L. Neil Smith Serializes Ceres

Colorado science-fiction author L. Neil Smith has written a new novel called Ceres, a sequel to Pallas, my favorite novel of his. (Actually he wrote the novel some time ago, but it is just now coming out.)

Big Head Press is serializing the novel online.

The story takes place on a terraformed asteroid. “Chapter Zero” begins to reveal the life of a young woman devoted to ice skating, which on a low-gravity asteroid is a rather different sport. With Smith, we can count on heavy doses of action and intrigue as the story progresses.

Brook on Atlas Shrugged Sales

Sales of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged are off the charts.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute, explains the obvious reason and the deeper reason for this.

The obvious reason is that “Rand tells the story of the U.S. economy crumbling under the weight of crushing government interventions and regulations,” something that is happening to our own economy to a degree.

But why was Rand able to project an economy in which these trends accelerated? It is because she was able to see the moral basis of political economic controls and the logical conclusions of those moral precepts. In short, Rand upheld rational self-interest and renounced self-sacrifice. Rand pointed out that rational self-interest, not sacrifice, is the true path to authentic love of (deserving) others, and that rational self-interest forbids exploiting others, whereas the morality of self-sacrifice demands it.

Thus, Brook explains:

Why do we accept the budget-busting costs of a welfare state? Because it implements the moral ideal of self-sacrifice to the needy. Why do so few protest the endless regulatory burdens placed on businessmen? Because businessmen are pursuing their self-interest, which we have been taught is dangerous and immoral. Why did the government go on a crusade to promote “affordable housing,” which meant forcing banks to make loans to unqualified home buyers? Because we believe people need to be homeowners, whether or not they can afford to pay for houses.

Read the rest of Brook’s article. And, if you have not yet read Rand’s ground-breaking novel, now is the perfect time to do so.


Last night I saw Meniskus at Nissis. Thanks to a friend who has dragged me to several shows, I’ve finally become a fan. While I was underwhelmed at an early show, I think because the band wasn’t taking the venue seriously, last night the group was completely on its game, and its members did full justice to their compositional prowess.

Meniskus consists of a violinist who also sings am amazingly wide range, an acoustic guitarist who also picks up an electric bass, and a fabulous drummer who backs up vocals and plays a keyboard on the side. They’re very good musicians, and they’ve written several great songs. I hope that brings them success.

Meniskus has a couple albums out, and I think Foreign Beyond is the one to pick up. (ITunes has it.) They have a video out on YouTube for “Letters.”

This is a Colorado band that deserves a listen.

Enya’s Winter Night

Enya’s new album, And Winter Came, contains several tracks that rank among her best work (with her collaborators, the Ryans.) It’s a great Christmas album, and obviously marketed for that, but it’s a great album period.

Listening to one of the online mini-documentaries, I learned that Enya writes the music first, then Roma Ryan works up the lyrics. The lyrics read by themselves don’t always seem especially impressive. “Have you seen the mistletoe? / It fills the night with kisses.” But, from the same song, these lines, though equally obvious, seem poignant:

Green is in the mistletoe
and red is in the holly…
Gold is in the candlelight and
crimson in the embers.
White is in the winter night…

But when Enya sings it, everything seems lovely and meaningful. Of course it fills the night with kisses!

I think the entire album is worth your collection. However, if you’re picking out tracks from iTunes, here are my recommendations, in the order they appear on the album:

1. “White Is In the Winter Night” — The lyrics above are from this song. As Roma Ryan suggests, you could sing this one around the fire with your family.
2. “Trains and Winter Rains” — This song, set in winter but not about the holidays, is musically the most interesting of the album, I think. You can watch the video on Enya’s web page.
3. “Last Time By Moonlight” — A lovely and lyrical piece.
4. “One Toy Soldier” — As we might expect, the song has a great rhythm. It’s about Christmas, but more deeply it’s about the worry of disappointing oneself and others, then overcoming that by finding the right beat.
5. “My! My! Time Flies” — This is Enya’s swingingest song, and playful, and I quite like it. Be sure to read the fun lyrics. It’s a song about reflection, and moving forward.

Anathem Worth the Digging

About a hundred pages into Neal Stephenson’s new novel Anathem, I didn’t think I’d be able to make my way through it. In addition to being overlong (do I really need such a detailed knowledge of a building’s staircases?), the book requires the reader to memorize — or at least recognize — many terms unique to the fictitious world and an entire alternative history. The book contains a timeline in the front and a glossary in the back.

Now that I’m about a third of the way through the book (past page 300), I’m finding the lengthy prologue to have been worth it. Stephenson has crafted an action mystery grounded in philosophical thought.

