Tuesday, May 27, 2008

War of the Worlds (1898) - By HG Wells

The world outside our planet has always fascinated us, even when we could not see what is out there. In addition to a quest with trying to finding out more of the mysteries of the Universe, there was always a few of the unknown. Suppose there is an alien race on other worlds, there is no reason to believe that they would be friendly towards humanity (in fact, given the ferocity with which humanity fights each other, it is very easy to assume that another race would find it easy to be hostile to us). And of course, if it is a race older than us, they would have a more advanced technology, more advanced weapons, and may be easily able to overcome us (and destroy humanity).
There has been a lot of movie and books coverage of the prospects of an alien invasion of earth, with movies such as Independence Day, Mars Attacks being the most recent. However, this book (by the futuristic science fiction writer HG Wells) is probable the earliest book that deals with this subject (leaving aside the tales of the pyramids and other such structures having been built by aliens), and also details a believable reason for why the attacks by a more technologically superior race would have stopped. In addition, Mars had already been believed to be the center of an advanced race when the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835-1910), described some of the natural phenomenon existing on Mars, and these were wrongly translated into English as 'there are canals on Mars'.

The War of the Worlds by H G Wells

This novel had remained popular, but what made this novel extraordinarily popular, and at the same scared a large section of the population, was a radio broadcast on Halloween (October 30, 1938) by Orson Wells, where he made listeners panic, believing that the news stories of an actual invasion were true.
The book is about the proposed landing of a Martian ship (cylinder) in the town of Woking, England near the end of the 19th century. This is preceded by the observations of a series of explosions on Mars and the launching of a meteor towards Earth. This meteor lands on Earth, and strange looking Martians start emerging from the cylinder and start building up machinery. Approaching humans are killed by a death ray (a heat ray). The machine that the Martians have been building is a 3-legged fighting machine that uses the heat ray and also uses poison gas in the form of a black smoke.
Attacks on these army of attacking Martians are easily repelled, and they are soon taking control of vast sections of South England, with the populations of those areas evacuating. The narrator, the one who is explaining what is happening (and having been separated from his wife in one of the confusing moments during the attack) is able to watch the Martians from close quarters, including their use of human blood as food. And then suddenly the Martians vanish - they have been felled by the pathogens (bacteria / virus) found on Earth, and to which they are not immune.

War and Peace (by Leo Tolstoy)

'War and Peace' has been called as the best novel ever written, and while there would be other favorite novels and people might consider other novels as the greatest, there is no getting around the fact that this is a great novel. War and Peace is taught in many English literature courses as an alltime great book by a great author (his other work, 'Anna Karenina' was also very famous).
The story is set around the 1812 French-Russian war where the French emperor, Napolean had invaded Russia. This was eventually a great disaster for the French, since they first managed to take Moscow (which had been abandoned by the Russians as a part of this war), but this did not do them too much good. The Russian winter had already set in, the army had to eventually return back, and they were harassed by the Cossack attacks. They lost a majority of their force in this return, and at the same time, left most of the wooden structures of Moscow burning.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The novel was published through a period from 1865 to 1869 in the 'Russkii Vestnik', and went through 2 complete different forms. Tolstoy was not happy with the first published draft, and totally rewrote the novel to get another version, that was the final published version. This original version was also published again in the last 2 decades and is now available in many languages after translation. The writing of the book in its original also reflects some of the cultural norms of the society of that time - while most of the book was in Russian, there are many dialogues that were written in French since this was the language of the French aristocracy. There is apparently a small patriotic subtext in the book as well as regards language - French is used more to denote insincerity while Russian is increasingly used to show the more honest and better part.
The book takes characters from 3 main Russian families (The Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Bezukovs, along with some more associated characters), including those who are part of the nobility and those on the edge of financial ruin, and takes the movements in their life, centered around the oncoming conflict with France, and moving onto the changes that happen due to this conflict, and the aftermath. An imposing historical figure such as Napoleon is a side part of this story, it is the impressive flesh and blood tale of these Russian characters, intersection with a description of the Russian society at that time that makes this a very impressive work of fiction.
The story presents some major characters such as Pierre Bezukhov (the main character, very honest, but not worldly wise - supposed to be a reflection of Tolstoy himeself), Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky (brave, a soldier looking forward to the war), Natasha Rostova (starting out as a young girl, she goes through many trials and tribulations, and eventually gets married to Pierre), Nikolai Rostov (another soldier, also responsible for trying to keep his family from financial ruin), Sonya Rostova (a poor cousin, she was engaged to Nikolai, but eventually releases him so that he can marry the rich Princess Maria), and many other such characters.

Space Odyssey 2010: Odyssey 2

Arthur C Clarke was a visionary story teller and science fiction writer. He will forever be remembered for his visionary writings, such as the conceptualization of the geo-stationary communications satellite; and for his great works of fiction such as the 'Space Odyssey 2001' (made into a excellent movie). In Space Odyssey 2010, he continues his work, moving ahead the story of the monolith around Jupiter (in a slight adjustment, while 2001 the book was about Saturn, while 2001 the movie was about Jupiter, and hence 2010 the book refers to Jupiter - so readers should not get confused that the first book talks about Saturn while the second book talks about Jupiter).
2001 was in the decade when the quest for the moon was at its peak, and the book was right before the Moon landings were planned, so there was a great more public enthusiasm for the book (more suspense). This book (Odyssey 2) was released in 1982, so it was not directly linked to anything happening in real life, and the space program was ongoing, but that initial romanticism was missing.

