Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Robots and Empire is the fifth book in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series that first began with his short story collection I, Robot published in 1950. It is the last novel that he ever did on the Robot series, and it signifies two important events both for the author and for the world he created: the bridge between two of his most iconic universes (Robots & Foundation) and the introduction of the Zeroth Law of Robotics.

PREFACE TO THE ACTUAL REVIEW

MY JOURNEY TO ASIMOV

Isaac Asimov is the first science fiction writer I ever read and the one that I’ve read the most from (this is my eleventh book of his). Asimov is also partially responsible for my love for literature and, when I think about it, it is somewhat bizarre how I first found out about him.

When I was little, around age eight or nine, on school day mornings all the kids that arrived before the doors opened would wait on the playgrounds. One of those mornings, out of the blue, a kid named Jaime just opened his backpack and pulled out this red hardback book with an image of a galaxy right in the middle. It was Asimov’s Introduction to Science. He said it was a gift for me.

Jaime was a classmate that I played with during recess but not really a close friend. I don’t have perfect recall on this but I believe he might have said something about his father not wanting the book or something like that.

To this day I still don’t know why he gave me that book. If I had to take a guess, I do remember going through a very weird phase when all I did was talk about archaeology and astronomy, and maybe he thought that I might like the book because it deals quite a bit with astronomy, but even that explanation is odd considering he was also my age. All I’m certain about is that I still have and treasure that book.

It was more than a decade later when my brother lent me the first three Foundation books and I discovered the brilliance of Asimov. They were the perfect books at the perfect time. In them, Asimov introduces the idea of “psychohistory” a science dedicated to predicting the evolution of future events by applying the laws of statistics to large amounts of people. I read all three on the underground and bus trips to my college classes where I was studying – and hating – game theory and statistics, and thanks to these books I began to appreciate numbers and the science behind it.

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The post’s main image features Giskard. If you like it or if you are a Sepultura fan check out the work of artist Michael Welan.

I didn’t get to the Robot series until much later. I had just begun working on a new job and I didn’t know anybody so I walked around a lot during lunch time. Thanks to those walks I found what would become my favourite used book store, and in it, hidden at the very bottom of one of the shelves and covered by other books piled against it, I found a paperback omnibus with the first three robot novels for just four euros. I still remember the old book smell  that it had. How it made its way to the bookstore must have been quite a story considering it is an American edition.

TO THE ACTUAL BOOK REVIEW

I think the first thing to say is that the novel doesn’t really work as standalone book. Asimov’s main objective was to link both Foundation and Robot sagas, and it is very clear that this novels works towards that; so if you are looking for a self-contained story skip this and go to The Caves of Steel.

All the main characters (with the exception of D.G) have been introduced in previous novels and their motivations, personalities and actions are shaped by the events in those books. Although Asimov does a bit of catch-up within the novel I think that, to fully enjoy this book, you’d need to read the previous novels.

The Robot series is also known unofficially as the Baley series, taking the name of the main protagonist of the first three novels Elijah Baley. The events of Robots & Empire take place years after his death and follow Gladia, her two robots (Daneel and Giskard) and D.G (a descendant of Elijah). However, Elijah makes two stellar appearances in the book.

Asimov uses these appearances skilfully and, in one of the two occasions, when Daneel is remembering Elijah’s last words in his deathbed, he beautifully links and wraps with a nice speech his two main sagas. I’ll take the liberty of putting the text below because it is just such a wonderful message:

“My death, Daneel,” he said, “is not important. No individual death among human beings is important. Someone who dies leaves his work behind and that does not entirely die. It never entirely dies as long as humanity exists. – Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Daneel said, “Yes, Partner Elijah.”

“The work of each individual contributes to a totality and so becomes an undying part of the totality. That totality of human lives – past and present and to come – forms a tapestry that has been in existence now for many tens of thousands of years and has been growing more elaborate and, on the whole, more beautiful in all that time. Even the Spacers are an offshoot of the tapestry and they, too, add to the elaborateness and beauty of the pattern. An individual life is one thread in the tapestry and what is one thread compared to the whole?

“Daneel, keep your mind fixed firmly on the tapestry and do not let the trailing off of a single thread affect you. There are so many other threads, each valuable, each contributing – !”

The reason why Elijah’s last words are so good is because:

  • They are delivered by the protagonist of all the first three novels that we know and love right before his death. This makes the moment more poignant in Daneel’s memory (and the story), and it also feels like Asimov is talking to his faithful readers from the heart through a beloved character and telling us something important about his work.

  • “The totality of human lives forms a tapestry” is, in summary, what The Foundation is in charge of: the mapping of humanity pasts, present and future.

  • This moment plants the seed of the Zeroth Law of Robotics.

