Pharaoh Fantastic, Looking Backward, Darwinia

I tried to post this entry with Archipelago, a Mac blogging interface, but the interface and documentation were too obscure. So the reviews will be typed up the old-fashioned way, through the web interface.

I really ought to know better than to read topical anthologies like Pharaoh Fantastic. The theme was ancient Egypt, and most of the stories took a magical approach to the topic. Some were closer to sci-fi or pulpy adventure, and several were disturbingly irreverent tales of the origins of Judaism and Christianity. Even that was better than the Wicca-style magic of other stories.

The stories I enjoyed were the ones that best recreated the spirit of ancient Egypt. “Succession” by Tanya Huff followed an aging queen in her struggles to save Egypt from the stereotypical Evil Vizier. The prose wasn’t always clear, but the characterization was good. In “The Voice of Authority,” a new Pharaoh becomes acquainted with his powers and duties as a god. “Whatever Was Forgotten” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman recounts thousands of years of the immortal dead, up to the final tomb robbery.

I picked up Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy at some library sale. It’s a typical Rip Van Winkle story, in which an insomniac has himself hypnotized to sleep in 1887 Boston, and doesn’t wake up until the year 2000. A doctor revives him and he discovers a communist paradise. Of course, the doctor has a beautiful daughter and the inevitable happens. All of that is standard for this sort of proto-scifi utopian novel. The interesting bit for me was near the end, when Our Revived Hero repents of his past capitalist sins, and becomes converted to the wonders of communism. The Christian imagery is used, and perhaps abused, by the author, but the conversion is in essence intellectual, making it a fascinating sci-fi theme.

Of course, it’s not called communism in the book. It’s just some rosy socialist view of the future, long before anyone had tried socialism and found it wanting. Looking Backward is only occasionally a novel; most of it is polemic, with Our Hero making naive protests that this workers’ paradise can’t possibly exist and the doctor telling him, “Nothing could be simpler,” and variations on that theme.

It’s easy, after 2000, to mock the doctor’s simple communism; the biggest hole in his logic is the hole in man’s motives. Whenever Our Hero asks why the workers will do their best rather than slack off, or share alike rather than hoard, or be comrades rather than asserting their power over one another, the doctor answers that they will have no incentive to do wrong. He keeps saying exactly that. The absence of selfish or evil motives is assumed. Maybe it was a reasonable assumption in 1887, though I doubt it; it’s certainly glaringly naive after the year 2000.

Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia deals with a very different sort of conversion - the Conversion of Europe. Strange lights like a giant aurora borealis fill the sky one night in 1912, and in the morning, Europe is no longer there. In its place is a jungle, and not just any jungle - a jungle with a completely different evolutionary history, where the vertebrates’ spines run up their stomachs, and the poisonous things are very, very poisonous. The population is gone; there’s nothing smarter than a pack animal on the entire continent.

The nickname for the new Europe is Darwinia, a joke, since this miracle is supposed, by most people, to have disproved Darwin. Yes, indeed, species arise out of single stupendous acts of creation. The huge, obvious (if ambiguous) miracle starts a religious revival and raises creation science to scientific respectability. A few of Our Heroes disbelieve the nouveau science, but the novel’s creation-science bashing never gets intolerable.

The reader soon finds Our Heroes on an expedition into deepest, darkest Darwinia, à la the Lewis and Clark expedition. This bothers the surviving Europeans, who don’t like the Wilson Doctrine declaring Darwinia a new world open to any colonists - which is to say, American colonists. The expedition runs into the dangers of the new continent and of the angry partisans, and makes a startling discovery. That’s just the beginning.

Early on there’s an interlude that lets the reader in on what’s really behind the “miracle,” though Our Heroes remain in the dark for quite a while longer. I don’t think I wanted to know that early on, but perhaps the truth was so strange that the author needed to work up to it. I don’t think he filled out his premise quite as far as he could, and his technical details and bad guys were a bit sketchy, but the excellent characterization more than made up for the problems.

2 Responses to “Pharaoh Fantastic, Looking Backward, Darwinia”

  1. Daniel Berlinger Says:

    …but the interface and documentation were too obscure.

    No quetion it needs more work. But can I help you get started?

  2. Jemima Says:

    I managed to get set up, with the instructions on the web site open in front of me the whole time. I even made an entry and tried to upload it, but I couldn’t figure out how to post. “Save” just offered to save to my hard drive, and there were no other obvious options. When I looked in my blog, Archipelago had published the entry (I still don’t know how) instead of saving it as a draft, and with just the title, no content.

    While that sort of inscrutable behavior might be normal for a Windows program, with a Mac the user expects a simple configuration process and a more intuitive interface. That is, I should be able to start blogging without ever opening the manual, knowing just my username, password, and the URL of mt.cgi (from which mt-xmlrpc.cgi can be inferred). You can also assume the blog number is 1 unless the user indicates otherwise.

    Even with an easier setup, I think I’d still keep using the MT web interface since I don’t think I’d gain as much as I’d lose by using Archipelago. I can see how it helps with a flighty server like Blogger, but my browser and my MT installation are stable enough that I don’t need a separate program to post. I was just trying it out.