Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Shining (Novel)

I didn't think there was any way Stephen King's book could scare me more than the movie did.  Boy, was I wrong.

"The Shining" refers to extrasensory perception, specifically in the case of five year old Danny Torrance, who realizes at an early age that he can detect what people around him are feeling, and in some cases thinking.  As Danny gets older these perceptive powers increase to the point where he can read minds at will and also detect ghosts.

After Danny's alcoholic father, Jack, loses his job teaching at an exclusive academy for beating up a student who slashed his tires, the family temporarily moves to Colorado so that Jack can take a job as the winter caretaker at an expensive hotel in the mountains called The Overlook.  Unbeknownst to the family, the hotel is haunted, but initially the ghosts can only be seen by those who shine, like Danny.  The powers-that-be in the hotel covet Danny's power, which can be attained through his death.  The powers cannot kill him directly, though, and decide to use Jack as the intermediary by slowly driving him crazy, crazy enough to be completely willing to kill both his wife and his child.

Jack begins to terrorize his family, yelling at them as they hide, to come out and take their medicine.  They manage to keep him at bay for a while, but can't stop him forever.  In terror, Danny sends a telepathic message to the head chef of The Overlook, Hallorann, who has gone to Florida for the winter and also shines, but not to the same degree as Danny.  In a panic, Hallorann catches a flight to Colorado and drives and snowmobiles to the snowbound hotel just as things are coming to a climax.  Jack has seriously injured his wife and is ready to finish her off when he hears the snowmobile approach.  After knocking out Hallorann, Jack heads off in pursuit of Danny.  When he corners the boy, Danny gets away by telling Jack that the boiler, which needs constant attention, is about to blow up and destroy the hotel.  The powers controlling Jack realize Danny is telling the truth and send Jack to the basement to bleed off the pressure, but it is too late and the boiler blows, but not before Danny, his mother and Hallorann manage to get outside before the hotel is destroyed, killing the powers controlling it.

What I found most scary about this book were the psychological components, rather than the physical actions.  You never quite know what is real and what is just forced thoughts, and you also cannot tell what is harmful and what is not, inside the hotel.  I haven't read a King in quite a while and had almost forgotten what a good writer he is.  My appetite is now whetted for more of his work - my wife is now recommending that I read The Green Mile, another movie I enjoyed.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Watertown Daily Times and New Age Garbage

Hey, maybe I am psychic! 

Just the other day I complained to my wife about the WDT's ongoing promotion of the supernatural and other hokum, so imagine my surprise (not really) when I saw the front page of today's paper and there was a photo from some local psychic fair above the fold, top left.  Full story inside.

I am sure that if a Times rep were to respond to this he would say they are only running stories of local interest.  I believe, however, that they are running stories of interest to somebody on the Times' editorial team.  It would be different if the stories contained at least something about the lack of any empirical evidence for any of this stuff.  Since there is no mention, I have to believe there is a vested interest within the management.

It takes no effort to debunk all of it, or at least show that at best the "treatments" out there are no more than placebos.  In the public's interest the WDT should provide some sort of disclaimers when they run these types of stories.  It can be harmful if people are led to believe that these kinds of "care" provide any medical benefit whatsoever, especially if "patients" avoid traditional medical care as a result.

On the plus side, though, it is nice to know that one of the psychics predicted we would have mixed weather this winter.  In NNY!  Imagine that!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Contact (Novel)

Contact is a science-fiction novel by the late scientist extraordinaire Carl Sagan, later made into a major motion picture starring Jodie Foster.  It is a story of our planet's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, and how that contact has a global impact, both good and bad.

A message sent from the Vega system is received by radiotelescope on Earth and is eventually translated into instructions on how to build a machine that is apparently a transport device of some sort, with seats for up to five passengers.  People from all over the world weigh in on the topic.  Some think the message is from God, some from the Devil.  Others think the machine is not a transport vehicle but a doomsday machine.  Some say to build it, while others say not to build it under any circumstances.

Eventually the machine is built, with the mutual cooperation of most countries of the world.  It is very expensive and time-consuming, but the gains from the new technologies provided by the Vegans will outweigh any cost.  A crew of five, all top scientists, is agreed to for the voyage and are prepared to depart on New Year's Eve 1999.  As soon as the machine is spun up to full speed the five passengers start flying through what seem to be wormholes, first to Vega where they see the transmitter that sent the message to Earth, and eventually to the actual home of the senders.

