Tag Archives: science fiction

REVIEW: IN OTHER WORDS: SF AND THE HUMAN IMAGINATION

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human ImaginationIn Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a neat little collection of Margaret Atwood’s history in the field of science fiction. It’s split into three parts:

1) Her thoughts on science (speculative?) fiction and the persistent problem of defining the genre; thoughts on how science fiction is a continuation of much older, mythological sorts of fiction; commentaries on her early life in rural Canada, what made her move into the field and inspired her to write the novels that marked her career.

2) Reviews, articles and talks she’s written and given over the years on seminal works and writers such as The Island of Dr Moreau and H. G. Wells, Nineteen Eighty-four, Animal Farm and George Orwell, Brave New World and Aldous Huxley, She and H. Rider Haggard, The Birthday of the World and Ursula K. Le Guin (her name is seriously pronounced “gwin”?) and others.

3) A selection of her own short stories, some of which I remembered from reading Bones and Murder some weeks ago.

Listening to this wise old lady speak of her long life and pose difficult questions about SF in general was very pleasing for the mind. I also found it quite revealing, and I’m hardly versed in her work. If you are more familiar with it than I, you know what to do.

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REVIEW: BRAVE NEW WORLD REVISITED

Brave New World Revisited Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can read the book for free on Huxley.net but I recommend you read it either off-screen or not on a web page.

It’s been demonstrated time and time again that people who can come up with incredible, fictional worlds that have something tangible to say about our own, have the ability to do so exactly because they understand this Earth and universe so well. Huxley was no exception, and his addendum to Brave New World is a beautifully lucid account of where his original work, written 25 years previously, had failed to anticipate the great emerging forces that were threatening freedom as Huxley perceived them at the time. This list of the book’s chapters might give you some idea of what those threats were:

I Over-Population
II Quantity, Quality, Morality
III Over-Organization
IV Propaganda in a Democratic Society
V Propaganda Under a Dictatorship
VI The Arts of Selling
VII Brainwashing
VIII Chemical Persuasion
IX Subconscious Persuasion
X Hypnopaedia
XI Education for Freedom
XII What Can Be Done?

I’m incredibly curious what Huxley would have to say about our 21st century society and where his hopes would lie today – whether he’d still think that

“meanwhile there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom. But some of us still believe that, with­out freedom, human beings cannot become fully hu­man and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them. “

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REVIEW: HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional UniverseHow to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this on my phone.

Hey look! A novel about a guy in a corporate time machine killing/getting killed by his future/past self and getting all paradoxanalytical about it! That’s a word I just invented, by the way. It describes the way a lot of science fiction novels try to express and explain paradox just by throwing more words at you. It sort of works like writing a recipe for a cake just by using the chemical compounds and formulas involved, complete with instructions using moles for ingredient mass and the Kelvin scale for when it’s time for the cake to hit the oven.

Let’s get back to the book. It was just a ceaseless bout of self-reference. The premise was interesting and the writing had some inspired moments idea-wise, at least when it didn’t come out as narrated by a completely socially incompetent nerd – which the protagonist actually was, by the way… huh, maybe he was a well-written character after all and not just mirroring Mr. Yu himself… It didn’t take long, however, for all the meta to become too much for me. That and the oddly-used jargon too rigid to peer through, or the “science fiction” part of the story too often spoken about, described, but not represented in an engaging or memorable way. “Oh, this machine has permitted the existence, trademarking and patenting of entire universes”. Sounds great, it does, but where did you go with that Mr. YU?

It all felt like reading the diary of a Companion Cube (yes, I’m old) that suddenly through some bug in Portal’s code (the 2007 game we all loved) turned into a sentient hypercube and got existential agony. I respect the cube’s feelings but, yeah, I have no idea what being a hypercube would or should feel like. The protagonist was human, but his feelings came off as little more than the hearts the Companion Cubes have painted on them in Portal. Programmed into him, just like they were programmed into them, and just like they were programmed into the couple of sentient-like operating systems he had in his TARDIS – I mean time machine – I mean TARDIS; it even says in the book the time machine had the shape and size of a phone booth. Come on.

