence but racial stereotypes. These cartoons are not shown on TV but can be found on DVDs or on YouTube. The DVDs released as the "Looney Tunes Golden Collection" are compilations that include some of these controversial cartoons. Each DVD shows a message at the beginning explaining that while some cartoons on the disk depict unacceptable behaviors such as racial stereotypes, they are included for historical reasons. But then, cartoons such as "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," a World War II-era feature, can now only be found on YouTube. At the time this short originally came out, its treatment of the Japanese as our enemies was dehumanizing, an almost universal sociological factor in wartime. (This cartoon, as well as many others released in wartime, were intended as entertainment for adults, not children.)

And what have I learned by watching cartoons like Bugs Bunny over the years? I learned it's good to have sense of humor and not take oneself too seriously. I learned that being clever is better than being out-and-out mean. I picked up various expressions (like Yosemite Sam's "you durn idgit"), some of which have become so embodied in my day-to-day conversations that I don't even realize I'm quoting a cartoon character. (A recent meme on Facebook claims [tongue-in-cheek] that Bugs Bunny taught us that "revenge on my enemies should be quick, clever, and brutal.")

What did I not learn? I did not learn that shooting someone in the face simply turns their face black with gunpowder. Nor did I learn to think in racist terms. And enjoying the antics of an anthropomorphized rabbit who is said by some to be a "cross-dresser" did not interfere with puberty or my sexual orientation.

Like many others, I miss the "golden years" of animated shorts.

 

 

"The Math Myth" by Andrew Hacker

They say it is a good idea to read things that challenge one's cherished beliefs or values, both to expand one's mind and to test one's beliefs. But, more often than not, this is uncomfortable to do. (And that's why the normal tendency is to avoid doing it.) As in reading The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions, by Andrew Hacker. Professor Hacker has a number of arguments against mathematics education in high school and college, not the least of which is that the requirement for taking algebra, let alone classes such as trigonometry or calculus, forces students who have no desire to enter technical fields to endure a painful winnowing as they pursue their education. The acronym "STEM" stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and is used in a number of education policy approaches aimed at improving what students know in these subjects, with the objective of improving the competitiveness of the U.S.

As I recall, I was taught the oft-maligned "New Math" in my elementary school. I had no trouble with it, so neither did my parents, because I didn't need to ask them for help with my homework. (Unlike the father in the movie, Incredibles 2, who struggles to help his son with his "new math" homework and exclaims, "I don't know that way! Why would they change Math? Math is Math! MATH IS MATH!")

By seventh grade I was being pulled aside to do more challenging math assignments than the rest of my class was doing. By the time of high school graduation I had taken two years of algebra,  as well as geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, with high scores on standardized tests. I pursued chemistry as a college undergraduate and took calculus and differential equations. I pursued biochemistry in graduate school before moving into a fledgling PhD program in biostatistics and computer modeling. There I continued with coursework in theoretical and applied statistics, operations research, signals and systems analysis, complex systems, and numerical analysis, among others. In my dissertation research I had to apply what I knew about differential equations and numerical analysis to hypotheses in the biochemistry of vision. My first job out of graduate school was in biostatistics for pharmaceutical research.

I have always valued my mathematics education. It was very much aligned to applied mathematics and not theoretical mathematics. I am matho-philic, not matho-phobic, so it is a real challenge for me to put myself in the shoes of those for whom math does not come as easy.

Then along comes Andrew Hacker, with The Math Myth. One by one, Hacker tackles the assumptions that guide everything surrounding math education. As I read this book, I often felt like the subject of Edvard Munch's "The Scream", because I resist his arguments even as I have to grudgingly admit he may be right. Allowing one's beliefs and values to be challenged by reading a book like this is no easy task, especially for someone for whom mathematics and science has dominated their education and career.

I won't attempt to summarize Hacker's arguments. (It would be interesting to read a counterpoint.) But I will touch on one argument, the question of taking coursework that will not likely have practical value for a student. I bristle at this, especially when someone I know tries to tell me that because a knowledge of history has no value in the workplace, history education is a waste. On the other hand, I have been known to argue with one of my friends that there is little or no value in taking classes in Latin. And I do not understand those who put the so-called "classical" education on a pedestal.

What should students be required to learn, and when? This is a really tough question. I could ask how physical education ("P.E." we used to call it) prepared me for supporting myself and my family when I finished school. I could easily grumble over my grades in P.E., grades that were not impressive because I didn't have the athletic "aptitude" that others did. But if I fall back on that argument, was it fair to my fellow students who didn't share my mathematics aptitude for them to be compared against me?

There are no easy answers to many questions in education policy. It may not be comfortable to admit that, but it is a good thing that people like Andrew Hacker challenge our thinking.