Thirty years after the creation of the Three Laws of Robotics Asimov adds one additional law that takes precedence over the three. The Zeroth Law of Robotics states that: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

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This is the cover image of the hardback I bought from the always amazing Chris Foss.

One of the main drivers behind the narrative of this novel is the inception of this new law of robotics, and Asimov is skilled enough to weave an engaging story around it with good character arcs that develop the protagonists we already know and takes them in new directions.

There were a couple of loose threads that I think could have been finished a bit better: Gladia is kind of ignored once she has served her purpose, the Solarians disappearance is left for other works and the ending, although satisfying, was a bit abrupt. Without giving away anything, all I’ll say is that the fourth and fifth Foundation novels give some of the closure that this book lacked.

This was a great book to finish my “summer” reading and a fantastic addition to the Robot series. Note for future-me: Yes, I know that technically I finished it in Autumn but in case you forgot, September and the first half of October 2017 were really hot.

I finished reading this book the 1st of October 2017. Next on the list I’m visiting an old doctor with very peculiar appetites.

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Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres. It takes a futuristic/technological/alien scenario and uses it (when it succeeds) to tell us something about humanity. This requires both tremendous imagination and a deep knowledge of what it is to be human. Solaris, the novel by the polish author Stanislaw Lem, has plenty of both.

The planet Solaris orbits around two suns. Above the ocean surface of the planet near the clouds there is a space station tasked with the scientific observation of the heavenly body. Though there are many theories about the planet (is it alive but unaware? Is it a sentient being?) it remains a mystery yet unsolved. The ocean moves and changes with the color of the sunset and strange cloud formations appear and disappear without rhyme or reason. Our protagonist is Kris Kelvin, a psychologist assigned to the station orbiting Solaris. When he arrives everything appears to be empty, there are no robots and he only manages to talk to two scientists that are acting strangely and that only give him cryptic answers to his questions. Things take a stranger turn when he receives the visit of his wife (named Rheya in the Kilmartin/Cox translation that I bought and Harey in the original novel) just exactly like she was years ago, before she committed suicide.

At this moment, I’d like to mention that I’ve revisited this post quite a few times because I was unsure about the correct approach to take for this review. After I first read Solaris, I wasn’t certain what the novel was about. Was it about the relationship with Rheya, about letting go of the past, about interaction between two life-forms that are completely alien to one another? I decided to re-watch the 2002 film by Steven Soderbergh to try to see if I could crack the book by seeing his take on the source material.

In the movie the main focus is Rheya and Kelvin’s past and current relationship. It is primarily a love story. There are moments when it attempts to tackle the psychological, moral and philosophical implications of the novel but they fall flat and feel empty. The three main problems that I experienced with the movie are the pacing, the fact that the presence of Solaris is almost anecdotal to the plot and the ending. There are a few cuts to the planet which looks very pretty, but Sodenberg focuses so much on the relationship between Rheya and Kelvin -with poorly placed flashbacks to some awkward staring- that add very little to the either character, and  finally the film ends with a “and they lived happy ever after somewhere” ending that comes out of nowhere.

I was also going to see the Tarkovsky film – which I’ll eventually watch but not for this review– but I felt I had everything I needed to finish this post after seeing Sodenberg’s film. I will however include what Stanislaw Lem had to say about Tarkovsky’s film as some of what he said helped me to grasp a little bit better the novel.

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Wish the English edition had  featured the artwork of artist Oscar Chichoni (post featured imaged), instead of this bland cover.

In the book, one of the many schools of thought about Solaris regards the planet as a “hermit” forever alone in the universe, perceiving and trying to make sense of itself in an eternal monologue. A being unable to communicate and trapped inside. Out of all the theories that Stanislaw Lem describes in the novel to interpret what the planet Solaris is, this is the one that draws the most parallelisms with the main character.

Kris Kelvin is confronted by the planet, by Rheya, by the other scientist in the station and by the situation with questions regarding love, morality, religion, science and philosophy. All of these questions, in one way or another and to different degrees have shaped and continue to shape humanity. One could argue that the embodiment of a dead wife is the hardest blow to Kris as he is immediately confronted with two emotions at the same time, grief and love, but those are just the trigger in the novel.  What follows is his struggle to make sense of the events – both emotionally (interactions with his wife) and rationally (trying to reach a scientific explanation between him and the two scientist)-, his attempts to take action whilst juggling all the moral implications they may have, and his isolation and entrapment in the space station. That is when it dawned on me that Kris Kelvin and Solaris are both, essentially, hermits.

Soderbergh’s decision to focus on the love story and to give a conclusive ending ultimately simplifies the complexities of the exercise that Lem does in the novel. Rheya is a mirror for love, Solaris is a mirror for god and/or philosophy (and this is a por simplification on my side), and the scientists are a mirror for reason and rationality. By leaving the last two (or executing their role poorly) out of the equation he ultimately made the movie hollow. The movie’s message is the tired trope that “love conquers all”, whereas the novel rings truer and hits harder with the message, that often, when we are forced to look inside, we find far more questions than answers.