While in theory I should have enjoyed reading page after page of convoluted twisting thoughts on the paradoxical nature of time as part of the physical world and then some, I just couldn’t get into it.

Yes, left-brained. This book was left-brained through and through.

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REVIEW: THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Caught it in audiobook format.

I was expecting something in the vain of Replay, the book that, so they say, inspired the movie Groundhog Day. In Replay, the protagonist goes over the same ~25 years again and again and lives the period between the ’60s and the ’80s countless times. Here, it’s the period between Harry August’s birth in 1918 and his eventual death in the ’90s of the same illness every time (I forget what it is) that goes over and over and over.

Clearly, if you cannot see the point of time-loop stories such as these, the premise might sound boring. And in the case of Harry August it did get boring at some point. I thought character development was rather shallow for all the lives they had gone through; yes, they, because—minor spoilers ahead—Harry isn’t the only person to have the gift of apparent immortality in his world. There’s a whole club of them, in fact, but at no point during the story did I feel as if the lives and storylines of the other characters really matter. To top it all off, the bad guy’s motive was very hazy and his relationship with Harry could have been more meaningful and intricate. It was an opportunity lost, especially at a point closer to the end of the book when everything, or so I thought, pointed to Harry having actually fallen in love with the bad guy. Claire North didn’t go through with that, though.

I realise it must be very difficult to write characters that are immortal in the conventional sense while managing to weave a narrative that makes them neither amazingly powerful on the one hand— still somewhat relatable—nor too much like a mere mortal in their wishes, desires and motivations on the other. Harry August and many of the book’s other special characters seemed to fall closer into the latter part of the spectrum above—they had all this power, yet could do so relatively little with it to break their curse of what the Buddhist would call samsara, the pains of (repeating) earthly existence.

What’s more, the world itself didn’t change almost at all between Harry’s different incarnations (if you exclude the plot-related accelerating technological progress), which disappointed me a lot since half the reason I read books like this is for the alternate histories and timelines that emerge. Replay, again, did a better job.

All in all Harry August was an okay book. I found Claire North’s rationalistic, deterministic, somewhat strict writing style enjoyable and quite fitting, and props go to her for writing a book such as this in her ’20s. Regrettably though it fell short in most other respects. It didn’t use its own material sufficiently well, I found.

In other words, I would recommend Replay before The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August if you want to read about a character who goes through time loops.

PS: I went back and read my review for Replay. I seriously remember I had enjoyed it more. Well if you look at that!

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REVIEW: INVISIBLE CITIES

Invisible CitiesInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Zenobia, the city on stilts.  Vitoriana first told me about this book and sung its praise by describing the mental picture of this city in particular.

Invisible Cities is another of those difficult-to-review books I’ve been going through lately, although perhaps “trudging through” would be a more accurate description. Another one enjoyed in audiobook format, too, and another one I couldn’t concentrate on and retain as well as I would have liked. I have walking, running, wandering through wheat fields, traversing rocky capes and enjoying less-or-more-than-imaginary landscapes in Samothraki to blame. Or it could just be my complete inability to focus on three things at a time—in this case my ears, my visible eyes, and my inner eye. It does sound just a bit too much, now that I mention it.

What I can say is that Invisible Cities turned out to be a very interesting idea of a book—or is it a book of an idea? Marco Polo visits Mongol leader, tells him of his travels to incredible cities far and wide—most of them named curiously similar to ancient-sounding Greek and Latin female names, some rather common in Greece even today—and proceeds to have deep discussion with the Mongol leader (sounds a bit oxymoronic as I’m writing it) on the nature of language, experience, travelling, story-telling… the general business of empire-ruling and noblesse.

Those invisible cities of Marco’s all have some distinctive fantastical characteristic: one’s buildings have no walls, the pipelines defining the cityscape; Zenobia, pictured above, is built on stilts (like Venice, just without the water—Venice, as Marco Polo’s hometown, also plays a rather central role in this book, perhaps as the archetypical invisible city bar none, just as big a mystery to Kublai Khan as the rest of this book architectural and cultural urban menagerie); another still is a meeting place for merchants who trade stories instead of wares. One city is special in that all visitors remember it perfectly just by visiting it once, while another is its visitor’s memories of it. And so it goes.

