Friday, November 20, 2015

Rama series (1 & 2)

I recently read Rendezvous with Rama and loved it. The prose read as any paperback, but I just loved the fantastic imagination.

A beautiful idea - and then it created a world around it. I have not read many literary science fiction, but the reason you don't miss the literariness is that the richness and the beauty of Clarke's ideas is amazing. Introduced for the first time, the concept of the alien spacecraft with its own ecology leaves you enthralled. Set in it is the wondrous cylindrical world described in detail. Through the book, it leaves your mind beautifully applied traversing concept such as, shifting gravity levels at different points in the craft (and how it would feel) or, wondering what would you see on the horizon if you were in a world which closed in on itself (inside a huge cylinder with scores of kilometres circumference rather than being on a sphere where the horizons tapers off and declines).

Your imagination works in tandem with the author's and you come out enriched from the read.  One realises in such books that narrative or characters are relevant only for the book to move forward. What you are truly after is the fabulous imagination. It was a short read with lot to think about. And had a positive feel good atmosphere around it.

And it really made me look forward to Rama II. I realised once I bought book two that Arthur Clarke had just provided the outline, the writing was not his. I still tried to stay optimistic remembering the science delights offered by the first book. But book 2 was a big let down. Earlier, I was keen to finish the series (there are two more books) but now, I give up. I cannot endure more of this. I need to recreate my AC image by reading some of his short stories or other writings.

What put me off Rama II? For one, Rama II had some really poor characters in the book. And also, it reads like some kind of Hollywood movie script rather than science fiction. There is very little science, and very little newness to the wonderful concept of book 1. All it does is some incremental build up. And worse, it becomes a paperback with series of poor characters. One is forced to wonder that what has the world come to, if within the sample of people selected to go to meet an alien spacecraft, only 20% are good souls or what you call excellent people or heroes. All other are self serving individuals, or more easily defined as villains in Hollywood terms. Their thought process defies logic. Situations are built up the way it happens in cheap thrillers.  May be, it was written as drama, but that is not what you wanted to read after the huge excitement of book 1. It does not make you feel very good, and is something that you can easily do without. It doesn't intrigue. It irritates. And I am glad it is over.

In summary,  Rendezvous with Rama (the first of the series) is worth a read. It had good characters, and anyway, the people are secondary in  that book. It is the massive idea and mystery of Rama that dominates the book.  From Rama I, I also had a list of things to further look up and understand including the double sunsets of Mercury (!?), Coriolis effect, further daydreaming about a cylindrical world, and a keener desire to read up all the sci and cosmos books sitting next to me.

But Book II can be easily missed. All the pleasures are well contained in book 1.

Another thought that I take away from all this is that when people write about ideas, and try to create stories around them, they are better dealt in short stories, or novellas (And AC's short stories are some of the best sci fi ideas). If you try to spin too much around one single idea (without any characters with depth), be it a book series or a television series, it is bound to disappoint.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

By Aleksandra Solzhenitsyn

I recently came across Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when I bought a book by him - August 1914, the first one in the Red Circle. I am yet to read that one. It is quite a formidable tome. I look at it and I start thinking of my failed attempts with War and Peace.

On one of my recent visits to a bookstore, I had picked up August 1914 with mostly an intent of buying it unless I came across something more interesting. As I was exploring the new (for me) bookshop further, this one slid behind and somewhere under the bookshelves that were connected and it took massive effort by the bookseller to get the book out again. So I thought I'll as well buy it for all the effort gone in retrieving it.

Reading through the opening pages, I realised that AS received the Nobel prize for literature in 1970. His was a life of imprisonment and exile.  This is how Joseph Brodsky (another author I admire) refers to Solzhenitsyn in his Paris Review interview: "I really think that in him the Soviet rule got its Homer: what he managed to reveal, the way he kind of pulled the world a little bit around".

So I was on alert mode for the author name, and in the library, came across this relatively small book - 'one day..'(150 pages) by the author. And I am glad that I read this book. One of the best books I have read in a while.

This book depicts a day in the life of a prisoner of a labour camp in Russia. This book was one of the first to talk about what went on in these camps (and is famous for that reason). But apart from the historical significance, what moves one is the way people live and the human spirit that survives. It is not a free life, but people find their daily victories in some way or another.

Sometimes it seems that human beings and human spirit are like water, just taking the shape of whatever vessel it is stored in. In prisoner camps, there is no money earned but people need to work hard in snow and cold without enough warm clothes or heating and without enough food in their bellies. Most of the people seemed to be imprisoned for political reasons -  for perhaps exercising a freedom of choice or that of speech. Since the sentences are for 10 years or 25 years, or more, there lives are more in the camp than outside it. They prefer work to not working; days pass quickly when one is working hard, when one is exhausted and there is not much thought left to spare or squander.  And you follow Ivan Denisovich for the day, and his ups and downs, and his thoughts and feelings, and his pursuit of whatever meagre he can get, and through him, you start pondering about life, happiness and what defines wealth and richness. It is not comfort but it is the content spirit that struggles and achieves or is defeated in pursuit but keeps on struggling.

Time and again, books that leave a lasting impression happen to be those that showcase the indefatigability of the human spirit. At times, this one reminded me of Motorcycle Diaries, but then only because of the wealth of spirit. The inmates have nothing, their daily struggles are around fighting the biting cold with literally nothing, and how to get perhaps 100 grams of more ration to survive.  And that is it.

