Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Science fiction for public administrators
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga is one of those heralded classics of science fiction that is assumed to be beyond reproach by genre purists. The first novel in the series, entitled simply Foundation, was published in 1951, but it was comprised of short stories that were originally published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine from 1942 to 1950. After finally getting around to reading the first Foundation novel, I found it didn’t live up to its stellar (no pun intended) reputation. In 1966, after the publication of the original trilogy, a special one-time Hugo Award for Best All-Time series was bestowed upon Asimov’s Foundation books. If reassessed today, I’m not sure that designation would stand the test of time.

Presumably thousands of years in the future, mankind has colonized thousands of planets, most of which are governed by a Galactic Empire. While the Empire does have its dystopian side, this big government generally keeps human civilization from devolving into utter chaos. Hari Seldon, however, foresees an impending catastrophic fall in the Empire’s future. Seldon is humanity’s foremost practitioner of psychohistory. Through a thorough analytical knowledge of human nature and complex modeling of historical probabilities, psychohistorians are able to provide detailed predictions of humanity’s probable future. With the end of civilization looming large, the Empire establishes a scientific foundation on a remote outpost, with Seldon in charge, to compile a Galactic Encyclopedia of all human knowledge. But is that the Foundation’s only purpose, or is there a hidden, ulterior motive to this monumental undertaking?

Foundation is well-thought-out, but it is a bit boring, and I never really cared about any of the characters. The main problem with this story is that there’s too much about government and fictional politics. It reads like Asimov was playing a role-playing game about how to manage an interplanetary empire, and you get to watch. This novel should be the monthly selection of a book club for city bureaucrats or foreign diplomats. In contrast, Frank Herbert’s Dune books also have a lot of government in them, but in addition they have a lot to say about religion, genetic engineering, the environment, and other interesting matters. The Dune world is multifaceted, whereas the Foundation world is rather one-dimensional. All the characters are defined by their bureaucratic titles, with only minimum personality, and one gets the feeling that they are all white men. I don’t recall a woman in the entire book. I also think it was a poor choice to give the two main characters—Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin—such similar names. That must have been an intentional choice by Asimov, but it’s needlessly confusing.

Another mark against Foundation is that it ends on a low note. Of the novel’s five sections, which take place decades apart, the last part, The Merchant Princes, is by far the least interesting. The stakes feel a lot lower here than in the earlier sections, and the book’s only interesting characters—Seldon and Hardin—are long gone. This closing story presents a diplomatic conundrum that was so confusing I found it difficult to care about the result.

The concept of psychohistory is Foundation’s most original and intriguing contribution to the science fiction genre. The narrative possibilities of that concept, however, don’t seem to have been fully exploited by Asimov in this book. Perhaps one has to read the remaining three Foundation novels to get the full scope of Asimov’s glorious creation, but this first installment doesn’t make me want to read six more books in this world.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Maigret’s Revolver by Georges Simenon

Unexceptional by Maigret standards
Maigret’s Revolver
, first published in 1952, is the 68th of Maigret’s 103 cases (including the short stories) written by Belgian author Georges Simenon. I’ve read about twenty of the Maigret novels and always find them entertaining, but this is one of the least impressive Maigret outings I’ve come across.

When Maigret comes home from work one day, his wife tells him that a young man had come to see him that afternoon. The visitor waited in the parlor for a while, but Maigret did not return, so he left. Maigret doesn’t think much of it until he notices that his revolver is missing from the room in which the young man sat waiting. He must have stolen Maigret’s gun! Unfortunately, Madame Maigret did not obtain any information about the visitor’s identity, whereabouts, or reason for seeking Maigret. She’s worried the young man might commit suicide. Soon after, the Maigrets dine at the home of a friend, Dr. Pardon. Pardon tells Maigret about a friend of his, François Lagrange, whose son has been behaving erratically and recently went missing. Could this be the same young man who stole Maigret’s revolver?

If so, it would be one hell of a coincidence. Nevertheless, that’s the belief-stretching premise that gets this whole mystery started. Maigret decides to track down the young man, Alain Lagrange, ostensibly to assist a friend of a friend but really in hopes of finding his stolen gun. In the course of his investigation Maigret uncovers a murder, which thus steers the novel into classic Maigret territory. Even so, this story feels woefully average by Maigret standards. It can never be said to be exciting, and it’s only moderately intriguing.

