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livredor
Book: Star Maker
Thursday, 16 October 2003 at 11:46 pm
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Author: Olaf Stapledon

Details: (c) 1937 Methuen; Pub Penguin Books 1972; ISBN 0-1400-3541-9

Verdict: Star Maker is a very interesting mix of spiritual insight with SF. Quite unlike anything else I've read.

Reasons for reading it: I read Last and First Men on lethargic_man's recommendation, and it prompted some interesting discussion, during the course of which Star Maker was mentioned, and it sounded intriguing.

How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.

I wasn't madly excited to read Star Maker, because I had been somewhat underwhelmed by Last and First Men, but SM is very clearly a far superior book. It describes the spiritual journey of its narrator, during which he acquires mystical insight into the whole history of the universe and nature of the god-like Star Maker.

I tend to be a bit put off by second-hand spirituality, but SM works, on the whole. The mystical experience described rings at least reasonably true, even if occasionally it becomes too obviously a vehicle for the narratorial voice. The mystical experience framework sidesteps the need for any mechanism to be proposed for most of what is described, though from time to time Stapledon indulges in a little run-of-the-mill SF type speculation anyway. Likewise, the narration leans a little too heavily on the inadequacy of ordinary human language to describe spiritual experiences; it is reasonable to point this out, and indeed it is almost expected in any mystical text, but to keep going on about it starts to look like making excuses.

The early part of the book is not particularly impressive; it is very similar to L&FM in presenting a series of imagined worlds without any real plot or connection between them, and making rather obvious political points. It reminds me rather of those Mediaeval travellers' tales, to the extent of presenting aliens which are almost identical to some of the monsters imputed to unexplored territories of the earth in earlier periods.

However, this section is very necessary to anchor the more imaginative later section. One of the great strengths of SM is the way it gives a sense of scale, somewhat like the literary equivalent of the Powers of Ten idea. I was rather tickled by the way the whole of L&FM is summarized in a single paragraph at one point! The narrative sweeps outwards through successive orders of magnitude to present a deity who is unimaginably greater than the most complex entity previously encountered.

There is some very powerful writing, especially in the final section. SM does a quite surprisingly good job of presenting both a mystical view of God, and the nature of religious experience. Not flawless, and some of the theodicy made me wince rather, but considerably impressive and thought-provoking.

What really wowed me about this book was the epilogue, where the narrator returns to earth, both literally and figuratively. It really captures the aftermath of religious inspiration, the struggle to hold on to it and frame it in a comprehensible way, the return to mundane life with a frustratingly imperfect memory of the moment of illumination. And there is an incredible poignancy in the description of the mundane world to which the narrator returns: the world of 1937, with WWII looming.

That epilogue just makes the whole book genuine; the religion of the narrator is not just about abstract and aesthetically pleasing 'experience', but collides head-on with the real world.


Moooood: contemplativecontemplative
Tuuuuune: Sisters of Mercy: Under the Gun
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rysmiel: vacant and in pensive mood
From:rysmiel
Date:October 20th, 2003 02:49 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:49 am (rysmiel's time)
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Oh good, I am glad you enjoyed it. Star Maker really isn't like anything else, it's more meditation than novel and I have not found it possible to accurately convey the flavour and scale of it by any way other than making people read it, it just awes me too much. Brian Aldiss refers to it as "the great grey holy book of science fiction", and there's very little in all of later SF not encompassed by Star Maker's imaginative sweep. Alas, as with many great grey holy books, far too few people have read it.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:October 20th, 2003 07:42 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 07:42 pm (livredor's time)

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I am glad you enjoyed it.
It speaks a language I am used to, I suppose. To the extent that it made me start when it occasionally used an explicitly Christian metaphor.

Star Maker really isn't like anything else
I know I said that too. But being me I have to be counter-exemplary, and it occurs to me that what it is most like is some of the Mediaeval Piyyutim1 we use a lot in the liturgy at this time of year. The ones where the author uses something like the opening of Psalm 19 as an excuse to write epic, multiply acrostic poetry detailing the current understanding of cosmology and exactly why all the heavenly bodies and their various orbits and astrological significances etc 'declare the glory of God'.

Alas, as with many great grey holy books, far too few people have read it.
What other examples of under-read great grey holy books did you have in mind? I know what a holy book is, but I don't understand what you (or Aldiss) mean by a great grey one.