You read about them, and you then look around you. It is a world apart. It is so very easy to forget all the good things in one's life, all the things one should be grateful for; personally, as well as human beings of this time and age or of a particular country. I don't know whether I can capture or express the thought well, but the feeling it left me with is that our happiness, contentment is a function of our expectations, our gratefulness and perspective. Recognising what we have. Our bars for happiness or unhappiness seem to be so different. Should I speak for myself here, as I have no clue? Or do I? Isn't the popular media, entertainment an example of people's thoughts and worries and what makes them happy and what makes them sad?  Most of modern day normal life problems and decisions sound so silly when you read these accounts. In trading for things, have we traded the depths of our lives?

This book leaves me with a lot to ponder about and takeaway. An awareness of all the privileges and freedom - and recognition of its value. The understanding of how 'things and stuff' and decisions around the web of 'things and stuff'  need to occupy only so much of mind-space and not all of it. And then, to retain the perspective, and to understand that happiness or peace is not an external function, but so much radiated outwards by our own thoughts and spirit; be it in a Russian camp, or in the microcosm of the world I live in which is full of silly mindless problems.

On reading what I have written above, I realize I sound like a preacher, but this post is as much a note to self. A way to preserve the way I feel after reading about a day in life of Ivan Denisovich before I trample into the shallow waters of my own modern life surrounded by stuff and choices which mock the very reason of existence. Pursuit of deeper, still waters, and a proper perspective, is what I wish to remember this book by. That feeling is worth saving.

Highly recommended to anyone interested.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Search for Roots by Primo Levi

I like Primo Levi's writings. His prose is heart felt, flowing directly from his life, the vicissitudes he experienced beautifully meshed together with his scientific temperament and training.

Artists that influence you, your thinking, you try to read up around them and try to understand what all inspired them, what shaped their thinking and what led them to write the way they did. At some level one starts seeking a conversation with them who take up your mind-space and since the conversations are not possible, anything that provides more insights into their way of thinking is so much welcome.

Presented in this anthology are extracts of books that have influenced him with a forward/ introduction by Primo Levi. They go over different topics/ genres and most of them I have never read. Books that shaped him. Ranging from science to poetry mostly aimed at understanding the nature of human being and understanding his place in the world/ universe - through laughter, injustice or pursuit of knowledge.

I took my time reading this anthology - have been reading this one for the last few weeks while in parallel I dipped into other books (most of them seem like lit Sci-Fi or war histories).

This book triggered quite a few thoughts and I end up with a list of books to explore further. Book list for my ref:

  • Charles Darwin - The origin of species. Here P. Levi picks up the section on beauty and the utilitarian aspects of same. And lays out in simple, clean concepts. Would someday love to read the book.
  • Sir William Bragg - Concerning the Nature of Things (Lectures) - About atoms and how atoms arrange themselves including those in soap bubbles. Loved the read. Will look up the lectures.
  • Jonathon Swift - Gulliver's travels. This section on immortality.
  • Antoine de Saint Exupery - Wind, Sand and Stars (section on surviving in Sahara). Had some of the most pleasing and appealing lines and thoughts. Not sure if this one is easy to find. One of the bits from it:  "I can no longer understand  those dense crowds on the suburban trains , those men who think they are men and yet who are reduced like ants, by  a pressure they do not feel, to the use that is made of them. When they are free, on their absurd little Sundays, how do they fill their time?"
  • Marco Polo - The travels
  • Frederic Brown, Sentry, Galaxy (Sci Fi)
  • Arthur C Clarke - Profiles of the Future: An enquiry into the limits of possible. I love AC's writings. And this one is more of future envisaged by him. Will look this one up first in the whole list.
  • Hermann Langbein - Humankind in Auschwitz
  • Kip S. Thorne - The Search for Black Holes. One of the most packed science passages in the book. A lot said in simple terms in a few pages. Take away fact - if we were to make a black hole out of  earth, then earth will need to be reduced to a circumference of less than 5.58 cm for escape velocity to reach 300k km/s.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Handmaid's Tale

This Sunday, I bought Margaret Atwood's  The Handmaid's Tale.

It is great writing, but it is a sad book and quite despairing portrayal of an alternate future. It affected me. Most well written sad stories do. And I end up spilling over the emotional overload in my daily life. Irrational, and not a good thing for people around you!

It hits because it is so well written. But I do not understand why one would envisage such a bleak future. The book is more or less a diary, of a woman in some future where women have been reduced to nothing. It depicts the implosion of a society, how the hunger for power and control (it must be that, right?)  turns life and a country upside down; how systematically the females are cut off with nowhere to turn.

It portrays fanaticism - an unrealistic world which defies a logical justification - and it is like fanaticism of any type but the anguished ones here happen to be females and not a religious sect. The world has shown us in the past what low levels humans in a group can stoop to, and perhaps those doing it do not understand what they do; perhaps they create justifications for almost any crime, giving it some religious higher purpose, or they are just mindless sheep following random directions; perhaps. How can one otherwise do such things!

I do not like the book because of the heart rending alternate reality it depicts. What happens to all the spirit, spunk, the life in people? What do they then even exist for? They are tied down with machine guns, thoughts of their loved ones who might be jeopardised, and the politics of all - it all builds up like the water coming to boil around the gradually alarmed frog.

I know it is unreal. One of the more literary sci-fi they say, but this is some kind of return to blindfolds or some kind of savagery that only religion can bring out in people. Or some kind of deep, selfish, hunger for power.
It is all so, so sad and so wrong.

It is stifling. Finishing it, I seek fresh air, some nicely ending, some wonder lending sci -fi.

PS - and I got it. I watched The Martian last night. And loved it!! Way to go, human spirit!
Also, feel like seeking out next part of Rama. They talk about a world united (more or less) facing a new common challenge.