January 28, 2012

Book 5: The Relativity of Wrong

The Relativity of Wrong
Isaac Asimov

It's hard to be one of the most productive authors in the English language without racking up some serious mileage across genres, and thus Isaac Asimov accentuated his science fiction work with numerous essays for various pulp magazines. Seventeen of these, primarily related to atomic-level physics and its variants in biology and astronomy, are collected in this slightly mis-titled volume, which comprises a just-beyond-introductory level look at various complex scientific concepts. The essays are arranged well, both on an individual level and within three larger sections (with the titular essay placed at the end), and integrate well as a whole, even on such diverse topics as the discovery of ATP and of the Andromeda Galaxy. Beginning with the discovery of the isotope, Asimov gradually explores increasingly difficult, yet intertwined, scientific concepts, always careful to place them within the context of contemporaneous scientific knowledge and development. This works well to bring the casual reader up to speed, but these essays by and large do assume a passing familiarity with high school chemistry, an assumption that is not immediately apparent and which may disappoint some readers who become lost along the way; though they form a coherent look at several aspects of scientific development, these are not for the fainthearted and are heavy in facts though, mercifully, not figures. It's fun, however, for even the casual reader to peer into the minds of scientific geniuses, even if the material can occasionally fly straight over one's head, and Asimov's writing is clear even if the ideas explored aren't. He also does a brilliant job tying everything together and, at the beginning of every essay, steps back to offer an amusing, and often entirely unrelated, personal anecdote. There is humor in this collection, and though detailed and rigorous it is rarely dry, somewhat surprising given the depth of its musings. Welcome, too, is the final essay, presenting Asimov's musings on the popular binary view of correctness, and though its implications are only explored at a surface level, it is a welcoming philosophical note that closes the collection on a level of self-awareness that services the preceding essays well. The Relativity of Wrong may occasionally overwhelm less scientifically-inclined minds, but its essays present well-reasoned and concise, historically-minded introductions to several aspects of modern chemistry and physics.

Grade: B+

January 24, 2012

Book 4: Lucifer's Hammer

Lucifer's Hammer
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

As the title of this book suggests, Lucifer's Hammer is full of mayhem and just a hint of religious undertones, delivered as a comet violently smashes into Earth and destroys civilization as we know it (or knew it in 1977). Though we begin with both feet solidly planted in the technological world, readers can feel the mounting tension as the comet begins to capture the world's imagination, personified most specifically through various denizens of the greater Los Angeles area, with a United States Senator and his hot, slightly slutty daughter thrown in for good measure. Readers who don't know much about the geography of this part of California are advised to at least glance at an atlas beforehand, as the authors assume a working topographical and sociological knowledge of the area; without it, moments of the narrative can jar readers out of the otherwise enrapturing tale. And, though the scope of this worldwide disaster novel is somewhat restrained, the choice seems a good one; the hard science that drives the novel seems to suggest the mid-California mountains as a likely place for human survival, and at the very least this is a disaster novel that pays attention to the everyday men and women on the street, with nary a President to be found. The cast, large as it is, is admirably handled and well-enough juggled, though the list of "Dramatis Personae" at the book's front is a bit misleading, as it emphasizes some decidedly minor characters while leaving out some fairly important ones. Regardless, it is fascinating to watch a spectrum of people react to the news about the comet, prepare for or pretend to completely ignore its impending strike, and, eventually, react, though the cast is overpopulated with burly manly types and is sorely lacking developed, well-rounded women.

In fact, it's not simply the absence of strong women that may rankle some readers but, rather, the way in which otherwise powerful women are consistently dismissed as the authors' personal politics manhandle their way into the novel. For every ass-kicking moment of inspired driving, there is a female character all too happy to accept that she can be no more than a cook in the new, manly society of manly physical labor; worse, the men treat the women as afterthoughts and, in a brilliant display of macho sexism, as an outright prize. It is tempting to attribute this to the times (it may indeed be the authors, and not a character, who essentially say, "To hell with this women's lib nonsense"), but Niven and Pournelle go out of their way time and again to remind readers that women need to be put in their place, even when they know precisely what's going on; they are good for cooking, pushing paper, and introducing dramatic conflict as men jostle for their affections. What begin so promisingly as strong, independent women instead become relegated to the kitchen and the bedroom, creature comforts but, ultimately, not very useful; save, of course, for the Soviet doctor who of course renounces communism entirely. Perhaps this is a personal grievance, but the authors demonstrate throughout the novel that their political viewpoints can come across without use of the Obvious Hammer, then sadly allow the book's climax to be overtaken by an anti-environmentalist rant. This unnecessary proselytizing undoes the book at several otherwise powerful moments, and threatens to derail a thoroughly depicted, perfectly good apocalypse.

