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Monthly Archives: October 2010

The End of the World As We Know It

Book #33 (October 2, 2010): The Wind from Nowhere by J.G. Ballard
Book #34 (October 6, 2010): The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
Book #35 (October 10, 2010): The Burning World (AKA The Drought) by J.G. Ballard
Book #36 (October 12, 2010): The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard

For some reason, in the 1950s through the 1970s, British science fiction writers became obsessed with the idea of global disaster and wrote novel after novel in which the entire human race falls victim to some horrible shift in the balance of nature. I suppose one could argue that this trend really began with the 1906 H.G. Wells novel In the Days of the Comet, where mysterious gases from a comet’s tail put everyone on earth to sleep for three hours, or even his 1898 The War of the Worlds, where England is devastated by a Martian invasion, but the movement got underway in earnest with John Wyndham’s 1951 The Day of the Triffids, where not only does everyone on earth go blind from meteor light but the planet is simultaneously invaded by sentient plant life. It was as though Wyndham wanted to combine the two Wells novels into a disaster two-fer, with the invaders and the comet conspiring together to end civilization. And then there was John Christopher’s 1956 No Blade of Grass (AKA The Death of Grass), about global famine, and John Brunner’s one-two ecological punch of Stand on Zanzibar (1968) andThe Sheep Look Up (1972), where the earth is devastated by overpopulation and pollution, respectively. (One could also argue that this trend in British SF has never really ended and that P.D. James’ 1992 The Children of Men belongs to it as well.)

No writer, British or otherwise, has ever become quite so obsessed with the disaster novel as James Graham (J.G.) Ballard. These days the late Mr. Ballard is better remembered for his 1973 flight of surrealism Crash, about people with a sexual fetish for automobile accidents (made into a 1996 movie by David Cronenberg, not to be confused with the 2004 Academy-Award-winning Crash by Paul Haggis), and his semi-fictionalized autobiographyEmpire of the Sun, made into a film by Stephen Spielberg with the young Christian Bale as the teenage Ballard’s avatar. He also became part of the New Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 70s, based around the British short story magazine New Worlds, where a group of young writers, both British and American, tried to demonstrate that science fiction could be a form of avant-garde literature, a movement that eventually died but that immeasurably elevated the writing level of most science fiction that followed even as Star Wars was trying to dumb it back down. However, his writing career began in 1961 with the apocalyptic science fiction novel The Wind from Nowhere, which was followed by three more remarkably similar works of apocalyptic science fiction. It was almost as though Ballard were trying to write the same novel over and over again until he finally got it right. I read the first of these when I was in high school and found it enjoyable, but the other three sat on my shelf in their original paperback editions unread for many years. I finally decided to simply read all four in one long session to see just what the hell Ballard had been up to.

The Wind from Nowhere (1961) was supposedly written by Ballard over a two-week vacation from work just so he could establish himself as a writer. It has a simple but startling premise, that all over the world the wind has started blowing faster by five miles per hour every day. It’s as though the earth and its atmosphere have developed different rotational speeds, eventually turning the atmosphere into a giant slipstream capable of blowing down entire buildings and rendering the surface of the earth uninhabitable. The novel starts well, with the wind already blowing fast enough to cancel all air travel and run the Queen Mary ocean liner aground off the coast of France. Even in this first novel Ballard’s writing is crisp and intelligent, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s writing too fast. The characters fail to become three-dimensional and the plot consists of too much scurrying from one underground or underwater location (including submarines) to another, though the conceit of winds blowing across the remains of great cities at hundreds of miles per hour, speeds that grind even the most massive of structures into flying rubble, makes the book sustainably readable over its relatively short length. Still, Ballard would later omit this book from many of his bibliographies and pretend it had never happened.

The Drowned World (1962) is in many ways the same novel, but by the time it was written Ballard had quit his day job and was writing full time. The extra care and effort show. This time, instead of a runaway windstorm, solar flares (the same culprit he vaguely fingers in The Wind from Nowhere) have triggered runaway global warming. The melting of the ice caps has drowned much of the continental shelves in warm lagoons and altered the shape of the remaining land by carrying great deposits of silt southward (or northward in the southern hemisphere) along swiftly rushing rivers. Most of the story takes place in a series of three connected lagoons over what used to be London, though the story is set so long after the disaster that most people have forgotten the city’s name and only a few stragglers remain at such a sweltering southern latitude, most having moved inside the arctic circles where the weather is closer to that of present-day Miami. It’s here that Ballard begins to discover his penchant for surrealism. The changed climate resembles that of the Permian era, when reptiles and mammals first evolved into separate taxonomic groups, and the few people who remain in these super-tropical latitudes find themselves dreaming each night of an era when their reptilian ancestors lived in a similar environment. One by one they develop an urge to head suicidally toward the suffocatingly hot equator instead of back to the temperate poles.

