Saturday, May 27, 2006

In The Days Of The Comet, H. G. Wells

Title: In The Days Of The Comet
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Lousy

In The Days Of The Comet is the last H. G. Wells I am going to read, and I am glad this exercise is over. An approximate rating (on a scale from worst to best of: Terrible, Lousy, Poor, Neutral, OK, Good, Great) of the various Wells novels I have read in this collection looks like this:

Rating Title
OK OK The Time Machine
Poor Poor The Island Of Dr. Moreau
Good Good The Invisible Man
Good Good The War Of The Worlds
Lousy Lousy The First Men In The Moon
Terrible! Terrible The Food Of The Gods
Lousy Lousy In The Days Of The Comet

As I started reading this last book I had The Food Of The Gods on my brain, and it wasn't pleasant. I expected In The Days Of The Comet to be just as bad, as Wells was spiraling down into social commentary in these later works and (I suspected) getting less and less connected to reality. As it happens, In The Days Of The Comet isn't quite as bad as I thought it would be, but it still wasn't good.

As a work of science fiction it is undeniably weak. Actually it is a love story of sorts with a socialist twist. The fact that it is science fiction is only peripheral to the story. Most of what is here is boring exposition about the life of the hero just before a comet impacts the earth. He's completely uninteresting (like the rest of Wells's heroes), his actions are unbelievable, and the story doesn't really go anywhere. I kept thinking I should put the book down and read something more interesting, but there was a comet hanging over everything (literally) and I kept wondering just how he would get it back into the story and make it do something interesting. So I stupidly kept reading; a tactical error on my part.

The other thing present in the story is the hero's view of society. He's a vociferous but uninformed socialist, and Wells goes on at great length describing how unfair society is through his character's speech. The problem is that his presentation of things is so one-sided that I cannot assess how accurate it is, nor how seriously I should take it. The information is old (having been published in 1906) and my connection to that time in history is weak at best. Maybe people at the time could assess it better than I can.

Anyway, we slog through a lot of pages of this. It goes on forever. And then - finally - the comet hits earth. Given today's knowledge of comets we'd expect all kinds of bad things to happen: earthquakes, tidal waves, nasty weather for months, and possibly a mass extinction event. Wells didn't have the benefit of our deeper understanding of comets, so perhaps he can be forgiven for thinking that a comet could hit the earth and do no real damage.

What this comet does on impact, though, is change the nitrogen in the atmosphere in some mystical way so that every human on the planet is suddenly enlightened, or something like that. I will spare you the details, and that isn't hard because Wells isn't particularly clear on them either. The comet hits, the atmosphere changes, everyone falls asleep for a minimum of three hours, and when they wake up everyone thinks much more clearly. If you're thinking "Huh?", you're asking a very good question. In fact, though, if Wells had tried to include some complex explanation for what happens to make people "better", I'd have really hated this book, as I did with The Food Of The Gods, since the science would be entirely wrong. This is more like a fantasy, and you just have to let it slide.

But you can't let it slide entirely, and when Wells goes off to start talking (at great, dry and boring length again) about how the world is so much better after the comet, he again gives us a socialist rant of epic proportions, complete with multiple statements about how the entire idea of owning something (like land) has been abandoned to everyone's betterment. But as with the science, the specifics about how society will be so much better are not spelled out with the exception of the lack of property and one or two other nits. It's a bit like that old TV commercial. I kept thinking: "Where's the beef?"

Finally there is a mystery character here that is never adequately explained. The story is being written down by the hero, but there is someone else reading what he's written. Who he is, where he comes from, and why he matters is never dealt with. It's odd, and it feels entirely out of place, though it does give Wells the chance to suggest that his hero finally "settled down" in a family arrangement of sorts with two wives, and one of those wives had another husband too. Four adults sharing their lives (and loves, we're to read between the lines) together. The horror! But perhaps in 1906 that was a really racy idea.

In the end I have to pronounce this book a failure. It's not as bad a failure as The Food Of The Gods, but it is a failure none the less. If you're thinking of reading it, I suggest you go find yourself some other, more modern and well thought out political polemic and read it instead. You might learn something, which won't happen with In The Days Of The Comet.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth, H. G. Wells

The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth
H. G. Wells

The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth is the second to last novel by H. G. Wells in the collected works that I am reading.

