Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reflections: The Martian Chronicles

As I've written before, Ray Bradbury is "one of the finest writers I have ever had the pleasure and unforgettable experience of reading."  The Martian Chronicles is quintessential Bradbury with its short story structure, surrealistic commentaries (Usher II), and science fiction backdrop.  Although I don't consider the book to be one of Bradbury's best, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes take that honor, The Martian Chronicles does weave a better tale and smarter entertainment than most books belonging to the same genre.

The Martian Chronicles is a future history which borrows heavily from our past history.  This lends itself perfectly to a whole host of commentaries regarding mankind's failings, most of which commentaries are subtle but deliberate.  I especially enjoyed the story Usher II and its rather blunt estimation of what Bradbury calls "the sophisticates."  That story, perhaps more than all the others, shows the author's unique balance of macabre humor and storytelling.  Mars becomes at different times and in different stories the Wild West, the New Frontier, but also the scene of intimate domestic conflicts, such as parents struggling with the grief of losing a child.  The focus in this book is most assuredly not the science but the fiction. 

The short story structure of the book isn't for everyone.  Some may want a more cohesive story with characters who inhabit most, if not every, page.  Indeed that is one downfall of the book.  Although Bradbury is truly a master of storytelling and is able to do more with ten pages than most authors can do with four hundred, it is difficult to establish the same kind of emotional connection with a character with only a handful of interactions with them.  Some characters do make encore appearances to tie everything together, but it's not nearly enough to give the book anything that looks like a standard protagonist. 

When I read a Bradbury book I compare it with other Bradbury books because I personally place him in a category and genre all by himself; he's just that good of an author.  The Martian Chronicles isn't one of my favorite of his books, but when I compare it to other science fiction stories it stands quite tall.  No doubt at some point in the future, after reading a handful of mediocre and less inspired works of fiction, I'll come back to Bradbury and remember yet again the pure magic of a story and its telling by a master of his craft. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Ray Bradbury and Me
Reflections: A Princess of Mars
Memorable Moments: The Illustrated Man - 'Make a wish! Make a wish!'

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

Life at the Bottom is a book that would have driven my college sociology professor insane, which is one reason why I loved it so much.  Colleges and universities proudly tout their incomparable ability to be open-minded and diverse in their thinking; however, in my experience, I was often the one who had to bring a diverse opinion to the classroom rather than being exposed to it by the professors.  Life at the Bottom in many ways represents and showcases a truly contrarian view on the underclass, the poor, and why they are so.  It's a provocative book with exceptional and staggering claims, and it's a book deserving to be read by all, regardless of their ideological viewpoint.

The main thrust of Life at the Bottom is that the central problem with poverty and the underclass is not circumstances, family history, or the environment in which the poor find themselves; rather, the main problem are poisonous and ruinous ideas which originated in intelligentsia and academia and oozed (a word Theodore Dalrymple, the author, would be comfortable with) their way into the population's psyche.  Bad ideas are at the heart of poverty.  These ideas, such as the devaluing of personal responsibility and accountability, have turned otherwise reasonable human beings into inconsiderate, to put it nicely, and barbarous, to put it harshly, dependents of the state and their circumstances.  His experience working as a medical doctor in a hospital which serves a very poor population, as well as his work within the British penal system, provide him a unique insight into the state of the mind of the underclass.  Dalrymple's commentaries are pointed and poignant, at times even scathing. 

No doubt some academics would take issue with Dalrymple's conclusions since they're, from an academic's point of view, based mostly on anecdotal evidence.  I think Dalrymple would agree with that to a point.  He looks at trends, such as a rising crime rate, and connects his experiences with those trends.  I don't think anyone could rightly say Dalrymple lacks legitimacy in his opinion, even if you vehemently disagree with him.  Life at the Bottom highlights what might be one of the biggest problems with social engineers' and sociologists' attempts to correct the ills of society.  Instead of looking at actual, real people and the good and bad ideas they have that drive their thinking and subsequently their actions, they only see data-sets, numbers which are collected, collated, conflated, and ultimately confused.  This inevitably leads to an idea that people aren't agents unto themselves, free to think and choose for themselves, but rather cogs in a great cycle of poverty from which there is no escape, regardless of the ideas the underclass have embraced.  Life at the Bottom is an acute denunciation and refutation of this mind-set and worldview, and it's an exceptionally good one. 

It is obvious Dalrymple holds very little esteem for liberal ideas and ideals.  Although he has his reasoning, I think he somewhat overstates his case in regards to who is to blame.  Liberals, as well as Conservatives, have done their fair-share in spreading lousy ideas, whether they're in the British Parliament or in the American Congress.  I think this singling out of Liberals would put off some readers, but that probably would have been the case anyway.  Genuinely interested parties, regardless of their political or ideological affiliation and affinity, should read Life at the Bottom.  I have no respect for Karl Marx and his lousy ideas, but I enjoyed reading The Communist Manifesto.  I find Saul Alinsky's outlook on humanity and activism to be reprehensible and destructive, but I consider his book Rules for Radicals to be a must read for anyone wanting to understand the world from someone else's point of view.  Life at the Bottom is one of the most important books I have read in a long, long time and readers should study it for its perspective and honesty, even if they disagree with its premise or conclusions. 

Life at the Bottom is a must-read.  Theodore Dalrymple is an exceptionally talented thinker and writer, and he has provided within this book's pages a unique and compelling perspective on poverty and the underclass which ought not to be ignored.  I consider it to be one of the most influential books I have ever read when it comes to my own thinking and perspective.  This is definitely one I will be mentioning and referencing for a long time to come.

Other Topics of Interest:
Bosom Buddy Books: The Prince and the Radical
What Every High School Student Should Read but Probably Doesn't
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture