Book Review, Recently Posted, Science fiction

Old Man and the Wasteland written by Nick Cole

 

"Can you let go of what is gone? I think at first I felt that I could not go on. The things I lost were too painful and I could not imagine a life without them. I remember feeling awful. All the time. But I cannot remember when I changed. When I thought of salvage. When I thought of what was today, and not of what had been or what was lost "

 

Old Man and the wasteland by Nick cole

 

What happens when you take Hemingway's age old classic about an old man fighting alone against nature and adapt it to a dystopian future? You get "The Old Man and the Wasteland"

In the hands of Nick Cole, this is a story that you just cannot put down…

In an future only a generation away, an apocalyptic war, most probably nuclear, has laid waste to everything. Everything that man takes pride in – his creations of steel and brick, his civilization, the technologies, communication systems all have been destroyed and what is worse – has faded away to forgetfulness. People in the book actually marvel looking at freeways and flyovers – wondering whether its their own species who had built them.

All that is left now for scattered survivors to do is scavenge. Things that people a generation ago took for granted – steel, tinned food, worked metals, electronic parts, batteries have now become more precious than gold ever was. A man's worth is measured in how much scavenging he can do. A man's reputation is built on the value of the scavenge he can bring back. The hunter-gatherer turning full circle to scavenger..

Nick Cole brings alive this frightening world. The reader is never told directly what has happened and why things became the way they did. We are just put bang in the middle of the reality, the present. Everything is told from the perspective of the old man, who is trying to survive in the terrifying present reality while still holding on to vestiges of a very different past, fast fading. All we get are flashbacks from the memories of the old man, a common young man at the time of the apocalyptic disaster. The horrors and the helplessness of the time when everything familiar and comforting – society, government, geography, technology broke down, never to come back, is told to us in short flashes of memories. These are memories that still haunt the Old Man but he has learnt to live with them and even use them for scavenging. We are left to piece together what might have happened. And because he is one of the last people around who still remembers something of the life before, the reader is able to relate to him more.

Its a world that is beautifully created, if beautiful is a word we can use for a desolate dystopian world. Man has reverted back to his primitive ways, in the background of crumbling skyscrapers. This is a world that can lend itself to many clichés, but in the hands of Nick Cole, this is a breathing, living world with nameless horrors lurking at every corner.

The old man, like in the Hemingway classic, has a point to prove. To himself and to the world. That he still has it in him – to be useful. That he is not cursed to failure. The old man in "Old man and the sea" took to the sea. Here the Old man takes to the wasteland.

And the Old man takes with him his favourite book – a tattered much used "Old Man and the Sea", a story that is his most prized possession, a story that he hopes he would be able to fully narrate to his granddaughter one day.

Through the Old Man, we see the world as it has become. As he pushes further than anyone from his village has ever gone, he meets a world that has completely broken down in half a century. From the motel owner to the savage band of cannibals right down to the end where a soldier had made his last stand, the old man goes and sees and we see with him, a world that seems familiar as if in a slow nightmare. The reader, along with the old man, struggles to retain their senses. The powerful writing of Nick Cole ensure that we constantly stay on the precipice. The small parallel story of the wolves pack pursuing the Old Man and the last stand of the pack's leader is a nice touch – giving a sense of universal struggle for survival

A bit of an unusual ending does take away some of the perfection of the story but its a small blip. Overall, as the ending ends in a happy one (though I would have preferred a more open ended ending), you put down this book wanting more of the Old Man. Nick Cole has created a character that will stay with you a long time – a everyday man caught in an alien world trying to make the best of what he has. I think we would all relate to that at some level. And that is the triumph of the book – "The Old Man and the Wasteland" is a familiar book in an utterly unfamiliar world.

Highly recommended!

 

 

"I want to tell my granddaughter the lesson of the book. The lesson that they can beat you, but they cannot defeat you. I must tell her that. "

Btw, I have to thank Amazon and its Kindle for the book. This is not a book that you can get in a bookshop easily and certainly not at a price of $0.99! The low price enables experimentation with new authors and then you realize that there is huge choice of good stories out there, independent of what publishing houses promote.

