Saturday, September 06, 2008

Cthulhu as seen at Woodstock

This morning I finished The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson, the philosopher and prolific novelist.

The Mind Parasites was inspired by Wilson's conversations with August Derleth. After those conversations, Wilson decided to write a Lovecraftian novel, using some of his own philosophical ideas. The Lovecraftian themes are recognizable throughout, but the book is unlike anything Lovecraft wrote in a number of ways, mainly in the efficacy of the main characters. Lovecraft's characters are almost always helpless in the face of the horrors they encounter, and an overriding theme of his seem to be the insignificance to humans in the face of the cosmos.

On the other hand, Wilson is very much infused with the 60's ideas of human potential, including psychic and consciousness exploring potential. Out of the later comes the most innovative twist in the novel - instead of being an external, physical monster, the titular parasites exist inside the depths of human consciousness, where the interfere with people exploring their evolutionary potential and feed off human psychic energy.

The rest of the book is not as innovative - a simple struggle against the mind parasites more reminiscent of the pulp science fiction writings of the 30's - but the newness of the central idea is enough to carry the rest of the book.

Friday, September 05, 2008

I just finished Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

We had watched the DVD recently and that made me interested in finding out more, but all I could find in the library was an audiobook. I've never spent much time listening to audiobooks, prefering the act of reading to that of listening, but this one was enjoyable so I may start listening more, particularly on my commute.

Into the Wild, the book, is better than the movie, though it does have its flaws. The greater detail available in the book allows us to get a better feel for Chris McCandless, and for the people he met in his travels. But it is also clearly a streched out magazine article. Krakauer spends a few chapters randomly listing other young men who had at least something in common with McCandless, and a few going over his own foolhardy attemp to solo climb an isolated Alaskan peak named Devils Thumb. Neither of these two sections feel well integrated into the rest of the book. The material about McCandless is always compelling, but the other material is not.

McCandless himself was clearly a Romantic, in the 19th century meaning, as one who rejected society and civilizations in favour of the spiritual aspect of Nature, and it resulted in his death. One of the reasons he is interesting is that we see few people in real life that live consistently by an explicit philosophy, and stick to that philosophy even in the fact of great challenge. Had he survived, it would have been interesting to see if he went on to a more standard lifestyle, or had continued what he was doing and became just another old bum.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Last night I finished Longitude by Dava Sobel, the story of how the problem of determining longitude at sea was solved.

Longitude is fascinating, but fairly short book. It's main focus is the watchmaker John Harrison, who created the first chronometers that could give accurate time even when subjected to the motion, temperature changes and rough conditions of a seagoing voyage. The chapters describing the problems, and Harrison's eventual solutions are fairly short and would be much better with illustrations to explain the chronometer's methods, or photographs of the surviving chronometers. The bulk of the book is about the political struggle that Harrison had to go through to be awarded the Longitude Prize, against rivals that proposed to use the lunar distance method and who were better positioned politically -- one of whom actually sat on the board that judged the outcome.

Nicely written book.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Last night, I finished Farthing by Jo Walton.

Farthing is an alternate history story, one of many involving WW2 and the Nazis. In this one, the peace mission Rudolf Hess was on was successful, and a peace was made between Germany and England, allowing Germany to tackle the USSR without interference and the US ends up under the leadership of the fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh, similar to Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.

But all that aside, Farthing is really a pretty straightforward mystery/police procedural where we get to explore the inner workings of a rich, upper class British family after a murder that may, or may not, have political motivations. It's well written and doesn't follow the obvious cliches of either of its genres.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Yesterday I finished The Face of Battle by John Keegan, a military history book.

The book is Keegan's attempt to influence the form of most military histroy books. He focuses on the lower level troops, rather than the generals and high level strategy. Keegan goes through three battles - Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme - in detail and uses them to illustrate his points about how battles should be described. The sections on actual battles are interesting, but the sections before and after about his new ideas in military history are harder to read - he writes in large blocks of text and doesn't always give the background necessary to understand what he is referring to.

I originally picked it up because I had an ancestor who fought in, and was knighted after, the battle of Agincourt.