Bob Dylan in America


The first albums I bought were the first two Beatles albums, and I loved them, without knowing much about what I was listening to.

I’m pretty sure the third album I bought was Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and I CERTAINLY didn’t know what I was hearing, except that it was powerful. It turned out to be the first of his two greatest albums, as far as I’m aware, just preceding Blonde On Blonde. I quickly obtained Another Side of and Bringing It All Back Home, which were clearly working up the the latter two, and became a huge fan. But after Blonde On Blonde things changed.

Up till then I hadn’t been aware of failure. The Beatles and Dylan had both been getting better and better. Now both seemed to lose their way. I didn’t care much for the next Dylan album, or the one after that, when he sounded sort of like Gomer Pyle, or maybe Jim Nabors. The last song of his I really liked was Tangled Up in Blue. The album was supposedly one of his best, but I wouldn’t know, having hardly listened to the rest of it. Then, after an interlude with the Rolling Thunder Revue, he went into a version of Christianity that didn’t appeal to me at all. As far as I can remember, I’ve heard just 3 of his newer songs since.

One was on a TV show, I think a tribute to him, where Lou Reed and his band did Foot of Pride. I liked that one, but didn’t pursue it. The second was Blind Willie McTell, probably on the Band’s late album, Jericho. “Too pious,” I thought at the time, but don’t know exactly why, since I didn’t listen again, let alone know anything about McTell, though I’d heard his name.

The third was probably around 2000, maybe on the Grammy’s, when Dylan and his band did something—I don’t even know what. I thought the band sounded good, but Dylan’s voice sounded full of phlegm.

But I was still curious about him, and recently picked up Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz, which supplies CONTEXT to his songs–exactly what I wanted. Because it’s less interested in the details of his life, the book begins with a chapter on Aaron Copland.

Copland had some things in common with Dylan, in being interested in leftist politics during the 1930s. This interest led him to consciously simplify his music, writing music based at least in part on folk songs, which ordinary people could appreciate. He was trying not to write down to anyone, but to say what he wanted to say in a simpler way than his modernist side. This period is when he wrote his most popular works: Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Lincoln Portrait, Rodeo, and Fanfare for the Common Man. The latter was a contradiction, since fanfares were traditionally for the most important people, so that it poses a question: why not celebrate the ordinary people? They just may be much more important than we usually think. Kurt Weill had done something similar earlier: decided to write musicals instead of straight classical music in an effort to be more directly involved with more people. His music too became popular. Whether that was good or bad depends on your perspective, I suppose.

Of course one of the forces behind this period, in which other people also took part, was the Soviet Union, so that there was reaction against it in the 1950s. There’s been a similar reaction against a lot of things that happened in the 1960s.

The second chapter was about the Beats, as Dylan was very interested in the writers, particularly connecting with Jack Kerouac’s poetry, and becoming close friends with Allen Ginsberg early in his career. That’s one of the strands of influences that turned him into a songwriter of an unheard of sort in the 60s.

Another was that he was open to a lot of influences. When he came to New York (if not before) he started reading just about anything he could lay his hands on. Tacitus, Machiavelli and Clausewitz are mentioned, and there was a great deal besides. I’ve been a reader all my life, but never read as widely as THAT.

His approach was the same with music. He liked the pop music he grew up with, but added country, blues and rock & roll before finding a particular resting point in folk music. Folk music, he said, is the one kind of music that ISN’T simple, that includes all sorts of strange things, and that if you can enter its world, understand it, and perform it well, there’s no place it CAN’T take you.

So he followed the folk music technique of borrowing: melodies from here, lines from there. His Song to Woody, from his first album, took the melody from a Woody Guthrie song; one which Guthrie had borrowed from somewhere else. Desolation Row, off Highway 61 Revisited, used a lot of Kerouac’s imagery.

It’s been said that Dylan seriously thought of quitting being a songwriter before coming up with Like a Rolling Stone. Whether that’s true or not, he later DID lose his way, and Wilentz quotes him as saying that it was like he got amnesia and simply couldn’t remember how he’d written songs before, when they’d come 3 or 4 at a time. From my perspective, his lost period continued a long time, complicated by many people’s suspicions that when he DID  come up with a good song he often wouldn’t release it very quickly, maybe sometimes not at all. He’d always played with his image; maybe sometimes he did it to protect himself from the painfulness of his fame in the 1960s.

