"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My Unexpectedly Romantic Visit with 'Imperial Earth'

Imperial EarthImperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unexpectedly romantic are the words that describe Imperial Earth. For many years I have known this novel only by its title. Based on that title, I had assumed the novel would feel bold and grandiose in every respect. So I was not prepared for how unexpectedly intimate and introspective it is.

If novels like 2001 and Rendezvous with Rama are operas, Imperial Earth is more of a play. And I love a good play. Get me musing about deep aspects of humanity and science, and I will pardon the absence of a climactic spectacle. That is not to say that Imperial Earth lacks adventure. The first third of the novel, depicting life on Titan and a voyage to Earth in 2276 (think Quincentennial) is enthralling.

The ideas and themes of Imperial Earth are similar to 2001 and Rendezvous with Rama. But those novels portray actual ‘first contact’ scenarios. Imperial Earth explores why we haven’t had first contact and might never. Hence, the novel delivers a generally bittersweet portrait of humanity as a species who is as likely to fizzle out as blow itself to smithereens. However, I am not saying the novel is a universal downer.

As a serious Arthur C. Clarke fan, I relished how he explores the potential of radio technology along with the continued relevance of the oceans to humanity’s potential. Clarke masterfully weaves them together to develop the plot and leave readers pondering. The result is a surprisingly poetic lesson about how the frontiers of the past can become the decadent cesspools of the present.

This is also one of the more prophetic of Clarke’s novels. Written in the 70s, Clarke is already able to anticipate the long-term decline in pioneering that will--and did--follow the Apollo space program. And though he lacks the vernacular of “smart phones”, Clarke tellingly depicts an Earth culture that has developed a fetish-level dependence on communications technology.

I can’t say that I felt this novel was a masterpiece, but neither would I dare regard it as one of Clarke’s lesser works. Imperial Earth is high-quality science fiction. Clarke grapples with humankind’s potential by depicting the external and internal stumbling blocks we must overcome to succeed as a species…or rather, to continue succeeding.

Bottom line: If you are a Clarke fan, don’t miss this one. It might not wind up your favorite, but Imperial Earth is Arthur C. Clarke in his prime—both as a novelist and a thinker.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sailing Melville's Fateful Ocean of a Novel

Moby-Dick or, The WhaleMoby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to this novel a cynical man. And when I had slogged about two-thirds of the way through Moby Dick, I started drafting a cynical review. It went something like this:

If the film Rocky had been written by Herman Melville, the first 14 rounds of the big fight would involve Rocky and Apollo Creed dancing around the ring, sermonizing at great length on the glory of being gallant gladiators, all the while never throwing a punch. Finally, in the 15th round, Rocky’s cranky old manager Micky, fed up with the endless posturing, would jump in the ring and take a swing at Apollo. And as Apollo proceeds to kick the crap out of the old man, Rocky would hide in his trusty spit bucket. The End.

Moby Dick is a problematic novel. And now that I have read the whole thing, that makes me ache inside. Because I wonder if Melville went to his grave knowing just how close he came to writing the undisputed great American epic. He did not, but he came very close.

Though the central story is classic--and hopefully the iconic image of vengeful Ahab chasing the white whale will forever be imbedded in American culture--the novel itself is not an indisputable masterpiece. Nothing that is as rambling, verily overflowing with encyclopedic tedium, can be called an indisputable masterpiece—at least, not if it is graded as a novel.

Much of Moby Dick is historical and cultural discourse about whaling. These extensive diversions deprive the plot of needed rhythm and flow until late in the novel. What is more, Melville’s sentimental, alliteration-laden prose reads overly extravagant by contemporary standards. His writing also betrays an antiquated attitude--hopefully antiquated--toward issues of race and gender. This too undercuts the novel’s timelessness, and thus its eligibility to be the undisputed great American epic.

All that said, in the last hundred pages, Melville makes it all worth it. This section moved me as much as any book I have ever read. And had I not sailed two-thirds of the way round the world with Ishmael talking my ear off about whaling trivia, I don’t think I would have been as mesmerized as I became. When the Pequod finally reached the haunted whaling grounds of the Pacific, I, like the weary crew, was ready to see Ahab’s obsessive quest to its end, come what may.

In Melville’s defense, this novel is strewn with brilliant proverbial gems. I did a lot of underlining in my Borders Classics edition. In particular, the opening paragraph is a phenomenal preamble. I plan to read this novel again, free of the distraction of expectations. For though it requires a fisherman’s patience, I consider it a privilege to set sail with Melville. His epic expertly captures the American spirit and ego in all their strength and vulnerability. If you have not slogged through Moby Dick, you have missed something special.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Educational Incentive Behind Solar Sails

For this post, I'm happy to turn the reins of writing over to a young lady, an 11-year-old one. Victoria Robinson recently had her essay about solar sailing published online by The Planetary Society. The essay relates her experience of attending a Solar Sail Symposium in New York City.

Victoria's essay isn't simply a kid's take on science. It's also an account of how education and volunteerism have provided her with many great father-daughter moments, including a trip to The Big Apple to meet tennis superstar Venus Williams. She also got a chance to visit with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Lastly, this post is part of a series I am doing dedicated to solar sailing. Here are my previous posts on the subject:

Harnessing "The Wind From the Sun"
Come Sail Away with Bradbury and Post...and Me

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Childe Jake Narrowly Avoids Overturned Election Booth

As Reported by the Associative Press:

In one of the first upsets of the 2010 General Election, Childe Jake upset the table his makeshift voter booth was situated on. The tri-fold cardboard divider, erected to ensure voter privacy, sat on a narrow table in the community center where Washtenaw County residents vote.

Late in the process of filling in bubbles on his ballot, Jake reportedly applied enough pressure on his pen to cause the tabletop to tip toward him. This in turn sent the privacy divider rushing towards his face.

Said the amateur blogger, "I was voting on County Proposal A to preserve natural areas and I guess I got a little excited."

An expert on tabletops that have not been properly fastened down says an incident like this was bound to happen sooner or later. "Given how hard Jake was pressing down on the ballot with his pen, I'm not surprised the tri-fold privacy divider catapulted toward his face with such velocity."

Election officials at the small-town polling station confirmed that the near collapse of Jake's voting booth caused a loud enough ruckus that all dozen or so people in the room stopped what they were doing and stared.

Said one election employee, "I just figured...Gosh. Voters really are angry."

Jake was able to right the cardboard divider and complete his voting without further incident.