Birthday Book Review — Thinking Backward

Let me start reviewing some of the wonderful books I received on The Best Birthday Ever. These birthday books include

  • a book about Chesterton THINKING BACKWARD LOOKING FORWARD by Stephen R.L. Clark;
  • THREE’S COMPANY by Alfred Duggan;
  • SOLDIER OF SIDON by Gene Wolfe;
  • DECISIVE BATTLES by John Colvin

This last one, of course is an account of the decisive battles by John Colvin, the battles he has fought himself, like Vandal Savage, throughout the ages, shaping the course of history, personally.

(Just kidding! We all know that Vandal Savage’s influence on history is cancelled out by the many reincarnations of Carter Hall, who mysteriously is born again every few centuries to undo the archcriminal’s evil. Besides, as soon as someone figures out that Vandal Savage is none other than Gray Roger, a form of flesh energized by Gharlane of Eddore, the sooner he can be thwarted. I mean, no one lives that long! And you believed that story about a mysterious asteroid.)

Serious topic: G.K. CHESTERTON: THINKING BACKWARD LOOKING FORWARD by Stephen R.L. Clark, is a book about Science Fiction and GKC, my favorite topic and my favorite writer.

This was a book I really, really wanted to like. I tried hard. One would think it would be a sure thing, a lead pipe cinch.

What a disappointment.

Here I must confess my shortfalls as a reviewer: a good reviewer can give a good reason, when he dislikes a book, of what he dislikes about it. In this way a reader with tastes different fro the reviewer can tell how much of the negative review might apply. But I am not sure what disappointed me in this book.

One cannot express disappointment without expressing expectations. Here is what I expected from a book on the topic of Chesterton and Science Fiction: 1. a description of Chesterton’s work and life, something I didn’t already know about him. 2. a description of science fiction, what it means and what it is for, some insight into the nature of the field I did not already have. 3. A review of what in Chesterton’s work was arguably science fiction, or, better yet, what was like science fiction in spirit, even if it was not science fiction per se. 4. The impact SF, such as Wells, had on Chesterton. 5. The impact Chesterton, if any, had on science fiction. 6. The contrast and analysis between the world-view of Science Fiction and the world of Chesterton.

Perhaps that is asking too much for a book on SF and Chesterton; but I would have been satisfied with at least one of these points being covered. What I wanted was what any reader wants in a nonfiction book: some new facts to edify me, and analysis to make me think, some insight.

Insight is the particular quality any Chesterton fan cherishes. Insight is the ability to look at old and worn and commonplace things and see the marvels in them; to open the lamps of elfland and glimpse the old world by its new and magical light. Insight! One cannot be a Chestertonian without delighting in insight, because it is Chesterton’s main strength. With a single witticism he can hold up the world in a glass that is the opposite of a funhouse mirror, so that everything is seen, not distorted as we always see it, but clean and beautiful and in its proper proportion for the first time.

Here, taken at random from the nearest Chesterton book at my elbow:

“Imprudent marriages!” roared Michael. “And pray where in earth or heaven are there any prudent marriages? Might as well talk about prudent suicides! You never know a husband till you marry him. Unhappy! Of course you’ll be unhappy! Who the devil are you that you should not be unhappy, like the mother that bore you?”

The character ends his speech by proposing.

That, dear readers, is insight.

What Stephen R.L. Clark did not do is provide me with any new insights about science fiction, nor G.K. Chesterton, nor both topics together nor either topic separately. When he referenced a science fiction book, which he did very rarely, it was usually to use as an example, but no analysis or insight ever surrounded the example. If Chesterton was using cannibalism as an example of vegetarianism run amok, Clark might say that cannibalism is mentioned in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, but then not say how it was mentioned, or why, or what point Robert Heinlein was making by mentioning it, and how G.K. Chesterton’s orthodoxy and sound thinking could run rings around Heinlein’s vaporings, logically.

