2 books in 3 days!

After struggling through two-thirds of Cloud Atlas and ultimately keeping it aside for another day (I can’t bring myself to admit that I might have abandoned it!), I started off on another episodic award winning novel, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. This book addresses a fascinating premise – “What if successive epidemics of the Black Plague had wiped out almost the entire population of Europe by the 15th century?” We end up with an alternate history in which Islam conquers all of Europe and becomes one of the 3 major global powers along with the Chinese and the Indians; the non-existent Europeans never colonize the Americas (although the Chinese do occupy parts of it), leaving the indigenous population to flourish and form a democratic league of Native American nations. It all sounds very interesting, but somehow KSR’s long-winded style of writing unfettered perhaps by the lack of a tougher editor led to a novel that I felt was a couple of hundred pages too long.

Anyway, I finally finished the book last week after labouring through it off and on for several months. As I said, I immensely enjoyed the premise and the overall ebbs and flows of alternate history, but not so much the writing style. I therefore felt that I had to move on to something much simpler as a follow-up. So I settled on a book that I should have read 3 decades or more ago – the Newbery medal winner from Hugh Lofting, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. I had watched and tremendously enjoyed the Rex Harrison musical as a child and several years later, the reasonably entertaining Eddie Murphy vehicle from 1998. I had assumed that the Rex Harrison version from 1967 was true to the source material. While almost all elements from that movie are indeed taken from the books, I discovered that the good doctor himself is physically quite different from the version portrayed by Mr. Harrison. He is rather short and round compared to Rex Harrison’s tall and strapping build. It was an enjoyable experience to reacquaint myself with all the human and animal characters, to compare and contrast the plotlines of the book with variations in the 1967 movie. Needless to say, as a children’s book of only 200+ pages length, I was able to finish it in little more than a day.

I then switched immediately back to science fiction, this time picking up Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson, one of my favorite scifi authors. Mr. Wilson’s books tend to have extraordinary events take place in an everyday world, such as the disappearance of Europe in Darwinia, or the appearance of mysterious stone monoliths in The Chronoliths or the disappearance of stars from the sky in Spin. All these books have been award-winners and Blind Lake itself was nominated for a Hugo in 2004. It deals with a government research facility which has created a telescope powered by a quantum matter device. This device allows scientists to remotely observe an alien civilzation on a distant planet, almost like a ‘candid camera reality show’. One night, the research base goes into ‘quarantine mode’ for unexplained reasons and is effectively shut off from the outside world. The rest of the book deals with uncovering the reasons for the cut-off while following the lives of the people trapped inside. It increasingly becomes clear that these events are connected with some sort of quantum feedback coming from the observed world 51 light years away.

Blind Lake turned out to be a page-turner much in the vein of Mr. Wilson’s other books. With both Darwinia and The Chronoliths, I felt that the author was much better at setting up a jaw-dropping premise than he was at bringing it to a satisfying and coherent conclusion… almost as if he loses his patience after all the heavy lifting in the first half of his books and wants to somehow end it quickly thereafter. Blind Lake suffers from a bit of that, but nevertheless ended up being a very satisfying read.

Doubly satisfying was the fact that I had managed to finish 2 books in 3 days and can now think about which book to move on to next. Options include Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (scheduled to be released as a movie in 2015) or a Jack Reacher novel or Philip K Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle.

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