A Word to the Wise

By John Hertz: (reprinted from No Direction Home 12)  Indeed there was rejoicing on Friday 10 May at Promontory, Utah.

That’s 40 miles from Layton, site of this year’s combined Westercon LXII [West Coast Science Fantasy Conference – oh, all right, it’s been in Colorado and Texas, and Alberta] and 13th NASFiC [North America Science Fiction Convention, held when the Worldcon is overseas] (also, for good measure, combined with the 1632 Minicon – Eric Flint’s 1632 shared-universe stories – and the Manticon – David Weber’s Honor Harrington stories with their Royal Manticoran Navy), to be held 4-7 July.

A hundred fifty years ago at Promontory, on May 10, 1869, the final spike was driven into the final rail-tie completing six and a half years’ work to create the Transcontinental Railroad.  Travel – of passengers or freight – from New York to San Francisco was shortened, not in space but in time, from six months to ten days.

So our convention will be Spikecon.

We s-f fans are to some extent students of technology.  Here was some.

Thousands attended the 150th-anniversary celebration, from 49 of the 50 States and from Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Switzerland.

The Central Pacific railroad had built from the west, the Union Pacific from the east.  In a famous photograph – more technology – the Central’s steam engine No. 60 and the Union’s No. 119 met, cowcatcher to cowcatcher, two 60-ton machines great in their day, the Union’s burning coal, the Central’s burning wood.  They were represented on this anniversary by restorations.

Who first sang “Who built the Ark?”  I’ve traced it to 1892 and it was well known then (The Dental Register v. 46, p. 603).  Thousands of Chinese helped build the Transcontinental in the west, thousands of Irish in the east.

Daniel Mulhall, ambassador from the Republic of Ireland, was present for this 150th, and raised a toast.  The ambassador from the People’s Republic of China, whose name in courtesy to him I had better spell Cui Tiankai and not Ts‘ui T‘ian-k‘ai, said in a recorded message the Transcontinental was a “telling example of how the Chinese and American people can come together to get things done and make the impossible possible.” 

Elaine Chao, United States Secretary of Transportation and the first Chinese-American of Cabinet rank, said “The Central Pacific needed industrious, tireless workers, and Chinese answered the call with great skill and dedication.”  A multiracial theater troupe performed a musical retelling in the wrong kind of Chinese peasant hats.  Lance Fritz, head of the Union Pacific, which now hauls far more freight than passengers, said the railroad laborers, in 12-hour days and sometimes brutal conditions, changed America forever.

Herman Wouk (rhymes with “oak”; May 27, 1915 – May 17, 2019) died ten days short of his 104th birthday.  He became famous several times.

His first novel Aurora Dawn (1947) was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.  His third, The “Caine” Mutiny (1951), won the Pulitzer Prize, was adapted into a Broadway play The “Caine” Mutiny Court-Martial (1953) and a motion picture with Humphrey Bogart (E. Dmytryk dir. 1954).

His next, Marjorie Morningstar (1955), put him on the cover of Time magazine and was made into a movie with Gene Kelly (I. Rapp dir. 1958).  His sixth, Youngblood Hawke (1962), which he denied basing on Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), was serialized in McCall’s and made into a movie (D. Daves dir. 1964) with James Franciscus.

His eighth and ninth, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), were made into television mini-series (D. Curtis dir. 1983, Winds; 1988-89, Remembrance) with Robert Mitchum.

A Hole in Texas (2004) is science fiction; what if, years after U.S. President Clinton canceled the Superconducting Supercollider, the Chinese announced finding the Higgs boson?  In fact no one found it until 2012.

The inside jacket of Hole says Wouk “exercises his deep insight and considerable comic powers to give us a witty and keen satire – about Washington, the media, and science, and what happens when these three forces of American culture clash.”  That’s true.

Like a good satirist he is fundamentally concerned with human nature, our foibles and – Sarcasm is in anger, satire is with love – our fortes.  Like a good s-f writer he illuminates by means of possible, fictional, science.  He realizes, as Sturgeon said, that Science fiction is knowledge fiction.

Winds and Remembrance together are 1,800 pages.  Hole is 280.

A word to the wise is sufficient.  This is problematic for satirists.  What if people in the audience – including, perhaps, the satirized – aren’t very wise?

Lafferty made Thomas More (1478-1538) the eponym of his marvelous Past Master (1968).  Poor Sir Thomas, if one may use that expression, pulled five hundred years into the future, keeps crying “Utopia [1516] is a satire!”