It is awful. In addition it is trite, bad, a waste of paper and ink, poorly thought out, poorly written, lacking in original thought, and dreary. Did I mention it was awful?

During the first portion I was amused solely because it was so bad it it came across as a caricature of what a novel about scientists - bad scientists in this case - would be like. Then it goes off into all kinds of pointless and poorly thought out social speculations.

As if I had to tell you, the "science" here is terrible too, with so many holes it could be mistaken for swiss cheese at close range. And none of his characters has the slightest bit of common sense at all. None. They are all total morons, every last one.

Don't bother with this one. Please don't waste your time on it. It was published in 1904 and it seems impossible to think it was taken seriously even then.

I am going to grit my teeth and try the last novel in this collection - In The Days Of The Comet - but I hold out little hope for it being any good.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Emergency Response Workbook, American Red Cross

Title: Emergency Response Workbook
Author: American Red Cross
Rating: Neutral

This is the companion workbook to the first aid textbook I have been reading for my first aid class. Alas it is just as full of errors and goofs as the textbook is.

In addition, however, here you are exposed to the astoundingly stupid kinds of test questions that the Red Cross expects you to answer about first aid. The questions break down into three categories as I see things:
  • Stupid questions. As a first responder, do I need to know what the most common cause of injuries to people in some age range is? No, I don't. I need to know how to help keep them alive if they are injured. I hate to say it, but I'd guess that a third or so of the questions in this book (and on the tests that I have and will be taking) are of this nature. It's fine as background material, and it might aid in comprehension and retention, but when the rubber meets the road and I hop off the fire engine on Highway 17 to pull someone out of a burning car, it is pointless. In my mind, testing me on it is pointless too.
  • Questions with no good answer. There are various reasons this happens. Sometimes the question doesn't give you enough information, and all the answers make assumptions. Sometimes they are assuming a particular kind of first responder, and various answers might be right depending on the point of view you're taking as the responder. Sometimes they just make no sense at all. This is perhaps 5% of the questions here.
  • Reasonable questions. These are actually relevant questions that test your retention of specific facts you need to know to perform first aid at the minimum level to get the certificate. They make up the rest of the content.
If it seems like I might be clutching at straws here, let me demonstrate with an example. To do so, you need to know that the first and foremost thing stressed with first responders is not to become another victim. If you have any doubt about what is going on, your job is to keep back, keep others away, and call for more advanced help. Simple, eh? And it makes a LOT of sense in cases like (say) hazardous materials spills, fires, etc. If you lack the training and the gear, staying safe and keeping others safe is a great thing to do.

OK, with that in mind, there was a question on my midterm that said something like: you've come upon an accident at a busy intersection just below a hill. There are 4 victims. 3 of them are in X, Y, and Z condition. The 4th victim was thrown from the car and is lying in the middle of a lane of oncoming traffic. What do you do about that 4th victim? Your answer choices are things like "ignore him and care for others", "move him", "park a vehicle to block traffic so he won't get hit", and so on.

Note the total lack of detail. What sort of first responder am I? A fire fighter with a truck full of equipment and help, or am I entirely on my own? How busy is it? Is the victim lying in the road visible to oncoming traffic, or is he below the rise so he's going to get hit any second now? What risk would I be in if I went into that lane of traffic to look him over? Also note that having been thrown from a car means a high likelihood of neck or back injuries, among other things, and you don't move those folks without cervical collars, head restraints, and backboards unless you absolutely have to.

Well, after you digest all of that and guess at an answer (since none of the answers are really right) you find out they think the answer is to move the victim out of traffic. Now as a fire fighter in training I know that is the right answer, but as a fire fighter I am expected to take certain risks to help others. Without more detail, I have no idea if a citizen first responder should do that or not. And it certainly seems like it might violate the "don't become another victim" teaching. But fine. Whatever.

Later in the same exam, though, I hit a different question that says something like: a car accident has occurred. A car has left the road and hit a building. The victim is inside the vehicle and appears unconscious. You can see blood. Blah blah. The building is damaged but seems stable. (My emphasis.) What do you do about this victim? And the choices - among other things - are "wait for advanced help to stabilize the building" and "treat the victim now".

Here again, I have all kinds of problems. If it seems stable, as a fire fighter, I have news for you: I am going to go treat the victim. By the time an engineer shows up and says things really are safe the victim could have died of shock or any number of other things. But the answer they wanted was wait for advanced help. Now we're back to not becoming another victim. And while I respect that point of view, I hope it is obvious that the answer for the first question and the answer for the second question are in conflict in terms of what the first responder is expected to actually do.

That's the kind of thing a good editor would have found and avoided. If it was only one or two questions like this, I'd probably just ignore it, but it is endemic to the entire book, as well as the tests that I have to take. The Red Cross really needs to get some professional educators involved in their test material creation, along with that previously mentioned editor. This stuff could all be so much better than it is.

Emergency Response, American Red Cross

Emergency Response
American Red Cross

I have spent the past three months going through this book, page by page, as part of my training to become a volunteer fire fighter. As a result of that time and effort I should wind up with a first responder certificate in a few weeks, and that will be the last straw that lets me finally ride the fire trucks here and help people in need.

With that much time spent slogging through this book, you'd think I'd have a definite opinion about it. And I do, sort of.

On one level, the book is good. The material is important and the basics of first aid should probably be learned by almost everyone in an ideal world. Thus, learning what to do in various cases to save a life is important, and this book is good because it assists that process.

On the other hand, this book sucks. It desperately needed a serious editor to remove all the internal inconsistencies and errors, and to make the overly complex presentations of simple concepts easier to understand.

Here's what I hope for: new CPR protocols were announced late in 2005, and they are a significant departure from the current CPR protocols. In addition, some of the other first aid guidelines are changing as well. As a result, the Red Cross has to redo its books to match those new protocols. If they are on the ball this is a chance to clean up all the stupidities in this book and create something much, much better.

As you may have figured out somewhere along the line, I am a cynic about human nature, though, and I predict here that their new books will be just as bad as this one. Only time will tell, and I'd love to be wrong, but I would bet money on it from what I know.

If you're interested in First Aid and participating in your community, you'll see this book (or the new version) when you take an advanced first aid class via the Red Cross or any organization teaching this stuff. In that context you'll understand how important this stuff is, and yet how bad it can be. I encourage you to take such a class if you can. It might matter one day. And when you do, try to be patient with the poor training materials.

The First Men In The Moon, H. G. Wells

Title: The First Men In The Moon
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Lousy

This book went on forever, and it wasn't fun reading. Wells continues to bang his drum about evolution and politics, here setting it all on the moon.

The book is broken into two pieces, and for all I can tell they were written at different times. It's almost as if he wrote the first part, decided it was too short, or didn't cover something he wanted to discuss, or someone paid him to write more, so he did.

If you've ever heard the term "cavorite," it comes from this book. It is a material that is impervious to all forms of radiation, including gravity. As such, it is used in the construction of a space ship to take our heroes to the moon. Once there they meet a complicated society, fail utterly to understand it, and one of them leaves the other behind. Later he picks up radio broadcasts from the one left behind documenting more about the moon's inhabitants. (That's the second part of the two part story.)

Wells cannot seem to write about people I care about or for. I am willing to put up with a lot from my hero (or anti-hero) depending on the outcome and what sort of changes they go through. Wells writes about dull people who do not change and who are vaguely nauseating from today's perspective. Cavor and Bedford both fit that bill.

Beyond that, the science is just awful here. The book was written in 1901 so I should give it a break, but I simply cannot do it. There is just no way to rescue the science presented here.

So, combine poor characters with weak science and a long winded tale in which the author tries do drive home some (still unclear to me) point about society, evolution, and conflict, and you get a lot of wasted time. Of all the Wells I have read so far, this is the least interesting. Only time will tell if it continues to hold that position in my hierarchy.

Oh, I should mention that there are elements in the moon society here that strongly resemble things from Brave New World. If Aldous Huxley knowingly cribbed from The First Men In The Moon while creating his dystopian vision of the future, then (a) I am really sorry he spent the time reading it and (b) he did a much better job than Wells did.