Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: "The Wanderers" by Meg Howrey

The Wanderers (2017)
Meg Howrey

370 pages

A few years ago, Andy Weir’s novel The Martian became a big success, first as a book (my review here), and then as a hit movie. Weir’s story reveled in the technical aspects of a Martian expedition: the main character has been left behind for dead on Mars after a catastrophic accident, and while his isolation inevitably plays a role, the story consists primarily of a series of challenges and accidents he must overcome to survive. Well-written and engaging for the general reader, the novel was a kind of geek nirvana for sci-fi loving engineers and scientists.

Meg Howrey’s new novel, The Wanderers, also centers on mankind reaching out toward the red planet. It takes a completely different tack than Weir’s story, however, with the science of the mission playing a subservient role to Howrey’s main theme, the psychological challenges of a Mars expedition for the astronauts as wells as the family members they leave behind.

There are the obvious difficulties, of course, including the long period in close quarters and an ever present fear of disaster. But Howrey explores too the complex mixture of feelings the astronauts can face, as guilt at leaving their families behind competes with an overwhelming desire to return again to the beauty and thrill of spaceflight. And family members, for their part, can come to measure themselves and their lives against the heroic view the public has of their space-traveling parent or spouse.

Set perhaps a few decades into our future, the story opens as the private company Prime Space Systems --- known simply as Prime --- prepares for an expedition to Mars. Prime selects three experienced astronauts for the mission, with the plan to have them first run through a hyper-realistic simulated mission, to be staged in the Utah desert and to last nearly as long as the subsequent actual trip itself. Through this simulated mission, Prime claims to want to learn about the psychological stresses the crew will face, and so be able to compensate for these issues on the real expedition.

The story consists of the run up to and execution of this simulated mission, and examines the impact on the astronauts, their immediate families, and even the support team at Mission Control, which is also expected to perform during the simulation as if it’s the real thing. Prime achieves a staggering level of verisimilitude for the simulation, covering both the mental and physical aspects of the astronauts’ environment and activities. On the one hand, this helps the astronauts maintain their focus on making the simulated mission as real as possible over the many months it lasts; ultimately, however, they find that the apparent reality of the experience begins to prey on their sub-conscious understanding of what is artificial and what real.

Howrey writes each chapter from the point of view of one of the main characters, including each of the three astronauts, of course, as well as one key family member for each of them, and one of the astronauts’ monitors at Mission Control. As she switches back and forth between characters in successive chapters, we end up seeing the same situations from multiple perspectives. These varying interpretations of events, without a single fixed reference point, leave us as readers in a situation not unlike that of the characters themselves --- uncertain of what to believe, and guessing at what the full truth may be.

The structure Howrey has chosen, coupled with the focus on the psychological aspects of the mission, result in a slow start for the story, as the characters’ backstories and idiosyncrasies are introduced and developed. A bit like a rocket lifting off, however, after the initial period when it seems like not much forward progress is being made, the plot gains momentum. Even then, the charm of The Wanderers lies not in action and adventure of space flight, but rather in the simmering tension of people thrown together into the unknown. Through this experience,Howrey explores the drama of inner space, of our hopes and fears, and how even our closest relationships present moments of both struggle and grace.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: "Diccionario Sampedro" editted by Olga Lucas

Dictionary Sampedro  (Diccionario Sampedro) (2016)
Editted by Olga Lucas (Editado por Olga Lucas)

278 pages
“Grammar dictionaries make evident the difficulty involved in defining words. If we pay close attention, words are practically undefinable; we can approximate the meanings, but a word is never defined with the precision of a mathematical quantity. Words have resonances --- connotations that accumulate with use; what has significance at one moment in time could later have a different significance... (158)

… Los diccionarios de uso ponen de relieve la dificultad que encierra la definición de las palabras. Si nos fijamos bien, las palabras son prácticamente indefinibles, nos podemos aproximar a los significados, pero la palabra nunca está definida con la precisión de una cantidad matemática. Las palabras tienen resonancias, connotaciones acumuladas con el uso; lo que en un momento tiene un significado, puede luego significar otra cosa …
At first glance, the meaning of a word can seem simple to pin down: turn to a dictionary --- whether on-line or on the shelf --- and look-up the exact definition. Often, however, a word has multiple meanings, or shades of meanings that depend on the context in which the word appear.

