Warning, this post has changed focus on me three or four times. Its writing has been deeply recursive, and, at this point, may not actually make any sense to anyone but me.
So, I decided to break out of my rut of constantly re-reading books; for whatever reason, one of my standard responses to having my brain occupied by other things–whether stress or a big project or whatever–is to retreat to re-reading books. I think this is because it keeps my eyes occupied, and stimulates the languages sections of my brain without really requiring, say, thought.
Anyway, my initial breakout was to go pick up three SF novels I hadn’t read at the library and spend a week on those. One, Larry Niven’s Ringworld’s Children is probably just as good as you would expect of the fourth book in a series that was never really intended to comprise more than one, written by an author who has been turning out less and less distinguished work for the last fifteen or twenty years.
I also got Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, with which I was mildly disappointed, mostly because I have been blown away with the last two things of his I read, Lord of Light and the short story collection The Doors of His Eyes, the Lamps of His Mouth. Damnation Alley is obviously a much earlier and less mature work, although something about the prose had me flashing on Dhalgren.
Checking the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I find that 1) Chip Delaney and Roger Zelazny debuted in the same year (1962), and 2) Roger Zelazney has a novel I haven’t read called The Dream Master, the original title of which, when it appeared as a story in a magazine was He Who Shapes.
I find this interesting because, of course, “He Who Shapes” is one of the titles given to the main character in The Sandman, and I don’t think it’s any particular secret that Neil Gaiman liked Zelazny, and furthermore, in the Encyclopedia, John Clute describes the story thusly:
In The Dream Master–for one of the few times in his career–Roger Zelazny presented the counter-myth, the story of the metamorphosis which fails, the transcendence which collapses back into the mortal world.
Which, one might say, is a description that could also be applied to the arc of the story in The Sandman.
But that’s all incidental.
Finally, I got Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eternal–an alternate history hinging on Rome never falling to the barbarians. I generally enjoy Robert Silverberg quite a lot–he straddles a middle ground in Science Fiction between the simple (some might say simplistic) storytelling of the majority of the material out there, and the extraordinarily dense, elliptical novels of, say, Gene Wolfe.
I might liken him to Dan Simmons in many ways, in that he is concerned with people, not ideas, and yet the ideas are integral to the stories, too. And, again, like Dan Simmons, he is knowledgeable beyond the provinces of Science Fiction, though he’s also steeped in SF, too–he’s almost a contemporary of Issac Asimov (his first story was published a half-century ago), but one whose ambitions, and results, often more closely resemble those of the writers from the New Wave of the 60s, of whom Zelazny was one.
As John Clute says, again, in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:
He remains one of the most imaginative and versatile writers ever to have been involved with sf. His productivity has seemed almost superhuman, and his abrupt metamorphosis from a writer of standardized pulp fiction into a prose artist was an accomplishment unparalleled within the field.
Anyway, back to the book.
Thinking about it, I suppose you could say Roma Eternal‘s biggest message is, as this post is headed, “People never really change,” although it’s not actually the book I actually intended to write about when I wrote that title.
Because the other thing it did was get me to thinking about how little I am really cognizant of classical culture–I mean, sure, if a reference is made to the Emperor Justinian or Nero or Diocletian, I at least recognized the names, and I have some vague notions about the true tail-end of the empire (albeit gleaned largely from Umberto Eco’s Baudolino–not a source to put a lot of faith in, really), and so forth, so I’m not utterly ignorant.
But, at the same time, I’ve never read the Illiad, and although I’ve read plenty of Odyssey-lite, I’ve never actually read a simple translation of the original material. I’ve never read Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or Plato, or Suetonius, or Herodotus or much of anyone from that period.
So, I called my friend George, who is the only person I know who reads that sort of stuff for fun, and asked him to recommend a couple of things. One was The Metamorphosis of Lucius Apuleius, or The Golden Ass, and the other was Herodotus, who, he says, has an amusing tendency to move from reporting actual events, to, say, relating things of a rather more dubious nature, like the ant-headed people that “everyone knows about”.
Anyway, The Golden Ass is the shorter of the two, so I started with it. And hey, T. E. Lawrence apparently always traveled with a copy in his saddlebags, which is how Graves came to be acquainted with it (or so the introduction tells me).
The first interesting thing is that this is almost certainly the work (here goes some of the recursive stuff) from which the character of Thessaly (AKA Larissa) in The Sandman is pulled–the entire story takes place in the Greek province of Thessaly, which is renowned for the witches apparently lurking around every corner, one of whom goes by the name Larissa, which is a pseudonym Thessaly is known to have used. So, always nice to go back to the source material.
The second interesting thing is that people never change.
I’m sure many of you were less successful than I in avoiding actually reading the Canterbury Tales in college or high school (not, in retrospect, that I think I was doing myself any favors by doing as little as possible, I was just far too callow to appreciate it back then) may remember thinking it improbable that people back then thought fart jokes were funny.
Well, let me tell you what, apparently anal sex was just as big a deal then as it is now Robert Graves hides behind some allusion to “having her like a boy”–and, I kid you not, when the main character gets transformed into a donkey, one of his first thoughts is about how much larger and more impressive his penis is, and wouldn’t his girlfriend enjoy that.
Yes, that’s right, both sorts of ass-fucking. Just in case you thought for one second we had progressed in the last two thousand years.