Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Hitchhiker's - and Humans' - Guide to the Galaxy

Currently Reading: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I loved, loved, loved this book! It was SUCH a huge relief to read something so light and fun after the intense novels I had been reading (Slaughterhouse Five, Brave New World, The Sirens of Titan, The Giver, etc.). The contrast was even more distinct because pretty much everything I was reading was science fiction of some kind, choices made unintentionally. Instead of time traveling aliens who point out the futility of attempting to control fate or biologically controlled humans who don’t experience pain of any kind, this science fiction world is full of crazy, interesting, and good-humored aliens, including a depressed robot that cynically comments on every situation.

I give major kudos to Douglas Adams for his incredibly clever, humorous style of writing. I’m always amazed at authors who can write funny jokes in general, but the type of humor Adams writes I believe is especially hard to accomplish because a lot of it is sarcastic – a tone that has many advocating for a special font it’s so difficult to decipher in writing. I’m thoroughly in love with Adams ability to poke fun at typical science fiction and adventure stories, consistently undercutting the readers’ expectations. For example, when the main character, Arthur, finds himself randomly on a spaceship with an alien and then hears that his planet has been demolished, his reaction – which one would expect to be horror and sadness – is “levelly” and simply, “Has it.”

Perhaps I’m a little biased since sarcasm, mockery, and subverting expectations are all my favorite ways to create humor, but I really loved that reading this book was a little bit like reading the book form of a Mel Brooks movie or a Monty Python skit.

However, my favorite part of Adams’s novel has got to be – bizarrely – the way the Earth is completely bulldozed right at the start of the novel (so no spoilers here). I know it may sound weird and anti-planet to be glad that my world is destroyed with little or no regard for the citizens, but it seemed much more realistic than believing that some alien force would heroically stand in front of the space bulldozer to save the Earth.

Perhaps I’ve just been watching too much Doctor Who recently, but it has always bothered me a little bit the way science fiction books, movies, and TV shows seem to believe that the Earth is still the center of the universe. Sorry guys, that theory was disproved a long time ago. And yet, characters like Doctor Who seem to take a special interest in the Earth and the human race… As the character on The Big Bang Theory Amy Farrah Fowler points out, “For someone who has a machine that can travel anywhere in time and space, Doctor Who sure has a thing for modern day London.”

My Doctor (David Tennant) lighting the Olympic torch in 2012... doesn't get more modern day London than that. Also, really wish this had happened!
P.S. Let’s see how many nerd references I can fit into one blog post, shall we? I think I’m off to a pretty good start.

But I think Amy makes a great point! Ignoring the fact that the Doctor can travel in time, he can travel through all of space! An ever expanding, incomprehensibly huge place with probably infinite numbers of worlds, and Doctor Who continually comes back to save Earth? Really?

I understand that a lot of this is a matter of perspective and ease – it’s a lot easier for a man from London to write about London than to create a new world with new creatures every week – but think about it! We are just one planet in the solar system of one star in one galaxy in the universe. To put this in perspective a little bit, our sun is just one star in the Milky Way galaxy, which is estimated to contain about 200 to 400 billion stars and possibly upwards of 10 billion planets. Furthermore, the Milky Way is just one of approximately 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. And that’s just the observable universe! (By the way, I’m being a terrible scholar and getting these numbers from the Wikipedia articles on the Milky Way and Galaxy.)

Feel small yet?

As horrifying, depressing, and awe-inspiring a realization as it may be, our planet really is this small in the grand scheme of things. So I love Adams for not only putting Earth in its place, but for putting humans in their place. Do we really believe all alien life will think we are so special and interesting that they’ll adopt us and protect us like pets or something? Or that we are so intelligent that we will be the ones to constantly save the universe? I highly doubt we are the epitome of creation and evolution. Otherwise, I firmly believe we wouldn’t break so easily or get bug bites.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams laughs at this idea and instead has the Earth bulldozed to make way for an interspace highway.

Love it.

So take yourselves down a notch, humans. If there are other life forms out in the universe – and let’s face it, given the numbers, there probably are – they’re probably not going to think we’re that big a deal. In fact, our whole planet will most likely be described the way the alien hitchhiker Ford puts it in his guidebook, “Mostly harmless.”

Got to say, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this isn’t a stand-alone book. Now I just have to finish reading the giant stack of books I bought on my book buying binge so I can justify buying more…

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Slightly Courageous New Thoughts About Huxley’s Sci-Fi World

Currently Reading: Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are so many aspects of this novel that I would love to discuss, but I’m pretty sure I can’t possibly fit them all into one post. I’m going to do my best to make this coherent, but this may accidentally become a rambling post.

