Category Archives: Stuart
Sorry our long absence and dearth in reviews–Rachel and I have been busy with various and sundry things, grad school and theater productions among them.
I’ve been meaning to read this science fiction masterpiece for quite some time, so after the craziness of the semester and qualifying exams was over, I finally picked up a copy.
One of the most immediately powerful elements of the novel was its highly developed world. Rife with idiosyncrasies and offhand remarks about religious and political elements of this futuristic universe, one immediately gets a sense of the political tension between powerful fiefdoms and the intrigue deep-seated in the highly organized and gendered religious institutions. Just a few pages into the novel, and I felt fully immersed in this technologically advanced but tremendously medieval society divided by diplomatic tension and violent subterfuge.
What made this “realistic” world compelling was the way it provided intricate contexts for suspense, foreshadowing, and thematic development. I often found myself impatient to learn the meaning of certain societal quirks, the outcomes of life-threatening espionage, and the evolution of the main character (Paul) as he grows from a lost, confused adolescent to a religious and political leader. The life and society of the Fremen was perhaps the most intriguing in its development as their worldviews and religious practices are quintessential to Paul’s maturation.
The underlying themes present in the Fremen culture provide a deeper meaning to Dune as Herbert fills it with terminology from fundamental aspects of Islam. Throughout the entire novel, Paul struggles with visions of leading some horrific genocide across human civilization, which he refers to as a jihad–a concept many Muslims associate with an internal, spiritual conflict. The whole of the Fremen is referred to as the ummah, a word in Islam which refers to a global religious community identity that transcends kinship and any other manner of allegiance. There are many other references to concepts from Islam within the Fremen society, making it a rich world full of spirituality and history. Herbert’s drawing from the wealth of Islam (in addition to the feudal elements of the Landsraad and the Empire) provides an enormous degree of depth that would otherwise be inaccessible and moves the world away from the ethnocentrism so often a part of Western literature.
Beyond these well-developed allusions to religion and history, Herbert has a beautiful command of language. With simple language, he develops concise but vivid imagery that constructs a visual architecture for every location in the novel. From the caverns of the Fremen sietches to the Baron Harkonnen’s decadent halls on the planet Geidi Prime, I was always immersed in a stunning visual setting. One great example, from the trek Paul and his mother, Jessica, make across the desert after escaping the Harkonnen army:
The sun dipped lower. Shadows stretched across the salt pan. Lines of wild color spread over the sunset horizon. Color streamed into a toe of darkness testing the sand. Coal-colored shadows spread, and the thick collapse of the night blotted the desert.
One of the most palpable elements of setting, and indeed theme in general, was the absence of water. The majority of the novel takes place on a planet, Arrakis, that is one giant desert where there is no precipitation and there are no oases or bodies of water. From the dryness of the air to the ritual sacredness of crying for the dead to the socioeconomic disparity between the peasants and the nobility (who can afford a garden), water is the exacter, the diviner, the sentencer. It has the first and final say in everything, from economy to ritual to dress. Aside: the efforts of corporate conservation and subsequent selling of water is reminiscent of the water merchants of the ancient city of Petra in the Jordanian desert, yet another indication of the Arabic culture pervading Arrakis.
Economy drives all the major political and institutional decisions throughout the novel. Arrakis is the sole source of fuel for interstellar space travel, its massive worms somehow linked to a substance called the spice melange, giving spaceship pilots the ability to fold space in a sort of tesseract. Even the reclusive Fremen play into the spice market to manipulate the hand of certain political groups.
It is this role of economy that allows Herbert to incorporate a great deal of political commentary, such as his advocating for limited government. At several points, Herbert seems to advocate for a government more like the Ottoman millet system rather than an overarching federal or imperial state controlling the finer details.
Overall, Dune is a rich, compelling read brimming with intrigue and immense depth. Rich with detail and meaning, I felt immersed even after finishing the book. While Herbert offers a great deal of food for thought, Dune is also an enjoyable novel that provides action, suspense, and realistic characters that make for fabulous pleasure reading.
Some quotes that serve as thematic “thread” to tie together different parts of the novel:
“He who can destroy a thing has the real control of it.”
“Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.”
“There should be a word for memories that deny themselves.”
At sixteen, I read Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, a novel about the rise and fall of dictatorships in modern Africa. It was compelling, insightful, beautiful, and dense. This foray into non-Western literature was for me a glimpse of an alien world, one so foreign from the tradition of American and British writing in its senses of place, detail, character. I could go on, but suffice it to say that Achebe offered to me such powerful words that depicted the chaos of a continent rent asunder by totalitarian regimes and Western imperialism.
