Tag Archives: archaeology

Ode To Odin By Bruce McLaren Is Fantastically Satisfying Romp Featuring An Archaeological Dig In Central Asia


Review by: KEN KORCZAK

The science of archaeology is often leveraged by fiction writers because it lends itself so well to a premise involving travel to an exotic far-off land where the characters can encounter strange people, breathtaking landscapes and brave harsh conditions as they strive to unlock some tantalizing mystery of the past.

ODE TO ODIN is no exception as it incorporates all of these elements, and it does so brilliantly. Author BRUCE MCLAREN regales us with visceral and vibrant descriptions of the brutal but beautiful deserts of Central Asia. He smacks us in face with furnace arid winds and makes us feel a scorching sun lashing our backs while bloodthirsty insects sting and suck our blood. Yet, at the same time, he evokes the aching loveliness of the landscape and imparts to us the thrill of what it must be like to explore an alien landscape harboring strange wonders and awe inspiring vistas.

Bruce McLaren

That’s great, but you know what? This guy’s power of description is not what I liked best about this novel. What made this an almost insanely fun read is the author’s take on human nature. This is a an acid-dripping, go-for-the jugular cynicism that exposes certain people for what they really are — petty, ego-driven, neurotic posers who care for nothing but their own pleasures and bald-faced pursuits of power, money, food, sex and alcohol.

But  just as McLaren demonstrates the beautiful/harsh dualism of Mother Nature, he also exposes the dualistic nature of the human psyche. Yes, some characters in this story are debauched and cruel but others show empathy, caring and a capacity to love deeply.

I’m probably making this sound like a work of heavy-weight literature, but this is actually a pretty down-to-earth piece of writing that anyone can read as a popular lark of a novel. McLaren’s wizardry is that he makes a work of literary depth an easy read. Readers will eagerly turn pages — and that’s despite that fact that this book incorporates only a bare minimum of plot.

Rather, it follows the daily experience of a young, post-graduate who makes a rash decision to join the dig of a brilliant archaeologist who has long since fallen out of favor with the academic establishment . This is the titular Odin who has devolved into an outright pariah.

Kyzyl Kum Desert.

The viewpoint character never names himself. It’s through his eyes and thoughts that we experience what it’s like to spend three brutal months on an excavation in a remote region of Central Asia, in this case, the semi-autonomous nation of Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan.

Nomadic Karakalpak people, 1932 photo.

The dig has a lofty goal — to uncover the origins of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, arguably the first monotheistic religion and a belief system based on a dualistic cosmology of good versus evil. To that end, the archaeologists are supervising the excavation of what they believe to be a Zoroastrian fire temple which has been buried beneath the sands of the Kyzyl Kum desert for untold centuries.

But as the title implies, the pivot point of the book revolves around the bombastic archaeological genius of Odin. He was once a rising star in academia and being groomed for a top professorship or perhaps even chair of the department for a major British university. Odin goes rogue early on in his career, however, opting to pursue his passion in his own highly eccentric and iconoclastic way.

Alabaster bust, Zoroastrian priest with Bactrian headdress, circa 3rd Century BCE

Here again McLaren’s theme of dualism plays out in the demented psyche of Odin. He’s at once erudite, handsome, fantastically charming and brilliant while also completely bereft of human compassion and self restraint — he’s a debauched satyr, egomaniac and pursues his lusts for sex, power and booze with absolute absence of moral restriction.

Odin’s MO is always the same — he wins over people he wants to use and control with his irresistible, almost magical charisma — only to eventually utterly alienate all those unfortunate enough to fall under his powerful spell and throw in with his grand designs. When Odin is done with people, he kicks them to the curb like a contemptible piece of trash, and he does so without an ounce of remorse.

Yes, he’s loathsome — but oh-so-hilarious!

Whether by design or accident, McLaren leverages archaeology as a metaphor for personal self discovery. Just as the method of the archaeologist is to peel back the layers of history inch by inch by stripping away the soil one strata at a time — so does the narrator seem to dig into his own psyche one level at a time as he strives to find out who he is and the meaning of his own life, belief system, worldview, and so forth. It’s an ingenious way for a fictional character to work toward personal self discovery.