We haven’t yet reached the setting of Past Master – and I certainly hope we shan’t – but fifty years after Past Master was published we still don’t see that about Utopia.

You may jib at Hole’s explanation, chapter 5, thinking “It would have been better if Wouk had read more s-f.”  You may dislike, as the book goes on, what seems to be increasingly fundamental masculine sexism.

Should those befall, you will be lucky if you remember the superb management of what characters and readers must know in Marjorie Morningstar, and the devastating treatment of masculine and feminine romantic sex fantasies there and in Youngblood Hawke.

Maybe you won’t.  Maybe you won’t have read them.  In that case, and if nothing else helps you first, wait till the end of Hole, when the bubble bursts, the man is crashingly shown not so smart, and – satire is with love – everything nevertheless comes right.

Marjorie Morningstar may be Wouk’s best.  It may be great.  I have yet to meet anyone who was awake to it – what’s the author’s name?? – but time may tell.

The National Book Foundation making it a finalist said Marjorie was “released from the social constraints of her traditional Jewish family, and thrown into the glorious, colorful world of theater….  [a] paean to youthful love and the bittersweet sorrow of a first heartbreak.”  O Sir Thomas!

9 thoughts on “A Word to the Wise

  1. When the spike was driven. Telegraphs across the country communicated that instant to the world. The single word “Done” was transmitted country wide. It was essentially our moon landing where a waiting world got instantaneous communication of an incident in history. DONE!

  2. > whose name in courtesy to him I had better spell Cui Tiankai and not Ts‘ui T‘ian-k‘ai

    This is an interesting bit of writing and I’m wondering, if the author is here, if he would care to un-pack it for us.

  3. Readers interested in the lives of Chinese railroad workers might find Voices from the Railroad: Stories by Descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers, an oral history collection published in honor of the sesquicentennial by the Chinese Historical Society of America, of interest. (At the moment I believe to buy it you’ll need to order it directly from CHSA.)

  4. John Hertz replies by carrier pigeon:

    jake, your question is about transliteration – representing something from Language A in the writing of Language B.

    For transliterating Chinese into roman letters (which English uses), the People’s Republic of China prefers the pinyin system. Some others prefer the Wade-Giles system. There are several more.

    Cui Tiankai is in pinyin. In Wade-Giles it’s Ts‘ui T‘ian-k‘ai. (Note that Cui, or Ts‘ui, is the surname: Mr. Cui, or Mr. Ts‘ui.)

    In Wade-Giles, the mark that looks like an English-language apostrophe is used to show an aspirated consonant.

    The English-language consonant we write with the letter t is aspirated. Say “true” or “consonant”; the first sound in “true”, the last sound in “consonant”, has breath in it.

    A similar but unaspirated English-language consonant is written with d. Say “dull” or “food”; no breath.

    In addition, the English-language consonant written with d is voiced. We don’t have a similar unaspirated unvoiced consonant.

    Chinese does.

    A Chinese word that sounds roughly like what an English-speaking person would say upon reading dao (rhymes with “cow”) is written tao in Wade-Giles – no aspiration.

    You can see both systems have drawbacks. Not long ago a respected scholar said both were abominable (F. Mote, Imperial China p. xviii, 2003). Those of us who prefer Wade-Giles think the mispronunciations it engenders for the average reader of English are significantly less bad than those encouraged by pinyin.

  5. In the interest of full disclosure, I knew it was going to be a Wade-Giles vs Pinyin distinction, and was interested in the reason the author used the former and apparently-begrudgingly acknowledged the latter. (And decided to be a little more civil than ‘it’s 2019 who the heck uses Wade-Giles anymore’)

    I don’t know about the mispronunciation thing, if people can learn to pronounce the ‘j’ in ‘jalapeño’ (much less the ‘ñ’) and the ‘t’ in ‘bouquet’ then I think they can handle, say, the ‘X’ in ‘Xi Jinpeng’.

    I do wish I could say ‘of course Cui is the surname, who would have thought otherwise?’ but then I remembered we’re only 8 years away (and I guess one country over) from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/8967703/Rick-Perry-in-Kim-Jong-the-Second-gaffe.html

  6. Very interesting stuff about pronunciation and transliteration, guys.

    My one very dubious claim to Chinese-pronunciation fame is trying to say “Tsingtao” properly. ;-D

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