31 March 2007

Stupid Angel Tricks

Some years ago I found a mouse had gnawed holes in some of our paper sacks. The hole bore a striking resemblance to an image of a mouse. "Look," I said, showing it to my nephew Brandon, "I think the mice are trying to communicate with us."

"What is it supposed to be?" asked Brandon. "A rabbit's head?"

"No, turn it over, the other way. See, doesn't that look like a mouse?"

"It's crude, and the proportions are wrong."

"Yeah, okay, but the impressive thing is that it made the attempt at all. You know, when a donkey flies, you don't criticize it for not staying up that long, like the guy said."

"My point is," said Brandon, "it's a mouse. What's it got to say? 'Hey, I'm a mouse--look at me! I'm living in your house. I'm eating your stuff.' It's trivia. Not important."

Well, maybe. At any rate, my mouse-gnawed self-portrait beats the hell out of that blobby white thing Custos Fidei is trying to pass off as an angel. You have to see this to believe it. I wonder how he can tell that it's not a ghost? a UFO? Bigfoot? Or maybe an attempt by the mice at St. Peter's Basilica to communicate--at least it looks rather like a legless mouse with oversize ears to me.

29 March 2007

Dubious Documents: The Case of the Bible of the Revolution

One of my many unfinished projects is something I have tentatively titled Dubious Documents. The chain of links between the creation and reception of a text is fraught with peril, and errors in transmission, translation, and interpretation can render a document toxic. The idea was to examine a number of documents that aren't what they're cracked up to be, and to see what exactly went wrong in each case. One of the texts I was considering is the (so-called) Bible of the Revolution, the 1782 Bible printed by Robert Aitken.

Now I don't have my files available at the moment, thanks to the fact that I have no office. I have no access to my notes. My books are in storage. More and more I'm being forced to rely on the often dubious resources of the internet to find the grist for my daily mill. In this case, however, I really lucked out. Somehow or other I stumbled onto an account of the "Bible of the Revolution" by Chris Rodda, the author of Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History.

What Chris Rodda has done is extremely neat, and I hope more authors in the future follow up on this approach. She put her footnotes on line. I can't emphasize this enough--she has given us her sources, and not just simple citations, but actual images of pages or documents so that the readers can examine her evidence directly for themselves. This practice alone, if followed by others, would eliminate much bogus scholarship--cargo-cult scholarship I called it once in connection with those who support the so-called Byzantine Majority Text of the New Testament.

So in this case I want to emphasize that whatever research I may have done in the past on this subject, for this piece I acknowledge that I am simply taking Chris Rodda's research as the basis for my account. (Not of course that she's in any way responsible for my take on the issues involved.)

Okay, so what's the story on the Bible of the Revolution? What is the shadow that hangs over it? This version comes from William Federer's America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations (courtesy of Chris Rodda):
Robert Aitken (1734-1802), on January 21, 1781, as publisher of The Pennsylvania Magazine, petitioned Congress for permission to print Bibles, since there was a shortage of Bibles in America due to the Revolutionary War interrupting trade with England. The Continental Congress, September 10, 1782, in response to the shortage of Bibles, approved and recommended to the people that The Holy Bible be printed by Robert Aitken of Philadelphia. This first American Bible was to be "a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools".
The story has been around for awhile. It got a boost in 1930 when two guys had one of these rare bibles dismembered and the pages individually bound along with an account of this story and facsimiles of related documents. Chris Rodda cites one account (W. P. Strickland, History of the American Bible Society from its Organization to the Present Time) from 1849:
In 1781, when, from the existence of the war, an English Bible could not be imported, and no opinion could be formed how long the obstruction might continue, the subject of printing the Bible was again presented to Congress, and it was, on motion, referred to a committee of three.

The committee, after giving the subject a careful investigation, recommended to Congress an edition printed by Robert Aitken, of Philadelphia; whereupon it was "Resolved, That the United States, in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interests of religion; and being satisfied of the care and accuracy of the execution of the work, recommend this edition to the inhabitants of the United States."
What is particularly interesting is that this account gives the text of a key document in the story, the actual resolution by Congress. The document is a bit puzzling, however, in that Congress merely approves Aitken's undertaking, and recommends his volume. What practical effect this might have is unclear. Also the document as printed doesn't have that line in it about it being a neat edition for use in schools given in the later account.

