Monthly Archives: April 2016

Orsinian Tales

Orsinian TalesOrsinian Tales by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The cover of this one is a bit of a cheat. Orsinian Tales is a slender paperback I found lurking on one of my sister’s crowded bookshelves. The front features a tall, snug castle with a medieval town nestled at is base. It’s pretty clearly a stock image, though a case could be made that it illustrates the penultimate story in the collection. The author is Le Guin, and if you didn’t know who that is the cover helpfully points out she’s the author of the Earthsea Trilogy and the winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards. It’s clearly marketed as a fantasy, though to be fair a careful reader of the back cover would notice that these tales are explained as Le Guin bringing “to mainstream fiction all the power and enchantment” that have made her so well known for science fiction and fantasy. Be warned though, if you pick up this book hoping for the magic of Earthsea, you’re not going to find it in the way you expect.

This is a collection of Le Guin’s literary (“mainstream”) fiction. There aren’t dragons, old gods (despite what the cover says), spells, or enchantments of the ordinary, speculative kind. The stories in this sense are unexpectedly mundane. People grow up, fall in love, quarrel with their siblings, watch their country change, and have long conversations.

Yet to call this mundane or lacking magic because it’s not genre fantasy misses the point entirely. What Le Guin is doing here is something a lot deeper and more beautiful because of, not in spite of its everyday nature. She convinces you of the magic of her fiction—basically showing you the wellspring of her own speculative work—in stories that are straightforwardly not fantastic literature.

There are eleven stories in this collection, and they all loosely follow the history of a vague, eastern European country from the early days of Christianity to a long, indeterminate communist winter in a meandering, non-chronological fashion. None of them seem to explicitly fit together apart from their general locale, though there may have been deeper links that I missed. (Who was the defector of the very first story, and did the castle keep of the medieval murder reappear in the Lady of Moge?) None of them have any hint of science fiction or fantasy tropes. But all carry the magic of simple, real things lifted up and celebrated by the beauty and clarity of Le Guin’s prose.

She’s saying something important here, something she lays out most clearly in the final story of the collection, “Imaginary Countries.” Once upon a time, she seems to be telling us with these tales, stories were written simply to be beautiful. They didn’t have to have a hook or an unforeseen twist. They didn’t have to turn the world on its head or capture the reader with a completely unexpected concept or angle. They only had to be lovely and draw on a magic that was history and humanity itself.

These are what the stories in Orsinian Tales do, and they do it very well. They are stories with magic, but the magic is the deep and dangerous magic of the every day. Deep because it surrounds the characters she creates and dangerous because they’re all swimming in it, surrounded by it, and swept away. Dangerous because we’re in the midst of it as well, and we ignore it to our peril.

Sometimes fiction— especially fantasy— is passing through the looking glass. Le Guin doesn’t do that here. Instead she does something more difficult.

She opens a window.

April Skywatch

I’ve promised a column on some telescope basics, and as the evenings start to warm up it’s finally time to deliver. Maybe you’re interested in more stargazing than casual naked-eye observations from your back porch, but you’re unsure of where to begin. Sometimes the options for purchasing a good starter telescope seem quite daunting. Where to begin? What type should I get? Which mounting is best? How do I avoid a cheap dud?

This month, I’ll offer a few pointers on choosing and getting started using a telescope for some basic backyard observations. As I’ve mentioned before, I focus on observing objects that you don’t need to be in perfectly dark skies to see. My own stargazing takes place in the city limits of Kankakee, with streetlights, trees, and the occasional porchlight marring the view. With a little knowledge and patience though, even a city sky can be a treasure trove.

Of course, it all starts with a good telescope. When I was preparing to purchase a new set of telescopes for my astronomy labs at Olivet several years ago, I asked the members of the Kankakee Area Stargazers for advice. I wanted instruments that were high quality but relatively inexpensive, easy to use and train students to use, and resilient enough that I wouldn’t worry about them being easily damaged The scope most recommended was a basic 6-inch Dobsonian reflector from Orion Telescopes. I purchased a small fleet of these instruments for student use and have had no regrets. They are simple, durable, and offer great viewing.

So what exactly is a 6-inch Dobsonian reflecting telescope? We’ll start with “reflecting.” Telescopes come in two basic types: reflectors, which use mirrors to gather light, and refractors, which use lenses. If you walked into Wal-Mart for a cheap telescope, you’d almost certainly be buying a refractor. Though there certainly are many refractors that are very high quality, you’re not going to get one like that at Wal-Mart. For a real quality refracting telescope, you would be spending several times more than you would for a reflecting telescope of similar size. If you’re looking for a serious but affordable starting instrument, stay away from refractors and start with a good reflector.

The next question is regarding aperture or (in simple terms) size. Generally speaking, the larger the diameter of a telescope, the better view you’ll have of objects. But also generally speaking, larger aperture also means larger price. Six inches offers enough light-gathering power to easily showcase Saturn’s rings or the moons Jupiter, hone in on the Moon’s craters, or (in dark skies) reveal distant nebulae and galaxies.

