Visions of Paradise

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I’ve raved about the fiction of Jack McDevitt previously, and Cauldron illustrates much of what he does best. It is the concluding novel in the Academy series, and it provides closure to several of the mysteries which had been unanswered in previous novels: it explores the origin of the “chindi,” from the novel of that name (and does not find at all what they were expecting) and also the origin of the “omega clouds,” which have been hovering in the background of all six Academy novels, and was the main emphasis of several of them.

The basic premise is that a new, improved faster-than-light drive is discovered which is thirty times faster than the prior drive, and which permits travelers to reach portions of the galaxy which were previously out of reach. Two superluminals containing five people (including the main character of the series, Priscilla Hutchins) go in search of the answers to four mysteries. The trip is thoroughly fascinating, including believable characters whom the reader can empathize with. The long passages spent on a spacecraft are fascinating and the explorations spark thought-provoking implications. One of the novel’s major strengths though is the sense of wonder which is evoked by the explorations, especially in the origins of the “omega clouds,” which I had not expected to be resolved satisfactorily, but McDevitt did so in a manner which was both fulfilling and thrilling.

Cauldron is McDevitt at his finest writing, more evidence that he is one of the very best storytellers currently working. I recommend this novel highly (moreso if you have read the entire series preceding it.)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Teaching Company

While reading fiction is my first love, I do enjoy nonfiction too, although I find less time to squeeze it into my reading schedule (although hopefully that will improve now that school’s out forever, to paraphrase Alice Cooper ☺)

While I tend to avoid audiobooks for fiction, because I enjoy reading the book myself, I am less picky about nonfiction. Thus I have joined The Teaching Company which sells lecture series by college professors. There are so many fascinating lecture series in various categories, but the ones which interest me tend to be in history and archaeology. So far I have ordered 5 series from them: Ancient Greek Civilization (24 lectures on 4 DVDs), The Civilization of Ancient Rome (48 lectures), Early Middle Ages (24 lectures); High Middle Ages (24 lectures), and Late Middle Ages (24 lectures).

I’ve started viewing the Ancient Greek Civilization series, which are simple lectures delivered by Professor Jeremy McInerney of U Penn. The early lectures discuss the Minoan culture on Crete, its height during the Bronze Age and its subsequent fall which precipitated what McInerney calls “the Long Twilight,” akin to the Dark Ages which followed the fall of the Roman Empire two millennia later.

From there he goes into the re-emergence of Greek culture and the development of the well-known city-states. While the series might not be appealing to people who prefer video documentaries with lots of images and/or re-creations, for somebody who enjoys getting most of their learning from books, this is fascinating stuff which I highly recommend.

Each series comes with a bibliography which serves as a recommended reading list, but the lectures inspired me to go to the website where I researched the areas which particularly interested me in each lecture.

If the idea of a lecture series right in your living room appeals to you, go to and check out which categories interest you. I am certain you’ll find several that you will enjoy.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Time Travelers Never Die

I consider a book great for two possible reasons: it can be great in the artistic sense (characterization, thoughtfulness, sense of wonder, world-building), or it can be great fun. In my opinion, no current writer’s books are more consistent fun than those of Jack McDevitt. His Alex Benedict series is my favorite ongoing series, well-developed mysteries based around historical events in our future. I did not expect to enjoy his contemporary sf mystery Time Travelers Never Die as much, but I was absolutely delighted by the book.

Its premise is simple: a scientist invents a portable device which serves as a time machine, then vanishes. His son Shel, also a physicist although nowhere near as his brilliant as his father, finds the device and along with his friend Dave begins searching through history for the missing physicist.

The best parts of the book are the visits to famous historical locales, such as the Library at Alexandria, and encounters with influential people, such as Galileo and Socrates. The first third of the book details the search for Shel’s father. When that is resolved, the second third is pure travelogue, but as a lover of history I found it delightful. The third portion concerns another mystery involving Shel himself, which has an unexpected but satisfying conclusion.

Besides the main plots, there are several individual scenes and threads which are small highlights. Such as the running thread about the missing plays of Sophocles, or the encounter with Cesare Borgia. These segments alone would be worth reading the entire book for, even if it were not as much fun overall as it is.

Much of this book reminded me of Robert Silverberg’s fiction, since he also loves intertwining his fiction with historical people and places. Up the Line is perhaps the book which came to mind most frequently, which is high praise since that was my favorite time travel book ever. I recommend Time Travelers Never Die for its storytelling, its cleverness, and its glimpses at history.