Monday, October 23, 2017
Stephen Baxter is one of my favorite practitioners of so-called "hard science fiction" (a sub-genre generally longer on scientific speculation and Big Ideas than things like characterization and plot). Hard SF is not everyone's cup of tea, but Baxter brews some of the best hard SF tea there is. With Ultima, I particularly enjoyed thinking about the contingency of history in addition to Baxter's usual Arthur C. Clarke-style cosmic scale business.
Friday, October 20, 2017
Last weekend the hashtag #metoo was shared by millions of people on social media. This hashtag was mostly – but not exclusively – posted by women, often accompanied by stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault. You can read more about the origin of the idea here.
I have yet to comment on #metoo. I don’t think at the speed of the internet, and besides, the last thing I want to do is make this about me.
I do want to say this: to everyone who posted #metoo and to those who could not, I believe you. Of course, there’s a hashtag for that, too - #ibelieveyou. But I want to dig a bit beneath the hashtag, something that can be helped by a stubborn tendency to think more slowly than the internet.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
After 35 years the iconic science fiction classic Blade Runner has a sequel in Blade Runner 2049. Should you see it? Is it any good? What's it about (without spoilers)? Check out my non-spoilery thoughts for answers!
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
|The two-volume version of The Book of the New Sun|
The Book of the New Sun was originally released as a series of four novels: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982), and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). There is some truth to the idea that this is a series, but, as with all appearances within the novels, there's a greater truth: it's really one long novel in four parts.
I almost never read a series straight through. I like to put down a series to let it percolate in my mind as I read other things for awhile. This was an exception. Maybe it's because I read it in a more recent two-volume edition from Macmillan with the titles Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel, maybe it was because I couldn't stop playing this game, hoping (whether vainly or not) for some degree of winnings in the currency of understanding.
The Book of the New Sun is somewhat fractal: you can zoom in on the details or zoom out for the bigger pictures, each of which forms a pattern (whether you can see the whole pattern, of course, is a different matter). To capture this aspect of the work, I'm setting out the reviews I wrote as I finished each volume with an appendix at the end.
The Shadow of the Torturer
Reading The Shadow of the Torturer is like taking an acid trip through a thesaurus. I'm not sure I understood or even liked everything, but I'm pretty sure this is genius.
Our hero Severian seems to be a Gary Stu who becomes romantically entangled with every woman he meets (after describing their breasts, of course). Partly because of this, he seems like a standard teenage boy embarking on an epic fantasy quest in a vaguely Tolkienesque fantasy setting ...
... or so it would seem if Wolfe wasn't engaged in an elaborate, layered game with the reader that makes me question anything I think I know about this book.
There is a more-or-less coherent plot that starts out with Severian in a guild of torturers. He falls in love with one of the women to be tortured and breaks the rules of his guild. Rather than sentencing him to torture or death, the guild assigns him to a post in a remote village. So he embarks on an epic voyage to this village, er, well, not exactly. Instead, things start to get weird. I don't want to give spoilers, but then again, I'm not sure I could if I wanted to. Things quickly get kaleidoscopic and seemingly random (but not really, of course -- the underlying order is just not immediately obvious, and I feel like I wouldn't completely understand it until a third or fourth reading, if even then).
On top of all this is Wolfe's challenging, but deeply beautiful prose. I thought there was a lot of invented vocabulary, but apparently Wolfe has merely memorized a thesaurus along with the deepest cuts of the Oxford English Dictionary. He would blow the vocabulary section of any standardized test out of the water. This can be overwhelming, but there's a deeper reason for this lexical excess explained in the appendix. (The appendix made the book twice as cool for me, but don't read it until the end.)
I normally wait awhile to continue a series, moving on to other items on my to-read list before coming back, but I'm intrigued enough to make an exception for this series. I can't claim to completely understand whatever games Wolfe is playing, but I nonetheless find myself wanting to continue playing them.
(See also my Goodreads review)
The Claw of the Conciliator
The second in the series continues to be as challenging, baffling, and beautiful as the first -- and even more mind-bogglingly complex. I'm still not entirely sure what Wolfe is doing or how he's doing it, but I've been pulled into the vortex with no hope of escape but to dive head first into the rest of the series. Part of me thinks I have to wait until I've finished the whole series to give The Claw of the Conciliator anything like a complete review, but here are some thoughts so far.
We meet our hero(?) Severian not long after the end of the previous volume. The narrative moves, but not in anything that feels like a straight line. It's more in fits and starts, curves and gaps, and seemingly extraneous details followed by glossing over what seems like some of the important stuff. I suppose it's closer to how memory actually works, which is funny, of course, because Severian tells us several times how great his memory is. We also come to wonder just how reliable a narrator he is.
So what happens? I can capture the surface level randomness of the story best in a list of a few highlights, which I guess contain spoilers, but I doubt this list would actually ruin the book for anyone:
[Minor spoiler alert]
Severian meets a man with green skin who claims to be from the future, he meets up with his old pal Jonas (who turns out to be a robot from a space ship that landed a long time ago), he glimpses Agia, gets a note that purports to be from Thecla (the woman he feel in love with in the first part of the previous book), fights a bunch of ape-men in a cave who are weirdly afraid of the jewel he obtained in the last book (the eponymous Claw of the Conciliator), he meets the rebel Vodalus from the previous book who invites him to a feast where get Thecla's memories by ingesting her flesh after ingesting an alien drug, Severian is imprisoned in a prison that serves cake and coffee and allows people to leave even though they've been there for generations, Severian meets his old acting troupe with whom he puts on a play that contains important back story/world building, he leaves with Dorcas and Jolenta (both of whom he has sex with, of course), Jolenta gets sick (and dies but after some mystery), Severian seems to remember he was supposed to going to Thrax, there's some kind of giant sea person, they meet a strange group who give them a vision of a strange town's past(?), and there are some hints that some people see all points in time -- past, present, future -- equally and that time is what (real world present day) philosophers would call eternalism or block time (past, present, and future equally exist), all of which means that Severian may be subject to such all-time-seeing forces on his Messianic path, and the appendix hints that part of why the time line of the narration is so wonky is because Severian has been dealing with people who see time in this way.
Whoa. I'm excited to see where this crazy ride takes me next.
(See my Goodreads review.)
The Sword of the Lictor
The appearance-reality distinction continues. Of course, the series (really one novel in four parts) is science fiction that looks like fantasy. None of the characters are who they first seem to be, and nothing is really as it seems. More fundamentally, the reader constantly feels that the realities underneath the surface of the story are unfathomable -- one might scratch a bit deeper in a second or third reading, but Wolfe demonstrates that there is always more than meets the eye. The abyssal depths of reality can never be fully ensnared by our cognitive nets.
That said, I can't tell if I'm just getting used to Wolfe's style, but this third installment feels slightly more comprehensible -- at least at the surface level -- than the previous volumes. This isn't to say I understood everything. This is still no easy read. As enriching as the journey is, some of the steps along it are hard to take. As with the previous installments, the middle part is the hardest. You have to have a bit of faith that Wolfe is taking you somewhere interesting. It helps to ride the waves of his prose: when the content threatens to sink you, let the form keep you afloat.
Severian finally gets to Thrax, which was his quest way back in the first part. He has a steady job and a steady girlfriend, both of which cause the sorts of growing pains for him that careers and relationships cause most people these days (a strangely relatable part of this unnervingly strange tale?). Of course, our hero(?) rarely stays in one place or with one woman long and finds himself having an affair and then on the road again, where of course many more strange things happen. A somewhat spoiler-y list of highlights:
[Minor spoiler alert]
He fights a bizarre alien creature that devours memories as well as flesh. He fights humans who have deliberately become part animal. He meets a family with a boy named, well, Severian. His old nemesis/lover Agia shows up again. The family is killed and Severian ends up sort of adopting the lad Severian, who later dies (insert your favored quasi-Freudian diagnosis here). He meets a two-headed man who claims to be a long-lived monarch. He takes up with a group of islanders to fight their oppressors, who turn out to be, well, people he's met before, of course. A somewhat epic battle ensues, along with some deep thoughts on politics, poetry, and philosophy ... and of course more mysterious people (aliens this time) tell Severian that he is destined for almost unthinkable greatness, or is already there depending on how you look at time. At the end, Severian describes three states: normality, a higher state of mystical insight, and a state of obedience to some unknown.
[End of spoilers]
Wolfe's story moves between normality (there is a relatively coherent story here), higher insight (all the mind expanding stuff about time, aliens, humanity, reality, appearance, etc.), and obedience to an unknown (wherever this story is taking me, I'm compelled to go along for reasons I don't entirely understand). Just as the endings of the three volumes so far have generally been my favorite parts of their respective volumes, I'm hoping the end of the whole series will be my favorite overall.
(See my Goodreads review.)
The Citadel of the Autarch
I'm not entirely sure I'm any closer to understanding The Book of the New Sun after finishing it, but, on the other hand, maybe I am. Perhaps Wolfe's genius is leaving his readers unsure of what they know.
The more purely literary merits (of which there are plenty!) are better discussed by others (for instance, see here). I will say that Wolfe's prose can be beautiful even as it's veering into incomprehensibility. And the intricacies of the plot(s) and settings are breathtaking and not immediately obvious. I will admit I didn't always enjoy reading The Book of the New Sun in the usual sense of "enjoy." There's a lot of "WTF?" and head-scratching and "Wait, what the hell is going on?" But as an overall aesthetic experience this is an enjoyable read: something this baffling, challenging, and just plain weird is enjoyable for the fun of playing the games Wolfe sets up even if you don't win those games (and you aren't going to win those games. Wolfe is simply too good.)
For previous volumes, I gave a bit of a summary of plot points. For this last volume, it's maybe easier just to set it up, partly because I don't entirely understand what all happened in this book. The Citadel of the Autarch picks up right where the previous volume left off. Severian meets a dead soldier, whom he revives with the claw, and ends up involved with a war with the Ascians, people who speak in strange parables. He becomes, as we were told in the first volume, the Autarch, but not in the ways you might expect. Seriously, it's weird. And cool. Check it out.
I thought there might be slightly more resolution and explanation in this book, at least in the last appendix. How naïve I was! It's not that we're not given anything at all. We get some really good hints. In particular, I was aware that time travel was part of the background for the story ever since the second book, but we learn in the last book that it's far more integral to understanding the whole structure and plot of the series. It will be the number one thing on my radar if/when I do the re-read that seems necessary to make sense of the series, as Severian himself tells us at the end.
As Peter Wright writes in this review: "The Book of the New Sun reminds us of our potential and our vulnerability as readers and, in so doing, it reminds us of our potential and vulnerability as individuals."
Let me take this in an epistemological direction (epistemology being the part of philosophy that looks at knowledge: what it is, whether have as much of it as we think, etc.). Part of what is enthralling and, to be honest, a bit unsettling about encountering The Book of the New Sun is that as a reader I never entirely knew what was going on, and even more deeply, I could never be sure I knew what I knew. Because I am encountering a radically estranged world though the perspective of a radically estranged narrator (using "estrangement" in the sense of Darko Suvin), because Severian is a deliberately unreliable narrator (his constant iterations that he has a perfect memory are a red herring - I think), and because of Wolfe's literary game playing, as soon as I think I know what's going on something else makes me unsure. And then I come to another conclusion and the cycle continues. I finished reading the book two days ago and I feel like I'm still piecing it together, but only in a piece meal fashion and in a process that will continue.