When I heard earlier this year the Achebe had passed away, I felt compelled to revisit his work before it came time to do the end-of-the-year post for Ambidexteri. I wanted to do something to commemorate his accomplishments while demonstrating an appreciation for one of his greatest novels: Things Fall Apart.
As Achebe first introduced the main character of Okonkwo, I felt instantly immersed in a way somewhat reminiscent of The Good Earth–the world was genuine, the language simple and sincere. The novel follows Okonkwo from the life of his slothful father to the growth of his own children. Achebe builds Okonkwo from several angles, and this makes him a compelling character, if not relate-able. The impact his father’s poor nurturing has on his values and identity evokes a strong sense of empathy for him as he starts his underprivileged life. Okonkwo’s determination and accomplishments despite the setbacks of his unfortunate upbringing and consistent run of bad luck make him admirable. His tenderness and compassion contrast with his strictness and temper, making him a conflicted but very human persona. While I would not say I always like Okonkwo or his behavior, he consistently remains the protagonist. This certainly speaks to Achebe’s aptitude as he creates not a heroic but rather an exceptionally real character.
What made the whole of this piece so compelling was not Okonkwo, however. Umuofia, the village in which Okonkwo and his family live, is Achebe’s medium for depicting Africa before and after Western religious, political, and cultural imperialism. Like Okonkwo, the village is not perfect–there are conflicts between members of the clan and with other clans. Achebe uses Okonkwo and his experiences to highlight various elements of Nigerian ethnic identity, such as anamism and the role that this faith plays in personal life, which in turn emphasizes the importance of family. Indeed, all aspects of their culture are interconnected like strands of a spider’s web: sever one strand, and the whole falls apart. Achebe’s beautiful depiction of this highly-evolved society becomes stark as missionaries, and later political administrations, begin to wear at its fabric.
What I found most intriguing in the end, with Okonkwo’s ultimate response to the white man’s new place in Umuofia, is the way in which Okonkwo and his life reflect almost as microcosm the life of Nigerian society. The grief and pain he suffers at the hand of the District Commissioner is symbolic of the early throes of death his village begins to show in its complacency and fatigue. Achebe’s final depiction of Western imperialism is done not through Okonkwo or the disintegrating clan, but rather through the head of the white man’s political administration: The District Commissioner. This overseer himself fancies writing about the life of Okonkwo in “[p]erhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate,” ending with an alternative title to Achebe’s novel: “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribe of the Lower Niger“. Particularly heart-rending is this suggestion that the end of a culture and civilization should be considered modernization, or even an act of kindness.
Compelling and insightful, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is brilliant, eloquent, and riveting. His simple language, complex characters, and detailed world make for a moving read about the dramatic changes experienced in Nigeria during the European conquest.
Some favorite quotations:
“A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true–that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.”
“Your mother is there to protect you… And that is why we say that mother is supreme. Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead.”
“We do not pray to have more money but to have more kinsmen. We are better than animals because we have kinsmen.”
“The white man is very clever…. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
“He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart…”
I am not often one for contemporary science fiction–I typically read more “classic” work by authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. But a good friend of mine recently recommended Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space to me with full knowledge of my literary disposition, so I thought it might stand a chance to impress me.
Before diving into the novel, I wanted to do some research on Reynolds since I was unfamiliar with him or his work. Turns out Revelation Space was his first book, published ca. 2000. Being the science fiction snob that I am, I was a bit dismayed–far too contemporary for my taste. But I also learned about his background prior to becoming an author: PhD in Astrophysics at St. Andrew’s in Scotland. This level of expertise might indicate a great capacity to understand and construct a physically accurate universe. Thus I entered Revelation Space with mixed feelings: high hopes for a physically-compelling universe but unconvinced about command of literary devices.
The plot itself takes quite some time to develop. Reynolds spends a good deal of time establishing the exposition, building the societies and worlds in which the action takes place. While intricate and ornate with detail, pure universe construction can seem at times a bit mundane. Especially when following an archaeological dig in a desert. Imagine Indiana Jones with three additional plot lines and without Nazis or booby traps–this is essentially the first third of the novel.
That being said, the universe is exceptionally well-put-together. Every element is convincing, from societal normatives to time dilation. The feel is organic, gritty, with an intricate mix of high-tech and sociopolitical chaos. And the physics is astounding yet approachable and well-written, such as this description of the outer reaches of a star system:
The protective caul of the star’s magnetic field did not extend this far out, and the objects here were buffeted by the ceaseless squall of the galactic magnetosphere; the great wind in which the magnetic fields of all stars were embedded, like tiny eddies within a vaster cyclone.
