Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

[Originally posted on 4.12.2008 on my old readthisyet.blogspot.com site]

triffids

Its a great time for british Sci-Fi at the moment, Steven Moffat ( the fantastic writer behind Coupling) is taking over the reigns of Doctor Who, I’ve been enjoying the excellent remake of 70’s post apocalyptic drama Survivors and the Alex Garland, Danny Boyle team have brought us the dark and chilling films 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Even across the pond a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is about to be released.

Best of all though the BBC have announced a new TV series based on one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors.

The Day of the Triffids is an absolute classic. Its paranoid cold war tinged story has truly become a part of British culture, yet i feel its a little misunderstood. Perhaps its the fault of the ridiculous monster movie 1962 film version, which focuses far more on the horror aspects of the triffids than the book. It also provides a complete cop out ending where it is discovered salt water kills them, this is completely at odds with the complex and ambiguous ending to the book.

The Book starts with Bill Masen, a botanist in charge of a gentically engineered species of plant used to produce oil, waking up in a hospital with his eyes in bandages after recieving a mild sting from his specimens. Much to his annoyance whilst temporarily blinded the vast majority of the rest of the world was witness to incredible meteor showers and light shows in the sky. Bill soon discovers that anyone who saw the light show has been blinded and that as he was unable to watch it is one of the small number of people who can still see.

The book really concerns itself with the in depth problems that would be thrown up if the entire population of britain were to be blinded at once. Civilization falls, most people kill themselves, others starve to death, groups of survivors are formed, radical politicals, criminals out to capitalise, the sighted become a commodity and morality becomes outdated.

Contrary to the title of the book, and many peoples ideas, the Triffids themselves are far less of a danger in the beginning, they start as mere occasional pests whom humans used to control but are not let loose. It is only towards the middle of the book when there numbers begin to rise significantly that the survivors begin to realise the real threat they pose.

What i love about the book is its fantastic realism and the way it constantly suggests new theories to the reader always making them try to think about what has really happened, what its consequences will be and why they happened.

Although some parts may seem far fetched at first they are always backed up with solid truths and ask deep questions about real life, the Triffids seem to suggest the danger of genetic modification, the virus that effects many of the survivors may be the result of biological warfare and the blinding lights are heavily suggested to be a type of cold war weaponry gone horribly wrong. All of which were ideas that were fantastically ahead of their time for 1951.

Its still extremely influential as well, the first few scenes of 28 days later are incredibly similar to the first chapters of the ‘Triffids, and Survivors definately has a slight hint of it about it to.

Its still just the best book ever to approach the post-apocalytic genre.

If you want to check out some other Wyndham stories i recommend The Chrysalids, his tale of religious persecution and genetic mutation in a post nuclear holocaust world. Also if like me you cant wait for the BBC adaptation, its worth trying to find the BBC version of one of Wyndhams short stories, Random Quest, starring Sam West, its a curiously romantic tale of love in a parallel universe.


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The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

[Originally published on 3.12.2008 on my old readthisyet.blogspot.com site]

zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda follows the story of Rudolf Rassendyll, an english nobleman who intrigued by a family legend travels to the faraway (and completely fictional) state of Ruritania. Upon arriving there he discovers that he is a distant cousin of the Ruritanian royal family and an exact lookalike of the soon to be crowned King Rudolf V. Predictably there’s all sorts of dastardly plots afoot in Ruritania and soon Rudolf finds himself impersonating the King who has been kidnapped by his traitorous cousin Black Michael and his henchmen.

The plot is to be honest a very long way from being original, its a sort of “Prince and the Pauper” with added swordfights, but it does get more complicated than that with Black Michaels wronged lover and his dispicable henchman Rupert of Hentzau (who gives his name to the sequel) both providing plot twists and stopping the narrative from becoming entirely formulaic.

The best thing about the book though, has to be the sheer grin factor of it. It really is a pretty perfect no frills rollicking good swashbuckler. It fits the boys own adventure box pretty well. I mean, whats not to like about swordfights.

It does sometimes go a little further than a standard paint by numbers adventure book though, the characters are actually all pretty interesting and involving, and the conflict between duty and personal interest, one which becomes a major theme of the book, is kept fairly balanced to the point where sometimes its not as black and white as you might expect about which is the right path the characters should take.

To criticize it though, at times it does seem a bit aged, it was published in 1894 and sometimes it shows. The King is a drunken irresponsible ruler, Black Michael a champion of the poor and underpriveledged, and the Kings fiance falls in love with Rudolf Rassendyll, it all seems that saving the King would be almost a bad thing, but the Hero’s decide it is their duty to save him. A idea that can make less sense to a modern audience.

All in all, its a fantastic adventure story that is one of the classics of the genre. You really should read it, because what book couldnt be made better with swordfights


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The Beach by Alex Garland

[Originally posted on 25.11.2008 on my old readthisyet.blogspot.com site]

beach

I’m not gonna hide this. This is my absolute favourite book.
I fit nicely into the outline of the classic Alex Garland fan. Caught by the tail end of generation X, raised on TV and saturated with pop culture, I even think of myself as a “lifestyle traveller,” just like Richard, the protagonist of The Beach.

This book was practically made for me.

The Beach follows the story of Richard, a backbacker wandering around thailand, always trying to find greater levels of adventure. One night whilst staying in a run down backpackers motel he meets a half mad traveller named Daffy Duck who promptly attaches a map with directions to a mythical island paradise to Richards door before slitting his wrists and dying. Richard heads off to the island along with Francoise and Etienne a french couple he meets. On the way to beach Richard meets a pair of american tourists and gives them a copy of the map. Upon reaching the island Richard, Etienne and Francoise discover a thriving community of hippies and travellers, living in an almost utopian society around a beach on the island. However as you might expects throughout the novel utopia turns increasingly sour. The island is shared with a drug cartel who uncomfortably tolerate the beach dwellers. The sick are forced to stay on the island for fear of revealing the location of the beach if they were to leave. Paranoia and insanity begins to set in as the vast amounts of free cannabis makes Richard start to hallucinate visions of Daffy Duck. And towards the end a sense of such forboding begins to draw in making the beach into a very scary place indeed.

Its a bit hard to classify the beach, it could be travel writing, a thriller, horror, action? but strangely it works. Its complicated, theres masses of small twists and turns in the plot, each devoloping new themes, suggesting new ideas, and building up a larger picture of the dark problems that lurk behind utopia.

The influences on the Beach are probably one of the best ways to describe it, theres a clear apocalypse now/ heart of darkness influence to it, with Richard becoming seemingly obsessed with viatnam glamour and more and more consumed by the jungle. The other visible influences would be novels like On The Beach and Brave New World and like these books Garland takes the opportunity to examine the society. Questioning just how the beach’s self appointed, supposedly benevolent dictatorship lead by Sal and Bugs would really work.

The Beach is complicated, dark, intelligent, but most of all just plain thrilling, you can choose to engage with it on a higher level, rading into its themes on human nature, or you can just take the storya t face value and enjoy anarrative which is fresh, fast paced and unpredictable.

I havent met anyone who i dont think would enjoy The Beach, its a modern classic.


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The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

[Originally published on 24.11.2008 on my old readthisyet.blogspot.com site]

consolations

Last Thursday marked World Philosophy Day and in the spirit of this I’m going to run through some of the reasons why you really should try reading some philosophy. At the same time I’m also introduce you to a book which i feel serves as a perfect introduction to what can be a bewildering and frightening subject.

Taking a course of both media studies and philosophy at sixth form i landed a fair bit of stick about not doing “real subjects.”

Most peoples idea of philosophy seemed to be that of a load of half mad scholars sat around pulling half baked ideas about the meaning of life out of thin air.

This couldn’t be further from the reality…OK there are a good number of half mad scholars, but the art of philosophy itself is proving that the half baked ideas really make sense and can in fact change our entire view of life.

It is the science of thought, and the best philosophy makes absolute perfect logical sense.

