Category Archives: Books

Selected Stories of Philip K Dick

Warning! Possible spoilers follow (though I will try to keep them to a minimum).

Philip K Dick is one of the more influential science fiction writers, probably ever. His stories have been the inspiration for a number of popular movies, including the Minority Report and Total Recall. They envision a technologically advanced world where what it means to be human is blurred. Many of his stories explore a post-apocolyptic world in which humans are struggling to survive.

The collection Selected Stories of Philip K Dick presents some of his best short stories, including the ones the two movies above were based on. All of his stories cause one to think. Dick lived during the height of the cold war, when the possibility of human self-destruction was at its highest and on the minds of nearly everyone. That, combined with some drug use, led Dick’s imagination to places that are incredible and mind-blowing. Some of his stories are just plain weird. This was epitomized for me by “The Days of Perky Pat”, a story of adults after a nuclear war who spend their times reliving their pre-war lives through the board-game adventures of a doll. The story is just so odd that I could not imagine thinking of such a premise. I mean, some stories, both by Dick and by others, involve a simple premise which the author then explores. The premise isn’t always too radical, it might be something that anyone could dream up. But “Perky Pat” isn’t one of those, at least to me. This story is the product of a mind that just plain sees the world differently.

Not only have Dick’s stories directly inspired mainstream movies, but there are obvious influences his stories have had in a lot of science fiction. The human-looking Cylons of Battlestar Galactica bear an uncanny resemblance to the machines of “Second Variety”, in which a human soldier, at the end, muses that the end of his race might be ok because the robots are already killing one another, already becoming human-like. Some of his stories, such as “Paycheck” (which also inspired a movie), are interesting adventure romps.  All of Dick’s stories, though, convey a unique view of the world, human’s place in it, and the ultimate fate of humanity.

That Dick’s stories provide such an incredible perspective on the human condition begs the question:  how instrumental was his drug use in his ability to devise these stories? It seems to me that many of the great artists, not just authors but painters, musicians, and so on, throughout history used drugs to some extent.  Does this allow a normal human mind to access thoughts and regions of the brain otherwise unaccessible?  Does it allow a person to make connections between otherwise seemingly random ideas to create something new?  If all drug use were completely eliminated, would art suffer?  I personally don’t advocate the use of drugs, but it seems to me that the connections between mind-altering substances and art are pretty strong.

I really enjoyed all of Dick’s stories, even those that start exploring more religious themes.  At least a couple of his stories involve direct interaction between humans and God, with less than predictable results.  But, I was more interested in his commentary on technology and the future of human kind.  I tend not to be a science fiction type of person.  I prefer fantasy.  But, I do enjoy what is termed “cyberpunk” (such as William Gibson and Max Barry) and Dick is a precursor to the cyberpunk genre.   He explores a more immediate future than a Star Wars or Star Trek universe does, though, unlike Gibson and Barry, he does allow aliens in his world.  And the role that aliens play in his world tends to be very disturbing.

I’ll close by saying that a lot of the stories in this collection deal with identity:  what it means to be you, what it means to be human, what separates humans from machines, etc.  These will be important questions as our machines become smarter and smarter and start getting aspects of personality, intelligence and identity.  He also addresses the issues of the individual in society and what role each of us plays in an increasingly technological world.  Again, these questions will become only more important with time.  It thus seems that Dick and his work will continue to reverberate for quite some time.

The Poe Shadow

Matthew Pearl specializes in a somewhat particular sub-genre of fiction, namely historical fiction.  His first book, The Dante Club, was about Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno to English, which is historical fact.  He adds, though, a series of gruesome murders seemingly based upon the Inferno which Longfellow and his fellow poets must muster up the courage to solve.  It was a very enjoyable book, fast paced and a bit violent.

Pearl’s newest offering is The Poe Shadow.  Again, it is an actual historical fact, the death of Edgar Allan Poe, that is the catalyst for the story.  And the events of the novel, centering on Quentin Clark, are entirely fictional.  Or, are they?  This novel is more than a fictional account of what might have happened to Poe in Baltimore in 1849.  It is Pearl’s hypothesis on what happened, developed after much careful research and the unearthing of new facts connected to Poe’s death.  That he chooses to present his theory in a novel rather than a journal seems to be due more to his desire to use fiction to present his theory than any real weakness in what he has uncovered.