I finished this book on the 6th of September. I read it on the flights to and from Amsterdam. Much like the Dracula review I struggled with this post because I wasn’t sure if I had anything to write about and, in both cases, this forced me to look deeper at what I just read. This is frustrating at first but extremely pleasurable by the end, as I find myself enjoying more and more looking beyond the surface.

P.S: if somebody finds the full artwork done by Oscar Chichoni and not just the top half of the body, please let me know.

 

McKee & Kaufman: A look at writing (and loneliness)

McKee & Kaufman: A look at writing (and loneliness)

Why did I begin this blog a year ago? I’ve been asking myself this question for the past three weeks and I’ve identified two main reasons that encapsulate the answer to it: loneliness and the desire to write. Anyone that writes or tries to write is familiar by default with the second, and I want to advance that you’ll find no insights here on how to deal with them; everything that needs to be said about the two has been subject to analysis by better people and all I’d add would be a banality or a boring cliché. However, I want to take a look at two works that focus on these two reasons and looks at them both individually and as a whole, analytically and emotionally and that are oddly linked: the movie Adaptation directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman and the book Story written by Robert McKee.

The first time I read about Adaptation (The Orchid Thief) was in Roger Ebert’s Best films of the decade -it did not make the Top 10 but appeared as an honorable mention-, but it was my love for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michele Gondry) that really made me curious to see more films written by Charlie Kaufman. Thus, I bought Adaptation in a double pack DVD along with Being John Malkovich.

If I had to summarize Adaptation I’d say it is a movie about a writer trying to finish a script about a book dealing with orchids that ends up writing a story about himself adapting the book about orchids, however that would be awfully reductive. This movie’s script is the closest thing that I’ve seen to a magic trick unfolding on my TV screen and requires multiple re-watches to fully understand  what Kaufman managed to pull off. It twists, bends, re-shapes and laughs at the clichés of writing to create a unique movie, and the funny thing is that the actual story behind this script is not that far from the final product. Charlie Kaufman was really hired to adapt the novel “The Orchid Thief” written by Susan Orlean, but being unable to adapt it he wrote a script about him failing to write a script.

In Adaptation you’ll see a pretty funny and insightful look at both loneliness and the difficulties to write. This is well illustrated  in all the interactions that the main character has with his own brother – both of them played superbly by Nicolas Cage –. The main character (Charles) is the talented and lonely writer that puts effort into his writing and his brother (Donald) is the talentless writer that is extremely optimistic and social. At one point in the movie (minor spoilers) Donald suggests Charles going to a seminar on scriptwriting that is being given by Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) to see if it helps with his struggle to finish the script. When he goes, the following happens:

This is one of the many  brilliant moments in this movie and I think that, behind all the exaggerations in it, Charlie Kaufman wrote a really personal script that touches profoundly on both loneliness and the desire to write. After watching the cathartic feedback given by the fictional Robert McKee to the fictional Charlie Kaufmann, I knew that somewhere down the line I’d have to read McKee’s book and once again my friend Mrs. A happened to give me this book for my birthday.

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If you want to write you MUST read Story by Robert McKee. It doesn’t matter if you are thinking about writing a novel, a screenplay or a short story, this book is filled with so much good and insightful advice that it would be helpful for any writer. From the very minute details necessary to develop a scene to the holistic godlike knowledge that a writer must have over the world he is creating in the page McKee shows how to tackle every single element necessary for good story telling.

Back on topic of loneliness and writings this is what he has to say (this is taken from Chapter 1: The Writer and the Art of Story):

“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent. You must be born with the creative power to put things together in way no one has ever dreamed. Then you must bring to the work a vision that’s driven by fresh insights into human nature and society, coupled with in-depth knowledge of your characters and your world. All that… and, as Hallie and Whit Burnett reveal in their excellent little book, a lot of love.

Then there is one big paragraph explaining the love of the story, and then there is one sentence that really hit me hard.

You must love to write and bear the loneliness.

I’ve been in a position where I’ve wanted to write but was unable to do so of loneliness, and to a degree this blog has helped me to turn that loneliness into something positive, but if by any chance you struggle with the desire to write and/or loneliness, either emotionally or rationally, I’d strongly recommend both this movie and this book to help you identify why and give you that little push necessary to sit down and write.

I finished reading Story by Robert McKee the 20th of August.

