20 August 2007

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and…(series). NY: Scholastic, 1998- 2007.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and… series is one of the most challenged titles in America. Some people are scared of these books because the characters use magic, but they are wholly misguided. While her books feature witches and wizards, they are far from glorifying Satan; in fact, Rowling is singing the same song as John Lennon and Jesus Christ: all you need is love.

This point is made clearly during a conversation between Potter and his headmaster at Hogwarts School for Wizards near the end of …Half-Blood Prince.
"But I haven't got uncommon skill and power," said Harry, before he could stop himself.
"Yes, you have," said Dumbledore firmly. "You have a power that Voldemort [the Dark Wizard] has never had. You can—"
"I know!" said Harry impatiently. "I can love!...
"So, when the prophecy says that I'll have 'power the Dark Lord knows not,' it just means—love?" asked Harry, feeling a little let down.
"Yes—just love," said Dumbledore.

Far from glorifying evil—or even magic, which is part of the setting, not a focus of the story—Rowling is pushing a world-view that stresses tolerance, cooperation, and love. That she does so in a fabulously-paced series of high adventures with a well-developed, ever-evolving cast of lovable, recognizably eccentric characters is tribute to her great skill. These books certainly do not deserve banishment: they should, instead, be recommended reading for all ages.


09 August 2007

Poul Anderson, The Star Fox. NY: Signet, 1966.
Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan. NY: Dell, 1959.

Ah, the Space Opera—the individual versus the infinite. From Buck Rogers to Star Wars, putting a cowboy in a spaceship has been incredibly popular. Gunner Heim, captain of Anderson's spaceship Star Fox, is one such cowboy. He has much in common with Winston Niles Rumfoord, Vonnegut's aristocratic explorer in Sirens of Titan. Both of these characters are strong businessmen on Earth who buy private spaceships to take on tasks that their governments will not attempt, to make space safe for humanity. Both succeed. Yet the hope for humanity implied by these successes could not be more different.

The difference is free will.

Vonnegut, while a self-proclaimed humanist, is nonetheless a serious determinist. In his work, characters are acted upon; they react, but they do not choose: we do, as Bokonon teaches in Cat's Cradle, "what we must, muddily must, muddily must". So when Rumsfoord hurls himself gallantly into the unknown and inaugurates a new space age, it isn't because he wants glory, or even for discovery. It is because he must: this act is required to reach the goal of a power beyond his own. While this goal is eventually met, providing a successful conclusion to human development, this success leave us with a very bleak view of humanity's purpose.

Heim, though, is a Navy man—and command implies choice. Heim is no one's tool, fighting a private war to save a planet, and his success is far from certain. But the thrill of freedom, and the danger of choice, make Anderson's future much more attractive than Vonnegut's version. While both authors provide fast-paced, easy reads, The Star Fox is really nothing more than a ripping good yarn. Vonnegut, on the other hand, forces readers to confront uncomfortable philosophical issues. This could be why, while Anderson is recognized as a Sci-Fi giant, Vonnegut has become part of the literary canon.