The Burning World (1964; also published as The Drought) is about a near future time when a pollution-induced shift in the surface characteristics of the oceans has disrupted the hydrologic cycle and rain stops falling. In effect, it stands The Drowned World on its head. Rivers and lakes start to dry up and a mass (but ultimately fairly fruitless) migration to the seashore begins. The story follows a group of people who live in a community around an unnamed lake, many of whom refuse to leave for the shore as the lake dries up, knowing that things won’t be much better there; saltwater, after all, is undrinkable, and the process of distilling it is too slow and the breakdown of society too rapid to make it worth the effort of moving. Eventually the trek to the ocean becomes unavoidable and Ballard sends the characters on a double odyssey, one to the ocean and one, a decade later, back to the small town where the story began. In this novel you can see Ballard’s interests beginning to shift away from the disaster itself to the interactions of the community that’s thrown together by it. The relationships within these communities are uncomfortable but inevitable and often what holds the characters together is the need to defend themselves from the feral remains of the rest of the human race.

The Crystal World (1966) is something quite different and in it you can feel Ballard losing interest in the disasters altogether and realizing that the real power of his writing is in the surrealistic imagery that the disasters provide. In The Wind from Nowhere this is the image of the dust-darkened wind carrying trucks and eventually entire buildings through the air like autumn leaves caught in a gust. In The Drowned World it’s the image of an underwater London glimpsed from above through water. In The Burning World it’s the eternal fires of burning cities on the horizon and the great salt dunes forming alongside the increasingly inaccessible oceans. The Crystal World is almost entirely about images. Some kind of never explained process begins turning all physical objects, dead or living, into multicolored crystal representations of themselves, as though the world were becoming a three-dimensional stained glass window. Ballard’s protagonist, a doctor who specializes in leprosy, begins a Heart of Darkness-like voyage down a river in Africa to find his ex-wife and her husband, discovering instead a jungle of crystallized trees, crocodiles and occasionally people. Ballard gets carried away a bit with confused symbolism in this one: the crystallization process seems analogous to leprosy yet also cures it, and the protagonist becomes a kind of Christian priest, carrying a crystallized cross that heals native lepers with its touch. And yet this is easily the best of Ballard’s first four novels and well worth reading. The crystallized environment (which Ballard mentions in passing has also appeared in Florida and Russia and even seems to be extending into outer space) is a fascinating literary creation and for once his characters don’t seem totally overshadowed by the disaster into which they’ve fallen. Nearly half a century after its writing, The Crystal World still seems fresh and not an artifact of its time, perhaps because at this point Ballard’s writing had become so much his own that no other writer has ever come close to imitating his strange combination of sharp descriptive prose, real world characters and unearthly apocalypse.

I still wonder what it is that drives British science fiction writers toward disaster novels, though. I’ve heard it explained as a reaction to the World War II blitz and the ever-present threat of annihilation from German bombs, but Ballard spent World War II as a teenager in Japanese internment camps for displaced noncombatant Allies. Though, come to think of it, living in the shadow of Hiroshima may have provided him with a far worse view of apocalypse than any of his countrymen got back home.


C How They Run

Book #31 (September 19, 2010): Learn Objective-C on the Mac by Mark Dalrymple and Scott Knaster
Book #32 (September 28, 2010): Programming in Objective-C 2.0 by Stephen G. Kochan

Once upon a time, programming computers was fun. No, seriously; it really was. When I first started using microcomputers in the early 1980s, there were books and magazines on the market that told you how make your computer do clever, exciting things with the aid of programming languages like BASIC and Pascal, which weren’t that difficult to learn and which gave you nearly total control over what was then just about the most complex piece of technology that the human race had ever developed. For a decade or so I wrote my own computer programs just as a hobby, picking up money on the side by writing books explaining to young people how to have fun programming computers of their own. I learned a slew of different computer programming languages, of which my favorite was probably C, a language developed at Bell Laboratories back in the 1970s that was simple, elegant, and powerful as all hell. Programming in C was like driving a convertible sports car on the Autobahn with the top down and the accelerator pushed all the way to the floor. It was an exhilarating, if nerdy, experience.

In the early 1990s, after writing a couple of bestselling computer books about creating commercial quality video games in C, I drifted away from programming and concentrated on other things, like writing manuals for software publishers and articles for Web sites. But part of me still yearned to go back to writing computer programs and rediscover the fun I’d had in the 80s and early 90s. So when Amy suggested that maybe I’d like to try writing software for the iPhone/iPod Touch, I decided that it might be just the ticket for getting my programming mojo working again. After some quick research I learned that iPhone programming is done almost entirely on the Mac, of which Amy has two, an iMac and a Macbook. Apple gives away the SDK — software developers kit — for free as long as you don’t plan to run your programs on anything other than the iPhone emulator that comes with the SDK. (If you’d like to run them on an actual iPhone, or sell them via the App Store, you need to kick in $99 for a developer’s license.) Maybe, I thought, I should teach myself some iPhone programming and use Amy’s computers to see if I could develop some working code. So I downloaded the SDK from Apple’s Developers Site and started learning how to use it.

