Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review of Reviews: Welcome to Night Vale, Binti, Doctor Who: Kinda, and More

It's been awhile since I posted a review of reviews.  They're a good way to gather a few reviews that are too short for a full post.  So, here's some stuff I've encountered recently!

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeremy Cranor

I finally got around to listening to some of this popular podcast on a recent road trip.  I loved it!  For the uninitiated, it's a quirky Lovecraftian take on A Prairie Home Companion (but in the desert with a healthy dose of The X-Files).

If you're worried about whether what works as a podcast would work as a novel, well... you probably should be.  This isn't to say I didn't enjoy it.  I did.  You could read this without having listened to the podcast, but it's really for fans of the podcast.

You also get some of the "serious" part of what I take away from the podcast: one way to bear the bewildering horror of our inconsequential lives in this ineffably vast universe is to step back and laugh at it once in awhile (as I also argued here with some help from the Doof Warrior).  The podcast does all this better, honestly, but the novel is a fun read.

Rating: 81/100.  See my Goodreads review.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I was excited to read this as a fan of space opera and of Nnedi Okorafor (especially her novel, Lagoon).  It did not disappoint!  The story follows Binti, who hails from the Himba people of Namibia and leaves home to pursue an education off planet at Oomza University.  It's a coming of age story about a young woman forming her identity in the wide universe beyond the comforts of home.  She makes friends and eventually there's an encounter with the alien Meduse.  It even makes math exciting.  No joke.

My only complaint is that it was over so quickly and didn't give enough space to delve into the major themes of diversity, otherness, identity, and the importance of communication.  This is definitely my current favorite for a Hugo in the Best Novella category.

Rating: 91/100.  See my Goodreads review.

Doctor Who: "Kinda" (1982)

It's all part of the charm...
You whipper snappers out there may not realize this, but Doctor Who did not begin with Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith, David Tennant, or even Christopher Eccleston.  While Tom Baker will forever be my favorite Doctor, this Peter Davison-era serial recently become one of my favorites when I watched it on DVD (I probably watched it on PBS as a kid, too).

This isn't to say that it's perfect.  There are a bunch of very white "natives" (...ugh...).  The giant snake at the end is pretty bad even for the papier-mâché charm of classic Doctor Who monsters.

The story itself relies a lot on Buddhist philosophy.  The writer, Christopher Bailey, said that the idea is that evil is a product of unhealthy mental states.  There's also the planet called Deva Loka ("god realm") and characters named Panna (Pali for "wisdom") and Dukkha ("suffering" or, more accurately, "dissatisfactoriness").  The somewhat psychedelic dream sequences are called jhāna ("absorption"), which is a type of Buddhist meditation that I wrote about a long time ago.

In addition to the Buddhist themes, there's a pretty obvious treatment of colonialism, with very British Raj-looking soldiers, complete with pith helmets and overbearing officers, intending to colonize a jungle planet filled with "savage" natives.  On that note, the Wikipedia entry for this serial mentions scholars who have drawn a parallel with Ursula LeGuin's The Word For World is Forest (see my review here).

Triplanetary by E.E. "Doc" Smith

I read this mostly due to its historical interest as a classic and influential space opera series from the golden age of science fiction (1930's and 40's).  I also thought it might be fun.  It's definitely historically interesting.  You'll see hints of Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, and more.  As for the fun, that takes awhile.  This may not be the best place to start the series, as it was written after the "later" books and is a collection of disjointed sections.

The Arisians and Eddoreans are both ancient races who have largely transcended physical bodies.  They play a long game of inter-galactic influence.  It's heady stuff to contemplate the intelligences and scales of time and space involved, which is, after all, what I love about space opera (an influence on recent writers like Iain M. Banks and Stephen Baxter is apparent here).

There's an undercurrent of concern with colonialism.  The Eddoreans and Arisians are using humanity as a pawn in their game. Does this narrative parallel reflect an anxiety of European and American science fiction audiences about international relations?  Does this give us an interesting way to reflect on the legacy of colonialism and the Cold War today?  Am I overthinking what's supposed to be a fun pulp space opera?

Rating: 76/100.  See my Goodreads review.

And now for a couple philosophy books...

The Character of Logic in India by B. K. Matilal

Probably the best introduction to logic in classical India I've come across, Matilal's book combines historical and philosophical insights with plenty of comparisons with Western logic, both historical and modern.  This book would be of interest for anyone interested in the history of Indian philosophy and/or logical theory more generally.  Before his untimely death in 1991, Matilal was a giant in the field of the modern study of Indian philosophy.  If you don't understand what I mean, simply read this book to find out.

Rating: 95/100.  See my Goodreads review.

Advaita Epistemology and Metaphysics: An Outline of Indian Non-Realism  by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad

This is a detailed study of three major figures in the Advaita Vedānta tradition of classical Indian philosophy: Śaṅkara, Vācaspati, and Śrī Harṣa.  A bit more than half the book focuses on Śrī Harṣa. Ram-Prasad interprets the Advaita tradition as a form of non-realism.  According to Advaita non-realism, idealist analyses of perception are wrong because the externality of the objects of cognition is part of our cognition of the world.  On the other hand, direct realists are also wrong, because attending carefully to the structure of our cognition reveals that the existence of objects external to cognition is a necessary assumption, but it is not, as the realists believe, a strictly-speaking knowable truth.

I read this as part of my research for a project intended to show that Śrī Harṣa is, along with Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi, a kind of skeptic about philosophy itself.  While Ram-Prasad's treatment of skeptical issues differs from my own, I find his articulation of non-realism to be extremely intriguing both for my own purposes and as interesting philosophy in its own right.

Rating: 88/100.  See my Goodreads review.

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