Simenon excels at drawing deep and interesting characters, but here the prime suspect is absent for almost the entire book, so you don’t really get to learn anything about him until the very end. The reader just rides along passively as Maigret follows his trail of leads. Maigret never seems too excited about the case, and his blasé attitude is contagious. Another odd and somewhat disappointing aspect to this novel is that the theft of Maigret’s revolver never really amounts to anything in the story. Other than drawing Maigret’s attention to the young man in the opening chapter, the plot element of the revolver isn’t really necessary. The book could do without it, but then what would the title be?

The final reveal at the end is another genre-bending turn from Simenon in which he makes the reader wonder who’s really the criminal and who the victim. While the penultimate chapter delivers the poignancy and pathos one expects from the resolution of a Maigret case, the getting there is a pedestrian trip at best.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Magnificent Rebels: The first Romanticists and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf

The Jena set and the birth of Romanticism
German-British writer Andrea Wulf wrote one of my favorite nonfiction books of the last decade, The Invention of Nature, about the Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt. In that book, Wulf demonstrated an exceptional talent for writing intellectual history in an accessible and even exciting manner. She does so again in her latest book, Magnificent Rebels, published in 2022.

Magnificent Rebels is a group biography of a coterie of philosophers, poets, and scientists who crossed paths in the city of Jena, a university town in what is now Germany, from 1794 to 1806. Alexander von Humboldt and his brother Wilhelm play supporting roles in this story, but this history focuses primarily on several men and women of letters who founded the philosophical and literary movement of Romanticism. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is the elder statesman and mentor of the group, as well as the glue that held the clique together while everyone else was bickering. The Jena set also included popular university lecturers Friedrich Schiller, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Friedrich Schelling. August Wilhelm Schlegel, his wife Caroline, and his brother Friedrich Schlegel were also major players in this social and intellectual scene, as well as their good friend the poet known as Novalis. Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel came late to the party and only enters the scene towards the end of the book.

Soon after the French Revolution, Romanticism built upon the idea that people were destined to be more than just slaves to despotic monarchs or even to nature itself. In their view, the human mind, the self, was a powerful force in not only understanding nature but also in shaping it. Counter to the Enlightenment, these Romantics placed more importance on imagination and emotion than on empirical science and rationalism, and they championed individual freedom over social duty and convention. I was also surprised to learn that these scholars were instrumental in rediscovering the works of Shakespeare and elevating him to the legendary status he holds today.

Particular attention is given to Caroline Schlegel, whom Wulf clearly admires as an independent woman who did not allow herself to be held down by the social restrictions placed upon women of her day. Though Caroline’s achievements were often attributed to her husband, here Wulf reveals her to be an accomplished intellectual and woman of letters in her own right and a worthy contributor to the Romanticist circle. In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, Wulf’s depiction of Caroline sometimes flirts with hero worship, but as the book progresses the picture becomes less flattering. By the end, very few of these literary illuminati come out of this narrative with a spotless reputation.

As in The Invention of Nature, Wulf’s writing is impeccable. By delving deeply into the correspondence of these early Romanticists, she vividly brings to life the social dynamics between the movement’s members and the atmosphere of intellectual interchange that spawned their philosophical and literary breakthroughs. Wulf deftly renders complex concepts of Romantic literature and philosophy in concise and user-friendly terms without dumbing-down the content. At the close of the book, she also gives a thoughtful synopsis of the legacy of the Jena set in the thought of later intellectuals, particularly the American Transcendentalists. Wulf doesn’t always succeed, however, in convincing the reader of the importance of some of these revered writers’ works, which at times sound a little flighty and masturbatory. This Jena crowd were basically the college-town hipsters of their age, and their love affairs, spiteful squabbles, and catty insults often feel awfully petty. While I didn’t always care for the subjects of this book, however, I was always captivated by Wulf’s writing of them. 
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Essential Wolverine Volume 7 by Erik Larsen, et al.

Past his prime
Back when I used to habitually read Marvel Comics in the 1980s and ‘90s, one of my favorite titles was Wolverine. I kept up with most of the X-Men comics but always preferred Wolverine’s solo title. The issues from that era (now called Wolverine Volume 2, to distinguish it from Frank Miller’s miniseries of 1982, which is Volume 1) have been collected and reproduced in Marvel’s Essential series of trade paperbacks. Essential Wolverine Volume 7 includes Wolverine issues 129 to 148, as well as one crossover issue of Hulk (#8). These issues originally ran from October 1998 to March 2000. Frankly, that’s a little late for my tastes, and these issues demonstrate a drop in quality from what I remember of the Wolverine title I used to know and love.

Most of these issues were written by Erik Larsen, the same Erik Larsen who created The Savage Dragon for Image Comics. What I liked best about the character of Wolverine is that he had a mysterious past that he was working to uncover. Writer Larry Hama took full advantage of that in his extensive run of issues in the early ‘90s, in which he gradually revealed an intricate history of Logan’s work as a covert operative. These stories by Larsen, on the other hand, just seem to put Wolverine into battle scenes with not much story behind them. Often Wolverine doesn’t even know why he’s fighting who he’s fighting. The stories also get sidetracked by Marvel’s crossover mania of this era. Wolverine spends several issues in the personification of Death, one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen, and the final issue of this volume presents him as a member of the new Fantastic Four, along with Hulk, Spider-Man, and Ghost Rider. Wolverine’s solo comic used to focus more on grittier earthbound matters, but here Larsen and company deliver a lot of outer space and alien invasion storylines that would be better suited for the X-Men books.

The art has also taken a turn for the worse. Marvel’s Essentials series reprints comics in black and white on newsprint paper, which is fine for the classic “coloring book” style of comics art. By the late ‘90s, however, that pen- and brush-heavy style had been abandoned in favor of more Photoshop coloration. The issues in Volume 7, therefore, are scanned as grayscale rather than black-and-white art, which causes a great lack of clarity in reproduction. There is also a definite manga influence to the graphic style, with the figures exaggerated in a cartoony manner. Big action-packed splash panels are emphasized over sequential storytelling. About half the issues in Volume 7 are drawn by Leinil Francis Yu, who really has an exciting visual style with detail-rich figures and backgrounds. Sometimes he makes it hard, however, to figure out what exactly is happening in a given panel. It made me miss the glory days when Marc Silvestri used to draw the Wolverine title in a more traditional noir style reminiscent of classic comic masters like Will Eisner or Milton Caniff. In addition, I’ve never seen more lettering errors in a volume of comics. Almost every page has at least one typo, missing word, or duplicated word. It makes you wonder if they actually scanned the final art or mistakenly used some unedited working draft.

I’m old enough to prefer the classic Marvel style I grew up with, as exemplified by the comics of Jack Kirby, John Buscema, or John Byrne. When Marvel started to turn away from that style in the late ‘90s, I began to lose interest. I was hoping Essential Wolverine Volume 7 might be a nice trip down memory lane, but instead I found that by 1998 the Wolverine title was already past its prime. One would be better off rereading the earlier volumes by Hama and Silvestri, which can truly be called Essential.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon and leave me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Begum’s Fortune by Jules Verne

Odd tale of dueling Franco-Prussian utopias
Jules Verne was a very prolific author. His series of Voyages Extraordinaires includes 54 novels published during his lifetime (plus a few published after his death, with help from his son). Within such a large body of work, famous masterpiece like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea are far outnumbered by obscure oddities like The Begum’s Fortune, published in 1879. This book is a prefect example of how when one delves into some of the random titles in Verne’s catalog, you never know what you’re going to get, and the result is sometimes less satisfying than one would expect from an author with such an esteemed reputation.

The word “Begum” is an Indian title of nobility denoting the wife or female equivalent of a Raja. As Verne’s novel opens, one such begum, the widow of a French soldier, has passed away, leaving her immense fortune to her dead husband’s nephew, Dr. Sarrasin, a French physician. Sarrasin decides to dedicate his newfound 500 million francs to science by building an ideal city. Before he can collect his inheritance, however, a long-lost cousin comes out of the woodwork to claim half the fortune. This second heir, Dr. Schultze, is a German scientist who resents the fact that he has to share the fortune with a Frenchman. He therefore decides to build his own utopian city to outshine and crush that of his French rival.

Verne’s blatant objective here is to contrast the democratic and benevolent spirit of the French with that of the Germans, whom he sees as conceited, autocratic, megalomaniacal bigots bent on world domination. Some see this book as a prescient vision of Nazism, but it is really an expression of the animosity between France and Germany that escalated with the recent Franco-Prussian War and would continue through the two world wars of the twentieth century. Amid that political climate, Schultze can’t help but suggest Bismarck and Hitler. Schultze’s city, Stahlstadt, is an authoritarian military-industrial complex that manufactures weapons of mass destruction. Little is revealed about Sarrasin’s city, Frankville, other than an obsessive concern with sanitation and hygiene. By some weird whim of Verne’s, both ideal cities end up arising in Oregon, about 30 miles from each other. Somehow they operate as independent city-states within the boundaries of the United States; at least independent enough to declare war on one another.