Of Hammocks and Deck Chairs (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

Of Hammocks and Deck Chairs (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

It is summer. It is warm and I’m on vacation. This means: swimming pool, gardening, nature, relax, DVDs, masturbating, and reading. In the last concept there are two subsections conditioned to location, hammock reading and deck chair reading, that I’m particularly fond of and that, in time, have joined the ranks of my favorite places to grab a book and get lost in the pages. I assume that the notion in itself is alluring enough for anyone reading this – I dare anyone to refuse a hammock – but as always the idea behind this post (and again you are justifying yourself for the eight billionth time to nobody) is to find out why this is a special place for me.

In my previous post of this anthology I found it helped to write about the place and time that I’m describing when I’m in it rather than from the top of my head, so I figured I’d try the same approach again to see if lighting strikes twice. (Editorial note: No. I did not write my first posts in the toilet)

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The hammock hangs between two evergreen trees (quercus ilex). To its left there are hydrangeas that also surround one of the two trees and to its right there is a nice view of the swimming pool, but what particularly endears me to it is the view above. The sky is clear and blue in the few open patches between the boughs and the sun lights the top of the trees with an orange dusky glow (I tend to lay there only in the late afternoon, usually after taking a swim). My eyes swing back and forth between the book and the different birds playing in the branches.

This hammock has been in my house since I was a little kid, but it was only in the summer of 2012 when I was reading Walden or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau when I truly fell in love with it, and it owes its position in this anthology to this book. When I combined these two elements I realized how much nature enhances the reading experience. How? First some context.

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A drawing of the cabin where HDT lived done by his sister Sophia.

Around 1850, Henry David Thoreau decided to leave the city and live in the forest close to Walden pond where he aimed to experience life in its simplest and truest form. This book is a recollection of his experiences and thoughts throughout the two years that he spent living in a little cabin in that forest. A fantastic stylist (one of my favorites along with Edgar Allan Poe) and a deep thinker; Thoreau finds an infinite source of inspiration from the broader aspect of nature and the changing of the seasons to the smallest events, insignificant to the unobservant, like the savage war raging at his feet between two different colonies of ants.

I found joy in the simplicity of laying outside with a book, under two big trees with the birds chipping on the branches. It was the perfect combination of book and place: Walden became one of my favourite books (and is one of the main reasons why I started planting tomatoes) and that hammock became one of my favorite reading spots. (Random Trivia: I first read about this book in Roger Ebert’s review of Into the Wild. Better write that down so that you don’t forget future-me)

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I love my shitty deck chair. I love it so much because it is so shitty. It is old, dusty, bulky and barely comfortable enough to sit in. Every summer I take it out of a room at the end of the garage, dust it off and place it in the spot with the best view in the whole house, and every time I sit there with a book I am quite simply happy. Life does not get better.

I usually lay there in the morning or late in the afternoon when my legs are a bit numb from the hammock. The morning view is characterized by the miles of pine forest sprawling from the skirts of the mountain to its very top and the cool morning breeze and is usually when I get most of my reading done. However, I think I like it best when the sun sets and the seat is still warm from all the evening heat and Venus shines meekly in the horizon. The time window to read is shorter in the afternoon (one of the cons of fading light) but it is a magical place to end a fine day of reading; in my very own window to the stars.

Much like the hammock there are quite a few books that will be forever linked to that chair. I’ll always remember how inspiring and wonderful it was reading Contact by Carl Sagan , or how I  was glued to Stephen King’s On Writing to avoid thinking about a horrible breakup, or how I read the first four robot novels by Isaac Asimov and started thinking about writing my own science-fiction novel. I’m not sure how long this deck chair will last. It is really beaten down and worn and I know that I’m overtly sentimental for something awfully silly, but the memories attached to it are really special to me.

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Behold the glorious shittiness!

A few months ago I bought Robots and Empire (the fifth novel in Asimov’s robot saga) with the clear idea that I’d only read it in summer. I may be a creature of habits, but when this post is published I’ll be sitting in that shitty deck chair reading it and I’ll be as happy as you can get. I guarantee it!

Bonus round: Walden, or Life in the Woods in PDF. Happy summer reading!

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I bought Dracula in my favorite used book store for two euros a few months ago. It wasn’t on my radar but I was browsing through piles of unclassified paperbacks and when I saw it I remember thinking: “This book created one of the world’s most iconic monsters. For that price I could give it a go”. It was an impulsive buy – primarily because I’m a cheap whore – and, whilst I did have some curiosity, I wasn’t really  eager to read it; I figured I’d eventually get to it when the right mood strikes. How dearly I paid for such foolishness!

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Issue 1

The worst part is that price tag and iconic status aside, Dracula also ticked the nostalgia factor. One of my earliest Dracula memories is an excerpt from one my school books (taken from the May 4th entry in Jonathan Harker’s journal to be precise) and the line in it that said “It is the Eve of Saint Georges Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?” The idea of the most evil night really scared and fascinated me and I’ve always remembered that line.