But, according to Wilentz, he began finding his way again in the late 80’s, and has continued since then. His greatest work is still what he did in the 60s, but he’s refined his methods and managed to come up with good things since.

His knowledge of both music and general history seems to be encyclopedic. He’s drawn influence from all over. 19th century blackface music for one, in which whites pretended to be black, and one thing Dylan may have been referring to when he titled one album Love and Theft. He talks about liking Rickie Nelson, but feeling that his music was a mistake with no future. The older music, though, the Stagolees, Frankie and Alberts and Delias did.

Frankie and Albert (better known as Frankie and Johnny) was about one lover killing another because of jealousy. Delia, much less known is similar, but different in that in this one the boy kills the girl, instead of the woman killing the man. Delia and Cutty (or Cooney) are just teenagers, apparently living in the underworld, where, it is suggested, Delia might be a prostitute. Cutty calls her his “little wife”, but she denies it and curses him. He shoots her. Bad enough at any age, but particularly heartbreaking at that age.

Another song, from one of Dylan’s most recent albums is Nettie Moore. The original song was written in 1857, and the singer is a South Carolina slave whose wife has been sold to a Lousiana slave trader. Another version of it was done in the 1930s by the Sons of the Pioneers, who then included Roy Rogers. No doubt, says Wilentz, that Dylan was thinking about both of these when he made his version, but it’s different from both. It borrows from Robert Johnson, Papa Charlie Jackson, WC Handy, and Hank Williams, as well as Frankie and Albert. The story is implicit, not explicit, images collecting from which may be inferred what it’s about. Apparently it started as a sort of game, in which a line from an old song (or a reference to one) suggested the next line to the writer. And according to Wilentz, Dylan has said the song does have an explicit meaning that he took care to preserve.

The singer praises Nettie, though he’s sinful himself, and loves her hard, but there’s a suggestion she’s been unfaithful. A judge enters the song, then disappears, and though it’s spring, and the world is beautiful, the singer sees the world darken before his eyes. Wilentz has two possible scenarios: one might be of an older man, perhaps a member of a cowboy band, who abandoned his love, and lives in darkness. The second is that the singer murdered Nettie, whom he deeply loved, with a knife. It’s a song, says Wilentz, about the absolute loss of hope because of the narrator’s mistake, whatever it was. The way he describes it, the second alternative is the more heartbreaking, and the whole thing gave me the chills, though I haven’t even heard the song.

The method described by Wilentz is, again, the way Dylan has always worked, though some have thought it to be plagiarizing. But plagiarizing is passing someone else’s work off as your own. Borrowing is what all artists do. No one can be totally original. Someone or something always inspires, whether it’s a feeling invoked, as specific line or phrase, a musical riff or melody. It’s what you do with it that counts. Of course you can take a song, for instance, and refuse to properly credit it, thus denying the author of the royalties he or she deserves, but much better if you take from and transform it.

And Dylan has a reason to do it. He sees the modern world as being a virtual one, with all its memory gone, and he wants to restore that memory. If you play pro baseball and don’t know who Jackie Robinson was (and Dylan, it seems, is a baseball fan), you’re poorer for not knowing. Suppose it’s the Civil War you don’t know about? Then you don’t know much about contemporary American politics. Dylan sees folk song, among other things, as indicating an alternative universe that might just be the real one, overlaid by the universe of people trying to sell you something. The virtual world isn’t the real one, however attractive it may be, and you’ll never find out the real truth about the complexities of human nature from it. Wilentz quotes William Faulkner: “The past’s not dead. It’s not even past.”

In one interview Dylan said when he was young he was in a hurry to get somewhere, into a position. He got there quickly and impressively, then appeared to lose it. Some of his later work suggests that he didn’t entirely like that position once he got there, but he’s found ways to work with it. I don’t know how many people find Dylan relevant anymore, and I’m not sure I do, but Wilentz’s book contains a great deal worth reflecting over.

The White Goddess


I first read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess in my early twenties, and it influenced one of the poems I wrote then, in conjunction with a couple of books by Margaret Murray (if I have the name right) who theorized that the witch cult of northern Europe (at least) was a survival of matriarchal religion: the religion which worships the Goddess rather than the God.

I didn’t understand everything about the book then, and I still don’t. It’s a puzzle, and one not easily understood. There are a lot of lists of mythological people and events, many of which I’m still not familiar with, and it’s hard to keep it all straight. But I think I can summarize some of the main points.

