Saturday, August 29, 2020
Vladimir Obruchev (1863-1956)
Rumors of an occupied island north of Bennett Island had persisted for some time. Baron Toll had mounted an expedition in search of the lost bit of land north of the New Siberian Island group, but his mission was presumed lost. No news of his voyage had ever been received by the authorities. Rumors of a range of mountains in the far northern reaches of the Arctic Ocean beyond Kotelny Island had been bruited for some time, and Toll's intention had been to verify those rumors. Birds had been observed flying north for the winter and one of the Siberian peoples, the Onkilons, had reportedly been driven north over the sea to an unknown destination by the fierce Chukchi tribe. Professor Schenk, naturalist and geologist, had long been fascinated by the idea of a civilization in the far north, above the 80th parallel, and he determined to mount an effort designed to discover its location. So he arranged for three of his former students to assemble the requisite materials for an investigation.
Matvei Goryunov, Semyon Ordin, and Pavel Kostyakov had been expelled from the university due to "student disorders", and they formed the core of the attempt. Other hunters and sledge drivers went along also, and they took sixty dogs with them. Traveling to Irkutsk, they floated down the Lena river to Kazachye village on the coast and left the mainland in the middle of March. The first goal was to Cape Nos, 200 kilometers east of Kazachye. From there it was 70 kilometers to Bolshoi Yakov Island, the closest member of the New Siberian Archipelago. They set off with eight sledges and forged their way, chopping passages through ice hummocks and pressure ridges, reaching the island after a long day's trek. They stayed in a hunter's cabin and spent some time exploring the area for mammoth tusks and other fossils. The land was principally Quaternary silts and extruded granitic eminences. The next objective was Kotelny Island, much larger, and a center for seal and bear hunters, with a large winter house equipped with food and spare gear. At this point, most of the sledge drivers and hunters stayed behind or went home while the three principals continued on.
Reaching open sea in a few miles, the group unloaded the canoes that had been carried on the sledges, and set out to paddle their way to what appeared to be a very faint range of high mountains in the north. They were overtaken by a very violent storm and were lucky enough to run across an ice floe sufficiently large enough to enable the erection of tents and provide protection from the powerful wind gusts. The wind eventually blew itself out but not before it had pushed the floe a long distance to the north, and adjacent to what was determined to be Sannikov Land. After landing they managed to ascend a coastal cliff about 3000 feet high. From the top they were able to look down into a lush, verdant valley with grasslands and forests, dotted with lakes and rivers and completely surrounded by the range of mountains they were standing on. Clambering along the top to the west for several miles they found a sort of pass that seemed to lead down into the valley. When they arrived at the bottom, they discovered an edenic savannah being browsed on by herds of fossil animals: yaks, deer, wooly rhinoceroses, and even Przevalsky horses. The temperature was warm and pleasant and it wasn't long before the geologist among the travelers understood that they were standing in an ancient caldera that was apparently heated by underlying magma deposits.
They set up a base camp and left one of the hunters in charge of it while the rest explored the nearby forest. From the top they had estimated that the valley was about 50 by 80 kilometers in area and included various types of habitat. The vegetation was dense but penetrated with animal trails which permitted easier traveling. They saw jays, magpies, jackdaws, eagles, wooly rhinos and huge ancestral cave bears. One of the lakes had a tufa hill in the middle which erupted a spout of water every 33 minutes. Entering an opening in the woods they were suddenly accosted by a tribe of indigenes. After some peaceful gestures, they were able to converse a little, as the strangers were Onkilons who spoke a version of Tibetan, which one of the hunters understood. They were naked from the waist up and tatooed all over. They wore bear claw necklaces and had feathers stuck in the their top knots. All in all, they resembled American Indians. The travelers were welcomed as gods because of their killing sticks (rifles) and their unusual clothing: the Onkilons wore trousers made of animal skins. They lived by hunting and by cultivation of maragon bulbs and water chestnuts, from which they made a kind of soup or, alternatively, a version of pancakes, to accompany their main diet of meat.
The explorers lived with the Onkilons for several months and during the native "Spring Festival", they all were assigned wives. Soon, however, a new peril made itself known. There was another humanoid race on the island, called the Wampus, who were much more primitive and more aggressive. They were covered with fur and resembled Neaderthals, or maybe Neanderthalian ancestors. They ate raw meat and snarled a lot. They worshipped mammoths and lived in caves. A source of danger to the Onkilons, their aggressive behavior had already destroyed one Onkilon enclave, of which there were about twenty in the valley. A plot to attack them was arranged with the help of the visiting Russians, and carried out with enthusiasm, but shortly thereafter, to the satisfaction of the Onkilon shaman, the new gods were seemingly responsible for a series of earthquakes that shook the whole island. The quakes became worse over time until it became obvious to the new comers that some major cataclysm was on the verge of destroying the entire caldera. The water vanished and steam began erupting from large open fissures and the explorers determined that it was time to make tracks out of there.
After a number of violent clashes with the natives and animals, and some hair-breadth escapes, the newcomers struggled to the top of the surrounding mountain range just in time to see the valley erupt in a major conflagration, with explosions, very loud cracks and crashes, and the disappearance of most of the valley floor, unfortunately taking the inhabitants with it. Hurriedly descending the outer cliffs, the survivors reclaimed their canoes and after more dangers and close shaves, arrived back at Kazachye. When they reported back to Schenk, the latter was not disappointed with the results of the expedition, but planned on financing a new venture to the place almost immediately. But he died before he could carry out his new plan and the members of the company were soon separated by the onset of the Japanese/Russian war of the early 20th century.
Sannikov Land was purportedly a real place, first sighted in the early 19th century by an itinerant hunter. Some years later, a Baron Toll mounted an expedition to find it but his team vanished without a trace. There was a lot of speculation in the following years about undiscovered country in the far north, but to date, Henrietta Island is the most remote piece of land that has been located, north of Siberia. It's slightly north of the deLong archipelago, at about 77 degrees latitude. There was a lot of interesting geological information included in the book, as Obruchev was a prominent Russian geologist, and any one interested in the pretty complex substructure of the north sea might find this book informative in an elementary way...
Saturday, August 22, 2020
ASHENDEN: THE BRITISH AGENT
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)
(Note: lots of spoilers in this report). As WW1 got under way, Ashenden, novelist and play-wright, felt the need to do something for the war effort, so he joined the Intelligence Service. "R", his immediate supervisor, sent him to Geneva to operate a courier service conveying information provided by German spies to sources in France. He made a weekly trip to France on the ferry boat and this was a source of curiosity to the local police. So he was interviewed and after a few tense moments was able to convince them that he was a mere author searching for the peace necessary to his artistic output. He's staying at a local hotel along with an assortment of odd expatriots, among whom were a former girlfriend and an Egyptian royal family. A Mrs. King was a servant to the family; she was roundly mistreated by the two daughters, who seemed to delight in shaming her before the rest of the residents. She was very old and maintained a haughty presence in spite of her lowly position. Also present were Baroness von Higgins, an old friend of Ashenden's, and several more spy types, all more or less involved in secret information bartering. One night, Ashenden is called to Mrs. King's room. She's dying and has something to tell, but will only share it with Ashenden. With her last gasp, she utters "England", and expires.
For his next job, Ashenden is sent to Italy with a character called "the hairless Mexican". This is a totally narcissistic personality attached to a strong fearless body with no hair. He brags constantly and is along to assassinate a courier from Greece who is carrying valuable papers. The plot becomes confused and Carmona (the Mexican) with blithe unconcern, kills the wrong man and tells Ashenden that there were no papers on his body. Then he catches a ship to Spain with the remaining monies.
At the next meeting with R in Paris, Ashenden learrns of an East Indian agent named Chandra Lal who has been creating a lot of havoc for the British by working with the Germans to undermine British influence in India and other places. R sets up a plan by which he uses Lal's girlfriend to attract him to France, with the intention of wringing a lot of information out of him. The trap works, except Lal commits suicide via a small bottle of prussic acid before he's arrested.