Invisible Cities is highly structured yet defies usual narrative conventions; it is abstract, exploring imaginary realities through the kind of what-ifs I’ve most often found in science fiction, yet it does so by looking at human history and existence as a whole, rather than at just its future. Calvino’s language is descriptive while being poetic and profound, inviting the reader’s inner eye to see the Invisible. In all honesty, the vibe I got from this book is that of a geometry-twisting, meta philosophical indie video game in the vain of Fez or The Stanley Parable.

Would Italo Calvino have been a genius game developer had he been a millennial?

Invisible Cities is just one of these books that stands out just from how different and unique it is and how ahead of its time I perceive it today to have been. Or maybe it wasn’t ahead of its time at all: we’ve just internalised precious little about the intellectual zeitgeist of the ’60s and ’70s and the early days of radical postmodernism in literature. Could it be that instead of them being ahead of their time, it’s us who are lagging behind and have progressed less than we think we have, perceiving our intellectual maturity as greater than it actually is?

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REVIEW: THE UFO PHENOMENON: FACT, FANTASY AND DISINFORMATION

The UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy and DisinformationThe UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy and Disinformation by John Michael Greer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Discovered this while eBrowsing for John Michael Greer eBooks.

It never ceases to amaze me how wide Mr. Greer’s education is. Not only can he write books like The Ecotechnic Future, The Long Descent and Not The Future We Ordered, all about what the future of humanity in the mid-collapse and post-collapse world will probably at least resemble: he can juggle between rationally arguing pro and against science, “conspiracy theory”, apparitions, aliens… He’s remarkably open-minded but somehow managing to avoid the negative traits the New Age or or other spiritual movements are associated with, e.g. naivety, or confusion of science and “pseudoscience”, a term I despise but which can be used to describe a lot of what New Agers say to portray their beliefs as valid and/or worthy of so-called mainstream scientific investigation.

To cut a long story short, Mr. Greer doesn’t believe that UFOs are actual spaceships piloted by alien intelligent life; his main argument is that most UFO sightings (Unidentified Flying Objects, remember?) have been the result of a shifting public consciousness: in over 70 years, people have learned to interpret mysterious lights in the sky in very specific ways, mostly because of science fiction and popular culture that goes back to the first half of the 20th century, in turn a particularly American cultural phenomenon that for geopolitical and social reasons went global.

“I want to believe” goes part and parcel with the clumsy moves involved in the change from a world dominated by religion to one were religion has been replaced by overwhelming materialism: when there’s nothing to believe in any more, something to believe in has to be invented.

In a recurring theme for Mr. Greer, he makes the point that it’s not just the “believers” that are looking for something to latch onto: scientism, materialism and positivism are the skeptics’ pacifier, and both believers and skeptics use flawed reasoning to win over the other side. The former states that UFOs exist but fails to imagine that there can be other answers to “what is that thing flying over there?” apart from “aliens, of course!”; the skeptics, on the other hand, fail because they restrict themselves to debunking the believers: either the believers are right or they are not, which somehow gets warped to “UFOs are alien or they do not exist”, which is a false dichotomy. They of course proceed to give all the reasons why any sighting must either be a hoax, or a hallucination, or “swamp gas”; Mr. Greer is right to ask “what if a UFO sighting is legit, that is to say, not a hallucination or a hoax, there really was a strange light in the sky, but it simply was not alien?”

Before listing his own attempts at explaining UFOs, he goes over how a hypothesis has to be disprovable in order to be scientific—in fact, that’s the very basis of the scientific method. He mostly leans towards American or Soviet secret/black budget projects, as of yet unexplained natural phenomena and aethereal/immaterial encounters, reports of which have been appearing in cultures all over the world for millennia.

