Tag Archives: travelling

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

One reason that I like reading John Scalzi’s blog and short stories (sad disclaimer: this is the first novel of his that I’ve read) is that he writes about things that he has a genuine interest and delight in, and that comes through so very clearly. He has fun putting words together, poking fun at the tropes and attitudes of anything he likes (mostly sci-fi, but also politics and other things).

Redshirts is exactly that kind of book. It’s a book for anyone who laments hand-wavy science, character inconsistencies, Captain Exposition, and ridiculous MacGuffins in their television shows. Anyone who’s ever said, “wait, wasn’t he near death just last week?” or “Didn’t he profess undying love to that other character the week before?” or sighed when a new character with an emotionally involved backstory comes on, because he’s going to die before the end of the episode.

I think it’s gained plenty of cultural traction, but just in case – redshirts are the extras, the bit players, usually on sci-fi shows who are in a story situation with regular cast members. To increase tension, someone has to die, or at least be severely injured. It’s not going to be one of the regular cast members. If the bit player has an emotional tie to a main character, or more lines than, “oh, no, it’s a <gurgle> *thud*”, they may last until the third act. Otherwise, they’re dead in the teaser. [Geek moment – in the original Star Trek, redshirts weren’t always wearing red shirts. There was a prevalence of redshirts, but the redshirt-type character was sometimes wearing a blue or a yellow shirt instead. Red shirts were security, so they were most often the tag-alongs, but science/engineering and medical personnel were not exempt from the redshirt phenomenon.]

What makes this book different – how it subverts the trope – is that it turns the probable redshirt characters into main characters who then become aware that their function is to provide temporary emotional impact for the “regulars”. So, of course, they try to change it. Nobody wants to be horribly killed simply as a plot device, after all. And the whole thing turns into a send-up and homage to Star Trek and all other space-set science fiction shows, with a brilliantly tight ending and three codas. One of the codas only just escapes being a cliche, but the other two are perfect. It’s science fiction, because it’s mostly set on a spaceship in the future, but more than that, it’s about science fiction, what we expect from it and what we’re willing to accept from it.

I do have complaints, though. Well, one complaint. I didn’t find the characters to be very full – they had backstories but not really personalities. I guess that can be seen as one of the points, but I did occasionally find it difficult to remember who was talking, to hear their voice in my head. Except Jenkins. Jenkins was awesome. I think that’s the only thing, though. The science is very hand-wavy, but it’s supposed to be. It’s very story-driven, and moves very quickly, and some stuff gets glossed over, but I think the only real thing I had a problem with was the characterisation.

I will be actively looking for more of Scalzi’s stuff in the future – beyond, of course, Whatever, which is one of my daily must-reads on Google Reader. If you like funny stuff, sci-fi themed stuff, etc., then you should too.

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State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

I loved Bel Canto. Absolutely adored it. I thought that its portrayal of the tensions of a hostage situation were incredibly nuanced, and its depiction of the emotional power of music was incredibly moving. I thought that her prose was very lyrical and flowed incredibly well.

State of Wonder struck me in much the same way. It’s not a hostage situation, there are no musicians (although there is a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice that is fantastically portrayed), but the sense of taking us into an extreme situation and making it feel real, making us sympathise with all the different perspectives without necessarily taking a stand on the morality of any of them, is still there. As is the lyrical prose. It was a joy to read, to immerse myself in the words and the world that she has established.

It’s a complicated world, spanning Minnesota and Brazil and navigating the tricky issues of fertility, research ethics, and truth. Race (the main character is half-Indian, half-white; the doctors are with a native tribe in the Amazon basin) is explored but not one of the major issues of the book, refreshingly. More important are the culture clash issues, connected with but not reliant on race. How do you shift from a lab in Minnesota to a village in Brazil? How does a white woman doctor navigate the politics between tribes with languages she can’t even speak?

More importantly, how to you balance the demands of research funding (and funders) with the demands of the research itself, or the researchers? Who needs to be accountable to whom? And, because fertility is such an issue, there’s also the matter of who is responsible for whom?

The characters are all very complex – but understandable even if you don’t like them. Even Dr. Swenson, who does some pretty horrible and amoral things, is understandable. And she does some very horrible, amoral if not actually immoral things. She also seems to feel that everyone who doesn’t act and react the same way that she does is lacking, or inferior in some way.

Marina is also very understandable, partially because she’s the main character. But while I did understand her, and identify with her, and empathise with her, I did realise (on reflection) that she’s really quite passive. Almost everything that happens in the book happens to her; nothing really happens because of her. Even the action she does take is propelled by other people, and she carries it out with a sense of inevitability: she acts because she can’t NOT act.

But, then, who among us wouldn’t do the same? Who, on being faced with the fact of the death of a friend and colleague, wouldn’t help his grieving widow understand, especially when her request coincides with a near-demand from your boss that you finish his job and retrieve his possessions? Who, on being abruptly taken into a completely alien world and culture, wouldn’t sit back and observe the situation, at least at first, and especially if you were scientifically trained? It’s letting things happen, but it’s also what makes her human.

[Sidenote: I’m 99% sure that Marina is pregnant at the end. Anyone read it and want to weigh in?]

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The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure

I miss Decorah. There’s a bit at the end of this book where they’re staying in Decorah (after seeing the Laura stuff at Burr Oak) and they stay at the Super 8 and go to Bookends and Beans – which isn’t named, but anyone who’s spent time in Decorah knows that’s where they went – and now I want a raspberry chai from Bookends and Beans and to wander through their carefully selected shelves where I always saw a book that I’d been craving. And then I’d take the chai and the book and go to Dunning’s Spring and read (if it were warm enough) or maybe up to campus and sit by Pioneer Memorial or up to Phelps Park or walk along the river….

Anyway.

I quite enjoyed this book. It helps that I’ve been to most of the sites myself, although a few of them I only have hazy memories of. I always enjoy books that reference places that are familiar to me, as long as they get the details right. (See also: Housewives Eating Bonbons, or whatever it’s called, also presumably set in Decorah, but an unrecognizable version of it, and if you’re going to change such an important feature of the town as the college that has been there since 1861 – just change the name of the town already.)

If you don’t know, this is a book about one woman’s journey around the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, in an emotional search for “Laura World” – the sense of recapturing the world of the series as she experienced it when she was a child. It’s not a particularly calculated journey. She didn’t set out to write a book or a travel guide about the Laura sites. And I like that. There are plenty of books out there that serve that function. This is much more personal. It’s about the journey, the exploration, and in some ways the pilgrimage aspect. She’s trying to recapture her childhood connection with Laura and her old sense of the world Laura lived in. The book doesn’t really try to evoke that world – although there is some of that – as much as it does her reaction to that world, or what is left of it, and trying to fit Laura into her adult urban life.

And I think she’s pretty successful at it. She discovers along the way what she needs Laura to be – an example of girlhood and exploration – amd what she doesn’t – a lifestyle example to help prepare for the End Times. She meets some interesting people, in both good and bad ways, and learns how to do quite a lot – cooking some of the Little House recipes, twisting hay, surviving a Midwestern thunderstorm.

The only thing I didn’t like was a vague sense of condescension to the more rural people that she met and some of the small town things she experienced. It wasn’t really explicit, but I got a feeling that she saw small towns in the Midwest as a kind of foreign country and “oh, aren’t their customs quaint and cute!” That could just be oversensitivity on my part, though, seeing as I grew up in small Midwetern towns – large by local standards but smaller than the university where I did my MA.

The main thing that I came away from this book with was a desire to reread the entire Little House series. It’s been years since I’ve read them. I also want to give them to some young girls I know. I think they’re at the right age to start them, and one of them at least will get a kick out of the history of it all.

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The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price

This one I found at the charity shop. The back-of-book blurb sounded interesting, and as I’d just finished Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy, I was in the mood for something similar.

The Sterkarm Handshake is not similar. I was expecting humour and puns and satire. What I got insetad was an amazing depiction of culture shock, sixteenth-versus-21st-century morality, and how different basic assumptions can lead to massive miscommunication.

The basic story is that scientists working for a private foundation in the 21st century have created a “Time Tube” – time travel handwaved through the multiverse explanation, and the exact physics are not necessary or mentioned again – leading to various points in history. Usually points without pollution, with genetic diversity among plants and animals, with vast reserves, as yet untapped, of oil and coal. You may be able to see where this is going.

