Sime~Gen Inc. Presents

Recommended Books

May, 1996

"All The World's a Stage . . . "


I Am Spock by Leonard Nimoy, Hyperion hardcover, 1995. Watch for the paperback.

Visions of Murder by Florence Wagner McClain, Llewellyn Publications, pb.

The Lunatic Café by Laurell K. Hamilton, Ace Fantasy, pb.

Nightseer by Laurell K. Hamilton, RoC Fantasy, pb.

Death of a Darklord by Laurell K. Hamilton, 11th in the Ravenloft series from TSR.

Two Crowns for America by Katherine Kurtz, Bantam Spectra hc.

Space: Above and Beyond, Fox TV network; check local listings.

"All the World's a Stage and all the Men and Women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances but one man, in his time, plays many parts."

That's from Shakespeare's "As You Like It" - but I didn't look up the quote because the accuracy of the quote, punctuation and capitalization isn't relevant to this month's discussion of Identity. What is relevant is my personal memory of that quotation.

I went to a four-year high school for four years. That quote was engraved over the auditorium's stage and I found all the meetings and folderol conducted in that auditorium unutterably boring. I spent the time constructing sf/f novels based on various interpretations of that quotation and theorizing about the reason it had been carved above the stage.

As a freshman entering that auditorium for the first time for Orientation, I found the quotation utter nonsense. As a senior, I had penetrated to the esoteric wisdom-core of the concepts underlying the words — probably deeper than Shakespeare ever intended. (There were a lot of meetings! At one point, I even had "home room" in that auditorium every day for a year because the buildings were under construction for the Baby Boomers coming in right behind me.) By the time I graduated, I had developed from that quotation an entire (original, I thought at the time) concept of karma, life, death, rebirth, and a "backstage" of reality which I later discovered is nothing but the Tree of Life, the Astral Plane and fairly orthodox Ancient Wisdom. So much for originality.

Possibly one explanation for my fascination with that quote is that, astrologically, I have Leo Rising and thus a natural affinity for theatrical expression and metaphor. I can quite happily discuss the entire structure of the Universe, the Nature of God, the Nature of Man, and the Relationship Between Them — and even Identity itself — in theatrical terms.

Theatrical terms lead inevitably and naturally into a discussion of ceremonial magick and the initiatory paths. And because of that perspective, I view with deep puzzlement many of the most popular areas targeted by self-help books. For example, I referred last month to "the impostor syndrome" which is such a source of anguish for so many in our society — the feeling that "they" will find out you aren't who they think you are.

The Impostor Syndrome is very prevalent among the straight-A students who live in terror of getting a B because then the whole world will know their shameful secret — they really aren't smart. If that sounds a bit like mocking it's because it comes from a C student who got a lot of B's and A's by impersonating the intelligent. Many of my dearest friends are straight-A and valedictorian types who suffer the torments of the damned for fear of failure and discovery. It's a mystery to me why they fear being unmasked. After all, an actor must unmask to take her bows, mustn't she?

A D or F student who has racked up a few years of A's is surely due a standing ovation. Maybe roses. Possibly an Edgar. Emmy. Oscar. What an achievement. Likewise, an A student who has impersonated an F student and gotten away with it also deserves a standing ovation and rousing celebration for theatrical skills if not wisdom.

In the training of a magician, one important exercise is the donning of ceremonial vestments and the assuming of an Identity with better developed wisdom and compassion than one ordinarily has. Practice at this often opens the way to achieving greater wisdom and compassion in everyday life. In magick, one can become what one pretends to be.

As with any power, this is dangerous. Leonard Nimoy (who played the inimitable Vulcan, Spock, on the original Star Trek) in his first memoir, I am Not Spock, speaks of how a very powerful fictional character fueled by the focused imaginations of millions can threaten to overshadow the real life, everyday person of the actor. His experience is not unique.

When acting is a "calling" — a sacred vocation — it often leads to roles that exemplify some karmic problem that needs working on in this life. The stress of confronting and overcoming (or failing to overcome or otherwise work out) the karma at the core of the soul's purpose-in-this-life often re-arranges everything about the person's circumstances and life (from who you live with to whether you continue to live or not).

