Kindred by Octavia Butler – A powerful historical/sci-fi; absolutely exceptional in every way

kindred

Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.

Kindred is a truly outstanding book. Not only is it the first science-fiction written by a black author – making it an incredible piece of black American literature – but it is an amazing book by its own merits. And there are many.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adam

hitchhikers

Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.

Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by quotes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”) and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers: Zaphod Beeblebrox–the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie and totally out-to-lunch president of the galaxy; Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot; Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a masterpiece – or, at least, I think it is.

For this book, I’m going to do something a little different. For this book, I’m going to set aside the ‘serious’ tone that I adopt for my reviews. This book is widely read and there are many reviews of this book – most more eloquent than I could ever hope to be! – instead of a conventional review, I’m going to lay out three reasons why you should read this science-fiction classic.

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

c&pBlurb: Raskolnikov, a destitute and desperate former student, wanders through the slums of St Petersburg and commits a random murder without remorse or regret. He imagines himself to be a great man, a Napoleon: acting for a higher purpose beyond conventional moral law. But as he embarks on a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a suspicious police investigator, Raskolnikov is pursued by the growing voice of his conscience and finds the noose of his own guilt tightening around his neck. Only Sonya, a downtrodden prostitute, can offer the chance of redemption.


Often regarded as one of the world’s literature giants, Crime and Punishment is regarded as such with good reason, and is my biggest read thus far this year. It is a book with a simple premise, easily described in one sentence, but is complex and thorough in its analysis. What makes Crime and Punishment so difficult to review lies in the fact that the book is deeply rich. It is, all at once, social, cultural and religious commentary, an analysis of the vulnerability and rawness of humanness, the infallibility of ideas, the depth of one’s consciousness, and, of course, crime and punishment and its consequences on the psyche.

The thing that struck me with Dostoyevsky’s writing was that it dwelled. It dwelled on detail and moments, and takes its time to flesh out those moments, the people, and the air and tension of it. It took me awhile (perhaps too long) whilst reading the book to appreciate the care and attention Dostoyevsky put into the writing. Now in hindsight, I realize that I have this vivid and elaborate image of St. Petersburg in my mind. I know its smells, its people, its feeling of destitution and harshness. It is in this grim and cynical landscape where this story takes place.

Raskolnikov, the antihero and protagonist of Crime and Punishment, is the ideal subject. He is impoverished and in a state of constantly flitting in and out of delirium, but is also intelligent and proud. Raskolnikov also believes that people are divided into echelons, where the superior and ‘extraordinary’ are entitled to acts that transgress the law for the greater good. (But what is the greater good? I suppose this question is a reason why this book is a fantastic piece of subjectivism.) The belief that he is one of these extraordinary men, and following a chance moment in a tavern, this spurs Raskolnikov to commit murder, believing that this act will lead to benefit society.

What captivated me was the depth of Dostoyevsky’s exploration of the many mental and emotional states that we experience. Assuming that most of us will never commit heinous crimes in our life, Crime and Punishment thus becomes a unique reading experience. We are given an opportunity: insight through detailed, compelling narrative into Raskolnikov’s attempts to grapple with the reality of his condition (that he really isn’t all that extraordinary), and his attempts to justify the murder to preserve his sanity – both which lead to a great deal of emotional turmoil and contemplation. The portrayal is brutally honest and raw, and Dostoyevsky opens Raskolnikov’s psyche and thoughts wide open for us to see in plain view.

Unlike the many villains we see nowadays, Raskolnikov is not a sociopath or not entirely without remorse as we are led to believe. On the contrary, he is vulnerable, feels immense guilt (making him susceptible to psychosomatic fevers), and deeply conflicted – not only about the act itself, but about himself also. Add into the picture that Raskolnikov is propelled to a spontaneous moments of charity, as he pays for the funeral of a stranger (whose destiny is closely tied to his). Is this is an act of true compassion or a means to atone for a crime in which he clearly feels guilty about? Regardless of the answer, Raskolnikov is a complex character – sometimes an enigma, sometimes transparent.

Though this book may take a pessimistic and cynical air as it delves into the dark depths of one’s consciousness and mind, it is incredible how this changes in the very last page. And perhaps its closing sentences – which I shall leave for you to discover or revisit – perfectly articulate what this book is all about: it is our actions that inevitably make us. Suffice to say, I found the ending rather optimistic, and I now feel compelled to read this book again; maybe I will see it differently.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information
Book Name: Crime and Punishment
Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Publisher: Penguin Classics

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

siddharthaNever in my life have I researched a book so extensively after finishing it. I looked everywhere for any sort of indication that someone shared my thoughts on this book. Ironically, I found two others who felt the same way I did on Goodreads, and with that, I feel more confident in writing this review.