Notably, Stephenson, or at least his protagonist, is a Platonist. I knew this even before starting the book, because I happened to note in the back (page 937) an acknowledgment of “a philosophical lineage that can be traced from Thales through Plato, Leibniz, Kant, Godel, and Husserl.” That’s not exactly a line that typically gets me excited, at least in a positive way. I don’t know yet quite where Stephenson is going with all this, but it makes for interesting reading. Themes of Leibniz are especially well integrated into the story.

A word of caution: a few years ago, I heard Stephenson talk about a previous book, and I recall him saying something to the effect that he wrote to get his mind into a particular sort of worldview. So it may not be obvious where Stephenson stops and his characters begin. That said, Stephenson’s interests are largely revealed by what he chooses to write about.

The science-fiction setup is straightforward, but unfortunately I cannot mention what it is without ruining the mystery of the first few hundred pages. I will note merely that this is a book that requires a bit of patience.

DeVotchKa’s Faithful

This Halloween I saw what must be among the greatest shows of the evening worldwide: DeVotchKa’s performance. (The crowd’s costuming was a performance in itself.) The production was not nearly as extravagant as it was last year, as two nights at the Boulder Theater replaced one large performance in Denver last year. But this is not a band that needs props, given Nick Urata’s sonorous energy, Tom Hagerman’s virtuoso musicianship (he is a symphony-caliber violinist), Shawn King’s intricate and precise percussion, and Jeanie Schroder’s steady bass and tuba lines. (Actually it’s a sousaphone.)

I don’t know who does the heavy writing — I suppose Urata and Hagerman — but this band has created some very fine music. I recall going to see another local band some years ago and seeing DeVotchKa in the lineup by accident; it’s the only group of the evening that I remember. Then came “How It Ends” and the film “Little Miss Sunshine,” for which the band provided the music. And this local band has made it big, perhaps surprising given its eccentricity.

I wasn’t sure I’d like the band’s new album quite as well, based on my iTunes sampling of “A Mad and Faithful Telling.” But I picked up a copy at the concert (for a mere $10 — modern technology is extraordinary), and so far I’ve listened to it a half dozen times or so. It is a great album. I don’t recognize singles as rousing as the older songs “Death By Blonde” or “The Enemy Guns” — there seems to be less raucous guitar — but the album is marked by sophisticated and heartfelt music. I like DeVotchKa’s first album, and the other three studios are favorites of my collection.

On stage, Urata said he wished the audience could see the world through his eyes. At least we can hear the world as he hears it.

J. K. Rowling’s Magical World of Values

Tomorrow (October 1) marks the official publication of my book, Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles.

To celebrate the occasion, I’ve released a new essay titled “J. K. Rowling’s Magical World of Values,” which briefly contrasts the magic of Rowling with that of fantasy writers J. R. R. Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander. In Rowling, the heroes move into the magical world and remain there. In Tolkien and Alexander, the magic fades at the end of the stories. What is the thematic significance of this? Read the essay.

New Hard Rock

Hurrah! From the local rock station The Fox I learned of new music from AC/DC and Metallica. This follows the release of Rush’s “Snakes and Arrows” last year; I regard those three bands as the greatest of hard rock. So far I’ve spent only a few minutes listening, but I’m excited so far. Metallica’s “The Day That Never Comes” indicates the band has gotten comfortable again with subtle composition; the group’s best songs are very well written. And piano on “Unforgiven III?” Take that, genre zealots. It’s a good song. And nothing else matters.

Why Harry Potter Fans Should Read Ayn Rand

This article originally appeared in Grand Junction’s Free Press.

September 1, 2008

Why Harry Potter fans should read Ayn Rand

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

As September 1 marks the first day of school at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, we decided to ignore Colorado’s political scene for the moment and focus on something truly important: great literature.

We’ve both long been fans of Ayn Rand’s works. In fact, when Ari was young, Linn read aloud Anthem as a bed-time story. Anthem is Rand’s novelette about a dystopian future in which people are known by numbers, not names, and the word “I” has been outlawed. The hero of the story rediscovers electricity in secret and eventually escapes with his beloved to freedom. The book inspired Ari’s preoccupation with liberty.

More recently, Ari has grown passionate about another novelist: J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. Ari has even written a book of literary criticism called Values of Harry Potter; see ValuesOfHarryPotter.com. In its focus on the heroic valuer, the book explores Rowling’s themes of courage, independence, and free will, then critically examines her minor themes of self-sacrifice and immortality.

Ari’s shared passion for Rand and Rowling is no coincidence. The two authors explore many of the same themes and offer their readers gripping, tightly plotted stories filled with great heroes, dastardly villains, and intriguing ideas. Fans of Rowling easily could fall in love with Rand’s works, and vice versa.