The extraterrestrials are so far advanced from Earthlings that they copy memories from each of the travelers and present themselves individually as copies of people emotionally close to the scientists.  The main character, Ellie, is visited by an extraterrestrial in the guise of her long-dead father, and the other scientists are visited similarly.  The aliens explain that they are peaceful minders of the galaxy, using a subway-type system of wormholes to travel throughout the Milky Way and beyond.  Their primary function is to watch developing civilizations and only jump in when necessary to prevent them from killing themselves.  They are glad to see that Hitler was defeated (his broadcast of the German Olympic games being the aliens' first view of human life), and believe that humans are safe from themselves, at least for the moment, but will be available should the need arise.

To their surprise, when the travelers get back home it appears that to the people at the launch site that they never left.  They heard the machine spin up to top speed and then slow back down, a process that only took twenty minutes.  From the scientists' perspective, they were gone at least a day.  As a result, many of the officials involved in the project are skeptical that the scientists went anywhere and that it was just some sort of group illusion, or worse yet, a conspiracy, especially since the travelers have no proof they went anywhere.  Even Ellie's videocamera is blank after shooting a great deal during the voyage.

Eventually the officials decide to put out a release stating that the launch was unsuccessful, but the Earth has still gained substantially from the technology developed to build the machine, plus there is now evidence that alien civilizations do exist.  Ellie is returned to her radiotelescope with lifetime tenure to continue her research as long as she agrees to never mention what she believes happened in the machine.

I am not usually critical of Carl Sagan's writing, but since this is a novel instead of popular science I will make an exception.  I found the book very enjoyable and extremely informative about the SETI program, however I really did not think the dialogue worked very well. Perhaps scientists really do talk like this in real life, but I found it stilted much of the time, and I thought the female characters where too masculinized, especially the President.  It does not take too much away from the book, though, as dialogue only makes up a relatively small percentage of the book, and much of what the characters discuss is quite interesting.

I will have to watch the movie next.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

North and South (Novel)

I read a lot of historical fiction back in the eighties, especially by Michener, but somehow missed John Jakes' North and South trilogy.  I'm making up for it now.  After just finishing North and South I started up Love and War, which picks up exactly where the first leaves off.

North and South is the story of two families, the Mains and the Hazards.  The Mains are rice planters in South Carolina and the Hazards own an ironworks in Pennsylvania.  Sons Orry Main and George Hazard meet at West Point in the 1840s and become best friends.  The book then follows the Mains and the Hazards for the next twenty years or so, up to the beginning of the Civil War, as the two families struggle to remain friends despite the bitter regional differences.

Like most historical fiction there is a lot of factual history and genuine historical figures included.  The novel is a good lesson on the events and thinking leading up to the War Between the States. It is definitely a good book for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Tales from Planet Earth

This is a book of fourteen "hard" science fiction stories by the renowned Arthur C. Clarke, all revolving around Earth, some going back as far as the 1940s.  It is quite amazing to see how prescient Clarke was about inventions in the (at that time) future.  The stories range from a couple of pages long to a full novella.

My personal favorite is the novella The Lion of Comarre.  In the Thirty-first Century humans have been stagnant scientifically for about five hundred years, believing that all that needs to be discovered has already been done so.  Life is easy and is primarily dedicated to the arts and leisure.  Early in this period of stagnation Rolf Thordarsein, an eminent scientist and engineer, set out to create a place where perfect leisure may be enjoyed.  A place called Comarre.  A few hundred years later Thordarsein's 22-times' great grandson, Richard Peyton III, sets out on a quest for the mysterious Comarre, from which nobody has ever returned.  Peyton eventually does find Comarre and learns its secrets.  The city is completely automated and run by robots, while the human inhabitants lie in beds and live in Matrix-like artificial existences, though of pure pleasure.  Upon trying to awaken some of the inhabitants and reintroducing them to reality, Peyton realizes the futility of his effort - they all WANT to live this way, so he leaves them alone.  Peyton's biggest surprise, however, is that the primary robot controller of Comarre, called The Engineer, has full consciousness and is in many ways superior to humans.  The Engineer was Thordarsein's greatest invention and it was his hope that humans and robots in the future would complement each other, instead of humans strictly controlling the robots.  One of Thordarsein's last efforts was to document the processes for creating true life in the robots in a book that Peyton finds in Rolf's old office.  In the end, The Engineer gladly sends Peyton back on his way, while Peyton himself cheerfully contemplates the next great stage in scientific development and the end of the stagnant ways.

The critical regard for this book is not very high, but I think it is worth the read for The Lion of Comarre alone.  Some of the other stories are a bit weak, but others really make you marvel at the author's wit and imagination.