Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

pirsigrm-zenmotorcycleThis book uses a father and son motorcycle trip as the background for a philosophical discussion about the existence of what author calls “quality.” He notices first of all that there are two ways of looking at a motorcycle, and these are reflections of two ways of thinking – what he calls “classical” and “romantic.” To the classicist, reality is made up of functional bits and pieces; to the romanticist reality is an aesthetic whole. This is illustrated with a personal example of the vastly different manner that the author’s friend John views his motorcycle (and the task of motorcycle maintenance). The author sees the motorcycle as a collection of mechanisms, whereas John only sees the aesthetic whole and has a distaste for the technological side of things (and hence a frustration when things go wrong). There’s a funny example where the author suggests fixing a problem with John’s motorcycle using a slice of metal from a beer can. Classically speaking, it is the perfect solution, but romantically speaking, John is horrified to integrate such a thing into his beautiful, pristine BMW. And so begins the author’s journey from being a pure classicist towards an integration the two modes of thinking.

Scientifically oriented people tend to be classicists, but Pirsig came to the realisation that classical thinking alone was not enough to explain all of reality. The turning point was when he asked himself the question “What is quality?” and couldn’t come up with an answer. He was a teacher at the time, and he put the question to his students as a homework assignment, because he genuinely wanted to know what they thought. They were as unable to answer the question as he was. As he follows this thread, it leads him ultimately to a confrontation with his bosses, a nervous breakdown, and a stay at a mental hospital which changes his personality forever. I realise that’s quite an A-Z to lump in one sentence, and I’m not entirely sure how the author ended up at Z, other than some unhealthy obsessional tendencies – including a strange need to convince his peers about the reality of “quality.”

Much of the story consists of the author trying to put together the memories of who he used to be, referring to his past self in the third person as Phaedrus. The book shifts wildly from easy-to-read autobiographal passages, to massively deep philosophical discussions – back and forth. As a reader, I couldn’t make up my mind about whether I liked the book. I appreciated that it was teaching me something useful about how to think more clearly, and at times the author’s experiences were moving. But at other times I found myself feeling frustrated at the author’s long-windedness, and sometimes I simply couldn’t follow his train of thought.

Regarding the father and son relationship, I found it irritating the way the author would constantly make silent judgements about his son Chris. For instance, there’s a passage where they’re climbing a mountain together, and Chris is pushing himself like something he really wants to accomplish. Pirsig silently makes a big deal about his son’s “ego.” And yet he makes no condemnation of his own egotism in the intellectual fencing matches he engages in with his university peers.

I got something out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s streets ahead of many books that masquerade as “spirituality.” But I think the author came to grasp the existence of “quality” via a route that was far longer and more technical than it needed to be. Then again, this is his story, not mine. The primary value of the book is that it makes a case (albeit a rather complicated one) for the view that reality consists of something more than the material stuff of classical thinking.

Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell

campbellj-mythstolivebyJoseph Campbell, an expert on mythology, takes the reader on a journey through the various myths that mankind has used to make sense of his place in the universe through the ages. Of particular note are the differences between Eastern and Western religious ideas, and the impact of science on myth. The importance of myth is something that is largely alien to science, but if you can accept that there is an impenetrable mystery at the heart of existence, myth is the use of stories to hint at the nature of that mystery and our relation to it. Of particular note towards the end of the book is the mythological significance of Copernicus’s discovery that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, and also man’s first journey to the moon, which Campbell sees as a paradigm changing moment watched by all humanity. He notes, with disappointment, that the astronaut’s words were a reading of the Genesis creation account, while his very actions were a deathblow to the Bible’s earth-centred cosmology. Incredible shortsightedness, showing how stuck people can become in outdated myths. Myths are supposed to change, in keeping with man’s evolving awareness of the universe.

It’s difficult to pin down in a few sentences what I got from reading this book, but it was a lot. From the standpoint of my own personal interests, the book was filled with interesting information. One item that stands out in particular was an examination of the Zoroastrian influence on Judaism and Christianity, from which came our ideas about hell, Satan, a saviour figure, and Armageddon. The book’s title alludes more to outdated myths that were once held, rather than myths that we should embrace in the present. In its concluding chapter, importance is placed on Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and on what Huxley referred to as “Mind at Large.” Individual minds are not like little pilots riding in bodies. There is only one Mind, which is focused into an experience of many through the aperture of individual brains, which are filters for Mind at Large. This is a model of consciousness that I very much resonate with, and which finds a parallel in some ancient mythologies of the East.