Not only does this attest to Reynolds’ ability to distill complex scientific ideas like the electrodynamics of our galaxy, but it likewise demonstrates his command of prosaic language to produce vivid images of the chaos of space. He does not limit himself to scientific material, however, as he uses humor and references from his universe to depict action. One of my favorite instances is after a massive ship collides with a planet:
It looked like a biology lesson for gods, or a snapshot of the kind of pornography which might be enjoyed by sentient planets.
Once the plot itself began to take off, this sort of language served convey the innumerable plot twists and characters’ dynamism with wit and depth. Reynolds’ diction and scientific imagery made for compelling suspense that felt real without being especially technical (although the excerpt at the end of this post is an amusing yet educational exception to this rule). I was incapable of putting down the book once I hit the halfway point as the mini climaxes and character developments happened in brilliant succession.
What I found most enjoyable was Reynolds’ use of certain characters’ malleability toward their own moral compulsions to bring about a wholly unexpected conclusion, one which contained a powerful message about the ethics of scientific discovery–and indeed any discipline devoted to exploration. As our society grows increasingly dependent on technology and begins to reach for the stars, it should consider the moral dilemmas that Reynolds points out. Additionally, Reynolds explores the evolution of socioeconomic class systems during humanity’s move to other star systems, which provides intriguing insight into our current society.
While Revelation Space does have a rather slow start, sticking with the novel through the first hundred pages or so leads to an exciting plot with some rather interesting speculations about the future state of humanity and the nature of what we consider to be “alien” sentient life. Reynolds does provide an intriguing universe for the framework of this novel, one to which he returns in future novels such as Chasm City. If you are willing to be patient with the beginning, this is a delightful read.
A note regarding Alistair Reynolds:
As I was researching Reynolds’ background, I ran across the author’s website, which included a personal bio, a number of FAQs, and, oddly enough, an e-mail address. Feeling daring and adventurous, I sent him an e-mail asking about his work in astrophysics and the relationship that had with his writing. He was quick to respond with a personal message regarding his research, delighted to hear from an avid reader and writer who was also pursuing graduate work in astrophysics. He offered some advice on being a writer and a graduate student, which was nice and somewhat generous considering he probably hears from quite a few fans and aspiring writers on a regular basis. Through our discussion, we discovered that I work in the same field he did: X-ray binaries.
Neutrinos are fundamental particles; spin-half leptons. They come in three forms, or flavours: electron, mu- or tau-neutrinos, depending on the nuclear reactions which have birthed them. But because they have mass–because they move fractionally slower than the speed of light–neutrinos oscillate between flavours as they fly. By the time the ship’s sensors intercepted these neutrinos, they were a blend of the three possible flavour states, difficult to untangle. But as the distance to the neutron star decreased–and with it the time available for the neutrinos to oscillate away from their creation state–the blend of flavours became increasingly dominated by one type of neutrino. The energy spectrum became easier to read, too, and the time-dependent variations in the source strength were now much simpler to follow and interpret.
I first discovered Larry Niven through a friend’s father, who leant me Ringworld, which I loved so much that I eagerly borrowed Ringworld Engineers and Protector upon finishing it. These, too, I immensely enjoyed. So I happily grabbed Destiny’s Road for pleasure reading after finishing David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole.
Niven, as always, does an excellent job with world building: he creates not only a visually compelling natural environment but also an intricate, commentating social context for his characters. I felt immediately familiar with Spiral Town and its inhabitants, the alien vermin and fauna, and the difficulties faced by this small, struggling colony on the planet Destiny.
The major environmental difficulty faced by the individuals revolves around a plant product called speckles, which is their only source of potassium. Without it, they go mad and eventually die. Their supply of speckles is controlled entirely by the caravans of merchants that come at regular intervals.
Jemmy Bloocher grows up in Spiral Town asking questions about the huge road the caravans take to come to the town, wondering where it leads, where the caravans go, where they get their speckles. These questions, along with some random and somewhat unfortunate events, spur Jemmy to seek answers to these questions.
Yes, Niven delves into socio-political commentary, the ethics of scientific research, the influence of economy on society, and the importance of shared knowledge in technological growth and development. He argues against oppression of a people for mere use as a control group. He demonstrates that economy can produce a class division and power dynamic that oppresses certain people groups. He asserts that security of scientific and historical knowledge and the corresponding ignorance of those forbidden this knowledge produces an information gap and an ability to oppress the uninformed. Niven makes excellent points along these lines through his vivid world.
