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RIP Ray Bradbury

6 Jun

Awarding-winning and groundbreaking science fiction writer Ray Bradbury has died today at age 91. It is a sad, sad day for the literary and science fiction world. Even if you’re not a science fiction fan, he was an extremely influential writer whose work influenced much of the genre today. You will always be remembered here at Better Know a Book.

Updated: The New Yorker has released his short piece “Inspiration for ‘The Fire Balloons'” that was in this week’s Sci Fi issue. It’s a beautiful piece and more than worth a read. Here is why science fiction is no less of a realistic genre than any other.

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A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

14 Apr

My attempt to grapple with large, looming life decisions as I enter (or maybe just continue upon) the end-of-college-stress-craze has meant a lot of nostalgia recently. That’s good for this blog (which has sometimes been left by the wayside) especially when looking to my young adult years to figure out how exactly I got to where I am. And recently, I’ve been revisiting the always lovely and fascinating Madeleine L’Engle, especially A Wrinkle in Time. It’s a near-perfect science fiction/fantasy in my mind: fun, mysterious, a little bit romantic, setting up a world that’s easy to step inside. I remember being so very taken by this book, and truly being breathless at certain passages.

The book is also totally underrated, especially given the “Doctor Who,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and other sci-fi crazes that’ve been around lately. If you haven’t delved into L’Engle, you should. She truly is amazing.

Published:1962

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Quick Read?: Yes.

Difficulty: Not very difficult, though it does take place in (an)other dimension(s), so there can be a lot of detail to pick up on.

Synopsis: This book quite literally begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Our heroine Meg can’t sleep because of it, and neither can her brother Charles Wallace, her mother, or her strange neighbor, Mrs Whatsit. As they sit around drinking hot chocolate, Mrs Whatsit tells Meg’s mother “there is such thing as a tesseract,” causing Meg’s mother to faint. It turns out Meg’s father, a scientist who went missing, disappeared while trying to find this tesseract. The next day Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s friend-turned-love-interest decide they must go to try and rescue her father with the help of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, who teach them that a tesseract is a fifth-dimensional way of folding space and time in order to visit different planets and worlds (the “wrinkling” of time). As the children travel with Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, they learn that the universe is slowly being taken over by The Black Thing, and that they must try to stop it to not only save their planet, but each other as well.

What makes this book awesome?: I’ve always thought A Wrinkle in Time is a perfect marriage of science fiction, fantasy, and actual science. I can’t speak for “real science,” being that science is not one of my strong suits, but the idea of the tesseract comes from principles around “wormholes,” an actual idea in physics. Then there were the elements of science woven into the story, as well as alien planets and societies (I still get nightmares about Camazotz, the last place they visit in the book. It’s incredibly spooky and scary) that feel real, especially given the science L’Engle is working with even though this is primarily fiction. All of this is combined with fantasy too–Charles Wallace has some almost psychic abilities, their absent father becomes a mysterious background figure, and what saves them all in the end (not really a spoiler) is done with the power of love. Sci-fi/fantasy can be tough to differentiate, but L’Engle weaves them all together beautifully.

Similar to other science fiction/fairy tales that were aimed at children, the journey these children take is one that is universal–it’s a quest to see how far love can really go, whether or not love can really conquer all. This can be seen in the Harry Potter series, perhaps even in The Lord of the Rings series, yet there is something about L’Engle where it hits home even harder for me. I’m sure you could chalk this up to my own personal affection for the book, but still. Perhaps fantasy and science fiction is more about where science and emotion meet, and how far they can run together or apart.

Mrs Madeleine "I will write what I please" L'Engle

Some neat-o facts:

  • As I stated above, the idea of the tesseract is based on wormholes as they are known in physics. Maybe if the tesseracts were a little more whimsical, like the TARDIS in “Doctor Who,” people would be as excited about them as they are about traveling through time in a TARDIS.
  • Apparently characters on the TV show “Lost” were seen reading A Wrinkle in Time, prompting a group of avid “Lost” fans to read it. They even got L’Engle to have a discussion with them about the show and the book. Who said being an avid TV fan meant you didn’t read?
  • L’Engle has made it clear that her books are based on her interest in her own Christian faith and modern scientific knowledge. Interestingly, some Christian bookstores felt her books were not “suitable” to be sold and refused to stock them, and the books were even banned in some schools and libraries. Secular readers often panned her works for being “too religious.” I suppose you can’t please everyone.

If you like this, try: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, or Many Waters by L’Engle; the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling; War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

26 Jul

I’m thrilled to post Better Know a Book’s first guest post today by Andrew Coletti on H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds! Very timely, especially given the recent closing of the NASA space program. I must admit I myself know very little about science fiction, but now I’m wondering if I’ve been missing out. So whether you’re a bona fide sci-fi nerd bumming out about missing Comic-Con this week, or you loved fantasy books when you were younger, or you just want to read something different, maybe try diving into some Wells (no, not an actual well, you’re not baby Jessica).