What we now call paganism was a vast religious system that took in Europe, the Mediterranean world, the near East and at least some of Africa. It probably extended at least as far east as India, and possibly further. According to Graves, its primeval form was the Sacred King marrying the Goddess, in the person of a priestess, and being sacrificed every half year to bring good to his tribe or kingdom. He would be succeeded halfway through the year by his Tanist, whom Graves defines as his other self, and there are many of these in mythology. Osiris and Set are one well-known instance. Graves also says that the frequency of twins in Greek and Roman mythology are also an expression of this: Castor and Pollux, Idas and Lynceus, Romulus and Remus. The dead King would be resurrected as an oracular hero, whose head would be kept on an island, usually in a river, sacred to that purpose.

The Poet, who once had a much more important role than now, came into this religious system as well, because he was inspired by love of the Goddess, and was given powers to inspire others, to evoke the power of the Goddess and tell the truths She wanted told. This situation gradually changed.

It changed with the invasion of the Greeks, and possibly others, who worshipped Father gods, into what are now Turkey, Greece and the Near East. One result of this was the subjugation, wholly or partly, of those who worshipped the Mother by those who worshipped the Father. When the various gods married the various goddesses, that probably means they took over their sanctuaries and oracles. They also seem to have provoked emigration. The Danaans, known as the Tuatha de Danaan in Ireland, are supposed to have been Pelasgians, the occupants of what is now Greece before the Greeks got there. They may have been related to the Cretans, or at least influenced by them. The Danaans may have brought their religious system to the rest of Europe, if it wasn’t there already.

Under pressure from the patriarchal invaders, the religious pattern changed somewhat. The Sacred King had lived a year or half a year before being sacrificed. Later his term of office was extended, and he was allowed to sacrifice substitutes, often children, rather than being sacrificed himself. This, says Graves, accounts for children being sacrificed to Moloch (or Melkarth) by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, and for Hercules (in Greek, Heracles, glory of Hera–Hera being one of the many names of the goddess) having supposedly accidentally having killed some children. Actually, according to Graves, Hercules, like many other names, was a title rather than an individual. An ancient author said there had been at least 44 different individuals who had contributed to the Hercules legend.

Graves had been previously convinced of the ancient existence of matriarchal religion, but this book was stimulated by his reflection on a medieval or somewhat earlier poem about a war of trees. He found that the trees each symbolized a letter and that the poem was actually about a sacred alphabet that was used to spell the most secret name of God. The alphabet connected to the seasons and the ancient cosmology in general.

So the book looks at a poem written probably about the 12th or 13th century AD, when a poet challenges the poetic establishment in Wales with a riddling poem showing that he understands the ancient meanings of poetic symbolism better than they do. The poem has been “pied”, its lines mixed up, to keep ordinary people from understanding it, so besides working out the symbolism, Graves had to reconstruct the poem to its original form, as closely as possible. He says that this problem came to him while he was working on a novel, so he put the novel away for about six weeks to write this book, though he further elaborated it later.

Ancient religion has generally been poorly understood, probably in large part due to the early Christian attitude towards it, considering its gods to be demons. Actually, as Camille Paglia points out in Sexual Personae, it would be more proper to refer to pagan gods and other spirits as daimons. a more neutral word. Socrates claimed to have a daimon that guided him, which suggests that some daimons were good and some were not, which was paganism’s attitude all along. And even Christianity never suggested that God was the ONLY spirit. Or even that all other spirits were evil, as the word demon somewhat more than implies.

Some of the Sacred Kings were of virgin birth, which, Graves says, means that they were from the time before it was realized that men had anything to do with progeneration. Women produced children alone, which made them magical beings. Men have often felt inferior in relation to women, which probably accounts for much of rape and other forms of assault on women: men asserting their superiority in the only way they can. Through superior size and physical strength. In modern times it’s apparent that women are just as able as men in most things, which doesn’t reassure the masculine inferiority complex.

In a recent poem I asked why we start our year in winter, when it ought to start in spring, with the return of life. A number of ancient cultures did start the year then, but quite a few started it around the Winter Solstice, because that’s when the Divine Child, who will be Sacred King is born. Christianity took this from paganism (disregarding that Jesus was probably born at a different time of year), along with Easter eggs and many pagan sacred places. Christmas has become the most important Christian holiday, even more than Easter, which, considering Christian pretensions, seems a little odd. Graves, though, remarks that the greatest gift of paganism to Christianity was the example of how to revise mythology to make it seem that the new order had always been ordained by God or the gods.