However, my fondest Dracula memory has to be reading the full run of The Tomb of Dracula by Gene Colan and Marv Wolfman. This comic book series is an absolute master piece in storytelling and one of the best adaptations– if not the best – that Marvel did of the classic monsters.  (Editorial note: For this review I’ll skip all references to movies and TV shows with the exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola)

I began Dracula on the 3rd of May, on the exact same day of the first journal entry in the book – even if I didn’t like the novel that’s a pretty cool coincidence –. The book is structured using different journal and diary entries, letters and telegrams from the main characters in the story. I’ve seen this structuring method used very effectively on R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde to gradually give the reader the necessary bits of information to develop the story whilst keeping the momentum going, but unfortunately I did not find this approach as effective in Dracula. The story moves at a snail’s pace and I could have used some trimmings. The main section that I’d edit is Lucy’s slow turn into a vampire because Stoker’s change of POV between characters leads to repetition on the same events from a slightly different perspective and halts the story.

To be absolutely fair I already knew the sequence of events. I may be saying “Get on with it” in 2017 but this story could be nail-biting for the 1897 reader. I’m also aware that Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hide is a shorter book than Dracula but, taking into account that both stories deal with monsters and are from the same time period (Jeckyl is from 1887) I think it is a fair comparison.

There are moments when Stoker’s prose works to create an eerie atmosphere, such as Lucy’s sleepwalking (the first time) and the events that unfold once she turns into a vampire – I couldn’t help thinking about Lovecraft’s The Tomb when I read those passages – or Dr. Seward’s interaction with Renfield  (a patient suffering from fits of lunacy and rage caused by Dracula), but unfortunately those felt few and far away. I also enjoyed Stoker’s approach to his own story from a medical perspective: from the previously mentioned character Renfield and psychiatry to Dracula himself and vampirism (one is treated as a physical threat and the other as a disease).

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Vintage Classics Paperback with Sarah Waters’ quote

The paperback I bought has a quote from Sarah Waters describing the book as “An exercise in masculine anxiety and nationalist paranoia”. I felt that these two themes were present on the margins of the story and I’d go to the point of editing out the word “masculine”, especially when you have such a strong female character in Mina Harker being equally or even more resolute on destroying Dracula than the rest of the characters despite the events that unfold. I agree with the nationalist paranoia angle if you look at the novel with a 1987 lens that could picture Dracula as the outsider from distant lands threatening the Victorian society, but from a current perspective I did not feel that it was an angle that shaped the story. If I had to describe Dracula I’d say it is “A novel that embodies the fear of disease and loss and the lengths of human determination to fight it” but even I can see some holes in that sentence.

I finished reading Dracula on the 6th of August. Even if I didn’t like it – I didn’t hate it is just that it didn’t grab me – I’m glad I finished it because I feel this is the best book review (most analytical) I’ve written so far.

Bonus Round: I have avoided talking about TV Shows and movies dealing with Dracula because this post would get too big to handle and I wanted to keep my focus on the novel.

That. Being. Said.

Having read the book, I have some issues with Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula as I find the title of the movie completely misleading. One of the main threads of the movie is the romance between Mina and Dracula, which is completely missing from the book! Whilst I appreciate that adapting a novel is always difficult, if you call it Bram Stoker’s Dracula I expect a direct adaptation on the novel without big deviations. The title could have been “Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula” or, if you want to be very specific, “Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker with some major deviations in both plot and characters”. I’m sure a talented marketing department could make it work, right?

P.S: No “I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth in it” jokes. What the hell happened?

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Painter

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Painter

When I was little I was fascinated by these three pictures:

The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water (Left)

Taur-na-Fúin -Fangorn Forest- (Center)

Barad-dúr (Right)

These pictures graced the front cover of the Spanish editions published by Minotauro of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King that were in my school’s library. Every time I went there (more often than most normal eight year olds should) I’d grab one of the books and look at the front pictures mesmerized. This was a time when Peter Jackson’s trilogy did not exist and the only film adaptation was Ralph Baschi’s underrated classic, back when The Lord of the Rings was known primarily to book readers.

The first time I read The Lord of the Rings I was fueled by the fascination with this other world that my brother was obsessed with and my natural curiosity about this “Middle-earth” and all the creatures and adventures in it. (Random Trivia: I remember that I kept an apple nearby when I first read it because I had seen Bastian do the same in The Neverending Story. I was so cute) However in my head, there was also something about these three pictures that imbued these books with a mystic lore – there is also the Middle-earth map which is just enthralling –.

I only found years later that those pictures had been created by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, and thus followed the purchase of J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Random Trivia: purchased in abebooks in very good condition. The copy I bought apparently belonged to the Elsmere Public Library but had never been taken out. Alas! Worry not! Even if you are quote “No longer the property of New Castle County Libraries” your journey across the Atlantic has led you to a nice comfy home).

