Monday, November 17, 2008

Don Quixote + How to Build a Time Machine

Two book reviews today.  Reading "Don Quixote" made me wonder if I may
be turning into "the man who read too much".  To prevent going insane
myself I'll have to start reading a few more "light" books ;)

1. "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes
   (English translation by Edith Grossman)

This 17th century novel by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes is
considered the first modern novel, and one of, if not, the greatest.
I don't intend to argue the point.

The novel comprises two parts, written a decade apart.  The first part
introduces our "hero", a middle-aged gentleman named Alonso Quixano.
He's read many books on knights and chivalry - in fact he doesn't read
anything else.  He believes the knights' adventures are real, and one
day he decides to revive the tradition of knight-errantry.  He has
himself dubbed "Don Quixote of La Mancha", and enlists his neighbour,
Sancho Panza, to be his squire.  They begin wandering the land in search
of adventures to honour Don Quixote's fair (and imaginary) maiden,

Through a series of episodes it becomes clear that Don Quixote has a few
screws loose: he mistakes inns for castles, windmills for giants, and a
barber's basin for a king's magical helmet.  Initially, Sancho is happy
to go along on Don Quixote's adventures because be believes he will be
rewarded with governorship of an island.  But he too starts to question
his master's sanity.

A feature of the first part is the telling of stories by characters Don
Quixote and Sancho meet on their travels.  One such "story within the
story" or "interpolated novel" is the retelling of "The Man Who Was
Recklessly Curious" (adapted from a story in Ariosto's "Orlando
furioso").  Anselmo is happily married, but is not completely sure of
the fidelity of his wife, Camila.  He asks his best friend, Lothario,
to try to seduce her as a test - what could possibly go wrong?

Throughout the second part, people take advantage of Don Quixote's
madness.  In particular, a Duke and Duchess get their kicks by making up
ludicrous quests and challenges for him.

The second part is widely regarded as being superior to the first, since
the two central characters are more fully developed, and more
philosophical themes are explored.

The success of the first part prompted an opportunist to write an
unauthorised sequel.  Cervantes mocks this fake in his second part.
There's an interesting scene where the "real" Don Quixote meets (and
attempts to set straight) a character mentioned in the fake sequel.

It's worth noting that the author tells us that he is translating a
manuscript written by a Moorish historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli, about
a certain "Don Quixote".  This additional layer of storytelling allows
Cervantes to comment on the historical account itself.

There's no denying the influence of this book.  For example, the
adjective "quixotic" was coined from the title character: "Like Don
Quixote; romantic to extravagance; absurdly chivalric; apt to be
deluded" [Wiktionary].  And the term "tilting at windmills" (a reference
to an early episode in the novel) is used to describe a noble yet futile
act to overcome some perceived threat.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  It's a must-read if for people into
classic novels.  But, at over 900 pages, it's a big undertaking.
Abridged editions are available, so perhaps look for these versions if
the full text is too daunting.

2. "How to Build a Time Machine" by Paul Davies

Paul Davies, renowned professor and writer (and former Adelaide
resident) presents a way of implementing a time machine.  His
hypothetical blueprint appears plausible based on the Physics (we
think?) we know today, but there are immense technical challenges
that need to be overcome.

I guess a basic understanding of Physics (in particular relativity and
quantum mechanics) would help to follow the details of the argument.
But it's not too heavy.  The author explains the basic concepts, and
there are lots of illustrations.

Davies also looks at some of the paradoxes inherent in time travel, such
as the "what happens if you go back and kill your grandfather?" paradox.
As Davies points out, a variation of this paradox was popularised in the
"Back to the Future" movies.

For a part-time Physics enthusiast like me, this was a fun read.  As
they say, your mileage may vary.