Examples include the Adam and Eve story. Eve’s name means “Mother of All Living” (and interestingly enough, a DNA study traces all known human DNA back to a woman living 200,000-300,000 years ago), so it’s nonsensical that Eve should have been made from Adam’s rib. Adam was her Sacred King, and the serpent became his Tanist. He would bruise the serpent’s head, and the serpent would bite his sacred heel in turn, year after year, in cyclical ritual.

The other major example is the Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary, which Protestants objected to. But what did Protestantism have to offer people mythologically? Once Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church, they continued to splinter into hundreds if not thousands of sects. Sponsorship of the Virgin Mary may be the main thing that has kept Catholicism going in the face of its frequent corruption and its distaste for the modern world.

For religion seems to have gone wrong in the modern world. Certainly the perspective is much different from paganism, which lived in the natural world, while modern man (especially urban man) successfully escapes it most of the time. Graves notes (as did more recently Harold Bloom, if I remember correctly) that God the Father, so differently characterized in the New Testament than the Old, is hardly even mentioned by modern Christians. Jesus is almost exclusively the subject when talking about God.

The root of this situation, according to Graves, is the Prophet Ezekial’s vision of the Chariot, which makes God altogether transcendent, as well as completely good and loving.

It’s now widely recognized that the Hebrew people pretty much practiced religion in the same way as their neighbors until after the conquest of Judah, and the Babylonian Captivity. They worshipped goddesses and took part in fertility rites. It wasn’t until they returned from Babylon that they went to the other extreme of monotheism and a Father God, though the Old Testament tries to make it seem much earlier.

The contrast with the Mother Goddess was stark: she was both kind and cruel, giving life, but also suffering and death. Nature was her home, not cities, though some cities might claim her as patron. Camille Paglia says that society is the human way of protecting ourselves against the cruelty of nature, which is always characterized as a Mother, not a Father.

So in a religion centered on a transcendent Father, it becomes theologically necessary to attribute evil, which makes the Devil more important. He becomes the Tanist of Jesus, and instigates much fear and cruelty, and not in any obvious way for the good of humanity through inspiration, but in order to degrade.

According to Graves, this unsatisfactory state of affairs has caused religion to decline for the last few centuries, and for a new trinity to assume power of human affairs. The Holy Trinity promulgated in the 4th century AD was only new in the persons comprising it. There had been many trinities before: the Goddess formed many of them under various names, but always the same roles: maiden, nymph (or wife), and hag. Man was brought into life by her, initiated into manhood, then laid out in death, or betrayed into it.

Graves defines the trinity now dominating religion (that is, what we actually worship) as Pluto (wealth), Mercury (theft), and Apollo (science). There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with science, but the other two members of the trinity determine how scientific knowledge will be used. Usually this is to use nature’s resources for our own benefit, without considering our responsitibility to nature, without which we could not live. The Bible doesn’t approve of this lifestyle, though it’s not too explicit about it, but the Goddess didn’t consider humans more important than any other part of Her kingdom.

As Graves says, though, women will be willing to accept the Western civilization for now, since it gives them more freedom than they’ve had since ancient times, though they also may not approve of it. Things, he says, will probably have to get worse before they can get better, and that seems pretty clear. Some would be willing to find a more natural way to live, but so far they’re a minority.

Ultimately, anyone advanced very far in any sort of religious life probably realizes the imbalance of how we currently live. Worship of the Goddess instead of the God is probably just one of many ways to reach for something better.



This morning I happened to think about a  movie I saw a long time ago. The title, director, and names of the actors have vanished. I just remember that it was set in a French colony in Africa.

The main character is a passive kind of guy who gets bullied. Someone, maybe at his job, bullies him, and he’s fed up. He asks a friend what he should do. The friend replies, “Kill him,””  never thinking that the man will.
But the man does. And gets away with it!

Somewhere he’s acquired a pistol, and having stepped onto that road, he travels further down it. He has a wife and a mistress, and both bully him. He gives both pistols, and arranges for them to have a confrontation. One kills the other, or possibly both kill each other–I no longer remember all the details.

Things go from bad to worse, though there’s a lot missing from my memory.  At one point relatives of the first man he killed come to the town to inquire about it. The main character gives them a sort of mystical mish-mash which is actually a confession without coming out and actually saying he did it. The relatives don’t know what to make of this, and leave.