However, the plot is lacking. Very lacking. There is no motivation, no prominent conflict other than Jemmy Bloocher’s questions about the Road and its merchant caravans. I struggled to finish the book simply because I felt no compulsion to see something resolved. And while Jemmy does find answers to his questions, they are somewhat predictable answers and left me with no catharsis whatsoever.
In the last few pages of the book, Jemmy seeks to end the power dynamic and oppression of the control group. This would have made for a compelling plot if Niven had drawn this out and raised the stakes. There was such potential in this! But no. The usually creative and compelling Niven seems to get tired of the book by the end and simply lets the whole plan succeed without failure in the course of a few listless pages. I was so moved by Jemmy’s efforts here that I took a nap before reading the last few pages.
Don’t get me wrong, Larry Niven is usually great. But please, read Ringworld or related books—forget about Destiny’s boring road.
Ararat is one of Louise Glück’s earliest published collections of poetry, first released in 1990, but her voice and command of language and imagery are still compelling and well-developed. This collection predates her position as US Poet Laureate and even her reception of the Pulitzer Prize. While I have read poems of Glück’s on their own, my vision of her changed within this piece. Collections of poetry which I have read (most recently, Ballistics by Billy Colins and Atlantis by Mark Doty) contain thematic links between certain groups of poems and perhaps some overarching underlying tone or message the poets themselves assert. With Glück, my experience was altogether different.
The piece as a whole is a narrative, a story and a characterization of the truth of family and the relationships contained therein (for me, this was first noticeable in “A Novel” in which Glück’s speaker talks about how a novel couldn’t talk about her family). Each poem is an additional characterization, development of familial conflict and disagreement. From the contention between siblings evident in “Widows”, “Animals”, and “Yellow Dahlia” to the struggles of motherhood in “Lullaby”, “Brown Circle”, and “Cousins” and later the intimate pain in “A Fantasy”, “Labor Day”, and “Lost Love”, Glück portrays a family at its greatest and worst moments with raw, visceral feeling through subtle, nuanced images.
The titular piece, “Mount Ararat”, is of particular note not simply because of its obvious connection to the piece as a whole (something Glück may well have intended) but also because of its masterful inclusion of all the prominent themes and conflicts within the piece. In this poem, the speaker talks about her mother’s and aunt’s shared “suffering” as each “donates one girl child to the earth” and how they “don’t discuss this ever”. Glück incorporates the main character’s struggles with the distant-feeling death of a father when she expresses that “it’s always a relief to bury an adult, / someone remote, like my father”. But the most poignant aspect of the piece is Glücks religious invocation at the end, when the speaker describes with such acrid bitterness that “every stone here / is dedicated to the Jewish god / who doesn’t hesitate to take / a son from a mother”. This is heavy as it contains a twofold underpinning: her religious sentiments and her own state of motherhood. To me, this seems especially fitting as Mount Ararat (below) is twin-peaked and has religious significance among many sects of Christians, particularly those of the Western tradition.
The entirety of Ararat is rife with religious diction and even contains a piece, “Celestial Music”, which depicts death through a dialogue of images between the speaker and her friend “who still believes in heaven”. Glück uses vegetal imagery, frequently as an analog to the cycle of death and birth, throughout the entire collection, using metaphors of planting bulbs, grass scorched in the sunlight, red orchids discovered by her son, the death of poppies in the rain. She reflects this repetition in “Brown Circle” and “Ararat”, the shift from being a daughter to being a mother.
On the whole, Ararat was very approachable and relate-able. While Glück does not necessarily delve into sociopolitical issues, she addresses issues which are universal: the human experience of family, of troubled, bittersweet relationships. She is straightforward and genuine without being harsh or terse. Her abilities with language and imagery are immensely compelling as well, making Ararat an excellent work not only to read but to experience.
Some favorite lines:
But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward. And just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss. ~ “A Fantasy”
my sister’s body
was a magnet. I could feel it draw
my mother’s heart into the earth ~ “Lost Love”
It’s the same thing, really, preparing a person
for sleep, for death. The lullabies–they all say
don’t be afraid, that’s how they paraphrase
the heartbeat of a mother ~ “Lullaby”
The soul’s like all matter:
why would it stay intact, stay faithful to its one form,
when it could be free? ~ “Lullaby”
That’s what I did, at the door to the taxi.
