Tag Archives: books

James Gleick tells an exhilarating history of time travel

Gleick’s “Time Travel: A History,” tells the story of the idea of time travel in science fiction, pop culture, and science. Based on this review by Michael Saler in The Wall Street Journal, it sounds terrific.

Time travel emerged as a big idea at the turn of the 20th Century, as the human race’s idea of the nature of time was fundamentally changing, Saler says. Though most of history (and presumably prehistory), people viewed time as static, and the world as unchanging, Saler says.

That’s not entirely true. People of the past were certainly aware that great empires rose and fell. People were aware that great civilizations had come before them, and fallen before they were born. Even the ancient world had its ancient world; Cleopatra lived closer in time to the invention of the iPhone than the construction of the pyramids.

But as a general rule, your life was the same as your parents, and your children’s lives would be the same as yours.

That changed with the industrial revolution, and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” captured the change in pop culture. Time travel stories continue to fascinate us, along with alternate histories — Saler cites Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” which I’ve read, and Kingsley Amis’s “The Alteration,” which I’d never heard of before.

In scientific circles, the nature of time underwent special scrutiny in the late 19th century. By then, findings in geology, evolutionary biology and archaeology had established that the Earth was far older than the long-accepted biblical time scale: Time was now deep. Also, idiosyncratic local time regimes were being replaced by standard time zones, necessitated by the new railways and made possible by telegraphic communications. Inspired by such temporal ferment, the young journalist H.G. Wells published his first novel, “The Time Machine,” in 1895. The book launched his career and made “time travel” a concept worth taking seriously….

Since this work, time travel has become a veritable theme park of playful attractions, which Mr. Gleick explores with infectious gusto. Time travel is a staple in multiple media, from the BBC series “Doctor Who” to the “Back to the Future” movies. Time capsules—an instance of “reverse archaeology”—became a growth industry after the 1939 World’s Fair, when this extreme form of hoarding was first given its name. Works of alternative history, including Kingsley Amis’s “The Alteration” (1976) and Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” (1964), re-imagine the world by changing a key event in the past, resulting in a startlingly different (yet often strangely familiar) milieu from our own. These two books even have nestled within them hints of alternative-alternative history, creating a recursive, funhouse-mirror effect, a ludic attitude to time also adopted by modernist authors.

Dick’s Man in the High Castle is an alternate history where the Nazis and Japanese won World War II and conquered the United States, and much of the novel revolves around the search for the reclusive author of an alternate history where the Allies won — although that work does not describe our own world.

The Alteration” is, according to Wikipedia, set in a dystopian alternate history where the Protestant Reformation and scientific and industrial revolutions never occurred and the Catholic Church dominates the West, which continues in a dark age. That novel features an alternate history novel called “The Man in the High Castle,” by one Philip K. Dick.

Not mentioned by Saler: “The Iron Dream,” by Norman Spinrad, set in an alternate history where Adolf Hitler briefly flirted with politics after World War I, but then emigrated to the United States, where he worked as an illustrator for science fiction and other pulp magazines, eventually publishing a novel that became a cult hit, called “The Lords of the Swastika,” about an empire of true humans that rise up after a nuclear holocaust to rid the Earth of filthy mutants. Most of “The Iron Dream” takes the form of “Hitler’s” novel, with an afterword by a literary professor explaining Hitler’s life story. The real-life book (I have it somewhere in the house) even has a page listing more books by the alternate Adolf Hitler, which include “The Master Race,” “The Thousand Year Rule,” and “Triumph of the Will,” as well as blurbs for “The Lords of the Swastika” contributed by real-life science fiction writers. Spinrad was making the point that much heroic science fiction and fantasy looks a lot like fascist propaganda.

I remember Hitler often featuring in alternate history stories that I read as a teen-ager. In Poul Anderson’s fantasy novel “Operation: Chaos,” where magic operates instead of science, Hitler is shown as the lord of Hell in the final, climactic battle, and in “Gloriana,” by Brian Aldiss, which takes place on an eldritch alternate British Empire, the Queen mentions the peculiar case of a madman named “Adolphus Hiddler” who claims to be the ruler of the world. In both the Anderson and Aldiss, the main characters have never heard of Hitler.

Similarly, Roger Zelazny’s “Roadmarks” is a fantastic short novel about characters traveling on a literal highway that connects the past, future, and alternate histories; Adolf Hitler is cruising the highway in a black Volkswagen, looking for the timeline where he won.

But back to time travel: Scientists are split on whether time travel would be feasible in real life. Stephen Hawking is one of the skeptics; he hosted a party for time travelers and advertised it widely. “I sat there a long time, but no one came,” Hawking said.

David Hewson: Mistakes to avoid when writing a series

The British mystery writer weighs in:

Like most series writers, you see, I never set out to go down this path. I wrote the first Costa book as a standalone and was then asked to turn it into a series by my publisher. After which I made it up as I went along, mistakenly sometimes though I’m pleased to report the errors I committed were by no means rare.

Here, when I set out to write the Amsterdam series, are some of the pitfalls I told myself to avoid.

One of the mistakes he cites: Failing to plan for how the series will deal with the passage of time, as the years go by between books in the real world.

Different series writers handle the passage of time in different ways. Spenser and the other characters in the Robert B. Parker series aged at a rate of 1:2 for the real world for a decade or so, then it appeared they just stopped aging. In the early books, written in the 70s, Spenser referenced being a Korean war vet and an ex-boxer who once fought Jersey Joe Walcott. In the last books by Parker, written in the 2000s, those references are left out.

In the Nero Wolfe books, the characters stay exactly the same age throughout 30 years, while the outside world progresses. In the first book, Nero is in his early 40s and Archie is about 30 and they’re toasting the end of Prohibition. As the series hit its prime, Archie is enlisted in the Army during World War II — fortunately assigned to stay home in Manhattan. In the last book, Nero is in his early 40s and obsessed with Watergate, and Archie is about 30.

By the way, both the Spenser and Nero Wolfe series were continued by other writers after the original author’s death. I read one of the Spenser novels by Ace Atkins; it was pretty good. Surprisingly, it was better and more true to the characters than the later Parker novels were.

I also read one of the Robert Goldsborough Nero Wolfe novels, and found it disappointing. He had the details right, but the voice was off. For example: The book was written and set in the 80s, and the mystery revolved around some detail of personal computing technology. Archie had become a PC expert by then, and provided a clue to solve the crime. Nero Wolfe was portrayed as an antiquarian who disdained PCs.

But I thought that was precisely the opposite of the spirit of the books. Archie, as a man of action, would have disdained PCs in the early years. He’d have learned to use one, because he did Wolfe’s office work, but he would have no particular affinity for them. However, the sedentary genius Wolfe might have taken to PCs, because they are logical like he is, and he can use one while moving nothing other than his fingers and eyes.

From gladiator duels to Caesar’s last words: the myths of ancient Rome

Fresh Air podcast:

Our guest, historian Mary Beard, can give you the real story of the Spartacus uprising. And in a bit, she’ll share what we think Julius Caesar really said as he was being stabbed by Roman senators. It wasn’t et tu, Brute?

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University who’s spent a career studying Rome and written a dozen books. She also does TV and radio documentaries, writes a well-read blog and has become somewhat famous for taking on Internet trolls. Beard’s latest book covers about a thousand years of Roman history, but it isn’t just kings and emperors. She offers insights into the reasons for Rome’s prosperity and military expansion and provides fresh interpretations of turning points in Roman history.

And she makes ordinary Romans a central part of the story, describing both their impact on important events and their daily lives. Mary Beard’s book “SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome” is out in paperback next month.

As a small boy, the ferocious mad Emperor Gaius was a pet of the Roman legions, who dressed him up in a child-sized uniform and gave him the nickname “Caligula.” History teachers today translate the name to “Little Boot,” but Beard says it’s more properly translated “Bootykins.” No wonder Caligula was always pissed off.

“SPQR” looks like a good one — I’ve put it high on my Amazon wishlist.

Claire North unmasked! Why one life isn’t enough for “Harry August” author

Charlie Jane Anders interviews the pseudonymous author of “The First First Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” which Julie and I both loved.

The author’s real name is Catherine Webb, who write her first book when she was 14, and who wrote seven more successful young-adult novels and a series of fantasy novels for adults using the pseudonym Kate Griffin. Pseudonyms keep a writer from being pigeonholed, but they have their own pitfalls.

Webb made the protagonist of “Harry August” male because a female protagonist would have inevitably made gender more of a focus of the novel than Webb wanted it to be.

The biggest reason for writing a male protagonist was the history of the 20thcentury itself. When Harry August is born, women still don’t have the vote; by the time he dies, the women’s rights movement is a loud voice fighting battles across the world. The change in society in that century is massive, but women were – and are still – discriminated against. Knowing what I do of my own politics, it seemed unlikely that I’d get through the book without being drawn massively into the world of gender politics and the changing battle for women’s rights throughout the century, and while this is vitally important and a story that must be told, the story of the kalachakra didn’t feel like the right way in which to tell it. Writing a male protagonist, therefore, allowed me to focus on the story of the Cronus Club that seemed most appropriate to the narrative.