Finally, a depth of authenticity underpins this work of fiction because McLaren himself is the real thing. That is, he holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern Archaeology from the University of Sydney and has spent years out in the field conducting excavations. He’s well published in peer-reviewed journals. He has genuine insight into the real world of archaeology. This experience adds power and informs the results when he lets his hair down to write a colorful yarn featuring archaeologists as fictional players.

Oh, one final-final note: I want to mention that there’s a “shadow character” that looms in the background of just about every chapter of this book — that of ALEXANDER THE GREAT — but I’ve already gone on too long so I’ll just let readers discover that for themselves.

So Odin To Odin is one of the best of the 120 books I’ve read so-far this year — and there’s just a month to go in 2018.

SEE ALSO MY REVIEWS OF SIMILAR TOPIC BOOKS:

A HISTORY OF PYRRHUS by Jacob C. Abbott

HUMPHREY, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER By Kenneth Vickers

ELISHA’S BONES By Don Hoesel

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SIR WILLIAM HERSCHEL By Edward Singleton Holden

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Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

All NEW: KEN’S BOOK REVIEW SITE ON FACEBOOK: REMOTE BOOK REVIEWING

Analog Science Fiction Tale by Bill Johnson About Time Travelers to Ancient Ski Lodge Will Challenge Readers, But Entertain Those Who Can Bring Something To The Table


Review by: KEN KORCZAK

Just a few paragraphs into the lead-off science fiction story in the Nov-Dec 2017 issue of ANALOG, I began to feel a strange swoon – it was borne of a certain brand of déjà vu that I’ll call … um? … synchronistic familiarity?

Let me explain:

The story is titled HYBRID, BLUE, BY FIRELIGHT. The setting is a ski-lodge sort of facility with a fine restaurant, rooms and other creature comforts for travelers – except this place is positioned in the year 42,967 BCE in a remote Arctic-like region — and the “guests” are time travelers from a variety of future timelines.

As it happens, I have been to this place many times. For real.

I call it The Restaurant on the Edge of Time (The RET for short) – and the way I get there is through the practice of lucid dreaming.

Years ago (somewhere in the 1990s) I perfected the practice of lucid dreaming after reading Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming written by Stanford University psychophysiologist STEPHEN LABERGE – even though I was a spontaneous lucid dreamer years before confronting LaBerge’s ground-breaking work.

Rather than retell everything here, I will now refer you to the first article I published on my visit to The RET – the earliest publication of this story (that I can find) appeared on one of my blogs in 2006 – but for right now I suggest you pause before you read the rest of my review of Bill Johnson’s science fiction story, read about my dream adventure at The RET which I have re-posted here:

THE RESTAURANT ON THE EDGE OF TIME

Okay! Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed the trip to The RET!

So now let’s talk about this novella, Hybrid, Blue, by Firelight. It’s a challenging piece of fiction, to be sure, which is often the case with hard science fiction crafted in the best tradition of the genre. The author is BILL JOHNSON. He won science fiction’s top honor, the HUGO AWARD, in 1998.

I like science fiction that make you think – even sweat a few bullets out of your forehead – if you are going to understand what is happening in the story. Grapple you must with solid, meaty scientific theory based on … you know … real science. ‘Hybrid’ is that kind of story.

A short synopsis: This tale involves two brokers of genetic goods – one is a man (a homo sapiens sapiens) by the name of Martin. His partner is a kind of omnipresent  AI figure, appropriately named “Artie.”

An artists conception of a Red Deer Cave individual.

Martin and Artie ply their trade at the Stone Eagle, a luxury ski-lodge hotel positioned some 40 thousand years in the past. Time travelers of multiple species of man – NEANDERTHALS, DENISOVANS, RED DEER CAVERS and others – all meet at this exotic nexus to wheel and deal on what they need to manage the future timelines of their races.

Accouterments of trade include things like human female ova, resistance to diseases, whole intact species of animal, such as dogs, and so forth.

