Book Review:  A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally – Part Three: Psychedelics and the Gestalt Mind

As I read on in A Long Strange Trip, I realize that it is important to remember that the idiosyncratic behavior of the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, especially concerning drugs and alcohol but also the tendency to tease, test, and humiliate vulnerable people, was not exemplary or worthy of imitation. Their experiments with psychedelic drugs were combinations of a hedonic lust for sensation, a desire to blend experience in a sort of gestalt mind, and a quest of excellence and integration in their musical efforts. For a time Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the legendary LSD manufacturer, was a part of the Dead’s retinue, and they had continual access to high-quality hallucinogens. The Dead and the Pranksters (and other musicians of the era) used mind-altering substances to seek the limits of reality in the context of a group mind whose barriers were shattered by psychedelics and then reshaped by music. This was an illusion, of course, but a grand illusion. Ultimately, beyond a certain point hallucinogens lead only to chaos; this realization may have been part of what later prompted some of the band members to indulge in more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

The Merry Pranksters used to say that you were either on the bus or off the bus, referring not only to the physical bus dubbed Further that they took on their epic cross-country journey, but also to the metaphorical whole-hearted giving of yourself to the gestalt, the group mind. I think that I would not have been able to stay on the Grateful Dead’s bus. There were too many drugs and too much craziness for me. That year at Santa Clara University during which I smoked so much pot and took so many hallucinogens was debilitating, not illuminating. My psychedelic trips got worse and worse and more and more confusing. I was looking for something that wasn’t there, and the search became increasingly frustrating. I didn’t manage to straighten out my mind and get hold of my priorities until I discovered writing and got out on the road to find my voice and my direction. The finest, most positive hallucinogenic trip I ever had was when a German traveler and I took LSD early one morning in Katmandu, Nepal, and walked up into the foothills as the drug took effect. We hiked along the crest of the hills surrounded by the incomparably lovely snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan Mountains. This was an experience that could never have been achieved in the raucous atmosphere of a crowded concert hall.

It should be pointed out, however, that drugs, ubiquitous though they were wherever the group went, were peripheral to the core Grateful Dead raison d’être. First and foremost, every member of the band was there for the music. Dedication to musical excellence was what bound the disparate individuals in the group together, and commitment to evolving and improving the music was what kept them together despite the overuse of drugs and alcohol and the often anarchistic nature of their sociological situations. In making this point, I should also bring up that McNally, the author of the book, was the official historian of the Grateful Dead for decades, and his closeness to the group tends to make him less than objective. Even some of the more sordid episodes in the group’s history are presented as if glimpsed through somewhat rose-colored glasses.

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Books Make Great Gifts!

After Thanksgiving has come and gone, people commence a search for holiday gifts for family members, relatives, friends, acquaintances, in-laws, outlaws, colleagues, and sometimes total strangers. If you’re looking for fun, sophisticated, lively, intense, flamboyant, and otherwise variegated literary fare, I’ve thus far published thirty volumes in a range of genres through Astaria Books. Here are some examples of choice gifts you can bestow upon your loved ones. If you click on the titles, the links are to Amazon, but for lists of links to other marketplaces, head for my website’s Available Books page.

Science Fiction:

After the Fireflood: A Novel – During the Fourth World War, the entire Earth is engulfed in a torrent of fire, transforming the landscape and obliterating all life.  Using terraforming, time travel, and other expediencies, human survivors from Moonbase and the outer colonies attempt to cope with their devastating loss, reconstruct the Earth’s surface, and reorganize Earth sociologically to ensure lasting peace, while others plot to claim the pristine reconstituted planet for their own purposes.

Bedlam Battle: An Omnibus of the One Thousand Series – In the late 1960s, humans and sympathetic aliens based out of Haight/Ashbury struggle to stop alien-possessed psychopaths intent on a murderous rampage. Four science fiction thrillers in one volume.

