How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional UniverseHow to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this on my phone.

Hey look! A novel about a guy in a corporate time machine killing/getting killed by his future/past self and getting all paradoxanalytical about it! That’s a word I just invented, by the way. It describes the way a lot of science fiction novels try to express and explain paradox just by throwing more words at you. It sort of works like writing a recipe for a cake just by using the chemical compounds and formulas involved, complete with instructions using moles for ingredient mass and the Kelvin scale for when it’s time for the cake to hit the oven.

Let’s get back to the book. It was just a ceaseless bout of self-reference. The premise was interesting and the writing had some inspired moments idea-wise, at least when it didn’t come out as narrated by a completely socially incompetent nerd – which the protagonist actually was, by the way… huh, maybe he was a well-written character after all and not just mirroring Mr. Yu himself… It didn’t take long, however, for all the meta to become too much for me. That and the oddly-used jargon too rigid to peer through, or the “science fiction” part of the story too often spoken about, described, but not represented in an engaging or memorable way. “Oh, this machine has permitted the existence, trademarking and patenting of entire universes”. Sounds great, it does, but where did you go with that Mr. YU?

It all felt like reading the diary of a Companion Cube (yes, I’m old) that suddenly through some bug in Portal’s code (the 2007 game we all loved) turned into a sentient hypercube and got existential agony. I respect the cube’s feelings but, yeah, I have no idea what being a hypercube would or should feel like. The protagonist was human, but his feelings came off as little more than the hearts the Companion Cubes have painted on them in Portal. Programmed into him, just like they were programmed into them, and just like they were programmed into the couple of sentient-like operating systems he had in his TARDIS – I mean time machine – I mean TARDIS; it even says in the book the time machine had the shape and size of a phone booth. Come on.

While in theory I should have enjoyed reading page after page of convoluted twisting thoughts on the paradoxical nature of time as part of the physical world and then some, I just couldn’t get into it.

Yes, left-brained. This book was left-brained through and through.

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Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the WayTao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Lao Tzu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an edition of the Tao Te Ching adapted by Ursula K. Le Guin.

I was tempted to end my review here and now so as not to break the perfection of the above sentence. It’s an edition made with affection, seriousness and awareness of the changing permanence that has led us people of the 21st century looking for guidance and wisdom in books set in the distant future (Le Guin’s novels) and in the distant past (this book).

Tao Te Ching adapted by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s as good as it sounds and then some: in my mind the definitive version of this widely-translated ancient book of wisdom for the contemporary person.

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Από την αυτοεκτίμηση στον εγωισμόΑπό την αυτοεκτίμηση στον εγωισμό by Jorge Bucay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Πώς να διατηρήσουμε την αυτοεκτίμηση μας: ένα σύντομο μνημονικό απ’ τον κύριο Μπουκάι:

Verdadero (πραγματικός/η)
Autónomo (αυτόνομος/η)
Limitante (οριοθέτης/ρια)
Orgulloso (περήφανος/η–με την καλή έννοια!)
Receptivo (δεκτικός/η)

Όλα τα αρχικά μαζί VALOR: αξία.

Βιβλιαράκι δανεισμένο από τον Γιάννη τον Καταζά το συμφάνταρο στη Σαμοθράκη, τον ωραίο τύπο που πήραμε μαζί άδεια για camping εκεί. Ο ίδιος ήταν πολύ ενθουσιασμένος με το βιβλίο αυτό· εμένα από την αρχή μου κίνησε την περιέργεια το εξώφυλλο που είχε memes για να δείξει τις διαφορετικές συναισθηματικές και ψυχολογικές κατάστασεις και βρήκα ότι ήταν πετυχημένο.

Το βιβλίο ήταν βασικά για τις ενοχές, τον φόβο και τα όρια.

Δεν είχα ξαναδιαβάσει Μπουκάι και βρήκα ότι ο αφηγηματικός τρόπους που χρησιμοποίησε εδώ, που δεν ήταν άλλος από ένα πάρε-δώσε, μια συνεχής ερωταπάντηση με μια φανταστική ή και πραγματική—δεν ξέρω—γυναίκα με την οποία υποτίθεται είχε πιάσει κάποτε την κουβέντα, δεν με ικανοποίησε. Η γυναίκα έκανε διαφορετικές ερωτήσεις από αυτές που είχα εγώ στο μυαλό μου και έτσι συνεχώς είχα την εντύπωση ότι η συζήτηση έβγαινε εκτός πορείας. Όταν κατάφερνα να συντονιστώ πάντως με τον οιρμό είχε ενδιαφέρον και βρήκα ότι οι συμβουλές του, αν και τώρα μήνες μετά δεν θυμάμαι και πολλά (εκτός από το αρκτικόλεξο που έγραψα στην αρχή) εκείνη τη στιγμή που φαινόντουσαν σωστές.

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Η τέχνη του να είσαι ευτυχισμένοςΗ τέχνη του να είσαι ευτυχισμένος by Arthur Schopenhauer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Δανεισμένο απ’ τον φίλτατο Τοπούζογλου.

