What I’ve been reading lately, part 2

As noted recently, I’m taking advantage of my Kindle’s reverse-chronological book list to keep track of what I’ve been reading, and blogging a few thoughts about the books. Here’s part 2.

Second Foundation — Isaac Asimov

Very much more of the same, following on from Foundation and Foundation and Empire, which I wrote about last time. It remains compelling reading, but it continues to astonish with its amazingly primitive technology: for example, apparently the libraries of 20,000 years into the future will still use microfiche. I quite like the sense that Asimov, as he was writing these stories, had no more sense of where they were headed than we have.

Windfall — Desmond Bagley

Desmond Bagley is my absolute favourite thriller writer, and some of his earlier novels — The Golden Keel, LandslideRunning Blind — rank with anything written in the genre. That said, there was a definite drop-off in quality in his last few books. This is the last one that was published in his lifetime — two more would follow posthumously — and it feels much less taut than his better works. It held my interest, but I didn’t find it compelling. Not a good place to start if you’re not already a fan.

Foundation’s Edge — Isaac Asimov

Asimov returned to the Foundation series three decades after Second Foundation with what turned out to be the first of two sequels, to be followed by two prequels. I’m pretty sure I read this as a teenager and found it inferior to the original trilogy; but as I read it recently I remembered pretty much none of it, so I might be mistaken.

This feels very, very different from the first three books. Unlike them, it’s a single novel rather than a sequence of short stories. It’s also much longer than any of the previous volumes, so that it sustains a single narrative with a small cast of characters for about six times as long as a typical original-trilogy story. I’m not sure this is to Asimov’s advantage. As a writer who was always distinguished more by his ideas than by his actual writing, the short story was his natural medium (something that’s also true of Philip K. Dick). When stretched out to novel length, his work feels somehow insubstantial. The characters don’t develop (in fact they’re hardly sketched at all beyond a few mannerisms): that wasn’t a problem back when we only spent 40 or 50 pages in the company of a given character, but it is a problem when we’re stranded with these ciphers for 400 pages.

Also unfortunate: the texture of the plot feels very different from the original trilogy. That doesn’t make it bad, of course, but it does mean that people who came here hoping for more of what they loved in the older books are likely to be disappointed. This story reads more like a quest narrative than future history. Perhaps worse, Asimov unnecessarily multiplies entities, so that the ideascape over which the story takes place is not the one we’ve been used to.

If all this seems rather unrelentingly negative, all I can say in defence of Foundation’s Edge is that, somehow, it’s left me wanting more, so I will at some point go on to Foundation and Earth, the last book of the series. I can’t explain why, but somewhere in there, Asimov has successfully buried a nugget of Asimov-ness that still sings with the same clear, pure voice as the older works.

Mary Poppins — P. M. Travers

I can’t remember now what made me read the original Mary Poppins novel — the first in a widely spaced sequence of eight, of which the first few provided the material that the well-known film was constructed from.

I’m glad I did. The feel of the book is dramatically different from the film, and very much more interesting. I can understand why the author, P. M. Travers, was so unhappy with the film. The original is much starker, more mysterious, even almost sinister. Mary Poppins herself is harsh with the children, scarcely showing them any affection, and vain. Her occasional moments of kindness are skimmed over quickly, almost with embarrassment — by Mary herself as much as by Travers. She is evidently a person of some importance in the magic world that’s behind the stage-set of the mundane world — perhaps a demi-goddess or similar. But she also has very human failings.

Where the book really hits home, bizarrely, is a chapter where Mary Poppins hardly appears, entitled “John and Barbara’s Story“. John and Barbara are the baby twin brother and sister of the two elder children, and don’t appear in the film. In the book they are very young — less than a year old — and so, like all babies, are able to talk with the sunlight, the wind, and birds. And like all babies, they forget this ability when they reach their first birthday. Stated baldly, it sounds twee and sentimental; as Travers writes it, it’s heart-breaking. It’s the inevitability of the loss that hurts.

“Listen, listen, the wind’s talking”, said John, tilting his head on one side. “Do you really mean we won’t be able to hear that when we’re older, Mary Poppins?”

“You’ll hear all right”, said Mary Poppins, “But you won’t understand”. At that Barbara behan to weep gently. There were tears in John’s eyes, too. “Well, it can’t be helped. It’s how things happen”, said Mary Poppins sensibly.

The twins’ mother completely fails to understand what’s happening — she thinks they’re crying because their teeth are coming through. She appears an ignorant clod in their eyes, but one they are indulgently fond of. There’s something achingly brilliant about this: we all feel that we lose something as we grow up (even while gaining much more). Travers nails that feeling by embodying it in a ludicrous manifestation, then treating it dead seriously.

[Mary Poppins was published in 1934, which means it was eleven years too late to be in the public domain under the anything-before-1923-is-OK rule. But at the time it was published, copyright lasted 28 years, with the option of another 28 years if renewed. So when it was published, it was due to go into the public domain in either 1962 or 1990. The ethical implications of this observation are left as an exercise for the reader.]

The Prodigal God — Timothy Keller

A short but very affecting book by the leader of a successful church in New York City. His thesis is that the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is better understood as a parable about two lost sons — lost in different ways — and a prodigal (that is, extravagantly generous) father. Keller argues persuasively that when Jesus told the parable, its main target was not the obvious “sinners” that are represented by the younger brother, but the ostensibly religious pharisees that are represented by the older brother. Both are equally in need of the father’s forgiveness and love.

This is a book that I’ll come back to repeatedly. It’s a fresh and refreshing take on a moving story whose power has been dulled by repetition, and it portrays a delightful vision of Christianity (which is very much in line with my own understanding).

Slam — Nick Hornby

Hornby is a fine novelist, but probably still best known, and rightly, for his first book, Fever Pitch, an essentially non-fiction account of growing up as an obsessive Arsenal fan. The book deserves its success: it captures that obsession so perfectly that I think everyone who has a sport-loving partner ought to read it, just to get inside their head.

Slam is not that good, though. It’s a magic-realism first-person tale of a young boy who accidentally makes his girlfriend pregnant. Mostly it’s about the mudane issues of coping with this, but it’s interspersed with passages where the narrator sees, and literally lives through, parts of his future, after the baby is born. It’s not quite clear whether these are real or hallucinations, and part of the disappointment of the unresolved ending is that you never find out what was actually going on — is it a time-travel story or not? Some readers may feel that the ambiguity is the point; to me, it feels like a cop-out.

The Annals of the Heechee — Frederik Pohl

Like Foundation’s Edge, this is the fourth book in an ongoing saga; also like it, this is longer and less involving than its predecessors. I’m sticking with the series — there’s only one more book left to go anyway — because I want to know where it’s headed. But Annals seems to be composed primarily of digressions, blu-tacked together with rudimentary gobs of plot only where absolutely necessary. Anyone new to Pohl would do much, much better to read Gateway, the brilliant first installment in the Heechee saga.

[Read on to part 3]

20 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 2

  1. I’ll note the copyright rules you quote are for the US; Australia (where P. L. Travers was born) and the UK (where you are and where she died) were life+50 and are now life+70, which means it was never going to go out of copyright in those countries until at least 2046. The expansion is less dramatic; life+50 is usually longer then 56 years and life+70 is roughly equal on average (though not in this case) to 95 years.

  2. Re. “John and Barbara’s Story” – thanks for reminding me of that. I must have read it when I was a child myself.
    It reminds me a lot of JRR Tolkien’s poem “You and me and the cottage of Lost Play” found in the History of Middle-Earth v. 1 (the Book of Lost Tales 1):

    (…)
    Though long we looked, and high would climb,
    Or gaze from many a seaward shore
    To find the path between sea and sky
    To those old gardens of delight;
    And how it goes now in that land,
    If there the house and gardens stand,
    Still filled with children clad in white —
    We know not, You and I.

  3. David, comments on copyright terms duly noted. One of the many, many problems with our copyright regime is of course that there are so many of it, all of them subtly or not-so-subtly different. Make it a simple global term of 20 years from publication, say I!

    Lúthien, thanks for the Tolkien quote. I struggle to read poetry, but that one I get. Lewis talks about this as well, but I think with more perception: he thinks that the longing we feel for early childhood is illusory and that if we could go back to that stage of our life, the thing we’d find there that we remember so fondly would turn out to be a species of the same longing — which is ultimately for Heaven.

  4. That sounds indeed much like one of those issues about which Lewis and Tolkien differed (if they haven’t actually debated it, which I’m almost sure they did, they at least could have).

    However, I don’t think it necessarily refers to a longing back to childhood as such, though that’s hard to tell from that fragment. I think it is rather one of the approaches JRRT tried out to come up with a framework to help build his budding Legendarium – there are several of them in the Book of Lost Tales, all describing “roads” or approaches by way a character enters into Fairy (as he later called it). Some are voyages over sea (into the west); some are about a magical path (the Olore Malle or Golden Road), and this poem refers to the also mentioned possibility that “the children of Men” can travel there – though I think he specifies “in their dreams” somewhere.
    Anyhow, what I’m trying to say is that the child-like imagination is one of the possible ways to enter Fairy; a capacity that is usually lost later in life, though by no means as soon as the first birthday Mrs Travers speaks of; and also not for everyone: I find it interesting that Tolkien himself was very well capable of doing this (despite the sense of loss that speaks from the poem).

    Interestingly, even though this “magic” imaginative realm isn’t “heaven”, Tolkien does go into the possible relationship between those concepts in “Mythopoeia” – the poem he wrote for CS Lewis; and also in “on Fairy-stories”. But I’d have to read that last work again; I found it quite a challenge (though extremely fascinating).

  5. Asimov’s microfiche was bad :) but not really exceptional – you’ll find endless “failures of technological imagination” from most SF authors. Typically, their predictions are split into a) the almost-impossible stuff that doesn’t age because we may never get them (e.g. warp drives), and b) more reasonable items, which most often happen much sooner than expected or turn out to happen very differently (e.g., the Web instead of galactic encyclopedias and many variants of fictional communications / information retrieval systems).

    Specifically with Asimov, his problem here was mostly laziness with details. He was well-known for the speed he could write, basically limited by his typing speed; but this means he’d start from a few, good core SF ideas + a sketch of the plot, and then fill in the mundane details without any effort to make them all right: not just tech gadgets (or their absence) but even social uses (e.g. Elijah Bailey, a well-developed character by Asimov’s standards, could fit perfectly in a detective story from the 1930’s).

  6. Lúthien,

    I probably didn’t explain Lewis well in my previous comment. It’s not really about childhood per se — that’s just one of the media through which the underlying longing meets us. Heck, let me step aside and let Lewis explain it himself:

    There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words […] You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it – tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself – you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work.

    (That’s from the last chapter of The Problem of Pain.)

    By the way, from what I know of Tolkien I don’t think he would have differed from Lewis at all on this subject. One of the way of reading the Tolkien legendarium is as his attempt to draw down some of that longed-for quality and make it concrete.

  7. Osvaldo, I think that’s right on target — both the analysis of how sci-fi predictions in general work out, and the thoughts on Asimov in particular. It’s noticeable that in the work of, say, Larry Niven, there is much less that feels outdated, I think because he gave much more thought to how things might change in the future. In Philip K. Dick there is even less that feels outdated, because he simply doesn’t write about technology — although his work comes in sci-fi clothing, it’s really fairy stories. (And for avoidance of doubt, I do not say this as an insult; if anything, as a compliment. Much the same has been said about Steven Moffat.)

    Where this gets interesting is when the sci-fi stories of (or pertaining to) a particular era become old enough to feel pleasantly old-fashioned — so that, for example, you enjoy the texture of an Elijah Bailey story in the same way you would enjoy the Old Country Home atmosphere of an Agatha Christie. In the case of the sci-fi version, the story then looks both back to when it was written and forward to when it was set. It’s a retro-future.

  8. I agree with everything you’ve said. I only read the 4th and 5th Foundation books once, in my late teens (after my second trip through the trilogy, first time was at about 12), so I only remember broad strokes, but I did miss the broad history-jumping aspect of the earlier books.

    Incidentally, that you’re doing well with the Foundation series makes me think you might dig the Dune series, and here’s why: each Foundation book tinkers with the idea of the Seldon Plan, in much the same way that each Asimov robot story tinkers with the 3 Laws. And Asimov isn’t _only_ solving problems here, he’s also building the universe. The solution to each Seldon Crisis reveals to the reader another moving part of the fictional universe. So the universe that we end up with at the end of Foundation and Earth is much larger and more complex than the one we started with; institutional solutions have accreted around the First Foundation like layers of a growing bone.

    That’s not quite what Herbert was doing with the Dune books, but it’s not totally different either. The main differences are (1) that the problems that each subsequent Dune book fixes were already inherent in the previous book. No Mules come out of nowhere to wreck things (another take: the _possibility_ of the Mule reveals a weakness of the original Foundation, and shows the necessity for the Second Foundation, so in one sense the Mule is an expected crisis–not that guy specifically, but something like him). I think there is a real possibility that Herbert finished each book thinking, “Okay, that’s sorted”, but couldn’t help later thinking through the implications of what he’d just written, and repeatedly realized that some seemingly minor thing was going to be a big problem later on, the solution to which would require another book (sort of like how my PhD grew out of the loose threads from my MS–or maybe I’m just projecting myself on Herbert here).

    And (2) whereas the Foundation universe accretes new bits with each book, the Dune books don’t have any linear relationship with institutions. Indeed, the collapse of millennia-old institutions and how people deal with the societal shocks that follow is a major theme of the series.

    So, anyway, you should read Dune.

  9. Matt’s long-running campaign to make me read Dune continues … The last assault failed in the early pages, thanks to all the Kwisatz Haderachs and gom jabbars and Bene Gesserits. But I’m pretty sure I will get around to reading it eventually. (I very nearly made a start a few months ago, actually, but got sidetracked by an Agatha Christie.)

    Soon. Probably.

  10. The big difference between early Asimov and late Asimov was the word processor. Asimov, like Len Deighton, was an early adopter of this new technology. Deighton used it to weave sophisticated story tapestries. Asimov used it to totally bloat his work. Asimov was a pulp writer and, in the pulps, brevity is the soul of wit.
    My favorite Foundation prediction, a real whopper, was that people would be still smoking, but there wouldn’t be a problem with lung cancer since radium therapy would be cheap and easy, like aspirin. As Yogi Berra, or perhaps it was Neil Bohr, might once have said: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

  11. Asimov was a pulp writer and, in the pulps, brevity is the soul of wit.

    That is a very pithy and very accurate summary.

    Your Yogi Begga quote reminds me of “I never make predictions and I never will”, attributed to Paul Gascoigne.

  12. Can we at least agree that Asimov was the BEST pulp writer ever? As the world’s biggest Asimov fan ever (having read *every single* SF story his published… or at least everything that was available in print during my teens/20’s) I’m getting annoyed already! ;-)

    kaleberg, that was one interesting attempt of prediction that failed in the specifics but didn’t fail in the essential idea: in the future, people will return to old vices after they can get away with them due to better medicine or other technological fixes. This is a simple truth that’s cyclical in history, e.g. see how sexual freedom was once relatively common (except where repressed by religion), but the party ended after densely-populated and filthy cities + intensified transportation multiplied the power of all infectious diseases; but suddenly, problem fixed by antibiotics! even better with the pill, so everyone started f*cking like rabbits :-) …until AIDS comes, then world reverts to quasi-Victorian values again, but just wait for the final cure for HIV and see what will happen.

    BTW, literary SF is much harder than film because you *need* to do some ‘splainin’; compare to that to Star Trek’s doctors with their magic tricorders and hyposprays. That’s one big reason why hardcore SF fans have way more respect for the written genre, where it takes real effort to invent a future that wouldn’t look unscientific today OR obsolete just a couple decades down the road. But there are many ways to get the future wrong… just consider all the early-80’s SF, like Blade Runner or Neuromancer, that predicted a future dominated by Japanese culture and technology, just because Japan was the rising star of that time. Now we should laugh of those stories as hard as we laugh of Asimov’s “radium therapy”…

  13. Osvaldo, I’ve not read enough pulp to anoint Asimov as the best ever, but I can certainly go with you at least as far as agreeing he was very good. (I guess you can tell I think that, from the fact that I’ve re-read five of his books in the last few months!)

  14. Bertie Wooster

    I would personally argue that Nick Hornby is more well-known for being the author of “High Fidelity”. It’s one of my favourite novels.

  15. I like High Fidelity a lot (though the movie version lost a lot of its charm by transplanting it to America). But perhaps writers are often best known for their breakthrough work. Anyway, Fever Pitch stands out for me as it’s such a one-off. Both fine books.

  16. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 3 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  17. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 4 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  18. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 1 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  19. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 5 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  20. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 6 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s