Now fortunately--and this isn't always the case with historical documents, far from it--the original archives still survive. So in this case we can check the text of this version against the original, and when we do, we find that the text of this document has been unaccountably garbled in transmission. The resolution actually read:
Whereupon, Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country, and being satisfied of the care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorise him to publish this recommendation in the manner he shall think proper.
The first thing that jumps out--and this is a low end version of what is called redaction criticism--is that the Strickland version omits two key passages--the first giving a secular reason for Congress's action ("an instance of the progress of arts in this country"), and the second giving a practical consequence of the resolution (Aitken is authorized to publish the recommendation of Congress based on the care and accuracy taken in the work). The editing of the text appears to have been done to give the impression that Congress was more intimately involved with the project than it was--to make it look, in fact, as though Congress was sponsoring Aitken's bible. The surrounding text shows that is exactly what Strickland wants us to understand, and his conclusion is especially striking:
Who, in view of this fact, will call in question the assertion that this is a Bible nation? Who will charge the government with indifference to religion, when the first Congress of the States assumed all the rights and performed all the duties of a Bible Society long before such an institution had an existence in the world!
The changes, in other words, help make the document support Strickland's position. Whether he is the perpetrator of this new version of the Congressional resolution, or merely a victim of some other editor, is immaterial. The key point is that the text was altered, and that the alteration was made in the interest of religious politics.

Which, in turn, casts some doubt on the rest of the story. Fortunately, we don't have to leave it there. The documents exist, and Chris Rodda's research gives us the rest of the story. Remember that phrase about the Aitken Bible being a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures intended for schools? That wasn't in the resolution. Where did it come from? It came from a record of Congress, says one source, which is technically true. It came, in fact, from a memorial of Robert Aitken of the city of Philadelphia, printer, to the Congress of the United States. He started by noting
that in every well regulated government in Christendom the Sacred Books of the Old and New Testament, commonly called the Holy Bible, are printed and published under the Authority of the Sovereign Powers in order to prevent the fatal confusion that should arise, and the {alarming} injuries the Christian Faith might {suffer} from spurious and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation.
(The words in {brackets} are difficult to read.) Aitken, in other words, was thinking of the United States as functioning somewhat in the manner of England, which had an officially established church, and in which publishing the authorized version of the bible was a prerogative of the Crown. After a hard-to-read sentence suggesting that Congress should share his views, he goes on
Under this persuasion your Memorialist begs leave to inform your Honours that he {hath} begun and made considerable progress in a neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools. [And] being cautious of {suffering} his copy of the Bible to {be set forth} without the Sanction of Congress Humbly prays that your Honors would take this important Matter into serious consideration & would be [illegible] to a [illegible] one Member or Members of your Honorable [illegible] to inspect his work to that the same may be published under the authority of Congress. And memorialist prays that he may be Commissioned or otherwise appointed & authorized to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures, in such manner and form as may best suit the wants and demands of the good people of these States, provided the same being in all things perfectly consonant to the Scriptures as heretofore Established and received amongst us.
So it looks as if Robert Aitken, printer, had visions of being the authorized bible publisher for the new nation, "appointed ... to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures"; the possibility of getting the contract for supplying school bibles must have seemed especially attractive. He seems to have been traditional enough not to want anything to do with an edition that was not "perfectly consonant to the Scriptures as heretofore Established". I find this proviso interesting. Did he imagine that Congress might come up with its own version of the Holy Scriptures? It seems to speak of a certain lack of confidence in the soundness of their religion, anyway.

So, how did Congress respond to these requests? Did it recommend that Aitken's bible be used in schools? Well, no. Did it commission Robert Aitken, printer, to print and vend editions of the Holy Scriptures? Again, no. Did it have the work published under its authority? Once again, no. What Congress did was have the chaplains check the book for accuracy, and allow Aitken to publish a statement that Congress found it to be carefully and accurately done. And that's all Congress did. They pointedly did not authorize its use in schools, for example. In the end Congress did not even buy copies for distribution to the troops, as Aitken hoped. The edition lost money, and its poor sales are the reason it is so rare today.

So, what is the meaning of all this? Well, I don't know. Documents become corrupt for a variety of reasons. This example at least shows how religious politics can distort the text of one document, cloud the origins of another, and at least imply an authority for a third that it never possessed. In point of fact the "Bible of the Revolution" is simply a failed speculation on the part of an obscure printer in the late eighteenth century.

12 March 2007

SF Classics I Have Read

Five Public Opinions and The Lippard Blog both have a list of the fifty most significant SF and fantasy books of the past fifty years. The idea is to reproduce the list with the titles you yourself have actually read in bold. Okay, here goes:

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

I know I've started both The Sword of Shannara and Neuromancer, but I don't remember finishing either. I was pleased to see some of my personal favorites here: Stand on Zanzibar, The Man in the High Castle, The Stars My Destination. There are others that surprise me in the other direction--why on earth is Starship Troopers included and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress omitted? My personal list would have included Silverberg's To Open the Sky, Sheckley's Mindswap, and maybe Pohl & Kornbluth's Gladiator at Law.