Love Children: A Novel – It is the mid-1970s.  The Summer of Love and the Woodstock Music Festival have come and gone.  Into the atmosphere of cynicism and doubt following the wild optimism of the youth revolution the Love Children, raised from birth by benevolent aliens, come home to Earth.  Sexually free, telepathic and honest to the extreme, they are appalled to find that the world they left behind is full of darkness and deceit. As they set about using their extraordinary powers to bring light and unity back to their world, they run up against a sinister alien force intending to keep it in darkness.

Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales – These tales offer terrifying glimpses of Earth’s future gone wrong. From the author’s afterword:  “When I postulate dark futures it is not to get you to despair.  When I hold up dark mirrors before your eyes it is not so that you will see the worst in yourself and do yourself in.  Far from it.  Some of our greatest illuminations come from deep dark prose.  Dark literature is not meant to overwhelm us.  It is meant to purge us, to provide catharsis.  It is a cleansing and purifying process.  We must be aware of the evil within before we can clean it out.”

Fantasy:

Caliban’s Children – Content is being siphoned from libraries and replaced with half-truths and lies.  Weather, time, and distances are distorting like images in a funhouse mirror.  People are discovering the ability to morph into animals.  At first it all seems idyllic and magical until a dark power begins to manifest itself, assert control, and demand obedience.

Ethan is a university student caught in the midst of a kaleidoscopic confusion he cannot understand.  After journeying into the wilderness seeking answers, he realizes he has to ally himself with the beasts of the Earth and venture into a bizarre, mutating, peril-filled city to rescue his lover and attack the source of the evil.

Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies – In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

Thriller:

The Fantasy Book Murders – After a famous fantasy writer is murdered in his castle-like mansion, two unlikely investigators discover a pattern of similar murders suggesting a serial killer. They begin to research the killings, starting with the most recent and working backwards into the past. Danger mounts as they uncover the backgrounds of the victims and the truth begins to resemble the fantasy writer’s most bizarre and horrific fiction.

Novels of the Counterculture:

The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen – Sarah Tabitha Jones, a twenty-year-old fascinated by the youth culture of the late 1960s, leaves her middle-class home and wanders to a wilderness commune and then to the Haight/Ashbury in search of truth. On the way she encounters many strange characters: bikers, draft dodgers, Vietnam War veterans, peyote worshippers, heroin dealers, Jesus people, feminists, violent anarchists, Black Panthers, and science fiction fans. She experiments with drugs and sex, but at the same time helps out those she can; though often disillusioned, she believes that hippies should unite to create a better world. In the midst of all this she finds herself pregnant. Eight and a half months later, undaunted, belly bulging, she travels to Woodstock for one last attempt at finding the love and unity she seeks. The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen will appeal not only to those who lived through the disconcerting era of the 60s and 70s but to those younger who are curious about what took place back then. It will also resonate with anyone who is idealistic and in search of personal fulfillment, as well as those who simply enjoy a wild tale: sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes violent, sometimes sexy, always extreme.

Sunflower: A Novel – In early 1970 a new era, the Age of Aquarius, is dawning. Penny, who adopted the name of Sunflower on the way to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, attends another rock concert touted as Woodstock West, at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Seeking to enhance the transcendent experience, she instead comes away covered in the blood of a man brutally stabbed to death in front of the stage. Has the new youth experience descended from idealism to anarchy? Confused and disillusioned, Sunflower embarks upon an odyssey across an America torn by violent anti-Vietnam War protests, racial tension, and gangs of hard drug dealers. From a search for a shared social experience it becomes a personal quest for fulfillment that leads her on a journey across continents.

