Against the Fall of Night is the most boringly titled, but refreshing, first novel of Arthur C. Clarke. Many millions of centuries of human history have passed, Earth is covered with deserts and a lone city remains named Diaspar. Technology and robotics have far exceeded imagination, humans are virtually immortal, but surprisingly they are meek and have no desire to explore new planets or Suns. Alvin, the youngest human born of Diaspar starts to get inquisitive about what lies outside the city. With the help of the Keeper of Records he goes on to discover relics of a thriving human past and how they came to be relegated to this miserable existence.
Originally written in 1948, this novella remains surprisingly imaginative and readable today. Despite its short length, the story touches upon a lot of interesting aspects: race, history, robots, computers, extra terrestrial intelligence and space exploration. Using a young Alvin as a plucky implacable explorer, the story is simply a lot of fun as seen from his eyes. I was constantly reminded of the original Star Wars movie and young Skywalker. Much like that movie, there are some entertaining instances of robot-human interactions. Against the Fall of Night is a short and lively page-turner.
“The trouble is,” said Rorden, “that there are no longer any engineers left in the world.”
Alvin looked puzzled: although contact with the Keeper of the Records had greatly enlarged his vocabulary, there were thousands of archaic words he did not understand.
“An engineer,” explained Rorden, “was a man who designed and built machines. It’s impossible for us to imagine an age without robots—but every machine in the world had to be invented at one time or other, and until the Master Robots were built they needed men to look after them. Once the machines could care for themselves, human engineers were no longer required. I think that’s a fairly accurate account, though of course it’s mostly guesswork. Every machine we possess existed at the beginning of our history, and many had disappeared long before it started.”
“Such as flyers and spaceships,” interjected Alvin.
“Yes,” agreed Rorden, “as well as the great communicators that could reach the stars. All these things vanished when they were no longer needed.”
The Valley of Fear is the fourth and last Sherlock Holmes novel, one that I had not read before. Arthur Conan Doyle sets up a satisfying and familiar murder for Holmes to solve in the first half. The owner of a moated mansion has been blown to bits by a shotgun. The bridge over the moat around the house was drawn up and closed during the grisly act. Who is the murderer? Why did he murder and how did he escape unnoticed? A thrilling tale unravels as Holmes and Watson find the threads leading to the crook.
The second half of the book though is a tad disappointing. Even after the murderer is caught, Doyle pursues with his back-story. That follows an arc familiar from A Study in Scarlet: going back to a time when America was being explored. In the dark coal mining valley of Vermissa are a secret brotherhood who threaten and kill people to extract money. This murder emerges from a long vengeance from there that follows through across the pond to England. Doyle is an excellent storyteller, but it would have been nice to have a longer mystery without all the back-story.
Logicomix, with a grand subtitle of An epic search for truth, is a graphic novel written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou. In this book, the writers appear in the panels, chit-chat among themselves and narrate the story of the foundational quest in mathematics by using the biography of Bertrand Russell. A rowdy crowd of anti-war protesters is addressed by Russell, and then he goes on to narrate his life story in a bid to convince them to allow USA to enter World War 2. Most of the book then features Russell’s quest for logic in math, but we keep stepping back to his speech and then back to the authors (chilling out in Athens) intermittently.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell turns out to have an interesting biography. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth he took to mathematics and philosophy. Finding the axiomatic foundations of mathematics to be quite shaky, he set out to formalize it with another mathematician named Whitehead writing Principia Mathematica (yes, they took the same title as Newton’s epic). Using Russell’s journeys and thoughts, the reader is introduced to Gregor Cantor (set theory), Boole (Boolean logic), Peano, Wittgenstein, Poincare, Godel, Turing, von Neumann and many other mathematicians. The novel goes all philosophical towards the end of its 344 page run, finishing with a Greek tragedy Oresteia and attempting to connect it to the subject matter.
Logicomix is one of those books that I wanted to love, but could not. The art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna is very reminiscent of Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin) and it is quite fantastic. It was the prime reason I stuck to finishing the book. However, the writers on the other hand have too many goals: foundational quest, Russell’s biography, predicate logic, gallery of mathematicians, all of this aimed at a layman reader. There is too much of Russell’s personal life, laid out in soap opera style. The comics medium is wasted in large portions of the book, which are filled with just the head of Russell expounding something in a speech bubble. Some of the math portions like Russell’s Paradox have been depicted well, but most of it aims too low or too high, never quite settling on what level of a reader it is meant for. There is too much chatter of the authors themselves in the panels, with their walks in Athens and the Greek play they are attending. The problem of all this is that they come off as self-important. If only the excellent artwork here could have been melded to a simple and straight plot aimed at a certain level of reader, Logicomix could have been a great read.
I first read Kiran Desai ages ago, when her second book The Inheritance of Loss won the Booker. I came upon her first book Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard thanks to the doctor and decided to pick it up. As I got lost in the incredibly funny opening pages, I thanked myself that this was nothing like the dark tragic tale in her Booker winner. Hullabaloo is the story of dreamy Sampath and how he decides one day to take permanent residence up a guava tree outside his town of Shahkot. What follows is a whacky story that drags in his family, the townsfolk and finally a brood of monkeys.
At 200 pages, this turned out to be a short, but highly entertaining read. It is particularly endearing in the opening chapters, which introduce the Chawla family, the birth of Sampath and our first window into the lanes of Shahkot. The town and its residents reminded me most of English, August. You might be reminded a bit of RKN too, but the characters here are too funny and the setting too modern for his style. After an especially funny first half, the plot focuses on Sampath and his monkeys a bit too much in the latter half, without offering anything strong. Various weak threads seem to be created on a whim and are left hanging in the climax, where it seems like Desai just decided to end the book abruptly. Hullabaloo is a good read, delivers creative imagery, bountiful culinary aromas and loads of fun in a small package.
By the time the night watchman cycled past on his way home from the wealthy neighbourhood where he worked, Sampath was shaky on his feet from lack of sleep. Phee, pheee, phee – the watchman blew his whistle as if in a nasty attempt to awaken all those who might still be sleeping. Sampath watched as the shadows retreated, as Shahkot was offered up once again, whole and intact, with its overflowing rubbish heaps and its maze of streets. Bit by bit he saw the jumble of wires spilling out at the top of the electricity pole and the dirty, stained walls of the houses that rose high all about him, with their complications of rooftops and verandas; their clutter of television aerials, washing lines and courtyards filled with bicycles and raggedy plants and all the paraphernalia of loud and large families. The municipal water supply was turned on. From every kitchen and bathroom in Shahkot there was the sound of water pumps, thin streams of water dribbling into the first in a long line of buckets and pots and pans waiting to be filled. Sampath’s father appeared down below with his yoga mat. Women emerged from different houses, converging in their walk to the Mother Dairy booth, and the priests in the temple at the end of the road launched into song, their voices richer and stronger than Sampath’s, their hymns rising, undulating, soaring over the rooftops.