The next city R is interested in is Lucerne. There's a couple living there, a botanist and his wife, who are suspected of being double agents for Germany. Ashenden registers in the hotel they're living in and becomes friends with them. After some more Sneaky-Pete finagling, he persuades the botanist to return to England, where he's shot. The wife falls apart and is left dangling and bereft.
In another unidentified city, Ashenden acts as a double agent in order to test the loyalties of several ambassadors. The American drinks a lot and leaks information that is overheard by his maid and delivered to Ashenden. The latter gets him sent back to America. In a more or less ancillary operation, Ashenden learns about an opportunity to blow up a Polish armaments factory, but has trouble deciding whether to do it or not, as it would result in the deaths of a large number of Polish citizens. He flips a coin to make the decision, but the reader never learns the outcome of the toss.
In the final episode, we see Ashenden in Vladivostok, where he's about to entrain for Petrograd. He's traveled by ship around the world to get there and is not looking forward to the ten day train ride. (It's never explained why he didn't just take ship through the Baltic Sea). He's joined on the journey by a New England salesman named Harrington. Harrington is tall and thin and an immaculate dresser. He talks constantly about his clothes and why things are better in New England and drives Ashenden nuts. They arrive in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) at last. Kerensky is head of the government and is in a quandary about how to unite the Russian people, and all the political sects, into one faction. Soon chaos reigns and rioting in the streets occurs, with the militia cruising around stealing and shooting people. Harrington is upset because his laundry has vanished. Against advice, he runs out of the hotel to look for the washer-lady and never comes back. Later, Ashenden finds him face down in a pool of blood. End of book.
I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this book, and i realized that it was not at all what it seemed to be. The character of Ashenden is caught in a stream of occurrences about which he can do little, and he appears to be carried along in a completely nonsensical series of events. At several points, the Polish arms factory, and Harrington's death, there is no sense of drama or story-telling, just an ongoing sequence of meaningless violence and brutality. I think Maugham was playing a double game of a metaphoric sort, alluding to the horror of human experience, especially war, and how it permeates almost all human activity, without actually coming out and saying it. Ashenden's career rolls along like an ocean wave, gaining impetus as it nears the shore and finally crashes on the beach. That's the only way i can think of that would resolve the abrupt ending of the book. The double meanings inherent in the way it was written don't appear to me to suggest any other rationale. It's like Maugham was so horrified by so-called normal events that he could only intimate what he considered to be the reality of what he saw through suggestion, and not very overt suggestion at that. Or perhaps, since he saw the skull beneath the skin of human existence so clearly, it was the only way he could think of to make what really seems like a "cri de coeur"; a heartfelt scream against reality as he saw it.
Saturday, August 15, 2020
SIR HARRY HOTSPUR OF HUMBLETHWAITE
Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)
Sir Harry's principal concern, contemplating his will, has to do with maintaining the family's reputation as upper class stewards of the lands, villages and inhabitants of the Hotspur holdings; a relationship that has lasted 400 years and that is now in some danger of disarray due to the death of the elder son at a premature age. Harry sees that the best solution is to marry his daughter Emily to a suitable suitor with a lot of money and a title, but the most obvious candidate, Lord Alfred, is devoid of any merit in Emily's eyes. There's another possibility, cousin George Hotspur, but he's not regarded as honorable or rich. In fact, he, as a result of a Parisian upbringing and an overly liberal education, is somewhat of a rakehell whose only interests are gambling, drinking and card sharpery. Somewhat at a loss, Sir Harry throws a party and invites the cousin, hoping against hope that he is reformable and that faced with the chance of becoming wealthy and powerful, he might abandon his heedless ways and become a responsible citizen and a worthy husband for his daughter.
So Emily falls in love with the young ne'er-do-well, convinced that she can change him into a loyal servitor and trustworthy land owner. Young Harry is deeply in debt to London money-lenders and his first thought is to somehow influence Sir Harry to pay off his debts. But he's such a waster that, even though Emily loves him, it seems like throwing money down the drain to regularize cousin Harry's financial affairs. Later it's revealed that not only is he in debt, but he's a criminal, having cheated another young man with marked cards. Emily discovers all this but loves him anyway, being the sort of young lady who, once committed, never changes her mind.
