2013年10月30日 星期三

"Radio Free Albemuth" by Philip K. Dick (1985)

"I asked, 'Haven't you read them?'

"'I don't read science fiction,' Nicholas said, 'I just read serious writers like Proust and Joyce and Kafka.  When science fiction has something serious to say, I'll read it.'  He began, then, to talk up the virtues of Finnegan's Wake, in particular the final part, which he compared to the final part of Ulysses.  It was his belief that no one but himself had either read it or understood it.

"'Science fiction is the literature of the future,' I told him, when he paused.  'In a few decades they'll be visiting the moon.'

"'Oh no,' Nicholas said vigorously, 'They'll never visit the moon.  You're living in a fantasy world.'

"'Is that what your future self told you?' I said.  'Or your self from another universe, whatever it was?'"

"Radio Free Albemuth" was published after PKD's death in 1982, though he wrote it in 1976.  It was originally titled "Valisystem A," and was his first attempt to write about his "supernatural" experience in 1974.  During his lifetime he submitted "Radio Free Albemuth" for publication, had it rejected, and later rewrote the novel as "VALIS."

"Radio Free Albemuth" is largely autobiographical, and details his experiences with VALIS, an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System.  In the novel he writes about himself in the first person, but also relates many of his early life experiences through the character of Nicholas, a kind of surrogate PKD.  As the narrator and Nicholas come to grips with Nicholas' transcendent experiences, the mythical Ferris Fremont rises to the presidency of the US, and begins attacking American civil liberties.

Anyone wanting to read this book is encouraged to view the video below, which outlines the life and times of Philip K. Dick.  After watching the video I was shocked at just how autobiographical "Radio Free Albemuth" was.

Of the two books, "VALIS" and "Radio Free Albemuth," I'd be hard pressed to say which one is better.  "VALIS," of course, is deep, but that very depth can be off-putting for those approaching PKD from more conventional sci fi authors.  "Radio Free Albemuth," on the other hand, offers a more literal approach to his experiences, and is also more in line with the books he saw published in the 60s and early 70s.  Where "VALIS" is poetry, "Radio Free Albemuth" is prose.  Where "VALIS" is the gnostic gospels," "Radio Free Albemuth" is the Epistles.  Both books anticipate PKD's later attempt at "Exigesis" in different ways.

In relation to PKD's other books, I would say that this one ranks near the top.  At the time of writing I have read 15 of his books, and there are still others I'd like to read if I get the chance.  I'd probably rank "Radio Free Albemuth" somewhere below "Lies, Inc." just because that book is So. Fucking. Weird, but above more derivative efforts like "Martian Time Slip."

I would highly recommend this book.  I've been searching for it for a long time, and I'm glad I finally found it.  It isn't the easiest reading, but those in search of easy reading probably won't be reading PKD anyway.

2013年10月26日 星期六

"Peace on Earth" by Stanislaw Lem (1994)

"'Mr. Tichy,' said the director, 'Our people will fill you in on the details of the Mission.  I would just like to give you the general picture - so you don't miss the forest for the trees.  The Geneva Agreement made four impossibilities possible.  A continuing arms race at the same time as universal disarmament - that's one.  Arming at maximum speed and at no cost - that's two.  Full protection of each nation against surprise attack while each reserves the right to wage war - that's three.  And finally the liquidation of all armies despite their continued existence.  No troops, but the staffs stay on and can think up anything they like.  In a nutshell, we've instituted pacem in terris.'"

Lem wrote "Peace on Earth" in 1987, though it wasn't translated into English until 1994.  It was one of the last novels he wrote before his death in 2006.  Other Lem works I've read - namely "Solaris," "Mortal Engines," and "The Cyberiad" - were written in the 1960s.  His non-fiction "Microworlds," also reviewed here, was written in 1980.

The protagonist, Ijon Tichy, has appeared in several other Lem novels.  In this installment, Tichy journeys to the moon to investigate the doings of robots.  These "thinking weapons" have been placed upon the moon by the world's governments, thus ushering in world peace, and a kind of unilateral disarmament.

Unfortunately for Ijon, he is callotomised (his brain is severed into two halves) by the robots he encounters on the moon.  Unable to remember what he has discovered on the lunar surface, and moreover divided into a "left Ijon" and a "right Ijon," he becomes an object of scrutiny for the powers that be.