Myths to Live By originated as a series of lectures that Campbell gave at the Cooper Union Forum. He later edited these into this book of twelve chapters. Because the book’s content is so diverse, I will list these, to whet your appetite:

  • The Impact of Science on Myth (1961)
  • The Emergence of Mankind (1966)
  • The Importance of Rites (1964)
  • The Separation of East and West (1961)
  • The Confrontation of East and West in Religion (1970)
  • The Inspiration of Oriental Art (1958)
  • Zen (1969)
  • The Mythology of Love (1967)
  • Mythologies of War and Peace (1967)
  • Schizophrenia – the Inward Journey (1970)
  • The Moon Walk- The Outer Journey (1970)
  • Envoy: No More Horizons (1971)

Essential reading for anyone who is not bound by the one-dimentional reasoning of scientific materialism. Campbell’s work is unique; I know of no other parallel in literature.

Logan’s Run: Last Day by Paul J. Salamoff

salamoffpj-lastdayThis comic adaptation of Logan’s Run is much more faithful to William F. Nolan’s original novel than the 1970s movie and television series. Gone is the City of Domes, along with the Carrousel ritual. The whole world is run by a computer called the Thinker. After a global apocalypse, this computer brings humanity back from practical extinction, but with a particular set of rules to ensure a balanced population. Everyone is scheduled for termination at age 21. Go quietly, or you will be hunted down by an elite police force equipped with high-tech weaponry able to deal out extremely painful death. These are the Deep Sleep Operatives, or DS-Men for short. Logan-6 is one of these.

The story delves into Logan’s childhood training, and some earlier back story about how the world ended. Familiar characters make an appearance: Francis (Logan’s friend who is forced to hunt him down after he runs) and Jessica (Logan’s runner companion). Like the original novel, I was pleased to see Logan remain the villain for the larger part of the story – something that was dispensed with in the movie and TV series. Where this adaptation differs substantially from both the novel and movie is the conclusion, where it treads new ground (which I won’t spoil). I actually have a soft spot for the oft criticised movie version of Logan’s Run. I liked the religious overtones of Carrousel – a population blindly believing in “renewal” through death simply because that’s the only viewpoint on offer – one they’ve been indoctrinated with from youth. In truth, I like the book, the movie, the TV series, and this new adaptation. All bring something slightly different to table, but the overall theme of a brainwashed society is central to each. Do you dare to question the norms of the world you grew up in?

This is a beautifully written and illustrated adaptation of Logan’s Run that will delight existing fans and possibly make a few new ones. It had a run as a six-issue comic from Bluewater Productions. These are now available as a graphic novel. Even better, there is a follow-up series entitled Aftermath, which examines Logan and Jessica’s life after the collapse of civilisation left in the wake of the Thinker’s destruction. I’ve read a couple of issues of this so far, and I’ve been really excited by the direction of the story. I wish I had the full set.

Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

huxleya-heavenandhellThis short book, which is little more than an essay, is a sequel to The Doors of Perception – a continuation of the theme of expanding consciousness via psychoactive drugs. I hardly know what to make of it, as I have never felt attracted to such experimentation, but I do find Huxley’s theories fascinating. He states that ordinary waking consciousness is heavily restricted, and there are higher states of consciousness that the brain generally excludes from awareness because they contribute nothing to the survival of the human organism. There is ordinary “mind” and “Mind-at-Large.”

Huxley maintains that the reason for the prevalence of visions in medieval Christianity, and the absence of visions in present day religion, is due to factors such as a restricted diet in winter causing vitamin deficiency, which triggers chemical changes in the brain facilitating visions of heaven and hell. The practice of deliberate fasting has the same effect. Chemical changes in the brain put us in touch with what Huxley calls “the antipodes of the mind.” He claims it is also possible to reach these visionary states more safely by using certain psychoactive drugs.