There are two aspects that I found particularly interesting when I read this book and that I want to keep in mind when I write this review. First is that Tolkien himself doubted the quality of his artwork and second is that I got the impression that Tolkien was at heart both a writer and a painter.  With this in mind, let’s look at the highlights of each chapter.Lostwethion_TolkienWhitby.jpg

Early Work: the most biographical section of the entire book – necessarily so to understand Tolkien’s first steps in drawing – the artwork presented is usually a backdrop to the period of Tolkien’s life. This chapter has some of the first drawings he made as a child, but is mainly dominated by his paintings of the English country side. My favorite is Ruins at West End of Whitby Abbey. I think it manages to capture the sensation of decay and of the forgotten place eaten away by time. (Random Trivia: I just had a geek-gasm. Those same ruins are also in -my current reading- Dracula!)

Visions, Myths and Legends: I liked that this book wanted to cover all of Tolkien’s work and not just The Lord of The Rings because I wanted to see the full picture (pun intended). This section presents an embryonic Middle-earth. Ideas are forming and Tolkien’s world is expanding but is not yet fully developed.

One of the highlights of this chapter is the -full page- painting chosen for the front cover of this book which depicts a landscape of the Silmarillion and is titled The Halls of Manwë on the Mountains of the World above Faerie. I also learned that Taur-na-Fúin originally depicted a moment of The Silmarillion and that it was later redrawn in ink for The Hobbit and retitled Mirkwood (image below), and that the original also had its name changed to Fangorn Forest.

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Art for Children: this is the one section in the entire book where I paid far more attention to the words rather than the pictures.

J.R.R Tolkien has to be one of the coolest dad’s that have ever lived. He began telling stories to his children about Father Christmas and his adventures in the North Pole, and later on Father Christmas began sending drawings and letters (written and drawn by Tolkien) to his children with illustrations of the events he narrated. The children also received pictures from North Polar Bear a friend of Father Christmas with his very own lettering style. How cool is that?

This particular chapter was heartwarming and sweet and the book is worth it just for it.

The Hobbit: I found this chapter very interesting because it shows the steady hand of Tolkien the writer clashing with the dubious hand of Tolkien the painter. Tolkien prepared a lot of illustrations for The Hobbit with the intention of including them in the book, but he doubted their quality and was uncertain if they were up to standards of the text. These doubts grew after it was released and the book’s pictures received criticism from reviewers.

I do not understand the criticism.J.R.R._Tolkien_-_Rivendell.jpg

The composition, style, look and relation with the story is very smart and crafty. In a painting like Rivendell there is a gateway into the picture. We follow the river and with it the eye observes the rest of the picture. The Gate to the Elven Kingdom shows the road our heroes are walking and manages to put us there with them. The Trolls I liked even more because we are a partner in crime, we are also spying on the three trolls like the dwarf at the bottom is doing.

Tolkien’s drawing fit perfectly with the story and I’m saddened that they received bad criticism.

The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien did not consider that he was up to the task of creating the illustrations for The Lord of The Rings (outside of material like The Gate of Moria or the Runes in Balin’s tomb). Whether it was the criticism received on The Hobbit, the weight of writing or simply his own doubts about his skills, I think that this ultimately benefited the final product.

I like the drawings in The Hobbit because they fit tonally with a children’s book – and make no mistake, no matter what Peter Jackson aimed at, The Hobbit is a children’s book –, but The Lord of the Rings works best with the epic style of Alan Lee. This chapter was surprisingly short in content and I did not find it that interesting outside of the covers Tolkien designed for each book.

Patterns and Devices: I liked the sample images of the mail envelope or the newspaper where Tolkien doodled and drew some of his first attempts at patterns, but unfortunately this chapter suffered a bit of The Silmarillion syndrome. There are lots of names being mentioned left and right in regards to devices and small amulets. This chapter did not make for a very interesting reading (perhaps the more hardcore Tolkien reader disagrees with me).Tolkien Artist.jpg

This book is fantastic and definitely worth buying. I haven’t covered nearly 10% of the drawings included in it, and it is amazing seeing how productive Tolkien was both as a writer and as a painter. The only negative aspect is that sometimes the text  would refer to a picture either on the next page or on the previous page and it is rather tedious flipping constantly between pages to observe all the details being explained (this is a minor criticism).

I’m trying to figure out if, through this book and this post, I’ve managed to identify why I was so drawn (pun intended) to those three pictures.  The book helped me notice that in The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water there is a small bridge at the bottom of the picture that seems to invite you to follow this long road to a faraway place, and -to a degree-  the following pictures managed to perpetuate that fascination: What is hidden in that forest? Where is that tower? What is in it? What surrounds it?

