Sime~Gen Inc. Presents

Recommended Books

May, 1997

"Life, Mastery and Mystery"


Hunting the Corrigan's Blood by Holly Lisle - Baen science fiction, 1997

Nobel House Television Mini-series - starring Pierce Brosnan as the Tai Pan of the Noble House in Hong Kong

The Seer King by Chris Bunch - Warner Aspect Fantasy, Quality Paperback, 1997

A Sharpness on the Neck by Fred Saberhagen - Tor hardcover, 1996

Lords of the Night, by Janice Bennet, Sara Blayne and Monique Ellis - Zebra Regency Romance, pb,1997

Lover's Moon by Jane Toombs - Zebra Contemporary Romance, 1997

One of the signs of mastery -- in magick, electrical engineering, astrology, politics or real life -- is having the data necessary to solve whatever problem comes before you. And that data has to be "on the tip of your tongue." It has to be on the websites in your hotlist. It has to be on the dog-eared reference books on the shelf by your desk. It has to be a phone call away. A question arises and the master reaches unerringly for the answer.

But data alone isn't enough to solve the problems of life. Cognitive skills, knowledge, education, intelligence, personal presentation, self-confidence, self-esteem, all of these and more are necessary to living well in this age. But even with mastery in all of these attributes, people fail at living life.

One of the members of the Sime~Gen Listserve (to join, see )  uses the quote in his signature file, "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a Mystery to be lived!", a quote from Joseph Campbell.

The Listmember's use of the quote has served its purpose -- it's made me think a little harder than usual. Of course, I disagree with Campbell about this. But why do I disagree? I agree that life as a whole is not usually a problem to be solved. And I agree that one of the really neatest things about life is the Mystery of It All. That moment of confrontation with mystery is what art is all about. There are vistas and depths and soaring heights beyond mortal comprehension -- and touching the edges of that is what makes life worth living. Which is why I read vampire novels. And tarot cards.

So if I agree with Campbell about both halves of his statement -- how come I disagree with the statement?

I've been puzzling over that until just this month when I stacked up and divided off the books for this month's column. Somewhere in all this reading there came to me the answer to that puzzlement. I'm not exactly sure where, though.

The first really fun read is a straight action space-adventure novel -- the sort that I love to write, so of course I love to read them. This one was a delight because this type of book has become exceptionally rare lately (as I predicted a couple of years ago in this column from the fact that publishers had stopped buying this type of book).

This one is called Hunting the Corrigan's Blood by Holly Lisle and it's told in first person by a woman who is one tough customer, founding her own interstellar business doing difficult jobs for high fees. "The Corrigan's Blood" in question is a space ship with the newest high tech capability, and it's been stolen. This book was lovely, a "good read" for an evening's entertainment. But among all the simple pleasures, I found an interesting observation that I pasted up with Post-It notes to be sure to tell you about. On page 105, the hardboiled viewpoint character observes, "...personally, I thought news was despicable. It was publicly supported gossip, invasion into the lives and sufferings of strangers, and the love of it represented an unconscionable desire to destroy the privacy of people whose lives had been thrown into turmoil...."

I could both agree and disagree with that. I have a fairly low opinion of what passes for "news" these days. It isn't, in my view, information I need in order to conduct my life efficiently. I had discovered, in 1991 and 1992, that my entire outlook on reality underwent a remarkable transformation when I got cable TV and stopped watching network news altogether. At that time, I got my newsfeed from the cable channel FNN -- the Financial News Network. It was a low budget, black and white talking-heads programming that was nothing but stock market news.

But it is remarkable how much you can learn about the reality-matrix of the national and international situation if you just follow the money pressure in the veins of our nation. Whole new vistas were revealed to me of the mystery that is my life and I found all that very thrilling.

The demise of FNN due to financial failure (they were bought by CNBC which broadcasts in color, uses remote feeds, fancy graphics, and sensationalizes financial news just the way network news sensationalizes murder trials) sent me into grieving.