Published: 1898

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Quick Read?: Yes. It’s short and action-packed, with a lot of cliff-hangers to keep you turning pages.

Difficulty: Not very. There’s some technical exposition here and there by scientist characters, but it’s nothing that presumes you have a background in science (I certainly don’t).

Synopsis: Mars is a barren red waste, her resources nearly exhausted, but she has a neighbor with lush vegetation and wide blue seas—a planet which Mars’ inhabitants find ripe for the taking. In cylindrical ships fired into space by giant cannons on the surface of their desert world, the Martians come to Earth. They bear with them the seeds of an invasive red weed and horrific weapons, the product of technology more advanced than anything humanity has ever seen. Once they arrive on the island of Britain, they ignore attempts at peaceful communication from Earth’s native inhabitants, unleashing their military power and their landscape-transforming plant with equal aplomb. Meanwhile, our unnamed narrator embarks on a harrowing journey to escape the Martian conquest of earth with his own life. Along the way he makes friends and enemies among the many human fugitives he encounters, and struggles to comprehend a once-familiar world steadily being twisted beyond recognition.

What makes this book awesome?: Science fiction as we know it today owes a tremendous debt to this book, and to H. G. Wells in general (this is the man who invented the term “time machine” we’re talking about here). The War of the Worlds is so deep in our modern scifi mythos that any first-time reader will find it strangely familiar: from the laser weapons and giant walking war-bots to the malevolent Martians more brain than body. These and other ideas have become classic science fiction tropes, endlessly imitated and reinterpreted, but they all started in the imagination of H. G. Wells.

The fact that it pretty much founded the alien invasion story isn’t the only reason The War of the Worlds is worth reading; it also asks some very interesting questions about human arrogance and superiority. Born into an impoverished lower-class family, Wells was acutely aware that the society he lived in evaluated individuals based on their social standing. Wells’ novel has been read as a critique of the Victorian preoccupation with class and rank and the related doctrines of Social Darwinism, colonialism and imperialism. In Wells’ novel it is the English themselves who are “colonized”. But as Wells asks in the first chapter of The War of the Worlds: given the brutal conquests and exterminations that the human race has been responsible for, “are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit”? What happens when those who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as superior and advanced meet beings unquestionably more advanced than they? What happens to a society given a taste of its own medicine?

Aliens don't scare Wells, no siree.

Some neat-o facts:

  • American physicist Robert H. Goddard developed an interest in outer space and started trying to build a functional rocket after reading The War of the Worlds at age 16. Goddard went on to invent the first liquid fuel-powered rocket, and his research laid the groundwork for modern space travel. So you might say that this book is indirectly responsible for the Space Age.
  • The first radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, narrated in the USA by Orson Welles (no relation; note the extra E) on Halloween night, 1938, caused one of the most celebrated cases of mass hysteria in history because it was presented as an actual news report, with the British setting of the original novel changed to New Jersey. It’s unclear how many Americans actually believed that Martians were attacking and fled their homes in panic, but the incident became an immediate global media sensation, even drawing comment from Adolf Hitler (he saw it as evidence of the weakness of democratic society). When Welles-with-two-Es and Wells-with-one-E discussed the results of the broadcast on radio two years later, Wells-with-one-E seemed disbelieving and perhaps a little embarrassed.
  • In addition to being a writer of just about everything, Herbert George “Bertie” Wells was a teacher, an outspoken socialist, a lady-killer (he had illegitimate children by several different women and left his wife/cousin Isabel for one of his students), and in general a lovable old curmudgeon. He also had a knack for predicting the future. We’re still waiting on that Martian invasion, but the wait is over for spaceships, “heat rays” and chemical weapons. Other future predictions of his that have come true include automatic doors, antigravity technology, manned moon landings, and World War II. When asked what he wanted written on his tombstone, an elderly Wells reportedly said, “Damn you all, I told you so”. That quote alone should give you an idea of what H. G. Wells was like. My other favorite Wells quote: “Queen Victoria was like a great paperweight that for half a century sat upon men’s minds, and when she was removed their ideas began to blow all over the place haphazardly.”

If you like this, try: Any of Wells’ other novels/novellas, particularly The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift shares with much of Wells’ work the device of inhuman, fantastical creatures and their societies as a means of social commentary, although Swift is much less violent and more lighthearted than Wells ever was. For more groundbreaking Victorian scifi, try Jules Verne or Hugo Gernsback, both of whom are called, along with H. G. Wells, “The Father of Science Fiction” (three fathers and no mother? Sounds like science fiction to me).

 

 

Andrew Coletti has been reading and attempting to write science fiction, fantasy, and mythology for as long as he can remember (although he would like you to know that he does, from time to time, read other stuff too). His other interests include traveling as much as possible, the ancient world, and drag performance/theater in general. Some of his favorite authors in no particular order include H. G. Wells, William Blake, Philip Pullman, C. S. Lewis, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Neil Gaiman, and Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket.

He can be reached at betterknowabook@gmail.com. Interested in contributing? See the tab at the top of this page.