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Isaac Asimov
Book Review, Non-Fiction, Recently Posted, Science fiction

I Asimov written by Isaac Asimov

Asimov-Cover2 To fans of classical science fiction, Isaac Asimov holds a position of one of a trinity – along with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Of course there have been many more talented writers in the golden age of science fiction who arguably should be a part of an extended trinity – Philip Dick, Harlan Elision, Fredrick Pohl come to mind immediately. But we like symbolism and simplicity, so three it remained.

But speak of science fiction today and Asimov rings the most bells than anybody else. Partly the reason is his prodigious output. He penned hundreds of books, articles, anthologies, science books for kids – his influence extended across all major science and science fiction during his time. As popular a science fiction writer as a contemporary science writer, he was and still is one of the most widely read author.

But his major appeal, according to me, is his engaging writing style. It is highly accessible and there is always a humour underlying his work. Asimov’s writing, according to his own admission, has been to bring science to a much wider audience. Conscious to steer away from typical science writing of his time, which usually assumed scientific literacy for the reader, Asimov adopted a highly readable form of science writing. And his science fiction also reads the same way. The concept of psychohistory and laws of robotics, in the hands of another, would have assumed a mystical aura. In Asimov’s style, the concepts became crystal clear and natural. In fact, the real world of robotics assumes the Asimov’s laws – another powerful indication of how science fiction actually creates reality!!

I became a fan of Asimov on reading his powerful short stories – “The Last Question” and “Nightfall” and it has been an insatiable passion ever since. So, I picked up “I, Asimov”, his autobiography, without hesitation.

And it is a rollicking ride. The first thing that strikes you as the first pages go by is the very different structure of the book. Usually autobiographies and biographies follow a linear chronological pattern.

“I, Asimov”, on the other hand is like a collection of short stories, each two to three pages long. Collected together, they are vignettes of Asimov’s thoughts and opinions on almost everything he had ever encountered – to his opinion of having kids, his contemporaries, his marriages, his work, his religious beliefs (or lack of it), his political beliefs and his own opinion of himself.

“I, Asimov” reads much like all his work – highly readable and accessible with sparkling wit. And for an autobiography, it is a surprising page-turner – the reader is never under pressure to remember dates or events but goes along with the story, the ‘story’ is Asimov’s life. It is only roughly chronological and by the end of the book, the reader easily forms a very fair idea of Asimov’s life.

Asimov weaves his life story beautifully within these short pieces. And what comes across in the pages is a man who is witty, loyal to his ideas, full of life and passion for his work. He also comes across as stubborn and cocksure and supremely self-confident. But he admits to these freely. Usually owning up to non-flattering parts of your own character leads to explanations or self-pity. Asimov does not fall in either pits. That is one of the most endearing part of the book.

He is also one who can be truly generous. He rates many writers, including Heinlein, to be much better writers than himself. He is surprised that many times he was awarded Hugos or Nebulas while much better writers were overlooked. This quality of generosity or self-critique is rare in anybody, more so in writers…

It is as if, in the last autobiography he wrote (he wrote two before), Asimov wants the reader and the world to know exactly who and how he was. He does not dress up his prejudices and does not hesitate to call a spade a spade. He comes across as forthright and frank without ever resorting to taking himself seriously. Even when he talks about death, there is no morbid philosophy. Even though he had only a few years to live (in fact he did not live to see this book’s publication), the inevitability of his death is told in a faintly ironic and humorous tone – “I expected to die at sixty and then at sixty five and then to my surprise, I reached seventy – more than anyone ever reached in my family”

The taste that you take away from this book is of a man who is sparkling, witty and entirely sure of himself. It shows also a man who can be full of warmth towards some people and cold towards some other. Someone who did not care too much of societal niceties. A man who stuck to his ideals and his philosophy, inspite of everything he faced.

Pick up this book. This is an autobiography unlike any you may have read. If you haven't read Asimov yet, this book may actually be a good place to start – you will want to read him. If you have already read Asimov, you might realize why you enjoyed his work so much

 

Some quotes –

“Once, when a religionist denounced me in unmeasured terms, I sent him a card saying, "I am sure you believe that I will go to hell when I die, and that once there I will suffer all the pains and tortures the sadistic ingenuity of your deity can devise and that this torture will continue forever. Isn't that enough for you? Do you have to call me bad names in addition?”

