June 27, 2013


Lives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Harcourt. $20.99.

Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. By Stefan Ekman. Wesleyan University Press. $27.95.

     The ongoing “Lives of…” series by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt has a highly successful formula, which does not seem formulaic because it comes out so differently when applied to different groups of people. The author and illustrator present brief biographical information on a number of people known for their work in one field or another, focusing less on their familiar accomplishments and more on their personal quirks and peccadillos. The illustrations are always beautifully rendered, in cartoonish style (disproportionately large heads, for example) but with great accuracy in terms of the people’s appearances when those are known.  In the case of Lives of the Scientists, there are 20 scientists profiled in 18 chapters (William and Caroline Herschel share a chapter, as do James D. Watson and Francis Crick). As always in these volumes, the people discussed range from the extremely well-known (Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein) to ones who are scarcely household names in most households (Ibn Sīnā, Grace Murray Hopper, Chien-Shiung Wu). It is fascinating to learn about Zhang Heng’s creation, in the second century C.E., of a seismometer – which used eight copper dragons and eight copper frogs to detect earthquakes; to find out about Barbara McClintock’s studies of the genetics of corn – which she did not like to eat; to learn that Marie Curie’s office furniture was so radioactive that it had to be replaced with replicas after her death, when the office was turned into a museum; to find out that Ivan Pavlov was so fanatical about punctuality that friends who arrived a minute early would stand outside his door and wait to knock until the precise time of an appointment; to discover that George Washington Carver was offered a job by Thomas Edison, at a salary of more than $100,000, but declined; to be told that Edwin Hubble affected a British accent, hired a publicity agent in an unsuccessful attempt to win a Nobel Prize,  and used to read his wife’s journals about their social life and correct them for accuracy. Lives of the Scientists, like other books in this series, is a marvelous mixture of the everyday and the outré, turning big names (and some not-so-big but still-important names) into fully formed, genuine human beings, helping young readers (and parents, too) learn that even when humans accomplish some truly amazing things, they are still, after all, human.

     Scientists explore reality. Fantasists explore unreality – sometimes in just as much detail as scientists bring to the real world. In Here Be Dragons, Stefan Ekman of Lund University in Sweden ventures into a study of the landscapes of fantasy and the ways in which they are integral to fantasists’ work – not backdrops for events but participants, in a sense, in them. The notion is intriguing; the book, unfortunately, is not. This is very rarefied writing indeed, strictly for people who are thoroughly familiar not only with J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare and Milton, but also with Hope Mirrlees, China Miéville, Garth Nix, Poul Anderson and Steven Brust. Those who are indeed well-versed in the fantasy landscape – or landscapes – may nevertheless find Ekman’s ruminations unnecessarily discursive and long-winded: “Faerie, the mysterious home of any number of magical beings, is a popular location in much fantasy fiction. There is, however, no consensus about what the (often) nonmagical, everyday domain of humans should be called in opposition to Faerie. Many suggestions, such as the real world, the natural world, the mortal world, or the world of men, are problematic, since Faerie is often portrayed as a place just as real and natural as its counterpart, where both men and women live as well as die. …More precise, and poetic, is Lord Dunsany’s ‘the fields we know,’ which he uses throughout The King of Elfland’s Daughter; but such an expression suggests that the critic would look at Faerie from without and at those well-known fields from within. In his introduction to The King of Elfland’s Daughter, however, Neil Gaiman refers to the mundane world, a term that, apart from being somewhat tautological, captures the quality of the earthly as well as the prosaic, connotations that are well suited to opposing the glamour of Faerie.” Ekman goes on and on like this about topic after topic, whether writing in general of wide-ranging matters or dealing in detail with ones to which he chooses to pay close attention, such as Charles de Lint’s Newford stories: “The popular Fitzhenry Park, Newford’s equivalent to New York’s Central Park and Toronto’s High Park, and one of the most frequently used settings in the Newford stories, is also, counterintuitively, a prominent bubble of wilderness. …The impression is of the park as a totally cultural space, an impression common to almost all the Newford stories. Like the rest of the city, Fitzhenry Park is a place of social interaction, not of flora.”  Some of Ekman’s observations and analyses are indeed interesting, but the reader will have to search for them or stumble upon them in the course of reading many others that are of far less value. One positive, if somewhat overdone and overwritten, example: “I would like to clarify that by using the expressions landscape of evil and evil landscape, I do not mean that the landscape itself is necessarily evil. That would imply a volition that the land does not generally have; to the contrary, the land is commonly portrayed as a victim of its ruler’s evil. (Tolkien provides a clear example of this.) Rather, the land is an expression, through its physical characteristics as well as through its flora and fauna, of the evil that resides there, mainly in terms of a Dark Lord. For this reason, I have refrained from using a (possibly) less ambiguous term such as cacatopia or maletopia (bad or evil place), as such a term removes the focus from the connection between the moral nature of, in particular, the evil rulers and the landscape of their realm.” Truly, a little of this writing goes a long way, but there is a great deal more than a little here. Readers thoroughly familiar with the writers discussed in Here Be Dragons may give the book a (+++) rating despite its flaws. However, ones who love fantasy but lack the specific knowledge of the foci around which Ekman builds the book will barely give it a (++) rating. And those familiar with the fantasy genre in general but not necessarily intensely interested in it – especially readers in the United States – are likely to be surprised at some inexplicable omissions. For example, throughout the entire book, there is not one single mention of H.P. Lovecraft.

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