Tag Archives: Books

Bring me a dream…

Sandman_Preludes

I had heard over the proverbial grapevine that The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman (writer of the films Stardust and Coraline) was an excellent graphic novel, so on one of my regular visits to the fantastic geek-Mecca that is Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury Avenue I picked up the first volume, then the second on my next visit, and then the third.

Then I just gave up trying to space them out and bought the whole remainder of the series from Amazon, and devoured them within a few days.

It’s one of the most astonishing, wonderful, imaginative, collection of tales I have ever read. To (probably mis)quote one of the introductions, “If this isn’t literature, nothing is.”

The central figure (I would say protagonist, but often he isn’t) is Dream, Lord of the Dreaming, Prince of stories; the very personification of the act of dreaming itself. The idea of dreams is at the very heart of The Sandman – the tales are often fantastical and nonsensical, but at the same time have a truth to them, a resonance that’s undeniable. There’s horror and humour, profundity and absurdity.

Neil Gaiman is the kind of person whose writing both simultaneously makes me want and not want to become a writer; his tales are so fantastic that it makes you fall in love with story-telling, but simultaneously despair that you would never be able to arrange words as wonderfully and as eloquently as he, or touch on so many themes, or make such excellent historical and mythological illusions, or have so many dazzling ideas.

The story has an overall arc and theme, summarised by Gaiman himself as: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” Twisted alongside that main tale are squabbles with his family the Endless, his brother and sister personifications, e.g. his older brother Destiny, older sister Death, and the particularly antagonistic Desire, who is simultaneously male and female and the tales of the lesser beings who come into contact with Dream and the rest of the Endless, like the cat who dreams and learns that once cats ruled the world before the dreams of men revised history, or the man in the Middle Ages who learns how to live forever, and meets Dream once a century for a drink in the same pub, or the Roman emperor Augustus who is told to pretend to be a marketplace beggar once a year.

The writing I literally could not have more effusive praise for; it is utterly magnificent. However, this being a graphic novel, writing is only half the story, which is part of the wonderful richness of the medium; there’s the art.

Sandman _50 Ramadan Gaiman Klein Russell This being a very long series there are a number of different artists who’ve worked on this series, so there might well be some you enjoy, some you won’t. There are some incredibly standouts; the work of P. Craig Russel in the story “Ramadan” is breathtakingly wonderful, for instance. Overall, they do a really good job of embodying the strange world of Dream.

I really couldn’t recommend The Sandman highly enough. Anybody who knows me can ask and I’ll lend you the first volume. Or second or third, and the stand-alone set of stories, Endless Nights; alas, that’s all I have with me.

All that remains to be said is that I really, really want Neil Gaiman to write an episode of Doctor Who. He’s British, he’s a fantastic writer, it needs to happen.

Back On The Radar

It’s scary how Twitter has really become my primary way of squirting infomation out into the world. Sadly, it usually means that information is squirted out in ephemeral chunks of 140 characters, which is hardly ideal.

Anyways, stuff what I’ve been doing.

We did indeed figure out somewhere new to live, a flat near Acton Town tube station with a living room. It’s pretty much the furthest out I’ve lived so far, but the good tube links makes it not exactly onerous to zip into central London.

I’ve somehow filled time with a bunch of activities: finished up the new Fencing Club website which I encourage you to visit and join because it’s awesome, went go-karting (which I guess Dickie won? I forget), signed up for Spotify Premium so that I can use the iPhone app, went to see Coldplay, Jay-Z and Girls Aloud at Wembley, met friends for drinks (many times), moved down to London, sorted out phone and Internet, finished my Literature Review, bought my own fencing gear, fenced in a proper competition against another university, etc.

It’s weird because it’s the like the second week of term and I already feel sort of rushed. Haven’t quite gotten around to properly tidying my clothes away, so I’m still sort of living out of a suitcase. If I don’t do it soon entropy is just going to take over.

Reading:

Started a whole bunch of things, not sure when I’ll finish them. Half-way through Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, started on Naomi Klein’s No Logo, a chilling account of the power of brands, and I’m really getting into the Sandman graphic novels, written by Neil Gaiman. They’re dark and twisted, wrapping themes and motifs around events; although as one of the writers of Lost puts it, “when we run out of ideas and do the same things over and over, it’s a motif”. I’m mostly reading it on the tube, but it’s bloody hard to resist the urge to just go read it now.

Anyways, see you later all.