Unfortunately, this does not provide a satisfying reason to explain my childhood fascination.

Note for future-me: your original ending to this post was much more “Well! I guess I’ll never know” but after sitting on it for a bit the following realization happened.Der_Berggeist.jpg

This drawing by Josef Madlener is called “Der Berggeist” (“the mountain spirit”)  and it is not featured in the book. What the books says is that Tolkien wrote on the back of a postcard that had this picture “The origin of Gandalf”.

This left me wondering.

How did Tolkien’s mind work so that this little picture on a postcard later became the iconic character?  Did he just see the picture and said “Oh, I know! Gandalf!”? What inspired him? Was it the cloak? Was it the mountains beyond where this old man lives? Was it the water in that brook?

The truth is nobody will ever know how Tolkien came up with Gandalf other than Tolkien, but if this is indeed his origin, there is something comforting in knowing that the same person who painted those three drawings -that I began the post with-, once looked at a picture in a postcard and that, somehow, triggered his imagination. After all, if Tolkien came up with Gandalf by looking at a postcard I think my eight year old version is allowed to imagine magical worlds looking at book covers.

I finished reading this book on the 24th of July 2017.

Random Trivia: I also learned that Tolkien liked Van Eyck and, having had the privilege of seeing the Mystic Lamb in Ghent, this was just one of those little bits of information that just managed to put a smile on my face.

Editorial Bonus (Original ending): Unfortunately, my childhood curiosity remains a mystery (although a smaller one). I will have to simply accept the fact that Tolkien managed to put a spell on me through these pictures.

 

Meanwhile: (Re)Discovering Lynch

Meanwhile: (Re)Discovering  Lynch

SIDE A – Entering the town…

*Tape begins*

Diane. Age 4: Childhood memory. I hear the first notes of the music intro of a TV show. It is a calm and soothing melody. I see there is a bird on-screen. I remember that it is on channel five (back when there was only five channels). I was not allowed to watch it. My parents told me that it was time for bed. I did go to bed, but that melody was haunting.

*Fast forward*

At age twenty-two I was discovering the joys of reading and literature, Diane. It was a time of disconnection with my studies, my friends and to a degree my family – with the exception of my brother –. I was contemplating the idea of going to some sort of film school, following the footsteps of writer-director Kevin Smith. I looked up to him for  his charisma, his ability to express his thoughts, the message in his movies – particularly Chasing Amy –, and his lectures at different colleges throughout the USA filmed for the “Evening With Kevin Smith” DVD. I watched all his movies religiously with all the extras. I favoured the Clerks X Making Of a bit more than the others. It was, and is, inspiring to see how a kid from Jersey made his dream come true and whenever I doubted about going to film school I used that for fuel. Of course, we both know that eventually that wasn’t enough to fill the tank. In this Making Of, Smith mentions that his first idea for Clerks was very much in the vein of Twin Peaks with the store receiving visits from strange characters.

Taking everything the man said as holy writ and my childhood memory, I downloaded and  watched Twin Peaks. That was my first taste of David Lynch, Diane.

That same year I also joined a film history class in college which required a year-end project analysis about a movie. In the list of films available there was “Blue Velvet” also by David Lynch. I remember I did the project with a girl I used to have a crush on and a new friend of hers that, I felt, had substituted me. He did not want to include in the analysis of the film the iconic scene featuring Dean Stockwell’s character, Ben,  singing “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison. What a douche, Diane.

That was my second taste of David Lynch. (Random Trivia: watch until the end for a line that made its way to Clerks)

That year I also wrote my first short story. Remind me to send it over to you once I get back Diane. I think it is fairly decent material for a first stab. It was for a college competition titled “Tell us a remarkable experience at college”. I am of course paraphrasing but that was the main idea behind what the text should be. I’ve told you many times that I hated everything about college, but still, I felt I could somewhat connect the competition with the story about a girl I had recently broken up with, and it seemed like a good excuse to write about it – as a purge of sorts –. In that short story I stole borrowed Agent Cooper’s joke from episode one of Twin Peaks about the JFK murder, and yes, you heard me right, I did throw in a Kennedy assassination joke on a story about meeting this girl. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking Diane.

Years later I watched The Elephant Man, Mullholand Drive and I tried to watch Inland Empire, but it was too weird for my taste. My interest on David Lynch waned until a few months ago Diane.

*Fast Forward*

When I was twenty-nine Blink 182 released California. The newest album in five years and also the first one featuring Matt Skiba, taking the role of guitarist and vocalist, after the departure of founding member Tom DeLonge who had decided to focus his side project “Angels & Airwaves” and a career in ufology.

