Thoughts on ‘The Andromeda Strain’

Just finished reading Michael Crichton’s 1970 novel The Andromeda Strain (I don’t know; felt in the mood for it for some reason). It’s quite a page turner, and I heartily recommend it to anyone with a taste for hard sci-fi.

The story has a US Military satellite bring an extraterrestrial microbe back to earth as part of an effort to collect, study, and possibly weaponize microorganisms from the upper atmosphere. It lands outside of a small Arizona town, and the locals get it before the Air Force can and one of them foolishly opens the capsule, releasing the bacteria, which swiftly kills everyone in town except for a crotchety old man and a two-month-old baby. The government recovers the capsule and moves it to a top-secret bunker designed specifically to study and combat alien microbes, while the hand-picked team of doctors and scientists (four in all) set to work trying to break just what the thing is and how it works.

The best thing about Andromeda Strain is the way it presents scientific research as a kind of complex detective story. After they’ve arrived and started work on the capsule, the team first has to discover whether the organism is even still present, then whether it is alien or terrestrial, what its composition is, and how it kills. This involves a lot of very careful tests and looking for very subtle clues to follow, some (perhaps most) of which turn out to be misleading. And, of course, part of the problem is that they all know full well that the organism might not follow the normal ‘rules’ of life as they understand it at all.

Much kudos to Mr. Crichton for making the tedious scientific struggle so interesting. He fills out the pages with realistic-looking documents, print outs, and diagrams which I have no idea whether they are accurate or not, but they certainly feel legitimate. I also liked the simplicity of some of the experiments, one of which was simply putting progressively larger screens in front of a rat to test how big the organism was.

The other most interesting element was the theme of technology. In this story, as, I believe, in many of the author’s other works, the characters are surrounded by the most advanced, sophisticated technology available, yet the recurring theme is this does not put them in control. Again and again, sophisticated and carefully planned out systems fail, either because of human error or because the situation turned out to be different from what they expected or just simply from random happenstance. The brilliant scientists make mistakes from hubris, embarrassment, or simply because they’re tired. At one point crucial information gets missed because the ultra-powerful computer had a bit of paper stuck in it that prevented the ringer from going off.

Crichton seems to have had a consistent theme in his work that all of man’s technological prowess and intelligence ultimately can never shield him from the vagaries of fate, nor make him the master of his world. This, of course, is a common theme in science fiction, though I find, from what little I’ve read of him, that Crichton seems to push it more than most. His driving thought seems to be less that man will destroy himself, or that there are things that man is not meant to know, but that at the end of the day you are never going to engineer your way to anything like paradise or even safety.

I don’t know what Crichton’s religious views were, thought I doubt they were favorable (“grouchy, independent materialist” is the tone I get from what I’ve read), but this attitude is certainly fitting from a Christian point of view. Eden’s gone and we’re not going to get it back through technology. Almost all technological advancement is a double-edged sword that leaves us, at best, in much the same position we were before, just with different variables. Bad things happen, and will continue to happen to the end of time, whatever defenses we put.

I’ll leave you, the reader, to draw any topical conclusions from that.

The ideas and plot of the book are its main point: I didn’t get much from the characters one way or another (the crotchety old man survivor was my favorite). I also will say that, without going into spoilers, I thought the ending was a bit of an anti-climax; even a cop-out. But your mileage may vary, and the rest of the book is interesting enough that it doesn’t really matter. I also like that we don’t get answers to some of the questions the book raises, such as why the satellite went off course in the first place, much less where the Andromeda Strain came from.

Recommended.

 

 

Brief Thoughts on Pickwick

Recently I listened to The Pickwick Papers on my way to and from work/class. For those who don’t know, this was Charles Dickens’s first novel, which (if I recall correctly) he was assigned to after the original author backed out, and which was intended to accompany the illustrations of a then-famous satirist, who died almost immediately into the project. The result was that Dickens had his big break and made a name for himself with a rather formless, yet very entertaining work.

