11.20.2019

Book Review: The Gripping Hand

Review by Godfrey Blackwell


Title: The Gripping Hand  
Author: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle  
Publisher: Pocket  
Godfrey's Rating: 2 stars
Summary in a Sentence: The substandard sequel to the masterful Mote in God's Eye where the next generation of the Empire attempts to finally solve the "Motie Problem" when a new Alderson point creates newfound access to the Empire from the Mote.

Nota bene: Since I do not recommend anyone waste their time with this sequel to the masterful Mote in God's Eye, I provide a number of spoilers without qualm in this review. Do not read this review if you intend to read The Mote in God's Eye until after you have read it ... I still recommend you read this review when you get a chance, however, as it sheds some further light on the first work and on contemporary Catholicism.

While last  I had much praise for the first book of this series, it feels as if different authors wrote The Gripping Hand - or perhaps they just rushed through in slipshod manner a manuscript that the publisher was clamoring for, given the success of the first. The result was a substandard book; one that they should not have written. It only tarnishes the legacy of the first.

After 25 years of blockading the Alderson Point to the Mote, the Empire must again face a real threat from the Moties as the formation of a protostar in the vicinity moves the existing Alderson point -- allowing the Moties to bypass the blockade (which was near to collapse anyway). A tiny force is cobbled together and sent to the new point, arriving moments before the first Moties arrive. The group consists of Horace Bury (one of the few people who appreciates the threat the Moties pose), the children of Lord and Lady Blaine, as well as a small customs ship. The rest of the novel is a convoluted tale of alliances, diplomacy, trade, and space combat between the many, many factions of Motie civilization.

The Empire of Man is far less interesting than it was in the first book, save for the comparisons that may be made between the changes in the real-world Catholic Church and those of this fictional empire over a 25-year period. More importantly, the novel lacks the suspense that The Mote in God's Eye had, and the characters are not nearly as loveable. The recurring characters from the first novel have lost the grittiness they had - rather than being real people, they now feel more like cutouts embodying liberal ideals. The new characters, most of them being spoilt rich teenagers, are "rebels without a cause". Far less interesting than the dutiful but scared sailors of the first novel.

Also, most of this book takes place among the Moties. The alienness of the Moties was interesting when we viewed them from the imperial cruiser MacArthur and through her crew. It makes for a less interesting novel to be living among these totally alien and totally amoral creatures. Finally, the book doesn't seem to flow the way The Mote in God's Eye did, and as a result it felt a chore to get through some sections.

Catholicism in the Sequel

Perhaps more than the first novel, The Gripping Hand gives us a lot of insight into how non-Catholics perceived the changes in the Catholic Church after Vatican II. This sequel was published in 1994 and was therefore written in the early '90s most likely. At this point in time the Timebombs of the Vatican II Council had all been deployed. The Novus Ordo Missae was thoroughly entrenched, Assisi I had been perpetrated, vocations were then a shadow of what they were in the late 60s, &c. Even to outsiders, the Church had clearly changed at this point in both appearance, approach to the world and worship, and even in teachings (perceived).

I don't think it is mere coincidence, then, that the Empire of Man that we see in this sequel novel that takes place 25 years after The Mote in God's Eye, is also greatly changed. Overall, it is much more touchy-feely, not the virile military machine that it was before. We also see that:
  • First and foremost, the big solution to the Moties' problems is contraception. The humans develop a method of helping them contracept in order to control their explosive population growth. There is no mention of contraceptives still being frowned upon, and in fact Rod Blaine and Lady Fowler (now Sallie Blaine) have only two children in 25 years of marriage (one is ~24, the other 18).
  • Sexual liberation: Glenda-Ruth Blaine, 18-year-old daughter of Captain Blaine and Lady Fowler, travels unsupervised with her boyfriend in his yaght. It is explicitly stated that they fornicate and she uses some futuristic version of the Pill to avoid pregnancy. They have some inane fight at one point in the novel about her not giving him sex or him not being very good in bed, I forget which ... in any event, it's a far cry from Rod Blaine's solicitousness for Lady Fowler's reputation in The Mote in God's Eye.
  • The Empire is now "flabby and bureaucratized", as one reviewer put it, not the strong monarchy that it was before. There are hints that the Emperor is more of a British-style figurehead now, rather than the sole ruler of before. They are unable to respond to the Motie threat as a result, whereas before they had a heavy battlecruiser and a cruiser heading into the Mote within weeks in the first book after a small probe arrives, they can barely muster a few small customs vessels in response to a potential full-scale invasion.
  • There is no mention of any clergy playing any role whatsoever, versus the clear influence that "the Church" held in the first novel.
  • There are hints that there is now religious freedom as we are introduced to a Mormon planet and it is mentioned that things are better for Levant (Bury's Moslem homeworld). In fact, if one read The Gripping Hand without having read The Mote In God's Eye, first, you would have no clue that there was a state religion.
Interestingly, one of the prominent complaints in the Amazon.com reviews, is how different (and inexplicably so) the Empire of Man is a mere 25 years after the first novel. I think people liked the old-style confessional stat.

