Friday, January 29, 2010

"Tales Before Narnia" edited by Douglas A. Anderson

"Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction" edited by Douglas A. Anderson (2008)

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien are two of my favorite authors.  A few years ago I read "Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy", also edited by Douglas A. Anderson.  Both books are collections of short stories by authors that Lewis and Tolkien enjoyed and drew inspiration from.   These books offer insights into the literary world in which these authors lived.

I was a little disappointed with the selection of short stories in this collection.  Most were classic fantasy tales whose influence can be clearly seen in "The Chronicles of Narnia" books.  I found the title to be a bit of a misnomer since there was only one story related to science fiction.  This tale, however, was a gem; "The Man Who Lived Backwards" by Charles F. Hall, published in "Tales of Wonder" #3, Summer 1938.  Anderson's introduction to this story says that this author published two short stories and then disappeared; nothing else is known about him.  Now I am searching for the other story by Charles Hall, "The Time-Drug", published in "Tales of Wonder" #5, Winter 1938.

The included fantasy tales were interesting.  For example, I was unaware that "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame came out of the letters he wrote to his son and also that these letters are available in print as "First Whisper of 'The Wind in the Willows'" by Kenneth Grahame and Elspeth Grahame.

Many of the other stories were similarly for children and Lewis makes a good case for appreciating them an adult.  In his essay "On Three Ways of Writing for Children" he wrote "I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children's story.  The good ones last." I have to agree; I still have books on my shelf that I read when I was in elementary school that regularly return to, such  "The Tripods" trilogy by John Christopher, the "Redwall" series by Brian Jacques and of course "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Hobbit".

To be fair, science fiction and fantasy aren't terribly different; the both ask imaginative 'what if?' questions, though the settings and the specifics of the questions between them differ.  Both transport the reader to a new world where the rules are different from the world we live in.  Maybe interstellar travel is common or some people are gifted in magic. Even in bookstores are these genres rarely separated. I have heard the term speculative fiction used as a meta-genre for these kinds of science fiction and fantasy.

This book has broadened my knowledge of classical fantasy.  I'm currently reading "The Well and the World's End" by William Morris and have bought a copy "A Voyage to Arcturus" by David Lindsay (of which I hoped an excerpt or similar would be included), which I will try write about soon.

Next: "The Big U" by Neal Stephenson.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke

"Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke (2004)

This was one of those random books I picked up at a used bookstore. I had seen it at new bookstores when it was published and it looked to be very popular, but I never heard anything about it, good or bad. After reading it, I can say without reservation that it was a pleasure to read and I highly recommend it.

I saw a fine reasonably priced (cheaper than a paperback) hardcover edition and after reading the front flap, decided to risk buying it. Later that week, I heard that a friend was reading and enjoying it. It sat on my bookshelf for quite a while, waiting for me to work up the state of mind for reading such a heavy tome. Finally, after burning myself out on reading all of the Dune series (1965-2007), I decided I was ready.

"Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" was a joy to read. It is the story of how two practical (rather than theoretical) magicians work (with and against each other) to bring magic back to 19th-century England. In this England, the classic English fairy tales (sources for George MacDonald, Andrew Lang and inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis) are historical. And so are many of the events of our world, such as the Napoleonic wars, in which one of the magicians assists Wellington in his campaigns.

Most of the story centers around the magic of John Uskglass, the king of Northern England from about 1100 to 1400; also known as the Raven King. He is credited for developing a systematic method for practicing magic. Most of the spells used by later magicians were invented by him.

Stephen R. Lawhead, an excellent author, has written a retelling of the legend Robin Hood called The Raven King Trilogy. I am very curious if there is any historical significance connected to the title The Raven King and if Clarke and Lawhead drew upon the same legends in telling their tales. I haven't been able to find anything on the internet besides these two books. If you know of any tales or legends or even mentions of a Raven King in English history, I'd be very interested to know about them as well. Please leave a comment or send me an email.