Reading: Part 3 – Slaughterhouse-Five

I must make a confession: I read this book in one go from start to finish, and I’m fairly convinced that it’s a triumph. So I’m making a note here. Great success? </lameportaljoke>

The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and former (well, sort of, you’ll see) prisoner of war who has become unstuck in time. His consciousness flicks about through his life, from his experiences being captured at the Battle of the Bulge through to the firebombing of Dresden, his abduction by aliens, the moment of his death, and every moment in-between.

It’s also semi-autobiographical, as Vonnegut makes a point of mentioning that he was also present during the war, and many of the details of Billy’s life match the author’s own biography.

The book is a meditation on death, time, war, of the correlations between moments “stuck in amber”. It’s such a great book that I feel inadequate to be reviewing it, because I don’t have the tools to fully appreciate what has been done.

The little touches are incredible – the book follows the story of Billy Pilgrim’s experience in the war, interrupted by the random splinters of the rest of his life, and it’s filled with echoes of other moments, phrases repeated, evocative symmetries.

Every time someone dies, or death is mentioned, the phrase “so it goes” is repeated, focusing your mind on the death itself. The book enumerates the cruelties of the war, men glorifying and justifying the firebombing, or soap and candles made from the fat of dead Jews and gays and gypsies.

It is at once a condemnation of war and an admission that war is inevitable, that death will be dealt by natural causes, or an act of revenge, by atomic bomb or by firebomb, but that death will always be there, waiting at the end of our allotted years, our single thread spun out across eternity; we just have to think of the nice parts of the thread.

I feel almost compelled to compare this book with Illium; partly because they are at least nominally in the same genre. There is honestly no comparison. Illium wears its literary pretensions on its sleeve as a badge of honour; Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of literature in its own right, not a trashy space-opera with illusions of grandeur.

Reading: Part 2 – Why I am not a Christian

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m an atheist. As a group, we’re on the ascendency; we’re putting ads onto buses, we got a shout-out from Obama in his inauguration speech, and Britain is becoming every more secularised.

We’re a challenge to the old order; the notion that religion makes for a moral being, that adherence to a creed and heirarchy without evidence, in spite of evidence, is the only path to virtue.

This, of course, means that atheists have a lot of enemies, particularly in the States. More people would vote for a homosexual, Muslim, Mormon, or female candidate for the Presidency than would vote for an atheist. If you don’t regularly go to a church, or mosque, or synagogue, you can forget about being President. I’d like to believe less people in Britain would care about the religion of the Prime Minister (although “anyone but Brown” seems to be the more salient concern).

You also inevitably get those people who think they’ve got you in a corner when they suggest that atheism is intellectually dishonest, and that it’s a faith as bad as the ones we protest against.

Which brings us neatly around to Bertrand Russell, who is the progenitor of an idea known as “Russell’s teapot”. It can be summarised (courtesy of the fine fellows who edit Wikipedia) as follows:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

It’s a wonderful piece of intellectual ammunition, and it’s one of the reasons I like to read books by people like Lord Russell and Prof. Dawkins.

The book I have lately read is a collection of short essays on various subjects, leading with the titular Why I am not a Christian but with other topics too, such as sexual ethics and academic freedom, as well as an appendix detailing the witch-hunt which prevented Lord Russell from taking up an academic position at a New York college.

It was an immensely enjoyable read, and refreshing in the wonderful way that all works of great intellectual achievement are. The feeling of another’s fantastic thoughts running through your own brain are incredible, and it’s a damned good reason why I should really read more philosophy.

I felt like his musings on why he wasn’t a Christian were probably amongst the material that inspired Dawkins, and so the arguments there are familiar, if brought to a higher polish by Dawkins in his book The God Delusion.

I found the sections on sexual ethics to be particularly interesting because for the time he was writing they would have been extremely controversial, and they remain so today. He raises the points that sexual taboos are unhealthy, and that the sexual instinct should not be as repressed as it is in our society. It was actually a shock to me that in contemplating his ideas I discovered some of my own unreasonable prejudices and indoctrinations. A profound re-orientation of sexual ethics around the principles of reason would probably be very healthy.

In light of this, I’m probably in the near future going to buy something like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, because I do find the question of feminism really rather interesting. She’s also an existentialist, which I like a lot.

All in all this is a very interesting collection of essays that’s well worth reading, especially if you’re not sure what it is you believe. I just have to say I would rather be on the side of people like Russell than many religious people.

If you haven’t already, go back to Part 1 – Illium.

Coming soon, Part 3 – Slaughterhouse 5.

