2010: Odyssey Two

2010: Odyssey Two

If what you liked most in 2001: A Space Odyssey was all the nitty-gritty of being aboard a space ship and the exploration, then you might love the second book 2010: Odyssey Two in Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series. It has been nine years since the fatal trip to Jupiter to explore the alien monolith when HAL 9000 killed the astronauts and David Bowman became a star child. The spaceship Discovery is still stranded around Jupiter near the monolith. So, the Americans and Soviets embark on a joint trip to explore the monolith again, check out Discovery and possibly also use the trip to examine some of Jupiter’s moons. While a lot of the story is the same as before, there is a lot more of crew dynamics on long space journeys, interesting space problems, more mysterious behavior of the monolith, life forms discovered in our Solar System, more analysis of HAL’s behavior, more hand-wavy star-child happenings and a final escape from catastrophe for our protagonists.

This book is an excellent sequel. If you liked the first one, you will most probably love this one. The weakest part is, yet again, the David Bowman star-child, who is used to transition some of the story, which he does by communicating with Floyd (the main character) and HAL. Also not quite satisfying, is the behavior of the alien monolith, which in the end gobbles up Jupiter, creating a new star. Clarke wants to push the idea that these monoliths are left as beacons by superior alien forms to discover intelligent life, test it and aid it to higher intelligence. If so, its behavior in the novel is quite a bit of hand waving. But as always, Clarke is on strong footing with actual space travel. It is engrossing to be a part of his spaceship and observe the daily life on it and the many personal, social and relationship problems that can occur. Whether he can keep the magic going for the third book or not, his masterful story telling made this second one a delightful read.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0345303059

Excerpts:

You think the Agile daily standup meeting is a new concept? Here it is, aboard the spaceship Leonov, on its journey to Jupiter:

Every day at 1800 GMT the crew of seven plus one passenger gathered in the tiny common room that separated the flight deck from the galley and sleeping quarters. The circular table at its centre was just big enough for eight people to squeeze around; when Chandra and Curnow were revived, it would be unable to accommodate everyone, and two extra seats would have to be fitted in somewhere else. Though the Six O’Clock Soviet, as the daily round-table conference was called, seldom lasted more than ten minutes, it played a vital role in maintaining morale. Complaints, suggestions, criticisms, progress reports – anything could be raised, subject only to the captain’s overriding veto, which was very seldom exercised.

An interesting note by Clarke, on how the book was written:

This book was written on an Archives III microcomputer with Word Star software and sent from Colombo to New York on one five-inch diskette. Last-minute corrections were transmitted through the Padukka Earth Station and the Indian Ocean Intelsat V.

Nectar in a Sieve

Nectar in a Sieve

The sad, hard and futile life of the rural poor in British Raj India pervades Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. It begins with the marriage of the narrator Rukmani to a landless farmer named Nathan at age 12 and ends with his death by her side. What fills the in-between is a few years of happiness with good harvests and young children and many years of deprivation, starvation, disease and death due to drought and floods. Urbanization also rears its ugly head in their tiny village in the form of a smelly tannery and a British doctor named Kenny. Rukmani hates the sight of the polluting and crowded lifestyle brought about by these changes, but poverty drives her children to work at that very tannery and later sail off as labourers to British plantations in Ceylon. The middle-aged couple is hit hard when their landlord sells off his land to the tannery and they have to eke out a hard life in the nearest city.

Published in 1954, this novel is supposedly the first novel about India to get popular in USA and in its textbooks. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Markandaya was born in Mysore, studied in Madras and later settled in the UK. Though no places are named, the characters and settings are quite obviously of the Mysore-Madras region. The story is quite similar to The Good Earth, which I recently read, and the writing is similarly achingly beautiful, though the focus here remains on Rukmani and her family and not so much about the happenings in her country. The India here is somewhat unimaginable now in some its dimensions: an age before electricity, literacy and modern medicine. Caste is somehow absent, which is surprising. The onus is the plight of the rural (and later urban) poor and their hapless existence as mere pawns in a grand game played by nature, fate and the rich. The landless, illiterate, uneducated characters swallow whatever comes their way without a protest because neither do they have the means nor the social structure to do anything about it. This slim novel is laden with incredible prose and filled with many unforgettable characters like the Old Granny.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9780451531728

Excerpts:

While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for? My heart sang and my feet were light as I went about my work, getting up at sunrise and going to sleep content. Peace and quiet were ours. How well I recall it, how grateful I am that not all the clamour which invaded our lives later could subdue the memory or still the longing for it. Rather, it has strengthened it: had there not been what has been, I might never have known how blessed we were.


