2012年2月26日 星期日

"3001" by Arthur C. Clarke

3001 came out in 1997, which, when you think about it, isn't that long ago.  This would mean there was a span of over 20 years between 2001 and 3001, which is all the more surprising considering the fact that there are only four books in the series.  Compared to the number of books Isaac Asimov contributed to his Foundation series, or Frank Herbert to his Dune series, Clarke was definitely taking his time.

As is to be expected, the world of 3001 differs remarkably from the worlds of 2001, 2010, and 2061.  By the time the protagonist, Frank Poole (remember him?) is retrieved from the other side of the solar system, not only are inertial fields and genetically enhanced dinosaurs so ubiquitous as to go unnoticed, but Earth is a largely uninhabited place, where one's consciousness can be digitally scanned and stored indefinitely.

The plot of 3001, like the other books in Clarke's Odyssey series, is fairly basic.  Humankind must try to puzzle what the monoliths want, and by the end of the book it is a race against time to prevent the extinction of the entire human race.  When I began writing this review, I wondered why I couldn't remember the plots of 2001, 2010, and 2061.  The answer, of course, was that they were all in a sense similar to that of 3001.

Which isn't to say that 3001 is a boring novel.  It's really very good.  It is also a satisfying conclusion to Clarke's Odyssey series, even if the end of the book is a bit implausible.

As a series, Clarke's Odyssey books are among the best that the science fiction genre has to offer.  This series is probably the most firmly rooted in a modern understanding of scientific principles, and as such has a predictive power that never fails to excite the reader.  It is also among the most consistently good series out there.  Herbert's Dune series was good, but "Children of Dune" was too "literary" and "Chapterhouse" was a weak ending.  Asimov's Foundation books started off with one of the great sci-fi trilogies of all time, but ended with inferior works such as "Foundation and Earth."  Clarke's Odyssey books, by contrast, are good from the first novel to the last.

2012年2月24日 星期五

"Whit" by Iain Banks

This book was first published in 1995.  I know next to nothing about the author, though I remember reading part of Feersum Enjinn years ago.  I assume that Iain Banks is Scottish, and that Whit is one of his first novels, if not the very first.

Whit follows the journey of Isis, the Elect of God, a soon-to-be cult/commune leader from the north of Scotland.  One of this commune's members has renounced her faith in London, and Isis is called upon to retrieve this lost member before the commune's Festival of Love.

Whit is really very amazingly boring, and should have been half as long.  All the digressions into the cult/commune's prehistory seem entirely unwarranted, and the labored discussions of the cult/commune's theology is completely annoying.  The book improves once Isis arrives in London, and some of her encounters with the modern world are amusing, but reading this book was a chore for me, and I began to remember why I put Feersum Enjinn down, unfinished, so many years ago.

I'm not saying that Iain Banks hasn't written better books.  But I am saying that I will probably never read them, especially not after struggling through Whit.

2012年2月19日 星期日

"Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut

"Overhead he heard the cry of what might have been a melodious owl, but it wasn't a melodious owl.  It was a flying saucer from Tralmafadore, navigating in both space and time, therefore seeming to Billy Pilgrim to have come from nowhere all at once.  Somewhere a big dog barked."

Slaughterhouse-Five was first published in 1969.  It was the perfect book for a dissatisfied generation, eager to voice their concerns over war and civil rights, eager to embrace peace and love as an ideal, and eager to read books like Slaughterhouse-Five.  It remains Vonnegut's most popular book.

It bears strong resemblances to another famous WWII novel, Catch-22.  One could also draw parallels between this novel and The Tin Drum, and also to Gravity's Rainbow.  All four books use WWII as a backdrop for discussions of blind patriotism, the horrors of war, and our mutual fear of death.  All four are also humorous books that defy easy interpretation.

For the record, my favorite of the four books above is The Tin Drum, though Slaughterhouse-Five comes a close second.  Catch-22 was just too jokey for me, and I could barely get through Gravity's Rainbow.