2010 Odyssey Two By Arthur C Clarke

This book was set in a period 9 years after the events of 2001, and a joint Soviet-American expedition on Soviet spaceship Alexei Leonov is planned to visit the abandoned Discovery spacecraft so that they can find out what really happened (after all, David Bowman vanished from the viewpoint of Earth (he turned into a starchild)), as well as to determine what happened with regard to the monolith. However, there is a surprise since a spacecraft leaps out of Earth orbit, and is revealed to be a Chinese inter-planetary spacecraft called Tsien, setting a course for Jupiter and expected to reach before the Leonov.
The Tsien lands on Europa to collect water for its propulsion, but runs into an accident when native life forms overwhelm the ship (attracted by the light from the ship) and given the loss of the ship, the crew are destined to die there (the final survivor radioing this information to the arriving Leonov). The Loenov eventually reaches the Discovery and Dr. Chandra manages to reactivate HAL. At the same time, we learn that the ethereal form of David Bowman visits his mother and girlfriend on Earth; he also does investigation of the life forms on Europa and in the cloud region of Jupiter. In the balance between these 2, the life forms on Europa are deemed to have a far greater potential for growth and evolution.
Bowman then appears before Floyd and warns that they must leave Jupiter within 15 days. Naturally, the crew hesitate to believe Floyd until they see the monoliths growing all over Jupiter, at which point an emergency mission is setup, using the Discovery as a booster for increasing speed. And in a scene designed to remind humans about the awesome capabilities of the intelligence behind the monoliths, the monoliths actually increase the density of Jupiter until the planet becomes a star (having achieved nuclear fusion). And there is a final warning that Bowman delivers via HAL, "ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE." HAL in turn is absorbed in the monolith just like David Bowman was.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)

In today's world, we take underground tunnels, trains, space travel, satellites, etc, as standard everyday things. However, there was a time when there was no concept of having long tunnels under the seabed, or massive bridges many kilometers long; and travel to space was difficult to visualize (astronomy existed, but to visualize precise details was difficult). It is to the credit of the science fiction writers of that time that they were able to visualize underwater, underground, and space travel adventures. One of the most famous science fiction writers of that time was Jules Verne, who wrote about locations and adventures that were unheard of in the 19th century, and many of which bear a good resemblance to what came into reality many many decades later. One of Jules Verne's novels that makes interesting reading is the tale of a journey underground - A Journey to the Center of the Earth.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)

However, this novel should be looked upon as fiction. In this particular case, the novel is not very accurate. However, it is still a good work of fiction, and should be read for that reason alone.
The story is that of an eccentric professor, who is attempting to follow in the footsteps of an Icelandic adventurer who had made an epic journey to the center of the earth a long time back, and of which there are not many records. The professor gets his nephew to follow him (well, actually the nephew volunteers for this expedition), and along with a strong, silent, guide, they head off this to this incredible journey.
The professor finds a coded text in a book written by Snorri Sturluson, and is desperate to decode the parchment, going without food if necessary. It is the nephew, Axel who managed to decode the code, finding that it was just written backwards. He is concerned about what his uncle will do if he finds that the text has been decoded, but after 2 more days without food, gives up and tells his uncle about the decoding. The code is very simple: "Descend, bold traveler, into the crater of the jokul of Sneffels, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the calendas of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth; I have done this, Arne Saknussemm" (the translation in English).
Inspite of the protestations of his nephew, the professor is eager to take this trip, and after arriving in Reykjavík, they hire an Icelandic hunter, Hans Bjelke, as their guide. After some delay due to clouds, they are able to find the starting point, and start a descent into a crater. And then start their adventures, with very sharp descents, almost running out of water once, another time when Axel separates from the others and is only able to find the others due to a strange acoustic phenomenon. They find strange creatures, and a massive underwater cavern with a huge water body; the water body contains many prehistoric creatures.
At a point however, they find that the path is blocked; they decide to blast their way through; however, the resultant upheaval pulls them through the blasted path at a high speed, and soon they find themselves in a close proximity to hot water and magma. Just when they are sure that they will soon boil, they find themselves rising fast, and soon get ejected from a volcano (in Stromboli, in Italy - very far away from their descent point in Iceland). They are all termed as heroes when their journey comes to public knowledge.

David Copperfield (1850)

David Copperfield is probably the book that is the most autobiographical of Charles Dickens novels, borrowing many sections from his life. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) lived in poverty during his childhood, being one of 8 children. He had little formal education, and yet grew out of his circumstances to become one of the most famous writers of all times. Many of his novels are prescribed reading in English literature courses in schools and colleges. Most of his books are based on human emotions, and contain a fair amount of poverty, human emotions, and so on. They present a vivid picture of human society.