The author perhaps was simply too diffident. Clark did not seem to want to express an opinion on any topic, much less a strong opinion, much less a strong and daring opinion backed by examples and evidence. He did not have a point. Even after reading the last chapter, which was called “Conclusion” I closed the book having seen no conclusion the author came to, having missed whatever point he was driving at.

There was a chapter, for example, called “Man the Prince of Animals”, where, or so I supposed, the author could take the time to discuss the science fictional aspect of man as one animal among many, an ever-changing being that the future must make shaped in body and mind nothing like this. The majestic work of Olaf Stapledon and H.G. Wells could have been mentioned, THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU could have been discussed, or the way the Martians in WAR OF THE WORLDS were shaped by evolution, including the evolutionary pressured created by their own successful machine-civilization. This could have been compared with Chesterton’s pragmatic common sense, the argument given in THE EVERLASTING MAN, that the differences between man and beast are too huge to be overlooked or mistaken. Instead, upon reading the chapter, I am left with no impress at all on my brain as to what was discussed. In fact, nothing was discussed, aside from a single line, perhaps the author’s only venture at opinion in the whole book, where he wonders whether vegetarianism is not, after all, the only proper posture for Christians to adopt, out of respect for animal life.

The book jacket promises that Chesterton will be defended against modern charges of racism and sexism and ungoodism and doubleplus ungoodism, but no real defense was mounted, and no clear statement of charges was read. This, I think, was merely a sign that the book was written, and meant to be read, in a different mental and moral atmosphere than my own. Perhaps the author simply thought that Chesterton’s breeches of Political Correctness were too obvious to mention, or too poignant and dreadful to put into words.

In any case, Chesterton’s thought crimes are unknown to me, because I am his conspirator in those crimes. Does he offend modern notions of feminism, vegetarianism, capitalism, socialism, multiculturalism, pervertarianism or other pieties in fashion this week? Good for him.

The current age is hardly one I would hold up as a standard of moral probity compared to Chesterton’s England. Chesterton makes somewhere the droll observation that the myth of progress is no more than the mere assumption that all one’s ancestors were fools: hearings those who believe it expound so unlikely a theory might persuade one it is true, is we in addition assume the condition is hereditary.

In any case, aside from lame and halting exposition, and pointlessness, and lack of insight, the author, Mr. Clark, had one habit so annoying that it is fortunate I did not fling the book into the fire grate. He would quote Chesterton in some paragraph where Chesterton, a master of the English language as few others will ever dream of being, was using grammar correctly; and Mr. Clark would mark it as [sic] as if the usage was unexpected or improper. For example, Chesterton correctly uses the word “he” as the pronoun to use when the sex of the subject is unknown or undetermined, or when speaking of a single individual in a group of both sexes. “Every chicken must lay his egg.” No matter what unlettered partisans of Newspeak would have you think, True Believers, this is the correct construction in English

<>Grammar tip: Even though only hens lay eggs, chickens, as a group, lay eggs, and a single unidentified member of a mixed group of male and female is “he.” For the same reason, you would say, “Every patient must remove his bra prior to the the mammogram.” because a patient is a member of a groupany individual of which could be male or female. (Sorry, folks, I don’t make the rules of English, I just know them.) If you want to change to rules, you have to stoop to the folly of correcting a correct useage by people like Chesterton. The “correctors” either have to rewrite their ancestor’s books, or misread them, or cease to read them–which is, of course, the point of Political Correctness.

Mr. Clark would [sic] this pronoun. Sorry, I am sure Mr. Clark is a great guy, but this type of fussy behavior, incorrectly making a grammar correction, makes him comes across as petty (if he knows what he’s doing) or absurd (if he does not).

This is why one should always read the great thinkers of the world in their original works. Avoid secondary sources. What does an un-insightful, petty mind really have to say about an insightful, great mind?

Not recommended. One is better off reading Chesterton than reading books about him.