Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Larry Niven’s Ringworld is a reread for me. This novel, originally published in 1970, tells the story of four adventurers who explore a mysterious alien mega-structure. Set in the far future, humankind has begun colonizing the galaxy. Humans have also encountered and interacted with several sentient alien species.

This is a very character-driven book. The list of protagonists consist of: Louis Wu, a playboy who is also intelligent, philosophical and enlightened; Teela Brown, a young woman who has a strange, possibly psychically-based, tendency to experience nothing but good luck; Speaker to Animals, a member of an alien race of feline-like warriors called the Kzin; and Nessus is a member of an alien species called Pierson's Puppeteers.

The Puppeteers are key to the plot. They two-headed Tripods. Their extreme caution is manifested in enormous cowardice. They are also an extremely advanced civilization that is capable of moving entire planets over vast distances.

The story hinges on the fact that The Puppeteers have discovered a massive, artificial ring structure orbiting around a remote star. Its surface is so big that its landmass would encapsulate a million Earths. Its origin, as well as the origin of those who built it, is unknown. The Puppeteers are afraid to mount their own expedition, thus the book’s protagonists are recruited to explore the Ringworld. The narrative details their wanderings on the object. Upon reaching the Ringworld, they discover that the once advanced civilization that occupied the mega-structure has collapsed into near barbarism.  The expedition proceeds to have encounters with all sorts of amazing aliens and phenomena.

Though it is considered, and does loosely fit into the category of hard science fiction, this book is, above all else, fun. The characters are entertaining, and their interactions between each other are as interesting as they are amusing. The adventure that they partake in is grand. The description of both the Ringworld as well as the various planets and technology encountered by the expedition is chocked full of wonder and is imaginative. In addition to all of this, the book is funny. Niven has a dry but active sense of humor, and all of the characters are all amusing.

An idea of the playful/serious/imaginative mix of the book is illustrated in the below passage which describes Louis Wu being attacked by an individual, the “hairy man,” followed by a mob,

“The blow was light, for the hairy man was slight and his hands were fragile. But it hurt. Louis was not used to pain. Most people of his century had never felt pain more severe than that of a stubbed toe. Anaesthetics were too prevalent, medical help was too easily available. The pain of a skier's broken leg usually lasted seconds, not minutes, and the memory was often suppressed as an intolerable trauma. Knowledge of the fighting disciplines, karate, judo, jujitsu, and boxing, had been illegal since long before Louis Wu was born. Louis Wu was a lousy warrior. He could face death, but not pain. The blow hurt. Louis screamed and dropped his flashlight-laser. The audience converged. Two hundred infuriated hairy men became a thousand demons; and things weren't nearly as funny as they had been a minute ago. “

Though the novel brings the reader into contact with incredible things and Niven has put a lot of thought into the science, the physics, biology, astronomy, psychology, etc., is described in enough detail to be interesting but never so much detail to be boring. The author makes many of these fanciful events and objects plausible. There is also a lot of monumental things going on in the universe, such as the existence of the humongous Ringworld itself, the movements of entire planets, galactic explosions, genetic breeding programs that can alter the course of civilizations, etc. Big issues are addressed, such as human evolution, free will, the fate of civilizations, the nature of human suffering, etc. All of this is presented in fascinating and imaginative ways that are never pretensions.

There are philosophical themes floating around. The issue of control is present throughout the narrative. Individuals are constantly trying to control each other, and entire species are often attempting to control other species. As the tale progresses, Teela Brown becomes more central to the book’s themes. Her tendency to be “lucky” has a profound effect on those around her.   Everything just falls into place in ways that benefit her.   This may be impinging on the free will of those around her. This is not always portrayed as a good thing. There is a libertarian tendency and a strong message championing individual freedom here.  Having read a few of Niven’s works, I can say that in the 1980s his books displayed a more traditionally Conservative view, which seems to have evolved from this earlier stage.

Many people consider this novel a science fiction classic. This book, along with Niven’s entire Known Space series, of which Ringworld is a part, has achieved cult status.  A Google search reveals dozens of websites, some very extensive, devoted to the technology, aliens, characters and philosophy of the books that make up the Known Space series. This series includes many books, including several direct sequels to the Ringworld, of which I have read a few. I may read or reread a few more books in the series.

