The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells is one of the first science fiction books. Aliens from Mars invade suburban England riding scary tripod machines.

The scariest thing about this book is that it was written in 1898, 16 years before World War I, yet it contains realistic depictions of the use of poison gas.

I saw the Spielberg movie when it came out in 2005, and I was surprised by how closely the plot elements were drawn from the book. The red vegetation, the mad 'curate' in the cellar, and of course the final downfall of the Martians are all the same.

But what worked in 1898 for H. G. Wells didn't work in 2005 for Spielberg. The ending frustrated me. How could alien beings with the technology to cross vacuum be defeated by something as common as microorganisms?

Enter the insightful husband. When War of the Worlds was first published, he points out, germ theory was only a few years old. It was still cutting-edge science, so it seemed reasonable to people that other technologically advanced people might not know about it. Now germ theory is 100 years old so it seems obvious. The newness of computer viruses made the defeat of the aliens in Indepdence Day seem credible ten years ago. Would it be believable today?

What technology of today would be a good choice for bringing down invading aliens? Nanotech? And in twenty years it will seem run-of-the-mill.

The Prince, by Machiavelli

I first read The Prince in high school, and I was tremendously disappointed. It's a small little thing and I was expecting the secrets of the ages. Or at least something that would help me deal with the cool kids who were making my life hell.

This time I decided to use my high school education to understand it better. No, not the mean-halls type of education, actual classroom instruction. That included a detailed history of Florence, where Machiavelli lived, because that was the city my high school was in.

No, I'm not Italian, although I speak it fluently. My parents moved there for work and sent us kids to the International School of Florence. Sounds nice, eh?

I hated it.

13 years later I've gotten over the hating and realized, damn, it WAS nice. I loved Florence, though I didn't love living there.

Machiavelli lived in Florence and grew to adulthood under Lorenzo Medici, who was a shrewed ruler of the city for many years until his death at a comparatively young age in 1492. Lorenzo Medici inherited the rule of Florence, after his father Piero and grandfather Cosimo. Before Cosimo, Florence had been a Republic. Lorenzo was 'Il Magnifico'. After he died, his son Piero was dubbed 'the Unfortunate' for messing everything up and getting the family temporarily kicked out of power.

Machiavelli served as part of the Free Republic of Florence, and when the Medici returned to power, he was tortured and exiled. He wrote The Prince and other political works during this period of exile, but it wasn't published until after his death.

The Prince refers to a surprising amount of chaos. Machiavelli is able to illustrate all of his theories with concrete contemporary examples of war, conquest, betrayal, and error. Italy didn't become a united country until the late 1800's. During Machiavelli's life, it was a boiling pot of different political parties and sovreignties. There was the Pope, who ruled large territories. There were the city-states. There were the neighboring rulers - France, Spain, etc. who had their eyes on plump prizes like Venice. And there was internal warfare as well. Florence tossed the Medici out, then they came back, then they got thrown out again, etc.

The Prince is more of a classification system than a how-to manual. Machiavelli divides the types of Princes into broad categories and outlines the best ways that each must use to hold on to his possessions. He seems to think that the way the Medici came to power was pretty good, because it's not easy for a foreign conqueror to get a Republic to give up its institutions. But of course, the Medici couldn't hold on to power during his lifetime. The book is dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero di Medici, son of Piero the Unfortunate, who is mostly remembered today for the magnificent tomb Michelango carved for him and for being the father of Caterina de Medici.

Why? Was he hoping to gain his favor, or was it some kind of ironic joke?

My theory (tentative and amateurish) is that the dedication is not ironic, and not an attempt at flattery, but made with an honest desire that the person in charge of Florence use his powers for the benefit of the people of Florence. Florentines are intensely loyal to their city.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Middlemarch was hefty and glorious and absorbing, the perfect book to read on vacation. Well, the perfect book for me, at least. It's not your James Patterson. It's the literary equivalent of a chocolate layer cake. Delicious, worth savoring, but maybe not the kind of thing you take on an airplane.

Maxine pointed out to me that Middlemarch was a 'community read' at the Reading Middlemarch blog (which has now moved on to Tolstoy and Stendahl), and I poked around there a bit. Rachel claims that There are Dodo people and Lydgate people.

Dodo, Dorothea, is a higher-class young woman with spiritual aspirations. She marries Casaubon, an older man and a scholar, hoping to expand her intellectual horizons by helping him with his work. Too late, she realizes that Casaubon is more closed than open, his work is meaningless, and he is as incapable of entering into her goals as he is of consciously realizing his own deficits.

Lydgate is the tentpole of the second main plotline and Dorothea's mirror. A young doctor with great goals for reform, he is drawn into a bad marriage and political machinations that destroy him.

I am neither a Dodo person or a Lydgate person. I found both of them a teeny bit annoying. Dodo in her unrepentent idealism was going to come to grief inevitably; it's only by authorial grace that she get s ahcnace at a happy ending after her husband's death. Lydgate waltzes serenely toward disaster on every front.

The character who I felt the most sympathy for was Casaubon. Poor guy. He is as trapped by his character faults as all the other inhabitants of Middlemarch, but since his are intellectual and emotional he gets less sympathy and has less fun.

Casaubon is my personal nightmare. This description of him rung in my head for days:

He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life.
To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an
enthusiastic soul. Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame,
and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too
languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight;
it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched,
thinking of its wings and never flying. His experience was of
that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all
that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness
which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy,
and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation
or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity. And Mr. Casaubon
had many scruples: he was capable of a severe self-restraint;
he was resolute in being a man of honor according to the code;
he would be unimpeachable by any recognized opinion. In conduct
these ends had been attained; but the difficulty of making his Key
to all Mythologies unimpeachable weighed like lead upon his mind;
and the pamphlets--or "Parerga" as he called them--by which he tested
his public and deposited small monumental records of his march,
were far from having been seen in all their significance.
He suspected the Archdeacon of not having read them; he was
in painful doubt as to what was really thought of them by the
leading minds of Brasenose, and bitterly convinced that his old
acquaintance Carp had been the writer of that depreciatory recension
which was kept locked in a small drawer of Mr. Casaubon's desk,
and also in a dark closet of his verbal memory. These were heavy
impressions to struggle against, and brought that melancholy
embitterment which is the consequence of all excessive claim:
even his religious faith wavered with his wavering trust in his
own authorship, and the consolations of the Christian hope in
immortality seemed to lean on the immortality of the still unwritten
Key to all Mythologies. For my part I am very sorry for him.
It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and
yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life
and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self--
never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have
our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness
of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action,
but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid,
scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would
make little difference, I fear, to Mr. Casaubon's uneasiness.
Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask
and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little
eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under
anxious control.


Given that I can't read five books a week any more, I've decided to refocus the blog on reading the classic works that I originally got into this for. Hence the new title. New year, new business, new blog name. I'm on a roll.