The last scene is the man with his pistol watching a group of black children playing. He aims, but they move too fast, and he doesn’t fire, but aims again. The movie ends there.

The most implausible part is that he gets away with the first killing, I think. The atmosphere of the movie becomes more surreal, but not illogical. We’re not talking about responsible gun owners here, but about people who get seduced or hypnotized by guns and their power. Are not people who have been bullied (or feel they have been) not likely to misuse power if they get their hands on it? A gun is a powerful object, both literally and figuratively. Psychology calls them phallic, and what is a man to take more personally than his penis? Judging from the mottos of gun lovers, men can take their guns just as personally.

I’ve never been a gun owner, but I’ve owned cars, and I think car owners can get just as involved with their cars as gun owners with their guns. No one wants to have their car taken away any more than anyone wants their gun taken away. It’s MINE.

But I suspect that responsible gun owners feel differently about their guns than the other kind do. I would guess they look on their guns as a tool, enjoy using them for target shooting or hunting, and want the training to successfully resist criminals who would assault them or their families. I think the other kind of gun owner adores the powerful feelings associated with guns, and would be quite willing to misuse a gun to get those feelings.

You could call that crazy, but it depends on how you define crazy. If you mean totally out of touch with reality, not necessarily. If you mean someone consumed with rage and insecurity, someone who feels inferior (rightly or wrongly), that may be a closer fit.

When the gunman opened up in a crowded theater in Colorado, some said that if a few people had been carrying guns, they could have stopped him. Experts disagreed. They said that it takes a lot of training to be able to respond effectively to that kind of situation, that it would have taken either an expert or lucky shot to stop the shooter, since he was wearing body armor, and that ordinary untrained people carrying guns and not being able to clearly see where the shots were coming from would be likely to shoot the wrong person or draw fire on themselves without accomplishing anything positive. Like any other dangerous piece of equipment, one needs to be well-trained to be able to use a gun efficiently and effectively.

That’s if you’re being attacked. And if a woman is being attacked, without a lot of training she’s likely to have any gun she may have taken away from her by her assailant (most likely to be a man) because men are physically stronger than women generally.

Of course, if you’re the attacker, the odds change greatly in your favor, especially if you don’t look like an attacker, or have the advantage of surprise in another way. It’s the same advantage that offenses in team sports have: they know what they’re going to do. Unless the defensive team is very experienced, they probably don’t. Sometimes, even if they do know, they can’t stop the attack.

So let me just say something that a lot of gun apologists will disagree with: there are way too many guns. There are so many that responsible gun owners may well be a minority. Irresponsible car owners are little better, even if they mean less harm. Powerful tools in the wrong hands equal undesirable outcomes. And we do not lack for irresponsible hands.

We also don’t have a lack of irresponsible leaders who will point unhappy people (for whatever reason) in a nasty direction, and then deny they did anything of the sort. Democracy can be a pretty nasty business in which emotions get personal and intense. Things can cross the line in political democracy, but it’s also a situation where people can fight without actual violence. That may be part of what makes it better than dictatorship or other forms of totalitarian government, in which the individual is nothing, so that when the government shows weakness it can expect no mercy. Put guns into a volatile country with a lot of unhappy people (reasons don’t matter in this instance), and there will be more violence than there would have been otherwise. Not that totally removing guns would totally end violence. Guns simply make it easier and less personal to be violent than knives, for instance. You also have less of an advantage if your opponent too  has a knife.

Proponents of guns seem to think that if everyone had a gun and knew how to use it people would be a lot more polite. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but I doubt it. My guess is that having a gun and willingness to use it would bring out your aggressive side, and guns can be very mistake-prone when used by inexpert hands. Driveby shootings are probably pretty thrilling–if you’re the one doing the driving. If you’re on the receiving end, or if it’s your significant other, friend or child, that’s a very different picture.

Of course you can go out for vengeance, and keep the cycle going, which some people would see as being part of the solution. I would not. Consider the man, who died recently, who had been one of the violent resisters of integration in the South of the 1960s. After a number of years he began to feel that what he had done was wrong, and went to someone prominent in the Civil Rights movement to apologize. He’d had a change of heart. To step outside the destructive spiral we’re in, we ALL need a change of heart, gun owners and non-gun owners alike. Otherwise we’ll keep seeing tragedies like Newtown, where even children are targeted, and little reaction but, “Take their guns”/”Don’t take our guns”. Two sides of the same coin, neither of which understands the other.