David Copperfield

The novel was published in 1850, and like his other novels, appeared in serial form in monthly installments. Dickens also reckoned this book to be his favorite novel. The novel was written in the first person, with David Copperfield being the narrator of the novel. The book has one clear message: The disciplining of the life (emotional and moral) of the hero, presenting a number of characters who are either disciplined, and others who are not disciplined. The book portrays the various characters in terms of the discipline in their life, including Agnes Wickfield, Mr. Peggotty, Uriah Heep, James Steerforth, Betsy Trotwood, Dora Spenlow, etc. Many of these characters have become very famous.
The book is about the life of David Copperfield, who loses his father six months before he his born, and he gets a new stepfather (Mr Edward Murdstone) when David is around 7 years. David cannot stand him or his sister, Jane and gets sent to a boarding school soon after biting his stepfather. When David returns home in a break, he finds that his mother is going to have a baby. However, when his mother and her baby die, David has to return to the home, and gets sent to a factory in London, where David has a doleful and poor experience. Soon, the factory owner goes bankrupt, and David manages to make his way to Dover to be with his aunt, and finally free of his stepfather.
He comes across many more character as he moves to adulthood, some of them good, kind and caring; others were selfish. Eventually, they get some sort of desserts for their acts. David himself finally finds happiness with his second wife, Agnes.

Bonefire of the Vanities (1987) by Tom Wolfe

'Bonefire of the Vanities', published in 1987, a biting portrayal of the New York of the 1980's was a major commercial success. It was not author Tom Wolfe's first work (he had written journalistic articles and non-fiction books before this work), but the success of this book must have left him spell-bound. The book was eventually made into a motion picture of the same name, with some great credentials (movie 'Bonefire of the Vanities', released in 1990, was directed by Brian DePalma, and starred such name as Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Melanie Griffith). Part of the reason why the novel struck such a resounding chord could because the characters could be been as representing many of the character flaws of important public figures.

The Bonefire of the Vanities (1987)

The characters themselves represent the worst of the sins of greed, adultery, ambition, the preoccupation with status and wealth, the arrogance of the wealthy and the insurrection type violence of the deprived, the way in which you can actually depend on no one, and the special talents of wannabe and existing politicians. Imagine what happens when a highly arrogant and wealthy banker gets hit by about everything that he can be hit with and becomes the target for people wanting to use him to advance their own career. In addition, New York city seems like a perfect spot for such a novel to be set - it is probably the most melting point type of city in the world (with unprecedented riches and the most poor and deprived).
The book is about the powerful and WASP banker Sherman McCoy, arrogant in his status and wealth (he is atop the banking circles of New York). He is already distant from his wife, and is in the car with his mistress, Maria Ruskin - this is when his troubles start. He accidentally enters the Bronx, and in a confrontation with some muggers, his mistress takes over the wheel and hits one of them, young Henry Lamb.
This accident becomes the Saviour for a number of people, all of whom will use this incident and the powerful symbol of a white powerful man hitting a poor and powerless young black man. So, Peter Fallow, a drunk washed out reporter, gets a chance to take on this assignment, and uses this to powerful advantage, writing a series of articles based on this incident, and against McCoy when it becomes clear that it was his car that was involved. McCoy is also ditched by his mistress who soon makes it clear that she was not involved in the accident.
What makes matter worse is the involvement of a local religious leader with political aspirations, Reverend Bacon (seemingly styled on the real life Rev Al Sharpton), who wants to utilize this accident to further his career as the one who really cares for the African-American community. And to increase the forces against McCoy, he is also targeted by the district attorney, Abe Weiss, who is up for re-election and sees this trial as a way to consolidate votes behind him (and will do anything to get a conviction). With all these factors against him, McCoy is in for it, and is soon up for trial. What happens next ?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Desperately Seeking Paradise By Ziauddin Sardar

"Desperately Seeking Paradise" is a spiritual-cum-philosophical autobiography by British author and scholar, Ziauddin Sardar. In this book, the author is in search of the right approach for paradise (and please do not take it literally) - one notion which is termed as the prime objective for every Muslim. In his search, he joins one sect (or thought of school) and then gets dejected by its approach/thoughts/people etc... and then leaves it to join another and same thing happens there as well and then another and so on... His search takes him from Mecca to Bejing and all the other places, in between meeting with people like Zia-ul-Haq to Anwar Ibrahim, even attending a mujaheddin meeting with Osama Bin Laden in attendance, and him running into Iran's military police in times of Ayotollah. There is an entire chapter dedicated on 'The Satanic Verses' controversy - talking about how the author felt bad about 'The Satanic Verses' and the Ayotollah's fatwa as well. Here the author regrets that the core issue was buried under whatever political drama that took place around the controversy.

The book is filled with lots of information about various aspects of Islam, ranging from different terms associated with it to the current as well as traditional interpretation of different things associated. He also looks into different school of thoughts and poses a not-so-rosy picture of things. This book was written in pre-Iran, pre-Iraq, pre-Afghanistan era and with his descriptions one can relate to what is happening now and how its roots are related to those times only. The authors quest for a new initiative about "paradise-seeking" is not accepted in the traditionalist societies where the true meaning of Islam has been confined to having a beard sometimes. He also tries to understand what does Sharia means in actual terms and how it should be adapted in modern times - again he finds that societies just want Islam in totality but are never open to understand the totality itself.