“I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.”

“I am not a Zionist, then, because I don't believe in nations, and because Zionism merely sets up one more nation to trouble the world. It sets up one more nation to have "rights" and "demands" and "national security" and to feel it must guard itself against its neighbors. There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don't come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity. ”

“I have never, in all my life, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.”

“The age of the pulp magazine was the last in which youngsters, to get their primitive material, were forced to be literate.”

“Having reached 451 books as of now doesn't help the situation. If I were to be dying now, I would be murmuring, "Too bad! Only four hundred fifty-one." (Those would be my next-to-last words. The last ones will be: "I love you, Janet.") [They were. -Janet.]”

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Book Review, Science fiction, Thriller

Timeline by Michael Crichton

2 This was a book recommended to me by Wikipedia when I was reading up on string theory which naturally referred itself to parallel universes and hence to time travel. This and ‘Man in high castle’ by Philip K Dick, both of which I immediately lapped up on my Infibeam Pi.
 
This is a typical  Crichton novel – an interesting scientific possibility with a decent amount of research, a band of adventurers, an evil but high-tech corporation and a great story which as always is a page turner.
And most importantly, for me – a science fiction and history buff, a story that combines both. And like every story that combines them, this story too packs quite a punch.
 
So just immerse yourself into a world where it has become possible to travel into the past, which as Crichton reminds us, is not too much into the remote future anyway. A team of archaeologists in modern France excavating a site which saw action during the Hundred Years war (between France and England in the 14th century) are drawn into a1 larger game plan of the company sponsoring their study, when they find their professor’s glasses and a note spelling ‘Help’ while excavating a site that had not seen light in the last 600 years.
 

So begins an adventure that sees the group tumbling into 14th century France, into a world which all their scholarship could not prepared them for. And the period is one of the most volatile times in the region’s history – an invasion is taking place and with medieval casual brutality around every corner, the story soon takes a scorching pace. And then comes a very unexpected twist – they may not be the only 20th century people out there!!!
 
A great read for a rainy day when you want to be entertained and thrilled. Don't expect too much depth or great characterization, that's not what the book is for. The book is for entertainment, pure and simple, with a very interesting plot.
 
And yes, the movie they made out of this is terrible. Give it a miss, read the book instead…
 

 

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Science fiction, Thriller

The Running Man written by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)

300x300 I still cringe when people talk of Stephen King as a novelist exclusively of the horror or paranormal genre. It would seem that all the information deluge (or maybe because of the deluge) on the net is insufficient to wipe out the image carved out by popular media. This book is one which will not at all fit the stereotype. Set in a dystopian future (in 2025), this book owes its debt to Orwell rather than to Bela Lugosi…
 
I was lucky to start off on King by reading the novella – four seasons. There, in those four very different stories, you realize that above all, King is a master storyteller. And that is something that is common in all the books he has written. In fact I have liked his non-horror books more…
 
Ben Richards, the protagonist, is the classic quiet brooding angry man forced to play the part of the unwilling rebel in a world gone bad. And a world gone to extreme reality television. The proles in 1984 were kept in a state of zombification by lottery and sex magazines. Here the citizens are kept in a state of permanent television frenzy, with reality television becoming a permanent fabric of existence. The Games federation (which organizes the TV shows) is an unelected  quasi-government.

 

And the reality games have become actually that – a perverted terrifying reality. The greatest crowd puller over the centuries has been a public execution. The Games federation has just used this mob6a00d8345169e469e2011168c60571970c-250wi mentality and has come up with the “Running Man”, a game where men are hunted and killed- the longer the men stay alive, the more money they earn. And they have no shortage of takers. People are willing to put themselves on the show to earn money to feed their starving families, as Ben does.

Ben goes through the qualification process and finally proceeds to be selected for their star show, the ‘Running Man’, his often caustic comments and observations illuminating his world for us. He then has to find a way to stay alive and keep earning money for his wife and a sick daughter and somehow beat the system at the same time. Through his eyes, we begin to understand the world, its real nature and how it came to be as it is.
 
