Category Archives: Literature

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

Though a novel, this is a popular recommendation among classical historians. Graves based his account in historical sources, in this case leaning heavily on Suetonius, who was something of the National Enquirer of his day. Graves’ efforts to be historically accurate made this novel a milestone event in historical fiction, and its embrace by the profession speaks well both to its accuracy and Graves’ literary skill.

As one might glean from the title, I, Claudius is told in the first person by Claudius, who was at the center of palace intrigue for most of his life. He was a young man when his uncle Augustus became the first Roman princeps, and the book follows all the palace intrigue through Claudius’ eyes from all of Augustus’ long reign through Tiberius’ severity, Caligula’s horrors, on up to Claudius’ own unlikely accession to the purple after Caligula’s assassination. Claudius had a stutter and a limp, as well as a shy, bookish personality. His managing a long life while remaining so close to center of power was due in significant part to people consistently underestimating him as a threat, despite his obvious intelligence.

Tolstoy’s Insights on Political Types

A passage from Part 6, chapter 18 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace reminds me of more than one person I met during my years in Washington:

The visitor was Bitski, who served on various committees, frequented all the societies in Petersburg, and a passionate devotee of the new ideas and of Speranski, and a diligent Petersburg newsmonger—one of those men who choose their opinions like their clothes according to the fashion, but who for that very reason appear to be the warmest partisans.

Gabriel García Márquez – Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel García Márquez – Love in the Time of Cholera

Compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude, this book has a much lighter feel. It is almost like a farce at times, though a little more jaded. A a mix of bemused weariness with a touch of nostalgia might be a better description. The book’s lack of epic drama, heartbreak, and tragedy stands in intentional contrast to its title. Marquez had plenty of gray hairs by the time he wrote this book, and he looks on the younger characters’ passions with a bit of an “I remember those times, but don’t always miss them” kind of smile. In line with Márquez’s famous magical realist style, lovesickness in this book is sometimes literal, manifesting itself as a physical illness with symptoms similar to cholera.

The main characters are a young couple who part before they can marry, and a young doctor who the woman meets afterwards and has a loving, mostly happy marriage with. Fifty years later, after the doctor/husband passes away, the former couple, now elderly, meet again. He claims to have stayed loyal to her all that time, but this turns out not be true—and how.

Much of the book recounts the various romantic foibles the three had throughout their lives, some serious and some not, with a mix of amusement and wistfulness. A particularly amusing character is a parrot who taunts the doctor. An excellent example of Márquez’s brand of magical realism, the parrot sometimes talks as though he understands what the doctor is saying and is capable of holding human-level conversation, but other times seems like an ordinary bird.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin

A big part of the process of modernity is widening one’s circle of concern. People have always looked out for themselves and their family. As trade grew, people’s circle widened from the tribe to include one’s trading partners, whether in a farm-and-village dynamic or including long distance traders. As the scale widened, people had to be more accepting of people who dressed differently, spoke different languages, and worshipped different gods. The process is not over. In the last 70 years or so, the circle of concern has grown to address racism, homophobia, transgender rights, and more. The proper size of one’s circle of concern is at the heart of today’s debates over issues such as LGBT rights, trade, and immigration. Animal rights activists are even trying to expand the circle of concern to other species.

What does the circle of concern have to do with a science fiction novel? A lot. In Children of Time, the first book in this series, a botched attempt at seeding an alien planet with Earth life leads to an advanced civilization of spiders and ants, instead of the intended apes (a literal barrel of monkeys burns up while entering the atmosphere). The nanovirus-enhanced intelligent spiders and humans eventually become allies, widening their circles of concern to include two very different sentient species.

This book is the sequel; I do not know if further volumes are planned in the series. It introduces a race of nanovirus-enhanced octopi as well as an alien life form that is something like a slime mold. Where the first volume was evolution-themed, this volume is about psychology and consciousness. It is more interested in exploring and understanding how different species think, feel, and communicate. It as though Tchaikovsky is expanding Adam Smith’s circle of concern as broadly as he possibly can, and seeing what happens.

