Explorers of the New Century

by Magnus Mills
Explorers of the New Century

My eagerly anticipated copy of Explorers of the New Century finally arrived from It will be released the U.S. in the spring of 2006, but if you’re a fan of Mills as I am, that’s too long of a wait.

The book was as good as I hoped it would be, right up there with his best works, such as The Restraint of Beasts and Three to See the King. It has many of the same general characteristics as his previous works with a comically fetishistic observance of the mundane.

The tale is set in some unnamed region—barren and vaguely polar—where teams led by Johns and Totsig are following different parallel routes toward the “Agreed Furthest Point”. Each commands a group of men known only by their last names—along with a complement of mules. Johns’ team is full of pluck and spirit, but always threatening to descend into chaos; Totsig’s smaller team is a model of efficiency and discipline, any indiscretions confronted with a martial strictness. (There’s a loose parallel here to the Scott and Amundsen expeditions to the South Pole.)

In the tradition of an earlier era when scientific and social purpose, not ego, were supposed to be motivations, the leaders go to some length to disclaim any idea that they are in race, though it becomes increasingly obvious that this is not the case. As the journey unfolds, hints are made to a darker purpose behind the trip—such as sketchy references to principles of “Transportation Theory”.

Mills really seems to be playing with the form. First is the very artifact of the book itself; the hardback U.K. version comes with an ironic, sewn-in ribbon bookmark—a play on the fact that this is ostensibly an account of turn-of-the-century iron-men, but is in fact a comic misadventure packaged in a thin volume that can easily be read in a night.

Then there was this exchange between members of the Johns’ team, one of whom had just mentioned his desire for “scones”:

[Plover] waited a moment and then said, ‘I think you’ll find that the correct pronunciation is “scones”.’

‘“Scones?”’ repeated Sargent.

‘“Scones,”’ repeated Plover.

‘Well, I’ve never heard that. We’ve always said “scones” where I come from.’

‘Same here,’ agreed Seddon.

‘I assure you the word is “scones”,’ said Plover. ‘You should look it up when you have the opportunity.’

The absurdity of these written words are funny on their own, but as a comic device it has the added effect of breaking the reader out of the insular world he has created and somehow bringing it into greater relief.

» Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2005 | Permanent Link

Muſæum Tradescantianum

From the catalog of the Tradescant Collection published by John Tradescent (1656).

Variety of Rarities.
Garments, Veſtures, Habits,

Many museums (including Harvard’s Museum of Natural History) started off as “cabinets of curiosities” which brought together oddities from all over the world. Items where usually grouped by type which took them out of their context but served to highten their strangeness.

In Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America, author Karen Ordahl Kupperman puts the development of these collections into an interesting historical perspective. They happened to coincide with the beginnings of England’s colonization of the New World—at just the time when humanists where turning to the ancient world for guidance on the present.

An interesting parallel was being drawn from Tacitus who portrayed the ancient Britons and Germans as honest and straightforward, in contrast to the sophisticated and manipulative Romans. Many English writers in the 17th century couldn’t help but see this same contrast between the earthly Indians and the increasingly cosmopolitan English.

The “search for the new”, exemplified by the museums, was unsettling for those who saw in it a reflection of English society’s decline into trivialities.

» Posted: Tuesday, October 25, 2005 | Permanent Link

Cast of Shadows

by Kevin Guilfoile
Cast of Shadows

I first heard of this book when I read a few funny postings about the press tour written by the author who is a contributer at The Morning News. I’m not usually a big fan of mysteries, but as I found the postings engaging and the basic plot outline interesting it seemed worth a glance.

It takes place in a near-term future where cloning has become commonplace but is still enmeshed in passions similar to today’s abortion debate. The religious extremism it arouses becomes one of the main elements of the story, but it doesn’t get overly bogged down in an examination of the morality of the process.

The narrative is driven by the quest of a cloning provider to discover the man who had killed and sexually assaulted his daughter. When the police, who have been unable to crack the case, accidentally provide him with DNA evidence, he sees an opportunity. He substitutes the cells of an anonymous donor with those of the killer and uses those to impregnate a client.

While this was a compelling setup, it wasn’t clear where he could really take the plot at this point: what was left other than waiting for the clone to grow up? Actually, the story grew enjoyably entangled as complications arose in following the young boy; complications that lead to murder and ruined lives—and which ultimately lead the doctor to struggle with the ethics of his act for reasons he had never anticipated.

Some of the story actually unfolds in a highly sophisticated online gaming world that has become hugely popular - a world that is a virtual duplicate of the real one, with many people having the same jobs and living in the same locations. I found myself becoming increasingly ambivalent of this aspect of the book. On the one hand it was reasonably well handled in that it didn’t lose track of the fact that it was being played by individuals sitting at computers. But on the other, the virtual world was in fact too much like its real counterpart, with many people doing the same mundane tasks. It stretches credulity to think that these two universes wouldn’t have diverged more dramatically. I generally get turned off when I find myself straining to believe some component of a work like this, but overall it was compelling enough that I was picking the book up every chance I had to find out what was going to happen next.

A website dedicated to the book with exerpts and more reviews can be found here.

» Posted: Wednesday, October 19, 2005 | Permanent Link