Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I first read William Gibson's Neuromancer sometime during the 1980s, a few years after its 1984 publication. This book is considered a science-fiction classic and is often cited as the first “cyberpunk” novel. Upon rereading it decades later, I found this book to be an extraordinary work of speculative fiction. 

Set in what seems to be the late twenty-first century, Gibson paints a picture of a highly technical and dark world. This book was prophetic as it predicted many of the aspects of the digital revolution. A key aspect to Gibson’s universe is “The Matrix” (The film called The Matrix, made after the publication of this book, explored some similar concepts as this book but is otherwise unrelated to this novel.) This fictional digital construct is a virtual reality, cyberspace world that represents all the world’s computers and the linkages between them. People can access the Matrix by connecting electrodes to their brains. The Matrix is similar to today’s Internet in many ways. It is different in that it is mostly used for high-level commerce and military applications. Various people navigate this virtual world. “Console Cowboys” are hackers who use the Matrix to break into computer systems and for other illicit purposes. There exists something called “Black Ice,” which are security systems that can cause real injury and death to console cowboys when they try to hack into computer systems. 

Gibson’s world is full of illicit activity both in cyberspace and in the real world. Various individuals, gangs, criminal organizations, corporations and other groups deal in contraband, drugs, pirated and illegal computer programs and data, etc. Many people have surgical modifications that allow them to directly connect their brains to the digital world, improve their fighting abilities, enhance attractiveness, etc. The author has created an entire “hip” culture that the book’s characters operate in. I find that Gibson correctly anticipated many present day online movements and groups, and technical related slang.

Case is the book’s main character. He is a console cowboy. He is recruited by a mysterious man named Armitage for some kind of big, undisclosed hacking job. Molly is a young woman who is also in Armitage’s employment. She is a soldier of fortune/mercenary type who has retractable knives in her fingernails as well as other enhancements to make her formidable and dangerous. Molly and Case quickly become romantically involved.

Gibson’s prose is dense and full of descriptions. He manages to describe technical objects and subjects in an almost poetic way. This is one of this novel’s great strengths. This is exemplified by the book’s somewhat famous opening line,

"THE SKY ABOVE the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." (For my younger readers who might not know, before the modern “blue screen,” empty television channels had an odd, varying, gray look).

Later Case observes the debris of society rotting in a decrepit building,

They stood in a clearing, dense tangles of junk rising on either side…The junk looked like something that had grown there, a fungus of twisted metal and plastic. He could pick out individual objects, but then they seemed to blur back into the mass: the guts of a television so old it was studded with the glass stumps of vacuum tubes, a crumpled dish antenna, a brown fiber canister stuffed with corroded lengths of alloy tubing. An enormous pile of old magazines had cascaded into the open area, flesh of lost summers staring blindly up as he followed her back through a narrow canyon of impacted scrap. “

In Gibson’s world, high technology and decayed industrialism exist side by side. The above quotation also reminds me of some of the descriptions of industrial decay found in Charles Dickens’s novels. I wrote a little bit about those descriptions in David Copperfield here. The concept of technology and industrialism, leading and relating to decay, is not a new one. I am not contending that Gibson is as great of a  prose writer as Dickens was. However, I think that Dickens may have provided some of the intellectual and aesthetic roots for Gibson. 

Case and Molly are extremely flawed protagonists. Both have murdered people. They are not sociopaths as they do feel regret for the actions that they have committed that have hurt others. They are both fairly complex characters. 

Case’s and Molly’s questionable ethics add complexity to their depictions. Molly exudes a kind of cool and tough persona that still holds up over the years. Case’s surfing of the Matrix, including his effort to break into systems and his encounters with Black Ice, is both interesting and exciting to read about. Thus, Gibson’s work is dark, but it is also entertaining. 

There is a lot to the plot. Space travel, artificial intelligence, bioengineering and even a space colony of Rastafarians are all integrated into the story. Though some of this sounds far fetched, Gibson has created a believable world. The characters, plot and fictional environment fit together seamlessly. If many of the elements of this book seem familiar to readers and viewers of twenty-first century science fiction and young adult books, it should be remembered that this novel introduced many of these elements for the first time.

I should mention that there are sequels to this book as well as a fair number of short stories. Some of the short stories were published prior to this book. I have read the sequels as well as most or all of the short stories. I remember thinking that most of these works were very good.