For me the most interesting was the chapter on the black budget projects (think Area 51) and the secret aircraft: it would actually make sense that the US government through its denial and refusal of disclosure would fuel the fires of suspicion that what its Cold War secret military projects really were were alien spacecraft and in this way muddy the waters. Get your population as well as the Ruskies to believe that UFOs are a thing and you can fly any superweapon around and draw little suspicion as to what you’re actually doing.

Mr. Greer discusses these conspiracy theories with so much data and references to draw from and paints such an easy-to-follow picture, always within context, it’s just insulting to claim the material discussed is merely conspiracies at this point. Of course, each case is unique and some are still shrouded in true mystery, but that’s precisely what Mysterious Universe is for!

Great book, amazing and inspiring man. Couldn’t stop flicking my phone’s screen running PDF Reader.

Just one thing: for all that’s good in this world, do try and find a better cover artist!

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REVIEW: PLUTO

PLUTO: Naoki Urasawa x Ozamu Tezuka, Band 001 (Pluto, #1)PLUTO: Naoki Urasawa x Ozamu Tezuka, Band 001 by Naoki Urasawa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a review for the whole series, not just Pluto #1.

I read it on my smartphone. What a time to be alive!

There’s this I’ve noticed with manga, anime and how I take them in: very often, such series as Pluto, or Neon Genesis Evangelion while we’re at it, they start off strong and interesting, they throw you in well-crafted worlds with characters I want to know more about. The art is captivating and undoubtedly masterful. By the end, however, the plot’s typically so messed up I find it difficult to keep caring. And that’s precisely what happened with me and Pluto. Should I give up on “serious” manga?

That said, I concede that Pluto portrays a society where artificial intelligence has penetrated human society quite convincingly. A killer robot that’s left its (his?) past life behind and just wants to play the piano? Now that’s something I want to read more about.

Also, what’s with Urasawa and Germany? Monster also took place there and it seemed kind of arbitrary that it had to.

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REVIEW: CHILDREN OF DUNE

Children of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #3)Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

That was difficult to finish. Just like with
Dune Messiah
, I found that most of it wasn’t about Arrakis itself. It tried to have a more complex plot centred around politics, but it ended up disintegrating and getting more convoluted all at the same time. All the new characters were boring and roughly everybody from Dune #1, including those we thought were dead, somehow appeared out of thin, dry air in order to fill in the gaps.

When I started reading Children of Dune and as I do mention in my review for Dune Messiah, an acquaintance of mine remarked that he’d given up on Dune somewhere around the beginning of Dune #4; “waaay too much religion, precognition and mysticism for my tastes.” I never thought there could be such a thing as too much religion after I was done reading Dune #1, but seriously, I have the unshakable impression that this one went one spice-induced trip too far, even more so than Dune #2. So many visions, parallel paths and characters becoming less and less relatable and in some ways interchangeable, and not enough about Dune ecology and cultures that made Dune #1 so fascinating and even relevant today. Agreed, a lot of that was insinuated, but let me tell you, I’d pick discovering more about the changes in Fremen culture and the dying worms over more helpings of bland, supernatural politics any day.

I have to admit that the last few tens of pages were a bit better, and Children went out with an awesome bang, so now I am a bit curious to pick up God Emperor of Dune and find out whether the series ever went back to the more earthy, natural direction the first one had instead of going further down the supernatural path, but I’m almost certain visions, precognition, supreme retro-cognition, concepts much too abstract even for me, continued playing an important part in the series, by the looks of it an increasingly important part.

Slowly but surely I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not only more coherent, but also more entertaining reading plot synopses of the Dune sequels than actually reading the books themselves.

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BLOOD SPACE METASTASIS

Last night was the now famous supermoon eclipse. I woke up early to go outside and have a look. Quickly, like a lot of Greeks, my enthusiasm was quenched because of the cloudy sky. These September nights have been warm but cloudy and rainy. Switching from a Mediterranean climate to a tropical one? Check. At least it’s better than turning into Sahara, I suppose.