But the set-up is unstable, in that, maintaining the Stone Eagle is subject to problems, such as time quakes and wobbly reality shifts that quaver amid an array of future timelines … this precarious footing adds tension and sense of urgency to the narrative.

It’s an ambitious premise and difficult to pull off.

Author Bill Johnson is counting on his readers to be intelligent and informed about the latest theories concerning the origin of the human species – but I also believe Johnson expects his reader to contribute mightily in another way toward making the story a coherent whole.

Alexei Panshin

I could be wrong, but I believe the writing technique Johnson is using is what science fiction literary critic ALEXEI PANSHIN described as: “… a provocative vagueness deliberately introduced in order to prevent … readers from understanding too clearly and exactly what was happening and thereby losing their sense of mystery.”

Panshin ascribes the genesis of this writing technique to the legendary science fiction master A. E. VAN VOGT. The great man himself confirmed Panshin’s theory, saying:

A.E. van Vogt, Golden Age science fiction author who left subliminal gaps in his prose which he expected his readers to fill in.

“Each paragraph – sometimes each sentence – of my brand of science fiction has a gap in it, an unreality condition. In order to make it real, he reader must add the missing parts. He cannot do this out of his past associations. There are no past associations. So he must fill in the gap from the creative parts of his brain.”

When this technique works, it can create fiction that is rich, compelling and delicious beyond belief. Unfortunately, leaving subliminal gaps within a narrative tends to leave many readers baffled – such is the nature of their personal thought processes that subliminal promptings invoke no response for them – and the effect is only confusion. Some readers can “auto-fill,” some can’t.

On the other hand, there are some aspects of Hybrid, Blue, by Firelight that are problematic for less exotic reasons. For example, there is a scene where the characters come upon some dead bodies, and these are covered in buzzing flies – and yet, they are in a cold climate. Our characters are wearing animal skins and fur, there is snow on the ground, they’re traveling by dog sled – so how can there be carrion-eating flies under these frigid conditions?


There can’t be flies, and so this makes no sense. It’s a small detail, but jarring enough to sow uncomfortable confusion in the mind of the reader, who then begins to question the fundamental integrity of the overall scenario.

As for me, though, I enjoyed the story. My subconscious mind was auto-filling like mad. I felt I was treated to a vivid, sensual and luxurious science fiction feast. Also, I was delighted to confront an intelligent fictional scenario that so closely matched a beloved location so near and dear to my own dreams — literally.



Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

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Stan Gooch’s theory about Neanderthal influence, interbreeding was years ahead of mainstream science

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Review by: KEN KORCZAK

Has Stan Gooch been vindicated?

I think the short answer is yes. Of course, it’s more complex than that. But I think there should be little doubt that when scientists finally confirmed through DNA analysis that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred to produce “hybrid” children tens of thousands of years ago – a huge glob of retroactive respect should have been heaped upon the legacy of Stan Gooch.

But that never happened.

It was Gooch who concluded decades before anyone else that Neanderthals interbred with modern humans. (Note: To be totally accurate, Gooch actually said Neanderthal interbred with Cro-Magnon man, and that in turn created modern humans, us – Homo sapiens).

Sadly, Gooch was scorned by mainstream and science academia. He was also dismissed and ridiculed. Perhaps worst of all – he was ignored. Even the 14 books he published sold poorly among the general public.

Poor Stan Gooch died living in near-poverty and obscurity in 2010. He spent his last days alone in a shabby trailer home, or what the Brits call a “caravan.” By all accounts, he was a deeply bitter man who felt abandoned by his fellow intellectuals, robbed of the accolades and scientific respect he felt he so richly deserved.

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Stan Gooch

It’s a shame because his books, including this one, Cities of Dreams: The Rich Neanderthal Legacy, are fascinating. Gooch was not only an innovative thinker who was years ahead of his time – he was a lucid, engaging and entertaining writer.

Yes, the 20/20 vision of hindsight has also poked some significant holes into Gooch’s overall thesis. On the other hand, this can be said of even the greatest of scientific theories, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution. Sure, Darwin was broadly correct, but in the more than a century since he first brought out his ideas, Darwin had been updated, corrected and modified considerably.