Memoirs:

World Without Pain: The Story of a Search – In the 1970s, after the Altamont Rock Festival, the Manson Family cult murders, and the fiasco of the Vietnam War many young people, disillusioned by the hippy movement, began to leave their homelands and travel to the far places of the world.  Hoping to find drugs, sex, freedom, and excitement, they more often were confronted with destitution, despair, disease, loneliness, and culture shock. As a young writer wishing to break out of the familiar rut in which he was stagnating, Walters hit the road during this time, first to Europe, then onward to the Indian Subcontinent.  He sampled Buddhism and radical Christianity; he wandered alone in the Himalayas; he listened to strange gurus spouting stranger doctrines; he watched the people around him deteriorating and dying in the lands of the East.  As he traveled onward he became fascinated with the road itself, and determined to discover its secrets. He wondered what it was that gave the road its alluring power, and he forsook everything else to find out. His story will appeal to those who lived through the turmoil of the 60s and 70s, to those who are hungering after spiritual fulfillment, to writers and other artists in search of their voice and their inspiration, and to anyone who loves a true story of adventure and excitement in strange lands.

After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece – Greece has always been regarded as the birthplace of western civilization and a Mediterranean paradise.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey Homer uses the magical epithet rosy-fingered dawn to describe the sunrise over a land of myth, fascination, and mystery.  But when preconceptions and illusions are swept aside, what is Greece really like? John Walters has lived in Greece for over fifteen years.  He has hitchhiked over many of its roads; traveled by camper; journeyed by plane, boat, bus, car, taxi, motorcycle, and on foot.  He has lived and worked and raised a family among Greeks.  He offers insight from an intimate perspective on aspects of Greek society and culture of which tourists are unaware. Many have visited Greece and afterwards acknowledged that the country has profoundly changed them.  This memoir is for those who feel something special when they think of Greece and Greeks, those for whom Greece holds a special thrall, those who have visited and have their own memories of the place, and those who would like to visit someday and know that when they do they will obtain new insight, new clarity, and will never be the same again.

America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad – In 1976 John Walters left the United States in search of adventure and literary inspiration.  He lived for many years in India, Bangladesh, Italy, and Greece.  He married and had five sons.  Finally, faced with the economic catastrophe in Greece and the lack of opportunities for his sons, he returned to the land of his birth.  Without home, without job, without resources, he confronted his own country as if for the first time. This is a memoir of someone who, late in life, was forced to leave everything behind and start fresh in what for him had become a new land.  It will appeal to those who are confronted with major life changes in these troubled economic times; to those who, though they may desire rest and retirement, must continue toiling to make ends meet; for those who desire insight into the vast, multifaceted culture of the United States from a fresh perspective, unencumbered by familiarity.

Writing as a Metaphysical Experience – From the author’s introduction: “For me, writing is metaphysical because it is inseparable from who I am and my conception of the universe and my place in it.  My interpretation of writing goes far beyond the definitions of hobby, job, or career – it is rather in the nature of a calling.  It is something that blossomed from within me and, though invisible to instrumentation, has been as integrally a part of me as my flesh, bones, and internal organs.  How this transpired and how it manifests itself is the subject of this book. This is not a how-to book on writing, although in its course I offer many practical tips and suggestions.  It’s more like a travelogue, a story of the life’s journey on which my writing has led me.” This journey has led Walters on a decades-long quest from the United States to Europe to the Indian Subcontinent and back in the pursuit of voice, inspiration, and literary excellence.  On the way, he has written and published novels, short story collections, essay collections, memoirs, and numerous individual novellas, novelettes, short stories, and essays.

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Book Review:  A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally – Part Two: Locale

Although the Grateful Dead eventually toured all over the United States and around the world, their origin story is inexorably linked with the San Francisco Bay Area. The late sixties, when the Dead came to prominence, was a heady time for music, with numerous bands playing in local establishments and then attaining greater fame. The Haight/Ashbury area became a haven for all sorts of misfits, free thinkers, and experimenters in unorthodox social situations. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, after making their legendary psychedelic cross-country journey in a flamboyantly painted bus called Further, returned to the Bay Area and began putting on a series of acid tests, of which the Dead’s music became an integral component.

