Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Spring Fever

I was welcomed to the first day of spring this morning by a male American Robin singing his heart out.  Earlier, I had heard a few robins in the neighbourhood tuning up, but this was the first one who seemed committed to continuous singing as soon as the sun came up.  Two weekends ago, we had the dreaded change to Daylight Savings Time—my morning sunrise-admiration from the bus stop was abruptly interrupted, returning me to moon-watching for a couple more weeks.  [I swear that my body always remains on Mountain Standard Time despite the fact that I drag myself out of bed an hour earlier and I am always relieved when we change back in the fall].
            That said, I have been getting a head start on some spring activities, specifically spring cleaning.  Recycling is a bit of a chore when you live in a condo in Calgary—house owners are supplied with their own private bins to be filled and set out for collection.  Condo owners and apartment dwellers [or like me, owners of apartments converted into condos] must bundle our materials for recycling and transport them to community depots.  It’s not like this is a great trial, but it is an inconvenience.  My suite is small enough that any collection of materials soon starts to make its presence felt.  Two weekends ago, I packed two weeks worth of regular recycling and 3 large bags of items to go to the bottle depot for refund.  This has made a tremendous difference in my storage closet and the returns to the depot netted me $20.  Like a reward for being a good citizen.
            Last week I decided to deal with the enormous pile of paper that required shredding before it could be recycled.  The shredder overheated about half way through the task, convincing me to take a break.  When finally finished, I had compactly filled one clear trash bag—it will be recycled this week along with my regular load.  The scary thing is that I am well on the way to creating another enormous stack of paper that requires the same treatment—I certainly have not mastered a paper-less lifestyle.
            This week, I was inspired to weed clothes.  It’s been getting crowded in my closet and, like most people, I wear my comfy favourites and work around items that I wear infrequently.  Well, someone else could be using those items and it’s selfish of me to hoard them without using them.  As an accompaniment to doing laundry this past weekend, I began sorting out the seldom-worn and unloved items.  Two large bags have been filled as a result and I have started on a third.  This had a side benefit—I have sorted out most of the clothing that I will take to Texas with me in late April.  [I’m hoping to pack only a carry-on bag and to defeat the baggage charges on American Airlines—wish me luck].
            When I return from Texas, CBC radio will be collecting books for their Calgary Reads book sale.  It helps me to get serious about sorting when I have an externally-imposed deadline, so I have already marked a day on my calendar when I intend to take boxes of books to donate.  Tonight begins the weeding process—always much more difficult for me than parting with clothing.  I will do the first sweep this evening, boxing the obvious give-aways and I will make time for a second consideration before I leave on vacation.  The goal is to reduce my book inventory until it fits on the shelving that I have available [which is currently overflowing].  I know I’ll be too busy when I get home to do anything but deliver boxes to the appropriate address, so the intellectual effort must happen now.
            Finally I think it’s time for my old television set and VCR to rest in peace at an electronics recycling centre.  I haven’t watched TV for five months and I rarely feel a twinge about that, so the heavy old TV can quit taking up space in my household [it’s been languishing in a corner of my bedroom and I’ll be happier when it isn’t staring at me every evening as I retire to bed].  The ice sheet in the condo parking lot has receded enough that I think I can get the old clunker staggered out to the car without slipping and breaking a hip.  [The melting of our parking lot glacier is a sure sign of spring for me].
            I can’t say that I’m a devotee of Feng Shui, but I never mind clearing out old stuff to make room for new chi.  2012 promises to be a year of big changes, so let the new opportunities flow!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Re-reading Rendezvous with Rama

Arthur C. Clarke deserves his reputation as a great writer although his style is very different from many others in the SF genre.  I was impressed from the beginning of this novel, as the scholars gather to discuss the “asteroid” approaching Earth—Clark must have participated in just enough of these committees to know about the axe-grinding and the politics involved in their workings.  As someone who has worked in a university environment (although just about any large organization would substitute), I recognized the type.  They seem to exist to wrangle over funding and jockey for position.  The depiction is right on the money, so to speak.
            That being said, Rendezvous with Rama is not a character-driven work.  The main character is obviously the large spaceship, Rama.  Clarke writes a tale in which you can’t help but be captivated by this enormous alien machine and the human attempt to explore and understand it.  [Just as an aside, I’ve also recently re-read Clarke’s 2010, Odyssey Two—and although he attempts some emotional material in that work, his heart-broken scientist seems rather wooden.  I get the feeling that Clarke cared much more for science than he did for people and that he really never understood the deeply felt emotions of others.  And from the biographical information that I tracked down on him, it does seem that he is generally recognized as “self involved.” I think that may be why the computer scientist, Dr. Chandra, in 2010 is as well written as he is—his emotion is saved for his computers, something that Clarke could identify with]. 
            The impressive part of the book, in my opinion, is that the human explorers at the end still have no clear idea of where Rama came from, what its purpose might be, whether the Ramans themselves are alive or dead, what they look like, whether they are/were aware of humanity or even where they are going.  It’s the sheer indifference of the mighty structure and its parent culture that impresses. 
            Apparently Clarke believed that humanity has overestimated our importance in the universe.  In 2001, we are merely one of many species that made the trip to visit the makers of the black monolith.  His Childhood’s End portrays us as only one in many species to be joined with the “Overmind.”  In RWR, we are so unimportant that the aliens completely overlook our presence.  Rama is doing what it is programmed to do and the presence of humans on board is beside the point.  This is emphasized when the government of Mercury sends a nuclear missile to destroy Rama, fearing that it is settling into the solar system to stay.  As the giant spaceship shifts course at the end of the novel and begins its stately travels in a new direction, we realize how grandiose that opinion was.  
            We would be frightfully interested in meeting aliens and just can’t imagine that they wouldn’t be as captivated by us.  And humanity has always had a bad case of “centre of the universe” syndrome.  Witness how reluctant the church was to admit that the Sun was the centre of the solar system instead of the Earth.  However, as we’ve never met a certified extraterrestrial, the novelty is a natural attraction for us.  We’re busy planning more missions to Mars, excited about searching for microscopic life there and also speculating about potential for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa.  If we made ET contact tomorrow, it would be the news story of the century.  What if the ETs have done this dozens of times?  And we’re only one of many and maybe not even a particularly interesting species?  Could our egos withstand it?   [I’m reminded of Clifford D. Simak’s book Way Station, in which the only advantage we offer the universe is a short cut through space, through a station located on Earth—other than that, we are more of a liability than an asset to the extraterrestrial community]. 
            I do hope that if/when we make such a contact, that the aliens are as enthusiastic about contact as we are, that they are as peaceful and wise as we imagine them to be, and that we have something worthwhile to offer them. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Caught in Amber