This was Susanna Clarke's first novel but it felt like it was written by a seasoned author. It was written in a style that reminded me of classic English literature, like that of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. It also reminded me of Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle (2003-04), focusing on magic instead of science. To add to the realism, Clarke added many elaborate footnotes to the text, filling in references to other texts in her world, even quoting sections of them to flesh out the world for the reader. It reads like historical fiction, fantasy and classical literature all in one.

Clarke has also written "The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories" (2006), a collection of short stories that take place in the same world as "Jonathan Strange" but dealing instead with women and magic. In interviews she has said that she is working on a sequel that follows two of the minor characters in the first book. Now my copy of "Jonathan Strange" sits upon it's shelf, waiting with me for the rumored sequel to be published.

Next: "Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction" edited by Douglas A. Anderson (2008).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reviving the Blog: Books I've Read

It's been a long time since I've written anything here; two years to the day. I'm going to make an attempt to start making regular posts again. One problem with having a blog is figuring out what to write about. My plan is to write something about the book I've just read soon after I finish it. Since I read every evening before I go to sleep, I tend to finish books regularly and this should keep me on a good writing schedule.

My purpose is three-fold:
  1. To hone my writing skills by writing regularly. And you all know they need some work.
  2. To keep a record of what I've read and when and what thoughts I might have had at the time. Not for any specific reason; just in case I am ever curious later.
  3. To offer to my friends and family recommendations of books to read or stay away from. I value my friend's recommendations when deciding what book to read next and I hope others find my opinions useful as well.

Recently I have been reading a lot of fiction: science fiction and fantasy mostly. Although I have plenty of non-fiction books on my shelf, I can never bring myself to start reading one. I think this is because I spend all day reading scientific papers and textbooks related to my research. When I get home I want to let my mind wander in another world for a while. I guess physics has ceased being recreational. So for the time being, I'll mostly be writing about fiction. Your suggestions will always be welcomed.

If you're reading this, it means I've started writing about the first book and it should be posted soon.

Up Next: "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke (2004).

Thursday, December 13, 2007


finals are over
and this haiku is as long
as it needs to be

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Wow, it's been a long time since I've posted anything of length here. A lot of things have happened since my last major post in December.

The primary reason I haven't been posting updates is that I had to take the prelims this semester. The prelims consist of four, five hour written exams covering the major areas of physics: Classical Mechanics, Electromagnetic Theory, Quantum Mechanics and Thermodynamics. Following the written portion, there is a two hour oral exam covering anything from physics that we have studied this far. The purpose of this test is to determine whether or not I am qualified to begin working towards my PhD.

I spent this semester working problems, going over class notes and old assignments and doing my best to prepare. It was rough, and I really hate studying.  

Last Thursday, I received my results. I had passed. Yea! Now to give some attention to the rest of my life.

All that work for a little piece of paper...

Since I've spent the semester studying like a madman, I haven't been keeping up in the one class I'm taking. The professor has been lenient, requesting that all the homework be turned in by the end of finals week, which is next week. This week, I've been working on a presentation I will be giving in class tomorrow on the two-dimensional Ising model. I still have a ways to go before the semester is over.

One of the more interesting slides from my presentation

As for the summer, I'm going to Japan for a week to visit my good friend Tim Marston who is studying there. I'm not a world traveler, and barely a state traveler. But I'm really excited to go and to hang out with Tim. Hopefully we'll do some cool Japanese things as well as play some Worms and BZFlag for old times sake. Feel free to suggest things I should do or get while I'm in Japan.

After Japan, I'm hoping to jump headfirst into research. Right now the plan is to do some work looking at chemical changes under shock using spectroscopy. Beyond this general idea, I have no idea what I will be doing or where I will end up. I will be working on a hard, but interesting problem; that much is certain.

Welp, thanks for reading. Check back later for some Japan stuff and hopefully some interesting summer physics.

Monday, April 16, 2007

τ: Characteristic Relaxation Time

after studying
intensely for weeks and weeks
it's strange to be done

Monday, April 09, 2007

[ X , P ] = iħ ?

prelim number three
has shown that I am not a
quantum mechanic