Enter Enoch: Reviewing Cameron Dayton’s “Etherwalker”

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Review by Curtis Cole

The typical high fantasy story unfolds something like this: an ignorant and naïve youth, usually a farm hand or other such rural occupant, and almost always a White cis-heterosexual male, discovers something grand and unique—something which is precious and so must be protected (Lord of the Rings, Eragon) or that he himself is the precious something (i.e., the ‘chosen one’) whom, embedded with special powers, is destined to win the day from Evil (Harry Potter, the Wheel of Time series, countless others); following this, his blissful life is disrupted by tyrannical forces (because, you know that there is an evil dictator milling about) who raze his village/home/family. Should there be a mentor-figure by the lad’s side he is usually either killed at the get-go or dies in some hopeless, yet heroically Ur-fascist, confrontation in order to buy the hero time to escape. Then the young hero flees, finds new friends, continues along in his quest, and saves Middle-Earth from the armies of Mr. Dark Side Voldemort… or, whatever. Point is this is the standard fantasy plot par excellance and is the exact paradigm used in Cameron Dayton’s Etherwalker; the result of this is read was, for me, tiring and… well, tired writing is a mixed bag which, although far from bad, nonetheless could have been much better.

Story wise, the plot concerns young Enoch: a teenage boy trained in the ancient arts and lore by his master to one day (unknowingly) confront the evil of the land, a land drowned in chaos after the fall of humanity’s golden age. One day, upon accidentally activating a terminal, which his guardian had, eye-rolling, kept in their remote home as a study console, Enoch’s presence is announced to his enemies who had previously thought his kind—a race a beings called Pensaden blessed that hold the ability to manipulate technology—had long been extinct. So begins a grand hunt to murder Enoch; in short order Enoch’s village home is attacked and he and his master are driven into the woods where, surprise-surprise, they are assaulted by vile insect-men, the clichéd orc of this world; Enoch is forced into the wild world by himself, but thankfully, finds a motley crew of new friends and begins his training to… save the world, one can only assume, since Enoch’s exact purpose is never properly explained.

Part of the issue I have with Dayton’s book is not in his choice of clichéd beginnings but rather in his clumsy manner of assembly. Although far from the most original set-up to a teen fantasy book, Dayton’s weakness lies in his inability to present a strong narrative structure capable of remedying his shortcomings; by this I mean much of the book feels rushed, and subsequently, incomplete. Between the great jumps in time, sudden character developments and regression, and unexplained, or barely explained, plot points, by the end, the reliance on dues ex machinia becomes noticeable and drags the experience down. While reading, I constantly felt as though there was missing chapters extrapolating why Enoch performed certain actions or how [so and so] happened to some ancillary character. During the conclusion I felt as though there were at least a couple hundred pages on the cutting room floor, pages which desperately needed to be included in the final product.

Thankfully, however, not all of my opinions on Dayton’s effort are negative, for there is a great deal to like about this book, so I will mention two: one is the splendid world building; combining post-apocalyptic Anime inspired sci-fi with traditional high-fantasy is not an easy task, and yet, Dayton succeeds at sketching a world which have imprints of our own, while still being far enough removed into the future that upon the fall of humanity, the ‘fantasy’ divergences not only make sense, but seem like a natural outgrowth of the technological era. The second great strength Dayton manages is the characters themselves: while there are crucial points in the book where a character should have received more attention, or a certain event should have been explained better in order for the reader to gain a better insight into a cast member, the characters as they are written are both believable as well as engaging; their archetypes: farmboy, beast, fem fatal… are well penned and breathe life into the archetype to such a degree that they do not feel too hollow or pointless to pay attention to. Enoch especially, I am glad to see, brings a layer of depth in how his interpersonal interactions are rarely seen with his often vulgarly used archetype. Dialogue is often humorous and informative without wasting effort on needless description. So Dayton strikes a good balance between banter and plot, if at times relying heavily on long strings of exposition.

So is Etherwalker a perfect book? No, of course not, few such teen books reach such lofty heights. Is it original? Not at first, but once dug into it blossoms with creative renderings of beloved ideas and heroes. Dayton makes missteps, but overall, I think he makes an admirable job at redemption through the kind of ambition is he attempting to undertake in such a condensed space. While anyone hardened in the sci-fi and fantasy genres may remain unimpressed with Dayton’s product, any youth which finds their selves devoid of reading material yet interested in Anime, science-fiction-fantasy cocktails, will want to give this spiffy tale a try and come to their own opinion.

Etherwalker: Book One of the Silicon Covenant

Cameron Dayton

293 Pages. Published by Future House Publishing. $2.99 (Kindle), $13.95 (Paperback)[1]. 2015.

[1] Page number estimates and prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

Stalin: an Anti-communist Spectacle (A Review)

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Cover art via Amazon.com; all rights reserved to their respective owners.

Review by Curtis Cole

When reading biographies of so-called ‘Great Men,’ it is vital to remember that they are an industry; such a vast amount of material has been produced from both speculation and archival releases that every new rumination or new tid-bit demands, in turn, another huge book—something to commemorate the release of new artifacts giving credence to an ever abounding literary substance. And so it is with Stalin: leader of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death.

Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, a biography of the most spectacle fair, is one such book in an ever expanding industry of the famed ‘dictator.’ One of the thickest, meticulously researched, and highly anticipated biographies in recent years, Kotkin’s effort is an impressive one, as any reader will note; between the fact that this book, though only the first volume, comprises nearly a thousand pages and is researched to the extent that nearly every other sentence bears a citation mark, we hold in our hands a tome of a text—something which can both elucidate, as well as squash conspicuously oversized bugs (if the need be).

‘Bravo,’ you might be saying as you read these facts; surely such a biographical epic is not only worth reading, thanks to its tenaciously researched qualifications, but also provides the much needed ambiguity of the Stalin-period. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Kotkin’s tediously overblown affair fails on all fronts and becomes a case-study in how not to write a biography.

Let us eschew the anti-communist subtext for a moment and focus on more pressing demands: the biography length.

As a reader, I have no qualm with consuming page after page of a book well worth consuming; if a biography contains a decadent number of pages and all of those pages help build an image of the subject matter which has never before been seen, then fantastic! Let’s read that biography with gusto. But this is not what Kotkin’s waste of paper accomplishes: instead of presenting a biography, Kotkin present a Russian history which features Stalin more than the average Russian history would (an odd observation to make considering Stalin’s place of paramount importance in the Russian historia).

I will be curt: massive amount of this book need not exist. One could easily wipe out three-quarters of this biographical travesty and still be able to understand the life-events of Stalin, the Russian Revolution, and the backstory behind Stalin’s policies. Indeed, this fact exists because Kotkin spends entire chapters where Stalin is either mentioned only in passing or not at all; he does this in order to extrapolate on Tsarist policy and important Tsarist figures and their plots. Why this diversionary extrapolation exists becomes evident later where Kotkin abandons all pretense to academic neutrality and unrelentingly hammers Stalin’s policies and practice of Revolutionary Anti-capitalism. The filler chapters on Tsarism served little more than to provide narrative fat: we see this later, when Kotkin reveals himself as an intellectual charlatan and servant of counterrevolution. How? Precisely through the age old practice of smoke and mirrors: he writes as Bolshevism as inheriting the Tsarist legacy, of betraying the principals of their own ideology, of having a conspiratorial worldview, and acting with hypocritical intent—in short, nothing but a mirror image of Tsarism, albeit with greatly different ideological differences. Had Kotkin not devolved into his great sophistry on Tsarism (which, together with his later upholding of Mussolini’s economic policies, reeks of fascist apologia), then his later anti-communist onanism of heralding the Bolsheviks, but Stalin more generally, of a diabolical anti-social stance, would have made no sense and shattered the attempt to equate Bolshevism and fascism as separated yet fraternal twins.

What’s worse, perhaps, is Kotkin’s mystifying commentary on the Stalin’s life, but also of the wider happenings of the Soviet state. In truth, much of the cited reports which make up the narrative that Kotkin spins are solid—they tell an informative, albeit rather dry, procession of political intrigue; combing sources from many walks of life, Kotkin manages to bring together an impressive array of citations into a well-worked fantasy. What differentiates Kotkin’s rehashed anti-communism is not so much the sources he cites—though that is too the case with copious references to hardline anti-communists and Trotskyist sympathizers—as much as it is the eye-rolling level of condescension present in his writing.

In short, Kotkin presents factual evidence—the scandals, plots and counterplots, policy formation, and relationships among the Bolsheviks, as history had it unfolded; facts, after all, do not lie. What does lie, however, is Kotkin’s commentary. Throughout his book, Kotkin continuously destroys his own narrative; the only thing which saves his narrative—that Bolshevism had a conspiratorial mindset, Stalin as a master manipulator and ruthless dictator, the innocence of the Kulaks and lack of White Guard terrorists, the utterly deficient need for collectivization, and so on—is Kotkin’s own commentary, his own opinion; something that he recycles over and over again.

Time and time again Kotkin presents evidence of the Bolsheviks as well as Stalin’s rigorous moral and political fiber. And yet, time and time again, he is quick to throw in a jibe, a sarcastic remark or ironic allusion, something to sow discord in the ideological thread which ran through early Russian Bolshevism. Why is it that every time Stalin offers to resign from his post—relinquishing the supposed ‘absolute control’ of his position of General Secretary—it is merely another feint, something to throw off the opposition? Why were party purges always-already a sign indexing Stalin’s ruthless self-aggrandizement and need for power instead of an upholding of Lenin’s vision (of the need for party purity and unity)? Why does Kotkin cite evidence of counterrevolutionary (fascist, Monarchist, and the like) plots and actual terrorist activity, only to turn to the tables on the Bolsheviks when they ferret out the fifth column in their ranks, calling those reacting against said plots (again, cited by Kotkin himself), as paranoid and conspiratorial oriented? To Kotkin, to the reactionary mind, there is a lacuna of honesty within communist practitioners since its lacks the logic of bourgeois exploitation; without that distillation of man reaping the labor-surplus of his fellow man, without the grand imperial logic of monopoly, without the cruel competition of the market and its manifold bigotries and prejudices, there is simply no room for honesty—not in a system which posits the negation of the old world. Heresy, after all, is always suspect.

Miraculously, however, all of this is not to say that every shred and morsel of Kotkin’s undertaking is trash, merely most of it. There is a kernel of value within this mountain of mental dung, namely, in how Kotkin treats Stalin’s childhood.

Many biographers treat Stalin, along with many other so-called ‘Great Men,’ under a bastardized Freudianism: their faults, quirks, mistakes, fits of violence or misogyny, and so forth, are traced back to childhood abuse or absent parental figures. In other words, they present the base Freud; neutered of intellectual value so as to be offered up on the pop culture altar, such depictions are easily digestible for an audience uneducated on the nuance of political violence. To Kotkin benefit, he fights against this blasé psychoanalysis. He situates Stalin’s childhood in the wider history of Russia’s leaders as well as in the local—regional—context in which Stalin’s peers were raised. His conclusion is that Stalin fared no better or worse than his classmates and that to conclude that it was Stalin’s upbringing that made him into a ‘ruthless, bloodthirsty, monster’ is utterly fallacious. Of course, Kotkin only accomplishes this in order to secularize his alleged barbarism, but taken in the wider historical context of the corpus of texts exploring Stalin’s existence, it is ultimately a net-plus for knowledge (however pathetic such a ‘plus’ may in fact constitute).

So, to conclude this rambling rant—is Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin worth reading? No, it is not worth reading in the slightest. For the myriad of reasons listed above as well as those left unmentioned, Kotkin’s undertaking is simply absurd, from beginning to end. If you want to read a textbook of Russian history, then there is many such books available and one would not need to lug around this brick; if one is a Leftist, then Kotkin’s anti-communism and predisposition to meander, will isolate; if one is an anti-communist then, depending on the severity of reaction, Kotkin is either giving Stalin and the Bolsheviks too much ‘benefit of the doubt,’ or he simply spends too much time yammering on about non-Stalin related activities—ergo, it is not worth reading if your goal was to propagandize. If one wanted a concise and informative biography of Stalin, I would recommend Ian Grey’s Stalin: Man of History, which, though not without his serious faults, is a far better selection than Kotkin’s murky deluge.

