ashthomas//blog: November 2005


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dickens and Human Combustion

The BBC takes a look at spontaneous human combustion, the strange phenomenum of a person suddenly bursting into flames. The suggestion for the article comes from the incident in Dickens' Bleak House where a character does so. Tip from Bookslut.

Daniel Handler Interview

An amusing and interesting conversation with Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) is up at The Onion's AV Club. He discusses the film version of his books, how he came about to write them, and about their reception. The funniest part is about an appearance Handler made at a bookstore:

AVC: When you do public readings, you appear as Daniel Handler, and tell the audience that Lemony Snicket met some kind of horrible fate on the way over. Do kids generally seem to get the joke, or do you have to deal with weeping children who've just basically been told, "Oh dear, you just missed Santa Claus, and then he got eaten by a bear"?

DH: For the most part, it seems that children are quite used to adults standing in front of them, calling for attention, and telling them a complete lie. So they usually have figured out what the gig is. The problem is actually more with adults. I was once almost forced off the stage at a large chain bookstore that shall remain nameless, because she introduced me as Lemony Snicket, and I immediately interrupted her and said, "Oh no, Lemony Snicket isn't here," and then she tried to cancel the event right then and there.

AVC: Did she not get it, or did she just not like the approach?

DH: She didn't get it. Upon questioning on another matter, she also was not aware that Canada was a different country from the United States. Whatever that may say about bookstore managers, she was the most trouble I ever had.

He goes on to talk about the nature of pseudonymous writing and irony. Quite interesting.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell starts off slowly, with the chapters alternating between the near future and a future about 40 years after that. The two timelines are connected by the common character of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who has specialised in linguistics. From what we gather from the first few chapters, he is the sole survivor of what had started as a very hopeful journey of discovery to a new world, and that ended in death and misery.

At first I thought the book was simply a veiled retelling of the excursions of the Society of Jesus into the New World of South America five hundred years ago. As the author herself has recently stated, she wanted to explore the political and philosophical questions of humanity (or at least Western Civilization) coming into contact with an entirely new and unknown society and culture. Who would a modern-day Jesuit missionary react when confronted with this challenge. Of course, given the lack of unexplored lands in the modern world, Mary Doria Russell chose to set the story on a newly discovered planet in a close-by solar system.

But it is more than a science fiction tale of first contact, for the mission (the word's double meaning is played upon a few times) is sent not by a government or a corporation, but a religious order. This allows Russell to delve into issues of a theological nature. At first, the main question for the priests is that of humanity's place in God's eyes given the existence of other sentient races. The priests grapple with the problems of whether there is anything special about man, or is he simply one of a myriad of God's creations.

However as the missionaries experiences move from idyllic towards the nightmarish, with the bigger questions of theodicy becoming the predominant theme. How can evil exist, or how can bad things happen to good people, if God is good? Sandoz, reluctantly telling his story to the Jesuits back on Earth, questions his faith and the worth of his life. He is a man whose very identity has been shaken and is not sure of anything any more.

This is a rare book that trangresses its genre-label. Indeed, it is a shining example of the sort of thoughtful, intelligent and engaging literature that can be produced out of a science fiction or fantasy storyline.