Posts Tagged ‘The Lost Planet’

Without women the novel would die: discuss

December 10, 2019

This post has been prompted by this article, telling me that women buy 80% of all novels, and out-buy men in all categories of fiction except fantasy, science fiction and horror…

I was genuinely taken aback by this article, which is fascinating and full of food for thought, especially for this male reader, who felt challenged immediately. It’s not so much that the premise surprised me – I’ve always felt that women probably read more fiction than men, and in my own case know that I have read less fiction and more non-fiction as I’ve grown older. I’ve even written posts mentioning I’d realised this, and wondered why it should be.

The challenge to me from the article was, why do men read fiction? And I can only write from my own experience.

I’m reminded of something my dad often used to say in response to my saying I’d read something in a book: you can’t learn everything from books. And he was right. But I have always felt that there are so many lives to read and experience in novels: I only get to live this life of mine once, but I can experience so many more – admittedly fictional, but so what? – by reading novels. I can experience other people, other places, other times, other cultures: I can think about and reflect on what I’ve read. Vicarious experience, others’ wisdom through the creativity of so many writers, reflecting their lives and experiences of the world and life. It feels like an almost unimaginable richness

Reading fiction as a child showed me the vastness and variety of the world out there; fantasy such as the wonderful Lost Planet series encouraged my imagination to wander widely and introduced me to the feeling of being lost in the vastness of the cosmos. I have never lost this feeling, and would never want to be without it.

As a young man, novels like Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge introduced me to the idea of life as a spiritual quest or journey, and reading Hermann Hesse’s novels as a student deepened this experience. It has helped me make sense of my life, the people I have known, encounters I have had, and places I have been.

At university, reading English and French Literature, I obviously made acquaintance with a wide range of the classics. Such novels showed me the sense of their time, how people lived and loved, how people were different in other ages, as well as the ways they were the same; to see other lives unfolding at the same time as I felt mine was, gave me much food for thought and reflection. Sometimes it helped reading about how others wrestled with difficult emotions as I wrestled with mine. I find myself wondering now, whether a serious reader can ever untangle her/his own life from what they read…

As I grew older, acquiring a family and a career, and discovering just how much of life there was to be lived, I suppose it was inevitable that my reading would head along more specific tracks. As I’m half-Polish, I’ve clearly never felt completely English, and I ended up reading a great deal of literature from Eastern Europe in a quest to understand what had happened to my family and why, and to see how they had been shaped by experiences which, thankfully, I was never to undergo. Realising that my existence had to a considerable extent been shaped by war, I read widely in the literature of war and came to understand how deep and wide an effect it has had on us as a species, and how we are perhaps doomed never to escape the cycle of violence…

I have remarked else where in a number of posts how in my later years I have drifted away from fiction. It feels at the moment that I’ve lived a good proportion of my life, and perhaps fiction no longer has much to show me, although even as I write those words I can see how unsatisfactory a response that is. But my exploration of the world through the literature of travel has been very enjoyable as I visit places I will never physically get to, in the company of other travellers and explorers.

To come back to the original premise: why do men read fiction? This man has read to widen my experience of life and emotions, to feel the feelings of others – admittedly fictional characters – this man has read because I cannot imagine a life without reading.

On the stars

March 18, 2019

I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, and occasionally find myself, somewhat ashamedly admitting that, even though there are aspects of those vast areas of human knowledge that I really do enjoy talking about, if the discussion gets too technical, I actually do develop a headache: there are certain ideas that I cannot get my head around, no matter how hard I may try. Perhaps some scientists may have similar difficulties when attempting to engage with literature; I don’t know.

download3.jpegIt was not always going to be like that. I discovered science fiction at a very young age: there were the adventures of Dan Dare, in colour, on the front of the Eagle comic, which I only got to read when we stayed at my grandparents’, and I could catch up on my youngest uncle’s collection. And in the public library I found the series of novels by Angus MacVicar about The Lost Planet, which gripped me while no doubt flying hard in the face of the laws of physics. Certainly they gave me a sense of the vastness of space and our relative insignificance in the grand order of things. And in the primary school playground, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men on the moon… which dates me rather.

I have always got a certain frisson from staring up at the sky on a clear night and seeing the constellations, even though I can’t really recognise more than the Plough, the Pleiades and Orion; I remember being astounded when on a trip to Morocco as a student, I actually saw the Milky Way in all its glory for the first time.