"Peace on Earth" is a truly weird and wonderful book.  It all but erases the impression left by Lem's "Microworlds," which I also read recently.  Where "Solaris" is serious and philosophical, "Peace on Earth" is silly and clever.  Where "The Cyberiad" was labored and overly complicated, "Peace on Earth" is brief and to the point.  It's a great book, and I highly recommend it.

2013年10月23日 星期三

"The Planet Savers"/"The Sword of Aldones" by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1980)

This book is a collection of three stories and the non-fiction "Darkover Retrospective."  The earliest of these stories, "The Planet Savers," was written in 1958, and originally published in Amazing Stories.  The second story here, "The Waterfall," was written in 1976.  The third story, "The Sword of Aldones" was written very early in Marion Zimmer Bradley's career, but was not published until 1962.  The autobiographical "Darkover Retrospective," written in 1980, offers Bradley's thoughts on her career and the development of the Darkover series.

The Planet Savers

This is a straightforward adventure piece, centered around a man with dual personalities.  A plague is decimating the planet Darkover, and the hero (or rather the hero's alter ego) is called upon to make a long journey.  Having read only one of Bradley's stories before, and this from the 50s, this story was well in line with my expectations.  It's not a great story, and it's burdened with a terrible title, but it's not bad.

The Waterfall

This is a much shorter story.  It is so short, in fact, that the plot wouldn't bear too much description or scrutiny here.  Suffice to say, it's my favorite story in this collection, and shows a lot more maturity.

The Sword of Aldones

The author herself describes this as a "juvenile" work of fiction.  I agree with this statement.  Loved by many fans of Zimmer's Darkover books, I found this story not only juvenile, but also melodramatic, confused, and generally pointless.

The Darkover Retrospective

This, I thought, was the most interesting part of this book.  In it Bradley discusses her early career as a writer, and reflects on the public response to her works.  While I think her books fall firmly into the second, or even third tier of science fiction/fantasy, she has a lot to say about what it meant to be a woman writing sci fi/fantasy in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

I don't think I'll be reading any more of Marion Zimmer Bradley's books, but this was far from the worst book I've ever read.  I'd put her on a par with Anne McCaffrey and Ursula K. LeGuin, two other writers that I'm not overly fond of.  All three women were/are competent in their chosen vocation, but all three aren't writing books for people who want to think about what they are reading.

If you enjoy soap operas featuring magic and dragons, if you like less science in your science fiction, you will find yourself well served in the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley.  If you are looking for depth, however, look elsewhere.

2013年10月19日 星期六

"Emphyrio" by Jack Vance (1969)

Jack Vance is/was one of the more overlooked science fiction authors.  He wrote a lot of books, but he is remembered more for the short stories written very early in his career.

"Emphyrio" was written in 1969, 24 years after Vance's first published story.  I can't say how it stacks up against his other books.  I've read a few of Vance's short stories, and part of "The Dying Earth," but this is just a drop in the bucket when one considers how numerous his written works truly are.

"Emphyrio" takes place on a distant world, long after humankind has colonized the stars.  It resembles in many respects Fritz Leiber's "Gather, Darkness!"  But "Emphyrio" is a much better thought-out, more fully realized book.

The protagonist is a member of an artisan class on the planet Halma.  He is also a member of a rigidly controlled society, in which most of the profits go to a group of "lords" that inhabit eyries above the abodes of common folk.  During the course of the story he progresses from child, to artisan, to pirate, to rebel, with an abstract desire for truth guiding his actions.

My biggest complaint about "Emphyrio" is the fact that the science fiction elements are just window dressing.  If one so desired, it would be possible to remove all of the spaceships, other worlds, and alien races from this book, and it would still be pretty much the same story.  For this reason, I would categorize "Emphyrio" as a book that belongs more to the fantasy genre.

"Emphyrio" also suffers from some serious pacing issues, and many events in the book are made less momentous by the author's urgent need to arrive at a resolution.  In other hands, the events of the protagonist's life might have been given greater import, but as it is they just seem to flash by, without any real significance.