After a certain amount of waffling about, with Harry trying to act civilized and Emily trying to convince her father that he's salvageable, Sir Harry agrees to pay the bills and to provide an annual income for Harry of 500 L's a year. But even so, the young villain eventually realizes that being stuck in the country for the rest of his life is not a situation that appeals to him. He would much rather marry his actress girl-friend and drink brandy and gamble with his friends, than marry Emily and spend his life cooped up in a structured rural farming society. which he didn't know anything about anyhow.
Devastated (spoiler alert), Sir Harry and his wife and daughter travel to Italy in hopes of distracting Emily from her single-minded love, but to no avail. She passes away and is buried in Lugano. Returning home, Sir Harry creates a new will, leaving everything to a rich relative of his wife.
This was in a way an unsatisfactory book, partly because the plot was overly obvious, and the tragic ending was evident early in the denouement. The main interest to me lay in Trollope's astute and well presented observations, psychological and social. I learned more about him in this book than in the Barsetshire novels. Trollope has a sort of kaleidoscopic ability to study his characters while he's developing their roles: with a twist of the kaleidoscope sleeve, he's able to view his people from an entirely new viewpoint, and describe their behaviors from a stance that might not have been previously obvious to the reader, or anticipated through the plot development. These sorts of changes also indicate possible events that may have transpired in Trollope's own life. As in: how did he become aware of the feelings and actions of gamblers and card-players if he hadn't experienced similar situations in his own life? And it's not only in small details that this sort of connection is evinced; it pervades the whole book: he reveals throughout his familiarity with social behavior on all levels of British society as well as his feelings about how individuals cope with the invisible mores which govern their lives.
It was quite surprising and enlightening, a side of Trollope i hadn't noticed in such a powerful way before, and on the basis of that, i'd recommend the book highly. I'm sure other readers are familiar with this talent on the part of T, and this is in all probability one reason why he's so popular. So maybe it just took this long for me to get it, haha... anyway, it was an unusual experience and will most likely lead this reader to more of his books...
Saturday, August 8, 2020
LAURA: A JOURNEY INTO THE CRYSTAL
George Sand (1804-1876)
Uncle Tungstenius owns and operates a natural history museum. His nephew, Alexius Hartz, works for him, taking care of the exhibits and dealing with customers. One day his cousin Laura came to visit. She expressed pity that a nice young man like Alexius hasn't achieved more in his nineteen years. So he goes back to school to study mineralogy, then returns to the museum and meets Walter, another cousin, who is a rabid promoter of the coal industry. While they are arguing about the importance of their individual interests, Laura pays another visit and inspires love in the heart of Alexis. The two find themselves alone near the display cases one day and talk about rocks. Alexis enters a sort of dream state in which he imagines himself and Laura being magically swept into a large geode. They had been talking about the minerals that constituted the exhibits: zirconium, jasper, chalcedony, beryl, sapphire, pyromorphite, labradorite, aventurine, gypsum, etc. and all of a sudden they found themselves surrounded by giant crystal peaks and spires. They climb the largest edifice in the immediate neighborhood and gaze in wonder at the colors and flashing lights surrounding them. All of a sudden there's an explosion and a brilliant flash of light and Alexius wakes up on the floor of the museum, having apparently fallen into one of the glass display cabinets and cut himself.
Laura leaves soon after and Alexius travels to the Tyrol mountains to study the mineralogy or the area. Two years later he returns to the museum and finds Laura again. She is engaged to Walter but doesn't love him. She gives Alexius a magic ring which carries him back to the crystal world he'd previously gone to with Laura, and where she tells him she loves only him, not Walter. Laura says that there are two sides to every person, the mundane and the spiritual, the physical body being the mere shadow of the spiritual, which encompasses the entire realm of time and space.