That this process is so rich and seemingly interminable is what makes The Book of the New Sun a great work of literature. The deepest philosophical point can be found in our awe and intellectual humility as we touch the limits of human understanding, attempting to fathom an unfathomably vast and secretive universe -- whether that universe is Wolfe's or our own.
(See my Goodreads review).
Appendix: On the Knowledge of Ignorance and the Ignorance of Knowledge
In his rich and insightful review of The Claw of the Conciliator, Jonathan McCalmont draws a comparison to what some people have called the paradox of inquiry from Plato's Meno (a version of this is discussed by Indian philosophers as well). The paradox is this: If you don't know the answer, you won't recognize it when you find it, and if you already know it, then you don't need to seek the answer. So in either case it seems that inquiry is impossible.
Reading The Book of the New Sun is like seeking an answer to a question. When the story started, I didn't know what I was looking for. And I was never sure I found the answers. To be clear, we get some hints and some context as we go. I feel like I have some of the major pieces of the puzzle in place, but I don't have the picture on the box to compare it to.
McCalmont's review takes this in a somewhat different direction (with some help from Wittgenstein's private language argument), but I do agree that of course we don't start from complete ignorance. I had some ideas from reading reviews and hearing people talk about it. Still, I don't take this in the epistemically optimistic direction that, at least in some interpretations, is taken by Plato and Wittgenstein.
Speaking of Wittgenstein and the private language business, as a speaker of English (like all real languages, a very public one) I knew most of the words. Still, Wolfe uses an awful lot of words I didn't know. I only occasionally looked them up, partly because I didn't feel like stopping the flow of reading and partly because I figured that not knowing which words are real, but archaic English and which were Wolfe's creation was in fact part of the aesthetic experience of the work. I was aware of my ignorance, and I took this to be integral to the estranging effect of Wolfe's prose.
Zooming out on the fractal, I can say that much the same pattern fits with the overall plot(s) and structure. One of the most challenging and dazzling feats of Wolfe's work is that he is always working on multiple levels simultaneously. See, for instance, the three levels I mentioned above with regard to The Sword of the Lictor: normality, higher insight, and obedience to the unknown. This is a straightforward fantasy narrative, a weird far-future science fictional story, and a baroque, mystical literary experiment all at the same time. It can be read as any one of these or all three.
The epistemological effect is simultaneously estrangement and disorientation, but also -- in those rare moments of clarity of knowledge and/or obedience to unclarity -- a deeply satisfying experience. Sometimes you know what's going on, usually you don't. And if you take a wide enough and self-cognizant enough zoom backwards you can never be entirely sure which of these situations you're in.
So in this mode Wolfe's work is philosophically not so much akin to Plato or Wittgenstein, but perhaps to ancient skeptics like Zhuangzi, Nāgārjuna, and Sextus Empiricus for whom the question of whether we really know what we know may be difficult, even impossible to answer. Whereas most of us find this type of ignorance deeply troubling, the ancient skeptics teach us how to live with our ignorance in a universe where we may not even know what answers we're looking for. And if Wolfe can help us do the same, all while playing an elaborate, infuriating, enthralling literary game, then this series might indeed be worth several re-reads as Severian recommends.
Sunday, October 1, 2017
|One of Tolkien's subtler bits...|
The problem with our civilization is the death of subtlety. Or – scratch that. One of many problems with a lot of the culture of the United States in 2017 is that there is less subtlety than there maybe should be.
I continue to have – albeit with somewhat diminished enthusiasm as of late – hope that subtle questioning is on the whole a better method than bludgeoning people with the truth.
Saturday, September 23, 2017
Birthdays are a time to stop and contemplate one’s life, to celebrate another revolution around the sun. And of course to eat some cake.
Last year marked my 40th birthday. I wondered, “Which midlife crisis is right for me?” My next birthday is nearly upon me, so it’s natural to reflect on how that midlife crisis has been going.
Saturday, September 16, 2017
Many of the most beloved science fiction series of the 20th century are set thousands or even millions of years in the future: Frank Herbert's Dune series, Ursula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle (which includes The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, and so on.
By comparison, relatively few science fiction stories written in the last 20 years take place more than a couple hundred years in the future and most take place in the 21st century.
Where did all the far-future science fiction go?
This is a question I've thought about a lot lately. I recently re-read the last book in the Dune series and am working my way through the delightfully/impossibly difficult Book of the New Sun, which my Goodreads review describes as "like taking an acid trip through a thesaurus."
Sunday, September 10, 2017
|IT is not just a scary clown, but that clown is scary.|
Having read the book two years ago (see my review), having vaguely creepy memories of the 1990 TV miniseries, and having read some positive early reviews, I was excited to see the new film adaptation of Stephen King's IT.
Is IT a good adaptation? Is IT a good movie? The answer to both questions is, "Yes, but IT is not perfect."
The book as everyone notes is long, really long -- a door stopping 1,100 pages. There is simply no way to faithfully adapt the details into a single film (or even a miniseries). The biggest decision made in the new film is to only cover the childhood parts of the book. The second biggest is to set those scenes in the 1980's rather than the 1950's.
In the book the childhood and adulthood sections are interspersed, which creates (and muddies) a sense of connection between the characters and children and as adults. Focusing on the childhood parts is an eminently practical choice for a film adaptation given time constraints, but it does completely remove one of the deepest themes of the book: namely, that we are to some extent the same people as adults as we were as children, but on the other hand we aren't. Adults don't really remember who they were as children. Adults' childhood nostalgia is necessarily false. We are always projecting forward and backward in time, and our identities are, as Buddhists will tell you, more fragile than we like to think.