If you asked me what world event in my lifetime that has made the greatest impression on me, it would undoubtedly be the first moon landing, now almost fifty years ago. I can remember the excitement of watching it live on TV and – because of course all the timings were for the US television audience – getting up at 3am to watch the first moon walk live. I think, somehow, I regard it as the summit of human achievement. Humans have always explored and sought knowledge, and the efforts and sacrifices and lives that made all of that possible are a testament to that wonderful trait of our species, our curiosity; I could wish that far more of our energies had been turned outwards to the planets and the stars, rather than inwards to strife, warfare and destruction. And I still hope that it will be in my lifetime that humans return to the moon, and reach Mars, too.

One of my teachers was on holiday in the USA at the time of the first landing, and knowing of my fascination with newspapers, brought me back a copy of the New York Times with the news and the photos on the front page; it remains a treasured possession, and I have no idea what it may now be worth.

My interest in science fiction and its ideas has been lifelong; I know, thanks to Theodore Sturgeon, that 95% of it, along with 95% of everything, is crap, but the good 5% encourages us to look outward from our small planet, to contemplate our potential as well as our insignificance in the great scheme of things, and sometimes to lift our thoughts from the merely material onto another, perhaps spiritual plane. I find the idea that there might be other life, other intelligent species somewhere out there quite logical as well as thrilling, although of course I am never going to find out.

In purely practical terms, of course, it also does rather look as if we will be needing a replacement planet quite soon…

On maths and science

April 6, 2016

51F6wH7UHeL._AA160_ 51h6BFLBjiL._AA160_ 51PtUSpds0L._AA160_ 51r2u2D8-tL._AA160_I wouldn’t want any of my readers who is a mathematician or scientist (and I hope there are some of you!) to get the impression that these are subjects I am indifferent to, even though my knowledge is pretty scant: I do have O-Level Maths, and was one of the very first students to study what was called ‘modern maths’ in the sixties, and I also have what was quaintly known as ‘General Science’ O-Level (ie very basic).

Some of the most interesting conversations I used to have as a teacher were with science and maths-teaching colleagues; I am still proud of my abilities in mental arithmetic and calculation, and I’ve always found playing with numbers in my head fascinating, along with other connections I’ve been able to make between what I learned in school, and later life. As far as science goes, I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy – my primary school best friend and I used to fantasise about whether we could get to be the first men to land on the moon! – and my enjoyment of detective fiction means I’ve always liked reading about forensic science. However, I do have to admit that an awful lot of mathematical and scientific knowledge does give me a serious headache after not very long: my brain just doesn’t seem to be wired that way… I did actually get to the end of Stephen Hawking‘s A Brief History of Time, but please don’t ask me what it’s about.

Maths and science feature noticeably in my reading. I loved Norman Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth, a book for children that introduces one to the joys of playing with words and numbers, as Milo visits the cities of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis. And, as I thought about this post, I realised that I’ve liked science fiction ever since I was a small boy, perhaps beginning with the Lost Planet series by Angus MacVicar, and never looking back since. But I must then confess that it’s never really been the ‘hard science’ variety that’s gripped me, much more the speculative kind.

Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein plays with what scientists were exploring in her day, and she couples it with a powerful story and incisive reflection on the morality of what scientists can get up to, reflections which perhaps we would do well to remember nowadays. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should…

I found the fictionalised travels of the eighteenth century polymath Alexander von Humboldt, in Daniel Kehlmann‘s novel Measuring the World so interesting that I then went on to seek out and enjoy (an edited version of ) Humboldt’s travel journals. And Primo Levi, a chemist who survived Auschwitz, though not much of life after Auschwitz, wrote a fascinating fictionalised autobiography called The Periodic Table; each chapter is named after an element, the last is carbon, and the ending of the book is both witty (in the best sense of that word) and masterly.

I like reading popular science from time to time, because it’s accessible; I’ve enjoyed Steve Jones‘ takes on Darwin and evolution, The Descent of Men and Almost Like A Whale, and have also found what I’ve read about science and medicine in the Islamic world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’ very interesting. In the end, there’s plenty of approachable material out there for the non-scientists like me; if only there was the time…

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