I’ve been reading Roger Zelazny’s Amber series over the last couple of weeks.  Although ideally I’ve been trying to read my book list in chronological order, I’ve made an exception for this series because of the format that Calgary Public Library provides it in: a ten-novels-in-one volume compendium, The Big Book of Amber.  And once my reading momentum is engaged, it’s very hard to put the volume down!
            Zelazny was obviously a talented writer.  I found myself pulled into his narrative from the first few pages, where the initial narrator, Corwin, has amnesia and is attempting to piece together his pre-car-accident life.  As a reader, I couldn’t help but struggle right along with him, trying figure out who the heck he is.  But the answer isn’t what you expect.  I mean who expects to find out that the guy is an almost-immortal demi-god?  Belonging to a family of magical beings, who are so old and jaded with life that they routinely try to bump each other off? 
            Amber is obviously a kingdom with completely different morality than we are ordinarily used to.  It manages to have both a medieval [a lot of swordplay for example] and a magical aspect, despite interludes in our own world [which is btw one of many un-real Shadow worlds cast by Amber].  A bit of reading about Zelazny revealed that he was exploring ideas of morality or lack thereof while writing this series.  The princes and princesses of Amber often seem to have been sexually attracted to one another—enough that their father Oberon had to make a rule against sister-brother marriages.  The whole family seems to be descended from their magical ancestor Dworkin and a unicorn [a little bestiality for you].  And they plot each other’s assassinations with very little compunction [what’s a little murder amongst family?] not to mention that they are willing to spend hundreds of lives in ill-advised warring with one another.  It is very reminiscent of another of Zelazny’s books, Lord of Light, in which the characters have “become” gods in the Hindu pantheon, reincarnating themselves as necessary and indulging themselves in very un-godlike behaviours.  Obviously this was a theme that the author enjoyed exploring.
            Despite all of these failings it’s hard not to like the narrators Corwin and in later novels, Merlin.  They aren’t nice guys, they aren’t chivalrous in the least and each of them is looking out for number one.  You can’t trust them any farther than you can throw them but in the world that Zelazny has created that is the only sensible way to be.  Being a shit is only being practical and I felt like I couldn’t really hold their desire to survive against them.  Besides, they are wonderfully cynical and amusing narrators, albeit unreliable.
            Corwin improves as the first half of the series progresses.  He seems to be developing a bit of a conscience and is beginning to care about the welfare of his army and the kingdom.  There is even a little bit of loyalty towards friends and family.  Merlin, his son, is wary—a recommended trait if you are going to living amongst scheming relatives in Amber.  Maybe because Merlin is younger or much farther from the line of succession [for a while] he doesn’t seem to have the same desire to scheme and eliminate relatives.  Or maybe it’s because he has enough relatives and friends plotting against him to keep him busy.
            Reviews that I have read lament the sexism present in the series.  Obviously the stories are told from a masculine perspective and neither narrator encounters a woman that he wouldn’t sleep with.  [That’s another of the rather medieval aspects of these novels].  But at least many of the female characters are very strong women and make major impacts on the plot line—an improvement from the fiction of the 60s, when women were just decorative window dressing.  The beginnings of feminism are being felt, with female characters who impact the main male protagonists, albeit often as rather domineering mothers [both Merlin and Luke/Rinaldo, his best frenemy suffer from this particular affliction]. 
            I found the series engaging, until the last couple of instalments, which were laboured.  Many contrivances had to be introduced in order to forward the plot line and I felt my enthusiasm flagging.  Perhaps that was, in part, due to reading 10 in a row, resulting in an Amber overdose on my part.   I remember reading online somewhere that many Amber fans mourn the fact that there will be no more sequels, Zelazny being firmly opposed to anyone else writing in his fictional world and having passed away before writing more himself.  I must confess, if another book were miraculously found in his estate and published, I would probably read it.  [I did, after all, read a number of Frank Herbert’s son’s offerings before deciding there were better ways to spend hours of my life].  The premises of the series are wonderful and the general flavour of the prose is definitely to my taste. 
            Zelazny is yet another author I had never sampled before this reading project.  I’m glad to have made the acquaintance of Corwin and Merlin of Amber.