The new film does manage to keep some of the related themes about death and loss (although they have a different hue given the absence of the child-adult theme). Bill's (Jaeden Lieberher) grief and coming to terms with the loss of his young brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is particularly poignant. I got a bit misty eyed a few times, but I have no way of knowing if this is because it triggered memories of the book or if the film itself was able to touch an emotional nerve. Perhaps viewers who haven't read the book can say.
As long as we're talking plot choices, I should say that a certain bizarre and controversial scene from the book is not present in the new film. I wasn't offended by that scene so much as utterly confused. I think King was drinking and doing a lot of drugs at the time. The scene is sort of replaced in the film with something much tamer that almost makes sense (it's still a little lame, though, for how it uses Beverly's character).
IT contains some of King's most beloved and feared characters. How does the film do? The new incarnation of Pennywise the Dancing Clown is as terrifying as you'd hope. I don't think I've seen the miniseries since it aired 27 years ago, but I do remember Tim Curry's Pennywise. So creepy! So malevolent! Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård had a tough job filling the giant red shoes of Tim Curry and an even harder job giving form to the nightmares of King's readers. He succeeded. His Pennywise captures the malevolence and otherworldliness of IT, which simultaneously pays homage to Tim Curry while doing his own new thing. Some critics have complained that Pennywise has far too much screen time so that his scare factor has diminishing returns. I agree to some extent, but when the scare factor starts as high as this, it still works okay the 12th time.
As for the beloved Losers Club, the kids are great. Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things fame) as Richie is good, although he's not nearly as wacky as the character is in the book. He only does his weird voices once or twice and you barely notice. Maybe they thought it was too corny for 2017 audiences, but I missed it (to be clear, I blame the filmmakers for this problem -- I can't criticize Wolfhard himself given my love of Stranger Things). Sophia Lillis does a great job as Beverly, and they manage to make her more than just "the girl" of the group as she does her best Molly Ringwald impression (remember, this is the late 80's). She and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) trade jokes about The New Kids on the Block, which for people about my age who were kids in the late 80's is pure hilarity.
My major complaint, however, is that Mike (Chosen Jacobs) seems to barely be in the movie or have any lines. In the book he was one of my favorites, and I remember him being more a part of the group even though he shows up last. And they seem to completely cut out his research into Derry's past. They only show Ben doing this research in the movie, although I'm pretty sure they both did in the book. Of course, part of this is that the book is just much longer and richer than a film could possibly be. Also, Mike's key role as an adult may be influencing my opinion. Still, especially since he's the only African American main character, it'd be nice to see a Hollywood film do more with him. So that was a disappointment, but maybe he'll shine more in the sequel.
As a fan of the book it's impossible for me to completely separate whether IT works as a movie from whether IT is a good adaptation, but I'll try. I do think this movie will do well (as the early box office returns indicate) because it manages to combine what fans of the book and miniseries love about the story with all the trappings of a hip, contemporary horror film.
My wife (who rarely sees horror movies with me, but remembered the miniseries enough to want to see this) commented that it's like a scary Goonies. The kids-solve-a-problem-on-their-own-because-the-adults-in-their-lives-are-garbage has a totally 80's vibe to it. The book was published in 1986, and it's fun that one of the kids from Stranger Things is starring in a Stephen King adaptation, since Stephen King was a major influence on Stranger Things. And of course a King story also inspired Stand By Me, a classic in the kids-go-it-alone genre. The death of "free range" parenting in America may have killed that genre for any film set after 2000, which makes me sad as a consumer of entertainment and as a human being. I guess nostalgia will have to do.
But IT wouldn't be so popular if only nostalgic oldsters like me were into it. The filmmakers manage to merge the 80's style kids story with the look and feel of a contemporary horror movie, which is perhaps the doing of director Andy Muschietti. There are jump scares and CGI aplenty. The scary parts tend to be in dark, dank hovels that could be leftover sets from a Saw movie. Waiting for Pennywise to show up is as creepy as anything any of those dime-a-dozen 2010's ghost movies could conjure. I predict that Pennywise himself will inspire legions of teenagers and 20-somethings this Halloween. Get ready for your pumpkin spice latté to be delivered by "Sexy Pennywise."
At the end of the film there is a strong hint that a sequel is coming, which is apparently actually in the works at New Line. I'll be glad to see it, not just because the story requires it and it will take place around 2016, but because I think it might be able to make up for the faults of this one while doing more of the good stuff. I also hope they will be able to explain why this story is science fictional and not supernatural horror, a subject about which I have some mixed feelings given King's attempts as science fiction. Nonetheless, I hope to see this part of the story adapted into film.
If I can be permitted a flight of metaphor, it occurs to me that the issue of adaptations of the book-miniseries-movie variety is merely one level of adaptation. To go a bit deeper, this is a story about adapting to new life stages as well as horrors as old as humanity. My favorite thing about the new film is that is managed to adapt the deepest theme of the book, although you have to dig a bit more into the film to find it: the true horror is not some malevolent clown, but the horrors within ourselves and others -- hatred, bigotry, and the sheer cruelty of our inhumanity to one another. You can find a similar theme in many of King's other works, like Carrie or The Shining.
We can adapt to these horrific aspects of our natures by letting go and allowing them to dissolve the better parts of our characters, or we can fight against them to the best of our ability, forcing them to adapt to our decency, knowing all along that the horror may be too much and we may be devoured by it (or IT) in the end. The enduring popularity of IT is explained, I think, by its message about one of our deepest struggles as human beings: if we have any hope at all of fighting the horrors writhing within the human heart, it is only if we losers stick together.
Saturday, September 2, 2017
I’m not going to tell people to stop talking about “political correctness”, because that would instantly cause some internet denizens to label me a member of the SJW thought Gestapo for daring to express an opinion about what people should do that can’t be reduced to “suck it up, snowflake!”