This book manages to be dark and fun at the same time. I have highlighted Gibson’s prose style above. There is so much more to this work than I have mentioned here. There are interesting themes involving humans and technology, the search for identity and a lot more. The book also has a lot to say about humankind’s future, morality and other big issues. Thus, I am going to post at least one more entry on this work. This is tough and gritty science fiction that still resonates more then 30 years after its first publication.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, was written in 1794. However, the book is set in the late seventeenth century. This novel is often called the first gothic novel. I found it to be a fun and entertaining story.

Emily St. Aubert is a young French girl raised in the countryside. She is close to her father, Monsieur St. Aubert, who is philosophical, wise and kind. While on a trip they meet a young man, Sue Valancourt Brown. Valancourt is a kindred spirit to Emily and her father as he who appreciates beauty and virtue in the same ways that they do. Emily and he begin to fall in love. 

When Emily’s father dies, Emily is placed under the guardianship of her aunt Madame Cheron and her husband Montoni. Madame Cheron is self-centered and controlling, and she scorns nature and the ethical, virtue-based belief system that Emily values. Montoni is amoral, scheming and eventually shows himself to be a violent criminal. Much of the plot involves itself in Madame Cheron and Montoni trying to separate Emily from Valancourt and attempting to marry her off to vacuous noblemen, while at the same time scheming to steal Emily’s estate. Emily is dragged to Venice and eventually to Udolpho, a castle that Montoni owns in the Italian Mountains. 

There is more to the plot as Emily eventually escapes Udolpho and encounters new but related mysteries and drama in both France and Italy. My version of this book was over 700 pages long so there is a lot of plot contained in its pages. 

This book is full of grandiose descriptions. Sometimes these descriptions go on for pages and pages. Natural landscapes are described in detail and their beauty extolled. There is a connection between these descriptions and the book’s themes of spiritual fulfillment and natural beauty. The city of Venice is described as an almost magical place filled with palaces and gondoliers that fill the scene with lights and music. The segment of the book that takes place in the castle is full of passages that occur at night, describing the labyrinth of rooms, passages, stairways, etc. 

The descriptions of Castle Udolpho, as well as several other castle-like structures, are also well written and atmospheric. One gets the impression that the interiors of these buildings are enormous. Many words are devoted to describing passages, staircases, tombs, etc. These passages give the book a kind of atmospheric, spooky and fun feel. This work seems to have been very influential on centuries of gothic stories and films.

The characters are generally not complex. Emily and her father and are virtuous, kind and wise. Valancourt shows a few flaws that are, at the most, minor. Montoni, his cohorts and various other characters are villainous, self-centered and uncaring.

This book is far from perfect. The number of “mysteries” multiplies so much and is left to sit for so many hundreds of pages that I lost interest in finding the answers to some. Parts of the book are overdramatic and silly. Valancourt in particular, though virtuous, is wildly melodramatic. However, these over-the-top aspects are sometimes humorous and enjoyable. The story includes a fair number of tangential episodes that add little value, so the length of the book seems excessive. In the end, however, the fun and originality of the novel outweighed all of these negatives for me. 

The story sets up several contrasts. Emily’s father has “disengaged himself from the world” to live a rural and peaceful life. This is also true of several other sympathetic characters in the narrative. Folks who have separated themselves from worldly society are noble and calm. In contrast, those engaged with the world act malevolently. There is also an interesting contrast between art and the beauty of nature, 

At one point Emily compares an opera performance to an ocean scene that she recently viewed, 

“It was near midnight before they withdrew to the opera, where Emily was not so charmed but that, when she remembered the scene she had just quitted, she felt how infinitely inferior all the splendour of art is to the sublimity of nature. Her heart was not now affected, tears of admiration did not start to her eyes, as when she viewed the vast expanse of ocean, the grandeur of the heavens, and listened to the rolling waters, and to the faint music that, at intervals, mingled with their roar. Remembering these, the scene before her faded into insignificance. “

The book is also full of picturesque passages describing the grandeur of forests, mountains, rivers, oceans, etc. The narrative champions the natural world and couples nature with virtue.

One of the reasons that I read this book was that I have read that it is parodied in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the last Austen novel that I have not yet read. I wanted to read this work first. 

