Thursday, August 7, 2008

This Week at the Library (7/8)

Books this Update:

I began this week with Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. Rice is a well-known author, but one I’ve never read before for the reason that I’m not much for fantasy and horror. Despite that, I do like vampires -- go figure. Since Rice has written a host of vampire novels, I decided to try one. The one I’ve heard about is Interview with a Vampire, mostly because there’s a movie based off of it -- and so I checked it out and began to read.

Interview with a Vampire begins with a young man sitting down with a vampire to interview him. The story of the book is the vampire’s story. The vampire’s name is Louis, and he lived in pre-Revolution New Orleans as an indigo planter. In 1791, another vampire named Lestat turned him into a vampire as payment for Louis allowing Lestat and his mortal father to stay at the plantation and enjoy Louis’ profits. This is where the story begins, as Louis finds himself for the first time really enjoying life, through the heightened sensibilities of vampires -- who have superhuman hearing, sight, and smell. I wonder how this is accomplished without having longer noses and larger ears. (Book-magic, of course, is the answer.) Louis’ newfound appreciation for life (now that he’s undead) is tainted with confusion about where he fits into the scheme of things, and he racks his brains with questions of evil, good, God, and the devil. (I wonder if there is any correlation between vampire stories and Christian mythology: do Aztec and Chinese legends have vampires, I wonder?) Lestat does not appreciate his fledgling’s attitude and behavior: he grows bored of the philosophical questions and makes fun of Louis’ habit of losing himself in watching people or observing the night. Because of this, Louis eventually leaves to find out more about himself: his travels lead him to Europe and beyond.

Rice’s vampires seem to be mostly rooted in popular myth, but there are exceptions. Her vampires are unbothered by garlic, crosses, holy water, or “Get thee behind me, Satan!”-type utterances from her characters. They can see themselves in mirrors, and they can’t change their form into steam or bats or wolves or anything of the like. They do die when exposed to sunlight, sleep in coffins, and say ‘Bleh!” all the time*.

I have only ever read one another serious vampire novel, and that is Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ In the Forests of the Night. Atwater-Rhodes’ vampires have a much easier time of things, though: they don’t have to sleep in coffins, they don’t turn to dust in the sun; and they can change their form willy-nilly. In addition to this, they also are unbothered by crosses, holy water, and “Get thee behind me, Satan!”-type utterances. They do object to sunlight and garlic, but only because they have heightened senses of sight and smell. There are similarities in the two stories, through. The way a vampire turns a mortal human into a vampire is very similar -- draining the human victim of nearly all blood, and then replacing it with vampiric blood.

It was an intriguing book, although for whatever reason I began losing interest in the story after two hundred or so pages. The first part of the story was interesting, because the world the book is set in was being slowly developed. It’s difficult to pin down why exactly I started losing interest in the story, but there are some things I can say. The themes penetrating the book -- existentialism, despair, question of evil, etc -- seemed to be too obvious, and they were rather boring themes to me. I like my themes to be more subtle. The ending of the book was rather obvious, and it didn’t leave me with the desire to read more. I think I’ll stick with Amelia Atwater-Rhodes for my vampires. Her In the Forests of the Night is much shorter, but the atmosphere is not only better but developed more quickly. I don’t see myself pursing Anne Rice further, although I may read one of her recent Jesus books to see how her style has changed.

Next I read The Age of Synthesis by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser. It’s a re-write of their The History of Science in the 19th Century. The nineteenth science was a formative era in the history of science -- for instance, John Dalton reintroduced atomic theory and the team of Charles Darwin and Wallace introduced the theory of evolution. Electricity and magnetism are brought together, and electricity and atomic theory both help revolutionize chemistry --hence why the authors chose to call the book The Age of Synthesis. Like The Rise of Reason, this book is divided into three sections: the Physical Sciences, the Life Sciences, and Science and Society. In Science and Society, the authors comment on the rise of psuedosciences and pure bunk like homeopathy and spiritualism. They also explore the ways that science effects the lives of everyone. Interestingly, many of the United States’ founding fathers were members of the American Philosophical Society. While rationalists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were members, I was surprised to learn that men like George Washington and John Adams were as well. (Washington’s philosophical attitudes are especially ambiguous.) As it turns out, Lewis and Clark’s expedition was financed by this society, and there were nearly fifty people involved -- not just Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea and York. One of the more amusing stories in this book concerns John Dalton: it seems he realized he didn’t see colors the same way as the majority of people, so he had his eyeballs donated to science after his death. Some morbidly curious personality in the mid-90s examined them with an microscope and found that his corneas responsible for seeing the middle of the light spectrum were missing.