Then I got sidetracked into other things, most of them involving earning a living. But since I’m trying to turn this into my Year of Reading Voraciously, I thought I’d throw some books on iPhone programming into the mix. The language of choice for iPhone software development, as for Mac software development in general, is something called Objective-C, an extended version of the C language that I so dearly love. These two books are about Objective-C and after having spent several weeks poring over both of them I  think I can make a rather definitive statement: Programming isn’t so much fun anymore.

Well, maybe it’s not really fair for me to say that. It may just be that I’m rusty and out of practice and expecting to get back into the swing of programming more rapidly than is really feasible. But compared to the lean, mean C of my youth, Objective-C seems big, clunky and a pain in the ass to use. It was, however, invented in 1982, so it’s been around since my early programming days. I just wasn’t programming back then on a Mac, which seems to be the only microcomputer platform that makes much use of it. (Actually, the first microcomputer that made extensive use of Objective-C was the NeXT, the computer that Steve Jobs developed when he and Apple were on the outs, and when he returned to Apple he brought the language along with him. He also brought along quite a bit of the NeXT’s operating system and programming interface.)

To be fair to Objective-C, it isn’t so much the language itself that’s clunky as it’s the Foundation Framework, the helpful and overly complicated toolkit of programming routines for performing tasks on the Mac. But I can’t really say this with authority yet, since I haven’t technically used the Foundation Framework (or it’s iPhone version) for actual programming. I’ve just read about it. Maybe when I move on to actual iPhone programming, a subject that’s barely touched on in these books, it’ll be more fun to use, especially when I learn the Cocoa Touch interface (Apple’s cute name for the set of program routines that give the programmer access to the iPhone’s touchscreen interface and specialized internal hardware).

Before that happens, though, I’ll need to read some books that go beyond the rudiments of Objective-C and talk specifically about iPhone programming. However, this isn’t going to happen quite yet. I need to give myself a break for a while, go back to reading fiction and nontechnically oriented nonfiction until my brain cools off and stops hurting quite so much. But expect to see reports in the months ahead about my experiments with creating a genuine iPhone app. It might even turn out to be fun.

Going the Distance

Book #30 (September 8, 2010): Triathlon Training for Dummies by Deirdre Pitney and Donna Dourney

Okay, this isn’t the sort of book that I’d ordinarily be reading, but I had an assignment to write a Web article on some aspects of triathlon training and I realized that I knew so little about the subject — honestly, I wasn’t even sure what a triathlon was — that it might behoove me to read an entire book about it to give myself some intelligent sounding background material. The actual subject that I’m writing about — triathlon training in hot weather — is covered in only about ten paragraphs here, so I’m also drawing information from other sources, but I figured as long as I needed to learn about the subject anyway, I might as well make my book of the week something on triathlon training and kill the proverbial two birds with one stone.

For those who may not know, triathlons are an athletic event invented (if that’s the word) in 1974 in which you swim a certain distance, then jump on a bicycle and ride a certain distance, then jump back off the bicycle and run for a certain distance. Although it sounds like something you’d find in the Olympics, it actually didn’t become an Olympic event until 2000 and the Olympics are only one of many, many places where triathlons occur. In fact, thousands of triathlons are held around the world every year, almost certainly including one near you. The difficulty of the event depends on the particular type of triathlon and there are plenty of variations. The most popular is the Sprint Triathlon, where you swim for about half a mile, cycle for roughly 12.5 miles and run for about three miles. (The numbers are rounder in meters, so I’m approximating the equivalent mileage.) The most difficult, however, is the so-called Ironman Triathlon, where you swim 2.5 miles, cycle for 120 miles and run for 26.2 miles. Yes, you actually run a full-length Olympic marathon (!) after you’ve already gone 120 miles on a bike! Where ordinary marathoners would be hitting the wall of pain, Ironman triathletes are barely even getting started.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read one of the Dummies books from cover to cover before; in fact, I don’t even think they’re designed to be read that way. But I was impressed by how intelligently and exhaustively the authors tackled the subject, with step by step details of training programs, tips on how to find good events and how to behave around your fellow triathletes, a guide to buying (and using) the equipment and clothing that suits your needs, extensive instructions on how to transition from one event to another, and considerable attention paid to the psychological as well as physiological demands of the subject. This is sharp writing, albeit limited in its scope of readership. I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you actually plan to participate in a triathlon (or write an article on the subject), but if you do, this is probably the only book you’d need.

So now that I’ve boned up on triathloning, do I plan to enter one? Don’t hold your breath waiting. I’m not too old — according to this book, there are triathletes well into their 80s — but I have way too many other things planned to do with my life right now. On the other hand, Amy gave me a bike for Christmas and there’s a lot of solid info in here on biking that I plan to apply to my own exploits, so I can hardly say this information is worthless to me. And every now and then I think about getting back into running, something I did a bit of in my 20s and early 30s. There’s plenty of info on running in this book too. It might even be fun to find a local pool and do a little swimming. (I learned how to swim when I was 10, though my form isn’t especially good.)

But doing all those things together? I get tired just thinking about it. Of course, maybe that’s precisely why I should consider doing it!

(And the Sprint Triathlon really doesn’t sound all that hard.)