Though not a brilliant work, this is certainly worth the read. This novel is fun and atmospheric. It was also very influential on centuries of literature and film that came after. Though not complex, the characters are enjoyable to read about. In the end, this work was a very pleasant reading experience. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome, a novella written by Edith Wharton, was first published in 1911. The title character of the story is a young farmer and lumber mill owner who lives in an isolated part of Vermont. As Frome’s story unfolds, the reader learns that the story’s protagonist is barely keeping his head above water. He is also stuck in a loveless marriage. His wife, Zeena, is cold, self - centered, and is a hypochondriac who uses her illness to manipulate others.  Zeena’s cousin Mattie, orphaned and destitute, has come to live with the Fromes. Though their relationship is unconsummated, Mattie and Ethan have fallen in love. When Zeena decides to send Mattie away, the pair are plunged into deep despair.

This is a curious story. As it takes place during a northern New England winter, it is filled with descriptions of a snowy and cold environment. It is also a dark tale.  Ethan is normally unhappy, and the events of the story drive him into desperation and gloom. The ending is odd and contains some surprising developments.

This book is filled with pathos. The passages during which Mattie and Ethan develop their attraction as well as those where they believe that they are going to be parted are tenderly and masterfully written.

At one point Ethan thinks about kissing Mattie,

"He knew that most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm about Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable."

Though short, this novella is full of ideas and contains a fascinating plot and characters.  Much can be written about it. There is something that this tale has in common with other Wharton books that I have read, such as House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, in that it is a brilliant examination of a person who is trapped due to social and economic bounds. Ethan is in a miserable position, and he has come to despise Zeena. The story recounts how he made a terrible mistake when he proposed to her. He did so mostly to avoid loneliness. His dream of becoming an engineer has disappeared. He has fallen in love with Mattie, who is not only going to be torn from him, but who is going to be sent into a dire situation.

As he considers every option open to him, he realizes that there is apparently no way out. Zeena has him boxed in at home. He contemplates running away with Mattie, but he is stymied by multiple financial as well as ethical constraints. At one point he thinks,

"The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished."

The above quotation perfectly describes the situation that Ethan is in, it perfectly describes the plot of this book, and it perfectly illustrates what how skilled a writer Wharton is. The metaphors of the prison warden as well as the finality of Ethan’s situation are the expressions of a great writer.

There is so much to this short book that I have not touched on.  Many words have been written about its characters and story. Wharton had a knack for describing people caught in bad situations as well as the negative emotions that go along with them. Anyone who likes Wharton or stories about relationships is likely to get a lot out of this book.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

George III by Christopher Hibbert

George III by Christopher Hibbert is a comprehensive biography of the British king. This book delves into the personal, social and political world of this monarch. Hibbert describes the monarch and his life without inserting too many of his own opinions into the history. 

The picture that this book paints is that of a moderate and ethical leader. He reined over Great Britain before and during the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. George III was a constitutional monarch who was very constrained by Parliament and law. A modern American president or British prime minister has more power than this king. Hibbert's book describes a monarch who appointed government ministers and other officials, occasionally approved domestic and foreign policy initiatives and gave advice to the government. Of course, he was the symbol of Great Britain and her government. 

George III was a cultured and curious man. He was interested in art, literature and science as well as more practical matters relating to governing. Hibbert writes,

“the king’s talk revealed the breadth of his reading and the wide range of his interests. He was knowledgeable about botany and agriculture well as architecture, genealogy, astronomy and horology. He made himself conversant withy the state of the country’s manufacturing industries.”

Astronomy was also one of his interests,

“It was the King’s curiosity about optical instruments which led to his interest in astronomy”

His marriage to Queen Charlotte was in some ways unusual as the two were faithful to one another. It was an arranged union. The pair never met before it was planned. Yet, for many years, at least until they become much older, they were a happy couple. In this time period, male royalty, and sometimes female royalty, typically engaged in lengthy extramarital affairs. Neither George III nor Queen Charlotte engaged in such liaisons.

The book also touches upon the king’s flaws. George III treated his sons harshly when young and forced them into near exile when older. Both he and Queen Charlotte were terribly controlling of their daughters, even by the standards of the time. He was also complacent and supported discrimination aimed at Catholics.

Starting in his fifties, George III unfortunately went through periods where he suffered bouts of serious mental illness. These periods were characterized by delusions and wild outbursts. These spells were intermittent and he enjoyed many years of stability between them. Many historians, including Hibbert, believe that the king suffered from porphyria.

