The SFFaudio Podcast #334 – The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne; read by Fred Heimbaugh. This is an unabridged reading of the story (50 minutes) followed by a discussion of it. Participants in the discussion include Jesse and Fred.
Talked about on today’s show:
The Pioneer, March 1843, a Hawthorne Poe fest, contemporaries, The Scarlet Letter, a quote by Poe about Hawthorne, the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, well known?, why this story Fred?, he’s obsessed with sin, sociopaths, trigger warnings, neurosis, shame, luck, shaped by sin, a mark upon the family, subconscious Freudian messages, Commentary Magazine, Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature by Gary Saul Morson, textual density, vocab, Lovecraft poems, Fungi From Yuggoth poems, harbours, kids are now shuttled between school the home and the mall, ranting against Hawthorne, The House Of The Seven Gables, revolutions in 20th century literature, Ernest Hemingway, the show don’t tell revolution, Hawthorne is the telling-est teller who ever telled, the right attitude toward sin, the two facedness of people, Hawthorne is attacking late stage decadent Puritanism, a homosexual vibe, what is the lesson?, science reaches too far?, Gothic horror, the evil wizard or the mad scientist, science as the channel to unlimited power, elixirs, potions, not even futuristic, Georgiana, Aminadab?, where is this story set?, Aylmer’s castle, Aylmer’s wealth, a compartmentalized life, from the third person POV, the host narration, obsession, the left side, the sinister side, she’s been marked, in the dream, chemical means, pre-Darwin, “I’ve got these old books”, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a natural philosopher, science vs. alchemy vs. magic, Isaac Newton, almost as if he was Ben Franklin, electricity, many suitors, Aylmer’s wooing, is Aylmer gaslighting Georgiana?, she’s reading, a Medieval heroine, a character of of Greek mythology, is a sex-change story?, is this a boob-job story?, envy, the tips of two small fingers, she’s compared to a marble statue, small pox scars, Marilyn Monroe‘s beauty mark, does positioning matter?, Supernatural Horror And Literature by H.P. Lovecraft, a meditation on obsession, many uninteresting analysis, so little action, beyond the sexual interpretation, Hawthorne doesn’t seem all that prudish, how far can you go in purist of perfection in a fallen world, a mark of original sin, wanting knowledge (of good and evil?), the sin of disobedience, Frankenstein and Aylmer are reading the same books, the process of creating a man in Frankenstein, the lightning bolt, Luigi Galvani, grave-robbing, Paracelsus, the gold thing is your way of getting funding, when writing a grant…, this might lead to a cure for cancer(!), alchemy as a religion, The Cask Of Amontillado, Eric S. Rabkin, “the niter, it grows”, Montresor or Fortunato, niter, growing human shaped things inside of bottles, poisons, psychology and the occult, the difference between alchemy and science is openness, the Royal Society, Harry Potter’s school, there have to be muggles, magically oblivious, J.K. Rowling, natural greed, the ethic of sharing knowledge, France’s version of the Royal Society, like the obsession with “open source” or the “public domain”, The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe, sooo lifelike, sooo beautifully painted, Gothic horror, the evil mad scientist is destroyed by the power he unleashes, The Portrait Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, the ending, what is Hawthorne saying?, was Aylmer’s attempt doomed from the beginning?, Jesse’s mom, one of the most important powers of a teacher, she has “THE VOICE”, Muad’dib (Paul Atredies), Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field, a profound revelation, philosophy and critical thinking, vitamins are bullshit, fish oil woke Fred’s brain, North America has the world’s most expensive urine, religion wants you to take it on authority, bronze age holy texts, religion as book club where you only ever read one book (or just listen to a guy who did), cynicism or wisdom, loyalty to the organized religion of your family, inherited religions, fundamentalist belief systems, the narcissism of small differences, splintering, revolting revolutionaries, purity of doctrine, young earth creationists, Catholicism as an almost ethnicity (an identity), Hawthorne as a stopgap between H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, the murky origins of Science Fiction, Dante, Lucifer frozen in the ice, a Gothic ghost story, Frankenstein’s obsession is with defeating death, too in love with science, Hawthorne’s message is like: “don’t drink too much”, Greek symposia, what really happened at a Greek symposium, “write drunk and edit sober”, The Odyssey, mixing water with wine, getting plastered is a sign on unmanning, the Greek obsession was with finding the moderation between too little and