I am not sure what to make out of this book - I am as confused about this book as the author is about his search. The main problem as seen by the author is that nobody is willing to listen to modernist Islamic views. Overall, a nice read for me at least - for understanding more about Islam and another face of it where there are modernist thoughts in plenty.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

If there are 2 things that Arthur C Clarke will be most famous for, my guess would be for his visionary work, including the concept of a geo-stationary satellite (most famously used to position communications satellites) and for his creation of the best seller 2001: A space Odyssey and its sequels (2010, 2061, and 3001). These were created for and along with an incredible movie of the same name by Stanley Kubrick. Together, this book, and the novel both captured the fascination with space (and its dangers), along with a fear of what an advanced computer (H.A.L) can do (somewhat similar to the fear of sharks that got positively entrenched with the movie Jaws).
Both the book and the screenplay for the movie went hand in hand, and were based on the short story 'The Sentinel' written by Arthur C Clarke in 1950. The novel was an important milestone in the history of science fiction, combining elements of man's historical development, delves into development of space travel and the problems of differential gravity, aliens and the thought that there is a master race that kick-started human development, and then how mankind may not have worked out all the issues related to intelligent computers.

2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

The book starts from an age long long ago (3 million years ago) when there were humanoid races in Africa. They managed to survive, only just, getting fruits and the like, and not knowing how to hunt. They had short life spans, and did not have either the feelings of attachment to each other, and would not have been able to do much either. They were at the mercy of wild beasts, with no instruments with which to defend themselves. And then arrives a rectangular black monolith that starts to delve into their minds, developing their minds. They learn how to develop tools from the natural materials at hand such as rocks and the sharp teeth of wild animals. And then they develop the thought of being able to even fight back against the wild animals that threaten them; and most important, get meat from the wild beasts roaming around them. Humanity gets kick-started, getting into a period of development that leads to us.
Cut to the present age. Humanity has started exploration on the moon, and there they discover something that astounds them. A sheer black monolith has been discovered underground in the moon, in a sector that the US controls, and the eminent Dr. Heywood Floyd is sent to the moon to do further investigations and help the scientists over there. He is told that they have discovered a magnetic disturbance in a site now called Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-One (TMA-1), and they discovered the monolith underground. It is clear that this is not a natural creation, and was actually created 3 million years ago, so this has to be aliens.
Soon, the lunar sunlight hits them, and the monolith, exposed to sunlight for the first time in 3 million years, sends a strong radio signal out that reaches the far extent of the solar system. Switch to the next episode in the book. A ship Discovery One carrying 5 astronauts and an advanced computer HAL 9000 is on its way to Saturn on an exploration mission. 3 of those astronauts are in a state of hibernation, and the remaining 2, Frank Poole and David Bowman, are the ones who are the ones who are supposed to be in charge of the ship (or more likely, be secondary advisors to HAL who can run the ship totally on its own).
The HAL 9000 is an advanced computer, but its designers had never thought about wondering about the impact of the orders it had been given to the intelligent brain. HAL had been given orders to conceal the real knowledge about its mission to both Poole and Bowman (to explore Japetus, the 3rd largest moon of Saturn, the destination of the radio signal from the monolith on the moon), and this was conflicting with its other orders to report all the information fully. This was causing a conflict, and in these strained times, when it felt threatened with termination, it actually decides to kill the astronauts.
So, first it kills Poole by reporting one of the critical AE35 units as malfunctioning twice, and then when Poole goes to investigate, killing him with his own space pod. Then when Bowman threatens it with shut-down, it opens the airlock of the spacecraft to the pressure of the vacuum. Eventually, Bowman gets to an emergency shelter, and then retakes control of the spacecraft by shutting down the circuits of the HAl 9000 computer. He also buries the 3 hibernating astronauts in space, and decides to complete the mission on his own control.
He reaches Japetus with a lot of help from mission control, and discovers a black monolith on the surface. While reporting all this to mission control, he decides to approach Japetus using his space pod, and when almost there, before the pod reaches the monolith, he sends out a final signal 'The thing's hollow — it goes on forever — and — oh my God! — it's full of stars!'
Bowman goes through an extra-ordinary journey, realizing that the monolith is a giant switching system, similar to a 'Grand Central Station' of the universe. He sees things that he never thought that he would see, while in a protective shield that saves him from the surrounding regions (including a very close red sun). As he finally sleeps, his mind and memories are drained from his body, becoming a new immortal entity that can travel through space, a Star Child. Bowman now returns to the Solar System and Earth, and is now a very powerful entity, but unsure of what to do - something that he will eventually figure out.