My version of this book was just titled George III; however, some versions come with the subtitle: A Personal History. With that, there is a lot of politics included in this book, almost enough to dispense with the personal history label. However, had these politics been described in a little more detail, I feel that this book would have been a little stronger and could easily have been called a full history. As it stands, the work feels 95 percent complete. My version of the book was 410 large pages of text. The book would have benefitted from about 20 additional pages of political detail. 

I want to write a few words about how this book is presented by the publisher, blurb writers and public opinion as it relates to George III. 

Many of the blurbs relating to the book, as well as the cover jacket description, describe this work as something a reassessment of George III. This biography is presented as a book aimed at restoring George III’s reputation. This is not reflected in the text, however. Hibbert never claims to be rehabilitating George III’s character. However, if his character needed restoring, this book has the effect of doing so. This is the portrait of a competent leader and a fairly ethical man who was intelligent and cultured. Having read a lot about The American Revolutionary generation, I have seen the common theme amongst them of labeling this man as a repressive tyrant. The American Declaration of Independence describes him as 

A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

These assertions become laughable when the man and his rule are actually examined. 

I have also seen the film version of The Madness of King George. That film was fairly accurate in that it depicted the king’s mental illness as temporary. However, in the television series Turn, George III is depicted as being insane and petty during the American Revolution. As per Hibbert’s account, the king’s malady did not start until well after that conflict ended. He was also anything but petty.

I am not sure how George III is viewed in Great Britain. My impression, based upon interactions with individuals and observation of media sources, is that many Americans think of him as a repressive king that the American Revolutionary generation rebelled against. I also find that some people have a vague notion that he was insane. Thus, this book is a good resource to counter certain incorrect and unfair narratives.

This is a very worthwhile biography for anyone who wants to know about this often-misunderstood monarch. It is detailed as well as readable. I did a little research before reading this and found that it is respected among historians. It is balanced. Hibbert writes fairly and is careful about facts. I highly recommend this to those interested in this period of history or in British royalty in general.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Don Quixote and Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot

I read the Edith Grossman translation oDon Quixote.

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is full of brilliant passages. One example of marvelous and creative writing can be found when Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho, believes that he has been transported through the heavens on the back of a magical, wooden horse. At ths point in the narrative Sancho is anticipating a ridiculous and false promise that has been made to him that he will soon be appointed governor of a province.  He describes the experience below. 

“I looked down at the earth, and it seemed to me that it was no larger than a mustard seed, and the men walking on it not much bigger than hazel nuts, so you can see how high we must have been flying then.

After I came down from the sky, and after I looked at the earth from that great height and saw how small it was, the burning desire I had to be a governor cooled a little; where’s the greatness in ruling a mustard seed, or the dignity or pride in governing half a dozen men the size of hazel nuts? It seemed to me that this was all there was on the whole earth.”

The above is a very interesting passage for several reasons. Comparing Earth to a mustard seed seems to reference The Mustard Seed parable of the New Testament. In the gospels of both Luke and Mathew, a mustard seed is compared to the Kingdom of Heaven. However, this passage is reminding me of something else, something more contemporary. In a public speech, and in his book, Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan commented upon a picture of Earth taken by Voyager One,

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

Dark grey and black static with coloured vertical rays of sunlight over part of the image. A small pale blue point of light is barely visible.
The Voyager One Photograph refereed
to in  Carl Sagan's quotation. 

I find the sentiments in these two passages similar in several ways. These quotations written hundreds of years apart seem to have a lot in common. Both refer to the insignificance of Earth. What is remarkable about Cervantes’s writing is that it was written in the 17th century, before the age of technology. The 17th century writer did not have pictures of Earth from space to inspire him. Yet, based mostly upon intuition and reason, he was able to express, very eloquently, something of the smallness that is our planet.

Both quotations also try to grapple with the apparent insignificance of human endeavors. I find Sagan’s words so moving as well as eye opening. He encapsulates human thought and efforts from the beginning of time in just a few sentences.

Likewise, Sancho’s dream of being a governor is diminished when he sees how small all of Earth and its people are. He compares the planet to a plant seed and its inhabitants to hazelnuts. He realizes, to paraphrase Sagan, that he is trying to become a momentary master of a fraction of a dot. Once again, this is all the more striking when one realizes that Don Quixote was written many centuries ago.

Sagan often talked and wrote about how humans tend to overinflate Earth’s importance and place in the Universe. Within the pages of Cervantes’s work, we find similar ideas. In this way, Cervantes seemed very ahead of his time. The Spanish author also expressed these thoughts in an eloquent and aesthetically pleasing way. This passage is one of the many gems that can be found in the epic that is Don Quixote.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

I read the Edith Grossman translation of this work.

The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha, better known as Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes was published in two parts between 1605 and 1615. This enormously famous work has been called the first modern novel. Many consider it one of the greatest works of literature. This is a big book, the edition that I read was 941 pages long.

This is a work of comedy and parody. It is also many other things. It tells the story of its namesake, Don Quixote. The protagonist is a Spanish nobleman. At 50 years of age, he decides to take to the road to live the life of a knight-errant. He sets out accompanied by his “squire,” a local farmer named Sancho Panza. Don Quixote’s mission is to fight injustice and right wrongs while following a strict code of chivalry. As the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that he is living in a world of delusion (although some critics have suggested that the delusion is a put-on and that Don Quixote actually has a firm grasp on reality). Windmills become giants to be attacked, caravans of travelers become enemy armies to fight, dark and damp caves become entrances to mystical lands, inns become castles and peasant girls become princesses. The story is very episodic. Often, Don Quixote attacks random people that he perceives to be villainous warriors. The targets of his attacks typically fight back, and Don Quixote and Sancho sometimes take beatings.  The pair partakes in other amusing and interesting adventures. Other times, Don Quixote befriends various people whose own stories and adventures occupy multiple pages of narrative.

Throughout the book Don Quixote and Sancho bicker, and their exchanges range from hilarious to enlightening. However, it is apparent the two harbor great affection for one another.

So much has been written about this work. Some consider it a critique of the concepts of chivalry and honor. Others consider it a tribute to those ideas. Like some, I think that the theme of this work lies somewhere in between parody and respect for these ideas. At one point, Don Quixote describes his mission,

“a knight I am, and a knight I shall die, if it pleases the Almighty. Some men walk the broad fields of haughty ambition, or base and servile adulation, or deceptive hypocrisy, and some take the road of true religion; but I, influenced by my star, follow the narrow path of knight errantry, and because I profess it I despise wealth but not honor. I have redressed grievances, righted wrongs, punished insolence, vanquished giants, and trampled monsters; I am in love, simply because it is obligatory for knights errant to be so; and being so, I am not a dissolute lover, but one who is chaste and platonic. I always direct my intentions to virtuous ends, which are to do good to all and evil to none”

The above quotation seems to encapsulate the mix of mockery and esteem for such ideas as chivalry and honor. The above is amusing. It also espouses virtues that are commendable.

What I found striking about Cervantes’s book is how modern this 400 year old work seems. Though some of this impression might be attributable to Grossman’s translation, there are universal aspects to this book that are relevant the 21st century.

In particular, I found this story to be hilarious. Don Quixote is constantly interpreting the identity of common people and everyday events as being a part of his fantasy world. These interpretations are amusing, entertaining and creative. The predicaments that he gets Sancho and himself into elicit outright laughter. I find it to be striking that so much of the humor works so well after all of these centuries.

The chemistry between Don Quixote and Sancho is both amusing and endearing. Though there is an ever-present class distinction between the two, the relationship reminds me of a modern one between unequals that is outwardly antagonistic but inwardly warm. The dialogs between the two would fit well into a modern day comedy-drama.

The description of Don Quixote’s “madness” also seems very modern. Anyone who has ever encountered a delusional person would in time recognize a lot in this book’s hero. The people that Don Quixote encounters react in ways that also reminds me of the way modern people react to mental illness. Some respond with anger, others with amusement and more than a few with understanding.

All of this makes this book very accessible to the modern reader. It also makes this work a testament to the fact that many of the things that characterize people are universal.

The above is just a nibble of what this massive book has to offer. I can easily write a series of blogs on this tome. The work is full of philosophy and both overt and underlying themes. One could also write volumes about the characters and their relationships. Thus, I will likely post at least one more entry on this work.

This is a magnificent piece of fiction.  At least when it comes to Grossman’s translation, this is also very readable. Despite its status as a canonical classic, it is both entertaining and funny. Though I think that its length keeps people away from it, I would recommend this work to almost anyone who is not put off by its size. This is ultimately, a magnificent work of literature.