Review: Frankenstein


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frankenstein is a classic novel, that could have been immeasurably improved by being a classic short story. There are aspects I have problems with. Victor Frankenstein is impossibly brilliant, but a painfully forgetful and self-deluded man. I cannot help but wonder where the story could have gone if he had remained engaged in the implications of his creation.

The creature himself is astoundingly well-spoken and far more astute than the tremulant Frankenstein. With his inexhaustible capacity for self-awareness and self-improvement I would hope that he would sequester himself in some Swiss cabin and become a philosopher or poet rather than a murderous wretch. I also cannot think of a more distanced POV than having a meaningless frame story (in the form of a letter to an unseen character) where the actual narrative is told as a dictation, which includes a…

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Review: The City and the Stars

The City and the Stars
The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The City and the Stars is stacked with science fiction concepts and philosophical questions. The protagonist is born into a human society on Earth a billion years in the future. Physical objects are projected into reality directly from energy at a thought, and similarly each human is created as an adult, lives a thousand years then, returns to the mainframe to wait a hundred thousand years for their next cycle. Human sexuality has been removed, as has any need for industry. Humans in this city live to pursue philosophy, art and other individualized human mental pursuits. This city is an isolated ecosystem buried in a vast desert.

We are introduce to another city nestled in the woods where each individual is born naturally, engages in sex, lives a natural lifespan of around two hundred years then dies a natural death. All inhabitants of this city communicate telepathically with each other and maintain a communal link. The absolute dichotomy for these two ideals (technological versus biological futurism) is the primary debate Clarke is engaging us in, but the story doesn’t stop there.

We engage in the robotic laws and artificial intelligence, and take a faster-than-light trip to neighboring stars and see a handful of unique planets where we can speculate or interact with exobiology. The trip culminates in the philosophical ideal of a disembodied intelligence.

The City and the Stars is a physicists take on Greek philosophy. Many consider this Arthur C. Clarke’s most important work, but I found much greater depth and enjoyment in his more focused works Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama. This feels like a summation of all of his previous works, as if he wrote a loose narrative framework around the index of science fiction concepts he had been working on all his career. The characters are human in biology, but like when you think your cat winked at you – their humanity is merely a projection of your own.

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Review: King Solomon’s Mines

King Solomon's Mines
King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Adventure stories from the 1800s will generally be racist, sexist and unapologetically Euro-centric. You have to know that going in. In this regard King Solomon’s Mines is no exception, but it is a bit endearing as well. The story is written as a memoir from the point of view of Allan Quatermain, elephant hunter and adventurist. It was often a custom of fiction writers of the era to distance themselves from the telling through frame stories, written as recollections or second-hand accounts. This has been seen from Shelly‘s Frankenstein to Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes. Haggard’s humble narrator blunders and stumbles into the telling with apologies and reticence.

…apologies for my blunt way of writing. I can but say in excuse of it that I am more accustomed to handle a rifle than a pen, and cannot make any pretence to the grand literary flights and flourishes which I see in novels…

Even so, this is a thrilling book. Quatermain describes himself as a coward, and in truth doesn’t really distinguish himself in battle, but willfully engages in a harrowing journey through desert sands, treacherous mountains, tribal warfare, and labyrinthine caves. He does so to help find the brother of one of his fellow companions with the promise of considerable wealth if successful and compensation for his son if they die in route. It reads like an Indiana Jones movie, and no doubt was instrumental in establishing the genre. Despite all the effort to distance the reader from the immediacy of the action, over a century of elapsed time and cultural incongruities, it still is a worthwhile read.

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Review: Solaris

Solaris by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am fascinated by exobiology, and in Solaris author Stanislaw Lem creates one of the most truly alien lifeforms I have heard described (with the possible exception of the Hooloovoo). Solaris is a planet home to a single organism which covers the entire surface like a sentient ocean. Everything from the chemical footprint to the psychology of Solaris is theorized and debated by the three person, human crew of Solaris Station. It is clear that Lem is critical of humanity’s anthropomorphic view of life and limited capacity to evolve higher forms of communication. Solaris presents tremendous physical displays on its surface including landscapes, structures and machines, but after nearly a century humanity has not found a way to decipher meaning. The most recent manifestations of Solaris’ effort has traumatized the human crew and brought them to the edge of madness. Solaris is a psychological thriller with strong emotional resonance, whose criticisms are as true today as they were in 1961. A true classic and a must read for anyone with dreams of life beyond our solar system.