Slaughterhouse-Five follows the exploits of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII veteran who is sent hurtling back and forth through time.  This time travel is completely involuntary, and offers Billy some startling insights into both past and future events.  Along the way he is taken prisoner by the Germans during the last days of WWII, and is also abducted by aliens from the planet Tralmafadore.

So it goes.

2012年2月17日 星期五

"Around the World in Eighty Days" by Jules Verne

"'I know it; I don't blame you.  We start for Dover and Calais in ten minutes.'

"A puzzled grin overspread Passepartout's round face; clearly he had not understood his master.

"'Monsieur is going to leave home?'

"'Yes,' returned Phileas Fogg.  'We are going around the world.'

"Passepartout opened wide his eyes, raised his eyebrows, held up his hands, and seemed about to collapse, so overcome was he with stupefied astonishment."

How long would it take to go around the world now?  Hours?  If not minutes?  In the 139 years since this book first saw print, there have been a lot of changes.  When Verne wrote this, many of his readers may have well doubted that the globe could be circumnavigated in a scant 80 days.  For those living in an age of jet travel, this same span of time seems ridiculously slow.

Not that this in anyway diminishes the entertainment value of a book like Around the World in 80 Days.  In fact, it might go a long way towards enhancing it.  Whereas in Verne's day this novel may have fallen into the category of "speculative fiction," in our own day this book offers a fascinating glimpse at the accomplishments that separate Verne's world from our own.

Most people are familiar with the plot of this novel.  One of Phileas Fogg's acquaintances wagers that Fogg can't travel all the way around the world in 80 days.  Fogg thinks he can, and then next day he and his servant Passepartout are on a train, headed for parts unknown.  Along the way they ride an elephant, rescue a princess, and brave a typhoon.  The book is quite fun, and offers a wealth of geographical trivia.

I'd have to say that Phileas Fogg is the most clearly drawn of all Verne's characters, but Around the World in 80 Days isn't my favorite of Verne's books.  I tend to like the stranger ones more, and in this respect Around the World in 80 Days pales in comparison to books like From Earth to the Moon or even Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Just the same, it's a gripping read, and if you haven't read it, you should.

2012年2月12日 星期日

"Arabian Nights" by (presumably) Some Guys from Arabia

I read the Richard Burton translation.  If you've never heard of Richard Burton, let me just say that his life in many ways resembled the stories he so lovingly translated.

The overarching plot of The Arabian Nights is easily explained.  The king Shahryar, shamed by an unfaithful wife, swears to murder every woman he sleeps with to prevent their infidelity.  Late in his reign the beautiful Sheherazade falls into his clutches, and all appears lost.  Sheherzade then fends off the king's murderous intentions by telling him a series of stories.  In some versions her stories number 1,001, thus the alternate title of this collection: The 1,001 Nights.

What aren't so easily explained are all the little stories within this larger plot, since many of Sheherazade's stories are really stories within stories within stories.  Reading The Arabian Nights is like playing with one of those Russian dolls, taking them all apart, and then reassembling them every 50 or so pages later.

The most famous section of The Arabian Nights has got to be "Aladdin and His Lamp," which has been adapted into film countless times.  "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" is another influential tale, and another story within The Arabian Nights was the inspiration for Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

I'm guessing that anyone taking a class on the "golden age" of Islam is compelled to read this book.  They're probably also compelled to comment upon the sex, sexism, violence, and racism in this collection of stories.  To be sure, there's plenty of sex and violence here.  The Arabian Nights portrays a world where women are far from equal to men, and where the worst thing a woman can do is sleep with a black man.

But these criticisms, however valid, do little to diminish the entertainment value of The Arabian Nights.  It's a terrific book, even if the constant interludes between stories grow annoying.  If you haven't read [the English translation of] The Q'uran, I would recommend reading it alongside this book.  Burton's own translation of The Kama Sutra would also be good to read alongside this one, especially since both books cover similar territory.