Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mission of Gravity (Classic Science Fiction Novel)

Experiencing Gravity. Flying. Exploring. Throwing. Trading. Overcoming Physical Obstacles. Strategizing. Communicating. Retrieving Something Valuable. 

Imagine a world where an intelligent species does not have words for such concepts as “flying” or “throwing.” In 1953 Hal Clement gave us the classic science fiction story Mission of Gravity, set in a world with intense gravity. Clement’s ability to create a convincing world is what makes this a classic. Never mind that in later years some of the scientific details would be disproved. According to Worlds Without End, the novel is on at least six major science fiction lists.

Briefly, Mission of Gravity takes place on Mesklin, a world shaped like a flattened sphere. The gravity at the equator is a number of times stronger than Earth and at the poles hundreds of times stronger. The Mesklinites, who look similar to large caterpillars, are an intelligent species. One of them, Barlennan, forms a relationship with Lackland, a human exploring the planet. When a rocket containing valuable scientific information is lost in a high gravity region, Lackland must enlist the help of Barlennan and his group to retrieve the information. As the gravity grows stronger, Lackland must part company with the group and help via radio (television?) contact. We soon learn that cute Barlennan is actually a shrewd trader and strategist.

Once again, I am reminded that current generations of science fiction authors stand on the shoulders of earlier generations. Mission of Gravity has good world-building and a relatively interesting plot. The novel represents major progress from standard 1950’s science fiction. By modern-day standards, this book might be considered quaint and, at points, a bit overly focused on mechanical details. At a few points, the humans, who are watching from space, take out their slide-rulers to make calculations. This novel is well worth reading.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Time Keeper (SF/Fantasy Novel)

A long time. Right on time. Out of time. Mind the time. Be on time. Spare time. Keep time. Stall for time.
There are as many expressions with “time” as there are minutes in a day.
But once, there was no word for it all. Because no one was counting.
Then Dor began.
And everything changed.
The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom is part modern day novel, part fantasy, and a bit science fiction. This short novel touches our hearts and encourages us to examine our beliefs about time. The novel has hints of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. The plot spans from a past six thousand years ago to a future where the cryogenically preserved learn their fate.

Briefly, The Time Keeper has three interweaving storylines. Dor, who lived at the time of the Tower of Babel, is fascinated by counting. He inadvertently invents time keeping. As his wife is dying of the plague, he asks the gods to stop time. His wish leads to him being banished to a cave for six thousand years. Ultimately, he must complete one last task, to teach two strangers what he has learned about time. Victor is the fourteenth richest man in the world, and he is dying of cancer. Trying to control his death as he controlled his life, Victor decides to have himself cryogenically preserved until there is a cure for his illness. Sarah is a smart but not so popular teenager. She becomes infatuated with a fellow teenage volunteer at a homeless shelter. Her crush leads her to despair.

I finished The Time Keeper early Sunday morning, a time when I normally read spiritual books. This seemed appropriate. Not only is The Time Keeper a good story, but it is also a story about values, the meaning of our lives, and our connection with something beyond us. It is a story I expect to ponder for a long time.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Bertie Plays the Blues (Novel)

Family. Friendship. Gender Roles. Elvis. Masons. Nudists. Old Lovers. Lies. Change. 
The blues. Sad, haunting music—even when played by a little boy; but this was no average small boy, this was Bertie, who had had so much to worry about in his short life; who wanted only to have fun, to explore the world, to do the things he had seen other boys do; who wanted to wear jeans rather than pink dungarees; who wanted a dog; who wanted to play rugby and cricket and have a bicycle with racing handlebars… 
Bertie Plays the Blues is the seventh book in Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. (See my post on The Importance of Being Seven for a quick description). Like the previous books, this one is humorous, touching, and philosophical. While the novel has various major and minor plotlines, the themes of gender roles and lying appear repeatedly. Although an eight book is in the works, Bertie Plays the Blues has a bit of the feel of a final book in a series.

Briefly, Bertie has had enough and goes in search of a new family, first putting himself on E-bay and then trying to have himself adopted. Stewart finally stands up to Irene. Mathew and Elspeth try to cope with being the parents of triplets. Big Lou tries on-line dating. An old lover appears in Domenica’s life, complicating her relationship with Angus. Antonia, who is about to take vows as a nun, gives an expensive painting to Angus and asks him to sell her apartment. Pat again works for Mathew in the art gallery.

Like the other books in the series, Bertie Plays the Blues is a delight. Despite the novel not be scheduled to be released here until next year, I managed to find a copy. In the midst of frightening world events, reading the books in the 44 Scotland Street series creates a little oasis of peace.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Last Song of Orpheus (Fantasy Novel)

Music of the Spheres. A Voyage. Destiny. Fate. The Netherworld. The Golden Fleece. Mysteries. 
To fulfill my role in maintaining the great harmony of the universe I must go from place to place as I am told, either to teach or just to sing and play, as is needed.
The above quote sums up The Last Song of Orpheus by Robert Silverberg. The novel is short and simple, but beautiful and poetic. Using a first person narrative, it brings to life the character of Orpheus, a musician from Greek mythology.

The Last Song of Orpheus also makes the reader think. Do we have freewill or are we at the mercy of fate? Can we unite the Apollo and Dionysus within ourselves? Can we perceive the music of the spheres underneath all that we experience in our world?

The Last Song of Orpheus is a worthwhile little book.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Importance of Being Seven (Novel)

“And how about some chocolate?”
Nobody had ever said that to Bertie before. How about some chocolate? It was not a complex phrase but its power, its sheer, overwhelming sense of gift and possibility filled Bertie with awe. 
Bertie and Irene, Mathew, Angus and Cyrus, and the rest of the gang are back in The Importance of Being Seven, the sixth book in Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. For those new to the series, each book was originally published in the Scotsman newspaper, in daily installments, over a number of months. (The book form is slightly edited.) This makes for an interesting style. There are a number of short plotlines, as well as some overarching ones. The most beloved character in the series is Bertie, who has a domineering mother and longs to be just a normal little boy. Like the earlier novels, The Importance of Being Seven is often humorous, often philosophical, and at times a tad highbrow.

Briefly, Bertie gets a new therapist, has an adventure with his little brother Ulysses, misplaces his mother, and bonds with his father. Ulysses has a unique response to his mother. The newlywed Mathew and Elspeth start their family in a surprising way. In Bruce’s few appearances in the book, he manages to show his true colors and to cause poor Mathew significant distress. Antonia asks Domenica and Angus to go to Italy, with the intention of making a play for Angus. Cyrus is a minor hero. Pat returns. Big Lou continues to offer support to the group.

Bertie lovers will enjoy The Importance of Being Seven because Bertie finally has some minor triumphs. I found the novel a worthy installment in the series. I thought a few parts were overly intellectual, and I would have liked to read more about Big Lou and Pat. But, there were sections where I was laughing out loud. I appreciated some of the fun plot twists. I enjoyed how McCall Smith is able to say something profound about the smallest of things, like choosing a chocolate bar. When I read these books, I have the feeling that everything will come out alright in the end in my life.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Change (Quote)

Most of us, if pressed, are made uneasy by change. We recognize its importance in our lives and there are occasions when we persuade ourselves that it is for the best – which, of course, it often is – but at heart we are concerned that, if chance comes, it will bring with it regret.
Alexander McCall Smith in The Importance of Being Seven

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Journey in the Dark (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Poverty. Wealth. Family. Success. War. Prejudice. Eddies. A Deathbed Request.
You have been lucky, Sam, to have so much to lose.
Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1944. I will be completely honest, I had a hard time getting into the novel and continuing to read it. To the novel's credit, it has a number of very positive things going for it. Flavin uses an interesting style to construct the story. While the chapters follow each other chronologically, the narration weaves back and forth in time within each chapter, usually opening with a major event and then filling in the backstory. Flavin also describes interesting historical events, such as the expansion of the telegraph and railroads, labor strikes, burlesque, and two world wars.

Briefly, Journey in the Dark follows the life of Sam Braden, who was born in Wyattville, named after the wealthy Wyatt family. His ineffective father was the sheriff and his mother, the chief breadwinner of the family, was a seamstress. Early on in the story, Sam reminisces about the first time he realized that he was poor. After Sam’s mother passes away, he drops out of school and goes to work in a store, to help support his family. When he decides he wants a better life, he first teaches himself to use the telegraph and becomes a telegraph operator for the emerging railroad. Next, he becomes a paper salesman. Eventually, he becomes a relatively wealthy businessman, always taking care of his family. But, even at the end of the book, he never escapes the shadow of the Wyatt family.

Journey in the Dark is a lovely old novel. It is more of a “sit on a bench and look at the painting in the museum” type of book, rather than a “can’t put it down” book. On an amusing note, the copy I read was from our library system’s storage. Several pages, containing a romantic encounter between Sam and a black neighbor, were neatly cut out. I’m sure those pages were scandalous when the book first came out. I respect Flavin for having dared to take on a number of controversial topics in the novel.

Sunday, September 2, 2012