Classic Science Fiction: ‘I Robot’ by Asimov

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As the recent silence on my blog demonstrates, I’ve been suffering from something of a reading slump.  As all experienced readers know, the only way to combat such misery is to wait it out, holding on to the hope that the perfect choice of books will suddenly rekindle the old magic.  Thanks to a judicious mixture of non-fiction, genre reading and staring into space, things are slowly getting back to normal and I’m going to celebrate by reviewing a book has been staring at me reproachfully for weeks, waiting for me to spread the word.

Asimov’s ‘I Robot’ is a series of short stories, which, taken together, provide a ‘history’ of robots from the early stages of their development to an imaginatively realised robot-controlled future.  Given that a certain amount of my day job involves computers (including a real world engagement with what developments artificial intelligence might bring) it was delightful to immerse myself in Asimov’s twentieth-century presentation of the future of technology.

The robots in the book are exactly what you see on the cover, humanoid, gesticulating and emoting beings who are best understood by our ‘robopsychologist’ narrator.  The set-up is beautiful in its simplicity; at the heart of robopsychology, and of each story, lie the famous three laws:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law

The drama in the stories comes from seeing how robots, and humans, navigate these rules.  The additional bonus for 21st century readers is that we can always replace the word ‘robot’ with the word iphone and so turn futuristic sci-fi into attractive nostalgia.  Even the most dystopian and most forward-looking story somehow brings a measure of comfort to anyone concerned about the place of technology in our own world. Reading ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ during the last year has allowed me to escape into past, but ‘I Robot’ goes one better with it’s ability to transport the reader to a version of the future as imagined by the visionaries of the previous century.  It also contains a drunk robot singing Gilbert and Sullivan while trundling round in circles, and I’m not sure classic science fiction gets much better than that!

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A very full year: ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (part 4 – winter) by Anthony Powell

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I realise I am late with this, and trying to use the recent terrible weather as an excuse for thinking it’s still winter isn’t entirely convincing. Maybe I should claim instead that the somewhat languid pace of the Dance sequence has affected my reading and reviewing pattern. Its narrator, Jenkins, has never been the most proactive literary character, but as the modern world catches up with him in his old age, the books become even more bewildered in their attempts to record post war and swinging Britain.

The fact is that I had no idea what to expect when I started ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ in spring 2017. All I knew was that it was a long novel cycle, themed according to the times of the year. I certainly didn’t expected to love the opening volumes as much as I did. It could have been that their combination of snobbery, stupidly long cast lists and sarcastic humour gave me the perfect escapism for 2017. Now I have come to the end of the series, I have also realised that I found something hugely appealing about the passivity with which Jenkins views the world. This may be why my favourite seasons were Spring (the school years, university and the start of a professional career) and Autumn (the army). Jenkins is so far from being an active agent in his own life that things work beautifully when the events around him are, through necessity, out of his control. I’m also aware I don’t share his taste in friends, so the enforced companionship of these books inevitably pleased me more than the tedious description of time spent with his artistic heroes in the Summer and Winter sections.

Even without claiming them as favourites though, the winter novels still contained enough spiky humour and deadpan observations to make them a fitting conclusion to the project. There is much to relish in learning how Jenkins’ battered and ageing generation deal with post-World War II austerity (‘Books do Furnish a Room’), the Cold War (‘Temporary Kings’) and hippy cults (‘Hearing Secret Harmonies’). As always, the determinedly unimpressive Widmerpool is wonderful whenever he appears while the pleasure of encountering familiar characters increases with each successive novel.

I’m sure Jenkins (and Powell) would approve of my melancholy at the realisation that I will never again be able to enjoy this book without knowing the gruesome ends of so many key characters.  Fortunately, also like them, I see books a lifelong companions and fully plan to return to the series in a future year; based on previous experience, I’ll be sure to chose one when I’m in need of heavy-duty escapism.

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Les Misérables and Les Mystères de Paris: a comparison

When raving about ‘The Mysteries of Paris‘ last week, it was clear there was an elephant in the room, because when you describe thousand plus page novels using characters to explore social issues in 19th century Paris, no-one thinks you’re talking about Sue’s little-known melodrama.   My excuse is I wanted to stay on topic and the review didn’t feel like the time to explore Sue’s novel in the context of Hugo’s classic.  Instead, I thought I would devote this post to a proper comparison of these two mighty tomes.