Like all King novels, this is a scorching page turner. And like all his novels, the characters come out well, especially Ben’s and all the people he meets along the way.
Stephen_King Though I would have liked a slightly less melodramatic ending, the book comes out very well in being both a great story and in setting out a bleak vision for a world that may very well be coming true in many shades today. This latter aspect, its relevant topicality, is what makes this book so interesting.
 
Looking at the world today, when big corporates have learnt that they need to control media and especially television for control (and control means money), when reality television seems to be getting weirder and weirder, a ‘Running Man’ may  not be far off…after all, a man getting killed in public is something that we have learnt to enjoy for many centuries. Its only a question  of bringing the beast out!!!
 
P.S- they made a movie out of this, with the same name, which leaves out the best elements of the book; made it into a typical mindless action flick. Avoid!!

 

 

 

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Book Review, Science fiction

Fatherland written by Robert Harris

n21490 I had read Harris’ Pompeii before and had found the setting fascinating. So the first thing that drew me to Fatherland was the setting – an alternate history world where the Nazis had won the war. And pretty soon, you realize that in Xavier March, you have a hero in SS uniform who stumbles upon one of humanity’s greatest kept secret, a secret always suspected but one so horrible that its almost impossible to believe!!!
If the setting is fascinating, so is the pace of the story.

As March gets deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that is the very foundation of the Third Reich, you get a glimpse of the world that would have been if the Wehrmacht had not been stopped at the gates of Stalingrad. A world where Albert Speer got to design Germany the way he wanted to, a world where Third Reich seems all set to fulfil the prophesy of Hitler of being a “Thousand year Reich”, a world where Europe is under the rule of the swastika and the eagle, where Churchill and the queen live in exile, a world where Goering dies of natural causes and Heydrich still lives and Stalin fights an endless guerrilla war on the edges of what was once the Soviet Empire. A world where Jews have disappeared and Slavs work as maids and gardeners.

Its 1964 and its a Cold War and its between Germany and USA and the president of USA, a Kennedy is on a detente visit to the Reich. The reclusive Fuhrer’s birthday is about a week away. A body is fished out one early morning and Xavier March is called in to investigate. So starts a story that ends up much bigger that anyone could have imagined. March, a member of the SS, who is not exactly the ideal National Socialist is a man who needs an excuse to turn rebel and this is a chance he gets as the story unfolds.
map_hitlersberlin
This is a story which is in many ways similar to Orwell’s 1984, in that  the state has become like Big Brother, except the level of technological surveillance has not not quite peaked yet (and unlike the terrifying spirit breaking world of 1984, the Third Reich simply kills you). March is similar to Winston Smith, with an undercurrent of rebellion and like Smith, March is lonely and desperate to seek even a glimpse of an alternate world.
What Harris does splendidly is that he creates an alternative world that is completely believable (Germany was close to getting an atom bomb at one time and them getting it is the turning point in this history). The way Hitler’s Germany permeated social life is shown here as it was – a society where children were taught that their loyalty lay first with the state and not with their parents. Harris, Robert
And I loved the portrayal of March – like Andrei Taganov in “We the Living”, he is a tragic hero who may have once believed but slowly and irrevocably becomes disillusioned  and in case of March, actively commits subversion against the state.
And I loved the ending – thank God it did not have a clichéd Hollywood ending, would have spoilt the whole feel of the book…
This is one book that may not have the power of 1984 but its not meant to be a social commentary. This is a book that is supposed to thrill you and set you to turn your pages. This the book does fantastically. You get to love the story, you get close to March and if you have even a passing interest in history, you would love the setting. Cheering for one of the SS is not something you can do everyday!!!

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hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-
Book Review, Humour, Science fiction

Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy (all 5 books) written by Douglas Adams

6a00c22521073e8e1d00d4142a15843c7f-500pi1 The thing with cult-classics which you have not read or seen is that you many times you feel let down by the end of it, having driven your expectations sky high before you started off. Something similar happened with me with Star wars after I finally decided to see all the six movies in one go (the first three were enjoyable, the last three were a let down)…it has something to do, I think, with the fact that many of the cult classics became such at a certain time and place and with the decades passing and with changing technology and sensibilities, things that might have seemed extraordinary become pedestrian or archaic…

So, it was with some trepidation that I started off with this hugely successful series – a series that started with a radio show, grew into a trilogy and then five books, spawned comic books, movies and two types of towels!!!