too much, what was Hephzibah’s sin?, her sin is being too worried about sin, “you will eat blood”, public shaming is a little much, be moderate with your casting of sin, John Wesley, a healthy functioning society, wealth corruption, falling into decadence, the protestant work ethic is kicking-in, Guggenheim, ransoming the grandchild, leaving it all to art, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Fred’s all time favourite Science Fiction novel: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, how do we raise the next generation?, a supercharged Kindle, matter compilers, Star Trek‘s replicator, eating green sludge, window panes made out of pure diamond, handmade hipsters, how you raise the next generation in a wealthy society, we are unimaginably wealthy, are Japan’s young people uninterested in sex?, Richard Dawkins on Twitter, The Last Question by Isaac Asimov, Gothic-y, Science-y, Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon, a great inventor, Neoterics, he’s stealing their ideas, the ultimate mad scientist story, following in the tradition, somatoypes, ectomorph (Aylmer), mesomorph (Aminidab), endomorph (Jesse), it’s a scam!, Hillary Clinton, the Ronald Reagans of the world, this is astrology, people think that once you’ve got a word for something you understand it, wearing the mask long enough…, IQ tests, quantification, any time we think we understand the most complex thing in the universe…, there really is a subconscious, tweeting dreams, psychology, the book club with only one book in it, The Great Courses (The Teaching Company), Eric S. Rabkin, survey courses, kooky specializations, the best way to learn, the perennial student, taught not to learn, philosophy of art, credentialism, Jesse can guess the exact words in a student’s vocabulary, guess your weight or age, how Jesse gets work, gaming credentialism, no high school diploma, a contempt for institutionalized learning, a play-by-the-rules personality, grade inflation, what did Mussolini do?, intimidation vs. cultivation, give the students the experience of reading, reading as a meeting of minds, defending a dissertation, essays, we’re obsessed with essays (for the wrong reason), ohhh spoilers!, the big problem with almost any media, “I don’t want to spoil it for you.”, testing is easier, a kind of objectivity, don’t blame the actors for shitty Hollywood movies, status is society, education as the cultivation of minds, there aren’t enough people who are willing to rebel!
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, and its author Stephen Greenblatt, are the subject of the latest CBC Ideas podcast. The Swerve is the story of the recovery of a lost epic Roman poem, by Titus Lucretius Carus, titled On The Nature Of Things – Greenblat makes the case for it being a work that changed the world, made it modern, by bringing ancient philosophy into an age ready for enlightenment. It’s an absolutely fascinating discussion. Host Paul Kennedy, as usual, shows that Canadian tax dollars can be used incredibly well when put in the right hands.
The poem in question is available as a LibriVox audiobook HERE.
And The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is available from Recorded Books (narrated by Edoardo Ballerini).
Here’s the book’s description:
Renowned historian Stephen Greenblatt’s works shoot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. With The Swerve, Greenblatt transports listeners to the dawn of the Renaissance and chronicles the life of an intrepid book lover who rescued the Roman philosophical text On the Nature Of Things from certain oblivion.
Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late 30s took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic by Lucretius – a beautiful poem containing the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.
The copying and translation of this ancient book – the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age – fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare, and even Thomas Jefferson.
By Neal Stephenson; Read by Simon Prebble and Kevin Pariseau Audible Download – 14 Hours 48 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Themes: / Natural Philosophy / History Of Science / Historical Fiction
Let me begin this review by saying that anyone with the cajones to write historical fiction on this scale deserves mad props. Quicksilver, being the introductory volume in Neal Stephenson’s epic Baroque Cycle, spins a dizzying tale of science and adventure on the colorful canvas of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Christendom. Like Stephenson’s massive World War II yarn Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver blends erudite discourse on the nature of the world with high drama and hair-raising adventure. The story sometimes takes a back seat to the intellectual ideas under discussion, but readers not afraid to apply a little mental elbow grease will find a lot to enjoy.