So if Stan Gooch is to be corrected and modified by recent discoveries should not tarnish the luster of his amazing achievement, not only in his theories about Neanderthal, but his insights into the global cultures of modern man. That said, there is a recent discovery – thanks again to genetic archaeology – that drives a major wrecking ball through the entire infrastructure of Gooch’s thesis.

It’s the discovery on an all-new species of human beings that Gooch could never have known about – the so-called Denisovans – identified the same year Gooch died.

In March 2010, scientists found a finger bone fragment of a juvenile female who lived about 41,000 years ago. It was found in a remote mountain cave in Siberia, known as the Denisova Cave in the Altai mountains. Artifacts show that the cave has been inhabited for thousands of years by both modern humans and Neanderthal people – and now we can add Denisovans to the guest list.

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Denisova Cave

Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA of the finger fragment found in Denisova Cave prove it was genetically distinct from the DNA of Neanderthals and modern humans. It was a whole new species.

This is an especially big problem for Gooch’s theory that all human culture today has its fundamental origins in Neanderthal culture. It’s especially significant in regards to Australian aboriginal peoples, who Gooch contended were the closest modern descendants of Neanderthal. In City of Dreams, he argues that their ancient religious/cultural practices most resemble that of the Neanderthal.

Well, guess what? Genetic analysis of Australian aborigines shows only a tiny amount of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, but a very high or significant percentage of Denisovan DNA – as much as 6 percent.

So the native Australians are not the modern human most closely relate to Neanderthal. They are among the closest living relatives of the Denisovans. This could mean two things: Gooch was still correct, in a way, because the Australian natives may still be manifesting the cultural practices of an ancient forgotten ancestor, except that it was not Neanderthal, but that of the Denisovans. Or it could mean that Gooch is totally wrong and that the aborigines simply developed their own unique cultural/religious practices as modern humans over the past 50,000 years or more. (Gooch would argue this could not be so because so many of the aborigine practices are reflected in other cultures around the world; thus, they could not have been developed in isolation).

But I’m going to leave this subject there because a proper discussion of all this is enormously complex, and way beyond the venue of the comments I am making on this book for this brief review.

However, I want to mention one more item that Gooch got wrong because it demonstrates the danger of his approach – that is, that of the “archaeologist of ideas” (as he called himself) rather than an archaeologist that is working strictly from “facts” derived directly from examining actual artifacts, physical locations and clues provided by the recent advances in genetics, and so forth.

Gooch claims that the culture of Neanderthal not only shapes the fundamentals of our culture and religions today, but he also contends that Neanderthal never truly went extinct!

He cites several examples of reports where Neanderthals have been seen in the wild in modern times – and one of his lynchpin stories is that of Zana, a “wild woman” captured near a small village in Abkhazia, a small country that was once a part of the former 19th Century Russian Empire.

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Abkhazia, highlighted in green at left.

To make a long story short: Zana seemed to exhibit all the physical features that would match up with what is known about Neanderthal today. Her body shape, large skull with brow ridge, heavy body hair of a reddish color, muscular build, amazing strength, etc.

Indeed, when one reads the accounts of Zana as described by the villagers who captured her it seems an almost slam-dunk case that what we have here is a surviving Neanderthal woman.

Although Zana was as wild as an animal at first and kept in a cage, she was eventually “domesticated” and even engaged in sexual intercourse with the men of her village. She bore several children, some of whom survived, and went on to live relatively normal lives – although they, too, were described to be of unusual appearance, including “ape-like” features in terms of skull shape and facial structure.

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Zana’nin Torunu, granddaughter of Zana

Well, scientists recently obtained DNA samples from Zana’s children – and the results were unambiguous – it was clear that Zana was of 100% modern human make-up — and that her origin was an exact match with that of peoples from Sub-Saharan Africa.

It became clear that Zana was no Neanderthal at all, but almost certainly had been brought to Russia years earlier as a slave. She was most likely the descendant of African slaves and had somehow come to live as a “wild woman” in the hinterlands of this remote region of the former Russian Empire.

