The Star Crystal

Be an Interplanetary Spy!


“The Star Crystal” was an eye opener for me. I was maybe nine, when my brother borrowed it from a friend. The logic puzzles were fun (and still are), but it also introduced strange and exciting ideas.

It was my first encounter with the Moebius Strip. There was this ship called the Moebius Express where the action takes place, and yes it was shaped like a Moebius Strip! Not only was it my first encounter with the fabulous mathematical object (that I can make with paper! And therefore a project well within reach of kids), it was also my first encounter with unusual spaceship design.

When you’re nine, you think all spaceships look like ye olde rocket ships. The Moebius Express broke that mould. I realized that ships could look like anything, needles, saucers, rubber bands. Suddenly Soyuz capsules didn’t seem ugly. Other Interplanetary Spy books had ships looking like three-domed greenhouses, rolling pods, ships that looked like flying houses.

But the Moebius Express was unforgettable!

In later years I accepted the ship designs of Babylon 5 without batting an eyelid. All those exposed struts, unaerodynamic EarthForce ships, organic Vorlon and Minbari designs, and frankly Soviet-looking Narn ships. Some viewers hated it, it didn’t correspond to what they think ships look like.

It was Moebius Express that primed me for unusual ship designs.

It was a first encounter with aliens with different biological requirements and who saw the world differently. There were aquatic aliens with an underwater habitat. And while nine-year-old me was still grasping the idea that not all aliens breathed air, it turns out that, having eyes at the side of the head, the aliens saw the world differently as well. One of them transmitted a telepathic image of a corridor as he would see it and the reader had to interpret it according to how humans would see it.

Aquatic telepathic aliens with a very different view of the world due to different body shape! Mind blown! I’d like to think that it made me more tolerant of different points of view. Someone who grew up in a different environment might see things a little differently, express the same thing in different words, or use the same words to mean different things.

Also, don’t judge an alien just because you don’t understand what he’s saying.

There were optical illusions galore because a sculptor on board uses a… Warp Chisel! One “bad ending” has the sculptor accidentally using the chisel on you with picturesque results. My first introduction to optical illusions.

The robot designs were simultaneously interesting and simple enough that I would try to draw them (they’re boxes and spheres stuck together). It helped me to draw people later on when I realized that artists used figures like those robots to start with. It also made me realize that robots didn’t have to be symmetrical.

It was also my introduction to the multi-path adventure books that were so popular in the 1980s: Choose Your Own Adventure, Fighting Fantasy, GrailQuest, Lone Wolf, Ninja!

Choose Your Own Adventure seemed a bit limited and I soon left it. The other books, especially the GrailQuest series had me rolling dice for hours.

Unfortunately the Interplanetary Spy series is out of print, and I had to find some scan-pdf for my nostalgia strip. Indeed the whole multi-path adventure book genre seems to have petered out. Had to cheat one of the puzzles, it involved folding the corner of one page and joining the illustrations of one page with another. How am I supposed to do that with a pdf on my phone?

The Star Crystal is a favourite among old Interplanetary Spies and widely regarded as the best of the books. (On the opposite side, Robot Rebellion was pretty bad). And to my pleasure, upon finding an online copy, it’s just as good 30 years on as it was then.

Not all childhood revisits are happy. I watched The Flight of Dragons and The Last Unicorn and they were actually quite awful. Whoever wrote dialog like that? Re-reading Treasure Island? How stupid were those pirates once they got on the Island! But the Interplanetary Spy series seems to be just as fresh as it was 30 years ago.

Well, apart from some blocky drawings meant to imitate computer graphics in some of the books. Computer games really were blocky back then and it made the book seem cutting edge and computer-ish. Now it’s just silly.



Diwan Shams-i-Tabriz

This is part of a much longer talk, a commentary of the Diwan Shamsi-Tabriz. I wrote down Abdul-Hakim Murad’s translation.

“O lovers! O Lovers! Now is the time to leave the world behind
My ear (of my soul) is reached by the drum of departure

The caravan-leader has stood and straightened the animals
and asked permission/forgiveness from us (for waking us).

Caravan travelers, why are you still asleep? These sounds, ahead and behind are the sounds and bells of departure
In every moment, a soul/breath, is traveling to “LA MAKAN” (place that is not a place, beyond death)

O soul, seek the One who ravishes the soul.
O friend, go to the Friend!

O watchman, wake up, be watchful!
It’s not right for a watchman to fall asleep.”

His translation goes on beyond what he sang:

“When sleep is gone, you won’t see anyone left of humanity
Close your crooked wall-eye and open the eye of wisdom
Because the nafs is like a donkey, and its desire is its nose-bag
Though the lover has sniffed musk in remembrance of me.

Only a beginner on the path wanders around like a child, saying “Where? where?”
Once he has left childhood he will open the eye of wisdom,
Why should he run to and fro on the riverbank looking for water?”

The Last Unicorn

I just finished reading The Last Unicorn. On my phone,  as the last three books had been,  since I cannot find the hardcopy in local bookstores.

I saw a feature animation of it once when I was maybe five or eight, and it had enchanted me completely. The opening theme stayed with me for thirty years even after I’ve forgotten how the story went. It had been so long that I couldn’t remember how exactly the unicorn rescued the others.

So when I found the film uploaded on YouTube I eagerly sat down to watch it.

I was disappointed. The story began well enough, but became disjointed after Momma Fortuna’s Circus.

I guess things don’t look so good thirty years on . The same thing happened when I watched The Flight of Dragons as an adult. You lose the old magic. It’s never as good as you remember.

(Or do you? Maybe it was never that good to begin with, and you didn’t know better?)

The ending was magnificent though. That part matched my memory.