Verne makes many bad choices in crafting this narrative. Whenever you think the story is showing some possibility of interesting or exciting developments, Verne makes a left turn in favor of the boring or ridiculous. At first you think the book is going to have something to do with India, but it doesn’t. Then it appears it’s going to focus on Sarrasin’s utopia, but Verne turns away from that idea. Just when you think a war is about to start, all action is negated by some dull, killjoy plot twists. Every time conflict seems to arise, Verne opts for a duller alternative. And while Verne’s odd choices are unexpected, somehow the book still ends up feeling like a predictable, formulaic Victorian romance.

In his attempt to depict the Germans as racists, Verne creates an unflattering ethnic stereotype of Germans that is in itself racist. It is also quite ironic that Frankville is built by Chinese laborers who aren’t allowed to live there because they are considered undesirable immigrants. Overall, Verne is usually one of the more egalitarian and politically correct authors of the late nineteenth century, but he really makes some missteps in this book. Even without the uncomfortable prejudices, however, The Begum’s Fortune fails merely by being a boring and poorly written story.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon and leave me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Eyes Like the Sea by Mór Jókai

Portrait of a lady in revolutionary Hungary
Hungarian author Mór Jókai (1825–1904) is a giant in the history of his nation’s literature and played a prominent role in Hungary’s political landscape during his lifetime. His novel Eyes Like the Sea was originally published in 1860 under the Hungarian title of A tengerszemű hölgy. This is an autobiographical work narrated by Jókai himself, in which he tells of his childhood playmate and first love, Elizabeth—also called Bessie—a beautiful woman with “eyes like the sea.” In adolescence, Bessie spurns Jókai’s affections, and each eventually marries someone else. Jókai grows up to be a practicing lawyer, but his real vocation lies in the arts. Though he has some talent as a painter, he achieves fame as a man of letters. The two childhood friends continue to connect over the years, and the book is mainly a chronicle of Bessie’s life through Jókai’s eyes. The author relates details of his literary and political careers, but much of the book is told through Bessie’s voice in a series of flashbacks and anecdotes.

If this book is strictly autobiographical, then one has to feel sorry for Jókai’s wife, who is only mentioned occasionally as “my wife,” while he gushes over Bessie, with whom he is clearly infatuated. Some poetic license seems apparent in the narrative, however, as Bessie’s adventures often read more like fairy tale than fact. Much of the story takes place during the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and its immediate aftermath. Jókai was an outspoken advocate for the rebels, for which he was subsequently persecuted by the Austrian Empire. The war episodes in the book, however, feel overly romanticized, sanitized, and replete with rich people’s problems (Jókai and Bessie being aristocrats). One can imagine people starving and slaughtered in the streets of Budapest, but Jókai chooses to tell us about the troubles Bessie has transferring her funds from one bank to another. As a war novel of two lifelong loves, Eyes Like the Sea bears some resemblance to a Hungarian version of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, with Jókai and Bessie the counterparts of Zhivago and Lara. Jókai’s novel is not anywhere near as well-written as Pasternak’s Russian epic, however. You don’t feel the impact of the war, and you don’t feel much for the (platonic) lovers either.

Over the course of the book, Bessie works her way through several husbands and lovers. I suppose one could see her as a strong woman navigating her way out of necessity through a nineteenth century world restrictive of women’s rights. Mostly, however, she just comes across as flighty and fickle, latching on to any man within reach, often for all the wrong reasons. In his telling of her love life, Jókai puts his heroine into some pretty strange situations, including bizarre episodes of wife-swapping. I would imagine some of these relationships might have been risqué by Victorian Era standards, but to today’s reader they often just seem goofy and unrealistically melodramatic.

I enjoy reading literature of various nations in order to get a sense of different histories and cultures. In this case, however, I felt like I was in over my head. I suspect few English-language readers know much about Hungarian history, and that lack of knowledge will prove a problem here. The reader is expected to have detailed knowledge of the historical events discussed, and even the literary references and the sense of humor are distinctly Hungarian and will be opaque to most outsiders. The English translation by R. Nisbet Bain doesn’t help much. One can overlook such cultural disorientation when the characters are compelling and sympathetic, but unfortunately Jókai doesn’t really accomplish that here.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon and leave me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.