Parallel beauty

page from King James' BibleOne reason to learn a foreign language is to find out about your own. Spanish — and French and Italian — avoid repetition by all means, frequently by employing what H.W. Fowler in Modern English Usage disparaged as the literary fault of “elegant variation.” But repeating words in English, except when done carelessly, is no fault: it adds clarity and even beauty. Repeated words sound especially beautiful to an English-language ear when they form part of a parallel structure, that is, a part of repeated grammatical structures.

Why is English like this? Because of the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible, the “King James” Bible. As soon as it was published, its constant use as the major work of literature readily available to the ordinary person made it the standard and model of our language. Fortunately for us, the translators produced a direct, unornamented work meant for ordinary people, not scholars. They wrote when English was a new and fresh language and could be used without complication. They stuck close to the original languages, notably Hebrew.

Much of that Hebrew was poetic, using concrete and vivid language with simple phrases, easy to translate. Hebrew poetry does not rhyme; instead, it uses parallel, balanced structures of phrases or ideas, and of words or rhythms. The second half of a parallel may paraphrase the first half, it may give a consequence, it may contradict the first half, or it may add stronger and stronger clauses or sentences that lead to an apex. The rhythm can make the prose musical.

One example is from Ruth, 1:16-17:

And Ruth said, entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:

Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

The power and beauty of Biblical language and poetic repetition at work in modern English can be seen in this excerpt from a speech delivered on August 28, 1963, by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Now, I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slave-owners and the sons of former slaves will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the people’s injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

This is our home. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with — with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

Where to find me at Capricon 39

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This weekend I’ll be at Capricon 39, a science fiction convention held February 14 to 17 in Wheeling, a suburb of Chicago. This year’s theme is “Strange Beasts Arise.”

If you’re there, say hi. In addition to wandering around and having fun, I’ll be on four panels:

Friday, 10 a.m. – Book Reviews vs. Literary Criticism: But Is it Good?
What is the role of a reviewer compared to that of a critic? What are the differences? What serves the genre more? How do we deal with fan reviews, especially those so-called reviews on Amazon and Goodreads?

Friday, 5:30 p.m. – Literary Economics
Most SF and fantasy assumes that there is an endless supply of money, spaceships, horses, swords, ray-guns and … Our panelists will discuss how and why to consider economics in world-building.

Sunday, 10 a.m. – The Business Side of Writing
Okay, so you’ve written your novel. Now what? Our pros guide you through what your next steps need to be and what your options as a writer are.

Sunday, noon – Resurrecting Strange Beasts
Modern genetic science may be able to recreate extinct life forms (such as mammoths). There is also the possibility of creating even stranger creatures (such as griffons, dragons, and even centaurs) by mixing genes from widely different animals. What are the pros and cons of playing with our new genetic toys in this manner?

A useless old key that I won’t throw away

ParentsKeyWith all the talk of decluttering lately, here’s something useless, stored away in a box and half-forgotten, that I will never throw away: the key to my parents’ old home. They left that house more than twenty years ago.

That house … They loved living there, a small ranch home at the end of a cul-de-sac. They enjoyed its wide windows, airy sun porch, and large back yard. My mother planted a flower garden in front and a vegetable garden in back, and together they worked hard to create a charming, comfortable interior. On weekends they would visit nearby parks, go to sporting events, or simply relax at home. They were happy there.

I remember the times I visited. I lived in nearby city, and I had the key because I could come anytime — always welcome, just walk right in — and I came when I could for holidays and visits.

My parents have died, someone else lives in that house, and I’ll never go back. Someone else might think that the old key is useless, but they never used it to walk into that happy home.

Once, that key opened a door. Now it opens joyful memories.

Review: The Revolutionary Genius of Plants

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and BehaviorThe Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior by Stefano Mancuso

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stefano Mancuso, an authority on plant neurobiology, begins by showing how plants can remember things, although they don’t have a brain. They can move, although they have no muscles. They can imitate items in their surroundings like stones or other plants, although we don’t think they can see. It’s clear that plants pay scrupulous attention to their environment. He describes the ways plants do all this in an entertaining and easy-to-understand way.

Then, in Chapter 4, he pulls these abilities together by stressing the differences between plants and animals. Beings that can move (animals) tend to avoid problems. If the sun is too hot, animals try to find shade. If something wants to eat the animal, it runs away. Beings that are rooted in place (plants) have to solve problems. Beings with brains and other central organs can react faster, but that also makes them more vulnerable. Decapitate an animal and it’s dead. Chop off a branch of a tree, and the tree carries on. Beings with dispersed problem-solving abilities may react more slowly, but they’re more resilient.

How can a being with no central intelligence solve complex problems? Mancuso suggests that plants act more like flocks of birds: each part, each cell, reacts to its environment, and the changes in the cell and changes in the environment affect the other parts of the plant around it. Together, the plant acts as a coordinated whole. He offers several ways for decentralized intelligence to work in order to reach what looks to us like a decision.

He goes on to describe the ways that plants manipulate animals, the lessons we can learn from plants in fields like architecture and robotic design, and how plants respond to weightlessness.

I received this book as a gift, and I lingered over the stunning photos. Plants are beautiful, and the presence of plants seems to soothe human beings.

Most of all, Mancuso’s love for plants permeates the text – and his respect for them. By weight, the vast majority of life on Earth is plants. They are master problem-solvers, he says, and we can learn from them how to solve some of our own problems.

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