Instead, I encourage us all to engage in something essential to both philosophy and science fiction: a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which everyone woke up tomorrow and stopped talking about “political correctness.” If you find that too far fetched, imagine you are a human, alien, or robotic historian in the year 2117 trying to understand the Culture Wars of the late 20th and early 21st century.
Friday, August 25, 2017
This is my third time through the original Dune series. I always enjoy a visit to the Dune universe, but it's not because I'd actually want to live in that universe. It's all too intense for me. I love the books but I have to admit they're pretty bleak with all those "plans within plans within plans" in service of the raw pursuit of power. Dramatized with internal asides in italics!
For all their machinations and glorious battle, nobody in the Dune books really seems to be enjoying themselves in anything approaching a healthy way. At least until Chapterhouse: Dune, the sixth volume in the series and the last Frank Herbert wrote before his death in 1986.
Friday, August 18, 2017
Summer Movie Round Up, Part 2: Wonder Woman, War for the Planet of the Apes, Valerian, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Dark Tower
I need a little break from thinking about all the terrorism, natural disasters, and general upheaval in the world in the last week, so I figured it was finally time to write my follow up to my Summer Movie Round Up, Part 1. I think I saw most of the big budget Hollywood science fiction and fantasy movies that came out since May (I deliberately skipped the new Transformers, but I'll bet my review would be, "Lots of explosions. Kinda dumb.")
So does the 2017 movie season redeem Hollywood from the mostly terrible 2016 summer movie season? Let's find out!
I'm not the biggest fan of the super hero genre or its domination of the SF/F movie domain in recent years. But even a super hero curmudgeon like me could see that Wonder Woman was going to be special, seeing as Hollywood has managed to reboot Spider-Man three times in the last 15 years but had yet to make a big budget movie about the most iconic woman super hero. And they even had a woman at the helm with director Patty Jenkins. The best part for me: seeing this will annoy MRAs and other loathsome types.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Receptionist: Doctor, there's an invisible man in the waiting room.
Doctor: Tell him I can't see him.
H. G. Wells and Ralph Ellison each wrote a novel about an invisible man. The titles are actually slightly different. Wells's is The Invisible Man while Ellison drops the "the." Aside from sometimes being confused with one another (as in the meme above), the books are typically thought to have nothing in common. It's not even clear if Ellison, writing 50 years after Wells, was familiar with Wells's novel, although his protagonist does allude to one or more of the films based on Wells's work.
I think for all their vast differences these two books have some surprising connections, especially when it comes to the complex relationships between the individual and society.
I'm starting with Ellison because I happened to read his book first, although for me the connections reach both ways.
Monday, August 7, 2017
Roland Takes Manhattan: The Dark Tower (Bonus Reviews of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three)
A film like The Dark Tower presents a lot of challenges. It's based on a series of eight novels, a series that has some of Stephen King's most fervent fans. The universe is complex and weird enough that translating it to film is going to be tricky even over a few films. Making a single film digestible for people who haven't read any of the books is nearly impossible. And even worse: neither of the first two books would work as a stand-alone movie, because they're mostly set up and world building (see my bonus reviews of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three below).
I liked The Dark Tower. Is it a great movie? Not exactly, but I think it did a good job considering the challenges any Dark Tower movie would face. I definitely don't think it deserves the mostly bad reviews it's been getting (although here's a fairer one from Allie Hanley).
Sunday, August 6, 2017
|Peanut Buster Parfait|
My mom died 17 years ago today. I usually commemorate this with what my mom liked to call "a recommended daily dose of Dairy Queen." This year is no different: I had a Peanut Buster Parfait (that didn't look quite as good as the one in the picture above, but was pretty tasty). Last year I wrote about reading one of my mom's favorite books, The Clan of the Cave Bear. In 2015 I explained my Dairy Queen ritual of commemoration, and I encouraged others to remember their loved ones.
This year as I partook of my frosty maternal communion, I thought about how everyone deals with grief and how this should be a route to compassion for each others. We're all in pain, and we're all in this together. So we should give everyone a break.
Wednesday, August 2, 2017
|Exhibit A: Scenic beauty!|
I recently spent a few days with my wife in Panama City Beach, Florida. As a nerd by both profession and personal inclination, I've never been big on the beach life, requiring as it does physical activity in copious amounts of direct sunlight. Still, there's a lot to love about the beach even for nerds. So here are things I like and don't like about the beach!
Thursday, July 27, 2017
Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds has been on my to-read list for years. I've liked some of Reynolds's stuff, like last year's Hugo finalist Slow Bullets (although I honestly didn't love his much beloved Revelation Space). What struck me about Blue Remembered Earth was was that it's SF set in about 150 years in a world where African countries are basically running things with a little help from India and China - I'm intrigued! I'm glad I finally got to it, although it's not quite what I expected.
Reynolds starts slow and takes a long time to get going, but somehow this slowness didn't make me feel bogged down. It took me awhile to get through this, but that's because I had to put it down for awhile to get through a couple library books and my Hugo packet. This novel definitely could have been shorter, but I didn't mind the leisurely ride.
The plot begins with Geoffrey Akinya, a biologist in Tanzania who just wants to be left alone to study his beloved elephants. But Geoffrey happens to be a member of a rich and powerful family. When the matriarch of the family dies (Eunice, Geoffrey's grandmother), his cousins send him to the moon to pick up his grandmother's safety deposit box. Also, while he's there, he visits his sister, Sunday, who is an artist on the moon. This trip leads Geoffrey and Sunday on a bit of wild goose chase across the solar system that I don't want to spoil.