Again – Stan Gooch and the accounts he cites describing the story of Zana are incredibly compelling. Without the proof positive of a DNA test, the circumstantial evidence seems absolutely overwhelming that she was a long lost Neanderthal – except that she was not.

Stan Gooch had every reason to believe that he had found an air-tight case study which proved that Neanderthal survived to modern times. Despite all, he was wrong.

So, yes, I began this piece by stating that I believe that Stan Gooch has been vindicated, but as you can see, the devil is in the details, and the situation is far more nuanced and complex.

I say: This is still a “must read” book because the overall thesis that Gooch lays out in these pages is breathtaking, fascinating, mind-bending and will leave the reader expanded and encouraged to think outside the box.


Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

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New Stonehenge theory by Robert John Langdon is intriguing

$(KGrHqJ,!roFGVQ!fDHnBRnP-WmccQ~~60_35Review By KEN KORCZAK

Although I have long patience for the kind of alternative archaeology theories that give mainstream scientists spasms of outrage, I fully expected this latest Stonehenge re-boot to be so ridiculous that even I would balk.

However, after reading through Robert John Langdon’s total thesis, I have to say I am more than intrigued by his bold suggestions. By the time I got to the end of the book, his theories started to sound more like logical common sense than the ravings of another fringe New Ager.

In short, Langdon argues that Stonehenge was originally constructed in the Neolithic around 8,500 B.C. instead of the widely accepted mainstream archaeology dating of about 2,400 B.C,, in the Bronze Age. But his more amazing assertion is that the monument was located on a peninsula, closely surrounded on three sides by water at a time when Britain was mostly covered by the seas left over from the melting of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago.

This made it possible for the massive stones of Stonehenge to be easily floated or boated to the sight, were mooring posts also made it relatively easy to leverage the gigantic sarsen and smaller blue stones into position. A Britain covered with water — and populated by a water-faring culture well-adapted to living in such an environment — also explains how easy it would have been to bring the blue stones to the Salisbury plains from Wales. By way of the water, the journey would have been just 82 miles, Langdon says, and the stones could have been just sailed into place.

About those blue stones — Langdon proposes that they were the primary source of healing, and this was the original primary purpose of Stonehenge. He says the blue stones were believed to interact with water to produce a medicinal effect, and that the ancients soaked in pools infused with blue stone flakes to induce healing.

Langdon’s scenario makes a lot of other odd things fall into place — such as the strange bend in the “processional avenue” that leads from Stonehenge to the River Avon. If the ancients wanted to make a walkway between Stonehenge and the Avon, why not a direct route? Why does the Stonehenge Avenue go north-northwest for about 1 km, then swing abruptly and turn sharply west? The answer, Langdon says, is that the bend and the latter part of the path originally led to a shoreline, and was later altered when it needed to keep going to get to water — the River Avon.

I won’t go into the many other details and particulars of Langdon’s full thesis, only to say that it’s almost beautiful in its simplicity. Albert Einstein said, the “best theories are simple — but not too simple.” Langdon’s theory is simple, but not too simple. It relies on a painstaking analysis of the hydrogeological data of the past 10,000 years — and this is presented in the first part of the book which might make a lot of people yawn and give up before they reach the more juicy stuff later in the book.

So I give The Stonehenge Enigma five stars — but I must add — I would be well justified in knocking off at least two stars because of the truly reprehensible editing of this document, and portions of the book where the writing is clumsy, and seems to have been rushed. Typos, grammar snafus and glitches abound. It’s an absolute shame that an author who put so much time and effort into his research should allow a version of his book released when it appears to be not just unedited, but not even proofread.

(Certainly Langdon means that Greek culture was at its height in 400 B.C. not 4,000 B.C.!)

That said, I’ll say that Langdon’s vision of an ancient British culture who were masters of the sea and thrived with complex technologies adapted to a warm, watery world (was it the real Atlantis, as Langdon asserts) is not a bad theory, not a bad theory at all.

Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

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