So I have my opinion based on personal experience. Newsfeed is your data channel that makes you efficacious as a master of life, but only if it contains actual news. Our system used to do more of that than it does now. But I disagreed with Holly Lisle's hero emphatically where she imputes motives to those who give and those who receive news. The motive I see behind network news is simply profit. They create a product a lot of people want, and they sell it at a profit. Nothing wrong with that.

Likewise, I disagree with the motive imputed to those who imbibe news. I don't see anything destructive or wrong in living vicariously. It's a good way to work through karmic problems without having them mess up your life. And I usually pray for those I see on the news who are suffering. And I always include everyone else who wasn't fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to make the news who likewise are suffering. So maybe the news does some good by exposing suffering for all to see. The sharp images on television make a good strong magickal focus.

On page 141, Holly Lisle again mentions news. The hero says, "You know, I think I was wrong about news....I think news is the way human prey tell themselves the predators are among them. Along with all their garbage, the news sheets announce murders and robberies and cons and deceits; I still think how they do it is exploitative and vile. But it has value." And a paragraph or two later, "What if the places that don't have news are the ones where the predators are in control?"

Now there's a question.

On page 159, Lisle gets around to describing the thematic core of this novel. It is taking the hero through three stages of maturity. And (writing students: note this is perfectly placed), at the exact center of the novel (the total number of pages is 312) is the statement, "But the third step in adulthood was to take responsibility for my past."

This is a perfect example of the "trivial" sort of book that Manhattan publishing has abandoned for lack of profitability. Because this kind of book is anything but "trivial" and requires considerable breadth and depth of education and insight to read, I believe the distribution of this kind of writing is moving to the Web.

Meanwhile, I found myself studying the video tape of an old TV mini-series, with Pierce Brosnan, titled Noble House. And I mean studying. Those who follow this column realize by now that watching television is very hard work. I wasn't just watching this mini-series -- I studied it. And I'll study it again. Why? Because it's an example of near perfection in the television mini-series. There was the hand of a master behind that show. But you don't notice that on casual viewing. It takes serious study and discussion with others who know how to study fiction to appreciate the achievement in that mini-series -- which is based on a novel. I've never been able to get all the way through the novel. I couldn't stop watching the mini-series. Why?

Well, the book was not science fiction -- but the mini-series was.

Most people think that it's aliens and space ships and ray guns that make science fiction a separate genre. But that's not true. What makes science fiction/fantasy separate and different from other kinds of fiction is the way the lead character uses his/her mind, not the time and place where they live or what they do for a living. Science fiction/fantasy is a way of approaching life -- of crafting your life.

Space ships, bony foreheads, ray guns and tractor beams are window dressing. Vampirism is window dressing -- surface trivia of no import. Or perhaps one should say that such things are the "curtains" on the window that keep the interior private from the prying eyes of the uninitiated.

The mini-series Nobel House is about the intercultural interface between East and West. Pierce Brosnan plays a genetic Westerner who, at one point, says to a genetic Easterner, "If I am not Chinese, what am I?" Now that is the plight that made Spock on Star Trek into an instant, overnight megastar.

The mini-series opens with a typhoon plunging the Noble House into massive debt by sinking a ship -- just at a time when it is financially teetering and Pierce Brosnan's character takes over as Tai Pan. He launches the company onto the Hong Kong stock exchange. And things go from bad to worse until he must deal with a takeover corporate raider from America. Then things get really terrible.

In the end, some of the problems that beset him are solved by another typhoon and the rest yield to his level-headed, sf-heroic, Spockian calm in the face of immanent death. He chooses alliance with China over Britain. To the ancient Noble House, the current Communist regime is just a minor historical blip, a little typhoon to be weathered and ignored. The Noble House isn't communist -- it is loyal to the Middle Kingdom.