All of this is recounted in this absorbing book, as is the story of how the Grateful Dead got their name. After numerous name changes they had been playing as The Warlocks, but one of the members discovered a recording by a band that was already using that name. According to McNally, the group came across the phrase “grateful dead” in an old dictionary. It referred to a folktale about someone who pays for the burial of the corpse of a debtor; in return, the spirit of the dead person assists the benefactor with an impossible task. In other words, it involves righteousness and karma. This is one of the many fascinating details to be found in A Long Strange Journey.

To return to the setting of the Dead’s early history, though, it was the Bay Area before big tech took over, when rents were cheap and lifestyles were variegated. The Bay Area used to be one of my favorite places. Some of the writers who were most germinal to my own literary growth spent significant amounts of time there, including Jack London, Jack Kerouac, and Henry Miller. As I mentioned already, I spent a year at Santa Clara University, majoring mainly in drugs and other distractions. Later, after I had initiated my travels, I thought at one time that I might settle in the Bay Area. I had just returned from Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent.

I hitchhiked from Seattle to San Francisco and for a brief time found a room in the Haight/Ashbury area, thinking to absorb some hippie culture firsthand. Alas, by the mid-seventies the Haight was a shadow of what it had been. There were still a few pseudo-hip shops, but I did not feel the genuine thrall or heady individualism of the sixties. In frustration I moved downtown and rented a hotel room on a street lined with porno cinemas. I took long walks through the city as I tried to figure out what to do next. On one of those walks I met a lovely young French woman accompanying her parents on a U.S. tour. We spent the next few days in a haze of passionate infatuation. I begged her to stay in the States and travel with me, and when she left on the next stage of the tour with her parents, it broke my heart. After this shattering interlude, my love for San Francisco was not enough to keep me there. I left the city, wandered up the coast, and eventually returned to India.

I lived overseas for thirty-five years, raising a family in Greece, and when I finally returned to the States, living anywhere around the Bay Area was no longer an option. Rents and the general costs of living, driven up by means of the high salaries of the tech companies, were (and are) prohibitively expensive. Seattle, where I live now, has got more expensive too, of course, but not nearly as much as the Bay Area. This book helps to remind me that it was once a free, happy, relaxing, peaceful, and affordable place.

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Book Review:  A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally – Part One: Background

I don’t think I ever heard of the Grateful Dead until in 1970 at the age of seventeen I headed down to Santa Clara University from Seattle for my first and only year of college. I was immature, naive, and introverted – in other words, totally unprepared to become immersed in a San Francisco Bay Area still reverberating from the youth revolution of the late sixties. I didn’t really have much motivation for going to college other than it was expected of me so that is what I did. Without a specific focus on the future or any inclination to study, I was swept away into a subculture bursting with drugs and music. My next door neighbor in the dorm smoked cannabis like a chimney and always had plenty to pass around. Besides marijuana, I experimented with hallucinogens such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline. And along with the acid and other psychedelics came the Grateful Dead. As my compatriots and I smoked dope or spaced out on stronger stuff, the Dead’s albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were often playing in the background.

On one occasion, some of my stoner buddies and I went to the Fillmore West in San Francisco to experience the Grateful Dead live in concert. It was a very informal occasion. The band seemed to be on the same level as the audience, almost as if they were part of it; everyone, performers and listeners, seemed part of a gestalt. The Dead’s improvisation extended the songs I had heard precisely and succinctly played on the albums into prolonged and unique creations. This was the only time I have ever been to a Dead concert, but it was definitely a memorable one. I must have been high, but even so decades later I still clearly recall my wonder and amazement at that singular musical event.

I never saw the Grateful Dead live again, but Workingman’s Dead remains one of my favorite albums of all time. A few years ago, after listening to the album over and over, I wrote several science fiction and fantasy stories based on about half a dozen of the songs; some have already been published, while others have been bought by magazines or anthologies but have not yet come out. Several of the songs on American Beauty are also indelibly imbedded in my psyche. I know them so well that I can play them clearly in my mind, lyrics and all, even if I don’t have access to a recording. When my thoughts are jangled and confused or I can’t get some wretched commercial jingle out of my head, all I have to do is put on “Uncle John’s Band” or “New Speedway Boogie” or “Ripple” or “Sugar Magnolia” and it really flushes out the pipes and refreshes me.