133117755652744

To my credit, I didn’t immediately give up, either. I sat there for 40 minutes or so, reading and underlining my morning pages from earlier in 2015. Alas, the clouds won that hopeless staring contest. I went back to bed and thought it would be a good idea taking advantage of waking up that early to take a shot at entering a WILD. Instead, I was welcomed with a bout of the worst sleep paralysis I can recall: when my body fell asleep, my consciousness didn’t, and I had hallucinations of a person walking in the apartment, into my room and around my bed. It was pitch black, so the hallucination was consistent, in that I couldn’t see him/her/it, only hear the footsteps. I had to endure this while unable to move any part of my body apart from my eyelids and their contents. All the while, the blood moon was setting behind the cloud cover. During sleep paralysis, no-one can hear you scream. You can’t scream….

Take a deep breath.

It could have been me who took this .gif. It’s a consoling thought.

Nevertheless, for all its photogenic glory, it has to be said that September 28th 2015 will not be remembered for its supermoon eclipse. It will go down as a small footnote in history that on the day NASA announced they found flowing water on Mars there had been a supermoon lunar eclipse less than twelve hours prior.  It is a veritable milestone that would have me leaping for joy—if I was any proper kind of science/sci-fi/astronomy nerd to begin with. Instead, all I can think of, perhaps especially after almost half a year of constantly dealing with water as a human right and the current global state of affairs, is how we should be sorting out our shit on Earth first before starting to even think about colonizing other worlds.

Don’t get me wrong, I too get terribly annoyed when other people generally show this kind of flamboyant lack of interest in the vastness of the Universe and the amazing advances in our apparent knowledge of the world. It’s usually such people who shun video games because they’re capitalist toys and refuse to see how they can work wonderfully to promote education or cultural awareness. Similarly, they show open contempt for science fiction as a genre, no matter how eye-opening, poetic or important it might be. They’re not interested to know that Dune, for example, was one of the first books bar none to speak about ecology and sustainability when it was published 50 years ago. No, it’s science fiction. “We have real problems on Earth. Sci-fi is for comfortable middle-class white nerds”, they say, or seem to imply. My very own father told me off when I tried to explain to him the virtues of The Dispossessed. As I was saying, under normal circumstances I get borderline offended by these reactions; at this very moment, I can sort of see where they’re coming from.

What if Arrakis, Dune, Desert Planet is Mars in the distant future?
What if Arrakis, Dune, Desert Planet is Mars in the distant future?

A lot of the excitement surrounding the discovery of flowing water on Mars has to do with the fantasy of modernity, the wet dream of boundless progress, the Promethean achievement of humankind founding an extraterrestrial colony. While science fiction wouldn’t have you believe it, especially with the likes of Interstellar framing the popular imagination, we’re far, far from thinking about humanity as a separate entity from our home planet. There’s no reason to believe that without Earth we could survive for any length of time. I don’t think we would want to, either. But we’re obviously not taking care of our planet as one would take care of their home. In fact, we couldn’t do much worse if we were actively trying to destroy it.

Colonising Mars as our last hope for survival after we’ve made Earth unfit for humans and broad swaths of other types of life, too, is not something I’m going to support. We’ve been making our bed, we should be honourable enough to sleep in it too—once and for all, if it comes to that. If we can’t live as part of the great ecosystem, we don’t deserve to survive. I would use the cancer analogy, namely that us out-surviving the Earth would be like cancer cells out-surviving the cancer patient who died because of them, but on second thought the analogy wouldn’t be exactly right, as it’s not really possible to kill the Earth the same way a human can die of cancer. Still, if not kill it, we just might see our Earth wither away into a wasteland where it will take many thousands or millions of years for new forms of life to take advantage of the mess we’ll have left behind—if we don’t end up like Venus, that is.

Venus_globe
Terra, 2335 AD

I know you might say that some ideas born out of past science fiction turned out to be possible. After all, “we” (i.e. well-funded Americans) did go to the Moon (don’t take my word for it though) and that was just four years after Dune was released and a single year after 2001: A Space Odyssey did. Back then, people were saying that we’d definitely have at least a couple of bases up there by the turn of the millennium. But  here we are, the turn of the millennium’s already fifteen years behind us and I’m not seeing any bright lights up there. So what happened? Could it be that there are some hard limits to our malignant growth? I would argue that yes, and plenty of them, as much as we like to pretend they don’t matter.