Jack Vance wrote some excellent short stories, but I found "Emphyrio" somewhat disappointing.  I would not recommend this book.

2013年10月16日 星期三

"Hyperspace" by Michio Kaku (1994)

"Another, more relevant example for our universe might be living in a curved space given by a hypersphere, a sphere in four dimensions.  If we look ahead, light will circle completely around the small perimeter of the hypersphere and return to our eyes.  Thus we will see someone standing in front of us, with his back facing us, a person who is wearing the same clothes as we are.  We look disapprovingly at the unruly, unkempt mass of hair on this person's head, and then remember that we forgot to comb our hair that day.

"Is this person a fake image created by mirrors?  To find out, we stretch out our hand and put it on his shoulder.  We find that the person in front of us is a real person, not just a fake.  If we look into the distance, in fact, we see an infinite number of identical people, each facing forward, each with his hand on the shoulder of the person in front.

"But what is most shocking is that we feel someone's hand sneaking up from behind, which then grabs our shoulder.  Alarmed, we look back, and see another infinite sequence of identical people behind us, with their faces turned the other way."

The author of this book is a professor of theoretical physics at City University in New York.  He has written several other books in the Popular Science genre, among which is "Physics of the Impossible," which has also been reviewed here.  He is a frequent guest of talk shows, and has spent much of his career making esoteric theories understandable to the untrained.

This book is divided into four sections.  The first section provides a background for our present understanding of higher dimensional theory.  The second section discusses the give and take between classical mechanics, Einstein's general and special relativity, quantum mechanics, the Standard Model, and "current" superstring theory.  The third section extrapolates from our present understanding of higher dimensions, and draws conclusions about the possibility of time travel and parallel universes.  The fourth section outlines scenarios involving the end of life on Earth, the end of our solar system, and the end of the universe.  All four of these sections are combined - somewhat haphazardly - into a conclusion that is about as inconclusive as conclusions ever get.

This book is a bit difficult, but those with the patience for the material will find it rewarding.  Many of the extra-dimensional theories that Kaku expounds are very interesting, and he adds a lot anecdotes and personal insights into what might, in other hands, be boring material.  Many of the concepts introduced in "Hyperspace" are also quite novel.

And although I want to recommend this book, it was written in 1994, making it 19 years old.  With respect to physics, this means that "Hyperspace" is now ANCIENT.  It offers a good background for those unacquainted with modern physics, but those looking for the most current information are encouraged to seek out "Physics of the Impossible," or still more recent works on the same subject.  A lot can happen in 19 years - especially in the sciences!

2013年10月10日 星期四

"Utopia" by Sir Thomas More (1516)

"Now I have described to you as accurately as I could the structure of that commonwealth which I consider not only the best but the only one that can rightfully claim that name.  In other places men talk very liberally of the common wealth, but what they mean is simply their own wealth; in Utopia, where there is no private business, every man zealously pursues the public business."

"Utopia" was written on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, and also not long after the European discovery of the New World.  It was written in a time when one could still refer to the Catholic faith in the original sense of "catholic," that is, "universal."  

The England of Thomas More's time was one of the farther flung outposts of medieval Europe, and the world in which More moved was one in which kings continually plotted against one another, and in which none plotted more than the Church.  This was very much the world that Machiavelli described in "The Prince," and More draws many of the same conclusions about it.

Through "Utopia," More explains his ideas on government, and lays forth his conception of a perfect society, in which neither private property or money stand in the way of a more enlightened society.  He places this imaginary paradise in the newly discovered New World, and the book takes the form of a dialogue between More himself and Raphael, a mariner just returned from Utopia.

It's a very short book, and also an easy read.  As a historical document it still holds a lot of interest, anticipating both religious and political innovations that would later redraw the map of Europe, and affect still more distant parts of the globe.  More's conception of an enlightened republic is a bit naive and hampered by the understandings of his time, but it is interesting to draw comparisons between the world of his time, the world of Utopia, and our own time, in which we've already seen so many religious fads, communist experiments, and literary works explore similar ground.

I read the Norton Critical Edition of this work, which also includes letters between More and other prominent figures of his time, historical background, critical responses, and even other imaginings of Utopia, the best-known of which would probably be Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."  In all of these writings, both More's "Utopia" and in the additional materials, there is a recognition of our present evils, but also the hope that one day things might just get better, that we might just come one step closer to that perfect society, and that all of us might find ourselves better used and more satisfied.