Along the way, we learn a number of "alien" concepts and the words for them. These concepts are based in the magickal view of the universe that we discuss in this column and they clash mightily with the scientific view of the universe upon which American culture is founded. The modern Chinese take these concepts seriously even when they don't believe in them at all. They craft and conduct their lives based on the insights into what causes success and what causes failure in life.

The underlying plot of the mini-series revolves around the Tai Pan's behavior that grows organically from this Chinese-mystical view of the universe being opposed by Western thinkers. The Tai Pan ultimately wins (and behaves Chinese in victory, not American) not because he understands the Chinese mysticism, but because he lives Chinese mysticism. It is Pierce Brosnan's brilliant acting that conveys all these subtle nuances.

This mini-series gives us a perfect example of life as a mystery to be lived. Try to solve life as a problem, and if your opposition is living the mystery -- you're dead meat.

This next novel, The Seer King, is not the sort of thing I generally read with absorption. But Chris Bunch can write. This fantasy novel is a nicely crafted page turner -- I hope you can find it at your library because this quality paperback costs $13.99 and takes up a lot of shelf space.

It's a story about a magician who wants to take over a faltering kingdom that's about to fall apart into tribal warfare. The main point of view character is a professional soldier who helps him do it -- and lives to regret it. I didn't care for the ending. And the beginning is the cliché'd man in political prison mulling over how he got thrown there. But in between both of those cliché points, this is unique, fresh, original, insightful, with living characters that just sucked me into involvement in the mystery of their lives.

It gave me a number of thoughts on magickal power vs. political power, and raised considerations of the separation of church and state (the whole Supreme Court issue of free speech on the Internet) and matters of love and prejudice, ambition and professional mastery.

Is it possible to be the best at something as arcane as magick and still not be a master? (And the competition was fierce in this kingdom -- lots of really good magicians working in that army, too. So the best was pretty good.)

I wouldn't have thought such a talented magician might not be a master, but this book convinced me that such a strange condition is possible.

Likewise, is it possible not to be terribly good as a soldier and still be a master at the martial arts -- and I don't mean just unarmed combat. Again, I wouldn't have thought so, but this book convinced me otherwise. These characters, juxtaposed to those on the mini-series Noble House, revealed vistas of mystery yet to be explored.

Now we come to one of my favorite subjects -- vampires. Those of you online should look up Fred Saberhagen's web site -- an excerpt of A Sharpness on the Neck and a photo of the cover are there.

For years, I've been following Fred's vampire stories about his Dracula who is trying to live down (uh -- exist down?) the family reputation his brother so justly deserves. Fred's Dracula has acquired the responsibility to protect a human family and over the generations has done the honorable thing protecting them. "Now" it is 1996 and another young generation is targeted by the evil brother as a way of "getting" the more honorable Dracula.

This is the story of a serious showdown between two old and formidable vampires with a pair of humans as the bone of contention.

Much of this book is taken up with the pair of humans (husband and wife) kept in protective custody in a trailer home in the middle of nowhere. They are told by the good Dracula to watch a video tape in order to be filled in on the background of this struggle between these two vampires -- and to be convinced that vampires are real.

They find the "talking head" format so boring they fall asleep -- they literally can't watch the tape because it's so boring. Their lives depend on it -- and they can't do it. They are a product of the television generation where even the news is produced for short attention span and visual interest. The good Dracula -- who is the talking head on the video tape -- is definitely not a product of the television generation. He is frustrated out of his mind by what he sees as stubborn and irrational refusal to watch the tape.

When I read that section of the novel, I remembered FNN and the black and white talking heads. I had no trouble with that "boring" visual format -- the information feed was so rich I was glad for the lack of other distractions. But I'm of a different generation -- I grew up on Gabriel Heatter's Six o'Clock Radio News. "Oh, there's sad news tonight!" Or some nights, "Oh, there's good news tonight." In about equal proportion.