Before anything else is said, I must say this up front: I absolutely loved this book. Seriously, I’m more irritated now that I didn’t read this in high school because it’s so much better than a lot of the novels we did read. If you haven’t read Brave New World, you really should. It’s absorbing, thought provoking, and powerful.

Now, please allow me to indulge myself in sharing a few random thoughts about the novel…

1. Mustapha Mond is by far one of the best names I have ever come across. Somewhat jealous that Aldous Huxley came up with it first, but also glad he did because it’s fabulous. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s amazingly appropriate name for a man in charge of everything. Plus it’s fun to say.

2. I love that the main “savage” character quotes Shakespeare’s Complete Works throughout, like it’s his religious doctrine. Most likely this is because I am a massive Shakespeare nerd and approve of Huxley’s choice to make his work a revered piece of literature, as sacred or more so than the Bible. I guess it helped me relate to the main character, John Savage, since I feel the same way about Shakespeare’s writing. Plus, I’m a little jealous that John can bust out quotes from it at any point. I wish I knew his writing that well. I feel like I should for the amount that I’ve studied it. However, on that note…

3. It absolutely drives me bonkers that Huxley goes through all this trouble to create a character that knows Shakespeare inside out and backwards, quoting him and referencing his work constantly… and then accredits a quote to the wrong character. I’m almost 100% sure that I’m one of the few people on the planet who would ever notice this, but it infuriates me! On page 158 of my version of the novel, John’s response to the impressive speeds of the transportation of civilization is, “Still… Ariel could put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes.”

FALSE!!! It’s not Ariel, the sprite/fairy creature of The Tempest, who does this. It’s Puck, another sprite/fairy creature, but he’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Again, I know that no one will care about this anywhere near as much as I do. But seriously? You’re going to name your novel after a Shakespeare quote and have his work be central to the novel and then not double check this??? Really Huxley?? Ugh.

I’m such a shameless nerd.

4. While I’m on my Shakespeare bit here, if John uses Shakespeare as his moral compass, I’m not quite sure where he gets his intense sense of purity and chastity… After all, Shakespeare’s writing can be pretty raunchy at times and I’m not sure there are many super pure, chaste characters to be admired… The characters whose chastity becomes of the utmost importance that come to mind are Isabella in Measure for Measure and Desdemona in Othello. In both of these instances, the obsession with these characters’ virginity doesn’t lead anything good. Isabella’s insistence on keeping her chastity almost costs her brother his life and the question of Desdemona’s purity gets her smothered. It’s especially odd to me that John references Othello repeatedly and then lashes out against Lenina, the woman he falls in love with, almost the same way Othello lashes out against Desdemona. I’m pretty sure he missed the point of the play since Othello is a big, flashing warning against men being to jealous of women’s sexuality. He didn’t really have much of a Christian upbringing and instead was raised with a vague, non-specific American Indian spirituality. (High five for that, by the way, Huxley. Way to just merge multiple nations’ varying beliefs into one “savage” race’s belief system.) From what I remember of the American Indian culture classes, I’m pretty sure monogamy wasn’t always the dominant system… It’s been a while, so perhaps I’m confusing information, but I’m pretty sure John shouldn’t have gotten such a strict sense of chastity from that line of teaching…

5. The discussion Mustapha Mond and John Savage have at the end of the novel is one of the most eloquent debates I have ever read. It so wonderfully argues each point of view in the debate between ordered, mindless happiness and beautifully chaotic suffering. In a way, it supplies an answer to one of the ultimate questions that I’m sure has plagued everyone at some point: why do people have to suffer? What is the value of sadness and pain? And is that value worth more than worldwide peace and happiness? I would try to summarize the points they each make, but I really feel it would be better if everyone just read it; it’s so well done.

6. I really wish there was an epilogue to this novel. I’m never entirely sure if it’s a good or a bad sign when I find myself craving more story at the end of a book. Part of me feels it’s a testament to how compelling the plot is and how sympathetic the characters are that I want to know more about what happens to the rest of the civilization at the end. However, the other part of me feels like a really well done novel should wrap everything up nicely so there aren’t any lingering questions. Not sure which is more accurate… I think in the case of Brave New World, it’s definitely more the former situation. And I understand why Huxley ended the novel where he did because it really is the only way it can end and the image he leaves the reader with is powerful and haunting. But I do really want to know more about the aftermath of everything that happens in the end.

Again, there are so many other things I could discuss about this novel! It’s so rich with ideas and themes! Really, you should just go out and read it if you haven’t. If you need a copy, I’m more than willing to lend you mine just make sure you read it J

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Reading Binge – Less Social, But Fewer Calories Than Most Other Binges

Currently Reading: Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

First, I’d like to warn everyone that I’m going to attempt to use photos in this post, which I have not done before so I’m not sure how well it’s going to work. If for some reason it’s a complete failure, please bear with me.

So about two weeks ago, I took my annual pilgrimage to my family’s cabin on the St. Lawrence River, a trip I have literally been taking every year since before I was born (yeah, my mom went there the summer she was pregnant with me so I think that counts). It is an incredibly gorgeous, rather rustic, and very isolated oasis in northern New York. Way northern. Like I’ve canoed, kayaked, and boated into Canada so often I pretty much don’t consider it a foreign country, it’s that far north. It is my sanctuary; the place where I recharge and reconnect with my family and the lifelong friends who also make the same pilgrimage and thus understand the way this place seeps into your very soul to become an inseparable part of yourself.

This is our cabin, what we affectionately refer to as Camp. It's over a hundred years old and wonderful.
Bottom Right - Our dock. Strip of land across from it - Canada.
Although being at the River often involves a fairly personal washing away of the miseries of the past year to get ready for the next, it’s actually a very social, active atmosphere. Growing up, I remember spending more time swimming and running between my friends’ and my own house than sitting and relaxing. We canoed, we tubed, we learned to water-ski (eventually), we took family picnics on the islands in Canada, we fished, we went cliff jumping, and we visited castles and Canadian villages. Basically, we were constantly doing things.

Maiden voyage in my new kayak last summer.
There were two main exceptions to this rule. The first was when it rained and we were forced inside, mastering the game of Bridge (don’t judge. You don’t have to be 60 to love it) and playing endless rounds of Rummy. The second was when we were forced to sit our butts down and read.

Because our trips to the River usually fall in the first weeks of August, a somewhat unintentional tradition of the vacation was the opportunity for my mother to trap us into finishing (/starting) our summer reading. Procrastination runs in my family and my sisters and I pretty much always had to do the entirety of our summer reading while at the River. I very distinctly remember reading Gulliver’s Travels on our dock and the hundred-year old glider on our front porch. I equally remember reading Shadow Spinner in bed late into the night because I had so many bug bites, I couldn’t sleep from the unbearable itch. It was always the most obnoxious part of our trip. I mean, seriously? We couldn’t go swimming in the warm sun with our friends because we had to read? Gross.

At least, initially it was an activity we were forced to do. Over the years, it became something I love about my time spent at the River. My most recent vacation especially highlights this.

This past vacation was odd for several reasons. One: I went in June when the water is significantly colder. Two: My friends weren’t there (not totally unusual, but still). And three: I went solo. Granted, my uncle and grandfather still live 20 minutes from our cabin in my mother’s childhood home and my cousins went up for their own trip so that our time there overlapped for about a day and a half. However, this was the first time ever I had gone without my parents or my sisters and it was certainly the first time I had spent any significant amount of time in the house on my own.

It’s VERY quiet when you’re by yourself in the middle of nowhere.

After all, I really was in the middle of nowhere media-wise. We have no internet up there and Canada is so close that our cell phones believe we’re actually in Canada and charge us a fortune to use them. I was actually literally completely cut off for a day when men doing work in our backyard knocked out our phone lines. For the first time in my whole life, I was completely unreachable, a novel and kind of refreshing concept in a world so entirely connected all the time.

Our old school phone. Just to give you an idea of the level of technology here.
Although I didn’t anticipate the complete cut off, I knew I’d be fairly isolated and decided to take advantage of this opportunity. Armed with about ten books, I settled in for a glorious reading binge.

I actually managed to get the most perfect environment for this indulgence. Not only was I isolated and alone in a beautiful, relaxing place, but I was also gifted with enough rain to keep me from feeling guilty about not being more active or enjoying the other wonderful aspects the River offers. I had no responsibilities and no other options. With plenty of Diet Coke, pizza, beer, and blankets to cuddle under, I snuggled into a hermit cave to escape into alternate realities authors have so graciously created for me.

My favorite reading spot when the weather is nice.
The weather that kept me from reading there...
Aaaahhhh J

It was wonderful. More decadently indulgent than the richest, creamiest chocolate dessert.

Because as much as I love reading, I hate that it’s a fairly anti-social activity. Yes, you can find ways to make it interactive through books on tape, reading out loud, and book clubs, but, generally speaking, reading is an independent hobby. Especially when you want to allow yourself to fully engage in the novel to the extent that the world around you falls away. I mean, in that case, you really stop caring about being active or interacting with others. Actually, you may even find yourself irritated to the extreme when your family and friends have the audacity to speak to you while you’re so clearly in Valdemar or Hogwarts! Gosh!

But on this trip, I didn’t need to feel bad about not talking to anyone or about not moving from the couch. Reading was all I had on my to-do list. I finished Brave New World, read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and most of The Scarlet Letter in two and a half days. The most satisfying binge I’ve ever had with none of the nasty side effects. I thoroughly recommend it.