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Review: The Satanic Verses

The Satanic Verses
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Satanic Verses is a massive undertaking. The cast is enormous and each character goes by several names (including most secondary and tertiary characters). The settings span continents and millenia, and the themes are layered with social and political criticism, fantasy, philosophy and religion. I would need to re-read the this book at least once with focused attention to rein in the scope and finer interpretations.

What I can say after one reading is that the language is lush and beautiful. The dialects and dialogue provide strong, unique voices and history to the characters. The resonance between the modern characters and their ancient counterparts expand beyond simple correlation and provide harmonic tones. Rushdie is a master craftsman and Satanic Verses is a staggering work of imagination and skill. If you have been considering tackling Salman Rushdie I encourage you to make the effort.

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Review: Dimension of Miracles

Dimension of Miracles
Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is impossible to separate the experience of reading Dimension of Miracles from it’s thematic twin The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Robert Sheckley’s novel precedes Douglas Adams’ novel by eleven years, but they share the same absurdist humor, twinged with wry wit and social commentary. Specific scenes and plot points converge as well which makes it difficult view Adam’s work as entirely original. It is unfair to both to review through this lens because where Sheckley is clever, Adams is genius. I cannot remove my familiarity with Douglas Adams’ work, despite the anachronistic comparisons it creates. I enjoyed Dimension of Miracles, and as read by John Hodgman you can almost get the feel of that same irreverent ability to turn a phrase of which Douglas Adams was so brilliant, but in Sheckly’s hand it is a bit off, a bit less. I am glad I know of Robert Sheckley and his place in science fiction.

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Review: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Moby Dick is a many faceted novel. It has long sections which serve solely to educate the reader about the taxonomy and anatomy of whales and reads like a naturalist’s field book for an audience which would have no other means to visualize these enormous creatures. There are historical and economic essays on the role of whaling in society. Essays on vessels, equipment and crew with long passages about the life and duties of the whaler. Exacting strategies of landing a whale and method of processing its bulk, along with yields, storage and maintenance. But intertwined with all of the exposition, Herman Melville has incorporated a philosophical, introspective, adventure story with some surprising social commentary for a book published in 1851.

In the tenth chapter we have the marriage of Queequeg and Ishmael, both male characters. Some passages are merely suggestive, such as their union in the Innkeepers wedding bed, and some of the more genial bed play. Some are more overt.

He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married…

After which Queequeg divides his belongings and gives half to Ishmael. And again,

How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.

Melville also interjects some surprisingly subversive religious opinions. When trying to convince the Quaker owners of the Pequod to allow Queequeg on board, Ishmael argues:

I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in THAT we all join hands.

Or this curious portion of their wedding where Ishmael considers his participation in idol worship.

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I… to do the will of God–THAT is worship. And what is the will of God?–to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me–THAT is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.

Finally, and perhaps my favorite rumination concludes several reflections on man’s violence to one another.

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began. Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?

Herman Melville’s work is full of complex and beautiful prose, and so much more than the simple revenge story I assumed it to be. Moby Dick is an accurate depiction of the knowledge of the natural sciences – and a window into social and religious consciousness of the 1850s.

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Review: Treasure Island

Treasure Island
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had a yearning for the sea recently and queued up The Squidder, Moby-Dick and the Audible version of Treasure Island. The narration by Jasper Britton is spectacular. He captures the young fresh voice of Jim Hawkins, regal voice of the doctor, measured voice of the captain as effortlessly as he drawls the gravelly melodic tones of Long John Silver and his sea dogs. This is a classic story of murder, mischief, mutiny and daring do all in the name of buried pirate treasure. The pacing is superb, the action thrilling, but never beyond belief. With Jim as our guide we get to experience the best of all the awe and fear while maintaining our sense of adventure. Tremendous fun and a great listen.

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Review: The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych
The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I read a translated novel I question if the voice I am reading reflects the author’s subtlety and nuance. Constance Garnett’s translation is exquisitely descriptive in tone and texture. I am unable to verify its literal accuracy, but translation or not the writing is masterful. The Death of Ivan Ilych tells the story of a man who had a successful life by all outward metrics, but was driven by perception, vanity and ego. Always doing right and the expected, but never being guided by his passions. He reflects upon his life through the stages of his illness. The emotions and realizations reflect the stages of grief and give him a vantage point to analyze his society. The ‘beat’ writers would later tread similar ground, but for 1884 it is a compact and scathing look at the upper-middle class’ society of ambition and perception.

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