The Sterkarm Handshake deals with one of the projects – The Sixteenth – which leaves the Time Tube in sixteenth century Scottish border lands. They send scouts and liasons through, including one, Andrea Mitchell, who is a historian and expert in the time. She lives with the local clan, the Sterkarms, and has fallen in love with Per, the son of the leader. She is the translator and liason between the 16th and the 21st – but that doesn’t prevent her from completely misunderstanding how the Sterkarms live and how the 21st century company is going to deal with them.

I thought the counterpoints between the ordinary violence of the Sterkarms (completely incomprehensible to those from the 21st century) and the ordinary violence of the 21st century corporation (completely incomprehensible to the Sterkarms) were really well-done. The portrayal of the complete and total misunderstanding, especially on the part of the 21st century people, is also incredibly well realised: the “modern” people just don’t have a clue that, or why, the Sterkarms wouldn’t be totally thrilled about getting all the modern conveniences.

The one thing that seemed to come out of nowhere, and this could be my own reading, as it came right about the point when I’d taken a brief break from the book, was Andrea’s shift from being essentially part of the Sterkarms to what seems like essentially part of the 21st. It seemed very abrupt to me, and I almost got mental whiplash from her justifications for betraying each side. Don’t get me wrong, I identified very strongly with Andrea and thought, overall, that she was very well drawn, but her switch was a little bit too quick and out-of-the-blue for me.

I just looked it up on Wikipedia and found out that there’s a sequel. If I can find it, I wouldn’t mind reading it.

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The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer

I am a medievalist; this is not a secret. My shame is only that it has taken me so long to read this book and then blog about it. If anything, it’s a book that I wish I could have written – but it would take much more research than I have time and scope for.

It’s such a wide-ranging book: basically, it covers every conceivable aspect of the 14th century, in the guise of a travel book. It discusses hospitality, sights, sounds, costume, social structure, habits….everything (and more) that a modern travel guide would cover.

There’s so much in here that is fascinating to me: meals, physical city structure, social hierarchy and mobility (which changed so greatly from the beginning of the century to the end), travel modes and customs, manners…any detail you might want is probably in this book. I do vaguely remember thinking at points “Oh, there should be more about that” or “Why didn’t he include this” but since I can’t remember now where those points (or what this and that) were, they’re quibbles rather than problems.

Another quibble, which is a little bit ridiculous, is that the book is at times too wide-ranging and also too narrow. The fourteenth century was an amazingly dynamic time, encompassing the Black Death, Peasant’s Revolt, and quite a lot of the Hundred Years War. At times Mortimer (what a great name for a medievalist, by the way) goes into details about how things changed over the decades, but at other times he doesn’t. In some ways, it would have been nicer if he’d started off the book with the disclaimer that he did – because of a lack of surviving information before the 1300s, this book will only focus on the fourteenth century – but then added even further refinement, to a specific decade or even king’s reign. The things that remained relatively constant over the century could have been noted, but the things that were more fluid wouldn’t have been so overdetailed.

My last quibble is just a general shifting in tone. At times he’s very conversational, very much a travel agent/tour guide. You can almost picture him on top of one of the open-topped buses, with a microphone in his hand as his details are translated into fifteen different languages. But at other times, the style gets much more stereotypically historian: less conversational, more dry and serious. Not a big thing, hence the quibble label, and probably inevitable given the subject matter and level of research.

Long story short, though, it’s definitely worth a read if you’re at all interested in medieval life. Even if you’re only interested to the point of “I wonder if that scene in that Robin Hood/King Arthur movie was anywhere close to accurate”, this is the book to tell you – and you’ll definitely learn more than you thought you would along the way.

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The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

Ever since I read Moon Dust, I have been mildly obsessed with the space program. It’s not a new obsession; it’s one that lurks in the background of my mind and pops up every once in a while. I do wish that there were more of an active space exploration program, and that the space program as it is got more publicity (certainly when things go right, not just when things go wrong).

But, yes, ever since I read Moon Dust, I’ve had a renewed obsession. I watched through the entirety of From the Earth to the Moon (the story of Apollo 1 always makes me cry), rewatched Apollo 13 for the millionth time (stupid Ron Howard, sucking me in), had the Wikipedia pages on the astronauts up on a nearly permanent basis. And I acquired a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Next step, assuming the obsession hasn’t burned itself out, is to try to find a copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s book about Apollo. (And watch the film of The Right Stuff, of course.  I may do a follow-up entry after watching it, to compare the book and the film. Oh, Ed Harris, I love your work.)

The other stimulus for The Right Stuff, for me, is the fact that it was written by Tom Wolfe. See, my senior seminar at university was on “New Journalism” – what is sometimes now called “creative” or “narrative” non-fiction.  (I won’t get into my full frustration with time-based appellations here. Let’s just summarize it by saying that in, say, fifty years, “new” forms of literature are going to have to be referred to as post-contemporary-post-post-modernist-new-literature or something ridiculous like that.) Anyway, “narrative non-fiction” is a movement that started in the 60s, as so many movements did, and changed the tone of non-fiction from very objective, impartial, and fact-based to subjective, personal, and fact-based. The writer, in creative non-fiction and new journalism, can be as much of a character as the people that he’s interviewed. At the very least, his (or her) personality and literary choices are acknowledged as a forming part of the book. Books – or articles, since a lot of the new journalism was found in feature magazines like Rolling Stone – are very personal, telling not only what happened, but what it was like. The tone is often very similar to sitting in a bar listening to someone tell about their experience.

Certainly The Right Stuff is. It’s full of facts, of course. There’s nothing in it that can’t be corroborated. There’s nothing in it that isn’t untrue. But there are any number of asides and perspectives that make it seem more subjective than you might expect from a non-fiction book.

Basically, The Right Stuff is about the beginnings of the astronaut program. I’m using that word deliberately, because in addition to the Mercury program (and all the hoopla around the Mercury Seven, the first astronauts) it’s also about the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, particularly Chuck Yeager and his group, and the unstated rivalry between the X-15 program (piloted planes that could potentially go beyond the boundary of space) and the Mercury program. It’s about the events, the politics behind them (in both a Washington and a non-Washington sense of “politics”), and the personalities involved.

The Right Stuff, as a phrase, is used informally throughout the book for that ineffable quality that pilots might have. One can lose the right stuff at any point (“it can burst at any seam”), and for any reason – some of which have to do with the person and some to do with external forces, especially doctors.

One of the things that I took away from this book – and, to some extent, Moon Dust – is how finite NASA’s goals were, and became. “Beat the Soviets.” “Put a man in space.” “Put a man on the moon.” Well, …. now what? It’s actually kind of sad – whenever they attempted to do something scientific or discover something in the Mercury program, it was thwarted for various reasons. Grissom’s capsule was lost. Carpenter was all but dismissed from the program. In Apollo, the “scientists” were looked down on, to some extent, by the pilots. And it’s sad, because the science of it, the discovery process, might not be as glamorous or as quick-rewarding, but that’s what keeps programs going.

The other thing that I found sad in this book was the dichotomy between the Mercury program and the X-15/X-20 program. It’s a great “what would have been”.  The X-programs were training and developing piloted aircraft to take off from the ground and enter space – kind of like the space shuttle eventually was, sort of. If they had been allowed to continue (they were killed to free up funding and resources for Apollo and other NASA programs), it is entirely possible that we would be closer to “space tourism” or at least more commercially viable space exploration today. We might not have put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s – and I do love Apollo – but we might be making more trips there today.

Of course, it’s impossible to say what might have been. But the overwhelming sense that I got from Tom Wolfe’s book was that NASA – and Washington – were playing the short game while the X-program was playing the long game. And too often we can’t even see the benefits of the long game for the risks, and the rewards of the short game.

This book is also a monument to how fickle and short-term public interest is. Not that the book itself has dated – it hasn’t, surprisingly. But Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier (Mach 1) and was as feted as Lindbergh. Within a few years, it was the turn of the Mercury Seven, and all the work that was being done at Edwards was ignored. Alan Shepard was the first American in space, and got a ticker-tape parade in New York and went to the White House. Gus Grissom was second, and got a handshake on the tarmac. John Glenn was the first American in orbit, and was the Golden Boy for a long time. Who can remember the others who also made orbital flights? (Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. Deke Slayton was one of the Mercury Seven, but was grounded before he went into space.) And before Mercury was even over, attention had shifted to other aspects of the Cold War – in fact, people were declaring the Cold War over. NASA’s attention had shifted to Gemini and Apollo. The public’s attention had shifted away from NASA. And it certainly had shifted away from the test pilots outside of NASA. Chuck Yeager almost died trying to set a new flying record, and no one noticed.

It’s definitely a “new journalism” book. While Tom Wolfe is never explicitly present, the style is very much his, and you’re very much there. It’s “fly-on-the-wall” – you almost feel like you are there, watching John Glenn confront the other astronauts, or hiding in the houses with the wives and families trying to evade the press corps, or drag-racing along Cocoa Beach, or screaming up through the atmosphere in either a jet or the Mercury capsule. It’s not easy to read, exactly – the style takes some getting used to. Narrative non-fiction has become incorporated into most modern non-fiction today, but The Right Stuff is “new journalism” at its most raw (without being Hunter S. Thompson), so it can be a little bit disconcerting.

Next up on my agenda is the film – like I said at the top, I may do a follow-up post once I’ve watched that. (Probably within the week. Ah, the joys of being essentially unemployed.) And then perhaps I’ll be able to move on from this current NASA obsession, and on to other things….

P.S. I still want to read profiles, both mission profiles and post-Apollo profiles – of the CM pilots. Does such a book exist? Like Moon Dust, but for the astronauts who stayed in the CM….

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A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster

Okay, I’m kind of cheating here. I haven’t (re)read this recently.  But I was talking with my best friend the other day about the classes we’d taken in college and realized that it had been ten years, almost exactly, since I’d read this book for the first time. And since it is my stated favourite book of all time, I thought I should write something to mark a decade of its being in my life.

It was J-term of my freshman year, and I was taking Reading Fiction. It was the perfect class for me: it combined my favourite professor with my favourite activity (reading books and then talking about them). I don’t remember exactly what else we read in that class: A Lesson Before Dying, I think, and at least one other.  I do remember A Room with a View.

It’s not the absolute best book ever, as many critics have pointed out. Most don’t even consider it Forster’s best book – they usually pick Howards End or A Passage to India. But I just fell in love with A Room with a View. It could be that I identified quite strongly with Lucy – she was about my age, wide-eyed and eager to learn but with a strong sense, almost an oppressive sense, for what “should” be done (stimulated, of course, by Charlotte and Cecil and, to a lesser extent, her mother and Freddy). She also was an amateur musician, who used the piano in particular as a way to find an emotional balance. Sound familiar?

Three years later, when it came time for me to decide on a project for my senior paper, I decided to write about A Room with a View and the other “early” works of Forster (i.e. everything except A Passage to India, which I didn’t finally get through until last year sometime), and the way that they used specific musical pieces as themes within the books as well as structure. It probably wasn’t the most innovative thing ever, but I noticed that each of the books featured music in a significant way, usually a particular piece or style of music, and that piece or style of music was also reflected in the structure of the book.

When I was thinking about doing a Master’s degree, I thought about the periods of literature that I enjoyed and was obsessed with: medieval literature, especially Robin Hood, and early 20th century literature with Forster. That’s why I decided to do the degree I did – the idea was that by studying both periods, I could more easily narrow my interest.  Well, I certainly did  that: I realized that Forster was essentially the only one of that era that I wanted to study further, but I was fascinated by the many, many works of Middle English that I encountered.  I realized that I was more interested in Virginia Woolf, for example, when she was writing about Forster, and Elizabeth Bowen when I could compare her to Forster,  and Joyce not at all.

I recognize that it’s not the best book ever. The film version is certainly not spectacular, although it’s not bad. It’s a bit obvious with some of the symbolism (like, say, the view).  But every time I read it, I find more things to analyze and enjoy in it.  Like Forster’s use of light and shadow with George, for instance. It has entered my consciousness in a lot of ways – I don’t have it completely memorized, but I know it well enough that passages of it go through my head simply by seeing the title.  I also kind of annoyed my companions when we were in Florence by pointing out places that were significant from the book. I freely admit that Santa Croce was one of my favourite places in Florence not just because of the artwork and the tombs and the Dante statue, but because it was the church that Lucy went to with her Baedeker.

It’s been a couple of years since I last read A Room with a View; it may be about time for me to read it again.

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