Re-starting “Complex networks, complex processes”

Today I re-started work on my other book.

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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

Robert Macfarlane (2012)

A beautiful and poignant volume that’s hard to categorise: part travelogue, part biography of the poet Edward Thomas, part meditation, part exploration. Macfarlane traces old footpaths, from the South Downs to the Hebrides to Palestine, reading the landscape and the marks that people have left on it. He follows the diversions as he encounters them, musing about the “pathways” in the sea that are clear and long-lived despite being written in the water, formed from the ways in which current and wind interact to lay down the “natural” route to travel before powered craft. He spends night under the stars, including a rather unnerving and supernatural encounter while sleeping (ill-advisedly, as he puts it) in a neolithic ring. And he brings out literary gems, such as the relationship between Thomas (whose work I’ve now been inspired to read) and Robert Frost’s poem The road not taken. Altogether a delight to read.

5/5. Finished Tuesday 4 May, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (1982)

A scholarly study of the occult ideas that emerged in Germany and (especially) Austria in the year leading up to and after the First World War. It raises many ideas, most of them disquieting – not least the similarities with modern-day tendencies to believe in hidden plots and secret societies controlling the world’s destiny. Perhaps this is a common reaction to feelings of social and economic dislocation, but it’s worrying nonetheless.

Goodrick-Clarke is entirely honest about his inability to definitively establish a causal chain from the Thule Society and like-minded groups to the Nazis. He presents two hypotheses: that the members and hanger-on of the Thule did indeed have some influence, notably over Heinrich Himmler’s view of the SS as a revenant mediaeval order of chivalry; and that the ideas were simply “in the air”, a symptom of the times than were independently picked up and developed by the Nazis.

It’d be easy for a book on this theme to become lost in fables, and indeed many other works have done so. (Goodrick-Clarke devotes an appendix to dismantling these “crypto-histories”.) You never get the feeling, reading him, that he’s in the slightest bit a believer, even as he recounts the (probably and putatively sincere) beliefs of his subjects. That many of these beliefs can be traced back definitively to works of late-nineteenth-century fiction (notably to the books of Edward Bulwer-Lytton) makes their attraction all the more surprising, even given that the belief was always a niche one.

4/5. Finished Monday 3 May, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Great Book of Amber (The Chronicles of Amber, #1-10)

Roger Zelazny (1999)

The entire Amber series, all two series and ten books of it. That’s a lot of material to hold together as a coherent narrative, something only a master could have accomplished.

The first series builds on earlier swords-and-sorcery works and turns them on their head, as something happening contemporaneously with the modern world but in “shadows” being cast from Amber and Chaos, two poles of existence. The struggle between these two primal forces combines both the archetypal and the familial, with some siblings battling for the throne while others seek power by undermining the fabric of existence as embodied in the Pattern, that gives control over Shadow. The two struggles coalesce, with the Pattern being damaged and allowing Chaos to gain strength, and event that’s reflected on all Shadows. It all comes down to a struggle to re-inscribe the Pattern and re-establish the balance.

All this (five book’s worth) is recounted by the protagonist, Corwin, to his son Merlin, sitting on a rock before the Courts of Chaos at the end of the Patternfall Wall. The second series covers Merlin’s adventures as similar forces rear-up and try to disrupt existence. The second series (another five books’ worth) is nowhere near as polished as the first: there are a lot of loose ends and material that’s never really explored, and the final ending feels quite weak, as though the strands didn’t quite pull together as tightly as Zelazny wanted. It’s a small failing, and the stories can be enjoyed for their pace and style without necessarily needing to be resolved.

5/5. Finished Friday 23 April, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Book of Legendary Lands

Umberto Eco (2013)

Fable, folklore, and (to a far lesser extent) fictional lands, explored with the clarity one would expect of Eco. This book is a joy to read, with key excerpts from source works included after the discussion in each chapter, and it’s full of wonderful images, of paintings especially, that show the parallel visual arts associated with each of the chosen lands.

Again as one would expect from Eco, the last chapter is a philosophical discussion of the nature of truth when applied to legends: we “know” what happens in a legend, and so recognise any revisionist or alternative reading as “fictional” even though the original was fictional also. It’s an interesting and worthwhile discussion that in many ways crystalises the points made in the concrete earlier chapters.

4/5. Finished Monday 19 April, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)