1] Random linguistic fact for the day: I always assumed that the word piyyut came from the Hebrew root meaning virtuous (which, embarrassingly enough given that it is my own name, I have no idea how to spell). But apparently it in fact comes from the same classical root that gives the English poet, making a total loan-word into Hebrew.
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:October 21st, 2003 02:38 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 10:38 am (rysmiel's time)
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But being me I have to be counter-exemplary, and it occurs to me that what it is most like is some of the Mediaeval Piyyutim we use a lot in the liturgy at this time of year. The ones where the author uses something like the opening of Psalm 19 as an excuse to write epic, multiply acrostic poetry detailing the current understanding of cosmology and exactly why all the heavenly bodies and their various orbits and astrological significances etc 'declare the glory of God'.

Cool, that was something of which I had been completely unaware.

Alas, as with many great grey holy books, far too few people have read it.
What other examples of under-read great grey holy books did you have in mind? I know what a holy book is, but I don't understand what you (or Aldiss) mean by a great grey one.


In the literary sense, really significant works in a field. Certainly in Dublin Ulysses is exemplary, far fewer people have read it than would like to give the impression they have.

1] Random linguistic fact for the day: I always assumed that the word piyyut came from the Hebrew root meaning virtuous (which, embarrassingly enough given that it is my own name, I have no idea how to spell). But apparently it in fact comes from the same classical root that gives the English poet, making a total loan-word into Hebrew.

How deeply cool.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:October 26th, 2003 10:37 pm (UTC)
7 days after journal entry, 10:37 pm (lethargic_man's time)

Etymology of "Pia"

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Random linguistic fact for the day: I always assumed that the word piyyut came from the Hebrew root meaning virtuous (which, embarrassingly enough given that it is my own name, I have no idea how to spell). But apparently it in fact comes from the same classical root that gives the English poet, making a total loan-word into Hebrew.

Are you sure Pia is a Hebrew word too? I had a look through my dictionary, and couldn't find anything appropriate. (It's not an unusual Hebrew/Yiddish name, though; there's a great-great-great-great-aunt of mine on my family tree called Pia Sulia.) However, "virtuous" is one possible meaning of "Pia" in Latin. Perhaps your Hebrew name is actually a loan from Latin into Yiddish (possibly via Polish or something like that) -- in the same way that my father's middle Hebrew name, Alexander, is a loan from Greek.

As for spelling it, I would guess either פיה or פיא. Which is fairly obvious, I suppose, but the point I'm making is that there probably isn't an א or an ע after the פ or it would be vocalised as a schwa. And if it's a Yiddish name, it won't be פיע, as that would be rendered Pie (PEE-eh). Though that depends on whether unstressed /a/ and /e/ wouldn't blur into each other in Yiddish, which they might, given how שבת came to be pronounced /shabbes/ (which I think was the case in Yiddish as well as the debased Yinglish terms I use).
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livredor: mask
From:livredor
Date:October 27th, 2003 02:04 pm (UTC)
8 days after journal entry, 02:04 pm (livredor's time)

Re: Etymology of "Pia"

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I've been coming to the conclusion in the last few weeks that I'm very confused about my Hebrew middle name. I was told as a kid it meant 'virtuous', and kind of assumed it was similar to pious, without having the sophistication to think, hang about, why would a Hebrew word be cognate to a Latin root?

So I asked my Dad and it turns out he doesn't know either, which is kind of useless. I don't know whether it's Hebrew or Yiddish; most of my namesake great-grandmother's sisters seem to have a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish names (eg Frumma-Leah, which is half and half!) Apparently the family pronounced it with a long I, just like in English pious, but I don't know whether that was how it was originally pronounced in Yiddish (ashkenazi Hebrew?) or whether that was an anglicization.

There aren't many people left in my family of the generation that spoke Yiddish; my great uncle (son of the relevant great-grandmother, and unlike my own grandmother, properly bilingual) would be the most likely person to know. So I'll ask him next time I see him.
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rysmiel: good things in life
From:rysmiel
Date:October 29th, 2003 03:24 pm (UTC)
10 days after journal entry, 11:24 am (rysmiel's time)

Re: Etymology of "Pia"

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Has anyone ever said that you and lethargic_man are really cute when you linguistics-geek together ?
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