Saturday, November 29, 2008


The Magicians, J B Priestly, Harper & Brothers, 1954, 246 pp

I had never heard of this author until I found The Magicians in a list of important novels from 1954. I learned that he wrote many novels, beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the 1970s. He was English, concerned with peace, the nature of time and memory and was of a spiritual, though not Christian, bent. Sounded good to me.

There are magicians in this book, three of them, but they are actually a sort of philosopher/god type. In fact, they reminded me of some characters in Neil Gaiman's American Gods. They meet every so often to see what they can do about helping mankind and the world. They have certain powers which they use to affect men's minds.

Charles Ravenstreet is an unhappy middle-aged man who married the boss's daughter and made a career in a big electrical company but has now become obsolete. His wife died, they had no children and he is alone and at loose ends. He has been approached by an unscrupulous businessman who wants to manufacture and sell a drug that will keep the masses happy with their lot.

OK, this could be good. But it didn't really work for me as a novel. Ravenstreet and the magicians meet, his past bad decisions get straightened out, the bad guys get what's coming and Charles ends up happy. There is some good stuff about how all time exists at once, though Priestly is a bit vague about the future, but the events are just too unlikely and Priestly is asking to be at best mocked and at worst ignored.

Luckily the book was short and happily there are other authors and books that take these ideas and write much better and more exciting stories. I think of The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham.

The Invisible Writing, Arthur Koestler, The Macmillan Company, 1954, 431 pp

This is the second volume of Koestler's autobiography which starts with Arrow in the Blue, 1952). I almost skipped it and I'm so glad I didn't. I loved it.

This volume begins in 1931 when he joined the Communist party. He travels to the Soviet Union and goes on missions into Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Then he leaves the CP, is imprisoned in France in 1940 (from which came the novel Scum of the Earth) for being an immigrant, and finally makes his home in England. He covers in depth his gradual disillusionment with Communism, a story I've now heard from Upton Sinclair and Richard Wright. Koestler's story however is the most fascinating because of his brutally honest analysis of his own motives and his admission of being a "true believer" type.

I got to learn about the writing of all his novels; ones I've already read. While in prison in Spain he had a huge realization, a spiritual experience, about what life is all about. Like all such experiences, it was hard to put into words but having had a couple such occurrences myself, I so got it.

I am sad that my Arthur Koestler reading has come to an end. (He wrote more books but no more novels.) I truly treasure having known this man through his writings. To me, he is the best kind of intellectual because of his deep involvement with the world.

Revolt in 2100, Robert A Heinlein, Shasta Publishers, 1954, 192 pp

In 2100 AD, the United States is ruled by The Prophet under a strict fundamentalist type of Christian religion. Religion, mass communications and psychology are used to maintain the status quo, not to mention The Prophet's army. There are one novella and two stories in this volume.

In the novella "If This Goes On--", an underground group which has infiltrated The Prophet's government stages a coup and takes over. This is called The Second Revolution, and they try to reinstate religious freedom. Heinlein portrays The Prophet as a complete hoax, with his "virgins" and staged miracles. I also liked the way his hero has to shake off the religious and military training of a lifetime in order to become a revolutionary.

In "Coventry", the new order still uses psychology to control the population, but social offenders of the country's moral code are given a choice: undergo psychological "correction" or go to Coventry, an area of the country set in the western states, which is a lawless anarchy made up of all the misfits.

"Misfit", the final story, is about sending the youth of America into space to build space stations, providing extreme training in a sort of Marines type of setting, though it is more scientific than military. The hero is a math wizard who doesn't know how smart he is, but saves the day.

All very entertaining. I thought that the theocracy story was far superior to Vidal's Messiah, though the two books together were timely, sobering and gave me lots to ponder concerning mankind's tendency to go into fanaticism.

Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company, 1954, 224 pp

In the front of one of Robert Heinlein' books is a chart of future history which served him as a plan for his upcoming novels. Isaac Asimov must have had a similar chart, if only in his mind, because his books keep moving into the future.

In Caves of Steel, the population of Earth had grown to over 8 billion, necessitating a level of efficiency in living space that has put most humans into cities built inside of steel coverings: the caves of steel. Only a few live in the open air, running the production of food, most of which is artificially made from a yeast base. Also robots do most of the open air work because they are not affected by pollution.

There are 50 Outer World planets colonized by humans. The Outer World inhabitants (called Spacers) work with robots, but on Earth robots are hated by most men who see them as a very real threat to their jobs. An uneasy relationship between Spacers and Earthmen is unsettled when a Spacer is killed by an Earthman.

Lige Baley, a New York City policeman, is assigned a robot partner. The story is essentially a murder mystery set into this futuristic tale of the fate of Earth. As always, there is Asimov's excellent plotting, his vast conception of society, government and economics, not to mention his strong scientific base. Also his skill at creating characters, both human and robotic, has taken a leap forward.

Caves of Steel is the first in Asimov's Robot Trilogy. Great! I get to look forward to two more.

The Horse and His Boy, C S Lewis, HarperCollins Inc, 1954, 224 pp

The fifth book in the original order of the Chronicles of Narnia is one I never read when I was a kid. It takes place during the time when Peter and Susan were High King and Queen during their first long visit to Narnia. The horse is a talking horse from Narnia who was captured and made into a war horse in a land far to the south.

The boy is an orphan who was raised practically as a slave to a poor fisherman in the same foreign land. The horse and the boy meet, have many adventures and finally make it back to their respective native lands and true identities.

It was an entertaining story but clearly a minor tale in the series. I could see about halfway through how it was all going to end and even Aslan only had a small part.

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