Chesterton, in his summary of the book, calls it the primordial, unformed matter of Dickens, and that really is a good way to describe it. It contains just about everything we think of when we think of Dickens, to the point where you can almost see future stories slipping in and out of the proceedings. You know how movies about authors always sprinkle little lines and incidents from their books throughout the script, as if to say “that’s where that came from”? Well, The Pickwick Papers is kind of like that. I can spot definite shadows of Nicholas Nickelby, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield at the very least (which is to say, of all the Dickens novels I’ve read), while one of the many short-stories peppered throughout is sort of an embryonic version of A Christmas Carol, in which a mean old sexton is whisked away by goblins on Christmas Eve to be taught a lesson in humanity.

The premise of the book is that Mr. Pickwick, a wealthy and prominent gentleman of fashionable (and ridiculous) scholarship decides to embark upon a journey to explore England and meet its people. In this, he is accompanied by his three friends; Mr. Winkle, the young would-be sportsman, around whom no man is safe and no bird in danger when he has a gun in his hand, Mr. Snodgrass, the young would-be poet whom no one can remember actually writing anything, and middle-aged Mr. Tupman, the old would-be romantic. They soon cross paths with the fast-talking, unscrupulous Mr. Jingle, and subsequently with the eloquent, street-smart cockney, Sam Weller, whom Mr. Pickwick employs as his manservant.

The first half or so of the book is mostly a series of more or less unconnected, humorous vignettes of the characters going from place to place, encountering the usual Dickensian menagerie of colorful caricatures, and often hearing a quaint short story or poem. They take up with a good-natured gentleman farmer named Mr. Wardell, who has a good-sized family that includes an elderly and selectively deaf mother, several lovely daughters, and a very fat servant boy who falls asleep any chance he gets. They witness a parliamentary election in a small town, where the rival newspapers attack each other and each other’s candidates with unstinting vitriol while assuring their readers that the fate of the nation depends upon whether there will or will not be an increase in the turnpike toll, and their readers believe them with gusto. Sam introduces his father, who drives a stagecoach and is married to a humorless woman taken up with a temperance society headed by an extremely drunk shepherd. And Mr. Pickwick quite innocently ends up in several compromising positions with a variety of women, including being locked in a closet in a girl’s boarding school.

All this is great fun, and Sam Weller, with his endless Wellerisms (“Hoping this will be a long acquaintance, as the gentleman said to the five-pound note”), is one of the crowning achievements of the book. He and Pickwick make for one of those striking pairs of upperclass innocence and lower-class shrewdness, though with much more affection and balance than is often met with. Imagine a Jeeves and Wooster where Jeeves legitimately respected Wooster, and Wooster had a fatherly concern for Jeeves. As Chesterton noted, Dickens understood in this case that, when pairing innocence and knowledge, innocence ought to rule over knowledge.

But what struck me most was the change that comes over the course of the story. It seems that once Dickens was allowed to try his wings, he gradually abandoned the satire of the early chapters. It remains a comedy, but Pickwick is no longer the butt of the joke. Instead, he adopts the role of straight-man, especially when one of the earlier humorous incidents comes back with unexpected consequences that eventually land him in debtor’s prison.

It’s there that Pickwick begins to show that, despite his ridiculousness, he is a genuinely great man, capable of real nobility, courage, and charity. At the same time, Sam shows the depths of devotion, and the other characters shed their farcical roles as Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass both become involved in love affairs that call for courage and honor (though amid plenty of humor, of course).

As I say, I find this transformation to be the most interesting and appealing thing about the book. Accidental or not, there is a strong impact in seeing the carefree humor of the early chapters give way to serious grief and misery, with accompanying moments of heroic virtue. I don’t believe Pickwick would be nearly so stirring a hero if he hadn’t begun the story as a buffoon, and I don’t think Sam would be half so delightful if his unflappable flippancy weren’t balanced by his fervent devotion to his master.

I’m not the greatest fan of Dickens. I’ve enjoyed all the stories I read (well, listened to mostly) from him, but for me he has several great flaws. His caricatures are often too broad and his social commentary too heavy handed (for instance, I thought Wackford Squeers’s school in Nicholas Nickelby was so obviously exaggerated that it defeated its purpose. Salem House from David Copperfield was far more effectively horrible for being more restrained). Not to mention that his tragic moments tend to be painfully maudlin. To my mind, Jane Austen ranks far higher in the pantheon of great British authors. That said, Dickens is undeniably one of the greats and I’d rank Pickwick as one of his best.

Thoughts on ‘The Wind in the Willows’

Recently I had the great joy of reading The Wind in the Willows, if not quite for the first time (I had read it at least once before when I was much younger) then for the first time since I became able to fully appreciate it.

You all probably know the story, such as it is, though it’s less a straight story than a collection of vignettes centered around the protagonists Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad. Mr. Mole becomes tired of spring cleaning and tunnels up to the surface to enjoy the springtime itself, whereupon he strikes up a friendship with the hospitable Water Rat and they spend the spring and summer together, while their friend, the wealthy Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, becomes obsessed with motorcars and they, along with the authoritative Mr. Badger, attempt to bring him in line before he ruins himself.

It is really a most wonderful little book: full to bursting with that distinctly late-Victorian, early 20th Century English charm, with remarkably deft characterization on its delightful quartet of protagonists and some truly gorgeous writing.

Let me give you an example, just from the first chapter:

“He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All as a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

To be able to write like that takes more than just talent, it takes a degree of reverence and humility; the power just to stand and listen to creation, picking up the quiet, but distinct character of each river, each meadow, each forest, and each sunrise. You’d have to have a heart open to receive the words and magic of nature spoken in its own language, not forced into a cramped, scientific or material perspective. You have to feel that every flower, every tree, every little eddy in the river is unique and placed there for its own sake. In a word, Kenneth Grahame’s writing isn’t just a matter of style, it’s a matter of heart; his descriptions can only come from a place of love and reverence.

And he doesn’t only use this to describe nature, but also things like the lure of adventure (in the chapter where Rat meets the Seafaring Rat), where the distinctive flavors of different lands and peoples are rendered with loving detail, or even numinous awe, as in the chapter where Rat and Mole have an encounter with Pan:

“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat?’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? Oh, never, never! And yet – and yet – Oh, Mole, I am afraid!'”

There is also a delightfully surreal, childlike tone to the story. The author makes no attempt to make this into a real and consistent world; the animal heroes live in burrows, but borrows stocked with shelves and cookery and little treasures that “required a lot of careful saving to purchase.” Mr. Toad is able to disguise himself as a washerwoman and combs dry leaves out of his ‘hair,’ yet of course fits into Rat’s hole and is treated as toad by the human characters. When he’s arrested, he’s thrown into a dungeon straight from the Middle Ages complete with men at arms, loose straw for bedding, and the like (and when the warden’s daughter takes pity on him, being fond of animals, he convinces himself she’s fallen in love with him and reflects with regret of the great social gap between them).

As C.S. Lewis described it, the thin disguise of the characters being animals allows the author to present the tale he wants; the characters are able to enjoy life as both children and adults: they go where they like and do what they please, while meals and clothes and household goods are simply there as if by magic. No one gives a thought to employment or jobs or bills or any other wretched thing. When Toad returns to the riverbank, there is no thought that the law will pursue him there; he’s ‘safe’ as though in a children’s game. It’s all pure imagination; allowing the characters to experience the world as we might wish it were, to enjoy their adventures and lessons and dreams, to experience the ups and downs of life without the tedious details.

And oh, what life we get! Rat’s fervent, almost familial love for the river and for boating. Mole rediscovering his beloved hole after being so long away and being driven to tears for the want of it, small though it is. The warm caroling session by field mice that greets him when he arrives. Mole’s frightening adventure in the Wild Woods (“At first, there was nothing to alarm him”) and Rat’s subsequent rescue operation. Badger’s hole in the woods, which turns out to be built into the ruins of a buried Roman city (what ideas, what dreams, what haunting meditations arise just from that image!). Rat’s encounters with the migratory creatures who tell of their alternating calls to the north and south, and of the delight of arriving in each, followed by his long talk with the Seafaring Rat. The Battle of Toad Hall, which is what ever child imagines a fight is like; everyone gets to be brave and noble, no one is seriously hurt, and we thrash the disreputable cowards soundly in a good cause and send them home to lick their wounds.  Not to mention Toad’s adventures, where he bounces back and forth between adversity and triumph, while alternately lamenting his own foolishness and singing songs to his own glory.