Βασικά πήρε του Σόπενχαουερ ολόκληρη τη ζωή για να καταλήξει στο ότι η ευδαιμονία, η απόλαυση σε καθαρά επίπεδο αισθήσεων είναι απατηλή—μόλις κανείς φτάσει εκεί, γρήγορα επιστρέφει στο baseline επίπεδο του «τι κάνεις; καλά μωρέ»—το οποίο σαν συμπέρασμα είναι πολύ κοντά σε αυτό που είχα δει σε ένα Ted Talk σχετικά με την «επιστήμη της ευτυχίας» (αλλά και στο βιβλίο του Mark Manson που διάβασα πρόσφατα με τίτλο On Happiness) το οποίο και αυτό έλεγε ότι βασικά είμαστε πολύ κακοί στο να προβλέπουμε τι θα μας κάνει ευτυχισμένους και ό,τι καλό ή κακό μας συμβεί που αλλάζει τη διάθεση μας δεν είναι αρκετό για να μας κρατήσει για πολύ εκεί.

Εκτός αυτού όμως, ο κος Μουντρούχος στο βιβλιαράκι του αυτό επέμεινε αρκετές φορές στο ότι είναι πολύ πιο σημαντική για την εξασφάλιση της ευδαιμονίας σε βάθος χρόνου η αποφυγή καταστάσεων που μπορούν να απειλήσουν αυτό το baseline και να μας στενοχωρήσουν/βασανίσουν/καταθλίψουν. Για αυτόν—και συμφωνώ απολύτως—το πιο σημαντικό αγαθό το οποίο συνεισφέρει στην αποφυγή της κατάθλιψης και της στενοχώριας είναι η καλή υγεία, αφού μόνο με αυτή μπορούμε να απολαύσουμε την ευδαιμονία· χωρίς αυτή όλα φαίνονται στενάχωρα και η ζωή δεν μπορεί να είναι απολαυστική.

Οι παρατηρήσεις του κυμαίνονταν λίγο-πολύ σε αυτό το επίπεδο της πλάγιας απαξίωσης της ευτυχίας/ευδαιμονίας ως επιθυμητής κατάστασης και στην εστίαση στην αποφυγή της δυσκολίας και δυστυχίας ως πιο σημαντικής από την ίδια την ευτυχία.

Σημείωση: η μικρή αυτή έκδοση ήταν πάρα πολύ όμορφη και σωστή, με πλήρη μετάφραση όλων των σημειώσεων και παραπομπών. Τα συγχαρητήρια μου για μια καλή δουλεία στον Πατάκη.

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Ένα μέρος χυμώδες, δυό μέρη γλυκόπικρο, κι άλλο ένα γαμάτο γενικά και αόριστα.

Το πρωτοάκουσα στο Poplie Web Radio, το οποίο το βρήκα απ’ το Goodreads και τον inverted_a με τον οποίο είμαστε φίλοι εκεί αν και δεν γνωριζόμαστε IRL ούτε έχουμε μιλήσει ποτέ στ’ αλήθεια. Σίγουρα δεν υποπτεύεται καν ότι εξαιτίας του γνώρισα αυτόν τον εξαιρετικό ραδιοφωνικό σταθμό.

Ερωτικά τραγούδια έχουν γραφτεί πολλά, σχετικά λίγα όμως μιλάνε για τη συνεύρεση αυτή καθαυτή και ειδικά τόσο ποιητικά, όπου το υπονοούμενο γίνεται περήφανα έκδηλο.

Κι αυτή η Nalyssa Green η ίδια έχει κάτι το απόκοσμα και adorably awkward σαγηνευτικό που το κάνει όλο ακόμα πιο ακαταμάχητο.

Να διαλυθούμε ο ένας μες στου άλλου τον ιδρώτα. Σύγκρουση ταχύτητας φωτός το σώμα μου στο σώμα σου. Και να μη μείνει κάτι στέρεο, να γίνουμε υγρά.

Κοκτέιλ να σε κάνω με παγάκια.
Κοκτέιλ να σε κάνω με παγάκια.
Θα σε πιώ,
με δύο καλαμάκια.
Θα σε πιώ,
με δύο καλαμάκια.

Τσιμέντο, άσφαλτος, μπετό. Γυμνό το πέλμα ψάχνει πάτωμα. Γκάζια, πετρέλαια, φασαρίες κι αυτά τα δέντρα που μυρίζουνε τη γεύση σου. Ζαλίζομαι, ζαλίζομαι. Θέλω να βγάλω ό,τι μέσα έξω. Να τα δει το φως της νύχτας, τα σκοτάδια της κοιλιάς μου, και ως άδεια να μου επιτραπέι να σε έχω μέσα μου.

Κοκτέιλ να σε κάνω με παγάκια.
Κοκτέιλ να σε κάνω με παγάκια.
Θα σε πιώ,
με δύο καλαμάκια.
Θα σε πιώ,
με δύο καλαμάκια.


