Thursday, January 28, 2010

Living in the Past

On Saturday, El and I stopped by our local used book store where I picked up some new-to-me reading material. Included among my purchases was the book that I'm currently reading, Empire, which is the part of Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire series (or American Chronicles as the publishers preferred). I have been reading the novels in the series in chronological order by history as opposed to the order in which the books were originally published. Thus, I have previously read Burr, Lincoln, and 1876. I liked Burr and Lincoln, but I think those books were helped by the built-in drama from the time periods they covered. Particularly, each novel included a significant country-shaping war. I thought 1876 was a bit drier and harder to get through since the plot revolved around that year's bitter drawn-out election (not to be confused with other bitter, drawn-out elections).

I haven't read any of Vidal's other works, but in addition to the remaining books in this series (next on the list is Washington, D.C. which I also bought on Saturday), I plan on reading some of his other historical fiction novels, particularly Julian and Creation. Although I wouldn't say that I have read a ton of historical fiction, in general, I like the genre. For instance, I enjoyed Wilbur Smith's series of novels set in ancient Egypt, including River God and Warlock. I also have a book of Egyptian whodunnits but that might not actually qualify as historical fiction.

I recently finished Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. That book is also suppose to be a part of a series, but so far it is the only installment. As I eluded to in my short review on Goodreads, I didn't really care for the book. While the general idea was interesting and the book was well written, the Christian overtones (which are understandable as Card is a devout Mormon) were a bit much for me. The general idea of the book seems to be that the Native Americans would have fared much better if their religions were more like psuedo-Christianity.

Pastwatch would also probably not be considered historical fiction, but would be an alternate history. There is the element of time travel, so it could also be consider historical fantasy or science fantasy. To split hairs, stories that include time travel should not be considered science fiction, but rather science fantasy, since time travel is generally not considered to be scientifically possible. Faster-than-light travel is also not considered scientifically possible, so works that included FTL travel would also be science fantasy. Yes, both Star Wars and Star Trek are science fantasy and not science fiction. You wouldn't actually be able to hear those non-existent explosions anyway since there is no air in space to carry the sound or make the combustion possible. Laser guns and perhaps teleportation (but probably only inanimate objects) would be science fiction since they are theoretically possible. Of course, annoying Bluetooth devices are here today.

There are lots of other futuristic elements that are also theoretically possible and fall squarely in the realm of science fiction. Traveling to distant reaches of space while in suspended animation or in giant ships that contain whole civilizations are thought to be possible with more advanced technology. Conversely, staying right here on Earth while being connected to vast computer network is also fair game for science fiction. This was the basic element of the Matrix series of movies, although that series ventured into science fantasy with its more mystical elements.

Personally, I thought the whole plot of the Matrix series was silly. Being educated as an engineer, I know that even advanced machines are simply tools designed by humans for use by humans. I have to assume that even self-aware machines would follow their basic design and programming. I think Morpheus's explanation for how the world of the Matrix came to be quite is unreasonable. It would be much more likely that two or more groups of people went to war with each other and started the destruction of the planet. I would assume the intelligent machines were thus designed the save the human race, and they probably concluded that isolation was the only possible way to protect humans from each other and as well as from themselves. Considering our current plugged-in society, I doubt there would be too much resistance to this permanently jacked-in state, particularly after a generation or two. Every person's needs were adequately met which is quite a contrast to our current reality. Of course, it is quite possible that my preferred explanation was actually the final resolution for the whole series, and I just missed it.

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