It seems to me that "The Empire of Man" in the second novel is basically a Novus Ordo version of its former self. Most of the differences to be found in a comparison of Catholic states pre- and post-Vatican II can be found in the Empire between the two books. Maybe they had another pastoral council in the 31st century that The Gripping Hand doesn't mention? It probably wasn't mentioned because the non-Catholics Niven and Pournelle did not understand why the real-world Catholic Church underwent such cataclysmic changes ... or maybe they didn't consciously notice the changes but just subconsciously wrote them into their novel.

Overall, this just isn't that good of a book. It's okay, and better than a lot of what passes for "great" science fiction today, but still not worth the effort. Enjoy the original, skip the sequel.

11.13.2019

Hygiene in the Middle Ages



We do a lot of research here at Swords and Space for homeschooling and also seeking inspiration for stories. Although Dad is personally happy to have left his school days far behind, he does still find it fascinating and enjoyable to revisit the Middle Ages and other historical periods. We thought it worthwhile to share some of that research occasionally.

One myth that seems to persist about the Middle Ages is the claim that mediæval people did not bathe. On the contrary, they not only washed, but they placed a high value on hygiene, and bathing was quite common. The "once a year bath whether you need it or not" canard was foreign to mediæval sensibilities. If such an attitude ever existed, it did in a period I am not familiar with.

Pulling out my old notes, I must make reference to one of my favourite books from universty: The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England by Barbara A. Hanawalt. The author is a liberal university professor, but an honest one at least, who did painstaking research to try to recreate certain aspects of mediæval peasant life. She researched her book by examining coroners' inquests in 14th and 15th century England. In total, she surveyed 3, 118 sudden death inquests.[i]

Of that sample, 35 (just over 1%) cases involved people whose baths ended in drowning. These ranged from bathing in a stream where the current was stronger than the bather believed, to where the unfortunate person slipped and hit their head.[ii] There was also clear evidence that bathing was common even in winter, including a case where an infant died when it was scalded after the tripod broke on a cauldron of bath water that was heating over the fire.[iii]

On top of all this, she found 12 cases where people died while washing laundry. Given that bathing and doing the laundry are hardly dangerous activities, one has no choice but to conclude that people bathed and washed their clothes frequently if this many people died due to fluke accidents while washing.

Beyond Dr. Hanawalt's specific work, there is abundant evidence that soap was very common in the Middle Ages. There are also numerous references in the literature of the time to bathing, wherein it is treated as something commonplace.[iv]

According to 13th century etiquette manuals, mediæval people were expected to always wash their hands before and after meals. Monastic rules included regulations ordaining regular bathing.[v] In the courts of the nobility, there were formal ceremonies that were scrupulously observed in this regard. Many people today don't wash their hands before and after meals. Perfume was also popular, and for the same reasons as today, not to mask bad hygiene as common "wisdom" would have us believe. [vi]

Finally, there is the related myth about Mediæval peoples' dental hygiene: that it was very bad and they had only blackened stumps for teeth. However, when one studies documents written during those horrible "Dark Ages", one finds that there were liquids to whiten teeth, compounds for filling cavities, dentures made of human teeth or cow bone, and even surgical techniques for oral cancer and the repair of fractured jaws.[vii] Scientists who have studied the exhumed remains of mediæval peasants found that they in fact had better teeth than modern people, probably because of better diet. In fact, at one site, not one body buried in the graveyard had tooth decay.[viii]

The true mediæval attitude towards bathing and cleanliness can perhaps be summed up by a common saying from France at the time: "Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere!" (To hunt, to play, to wash, to drink, - This is to live!)[ix]





[i] Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound : Peasant Families in Medieval England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 13
[ii] Ibid., p. 61
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Horvat, Marian, "Refuting the Anti-Catholic Lies of the e-pamphlet 'Life in the 1500's'", Tradition in Actionhttp://www.traditioninaction.org/History/A_005_Myths1500s.shtml
[v] Ibid.
[vi] "Cosmetics and Beauty Aids" Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Ed. Norman F. Cantor, London: Viking, 1999.
[vii] Elliott, Jane, "Medieval Teeth 'Better than Baldrick's", BBC News Online, 8 October, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3722598.stm
[viii] "Medieval Peasants Had 'Better Teeth'", Ananova,
http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_1502422.html
[ix] Horvat, Supra at note 4

11.11.2019

ARTWORK: RED BULL STRATOS

By Godfrey Blackwell

Back in 2012 we were all very excited about the Red Bull Stratos jump. It was the first, "Space First" for any of our children, and the first one of moment for the parents too! At the time I drew this in honour of the project, with St. Joseph of Cupertino (patron saint of astronauts) and an angel watching over Felix Baumgartner.



11.06.2019

Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)


Title: Snow White and the Huntsman
Director: Rupert Sanders
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron
Godfrey's Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Rating: PG -- I would personally rate it more PG-13 or 14A myself, owing to some of the storyline surrounding the queen and adult themes there, but otherwise there's very little profanity, and the violence is not gruesome. There's a few parts I skipped to allow the whole Swords and Space crew to view.
Summary in a Sentence: A surprisingly good new take on the well-known "Snow White" fairy tale that features a good and pure Snow White, aided by the Hunstman, at war with the evil Queen Ravenna.


Yet further confirmation that if the critics dislike it, I will like it. I went into it this film when it was in the cinema with very low expectations after seeing the trailer. As one friend at the time pointed out, the trailer makes it appear to be yet another "grimdark" adult fantasy film with a large dose of Xena Warrior Princess. In my view, however, the trailer is in fact very misleading in how it portrays the film and it was nothing of the sort. First, a quick synopsis:

In a twist to the fairy tale, the Huntsman ordered to take Snow White into the woods to be killed winds up becoming her protector in a quest to vanquish the Evil Queen.

Now, first to the "darkness" -- I didn't find the film to be all that dark. I didn't find it really any darker than the Lord of the Rings films. Certainly, there are a lot of dark, occult, and black magic elements surrounding the evil queen Ravenna, but this is proper. A dark fantasy, like the ever popular "Game of Thrones",  lacks the good that opposes such evil. Snow White does have that good, not just in the person of Snow White, but we even see the realm of the opponents of the Queen which is not blackened and blighted as her realm is. There are faeries, and the Seven Dwarves (who I thought were great). There was a clear battle of good versus evil.

The film was refreshingly non-feminist, and even to the contrary had a good grasp on traditional "roles" and displayed them well. Contrary to what the trailer suggests, Snow White is not a warrior-woman, and only appears in armour at the end of the film for her own protection. She does not lead the men into battle, but is protected by them, serving as more of a Joan of Arc inspirational sort of role.


In a way, this film was like the "anti-Hunger Games":

  • Both films feature young ladies as the main protagonists. Katniss Everdine it is the adoption of male virtues and cynical, self-preserving gender-bending pugilism that wins the day. Whereas Snow White is victorious via her feminine virtues of kindness, gentleness, and empathy coupled with a strong spirit of self-sacrifice.
  • The Hunger Games features not only a post-Christian but a completely non-religious society where no character has a shred of Christian virtue. This is not the case at all in Snow White, where there is overt religion (Snow White's praying of the Our Father in one of the opening scenes, the presence of Gothic cathedrals and Caltholic-looking clergy) but more importantly a sense of a certain morality and honour beyond mere self-preservation. Although there were a lot of missed opportunities in this regard and there was no follow-through, the world presented was a much more realistic one.
  • Although Snow White is a young adult, in appearance and behaviour of a similar age to Katniss, there is no "adults = evil, youth = good" at play in this film; there is a good mix of adults on both sides.
  • Hope: although much of Snow White has an appropriate amount of tension and foreboding, in the end it has a happy ending and throughout the film there is that sense of hope that good can be restored. In the Hunger Games, there is no hope, just liberal despair. 

In terms of technical aspects, the film was certainly adequate to the task, although it was no masterpiece of filmmaking. The sets were good, the costumes credible. The acting was on the whole pretty decent. All was solidly "good" if not anything spectacular. The soundtrack was appropriate and did a good job of setting the tone.

So, on the whole, not a masterpiece or a classic, but a good, solid fantasy film that I rather enjoyed. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like it

11.04.2019

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