A Sharpness on the Neck is also about the French Revolution, and the sharpness referred to isn't vampire fangs -- it's the guillotine. Killing a vampire with a guillotine doesn't work unless the blade is made of wood.

Another absorbing read is the three Regency Romance Vampire novellas collected in Lords of the Night by Janice Bennet, Sara Blayne and Monique Ellis.

These three writers who normally work at novel length have managed to create fully rounded stories within the novella length. In each case, the vampire in question is male, and doesn't have to kill to live -- though there's some danger he might whether he wills it or not.

It is interesting to note that the very strong, daring and female hero of Hunting the Corrigan's Blood is made of the same steel-fibered nerves as these women of the idle rich class in Regency London who have nothing to do but put on gowns several times a day and go to late parties at night. The hero of Hunting the Corrigan's Blood comes to at the very opening of that novel to find herself stuffed into a very small locker with a rotting corpse and goes on to battle her way into and out of even worse predicaments. These women don't "come to," they "come out" -- and they then have to face marriage to some truly odious creatures and risk their lives in childbirth. It's really very much the same thing. The two kinds of woman just live different lives, concerning themselves with different matters. But they conduct their lives in the same style. Heroically.

Today, we read these pseudo-Regency stories and regard them as rather silly because everyone knows that the women of those times -- especially the pampered and protected rich -- just wouldn't have the "stuffings" to face up to life-or-death dangers like vampires and card sharps and footpads and husbands. We often feel that women of the 1990s can do things like that -- but not Regency women.

Ordinarily, that's my opinion too. But reading this sequence of books -- with that Campbell quote nagging at the back of my mind -- I wonder. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And the one thing that never changes is human nature. Even if you become a vampire -- your human nature part doesn't change. Your flaws might be magnified by the amount of power you suddenly have available. But your mastery level in controlling power in general wouldn't change upon becoming immortal. Likewise, your level of Master of Life wouldn't be different if you were "coming out" in Regency London or on DS9 or Babylon 5.

Looking at these three vampires in this collection, it occurs to me that what these extremely strong female characters are responding to (listen up, you bachelors out there who want to know what women "see" in a man) is the level of mastery exhibited by these vampires in contrast to that exhibited by the other men in the stories.

One twist ending I found particularly delightful was an unusual method of solving two of the perennial problems in these novels: A) the vampire doesn't have a soul and yearns for one, and B) in Regency times, this class of woman was the victim of arranged marriage more often than not. Custom decreed that she have some say in the matter -- but in reality, the women were as trapped by obligation and duty as the men.

In "The Deville Inheritance" by Monique Ellis, the first of the three stories in the book, we find the vampire, in order to gain a soul, had discovered magickal texts that said he had to perform a truly selfless act. But now that he knows he must perform a selfless act in order to gain a soul -- well, then no act could possibly be selfless. That's quite a trap. Then comes a lady who asks a favor of the gentleman he is pretending to be.

In the time-honored tradition of Fred Pohl and John Campbell (the editor of Analog), the author let these two cliché problems solve each other, creating an ending that is anything but cliché -- and that would thrill any student of the occult. The vampire gets a soul and the lady gets a husband she prefers as well as the money needed to bail her family out of debt.

Yesterday, I read Lover's Moon by Jane Toombs (one of my favorite writers). A woman rushes to Canada -- to a particular public park -- after receiving in the mail a crumpled tarot card, the Knight of Swords, with three words written on the margin -- the name of the park and "Help!" Recognizing the card as a treasure of her best friend, she rushes to the park and headlong into a bizarre adventure involving people with sharp senses for magickal evil and no training in using those senses.

They end up back in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and connect with some local Native Americans who have preserved the local magickal lore.

Because I know Jane Toombs, I know she knows the factual backgrounds she's using here. So it's just a lay back and enjoy the good read. And it races along without a jar or bump the whole way -- smooth perfection. That's Jane's style after many years of practice with this formula. I read this book with an idiot smile pasted on my face.

