Monday, March 28, 2011

Logic and the Human Mind - I Robot

Time again to delve into Asimov. I enjoyed the two previous robot centric books I read by him, Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. But I had never read the stories that started it all, so I was interested to see how “I Robot” fit into all this.

I was aware that this was a collection of short stories, and that’s fine with me. “Foundation” is essentially a collection of short stories that build on each other, and “I Robot” has a similar feel to it, with the central character of Susan Calvin telling or figuring in all the stories. Some of the tales had a very pulp sci-fi feeling to them, especially those involving the duo of Powell and Donovan. I got a kick out of their dialogue and their layman approach to dealing with the puzzling behavior of their metallic comrades.

But what struck me most about these stories is that they are basically logic puzzles with a narrative formed around them. At the heart of each tale is a mystery that needs unraveling and this usually has something to do with the three laws of robotics, and how they are interpreted. Since the robots deal with things logically, they are limited. But these limitations aren’t always apparent to the other characters and to the reader.

As the stories progress, the robots evolve and the puzzles take on greater and greater impact on human society. This is one of the things I admire about Asimov, he weaves his themes so well into interesting stories and provides you with entertainment and a bit more to chew on after you’re done reading.

If you haven’t given this book a read I recommend it, as some solid and entertaining short stories, but second to see if you can figure out these logic puzzles before the other characters do. I have to say that if had to take the place of Donovan or Powel… I’d be dead.

Have you read “I Robot”? What did you think of it?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Insight into a Writer’s Mind – The Narnia Code

Earlier this year I wrote a review for a documentary called The Narnia Code over at DVD Verdict. This documentary focused on “a mystery” that has plagued readers of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series for decades. How did Lewis reconcile the vastly different characters and settings of his fantasy world? A casual reader of the first book will find references to characters from Greek mythology, Celtic legend, fairytales, as well as seemingly random elements like a lamppost in the middle of a forest and Santa Claus. Many have wondered if Lewis was just bad at creating a fantasy world, and was just pulling these elements out of his brain. This is more striking when you look at his contemporary, J.R.R. Tolkien, and see the huge amount of back-story and depth he created for his fantasy world.

I’m gonna be honest here and say, Lewis’ fantasy world never bothered me as a reader. Granted I first read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when I was in fourth grade or so, but even rereading it over the years I never had a problem with it. There was a whimsy to the whole book that just pulled me in. All those elements seemed to work together because Narnia is a world that only children could enter. So it made sense that these kinds of characters and settings would appear. I never felt it was sloppy.

The Narnia Code says that there is a method to this “madness”. According to scholar Michael Ward, the series basic construction and stylistic elements are all based on the medieval view of the seven known planets. To the medieval mind there were seven heavenly bodies that traveled differently across the sky than the rest of the firmament. These were: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Ward believes that each of these planets has been given its own book to influence. If you study this medieval cosmology then you’ll see elements of these planets in each book.

Here’s where things get a bit odd, at least for the writer in me. So this “code” has been revealed and now we know where all these seemingly disparate elements came from. But what if you didn’t have a problem with these elements in the first place, will this “revelation” mean anything to you? In a way it’s interesting, but I don’t think a casual reader is going to care. Even those that read the series or use it as a teaching tool of Christian belief aren’t going to find much here to add to their view of the work.

What I found especially amusing was the fact that the documentary presents this as a game changing solution. That now that Ward has presented his theory (and yes its still theory, we can’t ask Lewis if this is correct, and plenty of scholars don’t agree with Ward) a whole new level of meaning has been introduced to the series. I don’t buy it. What we have is a new understanding of stylistic choices made by Lewis. It may allow other writers and scholars to smile at different places when they read, but other than that, I don’t see it as changing my opinion of the work or deepening my understanding of its themes. I just think that Lewis was pretty clever at using that as an inspiration, one that took decades for someone to figure out and yet provided a pattern that we didn’t know existed. But then comes the question, can it be a pattern if no one recognizes it?

What do you think of the Chronicles of Narnia? Do you think this kind of revelation helps or hinders the enjoyment of the stories? Should influences on a writer really be dissected like this?