Happy Anniversary to a Famously Humanist Take on Christmas

On this day in 1843, A Christmas Carol by English author Charles Dickens was first published (first edition pictured below), arguably influencing Christmas as we know it more than any pagan tradition. In fact, the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized by the story!

Left-hand page shows Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing; the right-hand page shows the words "A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens. With illustrations by John Leech
Wikimedia Commons

Dickens was ambiguous about religion; while he was likely a Christian and admired Jesus, he openly disliked rigid orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and organized religion. (He once published a pamphlet opposing the banning of games on the Sabbath, arguing that people had a right to pleasure.)

To that end, a Christmas Carol placed less emphasis on faith and observance and instead focused on family, goodwill, compassion, and joy. Dickens sought to incorporate his more humanist approach to the holiday, constructing Christmas as a family-centered festival that promotes generosity, feasting, and social cohesion. Some scholars have even termed this “Carol Philosophy”.

So when religious and nonreligious folks alike think of loved ones and the “Christmas spirit”, they are basically channeling Dickens’ once-unique take on the holiday. (Though in his time, other British writers had begun to reimagine Christmas as a celebratory holiday, rather than a strictly religious occasion.)

R.U.R.

1938_bbc_rur_tv_c1

Credt: MediaArtInnovation.com

On this day in 1938, the BBC aired an adaptation of the 1920 play R.U.R., by Czech writer Karel Capek, the first science fiction program to be broadcasted on television. R.U.R. — which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots — told the story of artificial people called roboti who were created from synthetic organic matter to serve humans, but who ultimately rebel and wipe out our species. In addition to introducing what has now become a familiar trope in science fiction, it also brought as the word “robot”, from the Czech “robota”, which describes the forced labor performed by serfs (essentially slaves).

Capek had also written a novel titled “War with the Newts”, about humanity discovering and then enslaving a race of intelligent amphibious humanoids. He was thus among the first to explore a wide range of social and political issues that have since become familiar to audiences across the globe.

To Understand Russia, Read Its Literature

If you are both a Russophile and lover of literature, you will appreciate James Stavridis’ piece for Foreign Policy,  which recommends several Russian books across the last 150 years that offer a look into the nation’s soul, psyche, and condition. Whether or not you care to learn more about this enigmatic — and still highly consequential culture — the following literary works are well worth considering for their value alone.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

It is the blackest of black humor, a story in which a mysterious businessman moves through the Russian countryside “buying up souls” (i.e., taking away a tax burden from the estate owners). It is an absurdist construct, and the novel functions as a satiric portrait of the dysfunctional Russian landowner society that eventually fell in the 1917 revolution. It tells us that Russians see the world as somewhat absurd and contradictory, and hardly a place where overarching humanist value systems triumph. For a nation whose leader struts around the world stage without a shirt on, plays with a pet Siberian tiger, and flies in a motorized mini-plane chasing white storks, there is a certain appeal to the absurd. It is a novel that evokes the most skeptical and cynical in the human condition and appropriately ends abruptly in mid-sentence — a signal of the inability to predict a coherent future.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

…shows us how the Russians think about their ability to fight, and illuminates the deep patriotism that fuels today’s nationalist tendencies. Tolstoy makes clear the largest landmass under national sovereignty in the world is literally unconquerable, even by the brilliance of Napoleon. Moscow might burn, but the Russian military will never give up. Tolstoy also debunks the 19th-century theory of world events once-called “the great man” approach, arguing instead that events are driven by the collision of thousands of small events coming together. And when it comes to leaders, Russians throw the cosmic dice: One time they get an Ivan the Terrible, the next a Peter the Great. They know that eventually the dice will roll again, and a new leader will emerge. The bad news is that what comes after Putin may be even worse, given the growing xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. As we look at Putin’s dominance, we should remember that the dice will roll again. The Russians do.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (my personal favorite)

…a tale that captures the Russian sensibility perfectly: A deeply troubled protagonist chooses to kill, but then is haunted by guilt and — encouraged by the good people around him — eventually confesses. He is then purified and ultimately achieves redemption. The central character, Raskolnikov, is a largely sympathetic figure, full of tragic contradictions, who strays into a brutal crime but is redeemed through punishment and faith. While it is hard to see Putin as a Raskolnikov, perhaps there is a touch of that pattern of redemption in the life and times of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch turned political opposition leader, who was jailed and then finally released. The next chapter of his journey will be an interesting one. Russians have a deep belief in their own goodness and justness, recognizing mistakes will be made along the road to righteousness. They believe in both crime and punishment in a very literal sense.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Think the Russians will crack under sanctions? [The] protagonist, a convict in a Siberian gulag, finds a hundred ways to scrape through the day, dealing with the petty corruption, laughing at the predicaments, occasionally reveling in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, and powerfully exhibiting the ability to overcome adversity. Like Denisovich, Russians will find an ironic pleasure in overcoming the pain of sanctions, and we should not put too much faith in our ability to break their will through imposing economic hardships.

