Author Archive | Roderick

Battlestar Wars: Imperious Strikeback

So everybody knows the original Battlestar Galactica was a ripoff of Star Wars, right?

Well, in its “look” (and title), sure. In its plot, not especially. But in at least one instance the borrowing seems to have gone the other way:

Cylon and Vader Baltar: What of our bargain? My colony was to be spared!
Imperious Leader: I now alter the bargain.
(Battlestar Galactica pilot, 1978)

Lando Calrissian: That wasn’t the deal!
Darth Vader: I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further.
(The Empire Strikes Back, 1980)


Emerson on Anarchy

Ralph Waldo Emerson Ralph Waldo Emerson commenting on the not so wild wild west:

I am glad to see that the terror at disunion and anarchy is disappearing. Massachusetts, in its heroic day, had no government – was an anarchy. Every man stood on his own feet, was his own governor; and there was no breach of peace from Cape Cod to Mount Hoosac. California, a few years ago, by the testimony of all people at that time in the country, had the best government that ever existed. Pans of gold lay drying outside of every man’s tent, in perfect security. The land was measured into little strips of a few feet wide, all side by side. A bit of ground that your hand could cover was worth one or two hundred dollars, on the edge of your strip; and there was no dispute. Every man throughout the country was armed with knife and revolver, and it was known that instant justice would be administered to each offence, and perfect peace reigned. For the Saxon man, when he is well awake, is not a pirate but a citizen, all made of hooks and eyes, and links himself naturally to his brothers, as bees hook themselves to one another and to their queen in a loyal swarm.
(Speech on Affairs in Kansas, 1856)


Space Race

Some random bits of science-fiction info, all having something to do with race:

  • Earthsea poster The live-action version of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea was a disappointment. (Okay, I’m being polite; it was an abomination.) Let’s hope the animated version is better. Though judging from the poster it looks like they still haven’t figured out that Ged’s not a white dude.
  • Check out the latest Galactica rumors about war between [SPOILER!] the metallic and humanoid versions of Cylons.
  • I’ve blogged before about how Edgar Rice Burroughs’s views on race, while far from perfect, were more progressive than he’s usually given credit for. On the same lines, I just came across this review by Patrick Adkins of what sounds like an awful ERB bio.
  • On a related subject, I was recently astonished to discover that a passage in ERB’s Pirates of Venus [by the way, it’s “illegal” to click the preceding link if you’re in the U.S., since apparently Pirates is in the public domain in Australia but not here; so of course none of my right-thinking U.S. readers would dream of doing so] has been interpreted (see here and here) as an expression of support for the Ku Klux Klan!

    Well, here is the passage; judge for yourself:

    “Sit close to us, Zog,” directed Kiron; “I have something to say that no one but a Soldier of Liberty may hear.” … He did not say Soldier of Liberty, but “kung, kung, kung,” which are the Amtorian initials of the order’s title. Kung is the name of the Amtorian character that represents the k sound in our language, and when I first translated the initials I was compelled to smile at the similarity they bore to those of a well-known secret order in the United States of America.

    Is the narrator smiling at the pleasing coincidence that a pro-freedom organisation on Venus has the same initials as an Earth organisation he likewise regards as pro-freedom? Or is he smiling at the irony that a pro-freedom organisation on Venus has the same initials as an Earth organisation he regards as anti-freedom?

    Taking this passage in isolation, there’s no way to decide between these two interpretations – as one of the critics admits, while nevertheless offering the following weaselly argument: “While he was probably no racist (even though some have accused him as one) he was certainly more right-wing than left-wing, and it is possible that he shared some of the Klan’s ideals. The quote does in no way prove this, but does give room for suspicion. Too much for comfort, unfortunately.”

    Black Pirates of Barsoom Once we take the passage in the context of the Venus series as a whole, the first interpretation quickly becomes ludicrous. The Venus series represents a sustained satire of authoritarians and collectivists of all varieties, including Communists (“Thorists”), Nazis (“Zanis” whose obsession with “keeping the blood of Korvans pure” is ridiculed), and eugenicists (the people of “Havatoo,” who find the narrator genetically unfit and condemn him to die). Broaden the context still further, to recall Burroughs’s poem “The Black Man’s Burden,” parodying Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”; Burroughs’s satirical reversal of white supremacy in novels like Land of Terror and Beyond Thirty; his decision, highly unusual in the early days of science fiction, to depict other worlds (e.g. Mars and Pellucidar) as having black inhabitants, and moreover black inhabitants culturally and technologically the equal of the whites – not to mention his support for Native American rights in his westerns – and the notion of Burroughs as a Klan supporter begins to look remarkable silly. Okay, he was no Octavia Butler, but c’mon.

  • While I’m on the subject of ERB and the various hues of human skin, here’s an odd feature of his book Gods of Mars [SPOILERS if you haven’t read it!]: First the Red and Green races find out that their religion is a hoax created by the White race; then the Whites finds out that their religion is a hoax created by the Black race; and finally the Blacks discover that their religion, in turn, is a hoax created by their own leaders. Seems like some literary critic should be able to have fun with that premise ….


The Net of TIME

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

As noted previously (see here, here, here, and here), I’m a fan of Isabel Paterson’s novels. So I was interested to find reviews of some of them in the online archives of Time magazine.

Isabel Paterson Unfortunately, the reviews are cutesy and idiotic (and in the case of Never Ask the End, factually inaccurate), and would never have tempted me to read the novels; but here they are: reviews of Never Ask the End, If It Prove Fair Weather, and The Fourth Queen. (Plus there’s an especially stupid summary of the latter book, describing it as follows: “Galleon-scuttling, bussing and swearing in the bawdy days of Queen Bess. ” It’s not an inaccurate description, exactly, but what a tin ear!)