Addendum:
A few specific comments:

Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien): Overrated, but still amazing. I don't know how many times I've reread it, or for that matter how many different ways I've read it; the thing that amazes me about it is the illusion of depth. If the characters (say) pass over an ancient battlefield, it doesn't just lie there--you can research it and find out who took part in that battle, what it was about, and what happened to the participants. You don't have to, of course, but it's one of the things that made the book fascinating. On the other hand, Tolkien is a mediocre writer and a truly dreadful poet. He is at his worst in bits (like the Tom Bombadil sequence) when his poetic impulses come to the fore, especially with allegedly comic poetry. Somebody should shut Samwise up for good.

The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov): "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." The Mule. The second Foundation at the opposite end of the galaxy. This series had a profound grip on me at one time, and the events still have a mythic quality in my mind--a mythic quality, alas, not justified by the actual work. For me it came as a series, by the way, and I didn't read it in sequence. I read the first and third volumes before I had the second. What impressed me is that the hero of the sequence is not a person, or even an institution, but an idea. The Seldon plan. These words still resonate with me. Anyway. The trouble is that Asimov was still learning his craft when he wrote these stories, and some of them are far superior to others. When you add in the later volumes the change in skill level feels actually painful.

Dune (Frank Herbert): This was never one of my favorites, but virtually everybody else I knew was really excited by it. It's been far too long since I've read it for me to make any serious comment on it.

Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein): I deliberately didn't read this book for a number of years, mostly because so many people I knew were enthusiastic about it. No, it wasn't the number of people--it was the kind of people I knew who liked it. They didn't inspire me with confidence in their literary tastes. Guys who insisted that we could live on what grew naturally in our back yards and who thought that the finding of Noah's Ark (as if it had actually been found) somehow disproved Darwin. Also I grew apart from Heinlein after a while--I liked The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag and some of the Future History series, but as he delved further and further into Crazy Capitalist Fantasies I quit reading him. Well, not altogether, but that's another story. When I finally did read Stranger in a Strange Land, I was actually rather pleasantly surprised. It still wouldn't be on my list of fifty SF books, but it's not a bad little story. I've always pictured Jim Backus as Jubal Harshaw and Goldie Hawn as Jill.

The Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula Le Guin): I have a very positive sense of this book--wasn't this a series?--but it's actually been so long that nothing is coming to mind about it. If my collection wasn't packed up somewhere I'd take a quick look at it and refresh my memory a bit; I know what the cover looks like anyway. I enjoy Le Guin's work anyway--it's irritating that this won't come back to mind.

Neuromancer (William Gibson): I never finished it, and I wasn't impressed by what I read of it.

Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke): Now Clarke actually can write, and his ability, I think, makes Childhood's End look better than it is. If I were going to pick one of his early works, it would be The City and the Stars (rewritten from his first novel Against the Fall of Night).

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K. Dick): Brilliant.

The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley): Okay, I really didn't care for this one--maybe I was over-sold on it or something. I read it I think at about the same time as Clan of the Cave Bear and for about the same reason, and I didn't care for either of them. On the other hand, I knew a number of people whose taste in literature is reasonably sound who liked it. Go figure.

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury): Bradbury at his worst. Bradbury really is not a novelist at all; he is a great short-story writer. For reasons that have never been obvious to me, one of Bradbury's repeated themes was his notion of a conspiracy of clinical rationalists banding together to stamp out fantasy. Here he goes that one better, and has them stamping out all books of any kind. A much better choice would have been The Martian Chronicles.

The Book of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe): Not only have I never read this one, I've never even heard of it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.): I remember this as outstanding, but you know, I haven't read it in a long time. I probably should look at it again.

The Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov): A favorite of mine, but I like a lot of Asimov probably beyond its desert. I liked another one of his detective-like stories better; it was called something like The Currents of Space.

Children of the Atom (Wilmar Shiras): This one I was surprised to see here; it's been awhile since I read it, but the last time I did I was rather disappointed. There is some interesting speculation here about future developments of the human species, and the idea of a multi-bodied being is interesting, but the story line is really not compelling.

Cities in Flight (James Blish): I remember enjoying this when it came out, though

The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett): I haven't read it.

Dangerous Visions
(edited by Harlan Ellison): Pretentious crap.

Deathbird Stories (Harlan Ellison): I haven't read it.