I learned that Matt Skiba played in a group called Alkaline Trio and that one of his favourite books was “Catching The Big Fish” by David Lynch, and allow me to quote directly Diane as I hate getting my facts wrong:  “That’s the book that got me into transcendental meditation. Before, I always thought meditation was some hippy-cult thing, but David Lynch is one of me heroes and he’s been meditating for over 30 years“. This is the first time that this book appeared on my radar.

The 9th of March 2017 is my brother’s girlfriend birthday. I gave her as a present the Joss Whedon film  “Much Ado About Nothing” and, for some odd reason unknown to me still to this day, she also decided to give me “Catching the Big Fish”. They should put a picture of her next to the definition of “cool” on the dictionary.

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If you want to spend some time watching Lynch paint and tell anecdotes. Look no further

14th of June. I’m  six episodes into the new Twin Peaks season. Lynch once again shows that nobody does television like him. I’m fifty pages into Dracula and I’m just not getting into it. I’ve tried  and failed to read one page a day for the past few months of “Catching the Big Fish” with the hope that each thought and observation would sink in better. The night it is really hot. There is a heat wave and I can’t sleep. I finished the book and write to the my brother’s girlfriend whom I’d address from now onwards as the “Log Lady”. I tell the Log Lady that I loved the book and I arrange for my brother (from now on “Bob”) to give The Log Lady the Blu-Ray of the documentary David Lynch – The Art Life as a surprise. That’ll teach her a lesson to go around giving me presents without any reason whatsoever.

*End of tape*

SIDE B – Things to Come

David Lynch is a writer, a director, a painter, an actor, a musician – perhaps a mad sound engineer would be a better term –, but I think the best way to defines him is as an artist, or more specifically a very talented artist. Whether you like or dislike his output it is unquestionable that his work creates a reaction that can range from complete and total what-the-fuckness (I believe that is technical term) to awe and admiration. I tend to swing between these two as I consider myself a fan of his, but I’d be lying if I said that all his work appealed to me – I still can’t figure out Inland Empire or Mullholand Drive – .

Watching the new season of Twin Peaks I was reminded of just how exciting, refreshing, different and personal his work is. When Twin Peaks aired in the nineties there was nothing like it on TV and twenty-five years later these men (let’s not forget Mark Frost, the often unsung hero) have done it again. There is nothing like the new season of Twin Peaks on TV.

I’ve seen people go out of their way to analyze the writing, the visuals, the symbology and meaning of each scene of this new season– to be fair this dissection has been inflicted on all of Lynch’s work –, but I feel that this exercise of rationalization is ultimately futile and will only lead to a simplification of the work or to flat-out speculation – with the proverbial mix of frustration too –. As a viewer my recommendation is that you (Yes. I’m talking to you Internet) try to experience his art and forget about conventional narrative structures and intellectual reasons behind images and instead focus on the sensations, ideas and feelings they generate.

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I’ve got the 10th anniversary edition including interviews with Paul McCartney & Ringo Starr.

Having read “Catching the Big Fish” I’ve understood that David Lynch’s work does not always come from rationality, but rather inspiration – one day he put his hands on a warm car and suddenly he came up with the idea of the red room–,meditation or even dreams. In those instances plot is going to take a back seat to explore those ideas, and based on my own dreams I know the difficulty in finding any form of logic in them. This does not mean that the end product should not be subject to interpretation or criticism, I just think that it is important to take the right approach. A large part of the negative comments that David Lynch receives is that he doesn’t make sense and that his plots are all over the place, but that is like looking at a painting and saying that it needs more words or that the book needs more special effects. That is not the focus.

The book also deals with meditation. Unfortunately I’m in no place to talk about this subject for sheer lack of knowledge outside of what I just read, but I’d recommend this book to those also unfamiliar as it provides a nice introduction to the concept and ideas behind meditation. I also can’t verify whether Lynch found this through meditation or if it was just life experience, but I want to share a quote from the last page of the book: True happiness is not “out there”. True happiness lies within. I consider myself a man of many words and I hate reducing things to simple sentences but I think this statement nails it on the head (and there are a few of these in the book).

To end, I’d like to dedicate this post to the person that gave me this book (apparently she was none-too-thrilled with my previous dedication. I can’t really understand why). Not only is she responsible for the awesome main picture, but she is also one of the few people that encourages me to write… plus she is like this weird hybrid of a really cute bunny and a human. This post is for you, you adorable cuteness freak!

I had this book on my bedside table for a few months but I read it in one sitting on the 14th of June, because I just didn’t feel like reading Dracula –I’ll get there in a few posts–. I’ve been really busy with work hence the lack of posts but I’m having some time off soon. I can’t wait to sit down and read and/or write.

Random Trivia: this post’s structure was inspired by “The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper”. If you are a fan of Twin Peaks and you haven’t heard these, give yourself a treat! They are priceless.