Time also offers a Paterson obituary.

Plus you can check out this more recent and much less annoying review of Never Ask the End, this one from Neglected Books rather than Time.

The Best President

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Was David Rice Atchison President of the United States for a day – or at least for a few minutes?

President Atchison? Maybe. Here’s an argument for the affirmative, and here’s one for the negative.

But if he was President, he was a pretty darn good one.

Not that he was a particularly good man. (A vigorous proponent of slavery, he advocated executing abolitionists without trial. This seems a mark against him.) But during the course of his presidency, such as it was, he did absolutely nothing.

That may put him ahead of William Henry Harrison (not an especially good man either) as least harmful president, since unlike Harrison, Atchison neither convened a special session of Congress to enact mercantilist legislation nor subjected anybody to a two-hour inaugural address in the winter wind.

Crystal Blue Persuasion

I’ve blogged previously (see here and here) about possible influences on Tolkien; well, here I go again.

The Trumpeter of Krakow I’ve been rereading Eric Kelly’s 1928 novel The Trumpeter of Krakow, one of my childhood favourites, in preparation for my attendance at the IVR Congress in Kraków next month (where I’ll be giving a paper on Spooner – but more about that in a future post).

I must say the book is even better then I’d remembered; but I had never previously noticed (perhaps because I first read it before I read Tolkien) some of the striking similarities between the book and Tolkien’s work. [NOTE: There are SPOILERS AHEAD for those who haven’t read Trumpeter.] This time the family’s flight from their home, pursued by a dark rider who seeks a treasure they carry, reminded me of Frodo and his companions fleeing the Nazgûl; Johannes Tring’s influence on Nicholas Kreutz seemed reminiscent of Wormtongue’s on Théoden, of the palantír’s on Denethor, or of the Ring’s on Gollum; both the alchemist Kreutz and the philosopher Jan Kanty resembled aspects of Gandalf; and the arrow-interrupted trumpet call itself (which incidentally can still be heard today) put me in mind of Boromir’s.

But the most striking parallel is the Tarnov crystal, a magnificent gem which Kelly describes as follows:

The room was suddenly filled with the light of a thousand candles. Colors of the rainbow fell upon the walls – a huge center of radiance like the sun in the heavens blazed into being …. Flickering, dancing flecks of light leaped about the room and transformed its gloom into the brilliancy of day. … The outer layers were clear like the water of a mountain spring; as the eye fell farther and farther within the surface, a bluish tint was perceptible …. Such was its absolute beauty that whoever looked into its depths seemed to be gazing into a sea without limit.

This is remarkably similar to Tolkien’s description of the Arkenstone:

It was like a globe with a thousand facets; it shone like silver in the firelight, like water in the sun … it was tinged with a flickering sparkle of many colours at the surface, reflected and splintered …. it took all the light that fell upon it and changed it into ten thousand sparks of white radiance shot with glints of the rainbow. … It was as if a globe had been filled with moonlight and hung before them in a net woven of the glint of frosty stars.

Of course this might be coincidence; perhaps there are only so many ways to describe a magnificent gem. But the Kelly-Tolkien parallels continue. The Tarnov crystal also turns out to have aspects of a palantír:

Indeed you have been under the hand of a devil if you have been gazing into that thing. Why, do you know that this stone can send a man into a trance in which all manner of truths will be divulged? …

The instant the king’s eyes were fixed upon the stone he became suddenly oblivious to everything else that was before him, and stood as one in a dream or trance, gazing into the depths of the fearsomely beautiful thing.

The Arkenstone And Kelly’s description of it as “a thing of wickedness and blood” with “a woeful history, as old perhaps as the world itself,” suggests a comparison with the One Ring itself. Moreover, in its influence on the characters, the Tarnov crystal partakes of aspects of both the Arkenstone and the One Ring:

It is already having a bad influence upon me. I cannot see straightly in the world of men as once I did. When I have looked into it for minutes and minutes my thoughts come back to me crookedly …. I sometimes feel as if my very soul were getting caught in the rays of that bright thing. … The first sight of it drove honesty from my head, as it has driven honesty from the heads of many who have seen it. I saw there the means of working out a great name for myself, of becoming famous, of becoming envied over all the world. I was tempted and I fell ….

Likewise, the central “gimmick” (in the Randian sense) of Tolkien’s story – the idea of a quest, not to locate a magical object, but to get rid of it – is to some extent prefigured in Kelly’s book also. The final solution of the problem posed by the crystal is suitably Tolkienesque as well:

“[W]ith such jewels as this, that cause strife between man and man, and war between nation and nation – here – now – I make an end!” … [H]e swung about and hurled the crystal into the air with all his force. … The sun struck it there as it seemed for a moment to hang between earth and sky like a glittering bubble or a shining planet. Then it fell, fell, fell – until it dropped with a splash into their black, hurried waters of the Vistula River, so that the circles for a moment beat back the waves of the rushing torrent – then all was as before.

So were some of Tolkien’s ideas inspired by The Trumpeter of Krakow? I can’t say for sure. Kelly’s book antedates the composition of The Hobbit (just barely) and Lord of the Rings, but would Tolkien have read it? When it first came out it was enormously popular in the U.S., but was it likewise so in Britain? It would also be interesting to know whether Tolkien had already developed the idea of the Silmarils by 1928; if so, then the idea of strife over magical gems was in any case already present without help from Kelly (and of course there are alternative sources of this idea too, most notably the Nibelung legends). Still, I can’t help wondering ….

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