There was an itch on my side while reading Siddhartha. That itch is attributable to two things: that people perceived Siddhartha as an accurate representation of Buddhism or Eastern philosophy, and that Siddhartha is not an accurate representation of Buddhism or Eastern philosophy. Though perhaps ‘researched’ at best, it just didn’t sit well with me that a book, that talks a great deal about the philosophy, history, teachings, and virtues of Buddhism, was written by a person who was not Buddhist. In saying that, I do not necessarily take issue with a person who writes about something that is beyond their realm of personal or lived experience, but if you do not have the lived experience of something, it is very likely that you will misrepresent or misconstrue it.

Siddhartha is perfectly packaged for non-Buddhists to read, and still feel comfortable and unchallenged in their worldview and perspective. The values and rhetoric it espouses still fits within the Western values framework, even though this book centres on Eastern philosophy. Siddhartha was written to satisfy people who feel a cultural void in their life and who want a dose of something that is otherwise unobtainable and easy to consume. Siddhartha is a self-help book for the philistine.

Hesse’s prose reads like how ignorant people appropriate and commodify foreign cultures to make themselves feel more cultured, and he tries extremely hard to make the prose sound as spiritual and exotic as possible. This sort of writing creates a gulf between the subject matter and the reader – to deliberately alienate the reader so that the reader can spectate Siddhartha’s life as an outsider, thereby reinforcing how foreign and intrinsically different everything is – from trees and people to way of life. This is an exotification of the Other – and the Other is everything we read about in Siddhartha. I take issue with this because it is inherently dehumanizing – the characters aren’t really treated as humans with depth, flaws and complex characters, but are painted as caricatures of an Orientialist fantasy.

Despite my qualms with Siddhartha, if I took a step back and told myself that this was not a book about Buddhism, there were some passages in the book that I could appreciate (even if the tone was shallow, pretentious and lofty at times). Hesse writes beautiful imagery that is both vivid and sublime.

Light and shadow ran through his eyes, stars and moon ran through his heart.

Is this revelation? Is this suffering? Is this resignation? Is this peace? What resonates with one individual will be different for another. Despite my criticisms (which I stand by with regardless), if Hesse had written about something else – something that was not inherently about Buddhism – perhaps I would appreciate his writing more.

If you ever do choose to read Siddhartha, read it for its narrative and the allegory. Do not go in thinking that this book is an accurate portrayal or representation of Buddhism. If you can overlook its inherent flaws and how pseudo-spiritual it tries to be, there are nuggets of beauty to be found in this book, and perhaps it may speak to you. It just didn’t so much for me.

Rating: 2/5

Book Information
Book Name: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick

androidsIn a future where artificial intelligence is possible, the elephant in the room is where androids would stand in society. Where would they place in our social stratification? What would be their role in human culture, politics and philosophy? Phillip K. Dick had an idea, and quite frankly, it is sad but likely.

Set in 1992 (or 2021 for later editions), the world is a radioactive wasteland, caused by a devastating World War that has destroyed most of the world. In an attempt to preserve human life, humans have expanded to off-world colonies. With life sparse on Earth, animals are now valuable commodities and have become signifiers of wealth and social status. Protagonist Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter on Earth, whose job is to ‘retire’ – or terminate – fugitive androids that have assumed human identities.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is as riveting and provocative as its title. Dick explores a multitude of ideas, such as an android’s place in a human world, morality, human nature, consciousness, sentience, empathy, how signifiers of status are arbitrary and socially constructed, and among other things that I may not have picked up. All of these themes are relevant, and it is the ambiguity and its narrative style that makes it so effective. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not a meditation, but Dick shows us a glimpse of a world where these constructs exist. In that sense, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not a book where all of its contents and intricacies are immediately visible to the reader – the reader has to engage with the themes and sometimes be the person to go further and ask the questions.

Something that really captured my attention was the question of what makes us human? It is a question that has been asked time and time again by countless authors, writers and philosophers, but Dick answers it like how Ghost in the Shell answers it (e.g. not at all, which gives it its permanence). People reading this will come to answer this question – or be stumped by this question – when we learn more of the androids and their motivations. What distinguishes us as human and them as robot? Is it the instinct of survival, our molecular makeup, our ability to empathize, our consciousness, or our sentience? What is life? What is sentience? (I’ve fucked myself up with these questions.) Maybe when I read more philosophy I’ll be able to answer this question, but for now this question will hang in the back of my mind.

For a short read, Do Androids Dream of Sheep says and asks much. I now see why Dick’s work was iconic and I wish I had read this sooner. So do yourself a favour: if you read this book in high school and you didn’t like it, read it again; and if you haven’t read this book, read it.

And now to schedule a time to force myself to watch Blade Runner.

Rating: 4/5 

Book Information:
Book Name: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Author: Phillip K. Dick
Publisher: Del Rey