You can't be a serious science-fiction reader without delving just a bit into the genre's roots. To remedy an embarrassing lack of any Jules Verne onYou can't be a serious science-fiction reader without delving just a bit into the genre's roots. To remedy an embarrassing lack of any Jules Verne on my reading list, last year I read "Journey to the Center of the Earth". I can see how to a young reader, it would be an instant classic. It's a pretty ripping adventure complete with hidden underground worlds and dinosaurs and gleefully wrong-headed theories about geology. What's not to love?
Maybe I was a little disappointed? I was hoping for more than just a corny adventure story. There wasn't a lot there send me searching the shelves for another Jules Verne novel. But, alas, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" sat there anyway, patiently waiting for me be curious enough to crack it open. Its prospects weren't too hot, but it did have one thing playing to its advantage, and that one thing was: Alan Moore.
You see, Alan Moore had written several years ago, a Victorian era literary adventure comic called "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." In it, he collects literary characters from various eras and sends them off to save the world. For its base of operations, the team used The Nautilus, the otherworldly submarine of Captain Nemo. Moore's version of Nemo was about a million miles away from the James Mason version in the classic Disney movie, which was a lot closer in tone to the goofy peril invoked in "Journey to the Center of the Earth". Moore made Nemo dark and brooding and ambiguous and cryptic. There wasn't anything corny about it.
Okay then...what the heck. I gave Verne another chance, and plucked the novel off the shelve and had a look.
Unexpectedly, the first thing I read was a brief introductory essay by Ray Bradbury comparing "20,000 Leagues" to "Moby Dick", laying out a convincing arguement for how Nemo and Ahab are opposite sides of the same coin: Ahab evil in his pursuit to conquer the Great Whale and the sea, Nemo evil in his pursuit to become one with it. Now Ray Bradbury has always been a bit of a starry-eyed dreamer (which isn't a bad thing), so it wasn't too far fetched to think he was reading this Verne novel through rose-colored lenses, but quite frankly, nothing in "Center of the Earth" really lent itself to being compared seriously to any Great American Novels, so perhaps I'd be dealing with something different this time out. Equipped with a bit of optimism, it was time to let the book speak for itself.
And the novel spoke for itself. Where "Center of the Earth" was a slick popcorn action story, "20,000 Leagues" is dark and gritty and real. Rather than cartwheeling through flashy action-set-pieces, the story of Doctor Arronax and harpooner Ned Land's imprisonment by Nemo is a crawling, cryptic one. It moves very slowly and deliberately, taking its time to offer lavish descriptions not only of the expansive vistas of the world's oceans, but also of the Nautilus, the grand undersea palace constructed by Nemo in his self-imposed exile from society.
Some of the descriptions of sea life are almost tedious (okay, 'almost' nothing, they really are tedious). As our narrator is a marine biologist, we are graced with several encyclopedic descriptions of every possible creature you might find in the depths. Slowly, however, you begin to realize how much in love with the ocean Arronax is, and all the endless cataloguing of sea-life are really the doctor's love poems to the sea.
And via Arronax's great passion, Nemo slowly becomes less of a villain. How villanous is it exactly to offer an awe-struck marine biologist an opportunity to spend the rest of life studying things no other scientist could even dream existed. Which paves the way for Ned Land, the restless harpooner who keeps popping his grizzled nose into the room and reminding everybody that Nemo is a megalomaniac bastard. Which is basically true, but honestly, I only begrudgingly accepted Nemo as the bad guy, maybe because I, like Arronax, am a scientiest at heart.
Anyhow, the moral ambiguity of Nemo, the starry-eyed wonder of Arronax, the tough-as-nails grit of Ned (I honestly think Verne was picturing Kirk Douglas when he created Ned) gives the reader a host of characters with whom to get deeply invested. Combined with the intricate and luxurious descriptions of the world under the ocean, "20,000 Leagues" is a vastly different sort of adventure than "Center of the Earth".
Much to my surprise and delight, it is far more than a schlockly romp around the ocean. It may not be at the same level as "Moby Dick", but it definitely reads as a work of fine literature....more
Any complaints about Heinlein's "Time Enough For Love" that are centered around the absurdity and perversity of a two thousand year old man having sexAny complaints about Heinlein's "Time Enough For Love" that are centered around the absurdity and perversity of a two thousand year old man having sex with every single woman he ever meets, most of whom are descended from him or raised from childhood by him or gave birth to him (!!), are completely valid complaints. As much as I enjoyed this read, Heinlein's obsession with knocking down every possible sexual barrier got a little hard to swallow after a while and kept me from rating this a five-star novel.
That I still gave it four stars testifies to how engaging Heinlein's signature character, Lazarus Long, is. Since his introduction (which I read in the "The Past Through Tomorrow" collection), I've always been captivated by the long-lived, sage, straight-talking know-it-all (even when Heinlein called him Jubal Harshaw), and he makes a great protagonist for the various tales collected in this pseudo-novel. 'Pseudo' because even though there is a clear through-line for Long and the extended family he builds for himself over the couse of this work, Lazarus spends the bulk of the novel telling stories about other periods in his two-millineum long life, set on various planets, which allows him to play around with different genres. Kind of like how the writers of the old Star Trek series could have Enterprise stumble onto a Gangster planet if they had a notion to tell a gangster story.
The two standout stories for me involved a Western-style story about life as a pioneer on a barely settled planet, and his time-travel story, where Lazarus travels back to the early 20th century to meet his family. Both of these stories hooked me as they had a distinctly historical feel to them, and I guess I was just in that kind of mood.
The portions of the book that take place in a more recognizable future are also quite enjoyable, reading like everything else Heinlein writes. Revolutionary characters pushing against whatever society they find themselves a part of, making a case for living life to its fullest and giving into all of your basest desires, because you only live once, and if you're not hurting anyone, then why the hell not? That Heinlein uses Lazarus and the Howard families (a two thousand year old man and a family genetically bread for long life) to make a case for the brevity of life and living every moment to its fullest just makes it all the more interesting.
For those that say this work is mysogenistic, I guess I can almost see where you're coming from, but in all fairness, all of the characters in this novel are pervy and sex-obsessed. Heinlein seems to want very badly to paint sex as something that people shouldn't obsess about, and should be talked about and dealt with and undertaken as freely as you wish. This goes for both the men and the women. It just so happens that the primary character is a most alpha of alpha-males. This, combined with the fact that he crams so many sexually based situations upon his characters kind of leads one to the opposite conclusion: that Heinlein himself is obsessed with sex. Which he probably is.
In spite of this, the novel is still an epic, sweeping, romantic read that collects a number of captivating ideas into one volume. A self-admittedly flawed, but still fascinating protagonist, and Heinlein's artistry with language make this a very satisfying read for fans of his particular brand of sprawling sci-fi....more
I'd assumed that being a longtime reader of Bill Willingham's "Fables" comic book would give an added boost to my enjoyment of his new Fables-relatedI'd assumed that being a longtime reader of Bill Willingham's "Fables" comic book would give an added boost to my enjoyment of his new Fables-related novel, "Peter & Max". In fact, I think it lessened it.
"Fables" fans are already familiar with the clever and subtle ways in which Willingham weaves together classic fairy tale characters with more modern interpretations. On a month to month basis, I never ceased to be impressed with his story-telling virtuosity. But upon reading "Peter & Max", I realized something that should have been obvious to a long-time comic reader: the visual format of the comic book makes a huge difference on how how you absorb the story.
While reading the novel, I kept thinking about how slow the novel moved as Willingham had to stop repeatedly to describe situations and characters that are pretty typical of the standard fairy tale. In the comic, all of these fairy-tale tropes are left unspoken, drifting to the background and brought to life instead through the illustrations. I kept noticing how each character was defined through clunky one-dimensional emotional tags, whether it was Peter's over-the-top earnestness or Max's over the top evilness. In the comic, the dialogue could be played straight, with the subtext for their inner thoughts and motivations being played out with their facial expressions as illustrated by talented artists such as Mark Buckingham or Russ Braun. I kept noticing how this nearly 400 pages book took me several days to read, whereas the same exact story could have been told far more succintly (and therefore have used up less of my time) in 2 or 3 issues of "Fables".
Some of the ideas on display here are quite good ones and add nicely to the overall "Fables" mythology. In the comics, we don't get to see much of the Homelands post-invasion/pre-exile, so that was nice. Peter and Max as characters are interesting in theory, even though Max's evolution into the primary villain is so abrupt as to be nonsensical. [SPOILER:] Phase 1: Max is jealous of Peter. Phase 2: He watches his brother steal away what he feels is his rightful inheritance, then gets beaten up by a thug. Phase 3: He turns evil and stupid and murders his parents.[END SPOILER:] I kept expecting there to me some malevolent influence turning him to the dark side, but in the end: not so much.
I also like seeing a little background on Frau Totenkidner, which fit in nicely with some of her backstory as presented in the far superior "1001 Nights of Snowfall". And the Prokoviev fan in me loved the brief forest encount between the Bigby of long ago and young Peter. And though it would be a massive understatement to say that the ending was abrupt, I kind of liked the unexpected simplicity of it.
