Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Titanic and Titan: The novel that 'predicted' the Titanic disaster

     The RMS Titanic sank nearly 100 years ago (the anniversary is April 15), and in this centennial year, there are many special events planned, including "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" at Dearborn's The Henry Ford,  March 31-Sept. 30, and a 3-D re-release of James Cameron's 1997 film.
     But this a book blog. If you want to commemorate the anniversary with a book, you could read "A Night to Remember" by Walter Lord (1955) -- the basis for the popular 1958 movie -- or maybe some stories by Jacques Futrelle, an author who died on the Titanic (read about him here or read some of his stories, including the most famous, "The Problem of Cell 13," here). Or you could read a book that, though published 14 years before the Titanic sank, seems to predict the disaster almost down to the name of the ship.
     "Futility, or The Wreck of the Titan" by Morgan Robertson describes a giant passenger liner named the Titan, described as "unsinkable," that hits an iceberg in April, then sinks, with only a few of its passengers surviving in part because there were insufficient lifeboats.

     It's not precisely the story of the Titanic, of course, and the plot continues long after the ship sinks, in part devoted to the heroic rescue of a child by the ship's mate -- involving climbing on the iceberg and fighting a polar bear -- and a dispute over whether the insurance will be paid. If Cameron's film is a romance story, Robertson's is a story of personal redemption and lawsuits. It's not a literary masterpiece, but it has its charms.
     First-edition copies of the 1898 book are rare. One has recently been put up for sale with an asking price of $10,000 (read an article about that here), but you don't have to spend that kind of money to read it. The book is in the public domain, and there are multiple sites online where you can read it for free (including here and here), and there are many e-book versions -- four here for the Amazon Kindle, from free to $3, and six here for Barnes and Noble's NOOK, from free to $3.59 -- as well as several print versions.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reading and re-reading Poe

     I've been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe since my pre-teens. I may have heard Nelson Olmstead's audio versions before I read them, or perhaps saw one of Roger Corman's film versions starring Vincent Price, but I did read them at a fairly young age. Periodically, I've re-read them with a different, more mature perspective. And despite my college English professor's contempt for them, I consider such stories as "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" as among the finest short stories ever crafted.
     So when I purchased "Steampunk Poe," a collection of Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems as illustrated by Zdenko Basic et al with steampunk-influenced illustrations, it wasn't because I hadn't read the stories before. In fact, I own several other collections of Poe's complete tales and poems. 
     That may seem excessive, but each book offers something a little different: illustrations, annotations, variant texts.  Here are my favorites:

      Poe: Poetry and Tales 
     (Library of America, 1984)
     This is the admirable must-have Library of America one-volume of Poe's complete fiction and poetry, including incomplete works (the one page of "The Lighthouse" that has been discovered, for example), plus a few odd items such as "Eureka" -- a prose poem that's usually lumped in with his essays (LoA has a separate Essays and Reviews volume), when it's not ignored entirely, but which Poe said he wished to be judged only as a POEM -- a sort of cosmology that explains the background of some of Poe's tales, including "MS. Found in a Bottle."

     The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe
     (Running Press, 1983)
     Most collections of Poe, including the Library of America's above,  segregate his stories, poems and essays into separate groupings, assuming that each form has its fanciers and that this will make it easier to find the pieces that interest them. They also use the versions of the stories that Poe revised for book publication, which means some are missing whole passages (to the better, many critics contend) or more evocative titles ("A Predicament" was originally titled "The Scythe of Time"). They also contain passages in French or other languages, untranslated, as was the practice of the day, but which send some modern readers scrambling for French-English dictionaries or online translators. Finally, they list only the title of the poems, neglecting the fact that several have similar or identical titles ("To Helen"). "The Unabridged Poe" fixed all these "problems" by putting all the works, regardless of prose or poem, in chronological order (or as near as can be determined) -- so, for instance,  you can see that his last finished works were two of his finest poems, "Annabel Lee" and "The Bells" -- with foreign phrases translated in brackets, with the original titles and/or passages restored and with the first line of each poem included on the table of contents. The original versions aren't always improvements ("The Masque of the Red Death" was "The Mask of the Red Death"), but for nonscholars, it's a nice one-volume resource. I believe this is out-of-print (although Book Beat in Oak Park may still have a copy). It was reprinted in 1997, but an Amazon review suggests it was a shoddy reproduction. Worth checking for in used bookstores.