Next to all this, I’m secretly hoping for disclosure of long-standing alien contact, that moment that will change everything, like Naomi Klein says, only for real. Maybe in that scenario we will be taught how to build a viable multi-planetary civilization together with them and cross the stars that way. But on our own? Now? We’d probably destroy the colony the moment they were unable to pay off their debts to Earth, or make them privatise their water company, like many people were quick to joke about with today’s discovery on Twitter and Facebook.

Riding Light from Alphonse Swinehart on Vimeo.

But all said and done, I see videos like the one above, where you get to do a to-scale virtual tour of our solar system at the speed of light, and go right back to marvelling at how far we’ve come. Suddenly it hits me how difficult, how amazing it is sending missions to moist rocks or giant chewy-cored balloons so far away from here, redefining what is possible.

What vocabulary would a space-faring civilization like in Stellaris develop to describe the vastness of space?

I want this game very bad. Very very bad.

REVIEW: FAHRENHEIT 451

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another post-war American dystopian classic scratched off the (small) part of my to-read list that’s dedicated to… *pensive look*… older books.

Fahrenheit 451 impressed me. I expected it to be good, but, dutifully as I do when the proper time comes, I made all the right connections that proved in my eyes how a 70-year-old book might as well be speaking about today.

They say that “the past is a foreign country”, yet at some unique moments of lucky insight we can get to realise how much we do share with the people from foreign countries, who at first might seem distant, locked away by the fences of culture, yet at some point we take notice that there’s still the gap between the bars through which we can see the other side. Replace the Parlors with tablets and the Firemen with… I don’t know, the NSA, and there you have it.

While it would be a wild stretch to say that books are even slightly hated or feared in today’s society, I would argue that they’re increasingly insignificant. No, actually, it is not books we’re talking about here—just as Faber told Montag that it wasn’t the books themselves, as in the scrawled, bound sheets of paper, that he wanted to save. What we, in the company of Montag and Faber, are talking about, is books as symbols of mindful dedication, a capacity to pay attention to detail and a thinking or intuiting mind behind the scrolling eyes able to connect with what it reads and care about it.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

In the scene where Montag and Mildred go through the books Montag has saved, try to read them and find they are unable to understand them, I was reminded of young Greeks today unable to understand ancient Greek or even Katharevousa, or me trying to read Dostoyevsky a couple of years back and giving up because “I can’t stand the classics.” Beatty’s admission that books were essentially banned (or, to phrase it more precisely, reading was slowly abolished by the government by discouraging literacy) in order to avoid conflicts of opinion that could make people invested in some idea or its counterargument, brought to mind how there exists now a dominant mainstream narrative that requires from people globally to accept it more or less at face value, while every discordant (rational?) opinion is painted as crazy. It’s got to the point where if one does not believe the official story, they are a conspiracy theorist, which seems to be the broad-brush contemporary insult of substantial equivalence to “communist”.

You can go to Reddit these days to get an idea of what’s allowed and not allowed to be discussed in mainstream discourse, although I like the idea that the more taboo a subject is, the closer it is to our cultural blindspot, what people in the future will laugh at us (or curse us) for failing to see, and in a way to the truth—if we can speak of such a thing without missing the point.

I can’t say whether Bradbury was ahead of his time—this would imply a linear, rational process of how the progress of humanity works I don’t agree with—but what I’ll say is that in certain respects, the times themselves have not changed all that much since when Bradbury was fresh out of school and was typing away in the basement of UCLA on penny-operated, time-constrained typewriters. In certain respects. And that includes man’s (and woman’s! {and genderqueer’s! {{[and other terrestrial and extraterrestrial sentient beings!}}}]) thirst for meaning, and the survival, or the continual re-imagining in the aftermath of disaster, of what truly matters.

In short, yes, you should read this book—as another step to protect its family and heritage from their slide to insignificance. Alternatively, you could listen to the unabridged audiobook like I did. It’s just over 5 hours long and the narrator is good.

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