Its just that I couldn't shake the notion this would have made a much better 3-issue story-arc in the comic than it made as a novel.
A final word: to those of you who are non-Fables readers, but who are interested in reading this, or already have and enjoyed it: Go read the comics! Both "Fables" and "Jack of Fables" tell similar (if more present-day) stories, but in a format that shows off the full-potential of Bill Willingham's creations!...more
This was totally an impulse buy at HalfPrice Books a little bit ago, a short book I thought I could toss off in little snippets as I went to bed eachThis was totally an impulse buy at HalfPrice Books a little bit ago, a short book I thought I could toss off in little snippets as I went to bed each night. I've read Borges in short-story-form, and assumed this odd little beastiary would be similar in tone to his other whimisically-magical realism work.
It wasn't quite what I expected. There is some whimsy in these pages, but it is hidden amidst a series of almost-encyclopedic descriptions of various mythological and legendary creatures from a wide range of cultures and histories. There are a fair number of interesting entries, and a few genuinely sublime beings are described. But there are also rather large chunks that are frustratingly brief or disappointingly dry.
When I finished reading it, I donated "The Book of Imaginary Beings" to the library of the middle school at which I work. I'm sure that if you really want to enjoy this book, you easily could. But I can't help but think that the middle schoolers who will be spying this on the library shelves in years to come (what better audience for a beastiary of imaginary mythological creatures), this might feel a bit too literary and academic as opposed to whimisical and fun....more
What a weird book. And by 'weird', I don't mean that tangible sci-fi brilliance that gets under your skin and opens your mind to all the incredible poWhat a weird book. And by 'weird', I don't mean that tangible sci-fi brilliance that gets under your skin and opens your mind to all the incredible possibilities of human endeavors. I mean, it's weird that Heinlein would think it a coherent idea to write this book at all, and even weirder still that a publisher would fund its release. Its content is a convoluted mishmash of Heinlein's worst excesses, including endless chummy banter that probably makes up 60-70% of the page count, characters from other Heinlein novels showing up in droves with little to no explanation, and a pervy obsession with free love and women wanting to have as many babies as humanly possible.
The plot is completely nonexistent, making little use of its inciting incident in which our quartet of heroes are attacked by mysterious aliens and must flee to alternate universes using the 'continua machine' invented by the senior, mad scientist, member of the gang. Lest you think anything will come of the universe-jumping, nothing ever does, aside from thinly related side-adventures that serve to educate the reader (and the characters) on how the continua device works. Perhaps such a story-telling tactic is necessary, but when it takes up 250 pages of a 500 page novel, it starts to feel a bit excessive.
After their adventures carry them to realms as diverse as a communist controlled Mars, an Earth without the letter 'J', and Oz, it feels like the novel might begin to move into an actual plot. The heroes' rocket meets, in deep space, a ship commanded by Heinlein's ubiquitous Methuselah, Lazarus Long, who offers up a mission that seems to finally give the novel some direction. But the mission is dispensed with in a few paragraphs, and it becomes evident that Lazararus and his gang have only shown up so the creepy sex-obsessions can be kicked up a few notches, and Long's sprawling, multi-novel arc can plod forward.
Because what "The Number of the Beast" is, essentially, is a 300 page introduction to four new characters in the Heinlein-verse, and a 200 page prologue explaining how in the hell Lazarus Long can show up in "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" which Heinlein would write five years later.
So why would I give such a mess of a book four stars?
Well, as chaotic and sloppy as the whole affair is, it also happens to be fun. And its the kind of fun I can have since I've read the previous entries in the Lazarus Long series. The first Heinlein novel I ever read, actually, was "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls", which is similar in that its cast also gets crashed by Lazarus and all his family with no explanation. I remember, at the time, being utterly confused and wondering if some key chapters had been left out of the book. In time, I learned that I had been reading what was one thread in a much larger tapestry. Reading "The Number of the Beast" does not in any way work as an isolated experience. But I'm not reading it in isolation. For me, its filling in the blanks of a story I started reading almost 15 years ago (and started on the wrong chapter, by the way).
Plus, the characters themselves are likeable, even if they are cartoonish in their clever, sensual, geniusness.
If you're into Heinlein and haven't done so yet, I recommend you go read "Methuselah's Children", and follow the breadcrumbs through the various Lazarus Long stories, until you come upon this novel. With the proper background, its very likely you could enjoy "The Number of the Beast" should you make it that far.
Otherwise, it might be wiser to look elsewhere for a good sci-fi read.