The book describes our fascination with gemstones and gold as a manifestion of our mind’s longing for the antipodes. When we decorate our churches with stained glass and shiny ornamentation, we are really attempting to evoke a sense of the otherworldly. This would have been clearer centuries ago, in a world that was not saturated with larger-than-life visuals via television and cinema. Going to church centuries ago would have evoked a sense of awe not possible today.

I can see what Huxley is getting at, but it’s all so foreign to my own experience. I have had what I believe to be a genuine mystical experience in the past, but it did not involve anything of a visual nature, and I simply can’t relate to this fascination with visions. In my opinion, the glory of creation is the very world in front of me, and I feel no urge to use psychoactive substances to mess with my appreciation of it. Do drugs really open us to higher perception, or do they merely distort perception? It’s a tough question, one I don’t have a solid answer for as yet. There are plenty of “spiritual” drug users out there who will tell you that their experience with drugs was life-changing, but if you ask them to elaborate on their spirituality, they’re often not very deep people at all.

Heaven and Hell, due to its shortness, is usually found packaged with The Doors of Perception as a single volume. Worth reading for its thought-provoking content.

The Prince in Waiting Trilogy by John Christopher

christopherj-princeinwaitingThis volume brings together three short novels of around 150 pages each: The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands, and The Sword of the Spirits. The saga is set centuries in the future, in a Britain that has recovered from a natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Civilisation somewhat resembles the feudal medieval period. Each city, walled off from all others, is individually governed by its prince. And in summer, cities go to war with each other, more for custom’s sake than for conquest. There is no king governing the land. Machines are forbidden, because of the Disaster, and all fighting is done with bows and swords, all travelling by horse. Among people, classes are divided into humans, dwarfs, and polymufs – those unfortunate enough to be born with mutations and whose role in life is confined to servitude.

Each city has its own Seer, who speaks on behalf of the Spirits – strange disembodied apparitations that appear to men in Seance Halls. Luke Perry, a young nobleman of the city of Winchester, is proclaimed by the Spirits to be Prince in Waiting, and it is propesied that he will become Prince of Princes, ruling the whole land. But what are these Spirits? Real beings from a higher plane, or something else? Luke is soon to find out.

The saga takes many twists and turns, involving politics, war, friendship, love, and betrayal. The reader is guided through several strange and unusual cultures, as Luke’s quest take him far from his city, crossing the Burning Lands, a volcanic area separating Luke’s homeland in the south from the land of the Wilsh in the north. As a book marketed for children, the content is really quite grown up. Luke himself is nothing like a child of our own culture, and in some ways I found it difficult to be sympathetic with his cause at times. Culture clash is a prevalent theme, and the reader is invited to observe that a custom is not necessarily right simply because it is one we happened to grow up with. Another theme is the two-edged sword of technology – its benefit to society measured against its use as a tool of conquest, not forgetting its use as a means to manipulate the “primitive” mind. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The whole story is not quite as epic as Christopher’s The Tripods, but holds its own as a thoroughly engrossing tale, one that gets more interesting with each subsequent book. There’s enough good story material in here to span one of those big multi-volume sagas that are typically over 300 pages per book, as is the trend with modern fantasy writing. But I much prefer Christopher’s brevity. The Prince in Waiting Trilogy is an intelligent, gritty, violent children’s fantasy saga, and if that doesn’t sound politically correct, it’s not meant to. Recommended for all ages.

Blake’s 7: Warship by Peter Anghelides

anghelidesp-warshipSeason 2 of the BBC television series Blake’s 7 culminates in the fulfilment of Blake’s quest to find and destroy the hub of Federation communications, known as Star One, located just off the edge of our galaxy. Whilst this has the intended effect of crippling the Federation’s totalitarian grip on the colonized worlds, it has the unfortunate side-effect of disabling a minefield laid down by the Federation to separate our galaxy from the next – a minefield beyond which an alien invasion fleet has been waiting for entry. (Of course, why the ships can’t simply go around the minefield is never explained, but one learns to accept such silliness when revisiting much loved TV from one’s childhood.) The final episode of the season concludes with Blake’s ship, the Liberator about to embark on a near-suicidal war against the alien invaders. Avon, at the helm, shouts “Fire!” presses a button on the console, and the end credits roll.

