The accidental time machine (Joe Haldeman, 2007)

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The accidental time machine, by Joe Haldeman (2007).

Score: Meh.

In this novel, sleazy, over-caffeinated research assistant Matthew Fuller builds a time machine, while trying to actually make a graviton calibrator, that sends itself and anything touching it with a conducting material into the future, for a period that’s twelve times longer each time he presses the button. Sadly, being irredeemably stupid despite having a degree in physics, he decides it’s a good idea to start travelling forward and forward in time, being perfectly aware that there is no way he knows of that will allow him to travel backwards in time.

From The forever war we already know that Haldeman likes to toy with how humanity will fare in very long time spans. It’s quite bold, but it also means you’re likely to fail miserably. The alienating feeling is quite well achieved, though. We also know that Haldeman dislikes religion and he can be really heavy-handed about it. Here is one example.

The passage with the Christian theocracy reminds of A canticle for Leibowitz, only much less subtle and clever. It’s like he almost wants to blame everything bad that ever happened to religion… calm down, man, I don’t like religion either but when you paint things like that you look like a zealot. The next jump to the wealthy and complacent society ruled by machines is quite cliché-ridden as well. Like capitalism can ever work that way, even regulated by machines.

It’s true that having the machine only travel forward saves you a lot of trouble as a writer, but it’s also quite boring. There were only two ways it could end and the one that didn’t happen was even more boring. The development was not very entertaining either, mostly because of the nonsensically long time spans travelled by the characters. Finished it mostly because I want to do some research on time travel stories and because it wasn’t that long, but I don’t think it’s going to be worth your while.

A brief history of time (Stephen Hawking, 1988)

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A brief history of time, by Stephen Hawking (1988).

Score: a must-read of popular science.

I didn’t think this book was for me. The nature of time, physics, Stephen Hawking is there… I thought it would be far too difficult or discuss very obscure topics, but that’s not the case.

A brief history of time starts with very elemental physics, which most of you will have studied in secondary school, and goes on to build chapters about why and how we know the universe is expanding, the unification of quantum mechanics and relativistic physics, the possibility of time travel and even very simple elements of string theory.

The book is pretty much theory-centered, so if you don’t feel like reading about atheism or the goals of science you can come here without concerns (the nature of science is briefly discussed and Hawking is very obviously an atheist, but these are not main topics). I’m watching Cosmos: a spacetime odyssey now as well, and one of the faults I find it has is that it doesn’t give enough detail about how we know things and the important experiments in the history of science, which are given the spotlight here. If you liked Cosmos and want to know more and get more details and insight, I would recommend this as well.

It’s not very hard to understand for people who don’t speak science, although you will need to read carefully and ponder some passages, because they will need your undivided attention. This is mostly achieved by not justifying anything mathematically, substituting demonstrations with comparisons to everyday life situations.

What are you waiting for? If you’re looking to dive head on first into the world of popular science, this is a great place to start.

Calvin & Hobbes (Bill Watterson, 1985-1995)

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Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson (1985-1995). 

Score: Are you kidding me? This is a must-read.

When I was a kid the local newspaper had Sunday supplements that my grandparents would give me to read, and Calvin & Hobbes was published there, so I’ve got fond memories of it from a young age. When I was a teenager I read most of the first year of strips because my English teacher would give them to me to read as a warmup at the beginning of lessons, and I’ve been meaning to read it but up to now I didn’t have the chance to sit down and read the whole of it in chronological order of publication.

I was most surprised of the contrast between what people tend to remember about it and what it really is when you read it all through. I’ve noticed people tend to stick with Watterson’s reflections mouthpieced through the characters, and this melancholic reminiscence of childhood and rebellion against growing up. But people, Calvin sure is bratty. I never see anyone saying how they want to slap him right in the face, and I did at times. And Watterson doesn’t hide the fact that he made Calvin to be bratty in the Tenth Anniversary book, it’s something that’s totally intentional. It was apparently controversial how politically incorrect the strip can be (including strips where Calvin’s parents miss how simple their life was before they had him), especially at the time when it came out, before it was normal for comedies to show families that were not the dictated, sugar-coated norm.

That being said, there are mostly two periods in the history of the strips, and the transition happens more or less at half. The first six years rely heavily on gags around the everyday life of Calvin: going to school, trolling Susie, procrastinating, torturing his parents, playing outside with Hobbes, imagining sci-fi scenarios to substitute plain old, boring real life. This section can get really repetitive, because once you’ve read two or three years of it, it’s the same set of about a dozen different kinds of strips, and you don’t laugh as much because the element of surprise is kind of gone. Obviously, this was intended to appear as a daily strip on a newspaper, so probably that’s the reason why it doesn’t stand being read on a sitting so well. The second period is the one I feel it’s most remembered for. It has the wagon philosophical strips, though people tend to forget that Calvin almost always gets the wrong conclusion out of his reflections. I really enjoyed the irreverent reflections on the nature of art, and the later snowmen strips. This period is more mature, subtle and ironic than the first, and more enjoyable. In fact, when I was around the fifth year I was thinking about quitting, but kept reading because I had memories of later strips I hadn’t got to yet. When I finished the Tenth Anniversary book, I felt sad, like saying goodbye to an old friend. Apparently, it was fairly uncommon back then that a comic strip dealt with themes of death, loss, happiness, life goals and identity. I especially enjoyed the series when Calvin is bullied for not playing baseball, then bullied for being bad at it, and finally for quitting (yes, I wasn’t a sporty child either, it went right in the feels). And if you didn’t get cloudy eyes while reading the little raccoon series, you’re dead inside.

I have to say that I really admire the effort Watterson made to gain his well-earned creative freedom, and how much he fought to keep creative control of his work. In hindsight, he made the best choice refusing to license Calvin & Hobbes, as their rants about junk TV culture and hypocrisy wouldn’t have any meaning if I had spent my childhood seeing them endorsing insurance companies. All in all, this is a must read, whether you are interested in comic books or just in recent history of pop culture.

Chasm City (Alastair Reynolds, 2001)

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Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds (2001).

Score: Fucking awesome.

Tanner Mirabel is a mercenary ex-soldier from Sky’s Edge who is out to hunt down Argent Reivich, who killed his boss and his boss’ wife, and for that he’s willing to travel for fifteen years in a lighthugger to planet Yellowstone, once the most advanced human enclave, now ruined by an alien virus known as the Melding Plague. In the process, he’s infected by an indoctrinal disease that gives him flashbacks about the life of Sky Haussman, the vilified and revered founding father of his natal colony.

Chasm city is great both as a space opera and a noir novel. The suspense in Revelation Space was a bit clumsy at times, but here the pace and development is nearly perfect. The reveals happen regularly through the book, instead of all at the same time at the end. This means that Reynolds has a lot of surprises for you, but not so many that it feels fabricated or over-the-top.

The sci-fi characterisation ranges from fascinating (the hamadryads) to borderline ridiculous (modified cetaceans that pilot shuttles?), and the main characters are wonderfully developed. I complained that Dan Sylveste was a bit insipid but that was inverted with Tanner/Sky/Cahuella, which were amazing as villain protagonists. The post-decadent Chasm City is great as setting, described with love and care, but not stalling the narration to indulge in endless masturbatory descriptions. I hope to read more about the decaying city in Redemption Ark, and about the decadent one in The Prefect.

Try not to read anything about it, if you’re already interested in reading it, it’s best if you don’t know a lot about the book. Just know that I consider it the best book I’ve read this year so far and one of the best space operas ever.

***SPOILERS***

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