Here's hoping Utopia's around the corner.  I'd like to think so.

2013年10月7日 星期一

"Microworlds" by Stanislaw Lem (1984)

The following conversation, conducted with the previously, presently, and perpetually deceased Stanislaw Lem, was constructed from the top three lines on every 27th page of "Microworlds," a collection of his essays.  In this book Mr. Lem discusses his personal life, his thoughts on science fiction, and also the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges.  He uses many large and self-invented words to do so, and the reader of the following extracts is asked to exercise a modicum of patience.

Lem: "Later, it turned out that several of the ideas that occurred to me during the writing of these works and that I used as hypotheses and examples - i.e., much of what I encountered...."

Me: I admire how you admit to your own creative failures, but I think your opinions on American science fiction and science fiction writers are a bit harsh, especially since you'd only read a small sampling of what American sci-fi had to offer.  You dismiss the lesser "pulp" novelists like van Vogt for perfectly understandable reasons, but what about Herbert, Sturgeon, and Clarke?  What about Walter M. Miller Jr.?  Did you read their works?  Were you aware of them?

Lem: "In the Upper Realm one always strives at least to keep alive the appearance of intact virtue, in the same way as in high society women do not permit themselves to be...."

Me: The way in which you liken bad writers to (female) prostitutes makes me uncomfortable, and smacks of sexism.  In the first essay you admit to certain failures in your own bibliography, couldn't you exercise a bit more forgiveness with regard to others?

Lem: "...his best, like Ubik - are faultless masterpieces.  The surfaces of his books seem quite coarse and raw to me, connected with an omnipresence of trash.  I like what he has..."

Me: PKD was a great writer, but he wasn't creating out of a vacuum.  There are other (American!) sci fi authors that anticipated many of the trends in his work, even if it was PKD that refined these trends into a brand of fiction that was uniquely his own.  Jack Vance, for example, was a writer who PKD admired and who he unquestionably borrowed from at times.

Lem: "...primitive developments to which very little time was devoted, because the main purpose of the operation was to heal the patient, and one is not allowed to attempt tests..."

Me: Yes, the "half life" experienced by the characters in "Ubik" can be supported by recent scientific developments, but is that why people enjoy the book?  Most of us aren't researching cryogenic suspension in our spare time, and we don't need to verify the content of every story we read in the latest research journals.  All that is required is a suspension of disbelief.

Lem: "...stage of history - even to the caveman or downright animal stage.  Such an evasion is often employed in science fiction, since inadequacy of imagination takes refuge in..."

Me:  OK, I'll agree with this part of the book.  Most science fiction is lazy and stupid.  Most readers of science fiction (most, I say) are lazy and stupid as well.  Yet which of these begets the other?

Lem: "...pseudo-logical manner current scientific hypotheses.  This is 'pure' science fiction, or science fantasy, as it is sometimes called.  It shows us nothing serious, but merely de-..."

Me: It doesn't always need to show us something serious.

Lem: "As cultural prohibitions weaken, it becomes impossible for literature to confront them.  An approach that a century ago would have been considered 'blasphemous' or..."

Me:  This may well be true, but only if you subscribe to the idea of our culture "deteriorating" in some fashion, and not just changing to suit the technological inventions that you wax so enthusiastic about in other places.  Yes, there's a lot of sex in Literature now.  Perhaps too much.  But this may just be a fad, and even if it isn't it's both as old and as young as the Marquis de Sade.

Lem: "...this manner the stuffed waxworks come about, the miserable ersatz that is supposed to be cosmic civilizations.
"3. Why is it impossible to regain the universe that has..."

Me: You have a lot of great ideas for stories.  I only wish you could have written these stories down before engaging in this kind of diatribe.  Your legacy would have been better served.

Lem: "...stories.  These are: 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,' 'Pierre Menard - Author of the Quixote,' 'The Lottery in Babylon,' and 'Three Versions of Judas.'