The book is far from perfect.  Niven’s prose never rises above the mediocre. While the author does philosophize a lot, the philosophy tends to be simplistic and does not show a lot of complexity or nuance. In the end, however, this book’s virtues rise above its flaws.

This is an intelligent and fun work of science fiction. It is populated by lively and amusing characters and ideas. It tackles a lot of big issues in unpretentious ways.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who likes well thought out but entertaining stories of wonder.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Fidget by Anton Chekhov

I read the Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translation of this story.

This Post contains spoilers.

As I observed here, one common aspect of Anton Chekhov’s stories is that they champion the voiceless. In the story Anyuta, the tale’s namesake is exploited by her boyfriend, Stepan Klochkov. In response, Anyuta suffers silently. Furthermore, Stepan shows no redeeming qualities.  Having read a fairly large number of Chekhov’s stories, I can say that this type of unhealthy relationship is very common in the great Russian writer’s tales. 

The Fidget is another of the tales of the voiceless as well as their exploitive counterparts. Newlywed Olga Ivanovna neglects her husband, Dymov, and cheats on him with her artist friend, Ryabovsky. The entire story concerns her ill treatment of him. Though Dymov comes to realize what is going on, he never confronts his wife. 

When she decides to cheat on Dymov, Olga Ivanovna ponders, 

“She wanted to think of her husband, but the whole of her past, with the wedding, with Dymov, with her soirĂ©es, seemed small to her, worthless, faded, unnecessary, and far, far away… What Dymov, indeed? Why Dymov? What did she care about Dymov? Did he really exist in nature, or was he merely a dream? “For him, a simple and ordinary man, the happiness he has already received is enough,” she thought, covering her face with her hands. “Let them condemn me there, let them curse me, and I’ll just up and ruin myself, ruin myself to spite them all… One must experience everything in life. Oh, God, how scary and how good!””

As cruel as the above is, there is a tinge of regret in Olga Ivanovna’s mind, despite the fact that she rationalizes her actions with, “For him, a simple and ordinary man, the happiness he has already received is enough” she realizes that what she is doing is wrong.
This is unusual for Chekhov. In most of his other stories, like Anyuta, those that exploit the good and the silent do so without any regret. Furthermore, the malicious person usually gets away scot-free and ends up self-satisfied. However, something unusual happens in The Fidget.

Upon Dymov’s death, Olga Ivanovna is wracked with guilt and regret, 

“Olga Ivanovna recalled her whole life with him, from beginning to end, in all its details, and suddenly understood that he was indeed an extraordinary, rare man and, compared with those she knew, a great man...The walls, the ceiling, the lamp, and the rug on the floor winked at her mockingly, as if wishing to say: “You missed it! You missed it!”” 

Olga pays a price for her horrible treatment of Dymov. Her punishment is self-reproach. The story ends on this note. This reader is left to wonder what becomes of her. Will she go on, full of regrets as broken person, or will she use this tragedy and create something better for herself and for the world?

I think that there is at least some hope in the fact that Olga Ivanovna realizes what she has done. It gives her humanity. This is rare, as Chekhov’s oppressors do not usually show much compassion. Checkhov often wrote stories filled with darkness. Often the humanity he illuminates is only present in the downtrodden. In this tale, however, we see some light even in one who is culpable. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ward 6 by Anton Chekhov

This post contains spoilers.

I read the Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translation of this story.

Like many of his stories, Anton Chekov’s Ward No. 6 explores various aspects of the human condition. It also takes a dive into stoic philosophy.

The ward of the title is a small facility that is part of a hospital complex where the severely mentally ill are housed. Several patients are described in this tale. Central to the story is Ivan Dmitrich Gromov who is confines to the ward. .He is philosophical thinker. Though he clearly is suffering from paranoid delusion, he often shows also great deal of sanity and insight.

The patients live under terrible conditions. They are physically abused. The ward is squalor filled. Dr. Andrei Yefimych Ragin is the Director of the hospital. Though he sees the terrible way in which that the patients are treated, he passively allows it to continue.

There is a lot going on in this story. At its heart are the philosophical discussions between Andrei Yefimych and Ivan Dmitrich. The Doctor is a stoic. He references Marcus Aurelius and other stoic philosophers at several points in the story.