Reading: Part 1 – Illium

Absolutely ages ago I picked up a copy of Dan Simmonds’ Illium and I’ve finally actually read the thing.

I’ve previously read two other books by the same author, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion so by this point I’ve rather thoroughly clocked the tics that he, like all writers, possesses.

For instance, it’s likely that Charlie Brooker will swear his way through a Guardian article, or Arthur C. Clarke is going to have plausible science, or Richard Dawkins will probably decry the evils of religion while simultaneously demonstrating the intellectual advantages of evolution. They’ve all got  their thing.

For Simmonds, his peculiar tic is to be absolutely obsessed with other writers. The Hyperion books were basically one massive hard-on for the works of Keats, and for poetry in general, to the point at which it started to get ridiculous. One character was, indeed, essentially a cyborg reincarnation of Keats himself; I shit you not.  This didn’t sit terribly well with me in general, because personally I think Keats is kind of a twat; saying Newton had destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it is one of the most utterly backward things I can imagine. The structure of the first book also liberally borrowed from The Canterbury Tales. At times it feels less than science fiction and more like a literary love-in.

I digress somewhat. The point is that these same tics form almost the very structure of Illium. The plot falls into multiple threads; one the story of a “scholic” observer, in service to the Muse, of what appears to be the Trojan war at the time of the Illiad. Another has a group of sentient robots from the moons of Jupiter sent on a mission to Mars, and another has a group of far-future humans on a quest for truth in their strangely altered Earth society.

The tics reappear fairly immediately; the “scholic” thread consists of a hi-tech twist on scenes from the Iliad, with the gods explained as beings equipped with high technology. Scene after scene of this is incredibly reminiscent of what it’s like to read the Illiad, a thousand different ways of saying “X killed Y with spear”. The sentient robots (called “moravecs” after Hans Moravec) fill their time on the way to Mars engaged in discussions of literary criticism, comparing and contrasting the works of Shakespeare (especially his sonnets) and the work of Marcel Proust, including quotations from À la recherche du temps perdu. This is before it’s then implied, in another classic trick, that Internet became self-aware and decided to call itself Prospero. It’s all really very silly, but it’s taken very seriously.

The other major fault he has is that despite Illium being a really very thick book, it is very consciously only half the story. I mean half in a very literal sense, all the plot threads are left dangling, and there is hardly any proper resolution. This is a fault it shares very strongly with Hyperion.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad book, necessarily. It’s well written, and it’s curiously imaginative, and you keep on reading and reading. Well, maybe I do, but then I even persevered to finish the Dan Brown abortion Angels & Demons, so maybe I can bring myself to finish anything. I’m just not sure that Dan Simmonds’ brand of literary space opera is really worth committing one’s time to a book of such length, especially when you’re lucky if the plot makes even a lick of sense, even before it’s arbitrarily truncated. This is a book in which it would make barely any difference if the explanations used the word “magic” instead of “quantum” or “nano” because they’re stripped of their ordinary meanings by being associated with nonsense.

It stands as a striking contrast to a book like The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, which manages to pull lovely human stories of love and loss and jealousy out of a plausible scientific scenario; a single, clear idea, beautifully elucidated. It’s also a much thinner book, but I managed to draw a lot more enjoyment and refreshment from it than from Illium.

In a couple of days (hopefully) I aim to return with Part 2 – Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian and then, if I’m really lucky and the wind is blowing the right way, Part 3 – Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, which I actually haven’t read yet.

Philosophy is fun

So lately I’ve been ploughing my way through an introduction to Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. It’s an introduction to the philosophy and beliefs that informed the Manifesto, with Marx’s adoption and then rejection of earlier ideas by philosophers like Hegel. Eventually when I’m finished with that I’ll get to read the Manifesto itself, which may or may not be the satisfying pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We’ll see.

What I’ve been enjoying about it is that reading philosophy is kind of like food for the mind – well, sort of. It’s not a great simile, because philosophy is satisfying and sustaining even if you don’t really like (or fully understand!) the views you’re reading. For instance, for my taste a lot of philosophy is far too concerned with religion for my tastes; religion is very orthogonal to my particular world outlook, I’m far more interested in political economy, for instance, and these two issues just weren’t orthogonal for writers of that era.

Even so though, it’s mentally nourished me in that it’s made me realise that we each bring our particular baggage with us – we interpret the world around us entirely in terms of what we know. Marx and his contemporaries lived in an era (and location) of (Protestant) Christian domination, and their world-view is unavoidably slanted by their immersion in that environment. Personally, my world view is contaminated by my training, and my knowledge – I’m a physical scientist right down to the bones of me.

So I find some of the ideas of “spirit” and “essence” and “being” utterly alienating in the work – their attempts to understand Man will always seem to me to be fundamentally flawed. I understand Man as being nothing more than a complicated assemblage of physical, chemical and biological components, working in accordance with natural laws: Conservation of Energy, Conservation of Mass, Causality, Evolution, etc. and that we are best understood as being essentially a complex and chaotic system that can be best understood through scientific and statistical methods. There’s no need for some awkward dualist notion of a separate “Mind” or “Soul” that’s in some way external from the body, what appears to be a mind is just the internal perception of a chaotic electrochemical process. What frees us from rigid determinism is not some inherent freedom of a “Soul” from natural law, but just plain old quantum uncertainty – you can’t perfectly predict the future because you can’t know the initial conditions.

That’s my bias, and it’s what gives me dissatisfaction with Marx.

For all his claims to being “scientific” there’s no robust theory, no testable predictions, just blind philosophical assertions. Certainly no mathematics!

Anyways, like I said, I haven’t actually gotten into the meat of the Manifesto yet; maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Either way, it’s an refreshing just to get mentally engaged with such things.

The Last Month (in 30 Minutes)

Right, so I’ve not blogged for a while. The last post I’ve made was the 18th of December, which was the day before the end of term. So, what have I been doing since then? Oh, and I’m trying to do it in less than half an hour, because that’s how long I have until my washing needs drying.

The next day was spent mostly trying to hurry and get my computing project ready to hand in, which kinda necessitated missing a few lectures, but never mind. Then, once that was all done, the Physics crew met up in the common room to exchange Secret Santa gifts. I think we were all pleasantly surprised at the quality of the presents we’d got each other. Emily in particular was very happy with her present, which was a book about 101 things an old-fashioned housewife could do.

Went home, and the house did Secret Santa, which was also great fun, although exactly what some of those gifts were eludes me slightly.

Then we had a few drinks, people came over, had a few more drinks, then headed down to the Union for the Christmas ball. In hindsight, going to the Union might not have been the best plan, but heck, it wasn’t too bad. Bloody freezing walking back, though.

The next day I got the train back home – only £3.30, which completely didn’t suck.

Pretty much as soon as I got back, got a lift from Beccy’s dad to head down to Shell’s place in Bromsgrove, and we had drinks and takeaway with friends, and that was all pretty good.

Did the usual home-stuff after that, hanging around the house, sleeping, reading, playing games, visiting family, etc.

Met up with friends once more (although a slightly different set of friends) in a pub, and that was pretty great too.

Finished Mirror’s Edge in a single day, and played a lot of the drums in Rock Band. Watched the Dark Knight on Blu-Ray. It’s so high-def it’s almost painful to watch. Awesome.

Christmas rolled round, presents got opened. Didn’t get anything spectacular, but it was all nice and good. My Nan came over for Christmas dinner, and we played Trivial Pursuit as a family. I won, because I’m awesome.

Few days later, I rang in the New Year playing Rock Band with my Mom and sister. My mother is honestly terrible on the drums, even on easy mode. It was fun, anyway.

Then on the 2nd of January, I got on a train back to London. Got a £17.50 first-class ticket back, so there was coffee and sandwiches available for free, which was nice. Being asked if you want tea or coffee before you can even sit down is pretty nice indeed.

House was freezing, so I borrowed Matt’s heater, otherwise I would have frozen to death, and I bought my own from Argos ASAP.

Then in theory spent time revising for the Computational Physics test, in practice I spent rather too much time playing Fallout 3.

Anyways, the test did eventually roll round, with more and more people coming back into the house as it came closer to term-time. I was as prepared as I could have been, but I think I made some pretty silly mistakes in the exam. Never mind.

Then for the rest of this week have been general introductory lectures. Other people are stressing about philosophy and politics essays, or lab reports, etc. etc. but I’ve mostly just kinda been chilling, watching TV, playing Left 4 Dead.

That’s pretty much everything, more or less. I mean, there’s a lot omitted, but you don’t need to know every detail, you anonymous internet people. Heck, this is already probably too much!

Anyways, hopefully I should be able to keep to posting more regular-like in the future. I’ve recently finished reading Y: The Last Man, so I might write something about that, and I’m planning to have a crack at The Communist Manifesto in the near future.