Of course, the Grateful Dead were only one facet of a complex kaleidoscope of musical and cultural innovation that took place in the Bay Area in the sixties and beyond. In this book, McNally not only traces the stories of the individual members of the Dead and how they all came together and began playing their idiosyncratic music, but the evolution of the entire west coast rock scene, the drug culture, the hippies, and more.

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Remembering Greg Bear

Science fiction and fantasy writer Greg Bear died on November 19, 2022. I was (and am) an outlier, having lived overseas for thirty-five years and only recently, in the past several years, having become acquainted with other writers in the area. I didn’t know Greg as well as most of the other members of the Clarion West and Seattle area science fiction community, but I knew him well enough to consider his loss devastating.

I met and talked with Greg several times at parties, conventions, and so on, and on one of these occasions he invited me to a Clarion West party at his home. When I arrived I felt awed and somewhat intimidated, but Greg radiated friendliness and hospitality and immediately helped me feel at ease. That was an unforgettable day.

I met Greg again at the memorial for science fiction writer Vonda McIntyre. We were talking outside after the event and he asked me how it was going. When Greg asked something like this, it was not a mere formality; he sincerely wanted to know. I told him that I’d had a few victories, some story acceptances, but I was discouraged by the quantity of rejections after trying so hard for so long. Greg assured me that it was all part of being a writer, and that he still received rejections sometimes himself. Reassuring, coming from a master like him. In fact, Vonda had told me something similar the last time I’d seen her. Rejections are part of the game.

I could always count on Greg to be kind, attentive, and encouraging. And now he’s gone, at least from here for now. I attended the Clarion West workshop in Seattle in 1973. After that, as I said, I was gone for a long time. When I returned, I suppose I was drawn to and became close to writers of similar age to mine. One by one, they are departing to worlds unknown. First Vonda, then Bruce Taylor, and now Greg. It’s the way of things, of course, but my heart hurts a little more and feels a little emptier each time. Rest in peace, Greg.

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I Finally Got COVID: A Perspective

I figured that I had escaped it, that it was behind me. After all, since the pandemic began I have been faithfully isolating, wearing masks in crowded places, and obtaining vaccinations and boosters whenever they became available. I already worked from home, so that wasn’t a problem. I haven’t recently gone to the science fiction conventions or gatherings of writers that for years I used to attend regularly. When my youngest son moved away to college I was even more isolated and still working from home. Finally, though, in the last half a year or so, I stepped out and attended a few meet-ups of people interested in international travel, just to get out and socialize for a change. It must have been at the latest of these, last Wednesday evening, at which the COVID virus caught up with me.

On Thursday everything seemed normal. On Friday I started the day feeling fine. I performed my forty-five minute calisthenics and yoga exercise routine in midmorning, and shortly afterwards I embarked on a three-mile walk up and down steep hills. Nothing unusual there. Except by the end of it I had the odd sensation that something was wrong. I prepared and ate lunch but it didn’t settle as well as it usually does. In the afternoon I felt feverish, and I had strong aches in the joints and muscles of my shoulders and neck. I put off taking a COVID test because I didn’t want to have COVID. Instead, I decided to take my temperature. My thermometer’s battery had run out so I had to rummage in kitchen drawers until I found a replacement. I had a fever, all right. So then I submitted to the inevitable. The line in the COVID test came out starkly, doubtlessly positive. I sent a message on Facebook to my immediate family, my five sons and my ex-wife, to let them know. I sat down to watch a movie but despite my turning the heat up in the room and putting on layers of clothing, it was hard to stay warm. And whenever I felt even a slight chill I would begin to shiver. It was hard to decide what to eat, and the food I finally prepared tasted strange so I ended up throwing most of it away. At least I slept well.

Saturday morning I woke up early feeling feverish, achy, and weak. Still, I had gone to bed early and got enough sleep and so I prepared some coffee and thought I’d try to get some work done. I had just taken on some article assignments and couldn’t cancel them. It took all the strength and resolve I had to sit upright in front of my computer and try to focus. I somehow managed to write one article and do a few other things. In the meantime, my family had rallied. Several of them called me in a group chat and asked how I was. One of my sons did some research and found a website run by the Washington State government offering access to Paxlovid, a COVID drug being offered to immune-compromised individuals. I qualified because of my age (almost 70). When I called the number, the person on the phone was sympathetic and efficient. Within half an hour a prescription had arrived at the closest pharmacy. One of my sons went to pick it up, along with a pulse oximeter to measure my blood oxygen level, which my family insisted I check several times a day. Nothing like having folks in your corner. Again I had little appetite for lunch or for dinner, and the feverish shivering continued whenever I felt the slightest bit cold.

Sunday the main symptoms were frequent sneezing, runny nose, and sore throat. (I must mention on the bright side that through all this my lungs stayed clear and strong; I was spared the congestion in the lungs that is a common symptom. I also never had a headache, which I have also read is common.) I badly wanted to take a walk but refrained because I couldn’t comfortably wear a mask with all the snot and I didn’t want to spray contamination all over the place. Anyway, I was still very tired and wouldn’t have got far.

Monday the sneezing and runny nose were almost gone but I had a painful sore throat. I tried to do my exercise routine but only managed about a quarter of it before I realized I wasn’t up to the task. I kept my work schedule, and I began to enjoy normal meals again.

Tuesday (today) the symptoms are almost all gone, except a lingering sore throat. I noticed, though, that I was a bit more spaced-out and apprehensive than usual. I wasn’t surprised about this after I read about the mental effects of the COVID virus.

In conclusion, I have to say that the COVID symptoms I have experienced (others have different and sometimes much more serious symptoms) were physically debilitating, painful, and uncomfortable, but nothing too difficult to overcome or at least endure. For me, the worst part of having COVID has been the feeling of increased isolation. I already spent most of my time alone, but now that I had COVID I realized that I couldn’t go out to seek companionship even if I wanted to because I would risk endangering others. It made me feel like I was in a prison of sorts. I occasional felt a sort of despair over whether I would ever again be able to socialize with friends and acquaintances. It made me feel very, very alone. I thought of the poor people who got COVID in the early stages of the pandemic who were left to die by themselves in hospital rooms, cut off from the solace of their families, even the nurses and doctors sometimes afraid to approach them. What a horror to be so alone, in pain, fighting to breathe, and acutely aware of your imminent demise! Maybe it’s good that I have finally got COVID. I hadn’t been sick in years. It put my mortality back into perspective. We’re all adapting to it, but it is still out there, prowling, on the hunt. And if it’s not COVID it will be something else. There’s always something. Remember: Our mortality rate as humans is one hundred percent. No exceptions. Sure makes me want to make good use of whatever time I have left.

Postscript: By Friday, a week after the first symptoms appeared, I did my entire exercise regimen and afterwards rejoiced in my returned strength. (Before I took this and other steps, on Thursday I talked on the phone with a registered nurse from the clinic where I receive primary medical care.) I now have no more symptoms at all. The only difference with my pre-COVID health is that I sleep longer and deeper these days; my system is doubtlessly attempting to recover from the sucker punch COVID threw at it.

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Another Look:  After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece

Greece has always been regarded as the birthplace of western civilization and a Mediterranean paradise.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey Homer uses the magical epithet rosy-fingered dawn to describe the sunrise over a land of myth, fascination, and mystery.  But when preconceptions and illusions are swept aside, what is Greece really like?

John Walters has lived in Greece for over fifteen years.  He has hitchhiked over many of its roads; traveled by camper; journeyed by plane, boat, bus, car, taxi, motorcycle, and on foot.  He has lived and worked and raised a family among Greeks.  He offers insight from an intimate perspective on aspects of Greek society and culture of which tourists are unaware.