Like him, waved to disguise my hand’s trembling. ~ “Terminal Resemblance”
once you can’t love another human being
you have no place in the world ~ “Mirror Image”
Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken. ~ “The Untrustworthy Speaker”
Two facts must preface this review for the reader to take into consideration: I have not seen the film based on this book (it was only released two days ago) and I rarely enjoy contemporary novels. What drew me to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was indeed a trailer advertising the aforesaid movie; I was intrigued by the premise, but I also have a deep-seated compulsion to read a piece of literature in its “pure” state so that my mental images of the settings, characters, and events are solely influenced by the author.
My dislike of the majority of contemporary literature usually causes me to approach a recently-publish novel with an eye of critical scrutiny. I did that with Cloud Atlas almost unconsciously, and to my surprise, the beginning of the book read very much like something written in the mid 1800s. Certainly fitting, since this part is a nineteenth-century thirty-something’s diary. True to the diction and cultural underpinnings of language at the time, Mitchell produces a rather believable voice for the main character within this particular story. But he does not stop there.
Framed within each story is another story. Mitchell actually describes the structure of the novel within the book itself, through the perspective of a character from the 1970s named Isaac Sachs. “One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each ‘shell’ (the present) encased inside a nest of ‘shells’ (previous presents)…. The doll of ‘now’ likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be…” The entire novel consists of six separate stories, each nested within the last both figuratively (using Sachs’ metaphor for time) and literally (each story is split in half, and all stories that happen after it chronologically take place in full between these halves). But the stylistic creativity does not end there.
Despite the fact that five of the six narratives are in first person, each story is told differently. One is a journal, one is a set of letters, one is a novella (this is the one in limited third person), one is a memoir, one is an interview, and one is a spoken story. Mitchell’s command of voice is significant within this piece because he reproduces as best he can the language and culture of the voice’s temporal context. Additionally, each has a specific audience interior to the novel, each has a separate locale, conflict, time period, etc. In fact, the only immediate semblance of connectivity between the six is an occasional reference to a previous narrative: the letter writer says he is reading a journal, the story-teller watches a recording of the interview, or an item preserved by time will resurface, such as a music recording. Mitchell subtly includes deeper references between the narratives in a way that requires one to reread the book to catch all the contact points, for it is rich with them. Certainly, physical ones stand out, like the comet-shaped birthmark that is shared by a major character from each story. Beneath all that, though, are thematic and literary intertwining.
Perhaps the most prevalent theme across the novel is that the individual cannot pit himself against the whole of society and indeed the very core of human nature and hope to succeed.
“He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean.”
This takes on various timbres throughout the different narratives, but therein lies the ingenuity: Mitchell backs this theme with a hefty claim that it is universal. Put it in the past or the present or any sort of Utopian or post-apocalyptic future, and it may adopt different textures according to its context yet still hold true. At the same time, Mitchell is intensely critical of the avarice and prejudice which characterize all societies, suggesting that these very attributes which allow a nation or people group to succeed will ultimately cause its downfall. But within the hopelessness of our individual efforts, Mitchell offers this question at the end of the book: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
As a student and researcher in astrophysics, I am deeply intrigued by the nature of time. Cosmology places us inside nested spheres of time extending back to the threshold of the origin of the universe, a literal extension of Sachs’ matryoshka doll metaphor. Special relativity allows someone traveling at the speed of light to see all events as simultaneous in the same way the reader sees all six narratives at once. The periodicity of motion, the recurrence of events and patterns, these are not just typical of physics: they are its very heart and soul. Mitchell gets at this through Timothy Cavendish, who says, “You would think a place the size of England could easily hold all the happening in one humble lifetime without much overlap…but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.”
But this piece is not simply a heady philosophical treatise; it’s also engrossing and suspenseful. The rich drama of a musician named Frobisher composing while cuckolding his employer’s wife and the intriguing insights into colonialism in the Pacific through the eyes of a notary, Adam Ewing, are slower plots, but the vividness and uncertainty make convincing worlds. On the other hand, the investigative reporter Luisa Rey researching corporate scandal while being shot at contains a lot of suspense. The runaway clone, Sonmi-451, who is wanted dead by a violent corpocratic government, also leads us through a thrilling action-filled plot, as does the goatherd Zachry as he is hunted by savages while protecting a scientifically advanced visitor from the last remnant of civilization. The ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish trying to escape imprisonment in a nursing home falls in between the suspenseful and the more aesthetic.
