Monday, May 30, 2011

Fuzzy 2.0

In 1964, H. Beam Piper took drop-cloths, laid them out to catch the blood, then blew his brains out. He died thinking himself a failure. He had no job or prospects, his agent wasn't answering his correspondence. He did not know that his agent had died without notifying him that he'd made several sales.

Conversely, John Scalzi is a successful and influential science fiction writer. Mr. Scalzi has taken the characters and the setup of one of Mr. Piper's best novels Little Fuzzy and written his own version of it, a novel Fuzzy Nation.

Though I have been a fan of Mr. Piper's for many years, and have loved several of his novels and short stories, I had skipped over Little Fuzzy. Last week I got a free ebook edition and read it. It was marvelous and shame on me for not reading it years ago. My plan was to read both Mr. Piper's and Mr. Scalzi's books then compare and contrast.

I think that Mr. Scalzi is the better writer of the two. He's taken the elements of Mr. Piper's original work and rearranged them in a pleasing fashion that uses fewer moving parts, and that ramps up more conflict more effectively.

But I liked Mr. Piper's novel a lot more, because I prefer Mr. Piper's future more. I identified with Jack Holloway better as a hermit than as a disbarred lawyer. Mr. Piper's future is dated in places--like when he has film developed--but in other ways it is more advanced with reliable lie detectors and too-cheap-to-meter nuclear energy.

Mr. Scalzi's future is a strange place where people go hundreds of light-years to mine anthracite coal. I suppose if you want to grind an axe against despoiling nature through strip mining, this is one way to do so. But I don't think fossil fuels have the energy density to muscle a starship across interstellar distances. And I don't think a spacefaring civilization will strip mine another planet as cheaply as it can mine what's in the asteroid belt. Don't science fiction writers these days think about science?

Conversely, Mr. Piper's future is one where nobody worries about lung cancer from smoking and hovercars apparently are equipped with Mr. Fusion reactors. And when Jack Holloway shows a fuzzy how to smoke a pipe, it's a courtesy, not a crime.

Mr. Scalzi's lawyers are a lot different from Mr. Piper's lawyers. When the stakes are very high we expect the bad guys to lie cheat and steal, but not the good guys. Mr. Piper's good guys won't perjure themselves, but Mr. Scalzi's do so and we excuse their malfeasance because they're on our side. Conversely, Mr. Piper makes it abundantly clear that the judge won't be on their side, or our side, but on the law's side.

Each novel has a deus ex machina in the climactic court-room scene where fuzzy sapience is decided. Mr. Piper does so with a bunch of space force marines who present surprise evidence. Mr. Scalzi does so with a video camera that she assures the misbehaving corporate types is being watched by daddy who'll spank whoever misbehaves.

What makes me grumpy about Fuzzy Nation is not that Mr. Scalzi wrote a bad book, he wrote a wonderful book. Contrasting the two novels told me more about how the culture has changed in the last half century. And it has not been for the better.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Aristotelian

This is an excerpt from The Aristotelian, on sale for the low, low price of $0.99.

Circumstances of the Inquiry

I was well into my studies in Trinity College when I was called home by my father. It was just a month after Mother’s funeral. Her passing was ghastly business. I cannot bring myself to express more than the fact that my brother was the one to find her body.

I found my father in his drawing room. Comfortably ensconced in a wing-backed chair, he faced the fireplace with a blanket over his legs. He was reading the small volume of Plato he kept in his coat pocket.

“I came as quickly as I could, Father,” I said, announcing my presence.

He looked up and slowly drew himself back from whatever realm it is where ideal forms reside. “Mycroft. Good. Have a seat. Let me look at you.”

I sat down in my usual place.

“No, sit in your mother’s chair. She has no further use of it.”

Mother’s chair was the twin of Father’s and it framed the other side of the fireplace from his. The fire grew warm on my legs as I waited for him to explain the letter he’d sent.

“I want you to reason with your brother, because I have found my own arguments ineffectual. I’m afraid that Sherlock has become an Aristotelian.”

I narrowed my gaze at this. Surely Father would not call me away on something so trivial. He understood my look.

“It is not as you are thinking. Sherlock has taken an unhealthy interest in ‘particulars.’ He’s been collecting all manner of botanical items, pollens, leaves, bits of soil. He’s even taken to collecting the ashes from guests’ cigars. I think he had acquired an unhealthy obsession.”

“I must admit that sounds a bit eccentric, but harmless in itself. Has he quit eating or abandoned his studies?”

“No. In fact, he’s become quite the violinist in your absence.”

“Finally,” I muttered, remembering the painful sounds he had made when last I’d been home. Returning to the problem at hand, I asked, “What then is the harm?”

“There are other things. He has started running with an unsavory crowd, equal parts criminals and policemen. I can’t say that I approve of his associations. I fear for Sherlock’s character.”

I’ve never had much cause to pay much attention to policemen. I thought them a rough lot and given the nature of their profession and their clientele, I had not sought out the friendship of any. I regard the police a necessary evil of civilization and I believe Father’s opinions were even less charitable.

There is a sort of unearthliness about my family. Mother kept the home and it’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, we’d have all starved to death of forgotten meals, or frozen to death having forgotten to light a fire. In her absence, Father had engaged a woman named Hudson to keep body and soul together.

