The Black Hole by Alan Dean Foster

fosterad-blackholeNovelisations are a thing of the past – the distant past. They were useful in the days when hardly anyone owned a VCR (that’s video cassette recorder, since the term is no longer in common usage). Back then, the only chance of rewatching a movie was to wait until it was televised. So we had novelisations as a means of re-experiencing our favourite films. But since everything is now available inexpensively on DVD or blu-ray, novelisations are an irrelevance.

Alan Dean Foster could write them well. In the case of his treatment of James Cameron’s Aliens, I recall that it gave fans a chance to experience the content of the extended cut long before it was ever released. The movie The Black Hole is a childhood favourite of mine, and I have always been haunted by the strange ending which involved an elaborate journey through heaven and hell. Very disturbing for an eight-year-old to watch. I could never figure out what the conclusion of the movie was trying to say. So I decided to visit the novelisation and see if Foster would shed any light on the matter.

The story begins with a small spacecraft, the Palomino, carrying a crew of five, travelling through deep space in search of life. They come across a long lost vessel, the Cygnus, positioned just outside a massive black hole – remarkably not being sucked in. The Palomino crew investigate. Aboard the Cygnus is Dr. Hans Reinhardt, living with only robots for company. He has invented gravity-defying technology and plans to take his ship through the black hole. The story and characters are reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Foster adds a lot of detail that wasn’t in the movie, giving Dr. Reinhardt a much more substantial background. There are also a few incidental things that are different from the movie. And what of the trip through heaven and hell, which clearly took up a significant slice of the movie’s budget? Well, Foster ignores it completely, opting for an abstract ending about unified consciousness. I feel cheated, frankly. I wish I had jumped to the last chapter and read it, instead of investing my time in the whole book. Then again, perhaps I was naive for thinking that a 1979 Disney space opera would have a deeper side.

The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

kings-longwalkIn a dystopian, totalitarian America, hundreds of sixteen-year-old boys sign up for a contest called The Long Walk, seduced by the prize of being able to ask the government to fulfill any wish. Of all the applicants, one hundred are chosen. All they have to do is walk. If you stop, for any reason, you get a warning. You then have thirty seconds to get moving again. In one hour, your warning will clear. If you stop after accumulating three warnings, you will be shot dead on the spot. The trek will go on for hundreds of miles, with no rest stops for sleeping, eating, or shitting. It only ends, after hundreds of miles, when there is one left standing.

The story is told from the perspective of one contestant, Ray Garraty, charting the walk from its first paces to its finish line. It’s a tale of fast friendships forged in suffering and of the limits of human endurance. You might wonder how a novel (even a short novel) that is just about walking could remain interesting for its entire length. But King really pulls it off. He sucks you right into the psychological state of a walker as if he had been there himself – the horror of being in the contest, feeling utterly exhausted but knowing how far you still have to go.

It’s a dark story – darker than most that he tells. And I imagine the absence of melodrama is not everyone’s cup of tea. King, by his own admission, used the Richard Bachman pen-name when he wanted to release a novel that came from a darker place than usual in his own psyche. If dark is what you’re looking for, this one doesn’t disappoint. The novel is available in a collected edition called The Bachman Books.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

suzukis-zenmindbeginnersmindThis short book is a transcription of several talks given by author on the rights and wrongs of Zen meditation practice. It’s very simple and non-intellectual. No attempt is made to qualify assertions with arguments. Suzuki often just says, “This is the right understanding,” or “This is not the right understanding,” and he doesn’t explain why. This is a little irritating for a reader like me, but I also undersand that Zen is about doing, not thinking. I imagine the author is speaking with a “try it and see” attitude.

I definitely got some clarity about Zen practice as a result of reading, particular on the notion that Zen is not goal-oriented. You don’t do it to get something specific out of it. Enlightenment (a word I hate), according to Suzuki, is not something you achieve through the practice; the practice itself is enlightenment. I think I sort of get what he means. In meditation, you just let whatever happens happen. The mind takes care of itself without conscious intrusion. So, there are results from meditation, but you can’t set out with an idea of what those results should be beforehand.