Nathan prepares the bier, I see him lifting the body on to it. Then he goes out, walking towards the town. At dawn the funeral drums begin, and soon after our friends and neighbours come. Granny first, though hardly able to walk; then Durgan; Kannan with his wife, bearing a few jasmine buds; and Kali, bringing with her a muslin cloth to cover the bier. They pay their respects in silence, and when the sun has risen, the men pick up the bier and depart; but the women stay behind, for this is the custom. All that morning the sound of the drums comes faintly to us, rising and falling, rising and falling with the wind; until at last a final beat comes quivering through the air and we strain our ears for the next, but this, this sound which has already gone, is the last. Now not even a heap of bones: only a few ashes to show that once a man has lived.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

One of the most memorable chapters from my childhood English textbooks was Tom Sawyer, fooling his friends to paint a fence. From then on, Tom Sawyer, his buddy Huckleberry Finn, that period of US history and author Mark Twain have continued to appear so many times in my readings that I simply had to pick up this classic when I saw it. On its surface, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is filled with fun stories centered around Tom, that happen in St. Petersburg, a fictional village along the Mississippi river. Tom seems to have lost his parents a long time ago and is being brought up by his Aunt Polly, a big hearted naive woman and her children Sid and Mary. Tom is a hyper-active clever rascal, who regularly creates trouble at school and gets switched by teachers on a daily basis. He always wants to be the alpha male at school and is always in love with the prettiest girl in school. He mostly hangs around with Huckleberry Finn, a homeless vagabond child of a drunk father. His idyllic world starts cracking bit by bit once he and Finn witness a murder and what follows after that.

First things first, this is not a moral and social work like To Kill A Mockingbird. This is an entertaining book for children that just happens to have enough elements to engage adults. To me it seemed like the characters and settings were a combination of the mysteries by Enid Blyton and the naughty William Brown series by Richmal Crompton. (Both these authors came after Twain, so his works might have heavily inspired them.) This is not an America I have visited or am familiar with. Here it is always hot and summery, flowers and trees are in bloom, kids are always frolicking in the river or fishing or picnicking and running around barefoot in the village, reluctantly wearing shoes only for Sunday church.

Childhood summer stories always fill my heart with joy, because I cherish that period of my life the most. But, there are lots of interesting hints and passing references to US society of early 1800s which are equally engaging in this book. For example, the servants are always black, referred to as nigger or Negro, as was prevalent at that time. It is seen to be beneath oneself to eat with a Black person, only the homeless Finn says that he has done that and does not mind it. The village does have people of mixed race, like mulattoes and people of Red Indian and white parents. But they are never seen in school or church and are mostly the shady characters. Finn comes from a broken home, where his parents used to fight and have now separated. Tom is parentless. There is no uncle in the house with Aunt Polly. Switching kids as punishment regularly, both at home and school, is the norm. 12-year olds like Tom can drink and smoke a pipe without creating a fuss among adults. The world was so idyllic that kids could roam around for an entire day in forests, miles away from home without parents being unduly worried. The list just goes on. Makes one wonder how much better civilized we are now, but also how much freedom we lost along the way. This American classic is a heartwarming read, full of that manic childhood zest and inquisitiveness and is sure to leave you wanting your carefree days back.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9781847491954

Excerpts:

He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it, namely, that, in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.

In the midst of the prayer a fly had lit on the back of the pew in front of him and tortured his spirit by calmly rubbing its hands together, embracing its head with its arms, and polishing it so vigorously that it seemed to almost part company with the body, and the slender thread of a neck was exposed to view; scraping its wings with its hind legs and smoothing them to its body as if they had been coat-tails; going through its whole toilet as tranquilly as if it knew it was perfectly safe. As indeed it was; for as sorely as Tom’s hands itched to grab for it they did not dare–he believed his soul would be instantly destroyed if he did such a thing while the prayer was going on. But with the closing sentence his hand began to curve and steal forward; and the instant the “Amen” was out the fly was a prisoner of war.

To promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing.