Jan 27, 2013

The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells

This classic science fiction novella is a true treat, and a great example of why I love science fiction so much. Wells' tale of an Edwardian time traveler's journey to the year 802,701 CE is fascinating and enthralling. Humanity, he guesses, has split into two distinct species, and the endeavors towards social and economic stability have resulted in a decadence leading to fatal weakness, rather than the incredibly advanced society the time traveler had expected to find. This future horrifies, but as Wells says in the epilogue, "to me the future is still black and blank...a vast ignorance." Fear of the future cannot be allowed to wither the present. The possibilities are endless and infinite, and we must not live perpetually afraid of the most dire consequences of our actions. If the human imagination is vivid enough to think of a future like that in "The Time Machine," it is powerful enough to come up with new ones as well.

Jan 26, 2013

Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

I know, I know, another Pratchett book. I can't help that he's great for washing my brain out, so to speak, after I've read something on the heavy side. Like all Discworld stories, this one is funny, smart, and poignant. The basic plot device is the (re)creation of football (otherwise known as soccer, to those of us in America), and I have to admit that it was a tiny bit boring. Luckily there were a couple other stories alongside that one that I did really enjoy, so that helped buoy it up. But among Pratchett books, this is not my favorite.

Jan 20, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

This being my first foray into Dickens' work, I didn't quite know what to expect and was assuming it would be vaguely Bronte-ian. In terms of vocabulary, I was mostly right. In terms of atmosphere and plot, I was way off. Written in the mid-1800s, this is a piece of historical fiction about the French Revolution, and it is truly stirring in a way I hadn't imagined it would be. Dickens also managed to accomplish something amazing, in that he successfully created sympathy for both the heroes and the anti-heroes. The reader feels just as awful about the execrable conditions of the French peasants as ones does about the plight of Charles Darnay's family. Dickens' point is that tyranny begets tyranny, horror begets horror. Vengeance is never as righteous as it seems to be, and cruelty knows no boundaries of class or wealth. Poverty does not a good man (or woman) make, and the will to stand up against injustice and commit great sacrifice can sometimes be found in the most unlikely places. I am so glad I read this important work, even if it did make me cry at the end.

Jan 11, 2013

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

I have to admit, I LOVE the movie starring Will Smith that was made out of this classic science fiction book. I've been wanting to read more classic sci fi anyways, so I was particularly excited to read this one. First, my comments on the book as unrelated to the movie:

The only other Asimov I've read was a collection of his short mystery stories, and this actually reminds me quite a bit of those. There isn't much of a narrative thread through the book, it's rather a collection of closely related short stories, each of which presents a mystery or problem to be solved. It's always very cerebral, and always solved by the end of the story. Asimov clearly was possessed of a brilliant mind, both for problem solving and for science fiction. The writing is spare; there is not a single word wasted, and I enjoyed every page of it.

Now in comparison to the movie: the plot of the movie is almost entirely original, though it pulls important parts from the book. The character of Dr. Calvin is very close to the book, and the moral dilemmas presented are very much inspired by Asimov's. It was interesting to see what bits and pieces were lifted from the book and worked into the storyline of the movie, and I think that the movie actually did a very good job of emulating the atmosphere and intention of the book.

Jan 7, 2013

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

This much-lauded biography is exceptionally well-written, but in the end it isn't really a biography. As Schiff takes care to note, we know almost nothing about Cleopatra. History has left us none of her extant writing or speaking, many statues that are assumed to be Cleopatra cannot be said with certainty to be her, and everything written about her shortly after her death or even during her life is by propogandists from the other side. Cleopatra's life must be figured from the holes and shadows, pried away from hyperbole and melodrama. Aside from some few coins minted by her and bearing her likeness, we know for sure almost nothing about her.

So Schiff does her best, and instead of a true biography of a person, we have a biography of her time and the people who surrounded her. Schiff uses what we know of Egypt, Rome, and the Ptolemaic dynasty to make well-educated best guesses, and does a great job doing so. Given this, there is much more to be learned about Ceasar, Antony, and Octavian (Augustus) than there is about Cleopatra, and there are a few sections which don't even mention her for several pages. Perhaps I'm being snobbish, since I was educated in history and am already familiar with the story of Octavian and Antony, but I found those sections to be boring. I understand why Schiff included them, but they could have been shortened. I was always waiting expectantly to return to Cleopatra, which didn't happen often enough. That being said, the book is an excellent effort, very well-written and researched and very engaging to read. Schiff has presented us more with historiography than history, the development and aggrandizement of an archetype that has persisted already more than two thousand years, and that in and of itself is an interesting topic. Perhaps one day we will learn more about Cleopatra, if Alexandria ever emerges from the sand, but for now, Schiff's biography does her a great justice.