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The elephant in the room (Gustave Brion’s illustration for ‘Les Miserables’)

 

Les Misérables Les Mystères de Paris
Length 1,232 pages
(Penguin Classic paperback)
1,392 page
(Penguin Classic paperback)
Date Published 1862 Published serially, 1842-1843
Characteristics of the hero Philosophical

Has superhuman strength

Sometimes struggles to do what is right

Born poor, attained riches, learned through suffering

Tries to do good to everyone

Father figure to heroine

Philosophical

Has superhuman strength

Always does what is right

Was born a prince, suffered through being married to an evil woman

Dispenses justice, rewarding the good and punishing the bad

Father figure to heroine

Characteristics of heroine Abandoned by mother

Abused as a child

Good looking

Devoted to father figure

Abandoned by mother

Abused as a child

Beautiful beyond measure

Devoted to father figure

The good poor Three of the four volumes of the book are named after essentially virtuous people who suffer poverty: Fantine (whose ultimately descends into prostitution), Cosette (who is abused as a child) and Marius (who refuses financial assistance from his family). They are all GOOD, and most of them are rewarded. Other examples of the good poor are the children who happily run around the streets of Paris in implausible, but very attractive, playful innocence. There are plenty of good characters in the book, they would rather starve than steal, and are at the mercy of the rich and the bad poor alike. All are very conscious of right and wrong and the importance of maintaining high moral standards, of working all the time, of not complaining and of not asking anything of anyone. A way of recognising the good poor is that they are rarely disfigured, often sing, love plants and trust the hero in everything he does.
The Bad poor There are also BAD poor people in the book, such as the couple who abuse Cosette. They are consistently and gratuitously evil at every opportunity and are especially good at feigning poverty in order to get money from others. Not all the poor characters are good, some are bad and they can be recognised through their disfigurements (tending to be missing eyes and, in extreme cases, noses).   Poor bad people do the bidding of rich bad people, but they also make up evil schemes of their own.
Setting A historical Paris that was being destroyed as Hugo was writing. Paragraphs are given over to mourning the loss of historical streets and alleyways. Also, key scenes take place in a nunnery. Set before Napoleon III got started with he re-design of Paris, the book is filled with dark alleyways of the criminal quarters of the town. Also, a key scene takes place in a nunnery.

As you can see, the novels do share a lot of similarities, but there is a crucial difference.  ‘Les Misérables’ is a classic that everyone has heard of, containing a fairly small cast of memorable characters and some major historical set-pieces.  ‘Les Mystères de Paris’ is an extremely silly piece of popular fiction that is now all but forgotten.  On a personal level, there is another difference: despite all my best intentions, I’m afraid I still like Sue’s melodrama more than Hugo’s tragedy.  The evident nonsense of the plot ends up making the excessive characters and endless coincidences entertaining rather than irritating, while the laudable ethical underpinning is at least as strong as in Hugo’s most polemical paragraphs.

As far as I know, I’m alone in my preference.  I don’t mind – according to Wikipedia Sue’s novel actually sparked a whole genre of ‘city mystery’ books in the mid-nineteenth century – I’m off to Project Gutenberg to see how many might be available in English for me to look forward to in 2018.

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Addictively Silly: The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue (1842-43)

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The Mysteries of Paris begins in the dank alleyways of the Parisian underworld.  A mysterious stranger ‘darted with hasty step into the Cité, that labyrinth of obscure, narrow, and winding streets which extends from the Palais de Justice to Notre Dame.’  That may not sound much like the Parisian streets we know and love, but this book was written before Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, which involved demolishing such medieval (and easily barricaded) streets to make way for beautiful avenues and boulevards.  It doesn’t matter though, this book is set in what will always be a fictional Paris, one in which princes wander round incognito rewarding the deserving poor, criminals delight in fiendish plots and virtuous coquettes sing and smile all through their fourteen-hour work days, sustained by happy thoughts and meals of bread and water.

The book is massive; it was published serially in 90 weekly sections and the penguin paperback edition is close to 1,400 pages long.  Personally, I was engrossed throughout.  As far as I’m concerned, our hero out-swashbuckles the three musketeers put together, while the heroine is so beautiful, perfect and pure she goes through the boring-Dickens-passive-heroine phase and right out the other side.  By the end I found myself genuinely caught up in the suspense of where her story could go and how much further Sue could push her angelic characteristics without everyone near her just spontaneously combusting from proximity to her general amazingness.

Possibly the most charming thing about the novel (though it’s a tight field) is the moral imperative that underlies it.  Sue was hugely concerned with the plight of the urban poor and while his characters are laughable and his plot absurd he does have a message to share.  His descriptions of poverty are shocking and, in their details, frighteningly believable.  His polemics against the hypocrisy of legalised prostitution and the enforced squalor in which the artisan class lived are as heartfelt as any passages in ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,’ and turn a guilty pleasure into an important and still relevant read.  In some parts, anyway.

I know that bloated nineteenth century melodrama is a hard sell, but if you were looking for a doorstop of a book to indulge in over winter, I heartily recommend ‘The Mysteries of Paris.  It’s every bit as sensational and overblown as the promotional poster suggests, but you can always pretend its seriously historical and socially aware fiction if anyone asks.

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Isolated and Hidden Away: ‘The Drinker’ by Hans Fallada

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A couple of years ago I read the wonderful ‘Blood Brothers‘ by Ernst Haffner, a book which explores the desperate underbelly of interwar Germany.  ‘Blood Brothers’ shows the reader life at the bottom of a society on the edge of collapse, and it was only translated into English in 2015 – the assumption being that English-language readers were not going to be receptive to historical German presentations of their society in the first half of the twentieth century.  The man who changed this idea was Hans Fallada, whose 1947 novel ‘Jeder stirbt für sich allein’ was published to popular and critical acclaim in 2009 as ‘Alone in Berlin’ (in the UK) and ‘Every Man Dies Alone’ (in the US).

Although the reading projects I’ve embarked on through this blog may make it seem like my book choices are structured and organised, this is actually rarely the case.  I’ve not yet read ‘Alone in Berlin’ and so seem be approaching this body of works backwards, with the little-known Haffner as my introduction to his famed and prolific contemporary.  Based on a friend’s recommendation (and generous gift buying!) ‘The Drinker’ is my gateway to Fallada’s intimidating and bleak oeuvre.

‘The Drinker’ traces a man’s descent from conventional stability and success to addiction and misery.  The mixture of self-knowledge, self-destruction and delusion makes for compelling reading.  Take this reflection on family quarrels near the start of the book:

The first few times I still felt quite ashamed of our lack of restraint, and when I noticed that I had grieved Magda, that she was even going about with tear-stained eyes, it hurt me almost as much as it hurt her, and I swore that I would be better.  But man gets used to anything, and I am afraid that perhaps he gets used quickest of all to living in a state of degradation.  The day came when, at the sight of Magda’s red-rimmed eyes, I no longer swore to behave better.  Instead with mingled satisfaction and surprise, I said to myself: “I gave it to you properly that time!  You’re not going to get the upper hand of me always with that sharp tongue of yours!”  It seemed horrible to feel that way, and yet it seemed right, it satisfied me to feel so, however paradoxical that may seem.  From there, it was only a short step to the point when I consciously sought to hurt her.

Our protagonist is not always so clear sighted about his actions or motivations.  I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it is generally read as broadly autobiographical and was actually written in an encrypted notebook when the author was locked away in an insane asylum.  Towards the end it explores ideas familiar to anyone who’s read ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ but in a setting which reminded me of books set in Nazi concentration camps as well as American and British stories about incarceration.

Translated by Charlotte and A L Lloyd, ‘The Drinker’ is short, powerful and impressive.  It is both funny and tragic, at its best when the protagonist is most aware of the ‘paradoxical’ nature of his relations with others and with himself.  I have, of course, added ‘Alone in Berlin’ to my reading list, while ‘The Drinker’ can join Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’ for another classic about addiction and outcasts.

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Not as bleak as you might expect: ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (part 3 – autumn) by Anthony Powell

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I had been a bit concerned about embarking on the autumn phase of Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’.  The fact is, volume 6 ‘The Kindly Ones,’ which was the last of the summer books, was not my favourite in the cycle.  The novel was about the build up to World War 2 and did not wholly work for me, a fact not helped by the the knowledge that the next three books (‘The Valley of Bones’, ‘The Soldier’s Art’ and ‘The Military Philosophers’) would be set during the war itself and so may be significantly less successful cosy escapism than the wonderful early volumes.

Of course, I should not have worried.  The idiocies of military life provide as many targets for Powell’s barbed wit as I could have wished.  From Captains Gwatkin who ‘loved to find fault for its own sake‘ to Cocksidge of whom we’re told ‘his own habitual incivility to subordinates was humdrum enough, but the imaginative lengths to which he would carry obsequiousness to superiors displayed something of genius,‘ the new characters introduced are as wonderful as any of the scholars or bohemians of the previous books.  Meanwhile, established figures also have a chance to shine, such as Lovel who is now in the marines ‘Although incapable of seeing life from an unobvious angle, Lovell was prepared, when necessary, to vary the viewpoint – provided the obviousness remained unimpeded, one kind of obviousness taking the place of another.’

I had also been worried about a lack of Widmerpool, the socially awkward and obsessively selfish anti-hero of the series.  His frighteningly inevitable rise in society and business are such that he must thrive in the bureaucracy of war and so move beyond our narrator’s bumblingly comfortable milieu.  Fortunately, a society which so cherishes Widmerpool must inevitably reflect his personality, including his ‘exceptional mixture of vehemence and ineptitude.’  Instead of missing him, I found all of the autumn novels infused with a wonderful Widmerpoolish sensibility, the state of war being exposed as risible and pathetic but also unstoppable and destructive.

I’m really excited about what’s to come next.  I no longer expect the winter finale to the cycle to be bleak and depressing, though I confess I’m unable to predict what new twists of fate Powell has reserved for his massive cast of characters.  I also have the warm glow that comes from knowing I’m finally ready to read volume 10: ‘Books do Furnish a Room.’  As if in preparation, Jenkin’s enduring love of literature is increasingly brought out and mocked in the autumn novels; there feels no better place to end this post than with a few of his autumnal reflections on being a reader:

‘”I read quite a lot.”
I no longer attempted to conceal the habit, with all its undesirable implications.  At least admitting it put one in a recognisably odd category of persons from whom less need be expected than the normal run.’ (From ‘The Soldier’s Art’)

Blake was a genius, but not one for the classical taste.  He was too cranky.  No doubt that was being ungrateful for undoubted marvels offered and accepted.  One often felt ungrateful in literary matters, as in so may others.’ (From ‘The Military Philosophers’)

‘I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity.  Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on to those who possess them already.’ (From ‘The Valley of the Bones’)

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Developing a relationship: ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’

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In general, when I find an author or series that I like, I race through it uncontrollably.  It’s this kind of attitude that has lead to my uneviable position of never being able to read a new Christie Poirot or Marple novel, or Jane Austen, or Ann Radcliffe (to name a few exhausted authors).  In an attempt to learn from my mistakes I now ration favourite authors, so I know that I’ve still got at least one unread Margaret Atwood (‘Maddaddam’) and one Kate Aktkinson (‘Started Early, Took My Dog’) waiting for me.

Then, I discovered Elena Ferrante and decided to try a different approach.  In 2015 I read the first of her Neapolitan quartet ‘My Brilliant Friend‘; I read the sequel ‘The Story of a New Name‘ in 2016.  Now it’s about a year later and time for my next Ferrante hit.  Taking my time like this has been a new reading experience for me, but it does seem to be working, especially given the passage of time and developing relationships explored in Ferrante’s complex and conflicted novels.

In ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ the title sets up a familiar tension between the enigmatic Lila and our narrator, the talented Lenù, whose education has enabled her to escape their vicious poverty-stricken neighbourhood in Naples for marriage into the middle class intelligentsia and a comfortable home in Florence.  With one controversial novel already a critical success, Lenù’s life appears to be moving on a positive trajectory away from her sordid roots.  As with the other books in the series, the title provides a helpful summary of the novel, in this case contrasting Lenù’s restless movements between the new and old worlds that claim her with Lila’s more settled, even claustrophobic, existence in a Naples.

There are other forms of leaving though.  Lila, whose charisma, intelligence and sense of self exploded off the page in ‘Our Brilliant Friend’, and were traumatically challenged in ‘The Story of a New Name’ has seemed to enter a new phase of existence.  More vulnerable than ever, we learn that Lila is suffering from ‘dissolving boundaries,’ where her body and mind seem untethered, moving away from the physical, real world.  In the meantime, her powerful intellect remains a force beyond her control.  Almost by accident she becomes one the most proficient computer programmers in the region, appearing to escape into a future hi tech world even while her reality is mired in the political turmoil and corruption of late 1960s Italy.

Lenù and Lila’s lives continue to dance around each other in ever more complex moves and choreographed sequences.  In what I’m taking as a teaser for the final novel in the series, we’re told early on that

This may be the last time I’ll talk about Lila with a wealth of detail.  Later on she became more evasive, and the material at my disposal was diminished.  It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance.  And yet even when I lived in other cities and we almost never met, and she as usual didn’t give me any news and I made an effort not to ask for it, her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.
Today, as I’m writing, that goad is even more essential.  I wish she were here, that’s why I’m writing.  I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story by spilling into it, according to her whim, the things she knows, what she said or thought …’

In about a year’s time I will learn for myself what a Neapolitan novel without ‘a wealth of detail‘ about Lila is like.  I can already identify at least three possible youngsters who could qualify to be the potential titular protagonist of the final book ‘The Story of the Lost Child.’  I also know that Lila is going to disappear – because that was how the first novel began.  Beyond that, I’m going to take my time, let this third instalment settle, and maybe consider which other novelists might we worth exploring for my next ‘taking it slow’ reading experiment.

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