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Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Circle - Dave Eggers (2013)

I have to admit that I find it hard to keep up with contemporary fiction. There are just too many quality older books out there waiting to be read. Dave Eggers, despite enjoying both critical and some commercial success, has until now completely passed me by. It has made me wonder whether this is a failing; is it important to read contemporary books, or is it fine to see if they endure and become an older book that you must read because its worth has been proven? Sometimes a novel’s importance and power can only be judged in hindsight from a future vantage point. Could The Circle become one of those books that future generations will venerate? Or will it succumb to its flaws and just become another novel tied to its historical context and fade away?

The Circle is the name of a technology corporation that is modeled on Facebook, Google and Silicon Valley. In fact in the novel The Circle has subsumed these companies and has become the biggest corporation of its type in the world. Eggers uses The Circle as a means to explore the possible dangers of when technology, power and prevailing cultural attitudes intersect in a way that can lead to the subversion of basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and privacy. In some ways The Circle is a descendent of cyber-punk, with a corporation flexing more power than the government, set within a technologically dystopian context.

The Circle’s protagonist, Mae Holland, is a ‘typical’ twenty something who is extremely happy that she has left behind her humdrum job at a dead-end company when she is headhunted by her college friend Annie, who is both one of the ‘gang of 40’ in The Circle and close to the ‘three wise men’ who run the corporation with the kind of self-righteous glee displayed by those who think they know best. Mae readily goes along with all of the company’s demands and dubious plans for the future. On her first day at work she is gifted Circle technology and is asked to hand over her laptop. Mae hesitates, but not because she is worried about other people accessing her private information, but because she merely wants time to say goodbye. It is an obvious device, as it is only the first of many things that Mae will say goodbye to, not least her perspective and humanity.

Although she has a few bad experiences along the way Mae remains both idealistic and gullible, readily agreeing with everything The Circle suggests; which pushes the envelope of credibility when it comes to realistic character development. It is possible that Eggers has sacrificed credibility for the sake of thematic power. Unfortunately in this regard The Circle is excessively heavy-handed. As the novel progresses The Circle’s blatant disregard for basic human rights becomes increasingly outrageous as they progress from TruYou, a one stop cyber-portal, to SeeChange micro cameras that allow widespread surveillance, to the concept of total transparency and slogans such as “privacy is theft.” The descent into dystopia is unfettered and rapid, perhaps self-consciously attempting to outdo the likes of Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

Thematic heavy-handedness is not the only way The Circle is flawed. The prose borders on the banal and character development is limited by the demands of the plot. Mae’s psychological state, as she reacts to The Circle’s demands, is often revealed in detail, however she is an unsympathetic character and has a superficial personality. The same can be said for Annie, whose personality seems subsumed by technology and the demands of the job. In contrast Mae’s parents are the novel’s most grounded characters, trying to cope with illness, unfair health insurance and then finally their daughter’s skewed perception. Such a contrast is no doubt a deliberate device used to highlight The Circle’s dehumanizing technology and its effect on younger generations. Mae’s ex-boyfriend, the artistic Mercer, is an obvious personification of those who inherently distrust the internet and big data. Eggers gives Mercer some hipster credibility, but ultimately he just comes across as a hollow mouthpiece for all that’s believed to be wrong about big data. If his character had been given a more rounded presence, then his endgame in the novel would have packed a bigger punch. Even so Eggers does manage to create some nervy chills from Mercer’s fate, but it is too little too late to improve on the lack of narrative tension that hampers most of the novel. 

There is an alternate way to view The Circle; one in which Eggers has deliberately written a novel that appeals to teenagers and twenty somethings. In particular those from that demographic who wouldn’t normally read a novel. Perhaps Eggers has commercially tailored The Circle to reach the widest possible audience because ultimately the themes he explores are real and important. In 1985 George Orwell’s 1984 was part of my year eleven curriculum and it impacted on me greatly. Less than three years later I walked through the city centre of Perth and saw the first CCTV cameras that were supposedly installed for the sake of public safety, and I couldn’t understand why people were not outraged by their presence. So perhaps The Circle is destined for better things? In the future it may be regarded as a key text and its flaws will be overlooked because the themes are so important. Perhaps now or in the future people will be inspired enough by The Circle’s dystopian themes to make a stand against big data’s erosion of privacy.