Originally posted on Examiner.com The Prescient Lunar Voyages of Jules Verne, part 2: "Round the Moon" - Fort Worth Literature | Examiner.com http://wOriginally posted on Examiner.com The Prescient Lunar Voyages of Jules Verne, part 2: "Round the Moon" - Fort Worth Literature | Examiner.com http://www.examiner.com/literature-in...
In “From the Earth to the Moon”, Jules Verne practically invents modern science fiction by applying actual physics and chemistry to the far-fetched technical challenge of shooting a projectile to the Lunar surface. It was an incredible, seemingly visionary work, not so much because Verne invented some fantastical imaginary adventure. It was incredible because he demonstrated, with remarkable accuracy, an engineering feat of which mankind was actually capable. Great ideas are always more complicated in theory than in practice (which is why it took the United States 104 years after Verne’s publication to actually get to the make any of this happen!) but make no mistake: Jules Verne published, in no uncertain terms, a proclamation: Here is what we’re going to do, and here is how we’re going to do it.
To preserve his reputation as an effective prognosticator, it probably would have been wise to stop while he was ahead. After all, “From the Earth to the Moon” does an admirable job of applying known science to solving the technical challenges of a moonshot. He wrote about what the physics and astronomy of his day could confirm, then prudently ends his book with a throng of Earth-bound onlookers wondering what exactly happened after the projectile exploded into the sky. To go further, to actually offer an account of the voyage to the Moon would require the author to explore far more speculative terrain. And as Verne himself notes in the opening chapter of “Round the Moon”, the Lunar sequel:
“When a purely speculative discovery is announced to the public, it cannot be done with too much prudence…whoever makes a mistake in such a case exposes himself justly to the derision of the mass. Far better is it to wait.”
The theories of the first book could be crudely confirmed by anyone who might want to sit down and do the math for themselves. But “Round the Moon”, while being a direct continuation of Barbicane’s Lunar endeavor, is a far different animal. “Round the Moon” tries to anticipate something no man had ever experienced, and wouldn’t for another century. He tries to imagine not only what the trip to the Moon would be like, but what Luna herself would reveal to any prospective astronauts.
And to a modern audience for whom the space age is mostly blasé; who have seen footage of explorers bouncing around in the micro-gravity of shuttle missions; who have experienced the excitement of rovers on Mars and probes on the moons of Saturn; who have watched Apollo 13 and embraced the Space Race of the 1960s as part of our cultural heritage…well, to us, there are enough laughable inaccuracies in “Round the Moon” that Jules Verne seems knocked from his pedestal of scientific prophethood.
The list of things he gets wrong is lengthy and glaring:
The method used to brace the travelers against the massive acceleration at blast off is shoddy at best. One character sneaks livestock and seeds aboard the projectile so they can begin cultivating the Lunar soil upon landing. There are multiple (and therefore highly unlikely) encounters with extraterrestrial objects (meteors and the like, not aliens), which have rather questionable gravitational effects on the projectile. The method for keeping the travelers supplied with oxygen is a novel one, but not quite feasible in reality. While Verne has a decent go at describing weightlessness, he is undercut by a fundamental misunderstanding about how zero- and micro-gravity work. There is an entertainingly absurd underestimation of the effect of vacuum on the projectile’s pressurized interior.
And possibly most damning to Verne’s ability to see beyond the realms of man’s observations, is one of Barbicane’s fellow astronauts, the Frenchman, Michel Ardan. At every turn, this clownish fellow babbles, wide-eyed, about his suspicions about life on the Moon, what to do after they land, outlandish theories about atmosphere and water, pausing only occasionally to loudly roll his eyes when Barbicane begins using precise calculations and cool rational thinking to predict and process details about their journey, instead of the Frenchman's preference for arbitrary confabulation. Ardan seems to represent all of the wild, imaginative theories that swirled around the astronomical community in the 19th Century. Many believed a balloon of sturdy enough construction could float to the Moon, and even the acclaimed astronomer William Herschel, as late as the 1820s believed there were trees on the Moon and beings with giant heads living on the Sun! With so many outlandish, mostly unverifiable claims being tossed about by educated scientists and ignorant laymen alike, it shouldn’t be surprising that Jules Verne would include some such nonsense.