So where to start reading philosophy? you could start with the father of it all, Plato, but unless you’ve got a good teacher or some kind of guide to the text it could all seem like Greek (my sincerest apologies) to you.

The book i recommend you start with is The Consolations Of Philosophy by Alain de Botton.

Whats refreshing about it is that is totally demystifies the whole subject by showing how some of history’s greatest thinkers can relate to your life and help out with such common problems as feeling frustrated, inadequate or unpopular.

Coupled with this is de Bottons clear and entertaining writing style which seems to stop philosophy feeling at all like hard work and keeps it continually interesting. This is opposed to some more traditional philosophical texts which can be so off putting and scary to read that even if it is a work of complete genius reading it becomes a form of torture.

Another fantastic part of the book is the sheer amount of pictures in it. In most philosophy the best you can expect is a scruffy diagram of Plato’s cave drawn by someone with as much artistic flair as a colourblind rhino. The Consolations on the other hand is full of pictures which simultaneously illustrate his point and often convey the authors sense of humour. Jacques-Louis Davids “Death of Socrates” sits alongside a photo of the authors favourite brand of chocolate milkshake.

The only criticism i can lay at it is…well at a stretch I could say it doesn’t go as deep into the philosophical arguments as I’d like but for most people who are new to philosophy it probably covers just the right amount. Other than that…its pretty perfect, its a thoroughly good read for anyone and a perfect introduction to philosophy in general.

In short, go read it.


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Why haven’t you read any HP Lovecraft yet?

[Originally published on 18.11.2008 on my old readthisyet.blogspot.com site]

cthulhu

“That is not dead which can eternal lie And with strange aeons even death may die”

So reads that much discussed couplet written in the mad arab, Abdul Alhazred’s most famous work, The Necronomicon.

HP Lovecrafts stories, were first published in the 1920’s, sent in to “Weird Tales” the pulp magazine of the day, given ridiculous names like “At the mountains of madness,” and went relatively unnoticed in their day.

So why 80 years on do many modern horror writers site them as a prime influence, why do metal bands turn to them for inspiration and why am i demanding that you go and read them?

I guess HP Lovecraft is one of those authors that people either love or hate. Some think his stories are a cheesy collection of occult tinged B-movie scripts, others think that they are masterpieces of atmosphere and give the prototype for all the psychological horror of the 20th century.To be honest i think both points are pretty valid, it just depends on whether that pulpy B-movie style is something you like or not.

A fantastic strength of Lovecraft is the way all the short stories within the Cthulu Mythos (by far his most famous and popular series) seem to grow stronger, more sinister and gather around them an even larger sense of impending doom for every story you read. Indeed you can begin to feel like one of Lovecrafts typical protagonists, piecing together scraps of information from various unreliable sources to build up a faint idea of a horrifying and vast conspiracy. For example, the first story i read was Dagon, and i can remember feeling bemused and disappointed after first reading it. It is short, surreal and builds to a complete anticlimax, but when viewed as a part of a much bigger picture it can bring whole new depths of detail to other stories such as The Call of Cthulu.

Throughout all of Lovecrafts work there is present the most fantastically dark tone, which brings a sense of brooding to the whole tale. One of the ways Lovecraft prefers to do this is to string out what are often quite simple plotlines, by having the narrative told by a third party, usually a professor from the fictional Miskatonic university, or a concerned detective, as they stumble upon some curiosity and struggle to find out its dark consequences. The result of this is that when Lovecraft reaches a climax the reader is already so terrified of whats coming that they totally accept the slightly silly descriptions of tentacled sea monsters and mad sorcerers summoning things called Shoggoths. Its even forgiveable when Lovecraft uses the ultimate cop-out technique where the narrator often exclaims that “its horrors would drive you to madness if i told you,” and so he doesnt.

So, why should you read HP Lovecraft?

Because of his massive and understated influence on pop-culture. Because he invented many of the classic themes of modern horror. Because of the almost unfathomably complex back story that lies behind the Cthulu Mythos. Because HP Lovecraft was an absolute master storyteller who knew perfectly how to create works of perfect, tone, tension and horror.


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