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
The thing I've always loved about the Planet of the Apes movies (as well as Pierre Boulle's novel) is how deeply subversive it all is. Stories about "a planet where apes evolved from men" turn so many of our self-assured certainties on their heads when it comes to evolution, "progress," intelligence, race, and the place of humans in relation to our fellow animals and the universe. If you didn't read "a planet where apes evolved from men" in Charleton Heston's voice, I must insist that you go back and do so immediately (see the clip at the end if you need help).
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Hugo ballots are due TODAY (Sat. July 15, 2017). See my previous post for part one of my ballot as well as my three principles of Hugo voting. That post includes my votes for the main written fiction categories: novel, novella, novelette, and short story. Here's what I think about the other categories!
Friday, July 14, 2017
Hugo ballots are due TOMORROW (Sat. July 15, 2017). If you'd like to vote, you can do so from the Worldcon 75 website. I had a great time at last year's Worldcon in Kansas City, but unfortunately I won't be attending Worldcon in Helsinki this year. If you can't make it to Helsinki, either, you can still purchase a supporting membership for 35 euros, which entitles you to vote. But do it soon!
There were a lot of great finalists this year. You can see them all on the official Hugo Award site. Way to go, science fiction and fantasy creators and fans! There were so many good finalists, I thought of some handy principles to help. Here are my three principles of Hugo voting (riffing a bit on Asimov's three laws of robotics just for fun).
Three Principles of Hugo Voting
- Works that are more ground breaking in the field in their construction, plot, characters, setting, ideas, etc. are to be preferred as are works that are neither sequels nor works by authors who have won Hugos in recent years.
- Works that delve more deeply into philosophical content are to be preferred.
- Works that are just plain fun and enjoyable are to be preferred as long as such preference does not conflict with the first or second principles.
Much like Asimov's three laws, I'm not sure it's possible to coherently follow these principles, but I did the best I could. So without further ado...
My 2017 Hugo Ballot, Part One
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Last weekend I attended CONvergence in Bloomington, MN, which is, according to the website, "an annual convention for fans of Science Fiction and Fantasy in all media: a 4-day event with more than 6,000 members, and the premiere event of our kind in the upper mid-west."
CONvergence is also special for me personally as it was one of the first cons I ever attended back in 2001. I attended every year up through 2005, and I've been meaning to go back ever since. So this year's CONvergence was 12 years in the making for me! (What happened? Short answer: I moved away from the Twin Cities in August 2005 and never quite managed to get back to visit during CONvergence ... until this year!).
Monday, June 26, 2017
|A relatively small dose of weirdness from Twin Peaks: The Return|
When I was in junior high in the early 1990's, my friend Adam kept telling me about this weird show called Twin Peaks. It didn't sound like the sort of show typical 14-year-olds would be into. I couldn't really tell what it was about, honestly, beyond some sort of murder mystery and an FBI agent who really liked pie. I probably watched a couple episodes, said, "Cool," and moved on.
Several years later when we were (technically) adults, Adam had a weekend Twin Peaks marathon on VHS (this was way before Netflix made marathon viewing a normal thing). I've been a big fan ever since. I've watched the original series a few times, most recently to prepare for the new season/return on Showtime. Incidentally, Adam and I are still good friends, and it may be no coincidence that he became a horror and fantasy author -- check out his stuff as well as what he has to say about Twin Peaks.
The original Twin Peaks was many things: a murder mystery, an evening soap opera, an investigation into the seedier side of small town America. But as compelling as all that was, for me the greatest achievement of Twin Peaks was its unrepentant weirdness that constantly leaves me wondering, "How in the hell did this get on TV?" (Okay, the commercial success of movies like David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) probably had something to do with it, but that really only deepens the mystery if you actually watch his movies.)
(Warning: Very minor spoilers ahead. I'm mentioning things in general terms, not discussing major plot points).
Friday, June 23, 2017
The problem with our contemporary culture isn’t that people can often be callous and irrational. That’s our lot as imperfect creatures. The problem is that we seem to have given up the idea that we can do any better.
In fact, being callous toward others seems to be increasingly worn as a badge of honor. It can be a form of powerful moral grandstanding to be callous toward a particular group of others. Even our entertainment often celebrates individuals who obtain what they want through callousness to everyone else.
Many white Americans have a cultivated callousness toward black Americans, demonstrated most recently after the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castile. Although this case also has to do with structural legal issues that make it almost impossible to convict police officers, I see no sense in denying that responses would be different had Castile been white, especially from white Americans who say things like, "He didn't comply!" (with the implication that he thereby deserved to die) or the NRA's near silence in a case that ought to be a rallying cry for Second Amendment defenders.
Saturday, June 17, 2017
I picked up All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders after it won the Nebula Award for best novel and to do my diligence as a Hugo voter as it's a Hugo finalist. I found it mostly entertaining with some interesting ideas and funny bits, but I don't understand the hype. Maybe Anders is close friends with a lot of SFWA members (Science Fiction Writers of America - the group that votes on the Nebulas)? Maybe her rightly praised work on the i09 website is doing some of the heavy lifting in the background? Maybe I just don't get it?
I'll say more on the humor and the ideas in a bit, but first a bit on what didn't work for me.
Thursday, June 8, 2017
Nostalgia for a Future that Never Was: The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
I enjoyed The Medusa Chronicles, a novel-length sequel to Arthur C. Clarke's novella "A Meeting with Medusa." It really does feel a lot like reading Arthur C. Clarke but with a few modernizations, including the presence of a few actual women (granted, most of them don't have particularly major parts, but there is at least one prominent alien gendered as female and she's not even sexy to human males, so that's something).