One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko.

It’s a foot soldier’s memoir set in Chechnya during the height of the war there in the 1990s waged by the Russian conscript military against the rebellious population. This is counterinsurgency turned upside down — the Russians aren’t trying to win the hearts and minds; they are quite content with putting a bullet into each. The book is a good view into the mind of any conscripted force sent to Ukraine — which explains why it is the Spetsnaz special forces, not regular troops, who are operating across the border. There is much to learn here about the Russian military’s operational approach: The Russians have learned from their mistakes in Chechnya and in Afghanistan, and the new so-called hybrid war is full of lessons they took away. In Ukraine, the use of social media, strategic communications, humanitarian convoys, insurgent techniques, and cyber dominance all come from the Chechnya experience.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

…To understand the view of the Russian émigré, the brilliant Russian-American novelist … captures the post-Soviet space better than any book of nonfiction. Set in Moscow and a thinly disguised Azerbaijan (a former republic of the USSR, in case you forgot), it serves up a portrait of Russian “capitalism” with a huge dose of black humor. It echoes Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a magical realist novel written in the 1930s, in its evocation of the Russians’ ability to exist quite happily in a world where everything is half a beat off the music.

While these represent a mere fraction of the vast body of Russian literature out there (indeed, the country is the fourth-largest publisher of books in the world), they are a great way to understand what shapes one of history’s most significant civilizations. The literature, art, and creative expression of any culture can go a long way in helping us bridge the gap between different languages, perspectives, and conditions.

A Great Indie Game For Writer’s Block

Over at Big Think, Teodora Zareva looks at an interesting new game that puts a unique spin on storytelling — by making you tell your own narrative as you go!

Elegy for a Dead World … leaves the players with “no game to play,” but to explore three long-dead civilizations, observe, and make notes… or stories — or poems — or songs.

The three lost worlds feature beautiful scenery, moving music, and are inspired by Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, Lord Byron’s Darkness, and John Keats’ When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be. They create a strong, moody atmosphere that becomes the breeding ground for feelings and ideas.

Talk about a neat way to relate great literature to the average gamer. Of course, you do not have to be a fan of these poets, or be especially literary yourself, to appreciate the strange settings or enjoy the unique power to tell your own story.

The game eases you into the writing process with challenges, prompts, and fill-in-the-blank sentences. It has 27 writing challenges that might ask you to write a short story about an individual’s final days, a song about resignation, or a poem about war. In one challenge, you’re an archaeologist uncovering clues; in another, you’re a thief. In the more advanced levels, you’ll sometimes get new information halfway through the story, which casts a new light on things and forces you to explain or justify past actions. Once the game stirs your creativity, you can delete the prompts and use all the creative freedom in your writing you want.

When you’re done with the game, you can share your story with other players, read their works, post comments, and participate in discussions. You can also reproduce your writings in digital and print media.

Here is a trailer of the game, which has only piqued my interest further:

As Zareva notes, Elegy for the Dead presents an excellent way to get around writer’s block, teach people how to write, or to simply cultivate your creative side. As a writer by both trade and personal interest, I can definitely see the potential in this one.

 

The Stutthof Diaries Collection — A Worthy Kickstarter Project

Whether you are a lover of history, a World War II buff, or enjoy unique and powerful literature, you will have an interest in helping me support the Stutthof Diaries Collection on Kickstarter. Its aims are as valuable as they are captivating:

The Stutthof Diaries Collection are actual diaries and interviews with Norwegian police imprisoned during the Nazi occupation of Norway. The Nazi leadership, under Reichskommissar Joseph Terboven, became intolerant of the Norwegian police and set out to determine the disloyal element in the police and therefore a security threat. That opportunity came with the arrest of Oslo Police Chief Gunnar Eilifsen, for refusing to arrest several young girls who did not show up for mandatory labor. Terboven demanded Eilifsen’s execution and on the morning of August 16th, 1943 Eilifsen was executed for insubordination. He had the opportunity to neither contact his family or a defense lawyer. On the same morning of August 16, police all over Norway were arrested and forced to declare their loyalty to the Nazi Regime. Failure to do so would result in imprisonment or execution. Hundreds of police refused to declare their loyalty. My father was one of them. He was deported, along with 270 other police men, to a concentration camp in northern Poland called Stutthof. There the police kept personal diaries of their experience hidden from their captors. The Stutthof Diaries Collections are diaries, memoirs and interviews collected over the last dozen years which are a treasure trove and describing how personal sacrifice can triumph over purposeless greed and violence.

As of this post, the project is just six days away from its funding deadline, and so far it has sadly garnered only a fraction of the money it needs ($2,181 out of $15,000). I have seen many projects reach their goal despite the most unlikely circumstances, so while it is a tall order, it can be done.

If this endeavor interests you, give what you can or spread the word. These valuable but largely unknown perspectives need to be known. Thankfully, the creator has expressed the intention to publish these diaries one way or another in 2015, but either way he can certainly use the help. Learn more by visiting the official Facebook page here.