The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was one of the pioneers of the field of writing about robotics, and was most famous for his creation of the Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These seem simple enough, but as with laws for humans, there can be many interpretations and conflicts that can arise out of using these laws. 'The Rest of the Robots' is a set of 8 short stories that all deal with robots, and many of them also have references to these laws as well as situations arising out of problems with the use of these laws. I found the collection to be very readable and interesting, and considering that most of these stories are more than 50 years old, not dated in any way. We have not had the development of humanoid robotics to the extent that Asimov had written about, so many of these are stories that we will still need to worry about.

The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov

The collection was released in 1964, and hence you can consider the book to be a very old book indeed, and yet when I was browsing through some Asimov books on an online bookshop, I found it easily available, which means there is a regular demand for it. The book starts out with a foreword by Asimov in which he explains about how books used to be about robots, they were seen as being part of the Frankenstein complex, where man created robots, and robots would destroy man, and this happened again and again. Asimov chose to move away from this concept, and wrote stories with far more complexity and depth.
The book has 8 short stories:
1. Robot AL-76 goes astray: A story in which a robot bound for the moon somehow manages to get loose on earth, and has to try and figure out its surroundings, especially when it has been fed only information about the moon. It creates a great new machine, but then destroys it when ordered to in mistake. A comedy.
2. Victory international: About projecting the power of robots, especially those constructed with a great deal of care to make extra-strong so that they can impress the ferocious inhabitants of Jupiter.
3. First law: About an exception when the power of the First Law cannot suppress the maternal instincts of a robot, and the robot is willing to let a human die.
4. Let's get together: A political story about robots being used as terrorists. Showcases one of the biggest fears of humanoid terrorists.
5. Satisfaction guaranteed: One of the most complex stories of this volume. Deals with human emotions such as jealousy, envy and a feeling of low confidence, and how this interfaces with the First law.
6. Risk: About how the human mind can still be a much better instrument to deal with uncertainty and complexity rather than even the most complex positronic brain.
7. Lenny: About the maternal instinct in even the most seemingly hard-boiled scientist can come about when dealing with an under-developed robot.
8. Galley slave: A story which deals with the fear in a human about the advent of robotics and how this could totally destroy human creativity in a slow and gradual way.
The last 4 stories also had the character of Dr. Susan Calvin, whom Asimov used as a representative of the robopshycologist, the head in that area for US Robotics, and a pioneer in the development of robots.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie (Wikipedia) was one of the most prolific writers in the detective genre and created two most unlikely characters in the form of detectives. Till then, the character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes defined the character of the detective - a man who is exceedingly smart and knows it, but is not very vain, and who can be urged to great action when he needs to, also a man of great physical strength (even if his frame does not suggest it). Both the characters created by Agatha Christie were very different, with Miss Marple being a frail old lady, but with a terrific mind and ability to think through things (most of which occur in her village) even when she is engrossed in daily routine manners, and then the other character who is the central character of this novel, the egg shaped Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
A vain man, who knows that he is very smart, and is not above telling other people about this. He is obsessed with things being proper, making sure that his mustache is well maintained and becomes uncomfortable when he finds out that people do not know about him. At the same time, he is very capable, like Sherlock Holmes, of putting facts together, and of being able to find the discrepancies that help him crack the crime. Hercule Poirot was introduced by Agatha Christie in 1920 in 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' and appeared in 33 of Christie's novels and 54 short stories.

Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

The story has a twist in the end, when Hercule Poirot actually presents 2 different options as to who did the murder, and presents it in such a way that the decision will eventually go only one way. The novel is set on the Orient Express, near Belgrade. Poirot is returning from a case in Syria, and gets a berth on the Orient Express with difficult, due to the help of his friend Monsieur Bouc, a director of the company which operates the Express. He meets a number of people on the train (and is very surprised at the fact that it is full, something very unlikely at this time of the year). He also meets a man who exudes violence, Mr. Ratchett, who asks him to act as his defender from people out to get him and Poirot refuses.
On the second night, he hears a noise in the night from the neighboring compartment, occupied by Mr. Ratchett. After some time, the conductor is called by Mrs. Hubbard who is terrified that somebody is in her coach. There is some further commotion, but then he sleeps. When he gets back, he is notified that the train will not move further since it is stuck in a snowdrift, and also learns that Mr. Ratchett has been murdered during the night, struck multiple times with a knife; and Poirot is the one called on for help.
After some investigation, Poirot discovers that Mr. Ratchett was actually a leader of a criminal gang and his real name was Cassetti. He was the chief leader of the plot to abduct the rich heiress Daisy Armstrong, and she was then murdered inspite of the ransom having been paid by her parents. Both her parents died subsequently, her mother in grief which induced an early childbirth and she died, her father shooting himself. It also caused suspicion in other house members such as the maid who was suspected and who killed herself because of this suspicion.
Poirot finds that the clues and events of the night are set in such a manner that every person has an alibi, sometimes from unexpected resources; and eventually starts to think in a holistic sense, trying out a theory that the other members of the investigating party (the official and the doctor) are unable to think through. Finally, through some conjecture (and this was the weak link in the book - everything seemed to settle through easily), he is able to deduce the actual facts and the names of the murderer(s). He then presents this theory, as well as an alternative theory to the other members of the team, and asks them to pick the one that they prefer. What choice do they make of the theory to present to the Yugoslav police when they will reach there ?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum

Robert Ludlum wrote a lot about conspiracies of power and attempting to take control, a subject that was very popular in the 60's and 70's with all the talk of the rise of the arms-industrial complex and associated industries; the good part is that he was able to weave a good storyline that kept a person compelled to read the book. Ludlum's books had many things in common, they had a fast paced action, they always had many top level people involved, including surprises where some of the people were not expected to be a part of the conspiracy, but they were.
The Materese Circle involves 2 brutal and skilled enemies, Vasili Taleniekov from the Soviet Union, and Brandon Alan Scofield from the US State Dept Consular Relations. These 2 are killers who have killed people loved by either one of them, and hate each other in a visceral way. And they are the 2 main suspects from either side when valuable people on tne US (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Soviet (a very renowned scientist) side are assassinated in a brutal way. Suspicion immediately falls onto the other, and is only neautralized when the leaders of either countries calls the other.

The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum

Both of these are killers are now getting slightly old, maybe not of so much use to their country's intelligence community, but still have the talent. However, little do they know about the way that their life is going to be turned. They are soon going to be getting information about a massive conspiracy, called the Materese Circle, spun by an old Corsican rich man and coming to full active life now. The conspiracy has its own troops, its own assassins and its own leaders, and they will stop at nothing to remove the ones they want to remove from their path. The Materese leaders are the ones who are orchestrating the international terrorism community (one must remember this was before the time of the Al-Qaeda), and is now moving towards getting control of both Moscow and Washington DC, and it is very difficult to stop them.
Taleniekov learns of these facts from an old friend who is dying after a visit from a killer of the Matarese Circle, and finds it hard to believe all this conspiracy, and when told to work with Scofield, refuses; but soon things are moving to get them together. Both these skilled killers are, under instructions from Matarese Men, sentenced to death by their respective Governments, no capture, no interrogation, just execution. Eventually, these 2 old enemies, get together (in an incredible episode of violence where they manage to kill the assassins sent to kill them). They travel to the Island of Corsica to learn more, and learn a fair deal more about the origins of the group called the Matarese. They are pursued relentlessly by the Matarese, who don't hesitate to kill friends and loved ones of these 2.
At the same time, these 2 are getting closer to the source, and eventually manage to reach their target, and in a final burst of violence, manage to eliminate the Matarese council, even as the Soviet is lost in this final carnage. Read the book for its fast paced flow, for the story that could seem realistic in a different time and that is very gripping.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is an incredibly famous book, probably the most famous book by Richard Bach (and he has written some other famous books such as One, Brodge Across Forever, Flight from Safety), and so on. The book is a very short novel, and many people can actually read it in one sitting without too much of a worry. However, the worth of the novel is in appreciating the contents of the book, so don't be too surprised if I say that I have read the book many number of times.
The novel in fact does not even cover any humans, and is all about seagulls (actually covering a seagull named as Jonathan Livingston). The book, covering his life, his fights and his struggles, is all about inspiration and the attempt to achieve what one is determined to do in life. So, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a seagull who feels different from the other seagulls. He wants to feel the pleasure of flying, and exults in going faster and faster. Unfortunately, this goes against the code of the community, where flying is a means to and end, and flying fast or going outside the code is not recommended.

Johnathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

He is warned, and refuses to heed the warning, until he is exiled from the community one day. This means that he will not be with the community of other seagulls, and they will not talk to him. He is sad about this, but his ambition is to gain control of fast flying, something not easy to do so. One day he has to suddenly deviate from his flight pattern in order to avoid a young one, and his new path takes him into the cliff-face, but he does not crash and die, instead he moves into a different plane. He now has certain powers, one of the few who have tried to do this and succeeded. Ultimately, he learns that Heaven is not a physical place, but the concept of attaining perfection. He then becomes a teacher, teaching other defiant young gulls the same art. I will not tell too much more, this is a book worth reading.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Airframe by Michael Crichton

Airframe is an interesting novel by Michael Crichton. It starts out with a normal flight returning back to Denver from Hong Kong when suddenly the whole plane starts to go haywire. The plane starts rapidly going out of control, and everything inside moves very rapidly, with passengers getting bounced around. And the plane declares a emergency off the California coast, and makes a rapid landing. A pretty horrific event. This starts the whole novel.
A typical event like this, which results in injuries and deaths to passengers will get investigated to the last bit of detail; after all, if there is a problem inside the type of plane, it needs to be found out so that the same thing can be avoided on other planes with other airlines. Part of the people who get affected by such an accident are the plane manufacturers, Norton Aircraft. They have to quickly figure out what went wrong, both to avoid scaring other airlines and to satisfy other stakeholders such as the media, shareholders, etc.

Airframe by Michael Crichton

The person central to this novel is Casey Singleton, a divorced single mother who is currently the Quality Assurance Representative on the Incident Review team (the team who actually does these sort of investigations) at Norton Aircraft. She will also be the press spokesperson, a high pressure job. Unfortunately, for the investigating team, there are some constraints;
- The flight crew has already left the country
- There is a probable deal with the Chinese airlines for 50 aircraft, so this incident needs to be investigated accurately within a very short time
- The union has heard rumours about a vital transfer of technology to China, and is beginning to get hostile
AS the investigations start, Casey soon discovers that not everything is as it seems to be, and she could very well be the scapegoat. She also has to balance being a single mother on top of everything else. She is also getting attacked by a mediaperson out to get some sensational stuff. DOes she manage to do a good job and uncover the truth ?

Isaac Asimov - The Complete Stories Volume 2

The last review was the Volume 1 of this collection. This is the concluding review, taking on the stories in Volume 2 of this series. There are some great stories in this collection as well, and let's get started on reading them.
Asimov has an incredible novel called 'Nightfall', about a society, not very advanced, that has 6 suns all around it, and does not know darkness. It's scientists find out that the society has followed an unusual pattern, with society dying and taking rebirth every 2500 years, and almost at the same time, they discover the law of gravitation, and find that the 6 suns actually all go into an eclipse once every 2500 years, and the time for that is approaching. This society cannot stand darkness, and when the suns are all away, setting fire to society is the only response from the crazed crowd. Nightfall was developed from a short story, and this story is there in this Volume of short stories.
There are some very interesting stories - some stories about interaction with alien species such as 'Green Patches' - probably a form of precursor to the single super-organism concept used in his later novels; there is another moving story about conflict with an alien species in the story 'Hostess' - in fact, this is about a parasitic organism, 'Breeds there a man' is more about humanity being a lab species for a super species, C-chute is about the conflict with another species and the disparate group of people who get caught in this conflict, 'In a good cause' is a classic story where the focus is on inevitable conflict with another species and the different ways of getting humanity to focus on this conflict. 'What is this thing called love' is a humourous take at some of the same concepts.
'What if' deals with some what if scenarios in a relationship, and is a pretty intersting story, 'The Ugly little boy' is a story about the passion of motherhood and what it can make a person do, 'Sally' is an intersting story about a sort of robotics and how it can eventually seem scary, the same with 'Nobody here but -', 'Its such a beautiful day' is a great story about the wanting to escape from a closed society even when it is very comfortable. 'Strikebreaker' is a very moving story about the discrimination in a closed society and how they can make humanity veer off its basic sense of right and wrong,
In this second volume, Asimov was moving more towards a model of more conflict with other species, where eventually humans will strove to move into other worlds, and conflict is inevitable. It is possible that the basic nature of humanity being of a state of independence of thought, the possibility of humanity getting split is also possible.

Isaac Asimov - The Complete Stories Volume 1

Isaac Asimov is famous for his visionary science fiction works such as the Foundation series that take on a future galaxy side humanity and its search for peace and order as well as progress, and for his Robotic laws that seem like natural constraints on the actions of robotics experts. Besides these however, Asimov also wrote a number of short stories, and they find place in the 2 Volume Short Stories collection. This article takes on the first volume of this collection; the stories are an incredible mix of societal issues, future trends, and so on. There are some very interesting stories in this collection, and some that were somewhat not so interesting to me.
The best story of this collection, and one that appeals to me the most, is a story called 'The Last Question'. This is a story that takes on a question, moves it along the ages, never answering it, while projecting the technological advances in the ages that follow until you end up in an age ten trillion years in the future, when the entire universe is dying; and then you get the story of the creation mixed up in this answer 'Let there be light'. This story, while being a pretty short story, and without much complexity, is about the best blend of science and religion that I have seen.
There are numerous other stories that are particularly interesting stories, with the first one, 'The Dead Past', being a very direct reminder about the dangers of tinkering with some things that should not have happened, such as creating a machine capable of looking into the past. 'Franchise' talks about a future dealing with ability of machines to interfere in the political process that seems like fantasy, but it could have seemed realistic at some point of time. 'Gimmicks 3' is a delightful story about dealing with having sold your soul, and the way to get around that. 'Kid Stuff' is another interesting story about dealing with non-human creatures.
Some of the stories are more complicated such as 'The living space' about alternate probability patterns of existence. And we do have stories related to robotics, 'Satisfaction guaranteed' is a very interesting story dealing with robotics and human interactions, including the natures of self-confidence and jealousy. 'Hell-Fire' is a very short story about the dangers of atomic weapons, similary 'The Last Thump' is about the dangers arising from atomic weapons. 'Jokester' is a story that is very worrying, dealing with the problems about the existence of jokes and whether they are just a lab experiment. 'Profession' is a very moving story dealing with the need for future societies to encourage people to have new ideas for development of society; one reads this story, looks at the present, and is very happy that our society did not develop in such a manner (I would seriously recommend that this should be a story that should be part of general reading).
There are other stories such as detective story that would not be out of place in today's stories - "I'm in Marsport without Hilda". Asimov also wrote a few stories on the innate nature of humanity to fight wars and yet maintain their overall nature of independence, such as 'The Gentle Vultures'. Asimov also could not really conceptualize the age of the personal computer, imaging the existence of centralized massive computing resources, and in the midst of this single large computer of his called 'Multivac', he wrote a story about the stress of all the troubles of the world on this computer, and the incredible urge of the computer to terminate itself, called 'All the troubles of this world'. The story ends in this line, 'I want to die'.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth By Jhumpa Lahiri

After reading her two earlier (commercially) published works, Interpreter Of Maladies and The Namesake, I was eagerly waiting for Jhumpa Lahiri's next one - Unaccustomed Earth. And once again, I was spell bound by her literature. Unaccustomed Earth is truly wonderfully written and keeps the short story writing to the top. She is a master (short) story teller and this latest collection of short stories is another example of it. The best part about her short stories is that her characters are well defined and complex, her handling of the words is marvelous, her stories are never incomplete and they feel like a full novel.