This is not just true of acting. It's true of hundreds of vocations. I call them "The Vibration Professions" because they tune the soul to the music of the spheres. Marion Zimmer Bradley focused on one such vibration profession in her famous novel Catch Trap which is about circus and trapeze flyers who have a vocation for that art. Involvement in the Masonic Lodges is another such and we'll discuss that below.

In I am Spock, Leonard Nimoy once again comes to grips with the power that the Spock characterization has become in his life and resolves it. This is a book worth reading for anyone who writes, acts, or lives a different persona from their "real" Identity.

As I was reading I Am Spock, I marked no fewer than ten places where I could lift a quote to use as a springboard for this month's column. Because I am going to discuss Katherine Kurtz's Two Crowns for America and the Masonic origins of the U.S. symbols below, I'm choosing the last quote I marked, on page 310 of the hard cover edition of I Am Spock — the last page before Chapter Seventeen. Nimoy is here discussing a TV project he did which was called Never Forget — a holocaust story about Mel Mermelstein, who convinced a court to take official notice of the fact that the Holocaust really happened. The TV production was nominated for a Cable Ace Award.

Nimoy writes, "For me, Mel's story goes beyond the Nazi/Jewish issue, beyond the horrors of Auschwitz; it addresses the fundamental issues of the human spirit. I am reminded of playwright Arthur Miller, who once said that all plays we deem worthy ask the fundamental question: How can humankind make of the outside world a home?"

Astrologically, the "outside world" is the tenth house (Saturn), and "home" is the fourth (the Moon). These two houses are opposite each other because they represent an axis of tension, a dichotomy, an irreconcilable difference. In daily life, this is the conflict between career and home life that makes or breaks marriages.

In occult training, the Tenth/Fourth dichotomy is the problem of expressing personal Identity (Fourth House, your "home" or who you have become via decisions made over lifetimes expressed in how you make a place in the world) through the purpose you have chosen for this lifetime, the Tenth. The fourth house is the root of your being through which you draw strength; the tenth is the sacred vocation, the crown of your tree, which you reach for using that strength. The Tenth might not be how you earn a living. Your job is symbolized mostly by the Sixth House (usually).

As discussed in prior columns, the business of Art is to reveal the pattern of underlying connectivities in our lives that escape the notice of our everyday consciousness. Nimoy shows us how Miller expects of good theater a discussion of the "fundamental issue of the human spirit" — making a home of the outside world.

This is also my benchmark for measuring sf/f — and science fiction is particularly suited for discussing the "outside world" because in sf/f the author is free to discuss the way a human spirit (whether in a human body or not) can find a home in All Creation, not just twentieth century Earth.

There are a lot of ways to formulate the connection between the outside world and the inside world of spirit. The shape and nature of the formula you are currently using is an important clue to your Identity, and possibly a component of it. One can be distinguished from others by where one chooses to do one's living.

If life is defined as change, and one does one's "living" in the area (astrological house or geographical area or Plane of Existence) of life where one changes the most, then I submit there is a good fraction of humanity alive at this time that "lives" in Imagination. Our society has labeled such folk "couch potatoes." The blanket opprobrium is, I believe, ill-advised. A large number of the most popular self-help books are designed to "help" people stop living in their imaginations because imaginary living is looked down on by our society.

I submit that any form of living which catalyzes true soul-level change can be healthy. Many sorts of change are not healthy, but only the person doing the changing, the living, has any business judging the worth of what he/she is doing. Many things which are compulsively fascinating can be unhealthy — but likewise, one of the signature elements in a "vocation" — a sacred calling — is the undeniable power of that Call.

To an outside observer, a person responding to a Call looks exactly the same as a person surrendering to an obsession, and the disintegrative effect on one's life-circumstances are often exactly the same, too. Our society decrees it's "good" if your Call is to classical piano or international chess mastery against an IBM computer called Big Blue, but "bad" if it's to watching television or surfing the net.

Which brings us to a fascinating novel titled Visions of Murder by Florence Wagner McClain. This is in Llewellyn's line of popular novels designed to present the principles of the magickal view of the universe in fiction form. To date, this is the most polished and professional looking novel I've seen in this line, and I do recommend it to those of you who like a bigger portion of Reality with your fantasy.

