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ReReadable Books

February 2009

"Poetic Justice: The Fragile Universe"


Jacqueline Lichtenberg



 To send books for review in this column email Jacqueline Lichtenberg,jl@simegen.com  for snailing instructions or send an attached RTF file.  
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The Book of Names by Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori, St. Martin’s paperback Feb. 2008

Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait by K. A. Bedford, Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy, Aug. 2008

The Reel Stuff, Brian Thomsen & Martin H. Greenberg, eds., DAW Books, June 2008

Stakeout, film, 1987, starring Richard Dreyfus

In the January 2009 column, I wrote about how life is art, and art is life. The poetry of karma, reality’s twist of justice, and how the magician’s craft is rooted in the ability to visualize what actually does not yet exist.

That, of course, is the fictioneer’s craft as well. But the fictioneer, the writer, has to go the magician one better. The fictioneer must ignite the audience’s own imagination, induce the audience to add personal details and make the fiction their own.

This column searches out trends, sifting material from the center of popularity to the farflung edges, looking for links. Lately, I’ve noticed a paradigm shift in fictional tastes that I’ve mentioned in my Tuesday blog at http://www.aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/ and here in previous columns. We are seeing what you might call a trend toward fragile universes, universes that can be destroyed by the action or inaction of one or a few individuals. Along with that has come a number of award winning stories where the "cruel twist of fate" or "random chance" dictates the events.

Many young people actively refuse to read novels or go to movies where Poetic Justice prevails. And in fact, many young writers don’t know what "Poetic Justice" means and can’t spot it in a story – or their own lives – nevermind turn a plot on it. I believe the majority of us do still understand "Poetry" – it is of course art, and thus the core of the magician’s craft.

I’ve discussed the nature of Art in previous columns (all archived at simegen.com/reviews/) and defined it as the selective representation of reality. From the hodgepodge of "reality" the artist selects certain elements and presents them so the reader can connect the dots and understand a deeper truth underlying the noisy, incomprehensible real world. Having attained this insight, the reader goes back to living life more able to craft their own world.

Imbibing Art is an Initiation. It can open your eyes to your own potential to change yourself.

The paradigm shift I’m seeing is reflected in a flood of accolades lavished upon Art that depicts a fragile universe in which the motivations for our choices don’t matter.

In the fragile-universe concept, the details of reality the writer selects mask the "poetry" that I see with my own eyes – the composition, the music, the inherent beauty of the universe. The magician’s training makes one sensitive to the harmonies of Nature, the way everything is connected to everything and everything responds to everything.

That connectedness and that responsiveness of Reality to our thoughts and emotions, gives Reality its strength, its indestructible elasticity.

It is possible for an artist to select details and disconnect them from each other in such a way as to depict a universe which is so fragile that we (who live inside it) have to keep saving it from shattering. Playing in such universes can be fun and even instructive, but does it make you better able to cope with real life?

Well, I guess that depends on what the objective reality actually is. Is reality a place where you and your feelings don’t matter? Or is reality a place where your perception of the beauty of connections (relationships) among people and things, your perception of the ineffable wholeness of the universe of which you are an integral component, lets you configure and personalize your life?

Are you a victim or a magician?

Have you ever thought of that choice of who you are as a choice between a fragile universe and a robust universe?

The Book of Names by Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori poses that question in an action-packed thriller set in a Kabbalistic universe which is threatened with destruction.

This is a well researched novel but the authors seem determined to cram all the research that tickled them into the book. The plot seems contrived so they could say what they wanted rather than telling a story from all sides.

I don’t know Jill Gregory or Karen Tintori personally, so I don’t know if that’s what really happened with The Book of Names. But if you’ve seen the wall full of huge books with small type and tissue thin pages that constitutes the Mishnah and Gemara plus an equal number of impenetrable books on Kabbalah for each of several Schools, you know that to write a popular work of fiction set in a Kabbalistic universe, you have to be very selective.

You have to ignore centuries old arguments, then leave out what does not fit your story. Gregory and Tintori show strong discipline in keeping the thematic focus and blistering pace of the thriller plot. But every once in a while, an incident or explanation just goes on too long, then at another point, something vital is left out.

The Book of Names is about the mystical legend of the Lamed Vav. In every generation there are 36 people for the sake of whom the world exists – 36 righteous, selfless, good-hearted people who are close to God.

The premise is a High Concept if you know this legend. What if a secret organization wanted to destroy the universe by killing all 36 of the Lamed Vavniks of a given generation. The premise uses the ancient Gnostic movement as the source of the fanatics who attempt these murders. Now they are very close to success.

The believe that once the universe is destroyed, they will be free to ascend to the level where God is. The authors keep you busy enjoying the sizzling love story, the character growth, the harrowing action, and the philosophy so much, you forget to criticize this idea.

The characters, throughout the book, come to believe that the existence of the universe is under a legitimate threat and that it’s therefore up to them to counter that threat by risking life, limb and career. It works because the main characters don’t understand Kabbalah. In the end, the actions they have taken appear to have the consequences you would expect if the universe is indeed fragile.

This novel ends with a question that can be answered only by the reader deciding if the universe is fragile.

Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait by K. A. Bedford, is a time travel novel where time machines are sold commercially like cars. This novel is an example of the writer’s craft and skill being so strong and so advanced that the reader can’t perceive it at all. I’ve rarely read a time-travel story that was so easy to understand – yet so profound. It is even more profound than The Book of Names.

A really good time machine repairman who used to be a cop finds something odd in a machine he’s asked to repair. He guesses it could be dangerous, takes precautions, and sure enough, the machine blows up. This reveals a second time machine hidden inside and out of phase with the first one, and the second one contains a murdered woman.

The rest of the book is his solving the murder without benefit of a badge, a gun, data sources or backup. The writing is so good that the reader easily anticipates that there are 2 time machines, though understands why the repairman would not see that. The reader can’t foresee that there’s a dead woman in the hidden machine.

From that point on, the reader can’t anticipate anything, but still is not confused! The author deals easily with several versions of the same character, alternate realities, time that stubbornly won’t change certain events while others shift easily – and ends up depicting a universe that is all of one piece, infinitely elastic, yet completely responsive to the human sense of right and wrong, and to love that conquers all.

At the same time, this novel depicts The End Of Time and a hint of the mystery of what is outside the Universe, and leaves open the question of whether that’s good, bad or poetic justice.

This is excellent science fiction extrapolating known physics and astrophysics and weaving a plot around speculative science. And yet it asks profound questions and teases you into finding your own answers. A must read!

The Reel Stuff is an anthology of SF/F stories which became movies. This is a 2008 expansion to 13 stories. My favorite is Barry Longyear’s Enemy Mine where the universe changes to accommodate a poetic Relationship.

And last, the Olde Flick of the month, Stakeout, with Richard Dreyfus, a 1987 non-SF film where the tech looks so old you feel like a time-traveler. Two Detectives stake out a lovely woman’s apartment because her ex-boyfriend just broke out of jail. One detective, just jilted by his live-in, instantly falls for the woman, and against his professional judgment, gets involved. The story depicts the karma of love, the way the universe will tie itself into knots to be sure the right two people meet and notice each other. Poetic justice prevails, personal feelings matter.

To send books for review in this column email Jacqueline Lichtenberg,  jl@simegen.com for snailing instructions or send an attached RTF file.  



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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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