Tchaikovsky’s spiders communicate through vibration and touch, and are unable to hear human speech. Both spiders and humans come up with all kinds of translators and ways to understand each other, and though their friendships are sincere, some differences are too vast for them to comprehend. Also of interest is the spiders’ own gender disparity, in which males are discriminated against and discounted as inferior, mirroring our own species’ issues. The spiders have even been making progress in recent generations, with male spiders advancing to prominent scientific research positions, though workplace politics are touchy.

The stars of this book are nanovirus enhanced octopi, who ancient humans seeded on one of two habitable planets in a different star system than the spider planet from the first book. Tchakivsky researched the subject, and the octopi in his book are impulsive, emotional, factional, and quick to change their minds as their emotions explore different sides of an issue. Not being able to use speech like humans or vibrations like spiders, octopi instead communicate by changing colors. Different feelings are automatically expressed in different colorations, which they are unable to hide. They almost literally wear their emotions on their sleeve, and their intellectual deliberations are plainly visible.

Also putting in a turn is an alien life form with a collective consciousness, kind of like an intelligent slime mold or a bacteria with a long collective memory and the ability to interface with and control other organisms. This lets Tchaikovsky explore a whole other form of consciousness, of which we don’t have any examples on Earth.

The plot throws these very different consciousnesses together and lets them try to sort out who is on who’s side, how to overcome communication barriers, and try to come to some kind of understanding. The extent to which they can succeed requires a circle of concern rather greater than most people on Earth have today.

Gabriel García Márquez– One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez– One Hundred Years of Solitude

The story of the fictional town of Macondo and seven generations of its founders, the Buendias family. Their ups and downs, passions, quarrels, affairs, fights, triumphs, divisions, and failures are an extended metaphor for Colombian history. The occasional mystic elements Márquez integrates into the story, always told in a straight, matter-of-fact style, became known as magical realism, which became a movement in Latin American literature far larger than this 1967 novel.

It is worth noting that Márquez had a soft spot for dictators, especially Cuba’s Castro regime. Even after the idealism of the Cuban revolution died down and the regime’s human rights abuses became common knowledge, Márquez chose to remain a friend and ally of the regime. As with other figures such as Wagner, considerable artistic merit is sometimes colored by the artist’s questionable judgment or moral sense. In art, as in life, few things are purely good or evil.

Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote

I read the Edith Grossman translation, generally the best-regarded in English. Cervantes’ style is easy enough that many Spanish students will read Cervantes in the original; my skills are no longer up to the task, if they ever were at all. Even in translation, Don Quixote is hilarious, tragic, and surprisingly postmodern. Quixote is obsessed with the adventure books in his library to point of losing his marbles. Convinced he is a noble errant knight, he goes off on heroic quests–“errant” being a term that describes more than Quixote’s mental state. An errant knight serves no king or noble; he is an independent operator.

Quixote tilts at windmills, confuses inns for castles, innkeepers’ daughters for princesses, prostitutes for noble ladies, and repeatedly gets beaten up in embarrassing ways. Sancho, his saner “squire,” tries and fails to be a voice of reason. But despite his occasional caustic remarks and threats to leave Quixote and go home to his family, Sancho clearly has some affection for his errant master, which adds a note of warmth to a story that could use it.

As a writer, Cervantes is fond of genre-hopping. He regularly takes breaks from adventure farce and has Quixote stay in the background while other characters act out stories of intrigue, romance, and more, often in humorously overdramatic fashion. Merlin, the wizard from King Arthur mythology, even puts in an appearance in part two.

