Monday, June 26, 2017

Twin Peaks and the Pleasures of Weirdness

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).

WTF, David Lynch?

I love weird stuff.  I love it because it's weird.  And Twin Peaks is weird.  The original show draws in the viewer with a promise of a detective show/evening soap opera about a teenage girl's murder in a quirky town, but then it quickly becomes ... well, what, exactly?  Something about a mystical FBI agent who solves crimes by throwing rocks, a malevolent spirit (or something else?) called "Bob," a lady who talks to a log, a grumpy FBI agent who follows the nonviolent principles of Gandhi and King, an Air Force officer (coincidentally played by the guy who played Scully's dad on The X-Files) who is involved with aliens, and the weirdest of them all: a place called the Black Lodge, a place I won't even try to explain.

The return on Showtime (or season three, depending on how you slice that damn fine pie) doesn't bother sweetening the deal to attract viewers.  If you're not here for unfiltered weird, turn off your TV, because Lynch is not watering anything down.  Casual viewers be damned.  Twin Peaks is as weird as ever.  Scratch that, it's even weirder.  Lynch has gone full Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, or Mulholland Drive on this one (even a pinch of Eraserhead).

The Black Lodge is back and... more, I guess?  There's a guy called "Mr. Jackpots," who can make slot machines pay out.  There's a grown man who goes by "Dougie" (the weirdest thing about Dougie is imagining what he was like before the events of the show that makes people treat "Dougie" as they do).  A mysterious murder takes place in North Dakota with a head next to a body not originally owned by the same person (the gross out factor is way beyond network TV now).  A guy in New York City watches a clear box for a living.  And there's stuff I couldn't describe even if I wanted to give spoilers.

You might notice I said nothing about the town of Twin Peaks itself.  Not as much of the show takes place there as you might expect.  Still, a lot of old favorites are back, but I don't really want to spoil that with a who's who aside from saying that there are performances from a few deceased members of the cast (not with Rogue One-style CGI, but because they filmed their scenes before they died).  Some of the quirky humor is still there, but mostly the Twin Peaks scenes have the uncanny feeling you get seeing people you haven't seen for 25 years, only a dash more uncanny because, well, it's Twin Peaks.

And I have to specifically mention Episode 8 of the new show/season.  That is probably the single weirdest hour of television I've ever seen.

The Pleasures of Weirdness

But why can weirdness be so much fun?  My theory is that weirdness is so pleasurable precisely because making sense of the world -- something we do constantly -- is a lot of work.  Watching a scene in the Black Lodge is a way to relax your sense-making mechanism, to open up your mind to things without trying to squeeze them into pre-made conceptual categories.  To just experience.

Of course, making sense of the world is a good thing.  Usually.  You'd probably be dead by now if you didn't make some sense of things.  It allows us to predict and influence our surroundings.

But making sense of things gets exhausting.  It can also, as Buddhists and Daoists might say, lead to suffering, especially when the categories in your mind don't match what's going on in the world.  How many of the world's problems, how much anxiety and general crappiness result from people misapprehending the world around them because they can't be open to change or wider perspectives?

The sense-making drive is essential, but it can be harmful if pushed too far.  This is, as I see it, the greatest lesson of ancient skeptical philosophers like Sextus Empiricus, Nāgārjuna, and Jayarāśi.  For them, many philosophers represent sense-making run amok, so they develop a sort of therapy that short-circuits the harmful tendencies by using them against themselves.  This is meant to cure us of this ill, which in various ways leads to what I've called mental coolness, a state of mind beyond anxiety and unhealthy fixations.

Weird stuff like Twin Peaks does much the same thing for me: it turns the sense-making drive against itself, leaving us with a particular sort of aesthetic bliss (not that Twin Peaks can't also be disturbing, but in those cases it's still pleasurable in the same way that horror movies are).  Like anyone else, I go through my life constantly trying to make sense of things: the 2016 US election, why we can't all just get along, why weed wackers have to be so loud, how people can like kale so much, etc.

But Twin Peaks and other weird stuff reminds us that the universe is bigger, older, and far weirder than us.  Some part of it will probably always elude the grasp of our sense-making abilities.  And that's okay.  It's even something to celebrate.  Imagine how boring life would be if you had already made sense of everything!

Weirdness brings a double pleasure: it allows your sense-making mind to relax while at the same time opening your mind to novel experiences.

The Comedy of Explanation

Of course, many people try to explain Twin Peaks.  Maybe they'll succeed.  More power to them. Maybe David Lynch understands what he's doing.  I can't say.

But for my part, the fact that Twin Peaks can't be explained is the whole point.

I think it's kind of funny when people try to explain weirdness or other forms of deliberate ambiguity (like the ending of Inception).  It reminds me, perhaps, of the comedy of a species of primates on the third planet of an unremarkable star having the hubris to think they know much of anything about the universe.  I'm not saying we shouldn't try to know some stuff.  By all means we should.  Knowledge is cool.  But maybe we need a little weirdness like Twin Peaks to remind us of our limitations -- and how lucky we are to have them.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cultivated Callousness: Is This What We Want?