Ultimately Chekov seems to be labeling stoicism as hypocrisy.  At one point Dr. Andrei Yefimych tries to lecture Ivan Dmitrich on the advantages of a stoic attitude,

"You can find peace within yourself under any circumstances. Free and profound thought, which strives towards the comprehension of life, and a complete scorn for the foolish vanity of the world— man has never known anything higher than these two blessings. And you can possess them even if you live behind triple bars”

Ivan Dmitrich is having none of this however. At one point he criticizes the philosophy that the doctor espouses,

“I know that God created me out of warm blood and nerves, yes, sir! And organic tissue, if it’s viable, must react to any irritation. And I do react! I respond to pain with cries and tears, to meanness with indignation, to vileness with disgust. In my opinion, this is in fact called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is and the more weakly it responds to irritation, and the higher, the more susceptible it is and the more energetically it reacts to reality. How can you not know that? You’re a doctor and you don’t know such trifles!”

The narrative contains several lively debates and interactions between the two men. The fact that the doctor is preaching philosophical and emotional indifference from a position of comfort and security is underscored.

When Andrei Yefimych’s luck turns bad, he losses his position, financial security and his home. In a twist of fate, as his mental health deteriorates he is committed to Ward 6. However, he is unable to apply his stoic principles to cope with his terrible situation.

It seems clear, that based upon Andrei Yefimych fate, that Chekov is being highly critical of stoicism. Ivan Dmitrich, critic of stoicism, seems to be the voice of the author here. The hypocrisy and arrogance of Andrei Yefimych’s situation is highlighted in both the dialogues and the storyline.

My take on this is that Chekov has a point, but I do not go as far as him. For people who are in positions of security and ease to lecture those who are not so advantaged on the virtues of indifference, is the height of hypocrisy and arrogance. With that said, people have applied stoic philosophy successfully in dealing with terrible hardship  as well as a means to great success.  As a useful way to cope with suffering it can be enormously beneficial. Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl is but one of many examples of people who cite stoic ideals as the means through which they persevered through horrendous circumstances. However, this thought system should not be applied in a judgmental way. It also is not a universal solution to all the world’s suffering.

Ward 6 is another example of thoughtful but dark Chekov tale. Like many if not most of the author’s works, it is full of insights into human nature and life. This tale in particular, is a intellectual tidbit for those interested in philosophy.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Anyuta by Anton Chekhov

I read the Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translation of this story.

Anton Chekhov’s stories and plays commonly share certain themes. They often examine people that can be described as voiceless and/or exploited by others. The author’s tales also show the mirror image of these people. They examine the exploiters, taking a hard look at those who hold power and who unashamedly take advantage of and use others.

These themes are well illustrated in the short story Anyuta.  The tale’s namesake is a young woman whose social position leads the upper classes to look down upon her. Stepan Klochkov is the young medical student with whom she is having an affair. Anyuta is under no illusions as to what their future holds in store. She observes,

In all her six or seven years of wandering through various furnished  rooms, she had known some five men like Klochkov. Now they had all finished their studies, had made their way in life, and, of course, being decent people, had long forgotten her.” 

Stepan is a terrible human being. At one point, he uses Anyuta as a human prop and draws markings on her body as he uses her as a study aid for a medical examination.  Chekhov uses this story to illustrate exactly what kind of a terrible person Stepan is. He is a kind that all too often exists among the respectable of society. Despite the fact that he has committed the same social taboos as Anyuta, and despite the fact that he is cruel and lacks empathy, he will be accepted by society and considered a reputable person. This is illustrated at the point that he decides to leave Anyuta.

“It was as if he foresaw the future with his mental eye, when he would receive patients in his office, have tea in a spacious dining room in company with his wife, a respectable woman— and now this basin of swill with cigarette butts floating in it looked unbelievably vile. Anyuta, too, seemed homely, slovenly, pitiful … And he decided to separate from her, at once, whatever the cost.”

I find the above lines show a terrible cruelty and arrogance inside of Stepan. The basin of cigarette butts and swill is more reflective of him than of Anyuta. 

For her part, Anyuta is one of many of Chekhov’s long-suffering protagonists. She is resigned to her position. There is no rebellion. There is something terribly sad about her. However, I think that the author is trying to show something dignified also. Anyuta is stoic, she hurts no one, she is not self-righteous and she demands nothing for herself. 

Chekhov has a knack for shinning light into this ugly side of human nature. He also has a knack for portraying those who are unfortunately on the receiving end of it. Like most of the author’s tales, this one does not have happy ending. With that, I think that, in giving voice to the voiceless, perhaps Chekhov is illuminating their humanity.