Both novelists have written great Romantic works. In her introduction to The Fountainhead, Rand writes that Romanticism “deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence.” That helps explain why Rand’s books remain strong sellers decades after their initial release and why Rowling’s books have appealed to readers across continents in many languages. These are not stories of the neighbor next door and his neuroses. These are grand epics of monumental clashes between good and evil.

As Ari argues in Values of Harry Potter, the central theme of Rowling’s novels is the heroic fight for life-promoting values. Harry and his allies fight courageously to protect their lives, loved ones, futures, and liberties from the vicious tyrant Lord Voldemort. For example, in Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry gives a fiery speech to his friends Ron and Hermione, persuading them to take action against Voldemort to save their lives and world.

Rand’s characters, too, fight passionately for their values. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark refuses to compromise his integrity as an architect, even if that means he must work in a granite quarry or blow up a building that has ripped off and debased his design. In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt and Francisco d’Anconia walk away from their normal lives in order to finally subvert the evil men and ideas taking over the world.

After learning he’s a wizard, Harry takes the Hogwarts Express to a magical world filled with wonder, possibility, and great champions like Professor Dumbledore. Hogwarts is Harry’s escape from the oppressive Dursleys. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart’s Transconinental Railroad also symbolizes movement into a world of near-mythical champions such as the steel-producer Hank Rearden.

While Harry has Hogwarts, Dagny discovers Galt’s Gulch, the place where her heroes live. After Dagny crash lands her plane in the Gulch, she experiences, “This was the world as she had expected to see it at sixteen… This was her world, she thought, this was the way men were meant to be and to face their existence…” It is to this spirit of youthful passion and confidence that both novelists remain true.

As Rand explains, free will is the foundation of Romantic literature, because free will is what enables a person’s “formation of his own character and the course of action he pursues in the physical world.” Because of the fact of free will, people can form or reform their characters and act for their values. This is the premise behind any compelling plot, which depends on the characters making and then enacting choices toward some goal. It is no surprise, then, that Dumbledore endorses free will, saying “it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

Rowling and Rand share an interest in other themes as well. Both authors love liberty and hate tyrants; both John Galt and Harry Potter work outside the established government to fight those wielding power corruptly. Both authors present fiercely independent heroes who refuse to unquestioningly follow self-proclaimed authorities.

Of course the writers also have their differences. For example, while Rand solidly rejects religion, Rowling includes the Christian elements of self-sacrifice and life after death in her novels. Yet their similarities are more intriguing.

If you haven’t yet read these novels, then you are in for an enthralling and potentially life-altering adventure. It is yours to discover your own Hogwarts or Galt’s Gulch, not merely in the realm of imagination, but in your daily life.

Rush at Red Rocks

This Wednesday I caught Rush at Red Rocks, in my experience the absolute best place to see any band perform. It was as good of a performance as I’ve ever seen the band offer (and Rush is the best live band I’ve seen).

The northern lightning storm beyond Denver provided the perfect backdrop for the evening. Dark clouds sprinkled lightly till around 9:30, then the stars poked through. The breeze was noticeable but not annoying. Rush’s web page even offers photos of the event.

As I’ve noted, I count the new Snakes and Arrows album as among the band’s best work. My appreciation for it continues to grow. Peart’s famous drum solo was particularly breathtaking on Wednesday. In general, the band was in top form. I didn’t love the new short films for this leg of the tour, but I understand the need to break thinks up a bit for a 3.5 hour performance.

As I was driving down the road from the theater, I happened across a couple of hitch hikers looking for a ride to their hotel. It turned out that the guy was from LA, his girlfriend from Austin. They’ve met in different cities to see Rush several times. They even came to Denver earlier in the month, when Rush’s earlier date was cancelled due to weather. (I’m not sure they loved my ancient, rattling vehicle, but it got them to where they were going.)

Before I knew what he was doing, the guy handed me a $20 bill, and then he obstinately refused to take it back. I was strapped into my vehicle, so I said weakly, “If you leave that in here, I’ll have to give it to charity.”

After thinking about it for a while, I decided that (given the band’s history) donating it to cancer research was the way to go. After poking around a little on the advice of a friend, I ran across the Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation, which gets a four-star rating from Charity Navigator. That’s where I’ll send the check.

According to the band’s web page, the tour will continue as follows:

June 2008

28th-St Louis, MO
30th-Cincinnati, OH

July 2008

2nd-Pittsburgh, PA
4th-Atlantic City, NJ
5th-Saratoga, NY
7th-Uncasville, CT
9th-Toronto, ON
11th-Manchester, NH
12th-Holmdel, NJ
14th-Wantagh, NY
17th-Hershey, PA
19th-Washington, DC
20th-Charlotte, NC
22nd-Atlanta, GA
24th-Indianapolis, IN

The fact is that Rush isn’t going to tour forever. Now’s an excellent time to catch them at the height of their powers.