I’m fascinated by Zen meditation, but I’m still not convinced that it’s any kind of necessity. I think the same results can be obtained by simply going for peaceful walks regularly. Ultimately, one should make room in one’s life for periods of non-thinking and non-stimulation. It seems to restore psychological wellbeing and channel creativity.

Time, Space, and Knowledge by Tarthang Tulku

tulkut-timespaceknowledgeThis book was recommended to me as a means of getting to grips with the philosophy non-duality. The author, a Tibetan lama living in California, approaches it from the Buddhist perspective, although he does not use any Buddhist terminology.

The book places a heavy emphasis on visualisation exercises as a means of getting past our conditioned understanding of the world. For the most part I didn’t pause to try these out, as I’m already accustomed to viewing life in non-dual terms, but the exercises did strike me as useful to newcomers. I’ve even developed a few of my own in the course of writing my own book on esoteric matters.

Tulku suggests a model of reality that views it as consisting of three fundamentals: space, time, and knowledge. These are not really separate, as each cannot exist without the others. Scientifically minded readers will already be familiar with the term space-time and will know that we cannot properly consider time without space, nor space without time. Tulku suggests a “trinity” of inseparable elements: space-time-knowledge. This is very similar to my own personal view of reality as mind-space-time.

The real drawback of the book is in how technical it becomes. It is very easy to become confused when reading. And yet I would not accuse the author of being pretentious. There were sufficient cues in the text that let me know he a man of considerable insight. As an effective communicator, however, he fails. Alan Watts, for instance, has communicated similarly stunning insights with far more straightforward argumentation and vocabulary. If Space, Time, and Knowledge had been my first step into non-dual philosophy, I think I would have given up in frustration.

In the end, Tulku also commits the great error of so many spiritual teachers: a lack of realism about life. He asserts that life can be lived with a drastically different sense of awareness from what is common. While that is true to an extent, I always like to remind myself that one day I might find myself being chased down an alley by an assailant. In such a situation, does the philosophy of this book help me in any way? No. That’s the real acid test. So all this talk about every experience being an unending feast of beauty is mere talk.

Overall, Tarthang Tulku communicates much less fluff than Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. Time, Space, and Knowledge is a deep but unnecessarily difficult book. It has its moments, but I would not consider it essential reading.

No Man’s Land by Simon Watson

watsons-nomanslandThis obscure little children’s science fiction novel is another nostalgia trip for me. I recall reading it as part of the English curriculum in Junior High School. I recall that the main thought in my head, during the first read, was, “When do we get see the robot?” Action involving the robot, called Giant, was confined mostly to the closing chapters, and my twelve-year-old brain had little appreciation for the book’s subtler thematic content. Now, as an adult, I probably enjoyed the story far more, precisely because it dealt with real themes: the effects of over-population and industrialisation, where old people are forced into care homes, rural areas are transformed into urban, ancient landmarks are demolished to make room for housing. If anything, the presence of a gigantic semi-sentient construction robot that throws temper tantrums was a bit of a crude addition to an otherwise realistic story.

Alan, the protagonist, is a boy in his early teens, whose family is one of the last to move away from their countryside home. So ends a much-loved way of life for the boy, involving fun and games with other boys in an around the ruins of an old castle known as the Keep. Also brought to a close are Alan’s friendships with his best friend Ben and an old man known as the General. Alan reluctantly begins to adjust to his new life in the city, but when he obtains a motorcycle, the first thing he does is go back to his old home. He discovers that the General is still there; the man stubbornly hid himself when the authorities came to take all the old folks to a care home in the city. Later, the General discovers that there are plans to destroy the Keep, to make way for “progress.” Alan and the General will have none of it, and so they make a plan. But how can one boy and an old man thwart the might of a gigantic construction robot?

Some might criticise this novel for its slow pace and lack of dramatic action, especially when the front cover of many editions displays a robot. But I found it a very pleasant story, with realistic characters that I genuinely felt for. I’m glad I revisited this one.

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.