The Demolished Man
(Alfred Bester): This, I think, is usually regarded as Bester's masterpiece, but I personally like The Stars My Destination better.

Dhalgren (Samuel R. Delany): I've never read it, mainly because I don't like Delany. Or if I have, I seem to have forgotten it.

Dragonflight
(Anne McCaffrey):

Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card): I've never read it.

The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (Stephen R. Donaldson): I don't think I've read this; the title is familiar however.

The Forever War (Joe Haldeman): I've never read it.

Gateway
(Frederik Pohl): I enjoyed this when it came out, but I thought it was over-hyped. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't come to it with such high expectations. I've never felt the desire to reread it, however, and as I recall there was a sequel? I haven't read it, if there was.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
(J.K. Rowling): Rowling is competent and a genuine story-teller, and the Harry Potter series deserves its success. So do a lot of children's books that have been neglected, however. And if Rowling makes the list, why doesn't C. S. Lewis? Still, that's nit-picking, I guess.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
(Douglas Adams): The original BBC series was amazing, ***

I Am Legend (Richard Matheson): I either haven't read this or don't remember it; I've read a lot of Matheson and probably something of his should be on this list.

Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice): I haven't read it.

The Left Hand of Darkness
(Ursula K. Le Guin):

Little, Big (John Crowley): I haven't read this one.

Lord of Light
(Roger Zelazny):

The Man in the High Castle
(Philip K. Dick):

Mission of Gravity
(Hal Clement):

More Than Human
(Theodore Sturgeon):

The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith


On the Beach, Nevil Shute


Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke


Ringworld
(Larry Niven):

Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys


The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien


Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut


Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson): I never read this.

Stand on Zanzibar
(John Brunner):

The Stars My Destination
(Alfred Bester): This is one of my favorite books period. Gully Foyle's convoluted revenge on Vorga, the ship that abandoned him in space, is ultimately breathtaking. Or something like that. The Scientific People. Synesthesia. The Burning Man. Quant suff.

Starship Troopers
(Robert A. Heinlein): I can think of any number of Heinlein titles I might have included in a list like this, and this one wouldn't be one of them. In Starship Troopers, as in Glory Road, Heinlein is practically reduced to self-parody.

Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock


The Sword of Shannara (Terry Brooks): I never finished this one, and don't even have much of an impression of it.

Timescape (Gregory Benford): Never read it.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Philip Jose Farmer):

11 March 2007

Something to Remember

[NOTE: The following was written in 1991 and is reprinted here for no good reason.]

It seems that the age of great historical discoveries is not over. One Joe B. Cassel of Lindale Texas has discovered some words of Abraham Lincoln's that are unknown to scholars, historians, and Lincoln biographers. He found them in a drawer he had not looked in for ages.

He submitted them for examination to Ann Landers, the advice columnist, who apparently pronounced them authentic, as she published them in her column. They appear there as follows:

Something to Remember

You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot help little men up by tearing down big men.
You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot further brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred.
You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money.
You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away men's initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.
Abraham Lincoln

It is odd that these words sound nothing like Lincoln, but hey--you can't argue with facts. Lincoln's name was on the thing, wasn't it? And it was found in a drawer, and at that a drawer that hadn't been looked in for years. What more proof could you want? Probably Lincoln left them there himself on a visit to Lindale Texas. It's even stranger that a certain Reverend William Boetcker apparently copyrighted this piece in 1916, but surely so eminent an authority as Ann Landers could not be mistaken. Nobody whose words reach millions every day would be so irresponsible as to rush into print without checking its authenticity very carefully.

Maybe it doesn't really matter who wrote the words; it might be argued that they are so wise and wonderful that they stand on their own. By a curious coincidence, I myself discovered some similar words in a drawer the other day, mixed in among my odd socks. This is a drawer I have not looked in for a very long time; in fact I never look in it if I can avoid it. The words seem to have been written by George Washington, the father of our country. Although it's a little hard to tell whether the first name is Geo. or Cleo, I think we will all agree that whoever wrote them, they are wise and wonderful.

Something to Remember

You cannot promote the truth by spreading a lie.
You cannot lengthen the grass by mowing the lawn.
You cannot raise revenues by cutting taxes.
You cannot hit the broad side of a barn with a SCUD missile.
You cannot find something out by being taken in.
You cannot collect social security until you have turned 65.
You cannot make a bad check good by signing another man's name to it.
You cannot win a land war in Asia without overwhelming air superiority.
You cannot get a driver's license without three pieces of ID, at least one of which has your picture on it.
You cannot get something really stupid published, unless you attribute it to somebody really famous.
George (or maybe Cleo) Washington
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