Friday, 30 July 2010

"Midsummer Century" by James Blish

"Midsummer Century" is the last of the small treasure trove of James Blish novels found in several used book stores in San Francisco during my recent "journey to the west".

When I first started reading Blish (with "Cities in Flight"), I thought of him as a long-format author.  Now I realize that he actually writes in fairly short form, and that it took four of his novels to add up to a compilation as long as single books like "Mockingbird" by Walter Tevis or "Grass" by Sheri S. Tepper (review coming soon on that one).

"Midsummer Century" is another of these short novels.  It's scarcely half an inch thick, and it flew by almost before I picked it up and started reading.  With a novel this short, it's hard to even give an approximation without spoiling things.  I'll stick to what's on the dust jacket.

Suffice to say this is another in the long tradition of Science Fiction novels that send a modern man into the future ("Accidental Time Machine" by Joe Haldeman, "Farnham's Freehold" by Robert Heinlein and "Word Out of Time" by Larry Niven are good examples).  This variation on a common theme is uniquely Blish.

The main character journeys not in body, but in mind.  His struggles in the new world are largely psychic rather than physical.  The ultimate empowering of the hero comes from visualizing the nature of consciousness and enlightenment.  This visualization is described in loving detail, I think I spent longer trying to sketch that out than reading the rest of the book.

This is a very short novel, a popcorn kernel with a bit of philosophy inside.  It's not the absolute best of Blish, but it's an incredibly quick read and still well recommended.

Friday, 23 July 2010

"Mockingbird" by Walter Tevis

I dropped by Galaxy Books in Sydney on my recent trip around the world, and I was pleased to find a few of the last remaining gems from the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. Chief among them is "Mockingbird" by Walter Tevis.  "Mockingbird" is a remarkable novel about the loss and rediscovery of literacy, science, culture and simple human curiosity. 

We take a lot of things for granted in a modern society.  Very few of us understand how the things we use daily actually work beyond our own limited areas of expertise.  "Mockingbird" looks forward to a time where almost no one understands anything about the machines that keep life moving.  Has the machine that makes clothes forgotten how to make zippers?  Live without them.  Are the antidepressants dispensed to you every day slowly killing humanity?  Oh well, at least they keep everyone quiet.  This is definitely a world that's ending with a whimper rather than a bang.

Schools have been stripped down to teach the social norms of the day and almost nothing else.  Teaching is conducted by simple robots and via video recordings.  Everything has been decided and planned for them by the ruling class of robots, including how much they can develop as individuals and how they are allowed to relate to others.  They are never taught anything more than they would need to become another harmless, emotionless, ignorant, unquestioning, superfluous cog.  To quote the female lead:  "they have to deactivate machines to find things to pay us to do".  Innovation, creativity, introspection, and even reading itself are almost extinct.  People are conditioned not to pay attention to one another, to avoid displaying emotions, and are continuously drugged.  This is a bleaker future even than "Brave New World", in which at least people had their pick of diversions and pursued their shallow lives with gusto.

The story follows two humans and a clone with a synthetic brain who is the last and best of the ruling class of robots manufactured to keep things running.  These three are the only individuals with their eyes open, who notice and question the routine existence everyone else accepts.  The tension and drama in the book is whether these people can preserve their own bubble of awareness, to teach themselves to fight back the decay and disrepair that surrounds them even as they rediscover basic concepts like intimacy and friendship.

This is a great book, and highly recommended.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

"Anywhen" by James Blish

I was very fortunate on my recent trip through San Fransisco to stumble on a treasure trove of books by James Blish, whose "Cities in Flight" and "After Such Knowledge" series I heartily enjoyed. Over the next few months, I'll be reviewing the books I found in between a few of the remaining books from the SF Masterworks series.

What I love about Blish is that his characters are driven by their morals and philosophies. The critical turning point in his stories is far more likely to be a change of heart or key realization than a deus ex machina or twist of fate. His stories are a stage on which principles and ideas are given life and pitted against one another.

In "Anywhen", Blish wrestles with grand ideas such as attitudes towards death ("A Dusk of Idols"), whether deception in service of truth is permissable and sustainable ("A Style in Treason"), and how our expansionist nature might be tested when humanity finds its way to the stars ("Writing of the Rat" and "Some Were Savages").

I've been thinking a lot about Blish in comparison with Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon's focus in "Last and First Men" and "Star Maker" is so broad that there is barely room for recognizable human drama. Blish, on the other hand, is more successful in presenting the higher concerns of individuals in the context of their daily lives. The main character of his most famous series ("Cities in Flight") John Amalfi reminds me of Gino Molinari from Philip K. Dick's "Now Wait for Last Year" (one of my favorite books). Both are the types of great (but conflicted) men that see humanity through times of testing. They make hard choices, and although they bend their morals, ultimately they hold themselves to the ideals of their conscience.

"Anywhen" is short, but enjoyable, in that it gives us vignettes of a few of these principled characters, and makes us care about their choices and principles. Highly recommended. Stay tuned for a review of "VOR", also by Blish.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Journey to the West, Part 6: Amsterdam

My journey to the west ended where it started, back home in Amsterdam.  We've lived here for a year and a half, and this is the longest I've been away in that time.  There's a phrase written on the underside of a bridge near Central Station:

"Terugkomen is niet hetzelfde als blijven"

I've always translated that as "coming back is not the same as staying put".  I'm not sure if it has a double meaning in Dutch, but I feel it can either mean that the journey is worth it even if you end up in the same place, or that being home is something to look forward to as much as travel.

Even though I've had a great time getting to know my colleagues around the world (and seeing a few old friends along the way), I'm glad to be back in Amsterdam.  It's a great place to live even when the weather is bad (and it often is), and I returned to find that summer had finally arrived, the weather was only a few degrees cooler than KL.  It was literally a warm welcome, and perfect weather to walk off a bit of jetlag between fits of napping.

On the way home, I found myself with a little time to spare just as the Brazil-Netherlands World Cup match began.  I watched as long as I could (and probably a little longer), and then ran for my flight.  The Netherlands was still a goal behind when I boarded, I didn't get to find out until the next day that they'd managed to come from behind to win the game.  I'm not much of a soccer fan, but I think it's time to learn.  I look forward to watching the next game in Amsterdam, surrounded by teammates, friends who aren't also teammates and thousands of excited Netherlanders.

Of course, there are always things to look forward to here, which is one of the reasons it suits us so well.

Journey to the West, Part 5: Kuala Lumpur

The last stop in my world tour was Kuala Lumpur, where I spent a week with my colleagues at Customware. They work European working hours, so it was a college student's dream job: roll into work at 3, leave at midnight.  The team is a diverse bunch of smart, enthusiastic, and energetic people, and they went out of their way to be great hosts as well. We usually ate dinner together, and we managed a few lunches and (after midnight) suppers as well. It's hard to cover how amazing the food is in Malaysia, but among other things, while I was there I enjoyed:

  • Nasi Lemak, the national dish of Malaysia.
  • Roti Canai, a local interpretation of Indian flat bread
  • Otak Otak, a seasoned fish mousse steamed in banana leaves
  • Rojak, a sweet salad of fruit and vegetables in a thick brown sauce
  • Assam and Curry Laksa, two noodle soups that are justly famous around the world.
  • fresh Popia, tasty uncooked spring rolls filled with vegetables, a light brown sauce, and crunchy treats like peanuts.
  • fresh Guava with a little bit of sweet and sour seasoning

The KL team are really active on Facebook, here's a good starting point to see what we were up to during my trip:

It was a great visit, long enough to get to know everyone a little, but short enough to make me want to come back and visit again.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Journey to the West, Part 4: Singapore

In transit from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, I stopped off to see some old friends in Singapore. It was a short trip, but great. I hadn't seen them in about four years, and it was great to catch up. We did a bit of touring, a lot of shopping, and had some of the best food I've ever had. Fresh Durian, Lamb Satay, Bo bo cha cha and Ais Kacang were among the highlights.

Here are some photos from the trip:

Journey to the West, Part 3: Sydney

My journey around the world continued in Sydney, where the home office for Atlassian is located. This was my first trip to the mothership, and it was a blast. I got to meet a lot of amazing people, put faces to names, and have a lot of face to face conversations that would ordinarily take place over blogs and email.

Although I worked most of the time I was there, I was lucky enough to take a little time to check out the Sydney Biennale and a great exhibit at the White Rabbit Gallery. My favorite pieces were the video installation at the Biennale in which a couple walk naked through a waterfall, and the installation at White Rabbit in which a van was reskinned with a carefully painted canvas, and hooked up to a pump so that it appeared to breathe in and out.

I also enjoyed visiting Manly Beach, where I read Walter Tevis' "Mockingbird" from cover to cover (review coming soon). I mistakenly referred to Manly Beach as "Manly Island" when purchasing my ferry ticket, and the ticket vendor corrected me. After a few seconds, I thought it over and said "I guess no Manly is an island". The ticket vendor thought it over for a second, and then made a little eye movement as the pun sank in.

Before, during, and after work I managed to have some great meals in Sydney. The highlights were the Vegemite and toast at the coffee shop just south of the office, the Laksa on Hunter Street, the pies at Central Baking Depot, the pulled pork sandwich at Four Ate Five, the Pho at the place under Wyndham Station and the Roti Canai at Mamak.

Here are a few photos from the trip:

Here's a video of the ferry trip to Manly Beach: