Sunday, October 25, 2009

Einstein's Dreams + Anathem + Cloud Atlas

This post continues my catchup of reviews of books I've read in the past
few months.  These three books share the theme of time...

1. "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman

This book is a collection of brief "thought experiments" on the nature
of time.  Each short chapter is presented as a (fictional) dream that
Albert Einstein had while he was formulating the Special Theory of
Relativity.  Some examples include: time is circular; time stands still;
time goes backwards; time goes slower the higher up you are.  Each dream
describes the implications of the particular concept of time on people
and how things work.

I was drawn to the book by the comparisons with works by Italo Calvino
and Jorge Luis Borges.  Overall, the book doesn't really works as a
traditional "novel", and in my opinion isn't quite in the same league as
Calvino's work.  But it's still thought-provoking and very enjoyable.
Don't be put off by the Einstein reference: you don't need a deep
understanding of science to follow each "dream".

2. "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson

I really wanted to like this book.  Neal Stephenson is, er was, one of
my favourite authors.  Lately however, he's produced long, drawn-out
sagas that haven't really worked for me.  I spent so much time reading
the book (it's almost 1000 pages long!) that I'll take some shortcuts
in this review ;)

The novel starts off interestingly enough: "Stephenson conjures a far-
future Earth-like planet, Arbre, where scientists, philosophers and
mathematicians — a religious order unto themselves — have been
cloistered behind concent (convent) walls. Their role is to nurture all
knowledge while safeguarding it from the vagaries of the irrational
saecular outside world" (from the Amazon page).

But after the first third of the book, the real story begins, and
ironically I started to lose interest.  Again, from the Amazon page:
"Anathem is intellectually rigorous and exceedingly complex, even to the
point, as the Washington Post avows, of being 'grandiose, overwrought
and pretty damn dull'."  Yep, that pretty much sums it up.  What really
grated with me was that, at least in my opinion, the actual science
presented didn't hold up.  It may be an alternative universe, so a
little leeway is acceptable, but the more detail the author goes into
about the physics and chemistry in the story, the more implausible it

Decent editing could probably whittle it down to a tight 300-page novel,
and although I still wouldn't have bought the storyline, at least I
wouldn't have felt like I'd wasted so much time on it.

3. "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

This book has rightly been described as ambitious.  It is comprises a
series of related stories, presented like an onion or a set of Russian
Matryoshka dolls.  That is, each story is wrapped by and leads into
the next one.

The stories span six different eras, each written in a different genre:
excerpts from the journal of a 19th Century ocean traveller, letters
from a parasitic English musician living in Belgium in the 1930s, a
corruption exposé/crime story set in the 1970s, a modern-day story
about a publisher trapped against his will in a nursing home, a sci-fi
story about genetically-engineered slaves in a corporation-run Korea,
and finally, at the core of the book, a post-apocalyptic story about
the meeting of a group of feral, post-"Fall" survivors with a custodian
of lost technology.

Apart from the physical structure of the book, the stories are connected
by the suggestion of reincarnation.  A central character in each story
happens to have a comet-shaped birthmark.  Also, each story looks at
aspects of human nature, and our relationship to technology, over time.

Overall, I found it a worthwhile read.  However, the different writing
styles made it a little hard going at times.