Of course, there is no better image for such a hilariously vain and ridiculous figure than a toad; the absurd, ugly, hopping, fat little creature with a fatuous grin permanently plastered on its face. Toad is a toad to the tee; fundamentally good-natured, but vain and foolish to any imaginable degree. 

Which brings us to the wonderful quartet at the center of the story. Little Mole, the homebody; shy, but curious, wanting to try everything but not sure he dares. He’s the kind of fellow who is generally too cautious for an adventure, but who, when he has a burst of courage, generally makes a fool of himself because he’s too sheltered to understand the dangers, yet is a loyal friend through thick and thin, and more than willing and able to pull his weight when called on. Your typical lower-middle class, sedate Englishman of a small town. 

Rat, on the other hand, is the confident one; he knows his own ground, what he wants from life, and that he’s more or less got it. He has his river, his poetry, and his cozy little whole, and he embraces all adventures and adversities that may come as a part of that life. He knows his way about, is a dab hand with a variety of weapons, and has the courage to stride into the snowy woods after Mole and the competence to know how to safely go about it. A middle-class, English countryman; a man of letters and culture, deeply in love with his own hobbies and his own home.

Toad, of course, is the irresponsible country squire who inherited his family money and estate without also getting any of the good sense that made it. Fundamentally decent, but completely out of touch with reality and having no sense of what his position means beyond an occasion for preening and getting his way. Proud of himself and his family name, but in the sense of thinking it means he doesn’t have to make any effort of his own. He expects the world to conform to his whim, though he always wishes to be well thought of and to be able to do his bit. He’s the kind of friend who will show you a wonderfully good time and then call you at three o’clock in the morning to say, “Dear Ratty, I’ve had a spot of bother with the local police. Could you possibly come down to the county jail and help sort it out?”

Finally, there’s Mr. Badger, the reclusive country gentleman of an earlier generation (he was friends with Toad’s father) who hates society, but loves his friends; an “extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness,” as Prof. Lewis put it. He commands absolute respect both for his size and strength and for his wisdom, sense, and good heart. He allows his manners to be rough and his hole untidy because he doesn’t want any visitors, yet he tends to them with his own paws when they show up. He’s sort of a Dr. Johnson or Evelyn Waugh type: the man who may be sharp with you and tolerates no nonsense, but will never let you down and whose advice and friendship you can always count on.

A large part of the delight of the book is simply the opportunity to spend time with these wonderfully good characters. I mean that not only in the sense of their being expertly sketched, thoroughly human figures (ironically enough), but that they’re good people; people you would want to know, to be friends with, to be like. Even Toad is the kind of friend who, while he’d be very tiresome, would at least be a lot of fun to have around. It’s the sort of book where, as you read it, you ask “what do I have in my life that stands in place of Rat’s river? Or Mole’s hole? Or Badger’s tunnels?” or “How snug and delightful it would be to have your own little world and to not want another; to know all its particular changes, trials, and tribulations, and to know that you accept them. But also how delightful it would be to sail the seas as a wayfarer, tasting the wine of each new land.” Above all, “how charming it is to have all these different kinds of people, with their own marvelously shaped personalities, bound tightly to their own particular loves and lives! How do I fit in to that? What is my life and my love?”

Immediately before reading The Wind in the Willows, I had just finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was rather startled to find that the former had a much more profound effect on me than the latter. Don’t get me wrong: Dostoevsky’s book is a masterpiece, but it left me rather dissatisfied, simply because it leaves so much of the story untold (Dostoevsky intended it to be the first of a series of books, but died before he could begin the sequel). There were profundities, and deeper ones there, but I found Wind in the Willows, in its quiet, innocent way, resonated more with me, or more completely. Perhaps I am closer to the English spirit than to the Russian, or perhaps it’s simply that Willows is so much more compact and accessible, but I know which one I’ll be rereading first.

I think The Wind in the Willows will be going up on my shelf next to The Lord of the Rings and Cyrano de Bergerac as an all-time favorite. The book is more than a delightful and excellently crafted piece of literature; it hits something in my own heart and soul that doesn’t get touched nearly as often as I would like, and shows me a world of peace and beauty and quiet order that I love to spend time in. It’s a work to treasure.

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A Plug for Tom Stranger

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I really love the work of Larry Correia, New York Times Bestselling Author, endlessly amusing and interesting blogger, International Lord of Hate, and man mountain. I first became familiar with him after stumbling across his opinion on gun control (summary: he has certain reservations about it). His Grimnoir Chronicles are some of my favorite recent books (and feature one of my all-time favorite heroines), and his Monster Hunter International series is great fun too. He’s also one of my writing inspirations: reading his articles was one of the key events that made me realize that I actually could be a writer for a living.

Now I want to draw your attention to his latest audiobook, which is available for free until June 21st. It is titled The Adventures of Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, and it began life as a series of goofy blog posts written for the entertainment of his fans. The premise is that every decision ever made creates a distinct dimension. Sometimes dimensions are threatened with destruction from other dimensions, which is why they take out insurance policies to protect themselves. Tom Stranger is an interdimensional insurance agent, defending covered worlds from interdimensional attack and providing excellent customer service.

Of course, to get the right idea of the story, it’s necessary to inform you that the story includes, at various times, a massive mech-suit attacking an alien armada led by “Gorblak the Deathslayer,” a gun that has a “Kill All” button that results in an explosion visible from space, an invasion of Nazi Dinosaurs led by Hitlersaurus Rex, a gratuitous cameo by Lord Humongous, a dimension where they worship the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (where even the most dastardly villain fears to tread), and a dimension in which R. Lee Ermey is the Secretary of Defense and Adam Baldwin is the President.

Did I mention that Adam Baldwin also narrates?

The author himself is present in two distinct characters: both as the unquestioned ruler of one dimension (where he is wealthy enough to have purchased both the Koreas in order to rename them so people would stop misspelling his name) and as a beleaguered science-fiction author who is imperiled when the forces of Hell invade a science fiction convention (it takes a fair amount of time for the convention goers to notice).

Basically, this book is hilarious insanity; the result of an immensely creative mind just doing whatever he wants without the slightest concern for plausibility, copyright laws, or…well, really anything at all except being thoroughly entertaining. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed this much at anything. At one point I was laughing so hard that I actually thought I might pass out.

And it’s only about two hours: the length of your average film. Plus, again, it’s voiced by Adam Baldwin: one of the coolest, most talented actors working today. And it’s Adam Baldwin voicing himself from an alternate dimension where he became President of the United States following the five-season, three film runaway success of Firefly. And, again, it’s currently free, so there’s really no excuse for not giving it a listen.

Well, maybe one. As you may have gathered from the above, Mr. Correia is, shall we say, opinionated in some respects, and he doesn’t shy away from expressing his opinions. Me, I mostly agree with him, so I went through the whole book without really being offended once, but if you are of a certain non-conservative political persuasion, you probably won’t be so lucky. You’ll most likely still laugh yourself hoarse if you have any sense of humor at all (again, Hitlersaurus Rex! What kind of person doesn’t love Hitlersaurus Rex?), but you won’t like Joe Biden’s cameo or Tom Stranger’s assessment of Gender Studies.

On the other hand, if I can love Parks and Recreation, you can certainly love Tom Stranger.

In any case, if you don’t mind some liberal-bashing jokes (and some cartoonish gore: this is a Correia book after all), you absolutely should go download this audiobook while it’s still FREE and bask in the magic of a collaboration between one of the most entertaining writers and one of the most talented actors working today.

P.S. I do not recommend eating, drinking, or driving while listening to this book.

Edgar Rice Burroughs to Forrest Ackerman

I found this letter on a few different blogs. It’s a response from Edgar Rice Burroughs to a fan letter written to him by Forrest Ackerman (who, if you are unfamiliar, was a film historian, sci-fi fan extraordinaire, and founder of ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’ magazine).

Mr. Burroughs provides a wonderfully concise statement of the philosophy of the working writer. It is one that anyone who aspires to the craft would do well to consider carefully.

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As yet I have read two of Mr. Burrough’s books: A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, and I found both of them to be, as he said, good, clean literature with probably more real wisdom and uplifting values than half the ‘important’ novels ever written.