In the 70s and early 80s, a friend of mine found himself living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, after college. Before he was (apparently) murdered by a vengeful former lover who was (apparently) a member of a crime family, he wrote a science-fiction novel. It’s got rich imperious Americans voyaging through the solar system on a luxurious cruise ship, crafty Mexicans who pilot a dilapidated spacecraft and pretend to be priests when it’s useful, a heroine of sorts who’s young and smart and pretty and stuck-up but somewhat likable anyway, a secret society, a ghost, terrorists, and a character from a Stendhal novel—plus, among other grace notes, an unmanned space probe sent back with improvements by an unknown alien civilization. I’ve got the novel. Wanna read it?
Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot, and his office is the cockpit of a 747. In this entrancing book, published in 2015, he evokes cloudscapes and sunsets and night skies, the complexities of navigation, the sophistication of the machine he operates (a veritable collaborator that even speaks at critical moments), the knowledge of other cities that accumulates from repeated brief visits, the challenge of “place lag,” and his deepened sense of home as “the place that, wherever I am flying, I know I will return to and be still.” The structure—an unbroken collection of short sections (a paragraph or two, a few pages) grouped by chapter into broad subjects such as “Lift,” “Wayfinding,” “Water,” and “Night”—conveys his experience in an episodic but fluid way, as a succession of observations and meditations and reminiscences in which present and past interweave: I am here; I am thinking about such-and-such; once I did this; often this happens to me. He is always in the middle of things, even when describing departures or arrivals; alert equally to the outer world and the inner, he keeps encountering marvels.
We enter Everything Belongs to the Future, Laurie Penny’s new science-fiction novella (published in October), by way of a letter from prison. From the first page, then, Penny’s book may put us in mind of other reports from confinement such as Oscar Wilde’s, or Antonio Gramsci’s, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, and those writers’ concerns with how we treat the thing we love, what we rebel against, what we believe in—with trust, and justice, and a form of faith—will prove to be Penny’s concerns as well. This particular letter speaks in a woman’s voice, though we don’t know that at first—this one, like the others that punctuate the book, is unsigned, and we only gradually suspect which of the story’s characters is writing—and it speaks retrospectively, hinting darkly at “the awful, terrible thing we did” and other past events. Within the chronology of the story, then, this is a letter from the future, prompting the question of what came before, and the book itself also speaks from a point in time ahead of us; that letter is dated December 5, 2098. Continue reading
James Gleick is the most elegant of companions. His tours take you places you probably wouldn’t have thought were related, much as James Burke did in his television series Connections. In Time Travel, his most recent book, Gleick comes to grips with time, our scientific understanding of it, our view of history, and our cultural fascination with ways of moving through time, whether in memory or through science fiction. Guests on the itinerary include H. G. Wells and Hugo Gernsback, Isaac Asimov and Kingsley Amis, Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein, Robert Heinlein and David Foster Wallace, E. M. Forster and Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino, Kurt Gödel and Lee Smolin. The subjects include time travel itself and time capsules and time messaging, clocks and determinism and alternative histories. (Maria Popova, in her post on the book, calls it “a most exquisitely annotated compendium of the body of time literature.” Popova neglects to mention that she’s named in Gleick’s acknowledgments and presumably shaped the discussion, and as usual all of her links lead only to other entries on her own site, but her post is a thorough and enjoyable celebration of Gleick’s book.) It’s both informative and fun, yet it feels a little diffuse, as if all these ideas are more familiar and more clearly connected than in some of Gleick’s other books but yield less readily to new insights. Continue reading
A long writing project has occupied me for much of this weekend. Hence no brilliant, probing, and thoughtful post today—nor any other kind either, except for a few quick notes.
On Friday night, a friend and I saw the new science-fiction film Arrival. Our capsule judgment is that it’s not bad, but it’s not very good either. It seems at times to want to be a Terence Malick film but misses, and it accomplishes too little in the time it occupies. However, I highly recommend the story on which it’s based, “Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang, first published in 1998 (and when you read it, pay attention to the verb tenses). Continue reading
In the ars gratia artis view, works of art are their own end and shouldn’t serve any external purpose, but most of us use art all the time. J. S. Bach composed a piece of music, now known as the Goldberg Variations, that was reportedly meant to occupy the restless mind of a patron while he tried to get to sleep. More recently, composer Max Richter (whom I wrote about here) crafted an eight-hour-long project called Sleep, which is meant to be heard while sleeping. Continue reading
Astrophysicist and author Janna Levin has a good nose. In the late naughts, catching a rising swell of attention to Alan Turing as the centenary of his birth drew near, she wrote a novel that intertwined his life with that of logician Kurt Gödel, which she called, with a knack for alluring but sometimes twisty language, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Sure, anyone could’ve looked up the date of Turing’s birth, but few would’ve guessed he’d soon be the subject of a major American film. A few years later, again with an anniversary looming, Levin decided to chronicle the decades-long effort to catch a new kind of wave, and she began interviewing major participants, visiting laboratories, and compiling an account to be published sometime in 2016, 100 years after Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves. It’s as if (pardon the illogical analogy) somebody had said in 1492, “Hey, I think I’ll go to the Bahamas in case any Europeans turn up.” On February 10 of this year, not many people knew of these waves; on the 11th, the world was set on its ear, so to speak, by the announcement that they’d been heard, and Levin’s book, already on its way to print, was simply rescheduled to come out in March. She didn’t know how the story would end; the entire book is written from the standpoint of an open question. But she was there with the backstory just when we wanted it.