The short stories in this work are:-
Unaccustomed Earth
A Choice of Accommodations
Only Goodness
Nobody's Business
Hema and Kaushik:
Once in a Lifetime
Year's End
Going Ashore

First five stories are individual in themselves while the last three are interconnected. In the title story, a young mother Ruma, is visited by her father, who forms a bond with his grandson. All the while, Ruma is unable to make a decision to ask him to stay with them or not and his father, on the other hand, is harboring a secret love affair. In "Hell-Heaven", a young girl narrates the story of her mother falling secretly in love, outside of her marriage, all the while not accepting it but feeling emotions of a jealous lover when her love marries another girl. In "A Choice of Accommodations", a husband's attempt to turn an old friend's wedding into a romantic getaway weekend with his wife takes a dark, revealing turn as the party lasts deep into the night. In "Only Goodness", a sister tries too hard to get her brother all the support to come out of alcoholism and in the end it threatens her own family. In "Nobody's Business", a young girl makes a wrong choice in love while her family is looking out eligible suitors for her and her roommate hesitantly tries to save her, nearly getting himself dammed in the whole process. And Hema and Kaushik, a trio of linked stories — is about the lives of a girl and boy who, one winter, share a house in Massachusetts. They travel from their foolish childhood to adulthood on separate painful paths, until destiny brings them together again years later.

I would say that I started this book with a prejudice and finished with it as well. But it never came in my way of reading this book from another point of view. It was just that I could not find faults in her writing - for me a fault is a boring phase through the book, a predictable story line or a complete lack of words and emotions. She kept me involved in the book all the while and never once I felt like what-am-I-reading. And for me that is a big thing while reading something. She has surely kept her high short story writing status well and truly intact throughout this book. Some people would say that she writes about confused Indian immigrants again and again and re-using her character set but then there is no deny from the fact that she is doing it wonderfully well.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"Malgudi Days" By R.K. Narayan

Nearly everyone of us (from my generation) would never forget the "Malgudi Days" we used to watch on the television in our childhood. That title music still lingers on our lips. To hear the tune, click here. Well, the serial was based on a wonderfully written collection of short stories from one of India's greatest novelist, R.K. Narayan.

Malgudi Days R K Narayan

It is a collection of short stories written by the author (around 32 in number) which are based in a fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. The fiction town of Malgudi has been imagined and described in such a form that it could be any town of India. The vast majority of the stories are less than ten pages long; several are under five; and only one is more than 20. Narayan wrote many of these stories under deadline, within the limits of word count and column length for The Hindu, a Madras newspaper for which Narayan had a contract for a weekly submission beginning in 1939. At the same time they all seem spontaneously and effortlessly composed. Each stands on its own, but they are inherently intertwined while remaining independent from each other. The only force binding them is the town of Malgudi.

The main characters in each of the short story is a real life character - be it a school boy, a retired old man, a gardener, a maid, post man, snake charmer, cobbler, a gateman or even a dog. They all seem so familiar (especially for people like me who were born and raised up in a small city - not a metro); they are people from every walk of life. In nearly all the stories, the description of Malgudi is very real-like - you can actually imagines its market place, its school, its main roads and other things while reading the stories.

Here are some of the best stories from the lot:-

Attila is a small pup in a family who is bought with the expectation that he will grow up to fierce and protector of the house, after all he has the right pedigree. He turns out to be the friendliest dog in the world and when a thief enters the house he turns protector in most unexpected fashion.

Leela’s Friend: Sidda works as a domestic help in an affluent household. His main task is to play with the daughter of the household, Leela, who is just a small girl. Leela is very fond of Sidda. One day her gold chain goes missing and Sidda is accused and handed over to the police. The chain is found later on.

Iswaran: In India, we seem to have very little tolerance for failure and Iswaran flunks his 12th board examinations more than once. He seems not to care and develops a tough exterior. This story rings true for many Indian youngsters even today.

Lawely Road: Lawely Road pokes gentle fun on the fixation of changing names of everything British after India got independence. In this story, the municipality wants to pull down a statue of Sir. F. Lawely with hilarious consequences.

Father’s Help: Swami (a small child studying in first standard) develops an headache in the morning just before school. Father is adamant that Swami has to attend school. Swami tells tales to father that his class teacher Samuel has a fascination of skinning people alive. Father writes a strong letter to the Headmaster of the school and Swami has to deliver it. The dilemma Swami then faces makes this story the best one.

A must read classic in my opinion.