Quentin, a lawyer in Baltimore, is somewhat obsessed with Poe and his writings.  Upon Poe’s death, which is very mysterious, Quentin takes it upon himself, with no small cost to his career and reputation, to uncover what happened to Poe.  This takes him to Paris, where he finds the supposed inspirations for one of Poe’s most famous characters, the detective C. Auguste Dupin.  Much adventure follows as Quentin and the detective return to Baltimore and try to uncover the truth behind Poe’s death before a charlatan beats them to it, or, worse yet, reveals some fictional account of Poe’s death that is believed more than the truth.

There are many subtle twists and turns that occur as Quentin discovers small facts about what happened to Poe during the mysterious 5 days between his first setting foot in Baltimore and his death.  The one unfortunate aspect of the novel, for me, was that the “truth” is revealed at the end of the novel in a very expository way.  The final story behind Poe’s death is related by the detective, Auguste Duponte, in a relatively dry account.  That the hypothesis had to be directly narrated to Quentin, and thus the reader, in this way was somewhat anti-climactic.

However, overall, the book was very interesting and the theory on Poe’s death proposed by Pearl makes good sense, mostly for the fact that it is not sensationalist at all.  All of the mysterious facts surrounding Poe’s death are attributed to relatively minor occurances, each of which, individually, are nothing extraordinary.  It is the accumulation of such details that lead to the mystery surrounding Poe’s demise.

Harry Poutter

So, during our road trip to Oregon, Lisa and I listened to the 5th Harry Potter book on tape, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was the first direct exposure I’ve had to anything Harry Potter. I haven’t read any of the books and I haven’t seen any of the movies. I’ve sort of avoided them. Not so much because I dislike them, but more because I’m not so interested in them either. Because of the mania associated with the product, I’ve just stayed away. But, we had a long drive and it seemed like a good idea to listen to something, and Harry Potter was as good as anything.

First, I must say, I guess I do understand what people see in the Harry Potter world. The story is pretty captivating, though it does seem to dwell on details and side plots that don’t advance the story much. Though, in the end, most of those seemingly tangential story lines do end up coming back into the main narrative and making a difference. And, I did want to listen to the whole story, all the way to the end, which tells you something about how interesting the story was.

I read some reviews on this book on Wikipedia. There were a lot of interesting and odd analyses of the story and the Harry Potter universe in general. There are some saying that since the main characters are all men, the universe is anti-feminist, especially when considering that some loathesome characters, such as Umbridge, are female. Others say that the books are subversive, celebrating youthful rebellion and the bucking of authority.

I didn’t see that much at all. In fact, I took the opposite from the story. Almost everything that happened in Order of the Phoenix was the direct result of Harry bucking authority, but in a bad way. Much of the story concerns his punishment at the hands of Umbridge, but he is punished because he can’t keep his mouth shut. In the end, the climax of the story is the direct result of Harry’s impatience at his situation. He feels like he knows everything and doesn’t trust or believe the adults around him. That is fine, but it is his defiance of those adults that lead to most of the events of the plot, events that often turn out disasterously. If Harry were just a bit more patient and didn’t mouth off and just relaxed, not much would have happened in the story. In short, it seemed to me that the whole story was driven by Harry’s short temper. If he was even keeled, there would have been no story. The story seems to be a lesson against the impetuousness of youth.

Even so, I enjoyed the story. I’m not going to go out of my way to read more, but I won’t avoid the opportunities to see a movie or listen to another chapter of the Harry saga.

Syrup by Maxx Barry

As you might guess by some of the postings on this site, I have a little problem with some features of our modern, consumerist society. And, directly related to that is how marketing is so tied into our psyches that we are almost literally forced to buy things we have no need of, but want nonetheless. Marketing is the engine that drives our consumer-based economy.

I first encountered Maxx Barry through his novel Jennifer Government. This is about a not-too-distant future in which we identify so strongly with the brands we consume, that we actually take our names from who we work for. Thus, Jennifer works for the Government. It is a scathing view of our market-driven world.

Syrup, in contrast, could take place today or tomorrow. Or even yesterday. It is about a young marketing major, who has renamed or, better said, rebranded himself as Scat, as that is cooler than the name he was given by his parents. He comes up with a million-dollar idea and tries to sell it to Coke, via one of their marketing people, a woman named 6. Scat is screwed out of his millions and thus begins his long path to success and his quest to win 6’s heart.