Note: The Circle gets an admirable rating, although it's not quite there, but nor is it mediocre - it's somewhere in-between, in my opinion anyway.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Couples - John Updike (1968)

The great John Updike died only five years ago. Such was his prolific nature that had he lived during that time he would have no doubt produced many short stories, essays, criticism, some poetry and a few novels just to round things off. He is greatly missed, but he will always be remembered for his brilliant quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels (plus a novella), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), the Henry Bech trilogy of novels and perhaps also Couples, which was hugely successful when first published. Couples is set during the early 1960’s and explores the relationships between a cluster of couples who party, work and play adulterous games in a fictional town called Tarbox. Updike ended up on the cover of Time due to its success, an honor that is rare for authors.

Couples is a thematic cousin to the Rabbit books, with Updike exploring how a range of characters deal with culturally changing times, most notably the waining of religious influence and the after-affects of the introduction of the pill. There’s a sizable ensemble of characters, with Dutch expat Piet Hanema acting as a focal point. Piet turned to religion after his parents were killed in a tragic car accident. Unlike some of the couples he regularly attends church on Sundays, but this does not stop him from pursuing carnal delights with at least three married women within the circle of couples. Updike applies his richly descriptive and dextrous prose to the sexual act, something that both outraged and enticed the readers of America at the time, although now Updike’s approach does seem almost quaint in comparison to the modern novel’s tendency to go right to the heart of the matter.

The first chapter, ‘Welcome to Tarbox,’ begins with Piet and his wife Angela discussing Ken and Foxy Whitman, the new couple in town. With this first long chapter Updike cleverly places the reader in the shoes of the Whitman’s by introducing many of the cast of characters with little in the way of backstory. Apart from Piet, whose backstory is established early on, you have to cope with Freddy Thorne’s Rabelaisian buffoonery, Janet Appleby’s neurotic personality and Roger Guerin’s ”hostile touch” as if, like the Whitman’s, you were awkwardly meeting them for the first time. Updike’s characters are a self conscious bunch; often neurotic, vain and desperate for distraction from their established lives. They are hermetic, trying desperately to find escape amongst themselves; a tendency that sends some of them to the therapist’s couch and others toward a great deal of trouble. Updike’s characters are well rounded, but their hollow ennui is palpable, making them a rather soulless bunch. By the novel’s end it’s hard to shrug off a feeling of ambivalence when it comes to caring what happens to them all.

Couples is a dense read, not because it is particularly complex, but due to Updike’s erudite and allusive style. The syntactic spell he weaves around the couples libidinous lifestyles is really something to admire. Updike is also brilliant at handling social scenes in which most characters have equal footing. The dialogue sparkles with wit and humour, particularly when rivals Piet and Freddy are sparring. Unfortunately the novel is at least one hundred pages too long and as a result reading Updike’s prose becomes like eating too much rich food, then regretting it later. By the time the novel resolves the central plot and ties up some loose ends, the joy of gorging has become diminished. Despite this problem Couples is an excellent read, although if you are new to Updike I’d begin with the Rabbit novels.

After I completed Couples I had a look around on the web to see what other people thought and my interest was piqued by a reviewer who wondered whether Couples was realistic. It is perhaps hard to say whether Updike’s tight knit group of couples living in a small town who indulge in sometimes witty repartee and adultery is particularly realistic, but ultimately such a question misses the point. All narratives are versions of reality, coloured by both the author’s rendering and the subjective filter of the reader’s own perceptions. To critique Updike for not being realistic is to critique every writer of fiction who has ever lived. In any case I rather admire Updike’s version of reality and will read many more of his novels to find out just what he made of it all.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Menace from Earth - Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

It has been an age since I have read Heinlein, in fact I think that the last one was Starman Jones (1953) and I borrowed it from my high school library way back in the 1980’s. Considering I read so many Arthur C Clarke and Asimov novels in my early years I have no idea why Heinlein was mostly ignored; after all he was considered to be in the same league, a triad known as the “big three” of science fiction writers. Heinlein gets another chance at this point because I thought he would be a great antidote to the grimness of The Watch Tower. The Menace from Earth is a collection of short stories from the 1940’s and 1950’s. Considering many current science fiction writers feel that technology has taken humanity well into the realm of science fiction (and they are right), reading old science fiction is an interesting exercise in terms of how ideas, attitudes and themes are either prescient or dated. 