Laura's father, Naias, appears and interests Alexius in traveling to the inside of the planet Earth to find rare minerals and crystals to sell and make themselves rich. Naias is a world traveler and jewel seller, and is familiar with mysterious, unknown regions in obscure corners of the planet. Alexius agrees to accompany him and they set off for northern Greenland, where they hire Eskimos and sledges with which to make their way over the ice. After an arduous trek, they reach a warm ocean near the North Pole, and, leaving the Eskimos behind, set out by themselves in a canoe, intent on discovering an entrance to the lower world and its wealth. Days pass and a giant crystal mountain appears on the horizon, ten thousand feet higher than Mt. Everest. They approach another coast, surrounded by enormous tourmaline crystals lying on their sides with the sharp ends pointing out to sea. Fortunately they run upon a small beach and manage to land the canoe on the narrow, rocky shore. After scouting around they happen upon a path through the cliff and find a vast expanse of grassland filled with prehistoric animals. Giant bears, bison, goats, and aurochs are visible. Huge beetles like flying buffalo pass overhead and the two travelers manage to lasso a couple of them. They climb aboard and sail grandly over the lea until they get caught in an enormous monkey puzzle tree. Continuing on, thornfully, they dine on thistles and caterpillars while lolling about on twenty foot long turtles. Giant frogs sing to them.
They reach the giant peak at last, only to find that it's surrounded by a large lake with a 5,000 foot high waterfall. But the lake is not water, it's a lava plain, with pumice seracs and erratic boulders lying around. Approaching the mountain, they see that the plain descends into unlit depths. Naias makes a rope out of vetch roots and begins to swing himself down into a sort of lava pit. Alexius follows and they fall into an ash bed and forge their way across it toward the base of the peak, which, they see, is actually a giant olivine crystal. The next day, after dining on vetch, they come to the edge of the lava plain and stare down into a vast opening below the mountain. Immense crystals clog the sides of the seemingly limitless gorge: Amethyst, ruby, beryl, sapphire, diamond and calcite crystals plus thousands of others, previously unnamed. It seems, indeed, that the interior of the earth is decorated dwith crystals, like a geode. Naias gets excited and leaps into the abyss. Laura appears and, taking Alexius by the hand, leads him down into what turns into the garden behind the museum. After a period of recuperation, Alexius realizes that it was all a dream, and that Naias never existed. Laura's real father was a fat, jolly merchant, Christophe by name, who immediately consents to their marriage. Alexius gives him a large diamond from his polar expedition, but Laura breaks it, demonstrating that it was merely a decorative adornment from a nearby newel post. The enchantment is broken at last, and Alexius becomes a geology professor and he and Laura have two children. Due to insufficient remuneration, Alexius becomes a gem dealer and they all live happily ever after.
Ms. Sand was evidently quite interested in crystallomancy, the practice of gazing into the depths of crystals in order to visit the world of the spirit. There's quite a history of people doing this, the most famous of which might have been Dr. Dee in the 16th C. who claimed to see angels in his vision quests. Self hypnosis of some sort seems to have played a role in similar experiences throughout history. George Sand was an interesting author who led an unusual life, with many lovers and marriages and she wrote a lot of books. She was also the girl-friend of Frederic Chopin for nine years, during which time she nursed him and tried to alleviate his tuberculosis. Later she retired to her mansion in central France, where she reigned as a famous and well-regarded figure right up to her final demise. This was a quite magnetic novel, especially for those interested in geology. It was a surprising discovery, as Sand, so far as i'm aware, was not noted for her interest in the sciences. But the text showed that she had researched mineralogy at least to a minor extent, and that she used what she learned in an accurate and well-reasoned manner. I liked it.
Saturday, August 1, 2020
by Edwin Vincent Odle (1890-1942)
Dr. Allingham stood in front of the wicket, idly twirling his cricket bat while gazing into the distance. Several hundred yards up the small hill he spotted a figure capering about against the horizon. Something about it seemed unusual, but his attention was diverted by the next ball, which he swung at and missed. Bowled out, he retired to the side while continuing to glance at the unruly figure, which was zig-zagging down toward the fence in a jerky fashion, flailing it's limbs about in a knock-kneed manner. It arrived at the paling and draped itself over the wire, helplessly twitching its arms and legs. Arthur Withers, an onlooker, had seen the figure as well, and he walked over for a closer inspection. The personage had a bright red wig and a black bowler hat on, and its face was flushed and rather flabby, with a bulbous nose. Arthur noticed that it was flapping its ears violently back and forth while muttering to itself something like "Wallabaloo, wum, wum". A short period elapsed during which the man seemed to gather a bit of control over itself, then observed: "You see, i'm a clockwork man."