Webb has training as a historian, and says writing a historical novel requires a mind-trick:

 A great deal of the history wasn’t about big events – Harry August spends a lot of time dodging World War Two, for example – but about zooming in on little things that made the time come alive. Thus, 1936 would not be described by someone living in it as ‘a year when war became inevitable’ since in 1936, war wasn’t inevitable and no one without the burden of retrospect would think of it in terms of war, whatever history has to say on the subject now. Rather, it is a year of jazz, economic recovery and the rise of ‘talkie’ movies. A generic knowledge might point to Charlie Chaplin as being active in this era; a quick internet search reveals the movies he made; a look at the movie of the year (Modern Times) shows that by then talkies were well underway; another click through gives the names of rival ‘talkie’ movies and fairly quickly, from just a general sense of what was happening in a decade, you have the kind of details of leading actors and popular musicians that can bring a year to life.

Book review: “The First 15 Lives of Harry August.”

The opening of the “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North,  finds the main character dying of cancer in his old age in 1996, when he’s accosted by a seven-year-old girl.

“I nearly missed you, Dr. August,” the girl says. “I need to send a message back through time. If time can be said to be important here. As you’re conveniently dying, I ask you to relay it to the Clubs of your origin, as it has been passed down to me.”

I tried to speak, but the words tumbled together on my tongue, and I said nothing.

“The world is ending” she said. “The message has come down from child to adult, child to adult, passed back down the generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending and we cannot prevent it . So now it’s up to you.”

I found that Thai was the only language which wanted to pass my lips in any coherent form, and the only word which I seemed capable of forming was, why?

Not, I hasten to add, why was the world ending?

Why did it mater?

She smiled, and understood my meaning without needing it to be said. She leaned in close and murmured in my ear, “The world is ending as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”

That opening pulled me in like jerking a leash. And the rest of the novel pays off on the promise.

Soon enough, Harry August finishes up dying and, just like the other ten times he died, he finds himself reborn as a baby in 1918 England. Quickly, all the memories of Harry’s previous lives come back to him. He’s an adult mind in a child’s body, until the body grows to adulthood in the usual way. He’s immortal, but it’s a peculiar kind of immortality, bound to repeat over and over the same swathe of the 20th Century. (One time he makes it all the way into the 21st Century. He decides he doesn’t care for it).

The novel wanders pleasantly for its first half, as Harry goes through his first few lives, learning how to be an immortal and exploring the world of the 20th Century. In the second part, Harry confronts the cause of the oncoming end of the world, and devotes several of his lives to preventing it.

“Fifteen Lives” is a thrilling, thoughtful, and well-written science fiction novel that explores moral responsibility and the 20th Century. I hope you love it as much as Julie and I did.

George RR Martin’s “Wild Cards” books are coming to TV

The “Game of Thrones” author’s Wild Cards series are set in an alternate history where an alien virus in the 1940s gave superpowers to a tiny fraction of humanity. Martin worked on the books with Melinda Snodgrass and a team of about 30 collaborators, each writing individual stories in the larger universe.

I loved the first dozen or so volumes of the series, and I’m looking forward to the TV show.

Dalya Alberge at The Guardian:

It is a sprawling fantasy featuring deformed humans, superheroes who can read minds and fly, and plot lines exploring issues such as bigotry and raw political ambition. Like the blockbuster TV hit Game of Thrones, it is also based in part on the work of the cult fantasy writer George RR Martin.

Now Hollywood is betting that a major TV adaptation of Wild Cards, a series of science fiction books grounded in gritty realism that Martin began writing 30 years ago, can emulate the extraordinary worldwide success of the HBO show. If it does, it will fulfil the dreams of Martin’s collaborator on Wild Cards, Melinda Snodgrass, who has struggled in vain for 12 years to interest film and television producers.

The US writer and editor was praised by executives, only to be given excuses about why the books were not for them. She refused to be bowed by rejection and her determination has finally paid off. She is now heading an ambitious TV adaption of the series backed by Universal Pictures.

 

Link

Word processing has transformed the way writers work, a transition from typewriters to electronic writing that happened in a  few short years, starting in the mid-70s and ending by 1984 and 1985. The transition has been largely overlooked by literary historians, but now Matthew Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, has written a history, “Track Changes” (great title!). He talked with Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic: How to Write a History of Writing Software

Writers of genre fiction — particularly science fiction — adopted word processors long before literary writers. That’s not necessarily because science fiction writers are technology focused (I’ve been surprised myself by how Luddite science fiction fans can be in their real-life use of technology), but because genre writers need to work fast, and turn out a lot of work at high volume.

Robinson writes:

[Kirschenbaum’s] new history joins a much larger body of scholarship about other modern writing technologies—specifically, typewriters. For instance, scholars confidently believe that the first book ever written with a typewriter was Life on the Mississippi,by Mark Twain. They have conducted typographical forensics to identify precisely how T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was composed—which typewriters were used, and when. And they have collected certain important machines for their archives.

One day, a similarly expansive body of work may exist for writing software—and Kirschenbaum will be one of its first builders.

In the interview, Kirschenbaum addresses the question of which author was the first to write a novel with a word processor.

We can’t know with absolute certainty, I don’t think, but there are a couple of different answers.

If we think of a word processor or a computer as something close to what we understand today—essentially a typewriter connected to a TV set—there are a couple of contenders from the mid- to late-1970s. Notably Jerry Pournelle, who was a science fiction author. He is probably the first person to sit and compose at a “typewriter” connected to a “TV screen”—to compose there, to edit, and revise there, and then to send copy to his publisher. That was probably a novella called Spirals.

But there are earlier examples. Len Deighton, a highly successful author of British high-tech espionage thrillers, bought an early IBM word processor in the late 1960s. It wasn’t recognizably related to the word processors of today; the user typed on an IBM Selectric MS/ST typewriter that simultaneously recorded text on magnetic tape and conventional paper.

Kirschenbaum notes that secretaries, usually women, were the first to use word processors. Indeed, I remember that in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, successful men couldn’t type — typing was clerical, menial work, something that most men simply did not do. The transition to personal computers led to a brief bloom of typing classes — although the word “typing” had girl-cooties, so these classes were called “keyboarding,” or even “executive keyboarding.”

Me, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer, and even in the late 70s it was obvious to many of us that personal computing was the future. I taught myself to touch-type when I was about 12 years old, and I took a typing class in high school to brush up on those skills, along with a few male friends who were also active in the computer club.

Back to Kirschenbaum: Even though the MS/ST lacked a screen, he calls it the first word processor because it stored the text electronically.

Your “screen” was the sheet of paper you had in your Selectric typewriter. You did your typing on the Selectric—which is the same typewriter, for example, we see in Mad Men; it’s a famous ’60s-era electric typewriter—and if you made mistakes, you would backspace. You would get a mess on the sheet of paper that was currently on the Selectric, but the correct sequence of character strokes was being stored on the tape. Then you would put a clean sheet of paper into the typewriter and it would automatically print out, sort of player-piano fashion, the text stored on the tape’s storage.

This unit sold in the 1960s for $10,000. That’s obviously quite a lot of money, and IBM used the term word processing as a marketing device.

Deighton wrote on a conventional Selectric, then handed the typescript to his secretary, Ellenor Handey, to retype it using the MS/ST. Therefore, I call shenanigans on Kirschenbaum’s classifying Deighton as the first author to use a word processor, simply because he wasn’t the one using the MS/ST. Still, it’s an interesting anecdote — Deighton was on the edge between non-word-processor users and word-processor users.

And importantly, Kirschenbaum says the essential thing about the word processor isn’t the screen, it’s the fluid, electronic nature of the text.

Microsoft Word is still the gold standard for writing software; even people who write primarily for the Internet — including most of the technology journalists I know — use Word. That absolutely flummoxes me. Even today, Word  seems to me to be software designed primarily to produce printed hardcopy, often ornately formatted in ways that writers don’t care about. It’s not designed for articles, blog posts, or books; it’s designed for corporate annual reports.

Until recently, I preferred to write in text editors designed by and for software developers. Now, there’s a new generation of word processing software developed primarily for people who write electronically; Ulysses for Mac is one of those apps, which is the one I use. Scrivener is a more well-known example.

A lot of writing today gets done in email applications and web browsers — specifically the text entry box of Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m writing this post in the composition window of WordPress. I’m writing on a plane (Kirschenbaum discusses how word processors have changed WHERE we write, as well as how), and I don’t currently have an Internet connection. I really, really hope I don’t lose my work, but WordPress is pretty good about that.

And of course, writing on mobile phones is hugely popular. Maybe the people who are toddlers today will never learn to keyboard; they’ll just thumb-type.

Kirschenbaum also talks about writers he calls “refuseniks,” who were adults in the 70s and 80s and who refused to use word processors. Harlan Ellison is possibly the most outspoken example, still pounding away at a typewriter. Cormac McCarthy is another example.

Another example, not mentioned by Kirschenbaum in this interview: Our friend the science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, author of “The Forever War” and a couple of dozen other, excellent novels. Joe is no refusenik; last time I talked tech with him he was a user of a Mac, iPad, and iPhone. But he likes writing his first drafts in fountain pen on bound, blank books. He says he just writes better that way.