M.A. Foster


M.A. Foster was a science fiction writer active in the 1970s and 80s. He may not have been a major figure in the field, but he wrote some good stories, and had some interesting ideas. And he definitely did some evolving as he continued.

His first published novel, The Warriors of Dawn, is at least partly to do with the interactions between humans and the Ler, about whom we learn more later. It’s not a TERRIBLE novel, but he did much better later. There’s a lot of action in it, but until near the end the action seems disconnected. Only near the end do things begin to make sense, so that the novel ends in a fairly satisfactory way.

His third published novel, Day of the Klesh, reads more like it’s his second. In this one there’s almost no action, and the author tells more than he shows, which was also true to some extent of his first novel. In both, a satisfactory ending is achieved by introducing an alien race as the villain, towards the end, which isn’t the best sort of construction.

The Gameplayers of Zan is his second published novel, and his writing here takes a quantum leap forward. It’s a prequel to the other two novels, set on earth, before either humans or Ler had begun traveling to other stars.

The Ler are a deliberately induced mutation of human beings, with some physical differences, and a very different culture. They are a relatively small group, about 100,000, compared with about 20 billion humans at a time about 500 years from now. They’ve been allowed a fair amount of autonomy, including a wilderness preserve to live in, and they keep the area pretty rural. A fair number of them work outside the reservation, as a way to repay humans for their status. They seem to be a relatively low-technology society.

In this novel the author knows exactly where he’s going and how to get there, and he wastes no scenes or words. There are many mysteries, which are dramatically revealed as the story progresses, and you get to really like the two main Ler characters, who seem to be perhaps above average in their culture, but no more. They’re both intelligent and courageous, and it’s largely their efforts that produce the happy ending. The surprising thing is that Zan is so much better than the other two books. In some ways it’s the best that Foster did, though he wrote some other good things later.

A second series begins with The Morphodite. This isn’t set in the human/Ler universe. It begins on a small and obscure planet in a sort of research/prison facility. The main character has been trained in many disciplines to make him an effective assassin. He has also been CHANGED in a very strange way. In a method similar to meditation he is able to change his body to become an entirely different person. He can’t do this often, as he becomes 10-20 years younger each time, and each time he changes it’s to the opposite gender. He also perceives in a way that most people can’t, so that he can, as it were, aim himself as an assassin. At the beginning of the novel he is urged to do this, with the aim of introducing change into the societies of the planet, whose original settlers had tried to stop change altogether.

He manages to do this by a seemingly random killing of someone he’s never met and has no feelings for, one way or the other. The killing is discovered, and sets off catastrophic change. As soon as possible afterwards, the assassin sets off his own change, and becomes a woman. He wants to lose himself in the population, but the people who aimed him are both fascinated and appalled at the results. Some want to study him, but more want to simply kill him as a terrible danger. The assassin, now a woman, is seduced by a man she discovers to be an agent for the group from the research/prison facility, and she kills him, then changes again. This time she becomes a man.

The man partners with a woman he’d previously met, they start living in a rural setting, and take in orphans, of which there are quite a few, as in tumultuous times. This situation lasts until the beginning of the second novel, Transformer, when the people who had launched the Morphodite try again to kill it. He happens to be away when this happens, but his woman and some of the children are killed. He’s previously discovered that the people planning this came from offworld, so he decides to go find them.

On a passenger ship he travels and learns more, becoming friends with some of the crew as he goes. He wants to break the cycle of violence that pursues him, and some of which emanates from a particular institution on another world. In the course of the novel he changes again to become a woman, manages to locate the man who has pursued him  most doggedly, and confronts him. From her unusual perception she’s determined that this is the way to thoroughly discredit the institution that created him, and by now she abhors violence. Then she changes once again, becoming this time an infant. Her friends leave the ship at the next stop and raise the infant, now male again pretty successfully.

The planet on which they live is a small one, circling a small star, and the entire planet is city. Sociologically, it’s much like the world some seem to be in favor of now: one character remarks, “On Teragon NOTHING is legitimate.” There’s no government mentioned, there seem only to be individuals and various organizatins, which buy and sell and negotiate with each other. The man, now in his early 30’s, survives well on this planet, sometimes as an independent contractor, others as an employee. He has a perception that others don’t, and has honed his skills, but has forgotten about his previous selves.

