Posts filed under ‘science fiction’

SCIENCE FICTION – SOLARIS AND A HANDMAIDS TALE

This episode of bookgroup had a science fiction theme and raised a number of interesting ideas.

Strangely the two books we chose for the theme, although both set in the future, were not at all representative of the genre.

so unfortunately the group cant say it delved into the genre only that we discussed some interesting books set in the future.

nevertheless bookgroupers were generally very enthusiastic about the writing in both books, although two criticisms surfaced
– the margaret atwood provoked a reprise of previous disagreements about style. some of us found it dry and oddly unemotional whilst still being visually vivid. This turned out to be the same difference in preference between bookgroup members we had unerthed during the rohinton mistry bookgroup
-solaris often descended into lengthy paragraphs that sounded technical and scientific and hard to follow, but were in fact nonsense. its a fiction book and the technical details are not true, nevertheless the book dwelt on them for long periods which made some bookgroupers feel like they should have understood them. in fact as a reader you can just skip them. i felt this was a weakness in the book – it was tedious, pointless and unnecessary.

these weaknesses were outweighed by the positives. readers valued the outlandishness of the imagination in both books. they both portrayed worlds very different from our own but made the worlds, and the behaviour of the characters in them, believable.

a handmaids tale is a feminist imagining of a future polito-religious state run by ex tele-evangelists and their cronies. a world which did not seem so unlikely during the late 80s and 90s as the american fundamentalist right rose and rose culminating in george w.

if i had read it in 1999 or 2000 i think i would have been terrified and seen it as potentially prophetic. reading it in 2008 i felt more like it was a horror that has thankfully been avoided and therefore quaint or amusing rather than terrifying. but i am an optimist and i have never lived under the taliban or in saudi arabia. perhaps women in those places may feel its more of a documentary than science fiction.

solaris is really a philosophical meditation on what it means to be. it paints a picture of two types of beings that question our ideas of what it is to exist, as a human.

firstly the planet solaris is described as a vast conscious ocean capable of generating any structure it chooses, capable of reading human minds, but apparently because it is a unity not a population of individuals not capable of with humans, doing anything that humans recognise as useful in anyway.

At one point the book alludes to the idea of a trapped, lonely god, or a finite god – capable of anything, except changing its own position in the universe, and condemned to live with itself forever alone. the suggestion being that while the planet solaris is like this, so are humans to some extent – each living in our own private hell/heaven.

secondly, the planet created perfect facsimilies of loved ones from the crews minds. suddenly crew members wake up to find their closest dead loved one (lover/child/brother) with them. whilst these ‘visitors’ are apparently fully alive and fully human, they have only those memories of themselves that the crew member has, because they have been created from the crew members mind. the crew debated the moral status/rights of these beings.

i thought this was a great idea and really interesting, and couldn’t help wondering what i would choose to do if i woke up to find visitor like that in my room. there alive, i have a second chance – can i get it right this time?

April 30, 2008 at 11:33 am Leave a comment

THE ROAD – CORMAC McCARTHY

the road

both this review and the wikipedia entry warned us that this would be a dark tale indeed – and they were right

At the time of writing I have recently had a holiday – a road trip. But my road trip was not at all like the trip endured by the father and son of ‘the road’. for example i certainly didnt go hungry, as it was the christmas feasting season, and i dont recall having to hide from or fight any cannibals

the weather was similar – in that it was constantly wet and grey, but luckily for me it was 25 degrees not minus 5 or whatever it was in the book

however, most bookgroupers might be disappointed my holiday wasn’t like ‘the road’ as overwhelmingly people liked the book.

they enjoyed the poetry of the writing, and the way it illustrated moral predicaments and choices in the absence of any society, rules, or over-riding authority. in particular they admired the resourcefulness of the dad and the values of the child. although there was some disagreement as to whether the dad always made the right choices from a values point of view

in my view it was this last point that the book set out to explore. i think it was about the conflict between your values and self interest in an apallingly hopeless post-apocalyptic situation where its highly likely there is no future.

the question it asked was – if there is no law and no future does that mean total selfishness, such as cannibalism is the rational choice, or does it mean complete selflessness and surrender, such as suicide, is the rational choice?

the man choose some kind of middle way where he refused to be a cannibal but he also refused to help people if it would endanger him and the child.

however he did seem to justify this on the basis that he wanted to be the ‘good guys’ not the ‘bad guys’. this seems to assume there is some kind of future and therefore side steps the question of the book. if there truly was no future and no ‘good guys’ i’m not sure how much sense the mans approach really makes. in that case would he just have been punishing the child unnecessarily?

in addition to this somewhat theoretical concern a small minority of us didnt enjoy it because it was too bleak. this minority verdict found that although the writing was great in patches, it wasn’t consistently fabulous enough to provide the joy needed to justify all the pain of reading one bleak page after another.

however, i admit the drab and violent world of the road was magnificently described at times, and that it is impressive to be able to turn horrific images into beautiful poetry, even if only occasionally.

January 17, 2008 at 11:54 am 2 comments

SLAUGHTERHOUSE5 AND TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE

two books this post. why? because famous author kurt vonnegut recently died and his best known work, slaughterhouse5, contained a time travelling protagonist and a narrative that jumped back and forth in time. these traits are also found in a very recent best seller – the time travellers wife by audrey neffenegger.

so bookgroupers thought lets compare two similarly themed and successful books, written 40 years apart.

however, beyond the time travel similarities between the books were rare.

slaughterhouse5 had an anti-hero. slaughterhouse5 had an axe to grind. a loud and angry axe, sharpenned on pages of pointless tragedy, and it yelled, in the spirit of the 60s, war – what is it good for?

less fashionably, for the time, it also yelled america what is it good for? and i loved it for that.

vonnegut has short sentences, bereft of ornament. like hemingway the big man of the previous generation of american literature, vonneguts sentences are so sparse they force you to fill the empty spaces with your own images. unlike hemingway however, vonnegut prose is also bereft of mucho bravado and pretense. more radically, vonneguts lead character in the book, billy pilgrim, is the antithesis of hemingway’s wealthy charismatic wasters and bull fighters. he refuses to fight, he’s unattractive, even mad, and yet vonnegut chooses him to be the lead character.

in contrast, ‘the time traveller’s wife’ has a heroine and no axe to grind. instead it has a love story and attractive lead characters, even, in a curious way, happy endings.

‘the wife’ was also different from vonnegut because it had rich, velvety prose that you could smell, and surrender to. ‘the wife’ described everything in 3d technicolor, whereas vonnegut prose is sparse black and white, giving you just enough details so that you can make up the rest of the image.

although ‘the wife’ was not preachy, neither was it smaltzy. it may be about love and pretty people but its also about humanity, nasty as we are. while it could be criticised as not having an agenda, a la vonnegut, i felt the pictures of people, and their society, that it presented were no less powerful for not having headlines above them telling us what the author meant

in the end, for me, i found ‘the wife’ to be more enjoyable but i was amazed at the bravery of vonnegut. to talk about america in the terms he did, 40 years ago at the height of the vietnam war, is a great achievement.

vonnegut died recently, and there is a fascinating interview with famous author john irving, who was a friend of vonnegut. if you listen you’ll discover vonnegut was a v.interesting, kind of weird and funny, guy. he was obviously v.happy to be different which perhaps explains how he was able to take, what must have been a very unpopular stance in 60s america

September 25, 2007 at 12:08 pm Leave a comment

Franz Kafka, ‘Metamorphosis’

Kafka MetamorphosisIt was a small group but those of us who were there enjoyed a very nice afternoon.

We all agreed the kafka was a very enjoyable read. i think we all got quite a bit from the bits and pieces of information about the book and the opinions that everyone expressed.

I certainly went away with a much better appreciation of what i had read after hearing everyone discuss it. i also think i have a better feeling for the word kafkaesque. perhaps most importantly, for me personally anyway, i took it as a bit of a reminder of the importance of transforming, or metamorphosing, your household circumstances if they are not currently how you want them, before you let yourself become a useless cockroach that just clutters up the place.

October 29, 2006 at 7:02 am Leave a comment

Lewis Carroll, ‘Alice in Wonderland’

Alice in WonderlandDave hosted Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’

as lewis carol said

the time has come the walrus said to speak of many things
of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings
of why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings

or something close to that anyway

As well as discussing Alice in Wonderland we were asked to bring along another children’s book of our own choice. Dave chose “Le Petit Prince”, Don chose “The Phantom Tollbooth” and others made different additional choices.

January 22, 2006 at 7:58 am Leave a comment

Jonathan Swift, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’

Gulliver’s TravelsDon hosted Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathon Swift.

We chose this one because we were looking for a classic that wasn’t too long and it seemed to fit the bill. We agreed to only do one of the four stories each. I did the horse one, i think peter did lilliput, don and leanne did the the giants, libby did the other one, and mark read the lot.

For a bit of background into the life of the author try this. My understanding is that he was the anglican (Church of Ireland) Bishop of Dublin and wrote heaps of books – many political.

Given the irish/english problem and the dubious role of the churches in politics in ireland, its interesting that a guy in his position felt it appropriate to both satirise and pontificate on politics.

This is particularly stunning as the conflict was at its height in his time. For example, the most famous catholic/protestant battle of all, the battle of the boyne, occurred during his lifetime. It is such a famous and controversial battle that protestants in Northern Ireland still march every year to celebrate the win 300+ years later.

There was quite a difference of opinion on the book. Views were very polarised from great enthusiasm about his visionary anticipation of more modern progressive movements, for example Peter, Dave and Trish, to great antipathy to his verbose misogynistic satire of 18th century britain, for example Mark and Leanne.

The historic context was also both fascinating and confusing. For example, Gulliver finds a place that seems very much to fit the description of Western Australia but the book was written a century before Captain Cook supposedly discovered oz in 1770?

Some now say the chinese found Oz in the 1400s and the portugese found us in the 1600s. Maybe Swift had been talking to them and on their information decided that paradise was on Rottnest Island, just of the west coast?

I suspect the great west aussie authour, tim winton, would agree with Swift.

One amazing thing was that, apart from being a complete prude, Swift was amazingly humane and well ahead of his time. (Although he certainly was not prudish about bodily functions. There are plenty of graphic descriptions of how Gulliver went to the toilet.)

Swift seems to have anticipated or perhaps started many of the progressive campaigns undertaken ever since the book was written – anti-racism etc. However, he certainly did not anticipate feminism, misogyny appears to be absolutely fine for our man Swift.

Peter seemed to sum it up pretty neatly saying the lilliput chapter was an attempted analolgy of rule by the working class, the giants chapter was an attempted analogy of rule by the upper class, flying island rule by science, and the horse chapter a kind of utopian vision of rule by so called Reason and the laws of nature.

So, a tip for those with limited patience. If you are looking for the punch line, the final chapter is actually a Conclusion or Summary of all the Travels. It looks like a Chapter of the Hounyhymn Story (the one where the horses are the ruling class) but its actually a summary/conclusion of the Whole Book.

May 1, 2005 at 7:17 am Leave a comment


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