Stalin: Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

Stephen Kotkin

976 pages. Published by Penguin Press. $26.66 (Hardcover), $17.00 (Paperback), $19.99 (Kindle), $26.94 (Audible audiobook)[1]. 2014.

[1] Prices were taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

Upcoming Courses – Spring 2017

Listed below (with descriptions!) are the Humanities topic courses for Spring 2017.

For full English department course listings, see MyCampus’s Schedule Planner.

ENG 277H/0001: Audio Story Telling (The Audio Essay)

Instructor: Professor Gretchen Legler

This course is designed to teach students strategies for writing entertaining, provocative, and persuasive audio essays for broadcast, internet, or internet radio. Audio essays explore topics using spoken text, audio interviews, archival recordings, music, environmental sounds, and sound effects. They can be structured using the conventions of argument and evidence, narrative devices, as well as poetic and experimental structures. As we will see, the audio form offers the essayist a fascinating mix of constraints and opportunities, much in the same way that film or photography does. Voices and sounds are full of intimate presence, are in fact the very signs of presence, and can provoke in unexpected ways. In radio, sometimes a sound is worth a thousand pictures. The emphasis of the course will be on research and writing strategies, but you will also learn basic audio recording and production.  No prior experience in radio or digital audio is required.

Prerequisite(s): ENG 100; for students in CWR, ENG, SEN, or ELE-Language Arts, ENG 100 and ENG 181

ENG 277H/0002: Words Into Pictures

Instructor: Professor Teal Minton

This course will look at the process of adapting literature to film, with an emphasis on the films of Stanley Kubrick. Working from books and short stories by a diverse group of contemporary authors, Kubrick crafted films that stand on their own as works of film literature. Throughout the course we will read original works, adapted screenplays, and view the films while considering the differences between these two storytelling mediums and reflecting on the peculiar challenges of turning words into pictures. The course will require some viewing of films outside of class.

Prerequisite(s): ENG 100; for students in CWR, ENG, SEN, or ELE-Language Arts, ENG 100 and ENG 181

ENG 277H/0003: Milton

Instructor: Professor Dan Gunn

This course will be an in-depth study of the works of the English poet John Milton (1608-1674). A large portion of the semester will be devoted to careful reading of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), Milton’s beautiful and complex epic poem about the fall of Adam and Eve, but we will also read “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” (1631), Lycidas (1638), Of Education (1641), Aereopagitica (1641), Paradise Regained (1671), Samson Agonistes (1671), and other works. The course is open to interested students in all majors: the only prerequisite is ENG 100, and no previous experience with Milton or with traditional English literature is required.

Prerequisite(s): ENG 100

ENG 277H/0004: Literary Theory and Social Media

Instructor: Professor Michael Johnson

Primary readings in literary and cultural studies theory will provide conceptual frameworks for offering critical commentary on contemporary culture (literature, film, television, music, etc.). That commentary will take the form of blog posts, reviews, recaps, tweets, podcasts, etc.

Prerequisite(s): ENG 100; for students in CWR, ENG, SEN, or ELE-Language Arts, ENG 100 and ENG 181

ENG 477H/0001: The Self-Conscious Novel

Instructor: Professor Dan Gunn

In this course, we will consider the kind of novel which, in Robert Alter’s words, “systematically flaunts its own condition of artifice and…by so doing probes into the problematic relationship between real-seeming artifice and reality.” By the novel’s “condition of artifice,” Alter means its status as an artificial, constructed thing, a work of art. Some novels try to suppress awareness of their artificial condition in order to create an intense mimetic illusion. By contrast, novels in the self-conscious tradition we will be studying “flaunt” this condition in a playful way, exposing and subverting conventions, imitating and parodying other works of art, and drawing attention to their own multiple stylistic textures. The reading list will include Cervante’s Don Quixote, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

Prerequisite(s): One 300-level ENG literature course other than ENG 300.