Until he finds himself being pursued again. After temporarily escaping from his pursuers, he decides to understand himself, and begins a process much like meditation to do so. He succeeds, remembers his past lives, sees the broader universe and how his situation affects it and is affected by it. He looks ever more clearly on the problem of human evil, and this may be some of the best writing Foster has done.

Unfortunately, the novel is flawed. The next sequence has the protagonist headed deep into the interior of the planet because he can’t find a way to the surface. It becomes clear that the planet is actually a spaceship, built by a race similar to humans in size, and breathing a similar atmosphere, but little else about them is clear. He finds a map of the galactic group we live in which seems to show that the planet came originally from the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, a different galaxy, but the race that built it is long gone. His descent into the depths of the world might symbolize descent into his subconscious, but he’s already done that in the previous section. As interesting as this may be, it seems unrelated to the rest of the novel, and comes across as writing just to make the book long enough.

The protagonist returns to the surface to find most of the people who have been pursuing him willing to negotiate now, having gotten some sense of his power. He has a vision of how he wants things to be, and how to accomplish that, and allows himself to be murdered. This makes him sort of a Christ-figure, one who sacrifices himself for the greater good. Clearly, this would seem to be the one way to combat the human world’s evil: to sacrifice one’s self for others, rather than others for one’s self. But one is left with the feeling that the novel could have been better.

The same year that this third novel, Protector, was published, Foster also published a book of short stories, Owl Time. One story in it stood out to me. The main character is living in a world where most, if not all of the inhabitants are engaged in art, but not in original art. They take sequences of literature, movies, ballet, music, etc, and juxtapose them to create new viewpoints. The character becomes somewhat successful at this, but also disillusioned: some of his friends abruptly disappear, and it seems that there’s a mechanism which takes people, destroys their memories, then “resurrects” them. The main character decides he doesn’t like this world, and finds an exit. He then finds himself in another world, and is told he’s the first to exit that environment for hundreds of years. It doesn’t seem to be coincidental that Foster never published any more fiction thereafter, to my knowledge.

The story suggests that he found creating fiction to be too artificial. According to Wikipedia he subsequently wrote more about the language he’d devised for the Ler (he seems to have been something of a linguist), and wrote an occasional column, but that the last one had appeared in 2009. I wonder if he’s still alive (he’d be at least approaching elderly if he was), and would like to more about him and his life, especially about how it went after he stopped writing fiction. Even if he’s still alive, I don’t know if he’d welcome the curiosity of strangers, though.

His work would probably not attract everyone. I haven’t noticed anyone talking about him unless I directly looked for things about him. I could wish he had written more fiction, but that might be merely selfish. I hope he found whatever he was looking for.

Women in the Military


She was a small mousy girl in a military school. One day she walked into nursing class with a black eye, and didn’t seem inclined to explain how she got it. I suspected her boyfriend. He was barely taller than she, and short men are sometimes insecure about that.

Picture a hut out in the field. It might be in Iraq or Afghanistan, or somewhere else. Or you might picture a dormitory. A woman soldier is having sex with a male soldier, but doesn’t seem very happy about it. Maybe she’s not. Maybe she’s been coerced into it. There have been recent news stories about that.

The boyfriend and girlfriend mentioned above were both military students in the military school. I studied there too, but wasn’t military, so I only have suspicions, not real knowledge.

Years ago a friend told me about a young couple she’d known. They seemed to get along very well–until he served in the military. After he came back he was changed. He was very angry, and it was quite near the surface. As I remember the story, she was late meeting somewhere one day. He killed her for it.

it’s obvious that being in the military can be bad for your health. Frongline soldiers risk death and dismemberment daily, and it probably adds to the stress level when it’s not clear who the enemy is. Over at least the last 40 years it’s been clear that a soldier’s mental health is at least as at risk as their physical health. Having women on or near the front lines seems to make the problem more complicated.

I’ve heard stories over several years now that female soldiers get assaulted not only at the front, but in military academies as well. It’s not the enemy assaulting them, but fellow soldiers, whom they ought to be able to trust.

Does that mean women ought not to be included in military life? Some women WANT to be on the front lines, fighting alongside the men. If the’re physically, mentally and emotionally competent to do so, I think they should be allowed. But they also ought to be able to trust their fellow soldiers.