Gregg, the captain of the cricket team, becomes involved in examining the strange creature, and, since the game is not over, invites it to play, as they are one participant short. The newcomer grabs the bat and at the next pitch there is a flurry of dust as the ball disappears over the hill. There's a sort of grinding noise emanating from the figure, and it goes a bit berserk, flailing about with the bat and laying low most of the members of the opposite team. Then it runs off at a high rate of speed, jumping the fence and vanishing over the same hill. Later, the ball was found at the bottom of a ditch about three miles away.
Gregg and the doctor have tea and discuss the situation. Locomotor ataxia is mentioned, coupled with the increasing stress suffered by humanity over politics and burgeoning technology. Fifteen year old Tom Driver arrives and tells the men that he's found the unusual being at the bottom of a chalk pit, having fallen in after leaving the cricket pitch. Investigating, they see that the man's hat and wig have disappeared somewhere, revealing a glass door at the back of its head through which various tiny cog wheels, spiral gears, and mechanical regulators are revealed. They help him up and he runs off again, looking for his hat and wig.
Arthur Withers is in love with Rose Lomas, and has changed as a result of his passion. Whereas he was formerly a disconsolate, slovenly layabout, now he's changed into a neat, ambitious participant in village affairs. He meets the Clockwork man in a lane near the village and they converse. The CM is from 8,000 years in the future, and his mechanical brain normally provides complete freedom in time and space, so that he can be anywhere in the universe at any time. His story is that he had been in the shop for a periodic service, but the technician had done something wrong that shut down half of his brain, and thrown him back in time.
Subsequent to several episodes, involving the Clockwork person appearing on stage as a magician, being rousted by a constable who thinks he's a ghost, and being hit by a passing car (he strokes the auto on its hood, sorry for the pain it's suffering), he finds himself one night in the doctor's parlor, looking for someone to put his brain right. The doctor nervously pokes around inside the clockwork, punches a few buttons and spins several relays and inadvertently initiates a sort of ontological reversion in the robotic man. He develops scales like a trilobite, briefly, then changes those for fins, becomes fat and then skinny, grows and loses tails and horns and eventually vanishes underneath his clothes. The doctor frantically pushes another button and restores the man to his original form.
Dr. Allingham calls his friend, Captain Gregg and the two of them meet and converse about what to do for the android. They suddenly spot a piece of paper on the floor, evidently left from one of its configurative alterations, and, reading it, they figure out how to correctly adjust the clock. They do so and the Clockwork Man instantly vanishes.
Later, Arthur and his friend Rose meet the doctor at a stile in one of the local fields and while they speculate about the bizarre goings-on, the android appears, still walking like an arthritic turkey, but obviously improved over-all. He reveals his origin and something of his world: apparently the history of mankind was so riddled with wars, cruelty, thievery, and dishonesty that the "makers" decided to do something about it. So they replaced all the human brains with mechanical substitutes, which provided total freedom in space and time so that humans could leave whatever in their environment was causing strife and resentment and travel to other parts of this universe, or indeed, to other universes or dimensions. But he admits to Rose and Arthur that love has gone and loneliness was now rampant. After this, the clockwork being slowly vanishes and they never see him again.
This was the first book ever written about an android or robot, in the science fiction sense. It was published in 1927, just before Capek's Rur. Odle had a gift for the trenchant phrase, and was an expert at communicating the quiet village atmosphere present in England between the wars. In a way the book was akin to one of Wodehouse's, but without the humor, although it would be more accurate to say it was a different sort of humor, actually. Sort of cosmic in scope. Some quotes: The conception of natural laws is the outcome of nervous apprehension because the universe is only what we think it is"; "the whole aim of man is convenience". There was more food for thought in the book than one might suppose, and the entire presentation was pleasant and informative, if slightly beyond the pale of ordinary apprehension. I liked it, but it was the only book ever published by Odle. He did write another one but it never saw print.