Clarke is one of my all time favorites, and my favorite of the so-called Big Three ahead of Asimov and Heinlein. Reading Clarke as a teenager, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, is what got me fully hooked on science fiction literature (as opposed to science fiction movies and TV, which I had been enjoying as long as I can remember). In fact, Clarke's mind-expanding Big Ideas also probably helped set me on the path to becoming a philosopher. Thinking about human origins and destinies, the vastness of time and space, and the fathomless mysteries of the universe is what continues to draw me to both science fiction and philosophy. (It also motivates this blog!).
Since Clarke took his own journey through the Star Gate in 2008, he's not producing anything new (at least that we know of - maybe he's working as a Star Child somewhere).
So what's a Clarke fan filled with nostalgia to do? Here's where Baxter and Reynolds come in! They wrote a novel as as sequel to Clarke's novella "A Meeting with Medusa," in which Howard Falcon descends into the atmosphere of Jupiter and discovers life in the form of giant, two-kilometer-wide creatures he calls medusae. The story ends with a tantalizing line that the main character, half-human and half-machine, lived on for centuries. The Medusa Chronicles is that story. (It was also cool to re-read Clarke's novella and to read the sequel soon after the recent real life photos of Jupiter from the Juno spacecraft).
Saturday, June 3, 2017
In recent years famous scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Stephen Hawking have declared that philosophy is useless. I shrugged this off for the most part since I'm used to people making uninformed pronouncements about my discipline. Still, given philosophy's public relations problem, it's troubling to hear this sentiment from respected public figures.
But as Socrates says in the Apology, if people are mistaken, you should calmly correct their errors rather than punishing them (informing people about philosophy is in fact part of the mission of this blog). I also still admire Tyson, Nye, and Hawking (or maybe I'm in an abusive relationship with science). Tyson, for his part, later added a little bit of nuance to his comments. Besides, he has said philosophical things, too (see above).
Rather than getting all confrontational and claiming that philosophy is better than science (I like both just fine) or that philosophy is harder than science (I'd say they're difficult in different ways), I'm continuing my series on the uses of philosophy.
Monday, May 29, 2017
Time travel stories can be mind-bending and thrilling. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis shows they can also be funny.
This was my first time reading Willis. I had heard of her, both as a frequent Hugo and Nebula winner but also as an example of a humorous SF writer. I don't think there's enough humorous science fiction out there, so I was keen to check this out.
The basic idea: Oxford historians in the 2050's use time travel to go back to a variety of eras. They can't take any objects back with them or make any major changes to the timeline, but they are able to interact with and observe the past. Given these limitations, time travel has no real commercial applications and is left mainly to historians and wealthy eccentrics. The main character Ned Henry has done several too many "drops" into the past, resulting in excessive "time lag" (sort of like jet lag but funnier). To recuperate and to avoid the overbearing benefactor of the time travel program, Ned goes back to Victorian England in 1888. Of course, it turns out he's actually been sent on a mission to locate a certain artifact, a hideous Victorian monstrosity called the Bishop's bird stump, which they need to replicate as part of the rebuilding of the Coventry Cathedral that was destroyed in WWII. Hijinks and hilarity (and even a bit of romance) ensue.
Summer Movie Round Up, Part 1: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
After a mostly terrible summer movie season in 2016, I've been hoping for a better one in 2017. Early results are showing that we may be in for something a bit better than last year. That is, at least if the first three summer movies I've seen are any indication: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Friday, May 19, 2017
|Devanagari version of the Hymn of Creation in the Ṛg Veda|
Scholars of all types of philosophy are fond of referring to philosophical traditions. But what does this mean? What counts as a tradition?
In the Indian context one way to discuss a tradition is with the word darśana, which literally means view or viewpoint from the root “dṛś” – “to see.” It can also be translated as “school.”
We might also look to the etymology of the English word “tradition,” which derives from the Latin “traditio” (a handing down, delivery). Must a tradition be handed down through interpersonal transmission from teacher to student in the traditional Indian model? Or could it be a matter of later philosophers being inspired by reading particular texts, or perhaps some combination of interpersonal transmission and textual inspiration?
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Heinlein has always been my least favorite of the Big Three (my ranking: Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein), but I thought I'd give him another chance. I checked out The Moon is a Harsh Mistress from the public library, because the thought of borrowing a book about libertarian revolution from my favorite tax-supported socialist institution amused me. There were some things I liked about this one, but there's also a lot I disliked, especially the misogyny. The rest of this review will take place in the form of an imagined dialogue with a Heinlein fan, because that's how I was able to work out what I thought about this one.
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
How do you get the philosopher off your porch?
Pay for the pizza.
Jokes like this demonstrate the eternal verity that philosophy is useless, an attitude that goes back to ancient times. As a person who makes a living teaching and writing about philosophy, you’d expect me to disagree with this negative assessment of philosophy. And I do! Back in 2015 I wrote a post called “Three Uses of Philosophy” that suggested philosophy has at least three uses: it can be fun, it cultivates intellectual skills such as critical thinking, and it can make us less dogmatic.
I happen to think that philosophy has lots of uses, a lot more than three, anyway. So I decided to make a series based on my earlier post. Another use occurred to me a few months ago when I was teaching the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza in one class and the classical Indian skeptics Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa in another. I call this coolness of mind, a state in which your worries melt away, a freedom from the heat of mental disturbance and the churnings of suffering and anxiety. Coolness of mind contains a subtle and peaceful beauty of its own, like the quiet of the desert just before dusk or a moonlit midnight after a gentle snowfall.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Lately I've seen a fair number of movies in the science fictional/fantastic realm, but with the exception of Ghost in the Shell (both the 1995 anime and the 2017 live action remake) I've been remiss when it comes to reviewing them. Alas, it's time to rectify this unconscionable situation with a movie round up! Here are my short reviews of Life, Logan, Get Out, Kong: Skull Island, and - just to keep things from being 100% Hollywood - the Irish/Welsh indie film A Dark Song.