Philando Castile

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

Science, Magic, and Silliness: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

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

Uses of Philosophy, Part 3: Intellectual Empathy - Understanding Without Agreeing

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 is Hilarious: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

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.

As befits a novel that mostly takes place in 1888 England, the humor is largely in the vein of English comedy of manners. I chuckled a lot and laughed out loud a few times. I especially love the cat, Princess Arjumand (fear not, cat lovers, the eponymous dog is just one half of the pet comedy team).

This worked fine as a stand alone novel, although some of the background from the previous book maybe would've helped a bit. Some of the bits may have been funnier if I were more familiar with authors like Jerome K. Jerome, P. G. Wodehouse, and Agatha Christie.

The Philosophy Report

I often don't like time travel stories because they tend to become incoherent rather quickly. When I was about 14 it occurred to me that if you went back in time to change something then whatever you did in the past would've already happened in the present, so you could never change the past. Hence, most "time travel" stories are really stories about alternate dimensions and the like. (I've written more about the philosophy of time travel in my discussion of Terminator Genisys).

Willis (mostly) accepts all this, which I find refreshing. She introduces other features that you may find cool or lame depending on your taste in time travel. The time continuum can't accept incongruities, which is why objects from the past can't be brought back to the present. Various factors can, however, cause "slippage," which means that it's harder to hit your target when you go back (you might be off by several minutes or hours). There are also things called "crisis points," or major historical episodes, usually (coincidentally enough) just the major episodes you'd learn about in history class, mainly decisive battles, espionage, leadership changes, etc. Like a lot of historical fiction, this was a bit eurocentric. Apparently strikingly few of the "crisis points" in history happen outside of Europe.

While these rules give a nice framework to the narrative, which works on a literary level, on a more philosophical level I find it all rather anthropocentric. Why would the time continuum care about the actions of (European) humans? Is the universe itself really all that concerned about who won WWII or the whereabouts of the Bishop's bird stump? Sure, if you could bring objets back from the past, two versions of that object would exist at the same time in the future. You could create causal loops by taking items from the present into the past (like giving 1590's Shakespeare your old volume of Shakespeare's collected works). None of that is actually logically incoherent. Weird, for sure, but as long as you're not killing your grandparents before they meet, no laws of logic have been violated (and there are good reasons to think you would simply fail to kill your grandparents, as the philosopher David Lewis has argued).

Of course, the characters discover a neat loophole later on, but let's not spoil it.

Another criticism is that the novel feels longer than it has to be, especially in the Victorian sections. As amusing as the details were about Tossie, her mother, the atrocious Bishop's bird stump, jumble sales, and the cat (to say nothing of the dog), sometimes I found myself wishing we could get on with the next plot point. It was also hard to see sometimes how it all hangs together.

Of course, one of the larger points of the novel is that these details do matter. On the surface the novel seems to be working on the level that it's major leaders and big events that shape history, but there's also another strand that it's the seemingly insignificant details that shape history (this tension is dramatized rather nicely by a debate between two scholars in some of the 1888 scenes).

By the end you might wonder if the second philosophy of history is winning out (with chaos theory to boot, at least in the 21st century portions), but I think the situation is a bit more complex. Perhaps it's both theories acting simultaneously in harmony and tension. Perhaps the big events and individual characters are reducible to the minor details and blind historical forces. Or maybe the relationship is far more complex than we meager humans can understand.

Whatever the answers to these heady questions might be, they're fun (and funny) enough to keep philosophers, historians, and science fiction fans busy for the foreseeable future, to say nothing of the past and present.

Rating: 88/100

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

What Counts as a Tradition in Indian Philosophy?: The Case of Skepticism

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

Libertarian Lunacy: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

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

Uses of Philosophy, Part 2: Coolness of Mind

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

Movie Round Up: Life, Logan, Get Out, Kong: Skull Island, A Dark Song

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…

White dudes

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

Unprofound Meditations: Ghost in the Shell (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

Women’s History of the Future: Reviews of Works by Okorafor, Brackett, and Le Guin

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

200th Post Spectacular!

Reflection on 200

This is my 200th post for Examined Worlds!  To celebrate this momentous occasion, I thought I'd pause to reflect a little bit.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Intellectual Wandering: A, B, C: Three Short Novels by Samuel R. Delany

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

Recommended Daily Dose of Dairy Queen: Thoughts on my Mom's Birthday

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

A Tale of Two Conferences: Con Nooga and Central APA

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

Buddhist Philosophy and Ghost in the Shell: Studying the Ghost to Forget the Ghost

My colleagues Talia Welsh and Bo Baker asked me to visit their team-taught course Honors 3590: Non-Western Cultures: Zen, Film, and Anime at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. In preparation for this event, I thought I’d write a blog post to collect my thoughts on the film we’ll be discussing, which also happens to be one of my favorites. Note that I am discussing the original 1995 animated film directed by Mamoru Oshii.