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Caught it in audiobook format.

I was expecting something in the vain of Replay, the book that, so they say, inspired the movie Groundhog Day. In Replay, the protagonist goes over the same ~25 years again and again and lives the period between the ’60s and the ’80s countless times. Here, it’s the period between Harry August’s birth in 1918 and his eventual death in the ’90s of the same illness every time (I forget what it is) that goes over and over and over.

Clearly, if you cannot see the point of time-loop stories such as these, the premise might sound boring. And in the case of Harry August it did get boring at some point. I thought character development was rather shallow for all the lives they had gone through; yes, they, because—minor spoilers ahead—Harry isn’t the only person to have the gift of apparent immortality in his world. There’s a whole club of them, in fact, but at no point during the story did I feel as if the lives and storylines of the other characters really matter. To top it all off, the bad guy’s motive was very hazy and his relationship with Harry could have been more meaningful and intricate. It was an opportunity lost, especially at a point closer to the end of the book when everything, or so I thought, pointed to Harry having actually fallen in love with the bad guy. Claire North didn’t go through with that, though.

I realise it must be very difficult to write characters that are immortal in the conventional sense while managing to weave a narrative that makes them neither amazingly powerful on the one hand— still somewhat relatable—nor too much like a mere mortal in their wishes, desires and motivations on the other. Harry August and many of the book’s other special characters seemed to fall closer into the latter part of the spectrum above—they had all this power, yet could do so relatively little with it to break their curse of what the Buddhist would call samsara, the pains of (repeating) earthly existence.

What’s more, the world itself didn’t change almost at all between Harry’s different incarnations (if you exclude the plot-related accelerating technological progress), which disappointed me a lot since half the reason I read books like this is for the alternate histories and timelines that emerge. Replay, again, did a better job.

All in all Harry August was an okay book. I found Claire North’s rationalistic, deterministic, somewhat strict writing style enjoyable and quite fitting, and props go to her for writing a book such as this in her ’20s. Regrettably though it fell short in most other respects. It didn’t use its own material sufficiently well, I found.

In other words, I would recommend Replay before The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August if you want to read about a character who goes through time loops.

PS: I went back and read my review for Replay. I seriously remember I had enjoyed it more. Well if you look at that!

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Invisible CitiesInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zenobia, the city on stilts.  Vitoriana first told me about this book and sung its praise by describing the mental picture of this city in particular.

Invisible Cities is another of those difficult-to-review books I’ve been going through lately, although perhaps “trudging through” would be a more accurate description. Another one enjoyed in audiobook format, too, and another one I couldn’t concentrate on and retain as well as I would have liked. I have walking, running, wandering through wheat fields, traversing rocky capes and enjoying less-or-more-than-imaginary landscapes in Samothraki to blame. Or it could just be my complete inability to focus on three things at a time—in this case my ears, my visible eyes, and my inner eye. It does sound just a bit too much, now that I mention it.

What I can say is that Invisible Cities turned out to be a very interesting idea of a book—or is it a book of an idea? Marco Polo visits Mongol leader, tells him of his travels to incredible cities far and wide—most of them named curiously similar to ancient-sounding Greek and Latin female names, some rather common in Greece even today—and proceeds to have deep discussion with the Mongol leader (sounds a bit oxymoronic as I’m writing it) on the nature of language, experience, travelling, story-telling… the general business of empire-ruling and noblesse.

Those invisible cities of Marco’s all have some distinctive fantastical characteristic: one’s buildings have no walls, the pipelines defining the cityscape; Zenobia, pictured above, is built on stilts (like Venice, just without the water—Venice, as Marco Polo’s hometown, also plays a rather central role in this book, perhaps as the archetypical invisible city bar none, just as big a mystery to Kublai Khan as the rest of this book architectural and cultural urban menagerie); another still is a meeting place for merchants who trade stories instead of wares. One city is special in that all visitors remember it perfectly just by visiting it once, while another is its visitor’s memories of it. And so it goes.

Invisible Cities is highly structured yet defies usual narrative conventions; it is abstract, exploring imaginary realities through the kind of what-ifs I’ve most often found in science fiction, yet it does so by looking at human history and existence as a whole, rather than at just its future. Calvino’s language is descriptive while being poetic and profound, inviting the reader’s inner eye to see the Invisible. In all honesty, the vibe I got from this book is that of a geometry-twisting, meta philosophical indie video game in the vain of Fez or The Stanley Parable.

Would Italo Calvino have been a genius game developer had he been a millennial?

Invisible Cities is just one of these books that stands out just from how different and unique it is and how ahead of its time I perceive it today to have been. Or maybe it wasn’t ahead of its time at all: we’ve just internalised precious little about the intellectual zeitgeist of the ’60s and ’70s and the early days of radical postmodernism in literature. Could it be that instead of them being ahead of their time, it’s us who are lagging behind and have progressed less than we think we have, perceiving our intellectual maturity as greater than it actually is?

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