The first story, The Year of the Jackpot, is all about mathematics, probability curves and the very fate of humanity. A character with the memorable name of Potiphar Breen notices that a number of strange occurrences are clustering and could mean bad news for humanity. It’s an interesting premise that is well executed, but what is of most significance is that it includes the first use of the word geek, which is used to describe a dead Russian scientist. Also it opens with a beautiful woman undressing on a city street who is, of course, rescued by the unusually named protagonist. 

By his Bootstraps is recognized as one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time and that is a fair assumption considering it is a perfect distillation of the chicken or the egg time paradox. It’s brilliantly written and also features nubile scantily clad slave women thirty thousand years in the future who are totally willing to be subservient. Columbus is a four page joke at the expense of humankind’s shortsightedness. There are no scantily clad women in this one, even though it is typical science fiction magazine fodder. The Menace from Earth has a perfect science fiction title, but it turns out to be tale about a teenager’s romantic problems with her love interest who is attracted to a gorgeous woman from Earth. The fact that they all go flying with wings on their backs in a giant underground cavern on the Moon isn’t really enough to hide the fact that it is basically a stock standard teenage love story.

Things get better with Sky Lift, which tells the story of pilots on a mercy dash to the Proserpina space station out near Pluto in their extremely fast torch ships. This is quality hard science fiction told in a compelling way and you’ll never think about G-force in the same way again, or at least I won’t. There are no scantily clad women in this one either, although the main protagonist thinks about them for a while. Goldfish Bowl features two scientist who are investigating two giant pillars of water in the Pacific that seem to be connected to abductions of humans by mysterious balls of energy. This story is well executed, intelligent and though provoking, all without featuring beautiful women, although there are some naked men.

Project Nightmare is, like The Year of the Jackpot, set in the context of cold war tensions that could escalate given the right conditions. Heinlein places a number of characters with psychic powers in just such a situation with chilling results. Stories like this would have been quite frightening in the 1950’s, despite their fantastic elements. The final story, Water is for Washing, would have appealed in a macabre way to people living on America’s west coast, but ultimately it’s hard to define it as a science fiction story. Is a tale of survival during a natural disaster science fiction? Not by todays definitions perhaps.

The Menace from Earth is an interesting collection of short stories, some dated, but with others that still impress. They are all well written and Heinlein certainly knows how write a satisfying ending. He also knows how to take a story forward at the right moment and stimulate the reader’s urge to know what comes next and how it will end. One of the criticisms leveled at Heinlein is his apparent sexism, in particular during his later period. If you view these early stories from that position then yes, you can argue that the manner in which women are portrayed in these stories is problematic. Did the female character in The Year of the Jackpot really need to undress on a crowded street? Of all the things Bob Wilson could have encountered thirty thousand years into the future in By his Bootstraps, did it have to be scantily clad slave women? Perhaps not, but Heinlein would have certainly known his market in the late 1940’s and 1950’s - teenage boys.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Watch Tower - Elizabeth Harrower (1966)

Just who is Elizabeth Harrower? Only one of Australia’s great lost writers. The publication of The Watch Tower would be her last and she eventually gave up writing altogether, despite the likes of Patrick White and Sidney and Cynthia Nolan urging her to keep writing. White believed that Harrower should have won the Miles Franklin Award and in hindsight he was undoubtedly right. Whilst it is fortunate that Text Publishing has included her novels in their quest to make available long out of print Australian literature, I do wonder how the average reader would handle The Watch Tower, which is one of the most psychologically intense novels’ I have ever read.

It is the character of Felix Shaw that makes The Watch Tower an almost unbearable psychological horror story. Felix Shaw is one of the most complete sociopaths in literature.  Laura and Claire Vaisey are teenage sisters who are abandoned by their narcissistic mother and left to the devices of Shaw, who marries Laura and takes control of their lives. Shaw’s sociopathic nature brings an almost unbearable tension to the novel that never goes away. There is a core of misogyny within Shaw and also hints of repressed homosexuality in his dealings with younger men.

With Laura Vaisey Harrower has drawn a disturbing and realistic portrait of a victim. Laura seems, from the beginning, ripe for exploitation. Her mother takes advantage of her pliable nature, squashes most attempts at independence and is more concerned about playing bridge than the welfare of her daughters. The psychological implications of victimhood are brilliantly realised as Laura starts to become more like Felix, which is one of the most disturbing aspects of the novel.