Me: There are many parallels between your career and Borges'.  But then again Borges never wrote anything as punishingly boring as The Cyberiad.  I loved Solaris and Mortal Engines, but sometimes you didn't know when to quit while you were ahead.  Great stories aren't written through intellect alone.

Lem: "...a place in which the attaining of complete information about anything whatever is never possible.  According to the third of my propositions, the principle of freedom..."

Me: So you would rather we lived in a world where we are able to attain less information?  Can't follow you there.  In a world of more limited information, someone else is bound to do the deciding for us.  I would rather not live in that world.

2013年10月5日 星期六

"Jazz" by Toni Morrison (1992)

"'You don't have to think about none of it.  You ain't in it.  You ever see me mess with anybody?  I been in this building longer than you have.  You ever hear a word against me from any woman?  I sell beauty products all over town, you ever hear tell of me chasing a woman?  No.  You never heard that, because it never happened.  Now I"m trying to lighten my life a little with a good lady, like a decent man would, that's all.  Tell me what's wrong with that?'"

Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize-winning American author.  She has also received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel "Beloved," which forms a trilogy with "Jazz" and "Paradise".  She is a professor of Literature, and holds posts at various universities.

"Jazz" is the story of The City, which could be loosely defined as New York.  It is also the story of African Americans between world wars, and their migration from country into city.  It is also, finally, about a love triangle.  It is about a woman, her husband, and the young girl who is the object of their shared obsession.

I found this book somewhat annoying at first.  It seemed like a plea for the wife's hysteria, and for the faithlessness of men.  Then, about a fourth of the way through, it grew more three dimensional, and other characters had their say.  The husband became less of a caricature, and the young girl was given reasons for stealing another woman's husband.  

Suddenly there were many sides to the same issue, and what at first glance seemed an overly simplistic novel grew increasingly nuanced.  This is, perhaps, a feature of the very music that the novel tries so hard to emulate, and as I read further into the book I began to see patterns that I hadn't noticed at first.  I began to find the substance that one would expect from a Nobel-winning author.

"Jazz" is an accomplished novel.  It's also an involving piece of literature, even if the "Golden Gray" episode near the end strays a bit too close to Faulkner territory.  I can't say that it is perfect.  At times it seems a bit disjointed, but it is very good overall.

I would recommend this book if you are looking for a more challenging novel about the black experience in America, something akin to Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," or one of V.S. Naipul's books.  Those used to lighter fare will probably find it obtuse and frustrating, but those looking for a thought-provoking book on what it means to be African and American will certainly like it.  It doesn't pack the same punch as "Go Down, Moses", but it will make you think, and that's a good thing.

2013年10月4日 星期五

Batman Vs. Superman, Superman Vs. Batman...

Anyone who's read this blog more than once probably recognizes my fondness for both superheroes and superhero films.  In this I am like many other guys my age.

Ever since Man of Steel came out, there's been talk of its sequel, which we now know will also feature Batman.  Who's in it, who's not in it, who's directing it, who's writing it, etc., etc., etc.  I've been doing my best to stay abreast of the rumors (and most of them are just that, rumors), and I have a few thoughts on the subject that I'd like to share.

1. The General Premise

So soon after Marvel's The Avengers, a Justice League movie would be too much to absorb.  We need an interim movie to bridge the gap.  If they can find a believable, interesting Batman to go with the Superman they've already created, we'll have a movie that very effectively leads us into the Justice League.  

As great as Christian Bale was in Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, I don't think his particular take on Batman would work in the context of Superman.  For "Batman Vs. Superman", we need the kind of Batman that created Brother Eye, the kind of Batman who keeps secret files on EVERYONE, and the kind of Batman who is smart enough to stay several steps ahead of everyone else.

2. How it Relates to Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns"

The earliest announcement of this movie featured a cast member from Man of Steel, quoting a line from Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns.  As comic book fans everywhere are aware, The Dark Knight Returns was perhaps the most celebrated comic book series of the 1980s, and moreover a series that redefined Batman as a character.  

The use of the quote leads one to think that Batman and Superman will be at each others' throats in some fashion, with an older Batman outsmarting Superman near the end.  While I would love a movie adaptation of one of my all-time favorite comic books, they are obviously going to adapt elements of Miller's story to the world already established in Man of Steel.  Miller has been called in to advise on this project, so I am hopeful that any elements from his comic book will be handled well.