While this is certainly not my favorite book of all time (Mitchell is no Margaret Atwood, believe me), I thoroughly enjoyed the piece. Mitchell demonstrates frequently that he is well-read, referencing authors like Emerson and Melville, and excellent in the crafts of voice and imagery, developing convincing characters and vivid worlds.
The Wilding is one of the most recent novels by notable science fiction and fantasy author C. S. Friedman. The piece is largely reminiscent of Asimov’s Second Foundation in his highly acclaimed Foundation series, in which psycho-history and telepathy are integral to the functioning of society.
For those of you familiar with Friedman’s much earlier piece, In Conquest Born, my review of the exposition may seem like overkill since this novel takes place in the same universe, just 200 years after the events of In Conquest Born. The vast majority of the book takes place in two contrasting expansive interstellar empires: the American-esque Azean Empire that allows for diversity and equality between humans of any sort, and the Roman-style Braxin Holding in which power, treachery, and good breeding are admired traits, misogyny is expected, and raping a woman is supported by law. We follow a number of characters, one main persona from each empire and a plethora of secondary ones. What is central to the plot is the existence of an entire civilization of humans who have telepathic abilities and have seceded from the Azeans because of political reasons.
Friedman develops culture, religion, ecology, architecture, fashion, and even linguistic idiosyncrasies with convincing and compelling detail. Each world, space station, and star ship we encounter, every government system, commercial organization, and religious group is explained in detail. But Friedman does not draw out her descriptions like, say, Victor Hugo, but rather weaves bits and pieces of her world into the plot. It is not overwhelming, and the significances, while sometimes a bit obvious, are not too subtle or cumbersome. In short, she doesn’t write this like a textbook.
The characters themselves are well-developed for the most part, if not predictable and somewhat flat in places. Tathas and Zara, the two main characters, are especially static and experience little to no change whatsoever throughout the plot. Perhaps the only truly dynamic persona is K’teva, but despite this great development, Friedman gives her little attention. In fact, we are given nearly as much insight into an irrelevant courtesan who services the ruler of the Holding, the Pri’tiera, and an Azean intelligence official who also contributes nothing to the plot. There are a number of named characters that contribute little or nothing to the plot, many of which die. So while the exposition is quite engaging, the characters leave much to be desired.
What really disappoints is the ending of the novel, which “resolves” the principle conflicts but fails to truly bring catharsis to the piece. Not to mention that the ending consists of an almost random and rather abrupt assassination followed by a scene with vaguely developed characters commenting on issues that far exceed to plot and characters of the novel. And while few could meet the standards set by Asimov and authors like him, Friedman fails at rising to her own standards of good writing. Having previously read and enjoyed her Coldfire Trilogy, I was hoping for something with just as much depth and excitement and with equally compelling characters. But Friedman has certainly missed the mark on this one.
Frayn’s Tony Award-winning play, Copenhagen, explores the relationship between Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenburg, two of the most significant physicists—and indeed intellects in general—of the twentieth century. Together, the two invented quantum mechanics, a theory that revolutionized not just atomic physics or even subdivisions of philosophy but the manner in which people perceive the universe.
But Frayn does not principally concern the play with these; rather, he focuses on one aspect of the relationship between these two men. Once strong during a time of peace and scientific prosperity in the 1920s, their relationship strains and breaks due to the politics and ethics of World War II as Heisenberg works for Nazi weapons development and Bohr, who is half Jewish, lives in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Copenhagen delves deep into a 1941 meeting that purportedly ends their friendship. In it, Frayn relates the issue of ethics and physics research, most specifically the natures of fission and the development of an atomic bomb, using these to characterize the relationship of these two physicists, their shared brilliance and diametrically opposite methods of thinking.
Bohr is a steady, methodical mind whose close scrutiny of the implications of mathematics and ideas allows him to presuppose the scientific and ultimately the ethical and socio-political effects of developments in theoretical physics. Heisenberg is, by far, the better physicist whose inherent talent with mathematics allows him to plow through work at a pace difficult for the most gifted to follow, but in doing so ignores the potential consequences of his results. Frayn’s development of this is brilliant as he uses their metaphoric conversation about skiing to build their respective personalities. This image becomes an extended metaphor through the piece, allowing Bohr and Heisenberg to talk about different methodological approaches to physics and ethics.
Beneath the structure of their relationship and the artistry of quantum mechanics, Frayn gets at something far deeper. Heisenberg’s famed Uncertainty Principle and Bohr’s notion of the wave-particle duality together provide the perfect context for Frayn to discuss his notions of nihilism and fatalism.
