Friday, February 12, 2010


I mentioned last week that the nonfiction book I was reading wasn't thrilling me. The book is Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory, a book I'd been looking forward to for awhile. The basic idea is that he explores various myths and tries to uncover the possible source or sources of various parts of the legend. The first chapter, for example, gives a convincing explanation about the way an odd behavior of various birds, called anting, may have ultimately led to certain parts of the phoenix legends. It's a fascinating and well researched investigation.

Why the ambivalence, then? Partly it's a factor of the book being almost twenty years old and so not being sure how well the arguments jive with more recent research. Partly it's that not all the legends (or their explanations) I found as engaging. And largely, though I feel bad saying this, it's Davidson's style. He was a well respected SF and fantasy writer, and maybe I'd have a different opinion if I'd read some of his fiction, but in this he comes across not only as a clever person, but as something who thinks himself enormously clever. Datedly clever at times, which doesn't help. I found it grating often.

But anyway, one that I did find inspiring was an essay on the origin of the myth of Hyperborea (the actual Greek myth, not the silly appropriation of the myth by some of Hitler's cronies). Far to the north of Greece, the myth goes, beyond the north wind there was a land with six months of day and six months of night, but it was a warm land.

Davidson's explanation of this myth I find fascinating: you see, amber can be found anywhere, but one of the biggest sources in the ancient world was the Baltic. Well north of Greece, note. In some of the amber that found its way down to Greece, they would have found tropical insects, scorpions, and plants, trapped within. Not knowing just how ancient the amber formed and the way the climate can change over such lengths of time, Davidson argues, it was a logical conclusion that somewhere beyond the north, cold lands known to the Greeks lay another where such warm-weather creatures and plants lived. Pretty cool, and well supported by many different references in ancient texts.


Lauren Forconi said...

I think I had a similar hang-up with Snow Crash, although that's obviously fiction... it seems pretty fixated on its own cleverness, and badass samurai in an internet cyber-world is pretty much a red flag for "lame" now, compared to how it might have been regarded in 1992.

Apropos of nothing, I went to a public reading last night at a new-and-used bookstore, and they had City of Saints and Madmen on the front display shelf--new, but marked down 50%. So I grabbed it. It'll probably be awhile before I can get around to it, but at least it's in reach now.

Daniel Ausema said...

Great, I think you'll enjoy it! Is it the earlier edition that just has the four novellas, or one of the later editions with all the extra stuff?

I've seen Lesli speak highly of Snow Crash, so it's been something in my loose maybe-I'll-read-it-sometime list. But I read something else of his (Quicksilver, I think?) and while I appreciated what he was doing, I just got overwhelmed by the sheer size of the series and gave up about halfway through the first.

Lauren Forconi said...

It's got a pretty thick appendix, so I would assume it's one of the newer editions.

Snow Crash--I was really into the first two chapters, but after that there was a big tonal shift, and my interest dropped off pretty quickly.