Next I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Although Asimov is one of my favorite authors, I have not read the work he is most famous for -- until this week. Foundation is set many years in the future, when the human race has spread throughout the galaxy, courtesy of hyper drives that allow us to get past that annoying speed-of-light speed limit that Zeus so thoughtlessly imposed on the universe. (This is a common element of science fiction, and I wonder who started it. Star Trek has “subspace”, Star Wars and Foundation have “hyperspace”, and one science-fiction series I read in middle and high school had “zero space”.) The empire is very old, and one scientist who uses statistical analysis believes that it will decay into irrelevance, leaving anarchy and a galactic dark ages in its wake. Hari Seldon is this scientist’s name, and he is a “psychohistorian”. He can somehow predict how people will respond to social changes using statistical analysis, and so can predict the future.

Foundation is a collection of five short stories, each set at various periods of the Empire’s advancing decay. In the beginning, Seldon puts a plan into action that will bring about a new Empire -- a better empire. His plan begins with sending a group of a hundred thousand people to a world devoid of resources, called “Terminus”. They establish the Foundation to carry out Seldon’s plans. I won’t divulge much more for fear of spoiling the book for those who want to seek it out. As it is Asimov’s most famous work, it may be easier to find than the Black Widower stories. One of the causes for the Empire’s stagnation is that intellectualism is gone: no one is really thinking anymore. The Emperor is never questioned: people just assume that he’s right, that he knows what he’s doing, and that he can take care of everything. Scientific advance is essentially nonexistent -- for that matter, advance of every sort. One of the plot elements is hilarious, and it penetrates most of the stories in this book. I can’t explain it without giving anything way, so I’ll leave it at this: Asimov thought of Clark’s third law before Clark did and his characters made it practical.

I thought this book was part of a trilogy, but according to the Fount of All Knowledge, it’s part of a series of fifteen novels and dozens of short stories. I took a peek at the list of books, and I doubt I will EVER find all of those. I’m not sure where to go from here, but it’s an interesting series and I want to continue. I want to comment on a couple of things. Asimov describes the Imperial capital planet as a planet covered by the metal of the imperial city, where the inhabitants can go their entire lives without seeing the sky. The capital of the Galatic Empire in George Lucas’ Star Wars universe is intended to be an illustration Asimov’s of city-planet -- quite the nod considering Star Wars’ popularity.

After reading Foundation, I turned my attention to Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. It is an essay, written in 1849, written to express his views on government and the people’s relation to it. “The government that governs best governs least,” he says, and an ideal government governs not at all. Governments, while a necessary evil, are still an evil and an evil with effects that must be mitigated as much as possible. Even in a democracy, people have little actual power over the government. Actions are taken by the government before the people can voice their consent or disapproval, and those in the government will often undertake those actions for their own aims. The example Thoreau is thinking of is undoubtedly the Mexican War, which he saw as an expensive endeavor of the United States that was done simply to further the expansion of slavery. President Grant was of this opinion as well: he saw the Civil War as a direct consequence of the Mexican War, because the new states extorted at gunpoint from Mexico aggravated the slavery issue in the country when they were being admitted.
Thoreau states that when the government errs, it is not likely to offend the majority of voters, who may be apathetic. The few who do vocally object to courses of action undertaken by the government are in actuality powerless if they cannot overcome their countrymen's apathy. Even if they vote, those votes will be ignored. The problem lies in the apathy of the majority, of people who are content to obey the government without questioning what laws being passed actually mean. Here are two quotations to illustrate Thoreau's thoughts:

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing,; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and as it may be, fall asleep over them both. What IS the prices-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them.

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. IT makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its own faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

I enjoyed the essay. After I read it, I read Asimov’s I, Robot, which is a collection of short stories about robots. The stories are all related, and are presented in the book as being the recollections of Dr. Susan Calvin, a prominent character in Asimov’s robot-related works. As she plays an important part in Earth’s major robot manufacturer (US Robots and Mechanical Men), her stories are of great importance to the fellow interviewing her. Several of the stories featured the same two likable characters testing robots, so there’s not a lot of jumping around. I, Robot is supposed to fit into Asimov’s Foundation universe in some way, but I’m not sure how. The only thing I can think of is the invention of hyperspace in one of the later stories. Curiously, though, robots seem to have vanished by the time of the Galactic Empire. I enjoyed the book immensely, which is par for the course for Asimov.

Pick of the Week: Foundation, Isaac Asimov.

Quotation of the Week: “I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the ‘law‘, so much as [a respect] for the right.” - Henry David Thoreau

Next Week:
  • Second Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  • Firestarter, Stephen King
  • Technopoly, Neil Postman
  • The Ascent of Science, Brian Silver
  • Hard Call: Great Decisions and Extraordinary People Who Made Them, John McCain
* Not really.

1 comment:

  1. sc said: I’m not much for fantasy and horror. Despite that, I do like vampires -- go figure.


    sc said: It was an intriguing book, although for whatever reason I began losing interest in the story after two hundred or so pages.

    The Vampire Lestat & Queen of the Damned are better.

    sc said: I took a peek at the list of books, and I doubt I will EVER find all of those. I’m not sure where to go from here, but it’s an interesting series and I want to continue.

    Amazon is always a good place to start. After that try

    Oh, and not all of the Foundation books were written by Asimov. Some of the later ones just added to his original storyline.