For a "reality" type novel set in the contemporary world about us, this one is very far out into the occult, and all the symbolism and magick is solid.

The people in this novel have a problem that appears to be a problem in magick. (It seems a man who has become guardian of a young girl is actually an evil shapechanger trying to gain control of her hereditary magickal power -- or at least that's what the recently orphaned child believes. She is also convinced this evil creature killed her parents to gain control of her.)

Their lives could be viewed as a problem -- or as a mystery. This book is one of those wondrous, refreshing reads that shows us life as karma -- with justice, reward for heroism, grand vistas of reality beyond the material, and, ultimately, a real point to it all.

But actually, because of the formula required by the reality background, it's both problem and mystery simultaneously.

Still gnawing on the Joseph Campbell quote, I reacted to this contemporary romance novel with an "of course!" Life is indeed not just a problem to be solved. Life is definitely a mystery to be lived and marveled at with relish and delight. But it is totally incorrect to say "Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived." The syntax of that statement indicates that one must choose whether life is a problem or life is a mystery. And one may not solve mysteries or live problems. But a master wouldn't accept that kind of limitation on his/her options. Mastery is about broadening one's options so that the optimal course is always available.

It's Joseph Campbell's syntax I disagree with -- not the content.

Reading these five novels and studying this one fine mini-series -- each about life from a different aspect, at different times, in different levels of society, but capping it off with Jane Toombs' lovely reminder of karmic justice, I see what Campbell missed. He probably didn't read vampire romances and real science fiction. What deprivation some people suffer!

You see, a master -- a true master of anything, but most especially of the occult -- has the data feed at hand, the skills, abilities, insights, and, when confronted with problem, or mystery, or opportunity, will have right at hand the exact tool best suited to the task.

Such a master will have the artistic awareness, the fine-honed art of the craft, to recognize the nature of the karmic pattern before him/her and choose the optimal combination of techniques, data, philosophies and tools to analyze and synthesize courses of action that can be most effective. Choosing goals is an art. Understanding karmic patterns and trends is an art. But art without science is as ineffectual as science without art.

Qabalistically, an operation in Netzach must be performed from a stance in Hod. An operation in Hod must be performed from a stance in Netzach. Or put another way -- be careful not to saw off the branch of the Tree you're sitting on. Life isn't an either/or proposition. Life is a problem to be solved -- occasionally. Likewise, life is often a mystery to be lived. Or an opportunity to be seized.

The trick only the master can pull off reliably is discerning when to approach life as a problem to be solved, or a problem to be lived, or a mystery to be solved, or a mystery to be lived, or an opportunity to be passed up, or solved or lived, or seized, or given away. Then there are all the other ways to approach life -- as a responsibility, a need, an ambition, etc., etc. Just go right around your natal chart and you can find all the different choices available to you in this life. Study other people's charts and you will find options that are not available to you. Mastery maximizes the options. A master can even access options that aren't intrinsically his/her own in this life.

Those who don't have the concept "mastery" in their lexicon, who perhaps don't remember any of their past lives, search doggedly for "the" solution -- the one thing that is always correct. Getting the correct answer is important because then you no longer have to think when confronted with a novel situation (pun intended). Getting the right answer to the question, "What is life?" relieves you of the fear of failure. You now know and so you'll always be right. Mastery doesn't mean you'll always be right, or that everything you do will work as planned. Masters do fail. They just regard failure differently.

Joseph Campbell's answer, "Life is a Mystery to be lived," doesn't give you a clear-cut path to follow on all occasions. It basically says that you shouldn't worry because nobody knows the answer -- so when you fail, it isn't your fault as long as you don't try to solve life as a problem because that's definitely what life is not.

Poor Campbell -- so filled with data, so brilliant a thinker, living in such a small box with so few choices, and one of his most famous quotes is so misleading.

That's awfully sad. I can only hope I'm never quoted out of context.

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






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