22 June, 2012

Fahrenheit 451

Yes, yes I'm late. As usual.

Two weeks ago, we lost one of the titans of science fiction, Ray Bradbury. As one of the four "greats" of science fiction (along with Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein), Bradbury brought science fiction writing out of the discount bin, regulated to weirdos and futurists, and allowed the genre to mature into a defined literary field.

Moreover, Bradbury's work in his later years proved him to be the best kind of old man-- a crotchety, opinionated, I-don't-care-anymore loudmouth. I can only aspire to such a thing come mid-century. In particular, Bradbury had a fierce commitment to public libraries as institutions existing to the betterment of all mankind, even dismissing formal education in place of the honored biblioteque,

"Libraries raised me. I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years."

Wow, isn't that the way it should be? I heard his echoes every time our town debated building a new library. 
As much time as his mind spent in the future, Bradbury was suspicious of the Internet, at one point responding to a request to digitize his books by saying, "To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the internet.", citing that "it isn't real." Indeed, the flow of knowledge was a topic close to his heart, leading to last week's re-read of the classic Fahrenheit 451.

Intended as a story not about burning books, but what happens to a society which no longer cares about deep thinking, this was Bradbury's launch from magazine serials to literary analysis. The plot itself is straightforward enough (most likely recalled from our high school days, whether this was assigned reading or not); Guy Montag is a "fireman," in that his purpose in this vaguely-defined 21st century dystopia is to burn the remaining books in the city.

Guy's world begins to bifurcate upon meeting Clarisse McClellan, a free-spirited seventeen year-old, whose family is highly suspect in clinging to the "old ways" such as talking, going on leisurely walks and drives, generally avoiding television, and asking "why" a bit too often to make people comfortable. In a society wherein the populace is entirely disconnected from one another, and to a large degree, themselves, Clarisse exposes Guy's suppressed, questioning spirit with which the fireman begins to wonder at the books, ideas, and -- by extension-- people which he has sought to destroy.

While the writing, particularly in part three of the book, leans more toward "adventure story," the message is where the story shines. In an adult's reading, I found interesting, the state of Millie, Guy's lassitude wife. Utterly dependent on the structure of the society, she is a waif of a soul, entirely unable to think more deeply on any topic beyond a nervous laugh, or derisive dismissal. Although written in 1951, the disengagement of the general public, more focused on soundbites and factoids than analysis and connections, one can see why Bradbury developed an irritation with 2009's state of the Internet.

And that's probably why Fahrenheit 451 leapt from the dregs of "genre" to become assigned reading in secondary and post-secondary analysis; its application. As a reader in 2012, one likely sees as many warning signs in the world around them as a reader in 1962 or 2075. Moreover, Bradbury's storytelling is an artful experience, stretching to ideals to which all of us reach-- the pursuit of beauty and truth.

07 March, 2012

Mr g by Alan Lightman

Writing good fiction is hard. Writing good science is even harder. From what I've come across over the years, science-based fiction (not science fiction) is a rare talent to be praised. Mr Lightman began his career as a physicist, specializing in astrophysics, and for twenty years, held a distinguished career in astronomy through MIT.

Then he started writing. With previous (and somewhat esoteric) work such as Einstein's Dreams and Good Benito, Lightman's talents have come to lay in weaving descriptive prose with a scientist's curious and detailed view of the Universe.

Which brings us to Mr g.The unnamed narrator, at the beginning of the book,  wakes up from a very long nap and decides to create a universe. In this story of Creation as told from the perspective of the Creator, we can see the development of geometric, scientific, mathematical, and physical ideas as the narrator builds concepts such as space and time from the infinite nothingness of the Void, where he lives with his argumentative aunt and uncle. The creator is at his core a curious personality, learning by trial-and-error as he builds, and rebuilds universes of varying dimension, geometries, logical consistences, and stability. He loves to watch his creations simply grow and change, and see how they react to stimuli, such as introduction of "organizational principles" and laws of physics.

His favorite project begins with Aalam-104729 (the name originates with His Uncle Deva's penchant for creative naming, and the 10,000th prime number, so he doesn't lose track of it amid the billions of other universes), which His Aunt Penelope randomly selects for him, encouraging that He "take His time with this one, and not rush into things." As Mr g (He is never actually referred to as such in the book, but I'm running out of things to call Him) launches Aalam-104729 by enriching it with symmetry concepts, a simple three dimensions of space, physical laws, and finally matter, which erupts in a fantastic explosion, He is delighted to simply watch his creation grow.

As a strict non-interventionist, the narrator is highly concerned with proper cause-and-effect, in which His own actions should not meddle with the internal workings as the universe unfolds of its own accord, and in a beautiful chaos, developing elementary particles, stars, planets, and eventually biology. His foil, however, has a somewhat more active philosophy. Soon after the creation of Aalam-104729, the tall, whip-smart, and elusive Belhor arrives with an interest in the new creation. While not "the devil" per se, Belhor represents Mr g's intellectual equal, who often serves as a balancing sounding board for ideas concerning thornier issues when conscious life arises, such as morality, and the overarching philosophy of a "disinterested" god who allows beings to suffer.

Perhaps the most compelling moral discussion in the novel is the narrator's discussion with His uncle, who is lobbying for the creation of an immortal soul for conscious beings; the creator is hesitant, well-knowing that a mind from the material universe would not be able to comprehend the Void beyond existence. With input from Belhor, and Uncle Deva, the idea of the beings having an actual connection beyond their universe is a heavy decision for the creator.

While being an exceptionally quick read, Lightman's work weaves together concepts ranging wide from mathematics, science, and philosophy, as taken by someone who has very good reason to consider the impacts of each of His ideas. The science, form the Big Bang to the End, is wonderfully expressed in the text as we read the life story of the universe, and its creator's pure love for all that it is. This is an excellent read for anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy or science, with a shift of perspective to the Outside which only a deity could appreciate

25 February, 2012

Wow, that is a crappily-rendered banner, isn't it?

06 November, 2011

Well, it looks like I will hopefully get the book reviews up-and-running again soon. Currently, I'm in the middle of the "Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R.R. Martin, "History of Middle Earth" set of Tolkien, 1493 by Charles Mann, and Badass: Birth of a Legend by Ben Thompson. I hope to finish one of these soon.

Also, speaking of writing, I am currently trying to participate in National Novel Writing Month, a 30-day blitz to write 50,000 words. Check out the zoo exhibit at my other blog, The Great Ocean Sea. I'm a bit hastened at the moment, but more details to follow!

02 November, 2011

Holy crap.

Blogger added some neat tools such that I can check where the site's audience is coming from, and I was fairly blown away to learn that there is a lot more people reading this blog than I thought.

I guess that I'd better update more

19 November, 2010

So he's starting this again...

I took a break for a bit. The time was right, and I had finished what I had to say for the moment. However, I'm looking forward to making this a regular habit again, with some other experiments that I've been toying with for some time. Most are still evolving, some will soon be ripe for the light of day, and one (if you ask politely) you can see in its Petri dish.

Specifically, it would be really nice to get the book reviews again. Since last February, a lot of interesting titles (and re-reads) such as House of Leaves, Lord of the Rings, Absurdisation, and 1984. Every now and again, it feels nice to return to a well-worm favorite novel.

All things said, to write is to feel good. It can often be depressing to realize how low the ratio is of the culture you create to the culture which you consume; even the act of inane web-postings is like watching the release of a dammed river.

Let's see if this starts...

17 February, 2010

The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name by Toby Lester

What is the scale of the world? The first recorded answer to this was in the 3rd century BCE by Eratosthenes, a Alexandrian Greek astronomer/geographer who measured the circumference of the Earth to be 39,375 km (the actual value is 40,075 km-- that's less than 1% error!).

Geography as a discipline, is one which in the post-modern era, has little meaning as compared to ages past. Today, "geography" brings to mind memorizing maps, continents, and locations easily accessible conceptually (and usually, physically) on the well-measured and explored contours of our planet. To a more formal definition, the modern geographer utilizes computer modeling to study the human-environment relationship.

However, in the world of Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, and geographers for more than a millennium, contrasting the known size of our world with how little is known of it sets the study of maps and their intrinsic meaning holds a both philosophical and adventurous call. The map, of course, is the original player's guide for ages past; in the truest sense of what a map should do, the proper cartographical guide should be your itenerary, your travel-log, your translator, and your fortune-teller for the journey not yet begun.

The reader cannot truly appreciate a "story of a map" until one readers the first few chapters of Lester's book. Outright, The Fourth Part of the World is the backstory and tale of the the Waldseemüller map, the centerpiece of a 1507 revision of Ptolemy's Geography, which holds the historical distinction of being the first document which (1) recognizes the New World as a separate continent, and not an eastward extension of Asia and (2) identifies this new landmass as "America" for the first time.

While the map itself has its own beginning and ending (curiously disappearing for nearly 400 years) which brings it to the Library of Congress today, the tale behind the map is a sojourn on the scale of centuries which encompasses Western history from the Fall of Rome to the dawn of the Age of Exploration. Set firmly in the Eurocentric mindset of exploration (the Mongols, Songhai, and Arawaks knew just where they lived, thank you very much), the seeds of cartographic expansion begin with the great conquest of Eurasia in the thirteenth century by Genghis Khan.

When the Mongols hit the geopolitical landscape of the 1200s, they changed everything-- a disciplined military force which could strike like a legion and scatter like bandits. Often, the Mongol Empire is associated with Chinese and Central Asian history, but their effects were (for the time) global. Like dominoes from Japan to Ireland, one kingdom's fall affected all those around them until the percolation of the Khan's influence reached the Vatican.

In grade school, the canonical rationale for the beginning of the Age of Exploration was late Medieval trade with the Middle-East; Lester argues, however, that the primary motivator for the eastern reach of Latin Europe was political-- the Turkish expansion in Anatola in the 11th and 12th centuries (which ultimately triggered the Crusades) pressed Greek (Byzantine) Christians too much for Latin Europe's comfort.

While the European conception of the Far East was steeped in mythology and fantasy, they often looked to the East for salvation. The East was the beginning of light and hope, not only a geographic interpretation, but philosophical and religious as well-- theologians of the day saw history as an expansion from east to west, as the sun marches across the sky. The oriens ultima was the Edenic earthly paradise from which the Next Coming, the religious hoped, would arrive to unify the world under their faith. Mythic figures such as Prester John, to save the world to Gog and Magog, to destroy it, inhabited the lands of the silk-worms and long-lived.

Seeking alliance with the growing Empire (a Christian redeemer perhaps?) who seemed to scare the Islamic states threatening Christian Europe, Popes, kings, and adventurers looked to the land of the Great Khan for the future. The mythic figures stopped being those of fantasy, such as Prester John, and began to be flesh-and-blood adventurers such as Marco Polo and Friar William.

Philosophically, the cosmology of the late Medieval era was concise-- the world existed as three major pieces of land (Europa, Africa, Asia) rising out of the watery sphere of the sea. Contrary to what is commonly taught about pre-Columbian thought, it was well-known in Europe since the Classical Era that Earth was in fact a sphere. Jerusalem was the theological and physical center of the world, where the continents essentially met, and the Ptolemaic spheres of the heavens moved above.

As the Latin Europeans sought to fill in the gaps in their three-part world, the Earth as we know it began to unfold for Western culture. Perhaps it is because so much of history post-Columbus is canon in school curriculum, the story of exploration begins to lose a bit of its luster-of-the-unknown when the Genoan Admiral arrives on the scene. Throughout the work, there is a steady progression of storyline from Middle Age philosophers such as Franciscan monks and early Papal emissaries to China to the Portuguese hugging the African coast (enslaving along the way), the lucky wanderers (Christopher Columbus), and shameless self-promoters as Amerigo Vespucci. This narrative weaves an intriguing tapestry of exploration and cultural growth.

Vespucci's journey itself was the Fourth Part which rocked the philosophical grounds of the era. Columbus' "discovery," at its own time, was throught to be a relatively minor success, as many thought that his islands happened to be a second set of Canaries. Sailing to latitudes over 50 degrees south of the equator had put Amerigo's ship at the fabled Antipodes of the Earth, a fourth land to redefine the deep islands of the Atlantic. This expanding world, embraced by the growing humanist movement across Europe exploded the Renaissance, and the first viable attempts in over a thousand years to revive the Roman Empire sprung to life; with this, two German thinkers-- Martin Waldseemuller and Matthias Ringmann-- proposed a new edition of Ptolemy's world-defining work.

A philosophical work about humankind's literal and theological place on Earth, The Fourth Part of the World is a journey of the mind and spirit as much as it was across the sea. Exploration is a sincerely human endeavor, which has always been more than finding a new land beyond your view, but within oneself. Growth of the soul is always more fascinating than growth of the maps. The heroism of economic and social subjection are not to be glorified as the men who were not the explorers, but the quiet students of cosmology who studied and wrote in the libraries, monasteries, and universities back on the Continent. These philosophers (in the truest sense of the word) drew the new bounds and directions of thought for the coming centuries. To pore over a map is to explore within and without.

And, if you're lucky, you get something named after you.