20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 9:27 pm on Sunday, May 23, 2010

From the publisher:
“‘The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.’ Scientist Pierre Aronnax and his colleagues set out on an expedition to find a strange sea monster and are captured by the infamous and charismatic Captain Nemo and taken abroad the Nautilus submarine as his prisoners. As they travel the world’s oceans, they become embroiled in adventures and events beyond their wildest dreams. Visionary in its outlook, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a legendary science fiction masterpiece.”

My thoughts:
It took me some time to get into this book at all & had to pressure myself to read it at times. The two major problems for me were the extensive digressions into marine biology (the references to the different organisms for the most part might as well have been in Swahili for all that I could picture what was being described and I had no desire to spend ten times as long reading to look them up), and the heartlessness of both narrator and protaganist when it came to dealing with the animals they encountered (often killing just because they could). Verne seems to share this heartlessness (even viciousness) when he describes the slaughter of the whales in Part II, chapter 12 for example. Also, I don’t particularly like most seafood, so all the meal descriptions just turned me off (lol).

Aside from that, the book was fairly interesting, probably more so for the original readers who had no experience (even vicarious, on-film ones) of diving or submarines. The wide use of electrical light and power must have seemed almost unbelievable at the time. This is why I like reading Victorian sci-fi so much; it’s fun to go back in time to see how much what they imagined has actually happened in real life.

I liked the supporting cast characters, Conseil and Ned (a Canadian of course), even with the latter’s obsession with hunting, much better than the two principals.

Leaving the story of Nemo a total mystery was rather sneaky on Verne’s part. I believe there is a prequel (or sequel?) that explains things, but since I didn’t particularly like Nemo, I’m not drawn to read it.

Candide by Voltaire
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 8:34 am on Saturday, May 15, 2010

From the publisher:
“Brought up in the household of a German Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that ‘all is for the best’. But when his love for the Baron’s rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own fortune. As he and his various companions roam over the world, an outrageous series of disasters befall them—earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder—sorely testing the young hero’s optimism. In Candide, Voltaire threw down an audacious challenge to the philosophical views of his time, to create on of the most glorious satires of the eighteenth century.”

My thoughts:
This book was written in the eighteenth century, at the peak of the Enlightenment, yet we’re still faced with the monstrous conclusions of the optimist philosophy, which is really just a fatalism of the worst kind. Instead of Leibniz and his stand-in, Pangloss, we have The Secret (and all of its kin) on the one side and the “fine-tuned universe” proponents on the other. But the funny thing is, if one believes in an omnipotent, benevolent deity, Leibniz’s answer must logically be correct.*

It goes like this. First, assume there is a god. Then consider these three statements: God is all-powerful; God is all-good; there is evil in the world. Pick two. If God is omnipotent and there is evil in the world, God must not be benevolent. If God is benevolent and there is evil in the world, God must be impotent (or at least evenly matched by a non-benevolent god or force). If there is only one god who is both omnipotent and benevolent, then evil must not exist. Therefore, suffering is either illusory or it is necessary. In the case of either of these two alternatives, evil must be part of God’s plan (i.e. “everything happens for a reason”). Leibniz goes at it from another direction. Again, assume there is a god. God is perfect, therefore, nothing that God does or creates can be imperfect, wanting, or evil. God’s creation must be perfect, suffering must be part of God’s plan (i.e. “everything happens for the best”).

Now a logical mind says “I have evidence of suffering, but no evidence for a god that is omnipotent, perfect, benevolent. Therefore, the likely answer is that god, if one exists at all, must have a flaw.”* But if you start with the false premises left to us by Christian theologians, the same logic will lead you straight into Panglossianism.

Voltaire shows us how absurd adoption of such a philosophy is, as Candide and the people he encounters are subjected to lives of cruel misery. How could being the victim of slavery and rape and natural disasters be the result of existing in the best possible world? So then, what can we do? We can’t live as the Eldoradans do, without care or trouble or pain—Eldorado doesn’t exist for most (any?) of us.

Martin, the representative of pessimism, says that we’re left to spend our lives “either in convulsions of misery or in the lethargy of boredom.” Ultimately, Candide and his companions find some kind of contentment in honest labour for the benefit of the household. But is cultivating one’s garden enough when there is injustice and misery going on right outside the garden walls? And what of new invaders? In the end Candide’s problem isn’t really resolved at all…

*Let’s leave aside, for the sake of brevity other possible solutions to this conundrum (e.g. multiple gods, degrading emanation, and the Christian favourite: attribution of all suffering to The Fall)