A further complexity comes with the recognition that the meanings of words evolve over time, and, beyond even that, authors or speakers develop their own nuanced understandings of words; we, each of us, arrive at meanings for words based on our experiences and expectations. How best to capture such personal definitions, and their evolution over time? And, what can we learn of a person’s philosophy and outlook from how they use particular words?

The extraordinary book Dictionary Sampedro (Diccionario Sampedro in the original Spanish) provides an engaging approach to answering these questions. Economist and author José Luis Sampedro (1917-2013) wrote extensively on topics ranging from economic and social policies to a philosophy of humanism developed over a lifetime of traveling, reading and learning. In Dictionary Sampedro his widow, Olga Lucas, pulls together selections from his writings and speeches that reveal the breadth of Sampedro’s thinking through the ways in which he used certain words.

Beyond being Sampedro’s wife for the last fifteen or so years of his life, Lucas collaborated closely with him, including co-authoring several books. Based on those experiences she could perhaps have chosen to write directly about his life and work; the result, however, would have been merely interpretive descriptions of his thinking. Instead, Lucas allows Sampedro to speak for himself through this book, and for readers to draw their own conclusions about his views on critical concepts he explored. One could argue that there will inevitably still be bias present in the choices of which words and which writings to include; short of going back ourselves, however, and reading a significant portion of Sampedro’s work, the approach taken by Lucas seems credible and proves extraordinarily effective.

As indicated by the title, Lucas has assembled the book in the form of a dictionary, including fifty of the more significant words covering themes to which Sampedro dedicated his life’s work. Not surprisingly, the words included are not simple descriptors of everyday objects; instead, they cover complex concepts, from Love to Globalization. For each word, Lucas has first included selections from Sampedro’s non-fiction, with the text colored black; she has then followed with selections from his novels, colored in red to clearly differentiate their source.

As an economist, Sampedro wrote extensively on economic issues, and so, not surprisingly, almost twice the average number of pages for words included in the book are dedicated to the definition of Economics. In fact, economic and social policy – which Sampedro clearly saw as tied tightly together --- appear explicitly in a variety of words in the book, including Crisis, Globalization and Money, as well as more indirectly in selections on terms such as Ignorance (Barbarie in Spanish, connoting also the idea of barbarism), Democracy and Decadance. In his writings on Totalitarianism, for example, he describes his reactions to the social impact of modern economic policies:
(…) but I came to realize that in the world there are people who don’t simply accept the word; they don’t seem to find it right to say, for example, that globalization is totalitarian. The economic power of these large companies doesn’t accept being called totalitarian because totalitarian is associated with fascism; but this power is equally totalitarian. What is implied by totalitarian? We refer here to the reductionist aspect. It is an act of percentage reduction that reduces everything to only one aspect of life, in this case the economic, and this is precisely the problem of globalization. (241)

(…) pero me doy cuenta de que en el mundo hay gente que no acepta fácilmente el término; no les parece acertado decir, por ejemplo, que las globalización es totalitaria. El poder económico de esas grandes empresas no acepta que se le llame totalitario porque lo totalitario se asimila al fascismo, pero ese poder es igualmente totalitario. ¿Qué quiere decir <>? Nos referimos aquí al aspecto reduccionista. Es un acto de reducción porcentual que reduce todo a un solo aspecto de la vida, en este caso el económico y ése es precisamente el problema de la globalización.

Though an economist by profession, Sampedro’s thinking was heavily influenced by his pursuit of a deeper understanding of humanism. In his posthumously published work The Perennial Life (my review here), Sampedro integrated together and commented on writings from the many sources he explored as he traveled the world --- both literally and through his reading --- to deepen his understanding of life. Through the range of his writing captured in Dictionary Sampedro, we witness the development of his thinking on humanism over several decades.

As an example of the overlap he found between his understanding of economics and his study of humanism, the selections of his writings demonstrate his concerns regarding the materialistic emphasis of the modern world. He found that political and social policies have tended to narrow many people’s focus in life to quotidian details of economic activities ultimately beneficial to only a select few. This has diverted us, according to Sampedro, from our most important work: becoming who we are meant to be. Thus, as part of the definition of Life (Vida), appears the following selection:
Life is not just reason, nor reducible to science or computers, however valuable these may be. Life is also art, passion, feelings. In a capitalism that is suffering, traditional values surrender to economic interests. Let us hope that the god of the world who is born, has life as supreme reference. (262)

La Vida no es sólo razón, ni se reduce a ciencia y computadoras, por valiosas que estas sean. La Vida es también arte, pasión, sentimientos. En el capitalismo que agoniza los valores tradicionales se rinden ante el interés económico. Esperemos que el dios del mundo que nace sea la Vida como referente supremo.