After having finished all the five, all i can say is that I don't remember633715261840117110-HitchhikersGuidetotheGalaxy having laughed so much except for “Three men on a boat” and “Yes Minister” series…and I have never read such veritable nonsense that strangely seems to make sense. Even though I knew that Adams had improvised while writing, which led to some contradictions, the storyline is solid enough to be a immensely rollicking ride. You have to suspend your belief of course and after the first few pages when the earth is destroyed, it is not really difficult to do so!!!!

What pops out of the pages are not something alien as such but things you can almost relate to but they happen in such bizarre combinations that they cant help but bring a grin to your face. The combinations of hitchhikers_guide_to_galaxy_2005_te such absurdities are just too numerous to recount but one thing for sure is that out of almost every page would come out something that can only be the product of a feverishly creative imagination taken notches higher by a haze of cannabis!!!

I think that the cake for the most unintentionally comical character in literature has to go to Arthur Dent!! if the best humour is created by contrasts, Dent’s perennially flummoxed character has to be one of the best examples. From the moment he is rescued by Ford Prefect by the use of a towel and had a fish stuffed in his ear, Dent goes unboldly where no man has ever gone before!!! Along with Ford, Zaphod, Marvin the depressed robot and Trillian, a fascinating and unlikely group is formed to trawl the universe. They are helped along with the encyclopaedically unreliable ‘Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy’.

The incidents and the stories and the sub stories are just too numerous to recount but something that I found fascinating was that in the total of 1000 odd pages that make up the five books, the humour never flags and you never lose interest, inspite of the absolute nonsense that seems to be going in the pages. Strangely for all that nonsense, you never once feel alienated from it or feel that its been too much. 10002005_the_hitchhickers_guide_to_the_galaxy_wallpaper_001 pages of utterly fascinating nonsense – that's quality writing!!!

How can you forget the question of meaning of life, the actual rulers of earth, the real message of dolphins, Gods last message, the origin of cricket and the reason why the rest of the universe hates earth, the real ancestors of earthlings and so on…if you want the answers to all these, turn the pages. You wont be disappointed with the answers though you might be a little more than surprised

If I have to pick the best out of the five, it would be difficult to do so, since each one has a character of its own. The first one is the most hitchhikers2 fascinating, probably because its the first of the series and you get almost a culture shock when you read it. The last one is pretty dark at the end…

For someone who goes through life without reading these, it would be a huge loss. These books redefine a genre of their own and the humour is right there among the top in world literature…

The review has to go on for atleast two dozen pages if the books have to be described properly in all their humorous glory. Better still to read them…

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Gods themselves Asimov
Book Review, Science fiction

The Gods Themselves written by Isaac Asimov

145838 This is a multiple award winning novel by Asimov which deals with the the concept of parallel universe. That theme and the title was what attracted me to this. The title comes from a quotation by Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805): "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens." ("Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.")

Its a story of how para-men (as earth began to call people from parallel universe) contacted men in order to construct an electron pump, a source of endless energy which is such an obvious boon that detractors are ostracised and any discussion on the possible side-effects are bowdlerized. As with other Asimov stories, this deals with the human nature and how technology affects us all…

The story moves in three parts with the middle part dealing with the para-universe and its inhabitants. This middle part is a feat in itself with Asimov constructing a whole other universe populated with beings we can barely relate to in the beginning. The first and third part deal withasimov the known universe, the last part taking place on moon…

Compared to other Asimov stories, this one left me a little cold, especially the last part, which seemed a little contrived and hurried. The ‘solution’ to the problem did not seem as elegant as it is in his other stories. And the middle part was not exciting, though interesting. The pace that is there in his other stories seemed missing. The characters are also forgettable, which is something that is constant in his other books…

Having said that, the theme is engaging and the writing is very Asimov…enough reason for a read…

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