Many have visited Greece and afterwards acknowledged that the country has profoundly changed them.  This memoir is for those who feel something special when they think of Greece and Greeks, those for whom Greece holds a special thrall, those who have visited and have their own memories of the place, and those who would like to visit someday and know that when they do they will obtain new insight, new clarity, and will never be the same again.

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Book Review:  Sea of Tranquility: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility is marketed as a mainstream novel but it is in fact science fiction. It is a story of time travel and human colonies on the moon, on other planets and moons in the solar system, and on nearby solar systems. It concerns a particular anomaly under investigation by an elite, malevolent Time Institute that ostensibly imposes harsh rules to prevent dangerous paradoxes but in fact is cruel towards its employees in a cold bureaucratic power-hungry sort of way.

Mandel begins her tale on Vancouver Island in British Columbia in 1912, where she first introduces the anomaly, skips forward to an artistic demonstration in 2020, where the anomaly is again revealed, jumps forward again to a book tour in 2203, in which the novel the author is promoting contains glimpses of the anomaly, and finally moves to 2401, the era of the Time Institute. Mandel then progressively backtracks to sew together the different pieces of the story and show how they are all interrelated.

It is a very entertaining story told in a sparse, easy to read style. It is also quite short in comparison to other science fiction tales on similar themes, not much more than novella length after accounting for the numerous blank pages and chapters consisting of only a few sentences. It does not bring any new ideas to the genre, but that’s fairly standard nowadays. Almost all of modern science fiction and fantasy consists of riffs from tropes and ideas first presented in the pulp era of the early and mid-twentieth century. In fact, the definitive time travel paradox stories by which most others are judged were “By His Bootstraps” (1941) and “All You Zombies” (1958), both written by the late great Robert A. Heinlein.

Sea of Tranquility is a worthy addition to the genre. It is fun and entertaining, and the characters are fairly well fleshed-out. It is also topical and relevant to our era in that in one of the timelines a solar-system-wide pandemic is a major plot point.

I recommend this novel. It’s a good book. It is another indication of the absorption of genre literature into the mainstream. I notice, in fact, when I go to the library and peruse the “peak pick” shelves (popular new books that are available without reservation for shorter borrowing periods) that a large percentage of best-selling novels have science fiction and fantasy elements. It made me wonder why one book and not another receives a genre label. Clearly it has nothing to do with content or quality, because I know of many high-quality novels that remain marginalized because of their designations as genre literature. My own preference would be to strip away all such arbitrary labels in fiction and let each book rise or fall on its own unique merits, but that’s probably not going to happen because of the vagaries and strictures of marketing, listings, awards, and so on. Still, this modern trend is an indication that writers can be freer to let loose and sail the winds of imagination wherever they might lead, and that is certainly a good thing.

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On the Reading and Implementation of Self Help Books: Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg, and Others

We all need help. We all have areas of our lives that need improvement. In my case, I find myself living alone in a one-bedroom apartment after having raised five sons overseas (mainly in Greece) in an extremely lively atmosphere, effectively isolated since the COVID pandemic began, struggling to survive financially, rejoicing at the end of each month when I manage to pay my rent and other bills one more time. I work as a freelance writer and publisher and I don’t want to change that, but I wonder why prosperity has eluded me when others in similar occupations seem to be flourishing. I am continually reading, so it is natural for me to seek assistance through books and research. With this in mind, I perused lists and reviews and suggestions and culled some self-help books from the library.

At first I thought not to write reviews of these self-help books. After all, there is a stigma attached to them. Although some are wildly popular, they often tend to offer impractical or overly simplistic advice intended only for a certain strata of persona. As you will see when I get into details, this is the case here too. However, I have undergone this experience of studying these books to see what they have to offer, and I want to pass on whatever I have gleaned to you.

