Tag Archives: Book Review

“Dark Age Ahead” by Jane Jacobs

The last significant work from the late Jane Jacobs, written just a few years before her death, Dark Age Ahead seems like an odd anomaly in the fossil record.

I recall it being critically panned, as indeed was the general reception, to the extent it was really noticed. Perhaps some critics who felt awkward, about being too harsh on an elderly figure whose earlier work they considered important, found politely ignoring Dark Age Ahead easier.

More recently I have noticed one or two reappraisals, though I don’t recall the details offhand. They got me thinking about the book, though, and curious to check it out now that I have a bit of time available.

It is, I think, an interesting and odd historic artifact.

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More Sequels to The Time Machine

For my 41st birthday I received a splendid copy of Time Machine II, among other things. I quite appreciate this; it’s long out of print and seems to command something of a premium online. It’s also a very enjoyable novel.

This seems to be a sequel to an earlier film adaptation from the same author, George Pal, rather than a sequel to H.G. Wells’s novel. But the differences are minor. Overall it’s well plotted and well written, with something of a wrenching ending which is mildly thought provoking and at all events an audacious curveball to throw at the reader.

Time Machine II probably ranks among my favorite three or four of the various sequels to The Time Machine which I have read so far.

Of others which I have read in the four years since my first post about this minor hobby:

  • The Space Machine by Christopher Priest is a good novel, though it has more connections with War of the Worlds than with The Time Machine.
  • Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter also involves little time travel, no Time Traveler, and even the Morlocks are fairly replaceable and undefined baddies—but they play that role in an Arthurian steampunk story which is quite entertaining.
  • Given their mutual presence in 1890s London, someone had to bring together Sherlock Holmes and the Time Traveler eventually. “The Richmond Enigma” by John DeChancie, published in the 1995 anthology Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, does so. The story is something of an also-ran among many better works in the anthology. It offers little beyond a by-the-numbers acting-out of its central meetup. The most imaginative feature is a brief coda, which adds value to the story, but in something of a tacked-on fashion.
  • Wikipedia does not yet list the above short story, but it does list a kind of “bonus scene” added to an Illustrated Classics adaptation by Shirley Bogart. For what it’s worth, I came across a copy of this at the Bookshop in Lakewood so I have read it as well.

Having read 10 of these derivative works, now, are there any general statements which come to mind?

Let’s see, Morlocks seem to be nearly as interesting to authors as the time machine itself. They feature in at least half of these stories, and apparently in others which I have not yet read, as well. They feature in two stories from which the Time Traveler himself is absent.

Even though the Eloi get much more space in the original novel, they seem to interest other authors considerably less, with the exception of Weena. A persistent desire seems to exist to give the Time Traveler another chance with his doomed admirer of the future; this is natural enough I suppose, since it’s time travel, but I have to say that multiple authors’ proposal that the Time Traveler had a sexual relationship with Weena is a little unsettling. In the original story, Weena seems childlike in both physical and intellectual development, so it would be a real stretch to imagine consent here. It’s also unconvincing that human and Eloi, separated by 800,000 years, could reproduce.

Nearly every author who picks up the story of the Time Traveler starts from the premise that he returned to the distant future of 802,701, though. The ending of the original story does not give any clear indication of when the Time Traveler intended to go for proof of time travel. Yet I suppose that this preference, too, is natural enough: the distant futures described in The Time Machine are unique to it, whereas there’s little incentive to write a journey into the past as a Time Machine sequel.

Most elements in the original story, other than the denizens of 802,701, seem to offer more work than opportunity for a writer. The story, like most stories of Sherlock Holmes, is told through an intermediary. This has created something of a smaller version of “the game” played in many derivative works about Holmes: what backstory about a rediscovered manuscript shall the author concoct to frame his or her primary story?

Unlike Holmes, though, the Time Traveler is also a much less completely developed character. His unknown name is just the most prominent example of this.

I suppose it’s a testament to the story, and to Wells’s larger reputation, that such a relative plethora of authors have been drawn nonetheless to speculate on the unresolved fate of the Time Traveler, as well as the natures of Eloi and Morlock.

First 15 Lives of Harry August

It has been another interesting year, and broader notes about that are coming.

Among the many interesting experiences in 2015, though, I feel like recalling one remarkable book in particular: The First 15 Lives of Harry August, by Claire North aka Catherine Webb.

This was excellent on multiple levels. First, I found it a simple compelling page-turner. It’s also very cinematic; I can picture vividly the lead-in scene as the first few seconds of a movie trailer. “I almost missed you, Dr. August. I need to send a message back to the past…”

Beyond this, the conceit is one of those things that comes close to being something new under the sun. North basically asks “what if a small number of people all experienced something like Groundhog Day, except for their entire lives rather than 24 hours?” The consequences are challenging; you basically have to imagine a series of timelines in sequence, which mostly follow the same course except that certain individuals always begin their lives remembering all that they experienced in each previous timeline. It pretty much works, though. The resultant world and its more detailed, human consequences are fascinating.

What impresses me most of all, though, is how these have stayed with me now for many weeks since I finished the book. Themes and ideas have kept coming back to me, and I have gradually concluded that—by explicit intent or not—The First 15 Lives of Harry August is an insightful metaphor for life itself.

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Sequels to The Time Machine

Alongside my collection of Sherlock Holmes works, I have a similar if smaller “project” in progress with one of Holmes’ literary contemporaries, The Time Traveler.

I presume that most literate readers will have at least some vague awareness of H.G. Wells’s classic story “The Time Machine.” It has been adapted into film a few times, and I think one or two of the concepts have even taken on a life of their own. (I don’t recall when I first read the original story, but during my adolescence I was probably much more familiar with “Morlocks” as an X-Men concept.) In any event it’s something of an ur-time-travel story, almost consciously so. Its protagonist is, in fact, identified only as “The Time Traveler.”

I highly recommend this story to those who may not have read it. For those who have, and might be interested in various authors’ sequels, I offer a few notes on my readings thus far in this submicrogenre.

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Why “The Martian” will be a blockbuster hit (unfortunately)

After reading The Martian the other day, I gave it four of five stars at goodreads. I read the whole thing in about 24 hours, and can certainly recommend it; up until the very last page I probably would have rated it five out of five. It basically dropped one whole star in the final paragraphs.

Upon reflection, I’ve decided that my main complaints about the novel come down to sentimentality. My minor complaint involves a strain of fantasy in the story; by contrast the object of my major complaint (supercharged during the closing paragraphs) is probably all too realistic. It could make sense to complain about too much and too little realism at the same time, I suppose. But in this case, my objection isn’t really about extremes as much as it’s about an extreme (in my view) of sentiment.

It felt somewhat odd when I finally realized that this is the common theme to The Martian‘s flaws (as I perceive them). In many ways it’s very, very strange to apply the word “sentimental” to this story in any way. To be completely blunt, while I found it a page turner and while I’m not alone, I think the majority of The Martian feels remarkably like a space-exploration-themed series of sample engineering problems from a college textbook. It reminds me of Verne, particularly The Mysterious Island, except with the engineering content ratio much higher. The majority of the other content, meanwhile, documents meetings of NASA administrators.

Again, I found the result nonetheless gripping, and much credit to author Andy Weir. That said, the story he produced from these parts made me frustrated and even angry at points, and unlikely as it may be the reason is basically unchecked sentiment.

I’ll be blunt a second time, now, and just say that my biggest complaint about The Martian is how the whole thing is basically a fantastic, horrible illustration of the aphorism that “one life is a tragedy, a million lives is a statistic.”

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Holmes, Bookshop notes Nov. 2014

Some updates on my Sherlock Holmes collection, with a visit to a new Lakewood business on the way…

After keeping my eye out for a copy for some time, I finally picked up A Study in Sherlock recently. This is now item #44 in my collection.

This is as good as I could have hoped; I believe it’s the best Holmes anthology I have read so far. (Maybe Exploits of challenges it, but only if two authors counts as an anthology.) Great variety, with a lot of tangential extrapolations of Holmes of a more thoughtful nature than, e.g., “let’s do a Holmes story but with Martians/ghosts/zombies.” No doubt these things can be good, but the inherent novelty of this kind of mashup wears off rapidly and I think you’ve got to work very hard to add some other merit. The inventive approaches in A Study in Sherlock, by contrast, offered both freshness of concept and, in most cases, quality of writing.

Lots of good stories here, and even a short, delightful comic by Colin Cotterill. Neil Gaiman will be the headline contributor for most people, and I enjoyed “The Case of Death and Honey” though I’m not quite sold on the premise. Perhaps I’m just nettled by any stories that revolve around “explaining” some major element of the canon that the author finds unpersuasive. I don’t think I’m fundamentally opposed to such efforts, but my reaction here was similar to my objections to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, if not quite as intense. Anyway.

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Review: “Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde”

Note: From time to time, this site potentially constituting my personal record for ever after, I may corral a stray item from years past that merits some kind of lasting endorsement. The following book review suggests a good place to start; it may be one of the most popular things I’ve ever written. Goodreads (its second home) reports only six, as of this writing, but it seems like I get an e-mail notice that someone likes the review every other week… At all events, I do feel this was a good review of an excellent book, which I’m happy to recommend for a third time.

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde
by Jeff Guinn

An absolutely fantastic work, rich in absorbing detail.

I’m far from being an expert on Bonnie & Clyde, so I can’t evaluate this against any other works on the pair. But it certainly seems like Guinn did a lot of research, and used it to very good effect. Unsurprisingly, there’s no Hollywood glamour in the story; yet for a tale of two largely inept, ineffective small-time criminals, it’s a remarkably dramatic and even moving story.

Front cover of 'Go Down Together'The element of inevitable doom in Bonnie & Clyde’s tale probably contributes a lot to this, and while Guinn makes it a very real presence, he hardly had to invent it; throughout much of their brief criminal careers, B&C knew there was only one possible ending to their story, and were often completely frank and casual about it.

Perhaps the most effective and surprising ramification of this, though, is how Guinn convincingly calls into question just how much Barrow and Parker ever really had a better alternative. The story of their dead-end world in Dust-Bowl Texas, and particularly of the Barrows’ utterly dispiriting poverty, comes across as just unremittingly bleak. Unless the prospects for a young person in Depression-era Dallas slums were significantly brighter than Guinn’s account suggests, one has difficulty seeing any reason Bonnie & Clyde would have particularly preferred lives of impoverished drudgery to brief careers as famous criminals, even allowing for the deglamorized reality of the latter.

In all honesty, though written as a biography of two celebrated bandits, Go Down Together is one of the most effective works of social criticism I’ve read in a long while.