    Tales of Mystery and Imagination,
     illustrated by Harry Clarke
     (1919; various editions since)
     Harry Clarke was the finest illustrator of Poe's work I've yet encountered. His work is often used for direct-to-remainder versions of Poe's books (the inexpensive hardcover "sale" books at chain bookstores), and there's even a book -- Nightmares in Decay: The Edgar Allan Poe Illustrations of Harry Clarke (Creation, 2010) -- devoted solely to his Poe illustrations (although another Amazon review suggests it was also a shoddy reproduction job). You can also find them online, including at Most are black and white, ornate and intricate in the Aubrey Beardsley vein, and genuinely creepy.

     The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe,
     edited by Stephen Peithman
     (Doubleday, 1981)
     This wasn't the first annotated version of Edgar Allan Poe I read (there was a series of annotated classics that I believe my parents bought at the grocery store in the 1970s, 99 cents a volume, that also included two Jules Verne novels and a collection of Sherlock Holmes mysteries). I'm surprised that there haven't been more such. This volume has all the tales (with the notable exception of the short novel "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym"), with an introductory essay on each, listing sources, stories influenced by Poe, films based upon them, and criticism of them. Then each story has not only the foreign phrases translated and attributed (sometimes Poe got these wrong, through carelessness or on purpose), plus background and explanations of curious objects, practices and people that may not be absolutely necessary to enjoying the tales, but are interesting nevertheless. This is also out of print, though, again, secondhand copies may be all over the place. Definitely worth a search.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My favorite books: “Expecting Someone Taller”

     Here's another of my favorite books that didn't seem to make much of a splash: “Expecting Someone Taller” by Tom Holt.
     It begins like this:
     “After a particularly unrewarding interview with his beloved, Malcolm was driving home along a dark, winding country lane when he ran over a badger. He got out to inspect the damage to his paintwork and (largely from curiosity) to the badger. It was, he decided, all he needed for there was a small but noticeable dent in his wing, and he had been hoping to sell the car.
     “Damn,” he said aloud.
     “So how do you think I feel?” said the badger.

     Yes, this is no ordinary badger, and your degree of familiarity with and affection for Norse mythology, particularly as adapted by Richard Wagner for “The Ring of the Nibelung,” will doubtless affect your enjoyment of the book; if you’re a fan of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” science fiction series, so much the better.
     Basically, the dying badger was really a disguised frost giant, who possessed the Ring of the Nibelung and the Tarnhelm, which make him rich (he has free access to limitless gold reserves), powerful (he can transform into anyone or anything he likes, or turn invisible, or teleport anywhere he wants) and the putative ruler of the world.
     Now that Malcolm has “bested him in combat,” Malcolm is all those things, but doesn’t really want any of it. However, he discovers he’s very good at it, and initiates a bit of a golden age because he’s the first “nice” guy to ever possess the ring.
     Unfortunately, the Norse gods, especially Wotan, the king of the gods, the remaining Nibelungs and the Rhinemaidens (who believe the Ring really belongs to them anyway) all want the Ring, and will stop at nothing to get it.
     What I enjoy about the book is that, to me at least, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Malcolm’s initial attempts to turn the Nibelung’s gold into spending cash, his conversations with birds (Malcolm gains this ability after the badger/frost giant insists he drink a small amount of his blood; don’t blame Holt, it’s in Wagner’s “Ring”), the attempts by Logi to intimidate Malcolm and by the Rhinemaidens to seduce him, and the mundane uses to which Malcolm puts his new wealth and powers are amusing, particularly since almost everyone and thing speaks with a sort of exaggerated British politeness.
     (The title is something the badger says to Malcolm. You see, he thought the “hero” who would slay him and win the ring would be more heroic, have more presence, be … “taller.”)
     The book is currently available through Barnes and in “Tall Stories: Omnibus 5” (along with another Holt novel, “Ye Gods!”), and second-hand in hardcover and paperback. There doesn’t seem to be an e-book version available.
     Unfortunately, “Expecting Someone Taller” is about the only Holt book I really enjoyed. I liked “Goatsong” and its sequel “The Walled Garden” -- the life story of a dwarf Greek playwright and contemporary of Aristophanes -- and “Flying Dutch” -- a retelling of the “Flying Dutchman” legend, in which the captain and crew of the ship are not ghosts but immortals who stay at sea because the alchemist’s potion that made them immortal also makes them unbearably smelly most of the time — has its moments. The others I’ve read, including “Ye Gods!,” seemed more labored than funny. However I’m curious about some of his other titles, such as “Snow White and the Seven Samurai” …
     What are some of your favorite books? Tell me about them.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Libertarian Science Fiction: "The Unincorporated Man"