The novel is about how marketing is used to sell us things we don’t want, don’t need, but are convinced we should have. It is about the role of marketing in society and, as such, is sprinkled with marketing examples that, I presume, are from real-world marketing text books. These examples are pretty blatant in their assumption of the low intelligence levels of the masses. The scary thing is that most of these examples actually work. It would seem we are sheep waiting for someone to tell us something, anything, to do to make our lives just a little bit better.

Eventually, Scat ends up in a struggle with his nemesis, who is also at Coke, and who has put Scat into an impossible situation to succeed. Even though we are pretty confident that Scat will succeed (most protagonists do seem to succeed most of the time), how he will pull it off is always uncertain. This leads to enough tension and suspense that the reader is sucked in. And we are never quite sure how Scat’s relationship with 6 will turn out.

As a commentary on the role of marketing and advertising in our society, I find this and Jennifer Government to be extremely interesting and, might I say, insightful. I think that if we truly realized how much we are manipulated by marketing, we would be appalled.

I am reminded of the lawsuits against the fast food industry for causing obesity. I find these lawsuits pretty damn annoying, because I think that, as a society, we don’t take enough responsibility for our actions. However, I also believe that the fast food industry isn’t innocent. They know more about how we think and feel than we do, and they play to our human instincts to, in some sense, force us to want their product. In some real sense, I think we can’t help ourselves, and these companies are more responsible for some of the ills that face our country than we or they are willing to admit. While we absolutely need to be responsible for our own actions, companies need to be responsible for manipulating our emotions and desires for their own profit.

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya: A Life by Evan S Connell

Read: May-June, 2007

Goya is probably my favorite artist of all time, for two principle reasons. First, he is of Basque origin. In fact, his ancestors (either his grandfather or his great-grandfather) was from the town of Zerain, Gipuzkoa. My mom’s grandfather, Blas Telleria, was from Mutiloa, Gipuzkoa, which is right next door. In doing some research on my genealogy, I found that one of my ancestors was named Blas de Goya, also from Mutiloa. Thus, it seems to me that there is a small chance that Goya and I are “cousins”. Which I find sort of cool.

The second reason I like Goya is because I just plain like his art. Most of it I don’t appreciate much at all. It seems that half of art can only be appreciated in context. In the case of Goya, his paintings of the Spanish royal family, for example, seem to be lauded because he didn’t idealize his subjects and that was radical for his time. For me, it doesn’t seem all that exciting and I don’t really find all that much of interest in those paintings. However, his Black Paintings and many of his etchings are just plain fascinating. I was lucky enough to find a used copy of his complete etchings at Powell’s in Portland. Especially those dealing with the Spanish war with Napoleon I find very interesting. Goya depictions of humanity’s dark side are, in my mind, still unparalleled.

Some of my favorite paintings by Goya include Saturn Eating his Son, the Third of May, and The Colossus.

I just finished reading Evan Connell’s biography of Goya, entitled, simply, Francisco Goya: A Life. Rather than get into all of the minute details of Goya’s life, Connell rather puts Goya’s life into the context of Spanish society of the time. That is, we get to know Goya as much through his interactions with Spanish royalty as through his own deeds. Connell goes on a number of tangents dealing with important Spaniards of the time and their goings on. We learn a lot about the sexual conduct of certain powerful women of the time, partially because these women, including the Queen of Spain, determined so much in the life of people like Goya. I think part of the reason these women feature so prominently, though, is because of the titillation factor.

Connell’s style is very familiar. At first, this was a bit off-putting; it was almost too familiar. But after a while, I became accustomed to his style and actually really enjoyed it. Sometimes, the style makes it hard to follow what Connell is talking about. He uses very colloquial phrases and terms and writes as if he is talking with the reader rather than writing an authoritative biography on his subject.

This is the first book specifically on Goya I have read and it may be that part of the reason that Connell digresses on so many other people is because there just isn’t that much known about Goya himself. I just don’t know. For whatever reason, because of this style, we learn a bit less about Goya the man and a good deal about the Spain in which he resided, the Spain that shaped him and his art. We learn about the foibles of the nobility, the misery of the peasants, and the horrors of war. Thus, as a book on Goya, it maybe leaves a little to be desired. But, as both an account of Spain in the later 1700s and as an entertaining romp through history in its own right, this is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to any Spanish history buff.