Why do these kinds of rapes happen? Male soldiers, at least on the front lines, have very difficult and dangerous jobs. It isn’t hard to imagine that they must often feel very scared and insecure. Sex could be an antidote for that, and armies have been notorious for rape after conquering cities, for instance, throughout all history. Raping fellow soldiers has rarely been reported until recently, though.

Some have reported that the rapists seem to feel entitled to sex. Could this be because of fear and insecurity? It might also be part of the relaxation of standards common to soldiers in war. It might also be part of old tradition: the women who followed soldiers to the battlefield used to be almost exclusively prostitutes. Prostitutes, of course, have no rights unless they demand and find a way to enforce them.

Even if the above is the case, what about rapes that take place in military schools? Are there more of these than at civilian colleges and universities? If there’s a statistically significant difference we’re probably talking about something else.

Maybe it has to do with the training male soldiers receive. They have to find a way to overcome fear, and maybe feeling superior helps them do that. Possibly feeling superior to women helps them to feel hypermasucline, and above fear. This is speculation on my part. I’ve never been in the military. But there’s little doubt that in many ways it’s a conservative institution. When I attended the military school someone told me there were (if I remember correctly) John Birch Society  members there. That wouldn’t entirely surprise me.

But we also have to remember that the military isn’t entirely conservative. The Armed Forces were desegregated not many years after World War II ended, and before the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs the Board of Education.  Probably a lot of military officials didn’t support desergregation, but they followed orders, and made it happen. If the hadn’t, General Colin Powell would never have reached the stature he did–at least not as a military man.

I think it would be fair to say that integrating women into the Armed Services in such a way that they’re no longer subject to rape than they would be as civilians will not be easier than desegregation was. Women have been miliatry auxiliaries at least since World War I, possibly longer. So it’s not their presence that’s the problem, but the attitude of the men. What can be done about that?

I think in one respect soldiers are like teachers: we expect them to do a wide variety of things, some of which they may not be competent to do. Gore Vidal, the well-known novelist, said that most WW2 soldiers he talked with weren’t gung-ho. Many of them felt taken advantage of. And WW2 was a lot easier to justify than most of our wars since.

Another difference is that we no longer have the draft. Noam Chomsky commented that that had changed after Vietnam because the Pentagon realized they would soon no longer have a military if it continued. Because soldiers then were less patriotic? My guess is because they saw Vietnam as senseless, and having nothing to do with defending the country.

Chomsky went on to say that atrocities like Abu Ghraib happen in part because it’s a volunteer army, and people volunteer because they want to escape from where they grew up, and never have to return. Therefore they’re willing to do anything not to get in trouble. I’m not sure that follows. There were atrocities in Vietnam too, some say a lot more than were reported. Is it possible to have war without atrocities? I don’t know.

The stereotype of the soldier who did his job, came home, and lived happily ever after may be a fantasy for an awful lot of people. If soldiers win World War II felt taken advantage of, what do soldiers feel now? And how is this feeling to be counteracted? This country is strongly divided now, and the military is part of the country. Many probably believe in the traditional military virtues, but see them as increasingly hard to find. Both sides of the divide in the country see the other side as traitors, often enough. The anger and defensiveness this rouses can only exacerbate the problem.

I doubt this would be as much a problem if the kind of wars we fight now were really about defending the nation. If we all felt really threatened, it seems less likely that we’d fight each other as hard as we’d fight an invading enemy. That situation isn’t unprecedented, though. When the Jews rebelled against the Romans in 66 AD, Josephus portrays them, during the seige of Jerusalem, as killing each other as enthusiastically as they killed the Romans. In such a conflagration, women become that much easier to victimize.

In fact, almost everyone becomes easier to victimize. In chaos, only the powerful are secure, and even their security is relative. At its best, the military provides a structure strong enough to deter its members from defiance. Its best is somewhat contingent on the justice of the war being fought. If you’re truly fighting for your homeland, that’s one thing. If you’re fighting to enlarge someone else’s power, that’s another. Propaganda can be very effective, but eventually people start seeing through it. The realities of battle are rather different from discussions on TV.

Women, I think, are no less patriotic than men. Some want to put themselves on the line to defend their country, and more power to them. For that they ought to be thanked. All soldiers ought to be, but in practice, too few are in any way that’s really meaningful. We ought not to ask soldiers to serve, male or female, unless we have something that’s REALLY important for them to do. Who wants to fight and die for Blackwater and Halliburton?