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Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Another ambitious novel from Neal Stephenson. The first part is a very realistic scenario in which the Earth is hit by a seriously large chunk of rock, and the efforts made for Man to survive. The second part is less convincing, but nevertheless full of fascinating detail as the survivors build a kind of modus vivendi. The book ends with some dangling plot elements. I think it might have been a good deal longer. Neal Stephenson writes absolutely huge books, and this is one of them.

Am I glad I read it? Absolutely. Elegant detail. Wonderful action sequences. Imaginative plot. Lovable and hateable characters. Ambitiously large.

Will I read it again, as I read Snow Crash and Diamond Age? I doubt it. Much of the pleasure of reading it was the ‘What happens next?’ effect. Once you’ve read it, you know.

 

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The Poor Man’s Physician

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This venerable book dates from 1731. It is in excellent condition, binding intact, cover somewhat scratched, pages complete, printing clear. It is a sort of 18th century Doctors Book of Home Remedies, containing hundreds of ‘cures’ for 18th century ailments.

The Authors

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It is credited to John Moncrieff, with an addition to the Appendix by Archibald Pitcairn. Thomas Heriot is the bookseller who funded the publication. The Heriot family were well known in Edinburgh. An earlier Heriot, George, founded a school in the 17th century that continues to this day.

The following is from The House of Moncrieff of 1890, which I found on archive.org.

John Moncrieff of Tippermalloch, the son of Hugh Moncrieff (a younger brother of Sir John Moncrieff, first Baronet), by his wife Isabel, daughter of Hay of Megginch, who thus became fifth Baronet. He succeeded to the estate of Tippermalloch under a conveyance by William Moncrieff of Tippermalloch, who, according to Playfair, died without issue about the year 1655.

Besides being distinguished as a medical practitioner, he was the author of a work entitled ‘ The Poor Man’s Physician, or Receipts,’ of which the only edition now to be found appears to have been printed from a copy delivered by himself to the Marchioness of Atholl. He married, about 16S0, Nicholas, daughter of Moncreiff of Easter Moncreiff, by whom he had a numerous family of sons and daughters, of whom (according to Playfair) all the former, except Hugh, died before himself.

The second contributor, Archibald Pitcairn, was an eminent doctor in Edinburgh; perhaps, in his time, the pre-eminent doctor in Scotland. He is credited with being a founding father of the famous Edinburgh Medical School. He died in 1713, some 18 years before the publication of this book. He has an extensive entry in Wikipedia, and a number of his books are still in print in facsimile.

The Treatments

The treatments indicate how far medicine has progressed in 300 years. Occasional glimmers of sense appear amid the horrendous prescriptions. For example, in the treatment for scurvy below, two or three ingredients actually contain vitamin C, which is the known cure for scurvy, but the preparation almost guarantees that none will be left in the final decoction.
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The wort is a barley mash, the precursor for beer, guaiac is a tree resin, sarsa is the flavouring of sarsaparilla, antimony compounds are mostly poisonous, and the ‘sclaters’ referred to are woodlice, which are said to taste of strong urine.

Next, part of the treatment for smallpox:
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And a few treatments for colic, some of which (the herbal ones) are still used for gastric disturbances.
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And consumption, or TB, as we now know it. Click on the image for a detailed view.
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Conclusion

An interesting book, with some application to medical history, but the prescriptions are taken at your own risk, as the authors cannot now be sued for malpractice.

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The Imitation of Christ – Miniatures #2

ioccover Another miniature, though not as small as the Complete Shakespeare set, The Imitation of Christ was written anonymously in the Netherlands in about 1420. Though anonymous, it is usually attributed to Thomas à Kempis. It is a book of spiritual guidance to inspire the inner life of one who wishes to follow Christ. Humility, purity of heart and silence are strongly advised.

The edition here is a facsimile of the first edition in English, translated in about 1450, and printed in 1504 in London. The introduction to the edition reads:

This is a reduced facsimile of the first English translation (William Atkinson’s). The reproduction was made from the edition in the British Museum, printed by Wynkyn de Worde. The little book has therefore a double interest. It is the earliest translation into our language of a world-famous devotional classic, and it is at the same time a specimen of the work of one of our most famous early printers.

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The original was printed by Wynkyn de Worde, who had worked with Caxton in the late 15th century, and who took over his printing press after Caxton’s death. The majority of the book was printed using movable type, with a number of woodblock illustrations and decorative drop capitals.

To the modern reader, at first sight, the text appears totally unreadable, but close inspection reveals that it is indeed written in English, an English whose spelling is mighty peculiar, but which contains many recognisable words. In my opinion, it is clearer than Chaucer’s language in the Canterbury Tales – a work which predates this translation by about 70 years. No-one nowadays, however, would read this book for its spiritual content. Many relatively modern translations of The Imitation of Christ are available. The book is, as the printer’s introduction implies, more an exemplar of the printer’s skill and a source book of medieval English.

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This book is just 11 cm (4.5″) by 7.5 cm (3″) in size, less than 2.2 cm (⅞”) thick. Physically, it is clear that the binding is modern. It was, in fact, printed in 1921. I cannot find any other copy for sale anywhere on the internet, from which I must assume that it was not published in large quantities.

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And the remains of its dustcover reveal that it was on sale in Britain at a cost that, compared with average wages, would today be about £12.