Season 3, televised the following year, commences with the tail end of a fierce battle. The Liberator crew is forced to abandon ship using lifepods, while Zen, the ship’s computer, tries to effect repairs. Warship is the untold story of what happens during the inter-season battle. It’s the perfect place to insert a “missing” episode, and indeed the novel reads just like that. The characters are all portrayed authentically, and fans will get a nostalgic thrill from seeing new life breathed into old friends.

The book is published by Big Finish, and is the third in the series. While books 1 and 2 (The Forgotten and Archangel) are lavishly produced hardcovers, sadly Warship is confined to ebook only. The reason for this is possibly because it is significantly shorter than the other volumes. Judging by time time it took to read on my Kindle, I’m guessing it would span not much more than 100 physical book pages. Still, it’s a shame that it couldn’t be included as part of the forthcoming Blake’s 7 anthology. Another reason for not producing a hardcover might be because Warship is actually the novelization of an audiodrama, and as such, may be more of an afterthought to the main product. I haven’t got hold of this yet, but am looking forward to listening to it, as it is acted by the original cast members, with the exception of Peter Tuddenham (Zen), who has passed away. It’s pretty amazing to be able to get almost all the significant cast back thirty years after the original programme.

The story of Warship is rather good. There’s a lot more going on than merely “Liberator engages in space battle until defeated.” Blake and Cally teleport off to a nearby planetoid in the hope of finding aid, only to discover a new threat; meanwhile the crew are having to contend with an alien close encounter – aboard ship. The only part of the story that suffers slightly (and this is inevitable) is its ending, as the plot is forced to join up precisely with the opening of season 3.

Peter Anghelides is a competent writer. There were a few faux pas, as is common with small press fiction, but a forgiveable amount – think of this like the literary equivalient of the shaky sets and dodgy effects of the original series. Of the Blake’s 7 fiction released so far, Warship is definitely a high point, and somewhat restores my faith in the saga, after the slightly disappointing effort that was Archangel.

Under the Dome by Stephen King

kings-underthedomeChester’s Mill is a small secluded town in Maine, bordered by countryside. One ordinary day, a mysterious invisible barrier appears right on the border. Anything in its path gets sheared in half, included an unfortunate woodchuck. Dale Barbara (Barbie to his friends), is hitchhiking out of town after an altercation with the son of the town Selectman. He figures it’s time to go, before anything happens to him. He almost makes it out, except for the bizarre forcefield that materialises right in front of him. And it’s no good turning around and walking out of town in the opposite direction, because this isn’t just a wall. It encircles the entire town, and not just at ground level, as the pilot of a plane quickly discovers – when he crashes into something that isn’t there.

So the citizens of Chester’s Mill are trapped, sealed off completely from the rest of the world, like fish in a bowl. Slowly, everyone begins to adjust to their new circumstances. No one is in any immediate danger just yet. Barbie’s plan is to find out what’s generating the Dome, working on the assumption that it’s being done from within. But town Selectman “Big Jim” Rennie has other plans. This is his one chance to shine in life, as a dictator. When he gets a taste of power, the last thing he wants is for the Dome to come down. Those are just two of the many plot threads in the story. The novel is populated by large cast of characters, each with different agendas.

Under the Dome is huge, almost 900 pages in trade paperback format, no doubt well over a thousand in regular – like It and The Stand. There’s nothing worse than starting a mammoth volume only to get two hundred pages in and realise it’s a mediocre story. Well, I’m pleased to report that this one held my attention admirably. It does feel overlong though, and King’s tendency to delve into lots of unnecessary back-story is in full swing – as usual. Pacing suffers, which is my one ongoing gripe about King’s work.

Some of the characters felt a little caricatured. It’s hard to believe that society would fall apart so quickly in a situation like this, and it’s really down to the proliferation of “evil” characters who are set up to take centre-stage. A highly unrealistic starting point as a mirror for real life. Even so, I enjoyed the drama a lot. As an ecological message (i.e. we’re all living “under the dome”), the story serves as a warning to take care of the environment, but the drama is a little too contrived for this to really hit home in a meaningful way.

But I can’t deny that I really enjoyed this, and I feel it’s one of the more memorable King novels that I’ve read. I especially liked the direction of the story towards the close and the explanation of the Dome’s presence. Very much looking forward to the television series, which is just starting as I write.