But this is where Verne proved once again that his prescience was uniquely refined. Eventually, the astronauts do indeed get close enough to the Moon to observe its surface. And what they witness is amazingly accurate. Further, while the predicted engineering feats of the first book are slightly less impressive from being a merely straightforward (albeit audacious) application of algebra and chemistry, “Round the Moon” dares to predict something that no man had yet to witness. Yes, astronomers had studied the moon in greater detail as the art of telescopy evolved. Cartographic surveys of craters and maria grew more and more detailed over the course of the 19th century, and Verne’s characters were intimately familiar with such details. But even as the buffoonish Ardan reminds us of theories about a thin atmosphere and pools of liquid water hiding at lower altitudes, or collecting on the mysterious far side of the Moon, Verne delivers a rebuttal of stark reality: a barren and lifeless satellite, devoid of anything but craters and sterile terrain. A depiction that was surely suspected by some devotees of Luna, but far from an accepted truth.
In spite of all the entertainingly silly predictions about zero-gravity, vacuum and pressure, oxidizing the capsules interior, and Ardan’s hopeful prospects about space husbandry, Verne nullifies all the fantasy and nonsense, and leaves the astronauts speechless and humbled by what Buzz Aldren, one hundred years later, would call ‘magnificent desolation’.
Jules Verne entered the realm of pure speculation, and detoured through a jungle of fantastic, sometimes ill-conceived, conjecture, yet still managed to get to the heart of what a true journey to the moon would be like.
And in an ironic sidenote, there is a chapter where the rational Barbicane discusses with Nichols, the stern and militaristic third astronaut, the volcanic nature of the Moon’s surface. As the projectile sails over the iconic Tycho Crater, the two men hypothesize about what geologic process could be responsible for the sprawling ridges that radiate from the crater’s center. The clownish Ardan interrupts to suggest that crater might resemble a glass that has been struck by a rock, the radiating ridges the cracks produced by an impact. Barbicane and Nichols laugh off this suggestion. Little did they know Adran (and Verne?) was right. The vast majority of craters on the Moon are of the impact variety. Something most astronomers did not at the time suspect.
Verne's first volume, "From the Earth to the Moon", is a satirical and fast-paced jaunt through American ingenuity and can-do spirit, sticking as much as possible to the hard facts. It is impressive in its predictive qualities.
"Round the Moon" is a far different story, with a slower, more contemplative and speculative tone. And in spite of its tenuous tether to the known science of the day, it is just as eerily prescient of what the mankind would actually discover a century later, and a pretty accurate reflection of the haunting majesty of the only other place in the universe we've ever been.
In Maria Doria Russell's 'Emilio Sandoz' duology, the author displays an uncanny ability to write sci-fi that feels so inherently true, it never feelsIn Maria Doria Russell's 'Emilio Sandoz' duology, the author displays an uncanny ability to write sci-fi that feels so inherently true, it never feels like science fiction. In the first novel, "The Sparrow", Russell creates one of my new favorite literary characters, the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, then runs him and his comrades through quite the spiritual and physical ringer. The reveal at the end of that novel is a gut punch to your expectations, and is a rare case where the answer to the mystery is not undermined by an overly melodramatic build-up. It truly shocked me and haunted me for quite a while after I finished it.
The idea that Russell had written a sequel stirred up mixed feelings. There were certainly vast areas to explore in the world she had built in "The Sparrow", but with such a perfectly conceived conclusion to her first effort, I wondered if diving back in to that universe would threaten its integrity. It turns out my worries were moot. I have the sense that she never would have revisited that world if she hadn't felt a legitimate need to say something else about it. "Children of God" feels woven from the same cloth as the original, and subsequently is familiar in the way a sequel should be. But the tapestry she weaves is of an entirely different mood.
Fortunately, Sandoz, now a lapsed Jesuit, still takes center stage, as does the crisis and ultimate failure of faith he experienced in volume one. The focus here, however, is not on tearing down Sandoz's faith, but the attempts of his friends and colleagues to build it back up again.
And rathan than center the story around the Jesuits' naive and disasterous attempts to explore and observe, "Children of God" sees the contingent journeying to Rakhat in full knowledge of how vastly foreign the society is into which they immerse. And since the characters now know, we the reader are now allowed to know the subtle intricacies of how the two Rakhati cultures, Jana'ata and Runa, are intertwined. This is accomplished with astonishing efficiency by Russell who manages to touch on just the right characters and moments to give an epic sense of the history of the planet.
Russell uses non-linear story-telling to invoke some mystery about how the decades long stuggle between the two races play out, but this mystery is just a tangent to the spiritual conflicts of Sandoz. Russell again forces her protagonist through an undeserved gaunlet, and it is a testament to her storytelling ability that she can invoke in the reader such rage at his plight, only to pursuade you gently into acceptance of things having to happen the way they did. There is no subversively grotesque conclusion this time around, but the ending is no less strong for being gentle and low-key.
For any fans of true science-fiction, I can't recommend "The Sparrow" and "Children of God" enough....more