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Mythaxis – The Stats

We are proud of our performance as an e-zine:

  • 145 items have been published in Mythaxis Magazine since 2008
  • 17 issues of the magazine
  • 30 different authors
  • [viewed traffic] 4500 unique visitors in 2015
  • 30,000 page views in 2015 (one story per page)
  • over 10,000 page views in 2016 already

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Mythaxis Issue 17

Mythaxis Issue 17 is now available at the Mythaxis website.

One of the items is a comic strip from Liam Baldwin.

Another is a cyberpunk interactive adventure, playable in your browser.

For those who would like indexes of all stories by title and by author, the complete index is in the Mythaxis blog.

 

 

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Neal Stephenson – The Baroque Cycle

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Neal Stephenson is usually categorised as a science fiction author, on the basis of his two early books – Snow Crash and Diamond Age, though the bulk of his work is more philosophy than sf. He wrote The Big U, a sort of lampoon of university life and Zodiac, an eco-warrior novel, before Snow Crash. Subsequent to Diamond Age, he has written, among other fiction and articles, In the Beginning was the Command Line, a treatise on computer Operating Systems, Cryptonomicon, a dramatised and fictionalised history of cryptology, and The Baroque Cycle, a dramatised and fictionalised history of 17th century science. His subsequent work has included sf, a co-authored fantasy and a cyber-thriller, so he does not lack variety.

The Baroque Cycle is a 3000 page supernovel in three volumes: Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World. (Subsequent editions sub-divided the whole oeuvre into more volumes)

In summary, Neal Stephenson writes extremely well. He understands how to deliver a fast-paced narrative. Like Umberto Eco, he does have a habit of delivering big chunks of research. But the story never falters while the lesson is delivered, and the research is never bungled as far as I have been able to determine.

Although I guess each of the books in the Baroque Cycle – Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World could be read as free-standing novels, the trilogy only makes sense as a 3000 page work.

There is so much in the books that I hardly know where to start. Among the fictional characters are Jack, a vagabond; Eliza, a courtesan; Daniel Waterhouse, who seems to be immortal. The real historical figures (whose behaviour is obviously fictionalised to an extent) include Isaac Newton, Leibniz, The Duke of Marlborough, half the crown heads in Europe at the time, many aristocrats, and the vast majority of the pantheon of early scientists.

The Great Fire of London, the formation of the Royal Society, the Jacobite turmoil over the British crown, Alchemy, Slavery, Newcomen’s Steam Engine, the Spanish treasure galleons, the birth of banking and currency, the French court, conditions in the near East, India and Mexico, developments in science and cryptology, the Holland of William of Orange, the Siege of Vienna, sewer design, mining, refining, weapons technology, Olde London. You are spared nothing in the background to this lengthy, often incomprehensible, always fascinating, behemoth of a story. It was not always compelling, but I never felt the urge to ditch it.

Quite frequently, I felt that I did not know what was going on. Usually my curiosity was satisfied in due course. There were periods of directionlessness and inconsequentiality which slowed the whole thing up. There were so many characters that one could lose track. Quicksilver had a handy appendix. The others lacked the reference material.

My chief criticism of the entire work was the language. A very few words and expressions were picked on and rendered in archaic form, occasionally speech was in period character, but the effect was spoiled by near-universal use of modern vernacular, not only in narrative, but in speech. It jarred with me. I longed for consistency.

My chief plaudit is that Neal Stephenson really knows how to write a gripping narrative, and there were several episodes which read beautifully. I particularly enjoyed the numerous battle scenes, and the details of the English penal system.

It is an ambitious masterpiece, only very slightly flawed.

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Mythaxis Issue 14 is out today

mythmakerThis is, as usual, a very varied issue. All the way from Les Sklaroff’s idiosyncratic Snoak City stories to Martin Clark’s Future Noir, by way of Jez Patterson’s thought-provoking dystopia, Liam Baldwin’s off-the-wall alternate history and Andrew Leon Hudson’s latest nightmare. Oh, and there’s one from your editor, too.

I am increasingly encouraged by the amount of quality writing from new writers. Of course, not every submission we receive at Mythaxis is of the standard we like to publish, and I find myself repeatedly turning to the small group of authors who produce stories I enjoy. However, it’s worth noting that, so far, I have been able to reply with constructive comments even to all those contributors I’m not going to publish. So, if you have a great sf or fantasy tale to tell, be sure to send it in. At the very least, you will get a supportive e-mail from me.

Mythaxis Magazine

Two important developments are introduced in this issue.

  • Part of the delay in producing this issue is accounted for by the revision of all previous issues to make them easily readable on small screens. Currently, I have tested it with browsers on screens as small as 240 x 320. Please let me know if you spot any problems with your own particular pda / phone /tablet. The job was made harder because once I’d made it all work on tiny screens, Internet Explorer on desktop refused to co-operate, even though every other browser in the universe was happy with the new formats, so I had to change it all again to suit IE. You’re welcome, Microsoft.
  • In the last two issues, we attempted to award prizes on the basis of voting forms from our readers. Despite there being many responses, the majority turned out to have been filled in by spambots. Further, despite our relatively large and growing audience, very few actual readers bothered to return their votes. So we will do what I should have done in the first place, and award a book prize to all contributors we publish, as from Issue 13.

So, settle back with your platform of choice and rejoice in the glow of original new stories, never before published.

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