3. Zack Snyder

Zack Snyder just isn't as consistent a film maker as Christopher Nolan.  This point should be fairly obvious.  I thought Watchmen was great, I liked the Dawn of the Dead remake, and I even thought 300 had certain points in its favor.  For all his decent films, however, there is Sucker Punch.

At his worst, he is all style and very little substance.  Man of Steel had a good first half, but the second half of the movie degenerated into a WWE Smackdown.  Altogether it was OK, but it could have been a lot better.  I think that if we get the careful "Watchmen Snyder" we'll get a good movie.  If we get the flashy "Sucker Punch Snyder" then this thing will be a disaster.

4. David Goyer

Yes, he wrote the Dark Knight Trilogy.  But yes, he's written a lot of bad films.  I think his presence is largely irrelevant.  If the director handles his script well, it will be good.  If the director handles his script badly....

5. Henry Cavill

He's a good actor, and a great Superman.  I'm happy he's coming back for the sequel.

6. Ben Affleck

My first thought was: "Really?  The guy from Daredevil?"  But he has directed and starred in some good films since, so maybe it won't be as bad as all that.  He's certainly a good actor, and if the story's solid I'm sure he will make a convincing Batman.  

I just find it strange that he's involved with this project.  After Daredevil bombed, wasn't he quoted as saying that he wouldn't even consider a project unless the script is solid?  This movie doesn't even have a script yet!

7. The Possibility of Robin Appearing

Please no.  Robin is a relic of a time when all superheroes needed to have younger sidekicks, or stand-ins for an adolescent readership.  Believing in a grown man who dresses up as a bat is hard enough.  But a younger boy at his side, dressed up as a bird?  In a pair of speedos?

8. Cameos by Other Superheroes

Some speculate that Wonder Woman might appear in this movie.  It would be difficult to make such a cameo work, and Wonder Woman is the one superhero(ine) who really, really deserves her own movie.  I'm hoping they don't waste her on this one.

If Warner Bros. is really going ahead with The Flash film, then it is also possible that he might appear in this movie as a teaser.  Given the Flash's alter-ego as "police scientist," this might be more in keeping with an attempt at realism.  Any display of his powers, however, would be distracting.

Either way, I doubt that either character could be easily incorporated into the film.  Batman is so grounded in "realism," and bringing him into contact with a Superman will be a feat in itself.  Why complicate the issue with other superheroes?

9. Potential Villains (If There are Any)

Lex Luthor is inevitably mentioned.  But why?  In the presence of a supersmart Batman - the kind of Batman that this movie needs, Lex Luthor seems redundant.  

I can't see how a villain is necessary for this movie, and I think it would be better to let the audience take sides.  This element - moral ambiguity - is one element from the Nolan films that ought to be preserved.

10. How Successful it Might Be

That's the big question, isn't it?  I'm thinking that it will be moderately successful, but far from earth-shatteringly so.  The novelty is going to sell a lot of advanced screening tickets, but the script and especially the direction will need to be really, really good if we're going to see a blockbuster.  My guess is that it will enjoy a huge opening weekend, but lack the staying power that The Avengers is STILL enjoying.

11. What it Might Bode for the Future DC Cinematic Universe

Of course if it does moderately well we'll see that Justice League movie, possibly with Ben Affleck or Zack Snyder directing.  If it tanks?  I predict that The Flash will either be scaled down or disappear altogether, and that Warner Bros. might just decide that the superhero movie game is best left to Marvel, Fox, and Sony.  I hope it does well, just because I am dying to see a Flash movie.

12. Marvel, Fox's X-men, and Sony's Spider-man

Let us not forget the competition.  This movie is due out in 2015, when several other superheroes are also due to hit theaters.  By that time "Batman Vs. Superman" will be squaring off against The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and a rebooted Fantastic Four... which, by the way, will exist in the same film universe as the X-men films.  Sony's Spider-man will sit 2015 out, though a third (sixth?) film is scheduled for 2016.

Which is not to mention the Star Wars sequel, a movie that will be rocking our worlds the same year. 2015 is a big year for movies, and "Batman Vs. Superman" will be facing some stiff competition.