I felt something was missing, and when I learned that the film was based on a book,  I resolved that I would read it if could find it.

I suspected there was something more profound written in the book.  A theme hinted at in the film was the tension between possession vs cherishing,  and how King Haggard never understood the difference. I also suspected there was more to Schmendrick the Magician’s inability to use magic. And how did he discover that really magic does what it would? And Prince Lir, raised by a crabby tyrant, how did he turn out a gallant hero?

So when I found a copy online I could read I went and read it.

It was… magic.

I’m not sure if this could really be called a children’s book. I’m not saying there’s gratuituous sex and violence; rather, there are subtle themes that take a certain amount of maturity to understand. It’s more suited to a mature reader, and I mean that in a good and introspective way.

The book does explicate on the theme of possessiveness vs love, as I had suspected, but also more: it revealed the inner dialog of Schmendrick; it takes him longer to figure out how to work his magic than simply saying “magic, do what you will” as in the film. Schmendrick feels like a failure every time magic briefly appears and fizzles out beyond recall. Not until something truly awes him does he realize what was missing, his character grows like it never does in the film. Prince Lir, who in the book starts out a bit dumb, doesn’t become a hero overnight, but does so in the process of trying to win the love of Princess Amalthea, a long and drawn out process that develops his character. He becomes not only physically stronger but more empathic, more sympathetic. He turns from an mere heir into a hero.

The unicorn, previously unconcerned with the feelings of mortals, learns regret… and cherishes it.

It is a deep book. If it is indeed written for children, those children must be wise beyond their years.

Or do I underestimate children?

En avant!

I am one-third of the way through The Three Musketeers, this being the first time I have read the unabridged translation. It is a longer work than I expected. It seems that the abridgements for children I have previously read, where the Musketeers ride to Calais and sail to London to retrieve the Queen’s diamonds, only cover the adventures of the first third of the book. There is still two-thirds of the book remaining!

And I have found out that there is a Trilogy. The third book, three times as long as the first, contains The Man in the Iron Mask, and that is only one third of it! But first I must wade through the first book.

When a book takes my fancy, my “internal language” changes. When reading Tolkien, I start monologing to myself about landscape and architecture, and I tend to use archaic modes of English when thinking to myself. Now, with the Musketeers I find myself mentally twirling my (nonexistent) moustache, and generally Frenching my thinking with exclamations.

En avant!


Rereading that old classic, Treasure Island. Trying to figure out what Long John Silver means when he says:

“Have I lived this many years to have a son of a rum puncheon cock his hat athwart my hawser at the latter end of it?”

What the heck is cock his hat athwart my hawser supposed to mean? I only know Silver’s angry and telling the other pirates they’re being cheeky.


And looks like I’m not the only one. I googled “son of a rum puncheon” and found some other Treasure Island readers similarly bemused by Silver’s salt-crusted aphorism:

Somehow son of a rum puncheon cock his hat athwart my hawse isn’t what most people think to say on Talk Like a Pirate Day. Then you mostly hear “Arrrh” and “Avast” — and maybe, if you’re really lucky, “Shiver me timbers!”

After consulting a dictionary, I believe rum would either be the alcoholic beverage or (more likely?) a British word meaning odd or presenting difficulty. Puncheon has various obscure meanings but the key point seems to be something long and thin and upright. Whatever a rum puncheon is (the phrase occurs three times in the book) a son of one would, presumably, be worse. “Cock his hat” might to mean to tilt or turn up or to one side, usually in a jaunty or alert manner. Athwart means so as to thwart; perversely, and the hawse is the area in front of an anchored ship between its bows and the anchors. So, honestly, I still have no idea what the devil he’s talking about.

Plus, different versions of the text has the said son of a rum puncheon cocking his hat either at Silver’s hawse or his hawser. Mine has hawser, which I believe to be some sort of rope attached to a ship. Hawse is as above, an area in front of the ship.

As to why cocking your hat “athwart” a ship’s bow or mooring rope is considered offensive… no idea. I’m not even sure how you do that “athwart”-ly.

Then there are these twins reading the same book. ( Someone calling his twin “son of a rum puncheon” is not something you hear very often!)

Justin you “cowardly son of a rum puncheon”, you!  You haven’t posted in over a week.

I don’t actually think you’re a son of a rum puncheon (because 1.) that would also make me the son of a rum puncheon, and 2.) I have no idea what a puncheon is), but ever since reading that epithet I’ve been trying to work it into my everday conversation.  This was my first go and I’d describe the attempt as “seamless”.

Okay, my librarian brain couldn’t handle not knowing…I had do some digging–a puncheon is a type of cask or a type of rum — either way it’s kind of a lame saying (“Son of a rum cask”.  “Son of a rum rum”.–so it will fit right in with my lexicon–boo-yeah! (case in point)).

There’s disagreement about what a puncheon is. A long straight thingy, or a barrel, or a type of rum. Which obfuscates Silver’s pirate-ism even more. Maybe he made it up on the spot.

Another Silver-ism is “… and you may lay to that!“.

“‘Tain’t much use for fools, you may lay to it – that, nor nothing,” cried Silver. “But now, you look here: you’re young, you are, but you’re as smart as paint.

‘Tain’t earning now, it’s saving does it, you may lay to that. Where’s all England’s men now? I dunno. Where’s Flint’s?

“That’s enough, cap’n,” shouted Long John cheerily. “A word from you’s enough. I know a gentleman, and you may lay to that.”

Which was obscure when I read it at the age of twelve. Now I guess it is a nautical term, as in laying a course or heading for a ship. Silver states something, with as absolute certainty as a compass and sextant readings backed with almanacs and sea-charts, so much that you can lay a ship’s course to it, and you may lay to that!

Aren’t I smart as paint?