Sunday, April 9, 2017
Dear fellow white dudes,
It’s pretty cool being a white dude, isn’t it?
We’re well represented. Here in the United States (my home country and focus here), the majority of Senators and Representatives have always been white dudes, not to mention 44 out of 45 US Presidents. The majority of actors in leading roles in Hollywood movies are white dudes, as are most Hollywood directors. Most corporate CEO’s, military leaders, educational administrators, and so forth are white dudes.
We white dudes have done some pretty cool stuff. Plato and Aristotle were white dudes, although nobody realized this until the construction of modern racial identities in the European Enlightenment, which was also the work of white dudes (and a few white dudettes). Many of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors are white dudes: J. R. R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, etc. Some of my best friends are white dudes.
White dudes are far less likely than others to be harassed or to receive threats of violence in person or online. We are less likely to be murdered by our romantic partners or by the police. White dudes who engage in mass murder are framed as troubled loners, but rarely as terrorists or thugs. We statistically get paid more for the same work as other people.
We white dudes have a lot of privileges, which as science fiction author and white dude John Scalzi has pointed out, is like playing a video game on the easy setting. We still have to put in the effort to play the game, but it’s easier for us, especially if we're straight, cisgender, non-disabled, and come from middle to upper class socioeconomic backgrounds. White dudes’ greatest privilege is that we can choose to ignore all this and go about our lives in the invisible safe space of a world made for us.
Man, it’s pretty awesome to be a white dude! But you’d never know it if you listened to a lot of white dudes these days, which as a white dude myself I find kind of weird.
Sunday, April 2, 2017
I didn’t hate everything about the 2017 Ghost in the Shell remake. If I weren’t a huge fan of the 1995 anime film, I maybe even would’ve liked it a lot. But alas, the remake falls as flat as anyone who stands in the Major’s way.
I debated for a long time whether I even wanted to see the remake. There’s of course the whitewashing issue of having most of the main characters played by white actors (more on that later). There’s also my general fatigue with Hollywood remakes and sequels (although I’d be lying if I said I weren’t as excited as I am apprehensive about the upcoming Alien and Bladerunner sequels).
Why, Hollywood, Why?
But this particular remake didn’t seem like it needed to happen. I don’t watch a lot of anime, but Momoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film is nothing short of a masterpiece of philosophical science fiction (see my post: "Buddhist Philosophy and Ghost in the Shell: Studying the Ghost to Forget the Ghost"). One does not simply remake a masterpiece.
Saturday, March 25, 2017
March is Women’s History Month. Last year I celebrated by writing a post on women's history in philosophy and science fiction. This year I thought I'd review work from three prominent women science fiction authors: Nnedi Okorafor, Leigh Brackett, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
The three works in question are all relatively short, hovering near the border between long novellas and short novels. Okorafor's Binti: Home is a longish novella while Brackett's The Nemesis from Terra and Le Guin's Planet of Exile are each really short novels.
All three works deal with the idea of being at home. This theme is clearest in Binti: Home (it's right in the title!), where the title character returns home after an interstellar sojourn. Brackett and Le Guin ask whether you can be at home in a place you're not expected to be at home; Okorafor deals with not being at home in a place where you expect to be.
What do I mean by all this? See the individual reviews below!
Saturday, March 18, 2017
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
A, B, C is a nice omnibus collection of three early short novels of SF genius Samuel R. Delany. Each novel was originally written in the early 1960's, although Delany did some revision of Çiron in the 90's. There's quite a bit in the way of forword and afterword written in 2014. The afterword gets a bit academic, which may not be to everyone's taste, but then I suspect most serious Delany fans aren't the type to scared by citations of Derrida and Wittgenstein and lengthy footnotes.
Like most of Delany's early work (e.g., see my review of Nova), the novels are well written with hints of the depth of his later genius. The Ballad of Beta-2 was my favorite, but I enjoyed the others more than I was expecting. Sticking with the alphabetic contrivance of the title, I'll review them in order.
Monday, March 13, 2017
Today would have been my mom's 68th birthday. Although she died almost 17 years ago, I still commemorate this day every year with a little tradition that she called her "recommended daily dose of Dairy Queen." Today is was one of her favorites: a hot fudge malt!
As I took my maternal communion, I thought about how much I miss her and how much she made me who I am today. As I usually do, I also pondered a lot of "what ifs?"
Monday, March 6, 2017
|Posing in front of a cool backdrop at Con Nooga!|
In the last few weeks I've been lucky to attend two conferences that correspond to the two sides of this blog: Con Nooga here in Chattanooga, TN and the APA Central Division Meeting in Kansas City, MO.
I had a great time at both events, but they conspired to put me a bit behind in my usual responsibilities (like grading midterm papers). So rather than an elaborate report, I thought I'd offer a few highlights from my experiences at each conference.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
“Do you even know who you are?”
– The Major
I’ve honestly never been a huge anime fan, but I’ve loved Ghost in the Shell since I first saw it in the 90’s. First of all, it’s one of the most beautiful anime films out there. The meditative city montages alone are worth the price of admission.
But it’s also one of the most philosophically profound movies out there, anime or otherwise. It gets deep from the first moments. The intro tells us, “the advance of computerization … has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups” (Is there a reason to think it will?). There’s also the issue of all those lingering shots of the Major’s body: What’s the line between a problematic male gaze and artistic statements about corporality?
But the deepest issue of all is personal identity. Consider the Major’s post-scuba diving soliloquy.
“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others. But my thoughts and memories are unique only to me. And I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.”Like anime science fiction more generally, Ghost in the Shell combines modern, computerized themes with ancient philosophical roots. The personal identity questions in the film are asked with the accent of modern computer technology but the deeper grammar is that of Buddhist philosophy.