Thursday, May 28, 2009

"We" - by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I've only just closed the last page of this fascinating book. I feel as breathless as D-503, the journalist and main character of the story, as he searches for his grip on his reality. What a ride.

The story is chronicled by D-503, a cipher of the One State. He is happily obedient as worker-mathematician, toiling for the Benefactor. But by the meddling in his head of a woman, I-330, he becomes ill with a "soul" that torments him with feelings, laughter,

But she's no ordinary cipher, of course. She has designs. And D-503 finds himself dragged toward his own destruction by the ring in his nose. Has he replaced one dictator for another?

Zamyatin was no stranger to Totalitarianism. This novel emerges from the time of revolutionary Petrograd. It took the Czechs to manage getting it to print. He'd been arrested and exiled from Russia, arrested and internally exiled (when they couldn't keep him out), and put before a judge again who kicked him back out. All for his revolutionary writing.

The claim has been made that Zamyatin is the inventor of the Dystopia, and that might possibly be true in fiction, This book is rife with "cliche" plot twists and turns, but at its time of writing, it hadn't become cliche yet. It was pioneering.

The novel does often read almost as a stream-of-consciousness tale, and at times I truly struggled to tell the difference between D-503's imaginings and what seemed to be reality. Which isn't exactly a departure from what D-503 himself experiences, so I found this forgivable. I've been told the translation can make an astounding difference as to language, tone, and effect, and so I'll share that I read the translation by Natasha Randall, and I found it to be poetically breathtaking.

I struggled for some time to find a tea companion for this novel that truly fits. And I discovered a wonderful new tea at the same time; one I find particularly true to the flavor of "We". Numi's "Golden Chai"-- --is a beautifully delicate balance of traditional chai with a clearly defined ginger overtone that complements the tragic, but septically clean, life of Zamyatin's ciphers with living at the mercy of the One State.

Try both, the book and the tea, and let me know what you think!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

A sleepy village in rural England loses contact with the world for an entire day. Strange and mysterious, yes, but alarming? Not so much, for a bunch of proper British folks who wake up and manage to go about their day; cold, but determined. However, a few weeks later, all the females of childbearing age find themselves pregnant, virgin or otherwise. And the babies all share the same feature: golden eyes. And as time goes on, the village discovers that's not all the children share.

The novel is a classic from 1957. It's a little tricky to get hold of, but well worth the effort. It's one of my personal favorites, written at a time when Science Fiction writers were coming into their own. Wyndham is a little ahead of his time as he writes of moral implications and cultural effects. His style is straight-forward and charming, with little mind to the science of the happening, and more on the results in the lives of people.

The title is intriguing! The immediate association, I think, is "Cuckoo" as though "Nuts", or "Wacko", and it certainly fits. However, as a bird, the cuckoo often lays its eggs in another bird's nest...

And the perfect tea companion to this tale of surrogacy is Irish Breakfast Tea: . The tea is also a little tricky to get hold of, but well worth the effort. It's a black tea, strong like English Breakfast, but with an undertaste of malt that comes along after the initial taste to really deepen the experience. Cream and sweetener make this almost a dessert.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Journey to the Center of the Earth" by Jules Verne

I find the classic novel a mixture of charm and density of detail. I read in a biography of Verne how he would spend hours in research, and I certainly see the results of that in this particular tale.

The story is told by Axel, the nephew of Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who reluctantly joins his uncle and an Icelandic guide into an inactive volcano--an opening to a pathway that leads to the center of the earth. Axel disbelieves each step of the way; his uncle is a force of determination.

The novel reads much like a geography lesson. There are frequent pauses for the professor to divulge paragraphs of scientific argument (I kept envisioning Verne as the writer, determined to "prove" to his readers, by way of Lidenbrock, that he knew what he was talking about). Perhaps it was due to his time, knowing though the novel was fictional, it would yet need to stand up to the scrutiny of the ever-expanding scientific knowledge of Victorian England.

What spares the reader from being completely buried beneath the science lesson is Verne's ability to use his skill for detail on the characters. The fiery temper of Professor Lidenbrock is true-to-form through the entire story, and even the landscape itself takes on a personality that carries throughout.

So what sort of tea might one drink for the reading of "Journey to the Center of the Earth"? I suggest a fruity herbal--a reader will need patience for this tale, not the effects of caffeine. Be ready to slow down, take the novel at the pace with which it's written. And a light flavor is best, something of a berry blend: , to contraindicate the dark depths to which the characters descend. And don't forget the sweetener! I think you'll need it.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells


(vĭv'ĭ-sěk'shən, vĭv'ĭ-sěk'-)
n. The act or practice of cutting into or otherwise injuring living animals, especially for the purpose of scientific research.

"The Island of Dr. Moreau" is the fourth in a long list of novels by Herbert George Wells. Wells's voice is as strong in this as any many of his early books; full of meaty imaginings and the kind of view into humanity that makes one wince (see: vivisection, above).

In the story, a shipwrecked man named Edward Prendick journals his experiences as he's stranded on an island with an odd sort of right-hand man and Dr. Moreau, a man of science and questionable sanity. But the three are not the only island inhabitants; animal-human creatures Prendick calls the "Beast-Men" populate the ravines and shadows. How these Beast-Men have come to be is told best by Wells (pick up a copy of the book, if you haven't read it!).

It's been theorized that in "The Island of Dr. Moreau" Wells has made Dr. Moreau God, and drawn parallel religious lines along that theme throughout. But I think that's a too-easy answer. Certainly, Moreau thinks of himself as a kind of god, but Prendick makes no such leap. He falls into some posturing as such, when it becomes a matter of life or death, but is well aware of what's going on, and why.

In fact Prendick ponders on deeper questions later in the book. He's a man who struggles to return to life-as-it-were before he'd glimpsed into something of the truth. He sees fellow man with a kind of veil lifted, and intimates a wondering at the base of our existence. Who are we? And who are we without God?

But nothing deepens the experience of reading a good novel as much as sipping tea while doing so. And my personal recommendation of tea for such a writer as H.G.Wells is Yorkshire Gold: . It's a stout tea, full of body like coffee, but smooth and without bitterness. Did I mention it's stout? One bag will brew 6-8 cups of tea. I brew mine through a coffeepot, couldn't be easier. Add some sweetener and bit of cream, and you've got one terrific taste of Wells-in-a-tea.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Focus on: Trillion Year Spree

Brian W. Aldiss has written a fantastically exhaustive history of Science Fiction. The first edition, titled "Billion Year Spree" was published in 1973. This latest, from 1986, isn't just revised, it's nearly rewritten and twice the original length.

I have to wonder at the possible length it might be were it expanded yet again to include the last 15 years of speculative fiction, and the current--shall I say meteoric?--rise of of the latest names.

Nevertheless, it's a good reference, and what it lacks in direct plot it makes up for in opinionated narrative. His is a viewpoint of science fiction as literature, if it meets the prescribed convention, and suggests we can mine centuries as far back as the 17th to find bits of scientifiction trope.

It's too easy to think of SF as a most recent blip on the literary radar. To place its beginning with "Hugo Gernsback's lurid magazines in the nineteen-twenties" might serve well for nostalgia's sake, but man, specifically writing-man, has been imagining himself among the stars (or beneath Earth's surface), expanding and contracting against his mortal confines for far longer, of course.

One might say SF is the stuff of myth or legend, of science and environment, of exploration and conquer. It has solidified into a genre in the late half of the century, the "fiction of a technological age". But I like the way Mr. Aldiss sets a parameter for it. In his own words: "Science Fiction must call to account our deepest fears and aspirations."

Isn't that really the best of all literature?