Part two is actually a sequel, published ten years after part one. Another author published an unauthorized sequel in the interim, which may have prompted Cervantes to write his own official sequel. This controversy led to a type of postmodern irony that wouldn’t appear again in literature until the 20th century. Quixote, Sancho, and the other characters are aware of Part 1 and their literary fame. Quixote even wishes aloud that its author had left out some of the more humiliating beatings he took. The other characters chuckle at this while taking issue with their own portrayals. They also throw a few jabs at the unauthorized sequel. Cervantes, referring to himself as “the author,” even pokes some fun at himself. Near the end of the book, before a high seas adventure, Quixote even visits a print shop where one of the books being printed is part two of Don Quixote, adding further humor. As far as unofficial national novels go, Spain has done well in choosing not just a tragedy dressed as a comedy, but a clever one that spans multiple genres, uses almost every literary device and conceit Cervantes could think of, and foreshadowed modern literature and its self-aware postmodern turn.

O. Henry – Complete Short Stories

O. Henry – Complete Short Stories

Henry was known for his surprise plot twists, as well as a wry, gentle sense of humor. In one typical aside, he describes a character as “cursing talentedly.” In the food-focused “Cupid a la Carte,” one character describes another as “weak as a vegetarian cat.” His short sketches of avuncular, detached goodwill make him a bit like his generation’s Garrison Keillor, both for good and for bad. He’s good-natured and a little droll, and makes a lot of his day’s equivalent of dad jokes. This collection of his short stories, some famous and some not, is a bit of literary comfort food.


Isaac Asimov – The Stars, Like Dust

Isaac Asimov – The Stars, Like Dust

Not the most graceful fiction, nor are the characters well developed. But the story gets better if one knows a little backstory first. This is the first novel of a three-part series written early in Asimov’s career. It was something of a prequel to his Foundation series, Asimov’s best-known fiction. The story of The Stars, Like Dust is loosely based on the history of the Golden Horde, a Mongol faction led by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan; the larger Foundation series is loosely modeled on the Roman Empire’s decline. It is filled with infighting and intrigue. That said, the surprise plot twist in the end firmly establishes this book as a product of mid-20th century America. This book is better as a slice of mid-20th-century American culture than as a serious work of science fiction. Perhaps not coincidentally, Asimov called this book his least favorite novel.

Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels

The classic satire holds up well. In the first of four parts, Gulliver visits the Lilliputians. Besides the obvious lessons about cultural differences, there is also some amusing ribaldry, as when Gulliver gets into legal trouble for putting out a Lilliputian fire by urinating on it, and flooding the tiny town as a result.

In part two he sees the opposite side of the coin with the Brobdingnagians, a race of giants, though mercifully minus the peeing. In part three he bounces around among several different nations, giving Swift the opportunity to poke fun at philosophers and other elites, and for some reason Japan, possibly because it is an actual place. Part four gives us the word “yahoo,” which gives Swift ample opportunity to make fun of ordinary people’s prejudices and habits. When Gulliver is briefly home between adventures, the casual dismissiveness with which he treats his wife and children is an early example of shock value humor. Gulliver barely acknowledges their existence beyond conceiving a new child on each return. Nobody is spared, and nobody is a saint, which is likely the source of Swift’s enduring appeal.

James S.A. Corey – Tiamat’s Wrath: The Expanse, Book 8

James S.A. Corey – Tiamat’s Wrath: The Expanse, Book 8

This book’s theme is hubris. Though the book’s universe and most of the characters are secular, it has an underlying tone of angering the gods. The totalitarian Laconian regime is continuing to consolidate its rule over the entire 1,300-world ring gate system, and the main characters are continuing a small underground resistance in ways reminiscent of dissenters under Stalin and Hitler. But High Consul Duarte, in his hubris, attempts to wake up the forces that destroyed the civilization that destroyed the protomolecule’s long-gone creators. It goes about as well as one would expect.

There is also a bit of game theory involving the prisoner’s dilemma game. Duarte’s misuse of it results in a spectacular mistake about a third of the way into the book, and at least two facepalms from this reader. The book ends on a rather large cliffhanger, presumably to be resolved in the series-concluding book 9, which will likely come out in 2020.