Thursday, January 18, 2018

Robert J. Sawyer: Calculating God

Robert J. Sawyer
Calculating God

I found this an intriguing novel  It's a first contact novel with a surprising theme.   An alien spaceship lands on the grounds of the Royal Ontario Museum.  The aliens speak English, of course, and ask to see a paleontologist.  This happens to be Thomas Jericho, who by the way is an atheist.  This is important.

The aliens want permission to study the large collection of fossils held by the museum.  They are looking for more evidence that will scientifically establish the existence of god.  According to the aliens, there are three sentient races,including humans, in this part of the universe, and all three have suffered five catastrophic events at about the same time, all of which actually increased the probability of sentient life developing on those three planets.  Hollus, one of the aliens, believed this to be proof of a guiding intelligence who is trying to develop sentience in the universe.

Much of the novel consists of philosophical discussions regarding the findings and their implications.   Jericho, being an atheist, provides a counter-argument to the aliens' conclusions.   These discussions do not involve religion or theology to any extent.  Sawyer does speculate somewhat on the reactions of the various religious groups to the aliens' and their conclusions.  The discussions between Jericho and the alien Hollus are solely on the basis of physical evidence and its interpretations.

Overall, I thought it was an interesting novel on a very hotly debated issue, but it was brought out in a way I had never seen before.   It is not a novel that works to persuade its readers in one direction or the other.   It simply speculates on what would happen if there was unequivocal physical evidence for the existence of God in non-religious or theological setting. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Favorite novels read in 2017

Listed in alphabetical order by author:

Willa Cather:                         Youth and the Bright Medusa
--cheating here, for this is a collection of excellent short stories
--first reading

Walter van Tilburg Clark:     The Track of the Cat
--a reread
--a tense tale of the hunter becoming the hunted
--a great novel from a sadly neglected novelist

Joseph Conrad:                      Victory
 --a reread
 --he had a rule:  don't get involved
--but sometimes .  .  .

Lawrence Durrell:                 The Alexandria Quartet
--a reread
--four novels that could be read as one

William Golding:                   The Spire
--a reread
--the effects of an obsession on the obsessed and bystanders

Russel Hoban:                       Turtle Diary
--a reread
--a quiet novel about a turtle that became a quiet film starring Glenda Jackson 
   and Ben Kingsley
--the ending is not the expected ending

Nikos Kazantzakis:                Toda Raba
 --first reading
 --the pilgrimages of various believers to an international conference in Moscow in the    late 1920s.

Thomas Mann:                      Royal Highness
 --a reread
--changing times in a German principality pre-WWI
--an early plea for careful use of natural resources

Chaim Potok:                         The Chosen
--first reading
--in his late teens, a son rejects his father's plans for his future.
--two very different sons with different backgrounds  and their friendship

Vita Sackville-West:             All Passion Spent
 --first reading
--now that she's a widow, she has some ideas about how to spend her days
--much to the dismay of her children.

Leo Tolstoy:                           Hadji Murad
 --first reading


Anthony Trollope                  The Fixed Period
--a reread
--it's a crime to grow old

Angus Wilson:                     Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
--a reread
--a professor of anthropology gains insight into his personal problems
--he didn't realize how much trouble this would cause those about him. 

It must mean something:  of the thirteen books listed, only five are new reads and only two of the authors are new to me.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Basho: some winter haiku

Some winter haiku by Basho.  While it seldom, if ever, gets this cold in Tucson, I grew up in Chicago, and I remember those wintry days and nights, especially those in February. 

the sound of the water jar
    cracking on this icy night
            as I lay awake
                 -- Basho --

the winter garden--
thinning to a thread, the moon
       and an insect's singing
                     -- Basho --

a wintry gust--
cheeks painfully swollen,
      the face of a man
                 -- Basho --

The haiku above are taken from Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season,  edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch.


a winter shower
the pine tree is unhappy and
waiting for snow

  -- Basho --
from Basho: The Complete Haiku

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


     Apes were to become men, in the inscrutable wisdom of nature . . .Down on the grass by a streamside, one of those apes with inquisitive fingers turned over a stone and hefted it vaguely.  The group clucked together in a throaty tongue and moved off through the tall grass foraging for seeds and insects.  The one still held, sniffed, and hefted the stone he had found.  He liked the feel of it in his fingers.  The attack on the animal world was about to begin.
     If one could run the story of that first human group like a speeded-up motion picture through a million years of time, one might see the stone in the hand change to the flint ax and the torch.  

-- Loren Eiseley --  "How Flowers Changed the World"
first published in The Immense Journey, 1957

The Star Thrower

Does this sound familiar?

And from the back cover of The Star Thrower:

"The book will be read and cherished in the year 2001. It will go to the MOON and MARS with future generations.  Loren Eiseley's work changed my life.  -- Ray Bradbury --

Curious.   Why that year of all the years he could have picked?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Minute Meditation

All philosophy seems to lead me towards a perfect spiritual detachment- a divorce from the world, and therefore towards sterility and deadness.   Let me be content to say:  I am, and content to "be" as fully as possible.   

-- Lawrence Durrell --
Pied Piper of Lovers

Amen . . .       

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Albert Camus: The Possessed: a play in three parts

Albert Camus
The Possessed: a play in three acts

Camus is not one of my favorite writers, though I have read several of his novels.  They seem much too bleak and dispirited to me.  But, I ran across this one while browsing.  Normally I would have moved on, but the title intrigued me--it reminded me of Dostoyevsky's novel of the same name.  So, I opened it and found that it was a play and that it was based on Dostoyevsky's novel.  I just couldn't pass this one by.


Shortly after beginning the play, I realized what Camus's strategy was to be.  He was going to focus on the Nihilist thread which featured  Nikolai Stavrogin and  Pyotr Verkhovensky.   The satiric aspect, Dostoyevsky's attack on the Westernizers and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, got a brief mention at best.  A number of characters and subplots also were eliminated.  I realized this had to be done to make it possible to put on the play in one evening.


This is where I found the most problems.  First, it seemed rushed to me.  It was if Camus suddenly realized that he had to provide certain events to make the plot line intelligible, so he squeezed them in at the end.  As it was, certain parts were removed from the acting script when it was first produced, presumably to shorten the running time.

A second question arose because some of the incidents didn't seem familiar to me.  Now this didn't happen in the first two parts.  Another problem is the body count.  It seemed high to me.  More people died in the last part than in Hamlet.  In Camus' version, three people were murdered, one was killed by a mob, two committed suicide, and one died from pneumonia.  There may have been an eighth death, another one killed by that mob.  I remember that four died, but I'm not certain about the others.  I guess it's time to pull out the novel for another reread. 

Overall Commentary:
First, one must realize that I was reading an English translation of a play written in French which was adapted from a novel written in Russian.  Yet, in spite of this, I felt throughout most of the play that this was Dostoyevsky.  This speaks much for the strength of Dostoyevsky's writing, for Camus' ability to capture him in French, and for the skill of the English translator.  

The most serious problem is that faced by anyone who attempts to adapt a novel, especially a long, complex novel, to a shorter art form--a play or a film.  Something has to go, and others have to be changed.  It is also possible that I might have had a different reaction if I had watched it performed.  .

It may be an easy way into the novel: fewer characters, fewer incidents, a simplified plot structure, and shorter.