Red Star Tales: A Century’s Worth of Russian / Soviet Literature

If you appreciate unusual and obscure science fiction (in the West anyway), or just want to explore something different and interesting, consider backing this Kickstarter campaign, which seeks to compile previously untranslated Soviet and Russian works.

This Kickstarter project will sponsor the publication in 2015 of the first comprehensive edition of truly notable Russian and Soviet science fiction – works chosen for their artistic and scientific merit, not because of any political or ideological agenda.

The 400+-page volume will include 18 stories, spanning from path-breaking, pre-revolutionary works of the 1890s, through the difficult Stalinist era, to post-Soviet stories published in the 1980s and 90s.

None of the works in this volume has ever been translated into English before, and we are engaging the services of some of the finest translators available to help us produce the sort of quality publication our 25-year-old company is known for.

You can see the official promotional video below, which offers a glimpse of some of the intriguing themes and plots of some of these works.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/russianlife/red-star-tales/widget/video.html

The creator of the project, Russian Life, is one of the largest publishers of Russian literature in the U.S., and virtually the only English-language periodical on Russian lifestyle, history, and culture. (I am a subscriber and regular visitor.) So I am confident they will deliver on this enticing treat.

$16,000 does not seem like a lot to ask for providing a hefty sampling of one of the world’s most prolific, yet obscure, producers of fiction and thought. You do not have to be a Russophile to appreciate quality science fiction, whatever its source.

The Greatest Books According to 125 Top Authors

Given the sheer volume of literature out there — and just in the English-speaking world alone! — deciding the best works of fiction seems virtually impossible. Every great book has something exceptional to offer, and each is distinct enough in style, theme, narrative, and so on that none really compete; rather, these works complement each other, together offering a rich selection of morals, concepts, characters, and inspirations to draw from.

Nevertheless, it is always an interesting exercise to see what books have most captivated and impacted readers, especially when the audience consists of other authors of great books. Who better to weigh-in on the subject than some of the (Anglophone) world’s current literary greats? The Atlantic has more:

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books asks 125 of modernity’s greatest British and American writers—including Norman Mailer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Joyce Carol Oates—”to provide a list, ranked, in order, of what [they] consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time- novels, story collections, plays, or poems.”

Of the 544 separate titles selected, each is assigned a reverse-order point value based on the number position at which it appears on any list—so, a book that tops a list at number one receives 10 points, and a book that graces the bottom, at number ten, receives 1 point.

As the article observes, you can learn a lot about a writer from what they selected as their favorites books and authors, since it reveals some of the possible influences, motivations, and ideas that color their own works — after all, what great writer hasn’t had at least contemporary or predecessor to inspire them?

You would have to read the book to see what each respondent listed, but you can view the overall consensus below (the asterisks denote links to free public domain works):

Top Ten Works of the 20th Century

  1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  4. Ulysses* by James Joyce
  5. Dubliners* by James Joyce
  6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  7. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  8. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  9. The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor
  10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Top Ten Works of the 19th Century

  1. Anna Karenina* by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Madame Bovary* by Gustave Flaubert
  3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  5. The stories of Anton Chekhov
  6. Middlemarch* by George Eliot
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  8. Great Expectations* by Charles Dickens
  9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  10. Emma* by Jane Austen

Top Ten Authors by Number of Books Selected

  1. William Shakespeare – 11
  2. William Faulkner – 6
  3. Henry James – 6
  4. Jane Austen – 5
  5. Charles Dickens – 5
  6. Fyodor Dostoevsky – 5
  7. Ernest Hemingway – 5
  8. Franz Kafka – 5
  9. Tied: James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf – 4

Top Ten Authors by Points Earned

  1. Leo Tolstoy – 327
  2. William Shakespeare – 293
  3. James Joyce – 194
  4. Vladimir Nabokov – 190
  5. Fyodor Dostoevsky – 177
  6. William Faulkner – 173
  7. Charles Dickens – 168
  8. Anton Chekhov – 165
  9. Gustave Flaubert – 163
  10. Jane Austen – 161

I would have to put a lot of thought into what my  own top ten would be in these categories, although I do personally concur with most of the top selection (namely Lolita and One Hundred Years of Solitude). I am definitely intrigued to read more James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, whom I have always heard are amazing.

It is also interesting to see Tolstoy figure so prominently in terms of 19th century literature and total points; he is one of my all-time favorite authors, but I never realized his works were that acclaimed until recently (I have seen a lot more articles discussing his brilliance and literary influence as of late).

I would love to see the answers and opinions of non-Anglophone writers, especially since the overwhelming majority of the world’s non-English literature remains untranslated and thus largely unknown. I am sure it would be very revealing. A similar list involving non-fiction works, perhaps divided by genre (politics, science, etc.) would also be very interesting, if perhaps a bit more difficult.

Anyway, what do you think of these results? What would your own top ten lists look like?

PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical

shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows

Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and…

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