Review: The Unincorporated Man
By Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin
(Macmillan USA/Tor)

Cover from Macmillan USA/Tor
     One of my favorite science fiction books is the (sadly out-of-print) 1952 classic The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. Among other things, it won the first Hugo Award for best sf novel of the year and helped to inspire the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s (which in turn inspired the steampunk movement I'm always droning on about).  I don't know if the Kollin brothers read or have even heard of the book, but the title The Unincorporated Man seemed to me to be a partial homage to the earlier novel, and so I was immediately intrigued.

     I didn't get around to reading the book, however, until an interview with the brothers appeared in Locus magazine. It turns out they are a couple of seeming libertarians, possibly objectivists (as in the philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged) and politically and fiscally conservatives, and the book has been accurately described as Heinleinian (for Robert A. Heinlein, author of the book Starship Troopers, upon which the films of the same name are based, as well as libertarian classics such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) . That doesn't jibe with my political leanings, but their description of the plot of their novel (now a three-volume series, with volume four due out this summer) and the philosophy behind it intrigued me. So, overcoming my disliking for multi-volume series by heretofore unpublished novice writers, I gave it a try. At least I was fairly certain it wouldn't have dragons or elves or heroic quests.
     I liked it, but I'm not sure I'll bother with the rest of the series; it seems complete enough as is.
     The philosophic idea behind the book is that in the future, people will be run like corporations. At birth, everyone is invested with so many shares, 20 percent of which go to the government in lieu of taxes, and 25 percent to the parents. The remaining 55 percent may be bought and sold like stocks. Any people who don't own an outright majority of themselves are subject to their stockholders' wishes in where they live, what career they pursue, etc. In this way, the Kollins imagine, society will have a vested interest in what happens to people because they profit or lose based on whether or not the incorporated people prosper.
     Into this future comes Justin Cord, a multi-billionaire from 300 years in the past (shortly after our present time) who had himself cryogenically frozen before he died of cancer. He is the oldest human to ever be thawed, and the first from before incorporation (other contemporaries were destroyed before thawing during the Great Collapse, a calamity with all the worse elements of the black death, 1929 stock market crash and 9/11, only worse).  
     As the only unincorporated man, he causes a societal upheaval. Most people want him to incorporate, but he resists, seeing it as slavery. Eventually, a movement forms around the idea of ending incorporation or making it voluntary, with some (but not Cord) willing to indiscriminately kill large numbers of people to effect this change.
     By the end of the book, there's a partial resolution, but with enough left unresolved to fill another three volumes, apparently.
     In the Locus interview, the Kollins' describe incorporation like they think it might be a good idea, and for most of the book most of the characters do as well. It's brought unparalleled prosperity to most of the planet (and space colonies). Aside from providing services and owning 20 percent of each person, the government doesn't really interfere. Even the legal system is privatized. Towards the end, however, an unexpected character reveals he-or-she is also opposed to incorporation, and lays out convincing arguments against it. So I don't know how the Kollins' really feel. Perhaps they are of two minds.
     I like that ambiguity. I don't know how I feel about it either. Incorporation (along with nanotechnology) has ended hunger, but it almost amounts to slavery for the poor (those who own a minority of their own shares) who are considered "penny stocks." Is it better or worse than the world in which we live? Sometimes, because some people are still bastards. "The Unincorporated Man" got me thinking, as the best science fiction can.
     So, why am I unsure I'll read The Unincorporated War, The Unincorporated Woman or The Unincorporated Future? Because reviews have indicated that most of the second book involves more space battles than political or economic philosophy. I don't often like science fiction that involves explosions and mass death and ray guns. I'm actually considering skipping it and going right to book three.
    The Unincorporated Man didn't win a Hugo Award, but it did receive the Prometheus Award, given out for best libertarian (science fiction?) novel by the Libertarian Futurist Society, which “was founded in 1982 to recognize and promote libertarian science fiction.” For more information and other winners and nominees, visit the LFS website here.
    For more by and about the Kollins, visit their blog here and Dani's blog here.