Harrower’s prose style is eloquent and poised, although often her turn of phrase is such that you need to reread passages, which is a small hindrance considering the quality of her prose. Harrower doesn’t experiment with form as such, but she uses shifting points of view expertly to give the reader contrasting perspectives of the psychological horror that is unfolding. On occasions we are privy to the neighbours point of view, then sometimes Felix himself, but mostly Claire who is the one stuck in the middle and is emotionally manipulated by both Felix and Laura.

One of the great aspects of The Watch Tower is that the ending is not predictable. The novel appears to be heading toward one of several highly possible outcomes, but Harrower sidesteps cliche and the reader is left with very mixed emotions, not to mention being totally drained. Almost everything is perfect about The Watch Tower. The characters are fully realised, in particular Felix Shaw and Claire Vaisey. The prose is superb, as is the depiction of the Sydney suburbs and the harbour beyond, of which we only get glimpses. Finally there is the all too accurate portrayal of women’s compromised lives in the mid twentieth century. It’s time to give Harrower the attention she deserves and although I couldn’t truthfully say that I’d recommend The Watch Tower, in terms of art holding up a mirror to the darkness in life it is essential reading. Ultimately the question of whether to read the novel or not is a matter of can you deal with the sociopathic nightmare that is Felix Shaw? 

Sunday, 23 February 2014

16th Century Book That Can Be Read Six Different Ways

I saw this this 16th century book that can be read six different ways on a tumblr and I just had blog it. It is a truly beautiful book from the high middle ages. Here's the information that came with it and some more pictures - enjoy:

"A few months ago, we showed you a dos-à-dos book—one with a hard back that forms the front of another book. This rare book owned by the National Library of Sweden is even more complex. Erik Kwakkel, a medieval book historian at Leiden University, says that this book is actually six books that are each opened differently. Each book opens and closes with a little clasp.

All of the books are devotional texts printed in Germany in the 1550s through 1570s, including a copy of Martin Luther’s widely-read The Shorter Catechism.The book is currently owned by the National Swedish Library and resides in Stockholm, among the Royal Library’s archives. Only for advanced readers, advanced readers with low attentions spans."


Pic: Stockholm, Royal Library. See the full image gallery here.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Einstein Intersection - Samuel R. Delany (1967)

Samuel Delany’s Nebula Award winning novel from 1967 has one of the best titles in science fiction. Delany is quite a character, a black American homosexual, a professor of english since 1975; a critic, editor and winner of the Nebula Award four times and the Hugo Award twice. Delany’s 1975 novel Dhalgren is recognized as one of the most complex and difficult science fiction novel’s in the genre’s history. Unsurprisingly The Einstein Intersection transcends perceived pulp limitations of science fiction with the kind of themes and metaphorical layering usually found in literary fiction; exploring the nature of mythology, discrimination and identity.

The Einstein Intersection is a wild mythologically inspired psychedelic ride into Earth’s deep future. Humanity has left for the stars, leaving behind vestiges of their civilization, both ancient and advanced, for an array of weird lifeforms to pick through. The principle protagonist is Lo Lobey, an Orpheus type character who is also the most human-like of the various lifeforms. Lo Lobey is an engaging first person narrator who wields a sword that doubles as a flute whilst he navigates the wonders and dangers of a radioactively transformed Earth. In his village he is given the title of Lo because of his genetic advantage of being humanoid and functional, compared to those who reside in the kage, an enclosure housing those who, due to the radiation, are less genetically fortunate. Much like Orpheus, Lo Lobey charms with his musical skills and embarks on a quest. In Lo Lobey’s case it is to rescue his beloved Friza from a colourful character called Kid Death. Lo Lobey’s fighting skills with his musical blade come to the fore during one of the novel’s most inspired sequences in which he battles with a giant creature that resembles a Minotaur in mysterious underground ruins.

Throughout the novel the sense of surreal adventure is palpable. Delany’s clipped prose is highly visual without being excessively descriptive. Earth’s far future landscape, the underground ruins and Lo Lobey’s travels with dragon herders whilst on his quest are all rendered beautifully. The narrative pace is well balanced, never resting too long or burdened by over explaining. Delany’s characters are vivid and authentic, despite their alien weirdness. Spider, the seven foot red skinned, four handed dragon herder is particularly charismatic; as is Kid Death, who appears on and off with dangerous impetuosity throughout the narrative. 