All is not doom and gloom, however, and it is possible to revel in this book despite the authors' occasional lapses in judgment. The first chapters of the book are thoughtfully interrupted by a look at the Solar System's first moments, and readers get a first-hand introduction to the planet's doomsday device; the effect is perfectly chilling, and brilliantly echoed at a key future moment. Otherwise, much of the book is standard disaster fare, with a plot that revolves around the (manly!) jostle for land, power, and survival (not necessarily in that order), with some surprisingly powerful, but too infrequent, emotional asides that ruminate on the true effects of apocalypse. Disaster scenes and post-comet visions of destruction are artfully realized, and though some of the cast is mysteriously dropped, referenced only by a throwaway line rather than a proper death scene, readers will come to care about the exploits of the remainder, and almost every thread is neatly tied, just not at the most efficient pace. Niven and Pournelle have clearly thought through the matter of the end of the world, and though their politics can dampen the novel's impact, there is plenty of heart to accompany the standard horror and some truly shocking reversions. Lucifer's Hammer is a satisfying novel of apocalypse that shows sparks of brilliance, particularly in its use of science, but which falls too often into political rants to be truly classic.

Grade: B

January 15, 2012

Book 3: Mother Tongue

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
Bill Bryson

This book bills itself as a funny general introduction to the history, and some of the resulting peculiarities, of the English language, and it serves this purpose well for the uninitiated, though those with any sort of background in the subject won't find much new information here. After beginning with some brief musings on the state of English in the modern world, and its rising importance, providing a good setup for what is essentially a series of quasi-linked essays about different facets of the language, including its ancient and recent history as well as some of its salient features. Though the history is brief and feels at times a bit rushed and jumbled, it flows logically enough and carries some of Bryson's trademark humor; most importantly, it provides sufficient background information without getting too technical, allowing him to make relevant observations later without alienating readers early on. Unfortunately, however, this lucid and entertaining, if brisk and a bit shallow, history is followed by a mix of wry observations and lists of illustrative terms that is far too greatly weighted to the latter. I enjoy a few good puns and appreciate examples as much as the next person, but Bryson devotes too much space to these, joyful though they are, and they make the text so unreadable that even I skimmed paragraphs filled with italics. The occasional lists are appreciated as a change of pace, but Bryson is sadly unable to weave these sufficiently into the narrative to capture, and much less hold, readers' wandering attention; after all, this isn't meant to be a textbook, rather an overview for general readers. To make matters worse, there is a surprising lack of consistency within the text, ranging from a change between parenthetical citations and footnotes (bafflingly split between the first chapters and the final few) and in the repetition of examples, to the point where the book's final section so closely echoes the first as to make it hardly worth reading. This is sloppy writing but, worse, sloppy editing, and at times can be so frustrating as to overshadow the book's clarity and, indeed, its fun. Chapters on wordplay and, yes, swearing are appreciated even though they seem a bit like an afterthought, and help highlight some of the fun of language, maintaining the book's lighthearted feeling and keeping it from feeling too much like a textbook. Likewise, the book holds up well 20 years after its publication, with the main problems coming from omissions impossible to foresee; it is indeed quite fun to note that Bryson's criticism of George Bush would be equally well applied to his son, who made the same nuclear/nu-ku-ler mistake the author himself cites earlier in the text. Bryson's clear delight in the contradictory, the absurd, and the British shines through here as in much of his other work, and The Mother Tongue is, despite its stumbles, a solid and entertaining introduction to the English language and its many charms and absurdities.

Grade: A-

January 10, 2012

Book 2: The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov

It's not quite fantasy, it's not quite revisionist history, it's not quite a Faust story, and, well, it definitely is a satire, but The Master and Margarita is one novel that defies most attempts to categorize it and, perhaps to a lesser degree, to fully comprehend its nuances. Though the prose reads fluently (and here the work of translators Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor must be commended, because they are nearly invisible, in a good way), the story occasionally stops and stutters, and it's probably best to sit back and let the narrative flow by on a first read. The quick interchanges between modern Russia and ancient Judea make some sense within the greater context of the book, but though the transitional sentences are well-woven into modern Moscow, everything comes crashing down when the two inexplicably meet toward the end of the novel. Strangely, however, despite the apparent difficulty of grasping the true Greater Meaning of the book, particularly given the layers of symbolism necessary to even consider writing a political satire in Soviet Russia, The Master and Margarita is an enjoyable novel, and achieves a balance between pretentious layers of inaccessibility, the slapstick antics of the Devil's cohort, clever jabs at Stalin's government, and a welcome realistic revisiting of the death of Jesus. Everything may not need to tie in perfectly, after all, and though some of the more fantastic elements and, indeed, the story of Margarita and the Master, may not seem to quite fit in, the chaos somehow holds together. We open with two Muscovites musing over the existence of Satan with the Devil himself, here slickly and convincingly portrayed as a sly sort of gentleman, part prankster, part high society, and part tired older man. Soon enough, he has announced himself through his own antics and those of his supporting cast of troublemakers, consistently amusing if a bit repetitive, and everything dissolves into surreal landscapes and an even odder plot, which is roughly when Margarita and the Faust motif appear. Throw in Pontius Pilate and the plot is a mix of disparate elements; yet, impossibly, the novel seems to work.

n some ways, it doesn't and it won't for many readers; this is the kind of book that makes it obvious that readers are missing several crucial pieces of information or levels of understanding, but it somehow manages to play to audiences at varying levels of comprehension, and if one can gloss over the parts that make the eyes gloss over, the book is incredibly rewarding. First and foremost, that Bulgakov even managed to write the book is a miracle of no small proportions, coming as it did in the midst of Stalin's notorious Purges, when the author was well-known to the dictator as a subversive. And the author conveniently displays as much talent as bravado, creating a Pontius Pilate subplot that is poignant among a backdrop of hellion arsonists and bizarre balls that somehow become more than simply silly. Likewise, there is a very real undercurrent of direct confrontation against the Soviet system, and it repeatedly bubbles to the surface in scenes such as a remarkable dream inside a theater that foretells with startling accuracy some of the horrors of Auschwitz and the German concentration camps. Yet life in the USSR carried on, and as foreign currency shops and speculators are ruthlessly parodied and subtly criticized, the novel exposes the very human reality of 1930s Moscow, complete with its schemers, frustrated artists, and those trying to just get by. For a novel that dabbles so much in the surreal, The Master and Margarita remains remarkably accessible, anchored by the realistic retelling of the death of Christ that may or may not be pivotal to, and connect with, its umbrella stories of the Devil in Moscow and Margarita's subverted Faust bargain for the Master.

Grade: A-

January 5, 2012

Book 1: Fail-Safe

Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler

Written and set just in the terrifying year of 1962, when the world seemingly teetered on the brink of nuclear destruction at the hands of the United States and the Soviet Union, Fail-Safe takes fears of nuclear annihilation and a perilously naïve trust in machinery to their logical conclusion. The prologue itself asserts that the novel's conclusions will most assuredly come to pass, if not in the particular way envisioned herein, and though the novel has become a bit dated because, well, that didn't happen, it is nonetheless strangely powerful and almost claims a sense of immediacy even fifty years after its publication. What holds it back, however, is its inextricable ties to its own time; with a United States president so thinly veiled they really may as well have called him Kennedy consulting with Nikita Khrushchev, the book hardly seems relevant at first glance. It becomes, instead, a brilliant look at the fears of the Cold War era, an interesting, if not perfectly executed, vision of the intricate mechanisms that somehow did not manage to combine and destroy us all. This is not to say, however, that the book is particularly well-written, or even well-plotted; indeed, the fact that it is entertaining, let alone emotionally effective, is shocking given the number of missteps that very nearly doom the book at every step along the way. Burdick and Wheeler begin in a somewhat mixed manner, offering an in-depth character portrait with a ticking clock nicely placed at its end. The instinct to pull back in the next chapter and re-set the stage is marvelous, and the authors almost pull it off before the reader realizes that we are not just seeing the main players but getting additional superfluous backstory that almost, but doesn't quite, work.

The suspense so strongly built and so deftly pulled back in the first few chapters dissolves entirely as the authors allow the plot and characters to stagnate, and the book grows stale, predicated upon the importance of mere minutes and seconds yet seemingly obsessed with decades and years, not to mention those clumsy, "Hey reader!" conversations that explain everything in some unrealistically blunt simplicity. By the time the plot returns to its suspenseful self, readers have to re-acquaint themselves with a strangely ill-defined, yet heavily explored, cast of characters, and the effect is choppy where slick thrills are really called for. Place this all in front of an excruciatingly dated backdrop and sprinkle it with awkward, overt references to the inevitable rise of the machines and you get…an entertaining and oddly moving testament to the raw emotional power of total nuclear destruction. I'm not sure entirely how this happened, but somewhere within the escalating tension the clumsiness made way and the immediacy of the problem subtly infused itself into my consciousness. A visit to the cockpits of the bombing squadron tasked with destroying Moscow (of course it's the largest of Russian cities) and to those of the fighters sent to bring them down helps, and there is a quiet desperation throughout the writing, lurking beneath the surface, a result of the same bravado and assuredness that makes the prologue seem so silly in retrospect. At some point, it becomes obvious that Burdick and Wheeler wrote what they considered to be an inalterable consequence of politics, and despite its punch it never becomes a desperate plea for peace. Instead, Fail-Safe is quietly resigned to its conclusion, foreseeable yet completely devastating, a warning that doesn't quite cast a shadow of lasting relevance but which throws the Cold War crisis into sharp, and somewhat terrifying, relief, even fifty years later.

Grade: A-