Before diving into an actual review, a note on this audio edition is in order. Audible Frontiers has elected to split the three massive print volumes of the Baroque Cycle into eight audiobooks. They haven’t just taken a metaphorical paper knife to the series, though. They’ve worked closely with Neal Stephenson to ensure the audio volumes have their own cohesion and progression. Neal Stephenson also lends his voice to a brief audio introduction preceding each volume. Thus, this audio performance of Quicksilver comprises only part of the print volume of the same name. I’ve not read the print edition, so I can’t draw any further comparisons.
In typical non-linear Stephenson fashion, Quicksilver narrates the pivotal events in the life of Puritan-turned-scholar Daniel Waterhouse. The story jumps between his youth in the mid-1600s and his later life in the early 1700s. Readers of Cryptonomicon will be familiar with this technique. They’ll probably also recognize our protagonist’s surname, as the Waterhouse family plays a pivotal role in the aforementioned novel. The ageless enigmatic Enoch Root also makes an appearance early on in the novel. Stephenson, to some extent, seems to be following the example of James Clavell, whose Struan family formed the backbone of his Hong Kong novels through different time periods. Having said that, one certainly doesn’t need to have read Cryptonomicon to appreciate Quicksilver.
The similarities between Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver also extend to theme and writing style. Stephenson takes frequent detours to explain the dynamics of a sun dial, the optics of a telescope, or the physics of eighteenth-century seafaring vessels. The digressions feel appropriate to a tale that features the likes of Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, and Gottfried Leibniz. Indeed the title Quicksilver, the common name for mercury, serves as a metaphor for the transition in modes of thinking and reasoning that the novel is trying to highlight. Daniel Waterhouse witnesses the nascent days of experimental science as we know it. The erudite dialogues and monologues sometimes made my eyes glaze over, however, and I was yearning to return to the story.
What saves Quicksilver from sometimes devolving into a mere lecture on the history of science is Neal Stephenson’s vibrant prose. Stephenson writes with the exact precision of a philosopher, but with an eye for earthy metaphors and a sensitivity towards the modern reader. I might quibble with occasional use of language that wasn’t current in the seventeenth century, but must concede that these (usually very minor) transgressions make the work far easier to read and digest. As a lover of language for language’s sake, I found Quicksilver a philological joy to read.
The colorful prose is brought to life by Simon Prebble’s artful narration. Narrating historical fiction can be almost as monumental a task as writing it. How does one lend a voice to the intellectual magnificence of a Newton or a Leibniz? Simon Prebble does a magnificent job, aided by Stephenson’s written cues, of bringing real life and character to most of the novel’s characters. The cast of Quicksilver encompasses a vast ethnic background, from British to Dutch to German to the New World, and Simon Prebble juggles this diversity with ease. Kevin Pariseau narrates only the epigraphs beginning each chapter, which are usually apropos to the following content.
One last observation about Quicksilver: it isn’t really science fiction. Okay, if you want to get pedantic, it’s actually the purest form of science fiction–fiction about science and its development. But the novel certainly isn’t science fiction in the modern genre sense. The ageless (immortal?) Enoch Root figures into the tale, and there are certainly themes reminiscent of science fiction (what is real? how does the world work?), but listeners casually browsing the science fiction portion of Audible hoping for a straightforward science fiction story will be disappointed. Like so often happens in publishing, I assume that the categorization was a marketing decision, by analogy with Stephenson’s more strictly science fiction work like Snow Crash. Still, fans of science fiction with an open mind will find lots to appreciate in these stories.
I’ve begun listening to King Of The Vagabonds, the follow-up volume to Quicksilver. The story shifts gears abruptly in both focus and tone, turning its attention now to the homeless beggar and thief Jack Shaftoe (another familiar name to readers of Cryptonomicon). Clearly the Baroque Cycle has a wide array of stories to tell, and I’m looking forward to following its tangled webs.