For such short novel (a novella really), The Einstein Intersection packs a literary punch. Delany indulges himself in some metafiction, inserting his own musings about writing the novel and his travels in Europe into the quotes that begin each chapter. Fortunately rather than being pretentious it’s a gambit that actually pays off. It is unclear just how the Greek myths that litter the narrative fit into Delany’s overall vision, however they are powerfully rendered. Much clearer are the analogies for the racism and perhaps homophobia that Delany would have been exposed to growing up in mid twentieth century America. The writhing marginalized genetic freaks who inhabit the kages provide some sharp social commentary to balance out the speculative flourishes.

The Einstein Intersection is an excellent science fiction novel and if the rest of his work is of a similar vein then Delany is up there with some of the past’s greatest science fiction writers. I’ll be hunting down his books in dusty second hand book stores run by ancient curmudgeons (much like this one). As for the title? Delany does reveal its meaning and it is intriguing enough to encourage some research. It’s exactly what you want from a science fiction novel, it both stimulates your imagination and your intellect. If I had a beard like Delany’s I would be stroking it thoughtfully right now.

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory - Brian Greene (1999, 2003 with new preface)

Calabi-Yau shapes in action

One of the rotating quotes on Brian Greene’s website states that: “Brian Greene is the new Hawking, only better.” This quote comes from the Times, but what do they mean by better? Is Greene better at popularizing difficult physics concepts, or is he simply a better scientist? In any case The Elegant Universe is certainly well written and stands as a fine popular science text for the curious to begin to understand string theory. Greene does a fine job of explaining both the history of the theory, its principle concepts and its potential to be the long sort after theory of everything. String theory has its origins in the late 1960’s, but really came to the fore as a significant theory in the 1980’s. String theory posits that the smallest fundamental bits of nature are not particles, but are in fact tiny vibrating strings of energy. Intrigued? Then The Elegant Universe is the book for you. 

One of the great things about The Elegant Universe is that before you get to the chapters that focus on string theory Greene presents an overview of some of the major theories and discoveries in physics. I’ve read many quality physics books about Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity and also quantum theory, but I was particularly impressed with Greene’s ability to explain tricky concepts with well chosen analogies. Greene’s overview of the weird world of quantum mechanics, including Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, wave particle duality, and quantum tunneling, is particularly impressive. 

Greene’s thorough explanations of the principles of both relativity and quantum physics lead to a detailed and complex explanation of string theory. Greene makes it clear why string theory is, at the moment, the best candidate to reconcile the problems of uniting relativity and quantum theory. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of string theory is how it convincingly suggests that there are other dimensions curled up as small as the Planck length. Things get really tricky when Greene takes you through extra dimensional curled up Calabi-Yau shapes. However Calabi-Yau shapes are nothing compared to the sections dealing with space tearing flop transitions, which is a specialty of Greene’s. But wait, you then have your mind blown by the second superstring revolution in the form of M-theory. Phew! Are you totally put off the idea of reading this book? Don’t be, it might be important for you to know what a flop transition is one day, and Calabi-Yau shapes? Your arm just passed over a few trillion a moment ago.

The argument for string theory as the ultimate theory of everything is certainly compelling, however lurking in the background is the problem that unlike relativity and quantum theory, string theory is extremely difficult to test experimentally. Greene does acknowledge this problem and devotes a whole chapter to the issue. The Elegant Universe was first published in 1999 and since then the Large Hadron Collider has been built and used successfully to find the so called ‘god particle,’ the Higgs Boson, which is a massively significant achievement. However the collider is yet to turn up any evidence of extra dimensions or supersymmetry particles, both of which would give string theory a massive boost of credibility. At the moment the Large Hadron Collider is undergoing upgrades to make it even more powerful. Will Greene be updating The Elegant Universe in a few years time following the great news that string theory has been verified? Just how string theory theorists will be regarded in the future compared to such giants as Heisenberg, Einstein and Bohr may depend upon it. String theory does have many supporters, such as Hawking, but it also has its fair share of detractors and until there is some experimental proof it runs the risk of losing ground as other avenues are pursued. Personally Greene has convinced me of string theory’s worth, but I just hope that’s he’s right about the integrity of those space tearing flop transitions, otherwise we are all really in trouble.