Next, you need to consider how the telescope is mounted. As it turns out, pointing and holding the telescope steady is one of the most important parts of getting good views (and not getting incredibly frustrated). There are lots of different ways to mount a telescope, but the type known as a Dobsonian mounting is the sturdiest and easiest that I’ve worked with. A Dobsonian mount makes it very easy to point the telescope to an object in the sky (especially if you spring for a simple laser-finder) and to keep the object in sight and steady once found. And if you’re observing with students or young kids, having a telescope that is on a steady and solid mounting is crucial.

Once you have your telescope picked out, the second step is to get a handful of eyepieces to use with it. Eyepieces magnify the image of the telescope, with the general rule that for a specific instrument smaller eyepiece focal length yields higher magnification. If you’re looking at large objects like the Moon or star clusters, you’ll want to use an eyepiece with a longer focal length (e.g., 25 mm). Then, when you want to zoom in on lunar features or try to split very tight double stars, you use an eyepiece with a shorter focal length to magnify the view. Most telescopes come with two or three eyepieces, and this is usually plenty for the beginner.

Finally, you need to know how to find the objects in the sky you want to view. I tend to eschew computerized mounts that point the telescope for you or tell you where to point it, because I think part of the fun is becoming familiar with the night sky yourself. But you’ll need some good resources to get you started. A quality star atlas is a must (I use the Cambridge Double Star Atlas), but it’s not much to go on if you’re just beginning. I’ve found James Mullaney’s Celestial Harvest to be an excellent guide to highlights in each constellation, and a tool like Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar (which unfortunately won’t be published after this year) lets you know what planets and constellations to spot when.

Then comes patience. Wait for clear nights and determine what constellations will be overhead. Do a bit of reading before you head out (or take a red flashlight with you to read at the telescope) and simply try to become familiar with the objects in one or two constellations at a time. Don’t feel like you need to learn the entire sky immediately. This month, for instance, Leo is a great place to start, from the lovely double star Algieba in the Sickle of Leo’s mane, to Jupiter and its moons just below the constellation (always a wonderful sight to start with), to the sweep of galaxies beyond Leo’s tail (though you’ll need to get away from the city lights to really appreciate these).

You’ll be amazed at what passes over your head each evening, generally unappreciated and unobserved, but within reach with a simple, good instrument.

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal.

Against Infinity

Against InfinityAgainst Infinity by Gregory Benford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up Gregory Benford’s Against Infinity at a used book store a while ago and then put it away to save for portable airport reading on my recent trip to Italy. (Pocket editions like this are truly the best books to travel with.) The book was an effective escape, staving off my growing impatience with multiple delays out of Chicago’s O’Hare because of high winds in New York City.

Against Infinity had more heft to it than I expected, and more beauty as well. Benford had been on my list for a while as a practicing astronomer who wrote science fiction, and I hadn’t been disappointed with his Great Sky River. This one was an interesting fusion between an Arctic survivalist story and the wonder and ecological trappings of Dune. On top of this, it offers a scientifically realistic view of what Ganymede and the Jovian system might look like as a legitimate frontier for settlement. The characters are scouring a living on the surface of the moon, clawing for minerals and slowly tipping the biosphere toward something that can sustain life.

Overlain on this is a hunting tale in the tradition of Jack London and the Yukon, complete with super-intelligent biomechanical dogs and a meaningful coming-of-age narrative. A boy is growing up, forging a bond with an older, wiser hunter, coming to terms with his father, and learning his own limits. The object of the hunt that provides the context for this growth is men venturing out of their settlements into the icy, shifting landscape to cull the mutants of the genetically engineered species that have been introduced to help terraform the surface. The actual object of the hunt though—and ultimately the lynchpin of Benford’s narrative—is the Aleph.

The Aleph is an ancient device or creature that pre-dates man’s arrival on Ganymede and continually burrows through or over the surface of the moon, heedless to its pursuit by men, unaffected by any of their weapons or devices, and sometimes killing them in its passage. The concept, especially in the haunting descriptions provided by Benford, is a compelling hybrid of the raw power and immensity of the sandworms of Arrakis and the alien inscrutability of the monoliths of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey. Benford’s prose becomes positively electric in describing the various ways this enigmatic thing chews through the shattering and slowly thawing terrain of the moon. He can (and does) spend multiple pages on all the glorious details of the behemoth exploding through a hillside, for instance, taking its pursuers unaware.

The first two-thirds of the book hinges on one boy’s growth to manhood and fixation on hunting the immense and elusive Aleph. It reads very much like a science fiction tribute to Jack London: the boy learning the ways of the hunt, training a tracking dog (of sorts), and learning to appreciate the unique bond between man, animal, and the unforgiving wilderness. But whereas a reader of London can take the ecology of Alaska for granted, Benford the astrophysicist gives us a fine-grained detail of the geology and young ecosystem of the moon, a realistic look at what terraforming and its effectives might look like physically as well as psychologically.

But the true hinge of narrative is the Aleph, and the resolution of its pursuit changes the trajectory of the novel about two-thirds of the way into it. After this climax is reached, the narrative jumps in time and expands in scope. The Aleph moves from being a cypher for the great unknown on a boy’s horizon to a much larger unknown of the evolution of humanity. Like the dissected Aleph itself though, this final portion of the novel seems more segmented and less organic than what came before. Benford touches briefly (and a bit randomly) on ideas regarding the evolution of society, including socialism and capitalism essentialized against ecological catastrophe. In this all, the Aleph’s role (and ultimate nature) becomes more vague and less satisfying.