The first book will remain unnamed, and I’m sorry about that. I know it would be more helpful to focus on the exact title, but with very few exceptions since I began to write reviews I have decided to avoid denigrating specific books and authors. Anyway, the book is about standing alone and having courage in a world that often will not accept you. A noble sentiment indeed, one that I have long held and tried to live by, which is why I picked it up and decided to study it: as some positive reinforcement of my own convictions. I spent an afternoon perusing the book and carefully reading certain sections. In the end, I set it aside. I couldn’t get past the author’s background and attitudes. Touted on the cover as a “New York Times bestselling author,” she is an exceedingly wealthy woman, the owner and CEO of numerous companies based on her self-help teachings, and approaches the subjects of vulnerability, empathy, courage, and so on from a position of high privilege. I culled some good ideas, or reinforcement of some of my existing ideas, from some of the thoughts I read, but overall I felt that from her exalted, protected status she could not offer much to ordinary people.

Then I turned to one of the best-selling books of all time: Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. In my poverty-stricken situation I figured that if a thought process alone could make me wealthy, I was willing to go for it, so I spent another afternoon going over Hill’s book. My conclusion was that it wasn’t for me. First of all, Hill (who first published his book in 1937) bases his research solely on interviews with super-rich white men who ruthlessly exploited countless others to accumulate wealth for themselves. He represents them as examples to follow, but in numerous cases their riches were based upon the poorly-paid toil of their many employees. Besides his morally questionable examples, though, the main objection I had to Hill’s methods was the religious flavor of his advice. To follow through on his suggestions, you basically have to worship money. You have to desire riches above all else and implant auto-suggestions by continually repeating out loud (as if through prayer) your goals for the accumulation of riches. It is little different from the pleadings of acolytes to the Roman god Mercury, the Greek god Plutus, the Hindu god Lakshmi, and the gods of wealth and prosperity in numerous other cultures. Not for me, thanks. I have higher priorities. I am not going to give money godlike status.

The third self-help book I perused during this study was Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by B.J. Fogg. This is the book I found most interesting and useful. It does not pretend to spirituality or claim to be a path to enlightenment. Instead, it offers practical tips on how to easily change personal habits by making adjustments in behavior. Living alone, as I said, and having the need to work long hours, I have developed many habits that help get me through my work, exercise regularly, eat healthily, and so on. I find that Fogg’s methods of breaking down habits in terms of motivations, abilities, and prompts to be useful and hopefully effective. This is the one book of the three that I decided to read all the way through instead of just skim.

In conclusion, I advise you to use what works. If you find books that help you out in certain deficient areas of your life, go ahead and implement their advice. However, be wary of books that supposedly offer secret formulas to success or of authors whose examples belie the supposed wisdom they impart.

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Another Look: Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales

When it malfunctions, a teacher discovers a microchip implanted within her forehead which was designed to eradicate her free will.  She determines to rescue the orphaned children in her care from a similar fate.

In the aftermath of a conflict in which all adults were killed or driven away by their progeny, children and teens roam the streets of a ruined city.  When they near the age of 21 they must play the ultimate game, snuff sport, to prevent themselves from becoming hated adults.  A lone grown-up who re-enters the city on a mission of reconciliation is captured and put on trial for his life.

The people of Earth are losing a war with aliens that they themselves provoked.  Every able-bodied person is being called up to serve in combat, even prisoners.  A battle-hardened general enters a prison to recruit a woman who refuses to fight, but who may have a most unusual special ability that can turn the tide of the war.

These and other tales offer terrifying glimpses of Earth’s future gone wrong.

From the author’s afterword:  “When I postulate dark futures it is not to get you to despair.  When I hold up dark mirrors before your eyes it is not so that you will see the worst in yourself and do yourself in.  Far from it.  Some of our greatest illuminations come from deep dark prose.  Dark literature is not meant to overwhelm us.  It is meant to purge us, to provide catharsis.  It is a cleansing and purifying process.  We must be aware of the evil within before we can clean it out.”

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