He asserts through Heisenberg that we can never truly know a person and the things that the person has done at a given time and perhaps that we cannot know anything about the past, future, and those individuals within those contexts. And through Bohr, Frayn puts forward that we can only act and thereby live or think about acting and thereby die. This philosophy does not end with his concept of death-by-knowledge, either. As Frayn argues that premeditated action leads to inaction, he presents a world without causal relationships amongst people, reflecting in some ways both the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics and the anti-causality philosophy of David Hume.
Late in the play, Frayn grows far darker than before, asserting through all the characters a looming fatality and hopelessness. He suggests that before we can see the effects of our actions in life, we die, that regardless of our efforts, our mortality faces us with harsh reality. But he adds a small dose of optimism suggesting that each moment in the present is “precious” in part because of its uncertainty, of its well-defined place and poorly-defined meaning.
Beyond Bohr and Heisenberg, there is only one other character, Bohr’s wife, Margrethe. Her down-to-earth nature and common intellect make her far more relatable than the lofty personae of the physicists. She is the one who questions the personal motives behind the theories and mathematics, the one who compels Bohr to break down the complexities of quantum mechanics into a comprehensive layman’s tongue. Her insights and demands lend the reader a degree of participation and intrigue in the relationship between Neils and Werner, forcing their discussions into the harsh reality of Nazi-occupied Denmark and contextualizing the familial foundations of both men.
Beyond her link to the real world, Margrethe serves as the glue that holds the men together and the skepticism that forces Bohr and Heisenberg to rethink their relationship. That she plays such a powerful role in their relationship and their questions of ethics and physics indicates Frayn’s high opinions of the role of family in great minds and individuals and of the necessity of strong women in determining the development and future of profound ideas.
Well-written and highly provocative, Copenhagen uses the uncommon medium of quantum mechanics to discuss relationships, knowledge, and mortality in a manner that makes them interdependent. Frayn compares people to the apparently sentient elementary particles that make up the atom, suggesting a degree of uncertainty even in our own lives and relationships. Though it reads quickly, do take the time to digest the plethora of compelling lines Frayn includes. Here are just a few to entice you before you pick up the actual play:
“M: Physics, yes? Physics.
B: This is physics.
M: It’s also politics.
H: The two are sometimes painfully difficult to keep apart.”
“H: Mathematics becomes very odd when you apply it to people. One plus one can add up to so many different sums…”
“H: Otto Hahn wants to kill himself, because it was he who discovered fission, and he can see the blood on his hands. Gerlach…also wants to die, because his hands are so shamefully clean.”
“B: You live and breath paradox and contradiction, but you can no more see the beauty of them than the fish can see the beauty of the water.”
“H: You never had the slightest conception of what happens when bombs are dropped on cities….The whole city on fire. Even the puddles in the streets are burning. They’re puddles of molten phosphorus. It gets on your shoes like some kind of incandescent dog muck….All around me, I suppose, there are people trapped, people in various stages of burning to death. And all I can think is, How will I ever get hold of another pair of shoes in times like these?”
Poul Anderson, a popular science fiction author who wrote in the mid twentieth century, published his dystopian novel Shield in 1963. Ironically, the piece is set in Anderson’s projection of 2012, in which there are flying cars, cities that span entire coasts of the United States, and 3D televisions. The historical context is a post-nuclear-war America torn by drastic class divisions and ruled by a new military division (the “MS”) designed to regulate and control all weapons and anti-American sentiments across the globe.
We follow Koskinen, a young astronaut recently returned to this futuristic America from a mission to Mars. Koskinen is book smart with little knowledge of the real world, giving Anderson a great forum in which to demonstrate his own views of both Cold War America and the nature of government at large, which he does at every opportunity, using imagery, characterization, etc. At one critical point, Anderson uses a discussion of political philosophy that resembles in some ways Dostoevsky’s commentary on morality in Crime and Punishment, albeit more exciting as Anderson has raised the stakes.
What makes Koskinen particularly special in this socio-political context is that he has brought back from Mars a piece of technology that renders its user invulnerable to any weapons except radiation from nuclear bombs. He is the sole possessor of this equipment and is the only person who knows how to make it. Every major political power in the world is after this device. Especially the major powers inside the United States. Post-fallout warlords, MS, and political extremists all vie for this perceived weapon and will stop at nothing to obtain it. Koskinen is not only caught between them but must decide what must be done with the device himself or face death at the hands of any of these three groups.