For Sampedro, even how we think about Death shapes how we experience our lives:
Death is not the rival of life: death is the companion of life. The day that we are born, we begin to die, and we need to know to enjoy it, to live it, because there is much to do.

La muerte no es lo contrario de la vida: la muerte es la compañera de la vida. El día que nacemos empezamos a morir y hay que saber disfrutarlo, saber vivirlo, porque hay mucho que hacer.
He notes that “society hides from us the idea of death, instead of recognizing that death is the crowning of life” (“la sociedad nos escamotea la idea de la muerte en lugar de reconocer que la muerte es el coronamiento de la vida”), and refers to this avoidance of thinking about death as a “defect of society” (“defecto de la sociedad”). (191)

A revealing view into the depth of Sampedro’s thinking appears in a selection included under the word Migrations. Along with writings discussing the broadly understood link between migration and economic issues, he expresses an intriguing alternate view of migration, drawn from the dramatic changes that can occur in the world over a single lifetime:
In a certain sense, as you see me here, I am an immigrant. Naturally, we understand well the migratory phenomenon in a spatial sense: if someone comes from Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa, they are an immigrant. However, we don’t realize that there are also immigrants in time, because eras are different. The world of my youth is not that of today. It doesn’t belong to the world of today. I am here as a stowaway. Certainly, I haven’t arrived by boat and I have my papers in order, but I am not from here. (185)

En cierto modo, aquí donde me ven ustedes, yo soy un emigrante. Naturalmente, comprendemos bien los fenómenos migratorios en el espacio: si alguien viene del Sudan, del África subsahariana, es un emigrante. Sin embargo, no nos damos cuenta de que también hay emigrantes en el tiempo porque los tiempos son diferentes. El mundo de mi infancia no es el de hoy. No pertenezco al mundo de hoy. Estoy aquí de polizón. Eso sí, no he venido en patera y tengo mis papeles en regla, pero no soy de aquí.
Sampedro’s comments have parallels to observations Stefan Zweig makes in The World of Yesterday (my review of that work here) regarding the sweeping changes that he experienced from his days as a youth in late 19th century Austria to the physical and psychological displacement that resulted from two world wars.

More broadly, Sampedro’s expansive willingness to understand and acknowledge the seemingly unbounded variety of human actions, emotions and relationships is reflected in selections included for topics such as Love, Friendship, Androgyny, Masochism and Submission (Sumisión in Spanish, also connoting submissiveness). A flavor of his views, and his goals for himself, comes in the following selection:
… I’ve opened myself more to the world, which is not just ours, but rather one of other cultures and expressions equally human. As has been said: “Nothing human is alien to me.” Or, at least, I try more and more. (178)

… me he abierto más al mundo, que no sólo es el nuestro, sino el de otras culturas y expresiones igualmente humanas. Como dijo el clásico: << Nada humano me es ajeno>>. O, al menos, lo intento cada vez más.

The definitions gathered together in Dictionary Sampedro make apparent that the many years Sampedro dedicated to the study of humanism had a profound impact not only on how he lived his own life, but also on his views as an economist. Perhaps his most fundamental belief, one that seems to have guided his life and his understanding of how we each us should live our lives, is best captured in a selection appearing under Freedom (Libertad in Spanish, also connoting the idea of Liberty):
… I believe that a person has a profound freedom. A freedom that consists not just to be able to get what they want at each moment, but rather to pursue at each moment what they believe to be their path, whether they achieves it or not, and give meaning to all that which follows. (163)
… creo que el hombre tiene una libertad profunda. Una libertad que consiste, no tanto como poder conseguir en cada momento lo que quiere, sino en perseguir en cada momento lo que él cree que es su camino, lo consiga o no, y en dar sentido a todo aquello que le sucede.

Other reviews / information:
It appears that none of Sampedro’s books have been translated into English, which is unfortunate, given the depth and breadth of his thinking on topics so clearly relevant to our modern way of life.

I've quoted a wonderful observation from Sampedro in this book about being a parent here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf