Prelude to Mars is an omnibus of early Arthur C Clarke material - two novels, a novella, and a dozen or so short stories. Despite considering myself aPrelude to Mars is an omnibus of early Arthur C Clarke material - two novels, a novella, and a dozen or so short stories. Despite considering myself a lifelong fan, I was astonished to find not only unexpected variety, but one of Clarke's better novels (Sands of Mars). I can't say whether I'm embarrassed I haven't known about these works until now or if I should celebrate the fact that twenty years of fandom isn't enough to exhaust the treasure trove of this author's oeuvre. Obscure gems are still out there in thrift stores and used book shops and the local library.
Among the more noteworthy stories are "The Parasite" and "Exile of the Eons." The former shows Clarke's often overlooked versatility. Clarke suggests several times in this period his interest in Poe. But it is a later American, H P Lovecraft, who seems to emerge. American literature may have really been on the author's mind at this time, as the motif of suspended animation as practical, one-way time travel evokes "Rip Van Winkle" (in "Exile" and others). The idea (expressed in the latter as well as Sands of Mars) that one's colonial offspring may one day exceed the greatness of the parent society may well be a reflection on the fin de siècle of empire, open to interpretation as America ascending. Or I may be in a sentimental mood... Neverthess, both stories are chilling - unexpected fare from an author capable of swashbuckling adventures as well as hard science fiction, but seldom fantasy and never horror.
Of course, science fiction's greatest liability is the inevitability of later being invalidated by actual, subsequent scientific reality. That's why the best science fiction writers are philosophers at heart, experts in the formation of durable koans. How else would a 60+ year old collection of premises utterly devastated by errors in their predictions* make for edge-of-your-seat reading in the 21st century?
Prelude to Mars holds two specific pleasures in store for Clarke fans: One, readers will enjoy watching the author's greatest ideas mature. Central features of 2001, 2010 and the Rama series appear in prototype form. Two, readers will find some of Clarke's more literary output in Sands of Mars. Clarke succeeds in making compelling, likable characters (one of the author's notable weaknesses; most Arthur C Clarke books are populated by flaccid, 2-D stereotypes going through stock motions in much more vibrant worlds (it's those worlds we're interested in, not the generically handsome playboy scientists somnambulating within them)). The principal characters in Sands of Mars rank alongside those of Rama and Childhood's End for the designation of Clarke's best creations.
This is a great anthology - easily worth the $2.00 it's bound to cost at the used book store when you eventually come across it.
*Atomic propulsion and... (ahem) flora and fauna on Mars. Oh well......more
I would say Loon Lake is the best E.L. Doctorow novel I have read thus far (I even hazard to say Loon Lake is the superior of Ragtime). Others have caI would say Loon Lake is the best E.L. Doctorow novel I have read thus far (I even hazard to say Loon Lake is the superior of Ragtime). Others have called it confusing, difficult, compromised by bad poetry, etc., but I found the out-of-chronological order and first-person-narrative jumping exciting. The use of verse to reprise the prose was a way of angling the story slightly differently so the reader can admire the way the light strikes it on different facets. Doctorow's occasional decision to present the verse version ahead of the narrative version has the cinematic/musical effect of rushing the reader down a wormhole into the scene or leaping into a new verse on a backward cymbal hit. This, along with the riveting stream-of-consciousness vignettes, give Loon Lake a rhythmic quality unlikely to appear in a straightforward, linear story.
The stream-of-consciousness segments are what truly make Loon Lake the success it is. In the past, I've had trouble with stream-of-consciousness prose, chiefly because the authors themselves were too eccentric in their own consciousness and decided to imbue their subjects with the same inscrutability (Joyce, Wolfe, Dos Passos). Doctorow writes such accessible, plausible characters that their streams of consciousness are logical and feel like natural motions, like being masterfully led in a dance.
And - I realize this sounds cheap and corny - the fact that Loon Lake has a relatively ( but plausibly) happy ending gives the book a clean finish. The novel's horrific scenes make the reader apprehensive that Loon Lake will play out like a Coen Brothers movie (of the Fargo, No Country for Old Men variety) by the end. Don't think of this as a spoiler; consider it reassurance: Loon Lake is not a crushing despair. It's a great novel, one any Doctorow fan should seek out....more
I've been thinking about what I could have missed. I try, but can't find the similarity to The Catcher in the Rye that others found. Which is good, beI've been thinking about what I could have missed. I try, but can't find the similarity to The Catcher in the Rye that others found. Which is good, because I don't think Catcher is much more than a prerequisite and definitely not an end unto itself. Beer in the Snooker Club bears more similarity to A Passage to India. BITSC's protagonist, Ram (the nephew of a prominent Egyptian family who floats through life on privilege, good connections, a classical education, and a winning personality) resembles Dr. Aziz much more than he does Holden Caulfield - if not in temperament, at least in navigating the dangerous terrain of being native and operating in an Anglo-dominated high society. Besides that, Holden Caulfield would never have contemplated a fortnight on the town with reference to The Sun Also Rises, which is what Ram does - proposing the protagonist and his party abandon decency like "the Hemingway people in Spain." Caulfield treated most human interaction as a form of vandalism, with a satanic drive to simply be left alone. Ram constantly feels the effects of his growing alienation from his contemporaries. He resents the sycophancy of his cousin, the self-loathing manners of his francophile maternal relatives, the condescension of liberal English upper class families, the hopelessness of those stupid or idealistic enough to get involved in politics. His attitudes toward those he cares about are much more complex. He finds it easy enough to lure the women in his life away from their natural, likely prospective mates but difficult to secure any kind of commitment from them. The mixture of love and apparent rejection weighs heavily on his heart. The gradual drift away from his best friend, who may lack Ram's highly developed sense of self, is one of the book's central devices. I just don't see Holden Caulfield being concerned by alienation or the feelings of others.
Beer in the Snooker Club is a beautifully plain-written novel. The setting - 1956-1959 by my own estimate - is easy to identify with, even in a location that seems exotic to North American readers. The Sinai War and its effects on geopolitics is well known and can be used for mise en scene without spending much time on the political/historic circumstances. Though BITSC is an inherently political novel, it feels like a 20th century English novel in the vein of Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh. The scattered, occasional suggestions that the book will take a turn toward Dostoevsky or Darkness at Noon/Nineteen Eighty-Four are not brought to term. Only at the end, when it is plain that there is an entirely concealed side of Ram's character does the reader understand how political the book truly is. For all practical purposes, the reader interfaces with it at a totally non-political level, focusing instead on the first generation's identity struggle in a post-colonial world. If Beer in the Snooker Club had been written later, we would call Ram's identity crises a sign of globalization and its discontents.
Ghali's prose is impressionistic, rather than reactionary. He describes Egypt as "(invoking) in you, I suppose, a scene of a fellah trudging home in the twilight, a spade over his shoulder, and his son leading a cow behind him. Well, Egypt is a place where middle-aged people play croquet" and later as "many different things. Playing snooker with Doromian and Varenian the Armenians, is Egypt to me. Sarcastic remarks are Egypt to me - not only the fellah and his plight. Riding the tram is Egypt. Do you know my friend Fawzi? He can never give an answer that isn't witty... and yet he isn't renowned for it. He's an ordinary Egyptian. Last week I was riding the tram with him when a man stepped on his foot. 'Excuse me,' said the man, 'for stepping on your foot.' - 'Not at all,' said Fawzi, 'I've been stepping on it myself for the last twenty-seven years' ... How can I explain to you that Egypt to me is something unconscious, is nothing particularly political, or... or... oh, never mind."
Beer in the Snooker Club is a beautiful novel, if not characteristic of Egyptian literature (of which I know nothing) at least a good study of the state of the novel itself in the 1960s. It's a shame this book is not more widely available or taught in the US. I'm very grateful for the publishers for bringing it back to print.j...more