Koskinen is particularly naïve because beyond his formal education, he has never lived in the real world; after his PhD, he spends five years communing with the Martians in their ideal society, one focused on the pursuits of peace and knowledge. With this background, Anderson paints what he sees as a perfect civilization: no aggression, no power struggles, no bureaucracy, and no greed. But he expresses it as alien, admitting that his ideals are lofty and unattainable.
Through the warlords, Anderson demonstrates a world ruled by both culture and savagery, a world at times reminiscent of Heart of Darkness and heartily modeled on flagrant despotism. The MS are an equivalent to the Soviet KGB or a milder version of the Gestapo: they are clandestine, power-hungry, and merciless. And they will do anything they can in the name of national security, making Anderson’s highly negative depiction of this group a strong commentary on several of America’s Cold War policies. Political extremists, the Egalitarians, are fleshed out in far more detail through a political philosopher who meets with Koskinen. Anderson indicates through their encounter what he believes is perhaps the best system possible for humanity, considering human nature. Yet again, he demonstrates his ideal as unattainable, this time through the well developed character of a post-Soviet revolutionary who relates the evils that can occur during political transition.
While the potential for romance between Koskinen and a newfound compatriot exists, Vivienne, it does not develop until far into the book, demonstrating Anderson’s considerable focus on the political issues on hand as Vivienne cares more for the fate of Koskinan’s shield than the future of their relationship. Their relationship is complicated and ultimately plays a role in Koskinen’s ability to understand his own political and moral sentiments.
Anderson may not be George Orwell, but his anti-Cold War sentiments and concerns for America’s political future are still clear and well communicated. And while Orwell is perhaps the better author, Anderson has a reasonable command of language:
“[the city] bulked black against a sky where aircraft moved like glittering midges”
“The furnishings were low-legged, Oriental, centered about a pedestal that upheld a lovely piece of uncut Lunar crystal.”
“His face was older than his athletic gait, with skin drawn tight over broad cheekbones and beaky nose but deeply lines around mouth and eyes.”
His discussion of Jefferson’s policies, eighteenth century French political issues, and the famed Federalist Papers within the text suggest that Anderson is, at the very least, well read in major political theory.
Shield may not be the greatest work of science fiction or dystopian political commentary, but Anderson’s intriguing plot and well-characterized groups and individuals makes for a compelling and quick read that will leave you contemplating the nature of current politics and the nature of American government.
CATHERINE: It was just connecting the dots. Some nights, I could connect three or four. Some nights they’d be really far apart, I’d have no idea how to get to the next one, if there was a next one.
At face value, David Auburn’s Proof explores the authorship of a supposedly historic mathematic proof about the pattern of prime numbers. The nature of mathematics permeates the piece as three of the four characters are mathematicians. We hear about Germain primes and the number i, game theory and the significance of 1729. What makes Auburn’s play far more compelling are the depth and subtlety with which he explores relationships and the unnerving visage of madness and genius intertwined.
After the main character, Catherine, gives a key to her amour, Hal, she explains, “It’s a key.” Plain and simple, except that Auburn is getting at something more significant. We see that later when Catherine tells Hal, “I trusted you,” indicating that the key was a symbol of their relationship. At this point, however, Hal has failed to reciprocate her trust by refusing to believe that she has written the proof, which the key has unlocked. This proof serves throughout the rest of the play as a cathect for their relationship, a fact Auburn asserts when Catherine says of the proof, “It’s me.” While Catherine claims to have authored this proof, Hal is convinced her recently deceased father, a once brilliant mathematician gone mad, is its composer. Catherine is left to the whims of Hal’s scrutiny of the piece, his conclusions about its source the sole decider of the fate of their relationship.
Struggling in her helplessness, Catherine is left at home with her visiting sister, Claire, who is convinced that Catherine is insane. Before the introduction of the proof, Claire is convinced that Catherine is hallucinating Hal and presses her to produce evidence of his existence. Catherine cannot, which is one of the more glaring moments in which Auburn stresses that we cannot empirically validate the majority of our experiences.
The two sisters fight relentlessly about the proof, the legitimacy of either’s affection for their father, selling their father’s house, and even Catherine’s stability and sanity. Catherine’s despair, brought on by her father’s downward spiral and subsequent death and by Hal and Claire’s rejection of her authorship of the proof, causes her to succumb to Claire’s overbearing will and forceful personality. Because Catherine can offer no evidence to support her own argument, she is left subject to the demands of her older sister.
The true genius of the piece, however, comes with Auburn’s ability to craft the piece. He tells a gripping story rife with emotional turmoil and the difficulties of faith. Better yet, he leaves the truth unresolved, simply presenting us with evidence and allowing us to connect the dots.