This unearthliness tends to undervalue the necessary aspects of civilization. We take for granted the rough men in police uniforms at home who chase criminals and our rough men in army uniforms abroad who bear the unpleasant aspects of the white man’s burden. I rather think that the Empire would fall apart if a Holmes were put in charge of it.

Nevertheless, Sherlock’s associations with criminals and policemen were equally abhorrent in Father’s estimation.

“Aside from this Aristotelian obsession with particulars, and his somewhat base associations, has Sherlock taken up any vices you think injurious? Gambling, women, drink?”

Father sighed and shook his head. “Nothing of any consequence. He has recommended cocaine to dispel ennui, but the way it makes my heart race reminds me of my corporality. A Platonic dialogue is a much more fitting stimulation.”

“What would you like me to do, Father?”

“Talk to Sherlock. Try to convince him of the folly of his obsessive cataloging of phenomena, turn his interests from those aspects of human nature which are low and wicked. At the very least, try to pique his interest in astronomy or even physics. He has expressed an interest in enrolling in Sidney Sussex this fall as things stand now.”
I sniffed at this, grateful at least that he hadn’t expressed an interest in one of those colleges at Oxford. “If Sherlock will listen to sweet reason, I’ll dissuade him of his ‘Aristotelianism.’”


It is a simple matter of ordinate affections. One bears an ethical obligation to love the good and hate the evil. These just sentiments belong in the heart of one’s character. The cultivation of virtue is something good citizens of the Empire have pursued as long as there has been a British Empire--and before that the Romans and before them the Greeks understood this. I had to find a way to bring this to Sherlock’s recollection. For all learning is but recollection.

I found him in the stables, devilling about with several small glass jars collecting vile samples from the floor.

“Sherlock,” I strode toward him, hand extended in greeting. “How are you?”

He looked up, his eyes darting back and forth, to me, to his sample jar, to the pile of muck he’d been poking through. Automatically, he extended his hand to shake. When I noticed the state of Sherlock’s soiled hand, I quickly withdrew my own.

“What ho, Mycroft! You are a pip. You won’t want to shake my hand until I’ve washed it. Give me a moment.” He looked down again, and finding something of interest to him in the pile of dung before him, he shoved it into the jar and sealed it. “You are back from Cambridge, but not before visiting a locksmith and I see you arrived on the morning train and had eggs for breakfast.”

I brushed the incriminating brass filings from my sleeve and looked down to see the bit of dried egg yolk that I’d incompletely cleaned from my vest. Not wanting to disclose Professor Babbage’s project, I let his error about the locksmith pass uncorrected. “You’ll have to pick through my scat to ascertain which jam was on my toast.”

“Then it was Blackberry.”

“That was obvious from my remark. Now wash your hands and explain why my little brother has taken to picking through horse manure.” I tendered a half-hearted smile.
He chuckled as we made our way to the house and the pump. I worked the handle. The leathers had been replaced, because now it held its prime quite nicely. Sherlock rubbed his hands beneath the running water and worked extra lather from the soap up his wrists. Then he cleaned each of the jars, which he had taken pains to seal before we’d left the stable.

While he did this, I put thought to my brother’s actions. “Why are you interested in knowing what the horses in our stables have been eating?”

He dried his hands on a towel we kept beside the wash pan. “Not so much what they’ve been eating as when.” With his hands dry, we shook properly.

“You wish to know how long the hay was in the alimentary, my dear Sherlock?” I asked. Most of my vices can be attributed to Mother’s influence, but I charge my fondness for puns fully to Father’s account.

“No, how long the dung has left the alimentary, my dear Mycroft. I want the elapsed time since elimination.”

“And therefore infer when a horse passed a particular point?” I asked.

“Exactly.” The edges of his mouth twitched indicating he’d caught the double entendre.

“I presume your interest in bits of random flora in the area is similarly motivated.”

“I have taken an inventory of the wild flowers and weeds extending in a five mile radius from this point,” Sherlock said.

“That’s a lot of work. I doubt your interest is academic. Would you explain to me why you’ve undertaken this study?” I should not have bothered asking. I had a very good idea what his answer would be, but I didn’t want to deny him whatever catharsis saying it aloud could provide.

“To learn who killed Mother,” he said.

First Post

Welcome. This web site is intended to provide a launch pad for each of the stories of the Diogenes Club. If you're familiar with the canon of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, you'll recall that Sherlock Holmes told his friend Watson that the members of this club didn't do anything useful.

I think that Sherlock Holmes was able to eventually penetrate the secret of the Diogenes Club. But if he did, he didn't tell Watson. While most of the members of the Diogenes Club would feel right at home at P. D. Wodehouse's Drone's Club, a select few were occupied with exploits more technically demanding than Bertie Wooster's pranks.

I always thought most highly of Mycroft Holmes, but he only appeared in three stories of the canon. I'm aiming to remedy this. The first installment is "The Aristotelian" that consists of an explanation to the Duke of Denver (of Norfolkshire, not Colorado) of Mycroft's qualification for membership in the Diogenes Club.

The second installment is under construction. "Steamship to Kashmir" occurs seven years after "The Aristotelian" and it has another closed-room murder and an international manhunt.

Those more worthy than I: