Thursday, May 15, 2008

I Continue to Keep the Book Publishing Industry in Business

As I pause in my Dickensiana, here is what I have read over the past couple of months:

A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter F. Miller
Read: March 2008

One of the classics of science fiction (it won the Hugo Award in 1961), I am ashamed to admit I have never read it. But now I am glad I did. The book starts several hundred years after the present time, after a nuclear war has made much of the Earth a wasteland. The few people that survived have a distrust of intelligence and literacy ( doesn't sound too far in the future, does it?) and have destroyed most of the extant books. Groups of monks are the only ones who have preserved books and other relics of the past, without really understanding much of it. For example, The Monastery of the Blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz celebrates a 20th-century engineer, and a handwritten shopping list ("Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma") is a sacred document. Over the course of the book, several hundred years pass, and civilization starts to restore itself and repeat its same mistakes. It really is a wonderful book, decidedly pessimistic, but ultimately is one of those books you can't forget about once you've read it.

The World Without Us
Alan Weisman
Read: April 2008

On a related note, the non-fiction (perhaps) The World Without Us is a somewhat distressing but rigorously researched look at how long it would take the planet to wipe out any trace of our existence should humans abruptly vanish. Cheery, huh? (Well, actually...) It really wouldn’t take very long at all, especially in places like cities where it takes a great deal of effort to keep nature at bay as it is. Interestingly (and upsettingly), all the great works of humans--art, architecture, etc.--will be the first to go, while all the shit--billions and billions of tons of discarded plastic, nuclear waste, other garbage--will stick around. Makes ya proud. The upshot is that 99% of nature would be quite happy and relieved to see us go, the exceptions being, perhaps, most domesticated animals (except cats, which can easily become feral--big surprise). Definitely food for thought--and fantasy.

The Stone Gods
Jeanette Winterson
Read: April 2008

I had to do it. I had to be recommended the Bookslut book review site. Like I don’t have enough to read! One of the titles that got a good review was the science-fiction novel The Stone Gods. It is not unlike A Canticle for Leibowitz in that it deals with human idiocy being cyclical, that as one planet is destroyed, we repeat the same mistakes on another. It's not a great book, but a quick and enjoyable read (I read it in one round-trip train ride from New York to Washington DC). It's not entirely clear (and this is intentional) on which planet it is set, or when, but a team is sent out to explore a new pristine, blue, and habitable planet. Along the way, an interplanetary love story--between an iconoclastic human woman and a female robot--plays out. And there is an interlude on Easter Island, the history of which gives the book its basic theme (and title). It's pretty funny and kind of nuts. Very enjoyable.

A Curious Earth
Gerard Woodward
Read: April 2008

Another book reviewed in Bookslut was A Curious Earth, which is OK, but not great. When his wife passes away, elderly Aldous Jones sinks into inertia and puttering about his London home. Eventually, he eases back into life and visits his somewhat estranged son in Belgium, where he falls in with a group of artists, and falls in problematic love with one of them. He returns to London and begins pursuing leisure activities, artistic endeavours, and new relationships. It's a good book, full of nice little observations. The title, by the way, comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, "...And I'd like to look a little more/At such a curious Earth!" A little bit inspiring, a little bit funny, a little bit tragic. it's a lovely book, though falls short of being really great. And some plot points strain credulity. But still...

Jack McDevitt
Read: April 2008

While in Washington DC last month, I happened to be in the hotel bar reading The Washington Post Book World and read a good review of science-fiction author Jack McDevitt's latest novel Cauldron. I had never heard of him before, but it sounded interesting. In my wanderings around DC, I came upon a Barnes & Noble and while they did not have Cauldron (or a working crypt...), they did have a bunch of his older titles, so I picked up Odyssey (2002). The premise is that, a couple hundred years in the future, there is a growing backlash against funding space exploration and travel--exemplified by the "Academy." At the same time, there are increased reports of sightings of mysterious outer space objects which are called "Moonriders." As a PR move, it is decided to send an exploration to find out what these things are. Oh, and they find out all right... I like McDevitt--he has a pretty realistic view of the future (I'd bet he's a Babylon 5 fan) although I thought the end of the book was a bit of a letdown. Still, this book was part of a multi-book series, and I like how he makes mention of past stories (even I have not read them--in fact, it makes me want to go read them). I would definitely read more of him, although I'm not in a big rush.

Well, after that sorbet, back to Dickens and David Copperfield, as I am eager to find out how he makes the Statue of Liberty disappear.

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