I had been wowed by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey a few years ago. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest movie experiences and possibly the most accessible work of Stanley Kubrick. Not having read any science-fiction in recent months, I picked up the source of the movie, the novel of the same name written by Arthur C. Clarke. Both the movie and the novel are based off a few short stories of Clarke, written earlier. Both were created at the same time, with ideas being exchanged between Clarke and Kubrick to expand on those stories into a movie and a novel. To bring a sense of perspective, these works were created in 1968. Armstrong and Aldrin saw the movie and then stepped on the moon next year.
The novel follows the movie very closely, with four parts. In the first part, a black monolith appears in an African valley at the beginning of, what is now called, the Pleistocene age, the age of human evolution. It guides a tribe of man-apes in wielding tools to magnify their strength and thus making it easier to kill other dominant animals. In the second part, we take a journey to the Moon where a similar monolith has been discovered beneath a crater. When revealed and exposed to the Sun it emits a strong radio signal across the Solar System aimed at Japetus, a moon of Saturn. In the third part, five astronomers are on a long journey to Saturn with the complex controls of their ship being controlled by a computer named HAL 9000. One astronomer survives the perils of the journey and in part four he discovers the secret of the monolith.
I have read collections of short stories by Clarke before and here he is no different. His writing is easy and quick to read, though the worlds he creates are no less fantastic. He has a knack for creating plausible artifacts and experiences that seem just a few years away from our current time. The writing in the novel is beautiful, with some sections a pure joy to taste and linger. Though the HAL 9000 episode is thrilling to read, it is actually the section that is most unrelated to the main theme of the book. Much like the movie, the weakest section is the end which gets more nebulous the deeper you get into it. Needless to say that Kubrick though has recreated Clarke’s vision to perfection in the movie. It is hard not to recommend 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a mind-bending fantastic journey that is surprisingly easy and quick to make right from your armchair.
After a break of a few years, I’m a library member again. I’m back in my old familiar world, looking up call numbers of books, scanning the spines of books with my head askew and discovering all sorts of unknown authors and topics. The fact about libraries is that new and popular books are heavily in demand. What remains available to a person who visits on weekends are the classics. The shelves heave with the weight of multiple editions of Sherlock Holmes and Jeeves. And that is how I found myself reading the second book in the Sherlock Holmes series: The Sign of Four.
The characters of Holmes and Dr. Watson and their 221B Baker Street home is well established by now. When the book starts off, Holmes is in a bit of rut, due to the absence of good investigative cases. He is getting himself high on morphine or cocaine, as his habit is to calm his hyper-active mind. After a few interesting dialogues on logic and human nature between the duo, we are finally thrown a case. And to my pleasant surprise, the case is heavily tied to India!
I will not spoil the plot for you, but it is, as always, quite interesting. There is a long Indian backstory that runs right through the heart of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the British holding off the mutineers in the Agra castle, a treasure stolen from a Raja, an Englishman and three sepoys (two Punjabis and a Muslim) shipped off to the prison in Andamans and finally a cannibal from the Andaman islands. India is everywhere in this novel: the main murder takes place at a bungalow called Pondicherry Lodge and the gems that everyone’s after is called the Agra treasure.
While the Indian connection and the appearance of many Indian-origin words kept me interested, the novel by itself is just okay. The main problem for me is that I get to see Holmes’ brilliant mind in action only a couple of times in the book. Instead, I would like to see a lot more of his intriguing explanations or small puzzles for him to solve all through the book while he is on a big case. A Sign of Four is a good read and that’s about it.
Though I have read most of the techno-thrillers written by Michael Crichton, I had no idea that he was actually a medical doctor before he became a successful author. His medical knowledge comes to the fore in The Terminal Man, one of this earliest novels, written way back in 1972 after his debut with The Andromeda Strain. Though aware of its age, I picked it up in a bid to fill out the gaps left in the books of his I have read.
The Terminal Man looks at the dilemma of a computer controlling the human brain. Like most of Crichton’s books, the fun is how he shows something fascinating that might just be possible in the current day and age, not in some sci-fi future. So, how to bring about a computer-brain interface in 1972 and make it seem plausible? Enter psychomotor epilepsy, a rare but real medical condition where the patient can commit serious physical harm to those around him when he is under epileptic shock. Benson is a computer scientist working on AI who is implicated in many physical assaults committed while under psychomotor epileptic shock. The neurological department at Harvard Medical Hospital decide to try a new procedure to cure him. The epileptic shock can be detected by using probes inserted into the brain. Similarly, the shock can be annulled by inducing electric shocks in other regions of the brain associated with pleasure. In an experimental surgical procedure, Benson is hooked up with these probes connected to a simple computer chip that detects and emits shocks. Technically, he is now a cyborg. As always in a Crichton novel, things get interesting when the interface between nature and machine goes haywire. The same happens here when Benson’s brain gets drawn into a path of pleasure addiction, it starts to induce the epileptic shock so that it can derive the kick of pleasure back.
The technological premise and details of the surgical procedure and device are very interesting in this novel. Its always fascinating to see the complexity and mystery of the human brain. However, the immaturity of an amateur author shows through in the characters and the plot. The second half just turns into a Hollywood chase sequence to stop a deranged killer whose brain is no longer under his control. The Terminal Man is a good read for Crichton fans, but the rest can skip this for his other novels, which are far better reads.