I’ve added Kirschenbaum’s book to my Amazon Wishlist. And, hey, there’s another idea for a book: How digital technology changes the way we read. When I was a teen-ager back in the 70s, I could easily read two or three books every week. Now, I read a half-dozen books a year, if that. I have to make a conscious effort to set aside some time every day to read books. Most of my reading time is taken up reading articles.

 

Weird futurism

Madeline Ashby’s new novel, Company Town, starts out like your average futuristic novel about a ninja bodyguard hired to protect unionized sex workers on a city-sized oil drilling platform off the coast of Canada. Then it starts getting weird. I’m talking time-hopping, artificial superintelligence weird. Serial killers with invisibility suits weird. And I haven’t even gotten to the part about the traumatized children of K-pop stars. If you like your science fiction kaleidoscopically strange yet infused with astute observations about where current technology might take us, you need to pick up a copy of Company Town right now.

You want some weird futurism? Start reading Company Town

[Ars Technica/Annalee Newitz]

Looks intriguing. I’m adding it to my to-be-read list.

The three types of time travel in movies

Books, too. Love this.

I remember back in the days of Usenet, there was a long, meaty, nerdtastic discussion of all the various braided timelines of Back to the Future. Like, for example, what happened to the Marty who grew up with the well-adjusted family in the timeline that sprang into being at the end of BttFI? Did he connect with Doc Brown, given that he already had a good father at home?

Source: The three types of time travel in movies – Imgur

A different kind of subtext

X-Rays Reveal “Hidden Library” on the Spines of Early Books [Jason Daley – Smithsonian.com]

The first book printers, in 15th Century Europe, used handwritten manuscripts to reinforce spines and covers of the new printed books. Now, using technology called “macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometry,” researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands are able to read these old texts without ripping apart the almost-as-old books.

As part of the experiment, the team scanned 20 books. According to a press release, their discoveries include fragments from a 12th century manuscript from the early English historian Bede as well as text from the Dutch Book of Hours. The X-ray was also able to separate out texts that had been pasted on top of one another.

“Every library has thousands of these bindings, especially the larger collections. If you go to the British Library or the Bodleian [in Oxford], they will have thousands of these bindings,” [says Leiden book historian Erik Kwakkel] “So you can see how that adds up to a huge potential.”

But it may be a while before the hidden library is fully revealed. The current method is painfully slow, taking up to 24 hours to scan a book’s spine. The researchers hope that advances in X-ray technology will soon help speed up the process.

I’ve got a gut feeling this will be a good book

Michael Lewis Explores Why People Tend to Go With Their Guts [Alexandra Alter – The New York Times]

Michael Lewis specializes in narratives about quirky individuals who zig when everyone else zags. In “Moneyball,” he tracked the astonishing success of Billy Beane, the general manager who turned the Oakland A’s from underdogs into championship contenders by relying on statistics rather than acquiring star players. His 2010 book “The Big Short” dissected how a handful of renegades foresaw the collapse of the housing market, while everyone else was pouring money into subprime mortgages.

[The books] raised a nagging question that Mr. Lewis never fully confronted: Why do most people, from sports managers to bankers, so often overlook the data and make colossal errors based on gut instinct? Why aren’t people as data driven as Billy Beane?

In his coming book, “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds,” which W.W. Norton & Company will release this December, Mr. Lewis finally tackles that question.

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The Spanish Civil War: ‘The first battle of World War II’

 


Hitler backed the Fascist Nationalists, and used the war to try out weapons and strategies he’d later use in World War II. The Soviet Union backed the Communist Republicans, along with a cadre of American volunteers – the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Also backing the Spanish Fascists: Texaco, led by CEO Torkild Rieber, who later hired German Nazis, was fired by Texaco when the US turned resolutely anti-Nazi on the verge of our entry into World War II, and went to work for the Nazis directly.

On Fresh Air:

Nearly 80 years ago, about 2,800 Americans volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The war began in July 1936, when Gen. Francisco Franco led a fascist military coup against the the country’s newly elected democratic government. It lasted until Franco’s victory in 1939.

Journalist Adam Hochschild tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that “it was by far the largest number of Americans before or since who’ve ever joined somebody else’s civil war.”

Hochschild chronicles Americans’ involvement in the war in his new book, Spain in Our Hearts. He says that the majority of Americans in Spain (including writer Ernest Hemingway, who reported on the conflict) were sympathetic to the Republican forces who fought against Franco’s Nationalists.

In Many Ways, Author Says, Spanish Civil War Was ‘The First Battle Of WWII’ [Fresh Air]