This book has a very mundane flavor, and is not as "dark" as the title suggests. The main viewpoint character is a woman (woods-wise and martial arts trained with a degree in archeology and a specialty in Native American history who is also a crack markswoman — your typical over-qualified, under-employed Mary Sue) and who is — under the stress of having her husband murdered by gangsters — having her life disintegrate around her while she is obsessed with the eruption of her native psychic talents — which happens after she takes an oath to uncover her husband's killer.

Via a crystal ball, she accidentally contacts an individual on the periphery of the murder plot involving bootlegging artifacts and she becomes unhealthily obsessed with watching him. She is aware that her invasion of his privacy is wrong, and tries to stop watching after he objects, but she continues to spy to the accompaniment of an inner dialogue like that of a chocolate addict trying to quit.

The novel poses the question of whether her behavior is "life affirming" or "life denying" — i.e., good or bad. The author's skills are sophisticated enough to leave that question for the reader to ponder while at the same time providing solid closure for the plot.

From a writing teacher's point of view, I have to say that I would have advised this author to rewrite the entire novel from the point of view of the Old Boy Friend whose actions, reactions and decisions actually do drive the plot, which would have made this salable to the general market. She could have sold this as a mainstream best seller if she'd also included an alter-viewpoint of one of the artifact bootleggers and made us understand his motivations as heroic from his point of view and his fate as karmically fitting. For a seasoned professional novelist, such a rewrite would be a trivial exercise and take a couple of weeks. For a beginner, it would take a couple of years. But as written, it is a perfect Llewellyn novel that has something to teach us about ESP and ethics.

Last month I quoted a paragraph of my own from the previous month's column on Star Trek: Voyager's Janeway. I indicated that the ambivalence in the Janeway character parallels the ambivalence of our society's attitude toward what a woman is (i.e., the limits on who a woman can be or become). Visions of Murder is, because of the point-of-view chosen by the author, a perfect example of this ambivalence.

In writing science fiction and most fantasy, the one flaw that will bar your work from publication is creating a "hung hero" — i.e., using as a viewpoint character an individual whose actions can't affect the outcome of matters, or the "passive protagonist" who is hogtied by his/her own ignorance, fears, anxieties, "yes-buts" or excuses (8 Swords in Tarot) and therefore does not act to implement his/her personal agenda.

Sf/f is a subdivision of heroic fiction and requires that the point of view characters be active instigators of event-chains. In sf/f the hero is proactive, and only the villain is allowed to be reactive. The hero plays the white pieces and the villain the black. The first critical artistic decision an author with an idea makes is the choice of point of view character, or protagonist. That choice determines the genre market for the piece. In real life, of course, any individual is proactive sometimes and reactive other times. The artist's choice of point of view and narrative voice delineates the philosophical assumptions behind the art. Those assumptions define genre.

The main point of view character in Visions of Murder is reactive all the way through the book. I wanted to take her by the ears and shake her out of her lethargy because everything we're told about her background indicates that this wimp is not her true "default" character. Her true Identity was not engaged in solving her problem despite her oath.

At the beginning of the book, she is utterly defeated by the way the police have shelved the investigation of her husband's murder, assuming him to have been involved in drug trafficking and as guilty as those who killed him. Her agenda is to clear his name and solve the murder, and so she pursues a clue to an isolated resort town in Oregon where she gets caught up in crystal ball gazing and novel writing and telling herself excuses for not working on the problem.

When the action finally does break out, she is stuck off in a hideaway nursing a man who has the measles (a young man so there's no reason why he didn't get the measles vaccine my children got and no mention of his mystification about why his immunity failed).

When she finally does take the field to rescue the man whose life she's invaded via the crystal ball, she manages to shoot down a helicopter with a small caliber gun. In the course of the novel, she does a few brave things when confronted or challenged. But she never does any confronting or challenging herself.

As in the self-help book The Cinderella Complex, she heroically rises to the occasion when challenged. But she never grabs the initiative away from the bad guys, never forces her agenda down their throats, never does anything that isn't reactive because her self-image is telling her that she just has to survive until she's rescued and she'll deserve rescue by surviving. She uses — in her inner dialogue — the language of an active person yet does the deeds of the reactive. She is hampered by the role she has artificially donned — wife.

Visions of Murder portrays, in this lead character, one of the versions of Janeway we see on Voyager and accurately depicts the kind of limited being the scriptwriters are trying to suggest that Janeway must be because she's female.

Now, contrast and compare this with Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, the heroine of Laurell K. Hamilton's Ace paperback fantasy, The Lunatic Café. This is the fourth in a series all titled after nightclubs, dives, and hangouts — Guilty Pleasures, The Laughing Corpse, Circus of the Damned, and now The Lunatic Café. The earlier titles refer to hangouts where vampires congregate. The Lunatic Café is a bar that caters to werewolves.

The motif that ran beneath the surface of the first three books which has me most intrigued is Blake's relationship with the Master Vampire of the city (St. Louis). This is, of course, an alternate universe where magical and mythical creatures have "come out of the closet" and been awarded their civil rights. So Blake can't make a living slaying vampires any more — unless they turn criminal — and she resorts to her secondary talent, raising the dead. In previous books, we've seen her slaying vampires very efficiently and raising corpses to give graveside depositions, but there's little of that in this novel.

Lunatic Café is a romance pure and simple — well not pure and certainly not simple. Blake has fallen in love with the werewolf who teaches high school, a character we met in a previous book. The situation is complicated by the Master Vampire who's in love with her (but also needs to possess her for political reasons). Being a vampire slayer, she has a bias against marrying a vampire even though she feels a powerful sexual allure toward him. So the question she keeps asking herself is, does she really love the werewolf? Or is he just a means of avoiding her real feelings for the vampire? Deep down inside, she doesn't want to tie her life to any supernatural creature. But she wants to be loved for who she is.

As a police consultant, she's called in to investigate some serial murders of the city's finest, upstanding supernatural citizens. She deliberately hurls herself into the kinds of experiences she thinks she needs in order to learn whether she can live with a werewolf (such as crashing the gate at the Lunatic Café and watching them shapechange before her eyes). Complication — her werewolf lover is the #2 dog in the pack, and the #1 top dog is out to kill him for challenging the leadership.

In the police investigation, in the supernatural-politics, and in the love-triangle, Blake evidences the same aggressive, proactive, dynamic character that we love so very much in the Captain Janeway who won't back down to Q — not even to two Q!

Of all the Laurell K. Hamiltons I've read, I must admit I love the Anita Blake series the best. But I must commend to you both these other Hamilton titles, her 1992 RoC Fantasy, Nightseer, and the Ravenloft novel from TSR called Death of a Darklord.

Now: Two Crowns for America. In most of Katherine Kurtz's novels, the men lead and the women are secondary — however strong they are as people and however crucial their roles. This makes Katherine's style admirably suited to the historical venue, where that's how it was. The other Katherine Kurtz signature — which I discussed in a series of columns about Government and Art last year — focuses her plots around "who will be king."

But her most well developed talent is in writing detailed, accurate and emotionally moving rituals. In Two Crowns for America she displays this skill at its best.

Katherine is inventing a genre here. Mary Stewart has a new hc in the stores now, another book in her Merlin series, which I haven't read yet. And Marion Zimmer Bradley has done similar things with Mists of Avalon and other titles. I've often mentioned that novel-reading is a form of eavesdropping on the private conversations among writers. Katherine is part of the Stewart/Bradley dialogue which has been shaping fantasy-fiction for decades — especially where female characters are involved.

Katherine has meticulously researched the Revolutionary War and adhered scrupulously to the known facts. But she has added, beneath the surface, outside the awareness of the chroniclers of events, a series of acts, motivations, and objectives by known historical figures that tell a deeper story.

The eerie thing about Two Crowns for America is that, if you know anything much about Revolutionary War history, trivia or myth, you may find that, as with Marion Zimmer Bradley's books — after you've read Katherine's version, your understanding of what really happened will be forever changed. For example, Two Crowns provides a completely plausible explanation of the symbols on the U.S. flag and the Great Seal and the Dollar.

Unlike many of Katherine's books, it isn't a very large book, and I personally found that what bothered me most was what was missing, not what was present. I would have liked to have delved deeper into the hearts and souls of these people, their inner conflicts, their motivations and their relationships. They didn't seem as "real" to me as many of her Deryni characters, such as Morgan. But if she'd done that, the book would be twice as long and the characters would have diverged from the historical by quite a bit because not enough is known about them to flesh out their subconscious fears and dreams.

But I think what will be most intriguing to readers of this column is the detailed narratives of various Masonic rituals, especially the ritual initiating a woman into the ranks of a Lodge while George Washington himself sat one of the stations. I'm not talking about Eastern Star, I'm talking about Entering an Apprentice who happens to be female. And Katherine found a real historical precedent for such an act.

I was also delighted with the way Katherine portrays the historical figure known as Saint Germaine, the real life alchemist over whom Chelsea Quinn Yarbro won a court case. Yarbro won the right to her concept that St. Germaine was a vampire. Kurtz's use of him here is legal because she nowhere hints that he was a vampire. What may set some of you thinking is the role Katherine Kurtz gives St. Germaine in the American Revolution.

Kurtz does not take us inside St. Germaine's mind, so it seems the only proactive character in this book is St. Germaine. Everyone is either loyal to his plan or opposed to it.

One intriguing incident upon which much plotting rests is the recovery (with the help of a ghost, a Kabbalist, and a female Mason) of gold stashed since the previous attempt at a Stuart restoration in Scotland. Yes, once recovered, the gold gets stolen, but by a Master Mason with enough magickal training that it never occurs to him to take the gold for his personal use — nor does it occur to anyone else that he might do such a thing. He tries to return it to the Stuart who belongs on the throne. What becomes of that gold may surprise you. The relationship between St. Germaine and Stuart may give you many sleepless nights.

One element that ties this book to Visions of Murder is scrying — in Visions it's a crystal ball, and in Two Crowns, it's a mirror. But scrying is scrying even with ATM video-surveillance cameras or email sorters. And the ethic governing the activity is the same.

Two Crowns for America displays the Revolutionary War on a stage that stretches from Philadelphia to Paris, spans from 1775 to 1782 and demonstrates my title thesis for this column — All The World Is A Stage.

Nimoy quoted Miller as asking, "How can humankind make of the outside world a home?" And Katherine Kurtz answered with Two Crowns for America — that when dream or imagination is deliberately crafted into ceremony which is later recapitulated in the outer world, then can we make a home of the outside world — we can create a social framework in which people can be free to be themselves.

I submit that Miller, as a man, had to see one of life's most important questions as, How can humankind make of the outside world a home? But Janeway, as a woman, must ask, How can we make ourselves at home in the outside world?

Notice that Arthur Miller frames the problem in the proactive manner — make the outside world into a home — change the world to suit ourselves.

Janeway keeps changing herself — her character — to fit herself into her outside world. Every week she's a different person. She reacts to the world — most of the time.

"Anita Blake" basically ignores how the world is and goes along just being herself regardless of how she bruises herself against the world. She's not trying to change the world to suit herself — nor is she willing to change herself to suit the world or even to suit her werewolf lover. She has an Identity. Most people who are like that don't realize they are like that — and can't figure out why life hurts so much.

Which is the better way to be? Is one way superior to the other? Does one Identity get you past the Guardian and the other prevent your passage onto the Astral where the destiny of the world is first imagined and Crafted? Or does it take all kinds to make a dent in The Great Work? Or should any person use whichever method is best for a given problem? If so, how do you tell which method to use when? Which costume to wear? Which script to read? Can a character actor become a leading woman?

Perhaps we should ponder how character actors disappear into their parts and usually get little credit and never stardom but have the greatest respect from their colleagues. Leading men and women or even ladies always play themselves, clearly and blatantly visible in every character they play (Bette Davis comes to mind), and usually get the credit or the blame for the success or failure of the production.

Which brings us to our Honorable Mention for May. I was watching Space: Above and Beyond the other day and saw the commander, a "tank" — a person conceived and gestated in vitro - tormenting himself with the question "Who am I? Who am I really?" mostly because as an artificial person he doesn't have parents and a heritage yet is otherwise human. From that episode on, I recommend that show if you can manage to ignore the silly "action" (World War II in space) and concentrate on the emotional relationships which are real sf because the "tanks" and the AI's have to relate to born-humans.

Read Two Crowns for America. Consider The Master. Consider George Washington. Ask yourself, "Who am I? Who am I really?" What character are you playing in this lifetime? Who's pulling your strings? What oaths and contracts bind you?

Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, NY 10952.



Until I get the direct links installed here, you can find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to.   To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below. logo

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