“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.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Serious Humor in Trumpian Times

Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live

While Donald Trump himself often comes across as a buffoon, there's nothing particularly funny about Trumpism as a political ideology: it's by and large a bleak, dystopian affair filled with horrific problems that only a superhero/savior can fix.  "I alone can fix it," Trump said during the Republican National Convention.  "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now," he said during his inauguration speech.

There wasn't much humor for people who were detained at airports due to the administration's ill-conceived and possibly unconstitutional travel ban.  Trump's cabinet thus far, which includes controversial members like Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, and Betsy DeVos, is no laughing matter.  And those are just the major points.  It's frankly almost impossible to keep up with the administration's deeds from the nefarious to the bizarre (this website makes a good attempt).

It might seem like there would be precious little levity in these Trumpian times.  Yet in the last few weeks comedy has been made great again.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Recent TV Round Up

I originally intended to write a Best TV of 2016 post.  But now that we're veering toward mid-February 2017, it seemed a bit late for that.  Also, I watched a few new things while I was putting off writing this post.  So I give you: Recent TV Round Up featuring Stranger Things, The Good Place, Westworld, Sense8, and The OA!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Most Interesting SF/F Novels of 2016

Some of the books on the list

Last year I wrote about my favorite books of 2015.  In 2016 I read a lot of interesting books, but nothing I loved quite as much as my favorite book of 2015: Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora.  So this year I've decided to forego a "Best of" list in favor of a "Most Interesting" list.  Maybe this will be more interesting, too!

The following list is limited to science fiction and fantasy novels published in 2016.  I read a lot of other interesting stuff in 2016 that doesn't fit those parameters. Some notable fiction I read included: Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem, Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, Nnedi Okorafor's Binti, Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bearand C. S. Friedman's This Alien Shore.   Some interesting philosophy books I read last year were Mary Midley's Utopias, Dolphins, and Computers and B. K. Matilal's The Character of Logic in India.  If you want a more comprehensive list, see my Year in Books from Goodreads.

In any case, here's my list of most interesting science fiction and fantasy novels of 2016!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

ChattaCon 42: Cons, the Universe, and Everything

This weekend I attended ChattaCon, which is a nice little science fiction/fantasy convention here in Chattanooga, Tennessee that celebrated its 42nd anniversary this year.  This makes it one of the oldest conventions in the southeastern United States.  This was my third ChattaCon (my first was just several months after I moved here).

As I've discussed before, even with the plethora of online fandom communities, it's still worthwhile to get together in person.  Especially given the uncertain times of our new President here in the US, it was nice to be among my people for a weekend (although I did take a break to attend the Chattanooga Women's March on Saturday).

Here's some of what I did:

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Some Lessons from the Obama Years

In the grand scheme of things the world hasn't actually changed that much since Barack Obama took office in January 2009.  I've never bought the idea, touted by tech journalists and people who write books about "synergy", that the world changes over night.  The world is much the same place it was before, piling up small changes while we're looking for big ones.  Nonetheless, the world of 2017 is not exactly the same as the world of 2009.

When Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, a recession threatened to destroy the world's economy, only the more tech savvy among us had smart phones, social media was mostly a way to keep up with high school friends, anything called a "tea party" usually involved actual tea, and Donald Trump was a reality TV star. 

As the Presidency of Barack Obama ends, it's worth reflecting a bit on the Obama years.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

MLK Day 2017: The Moral Arc, Philosophy, and Science Fiction

I don’t have a lot of heroes, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of them.

While the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. have a special significance for African Americans that I in no way mean to undermine, I also think we all have much to learn from King.  For all his personal faults and the ways his message has been diluted and distorted in recent decades, he was one of the best that this country of ours has ever produced.  This is why Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is my favorite American holiday.

I’ve written posts for MLK Day in previous years (see my posts from 2015 and 2016).  This year, amid continuing racial disparities and a contentious election season that has emboldened old fashioned bigotries, King’s famous quote about the arc of the moral universe feels especially apt.  I admit to finding some comfort in it in the last few months, most recently when the US President-elect went on Twitter to belittle John Lewis, a beloved American hero and Civil Rights icon who worked directly with King.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Ten Rules for Public Discourse as Internet Comments Section

Back when Donald Trump's candidacy was still funny, there was a joke going around that he was the personification of an internet comments section. But the real joke has turned out to be that all public discourse now happens at the level of an internet comments section.  Or if not all of it, far more than is healthy for us as a society or as individuals.

One consequence of our comment section discourse is that we spend so much time telling people what they think that there's no time to ask them what they think and why.  We’re so busy cultivating cynicism and trying to be edgy that we forget to be kind and compassionate.  This situation has been the source of some of my melancholic mood as of late.

Alas, if we are to live in the era of public discourse as internet comments section, we ought to know what we’re getting into.  So without further ado...

Ten Rules for Public Discourse as Internet Comments Section

1. You must never think critically about your own beliefs. Your view is automatically right because it is yours. USE ALL CAPS INSTEAD OF REASONS!!!!

2. You must never empathize with people who disagree with you.

3. You must never admit that people who disagree with you might be decent human beings. 

4.  If people tell you that your view dehumanizes them, you must never reflect on whether they have a point. Remember: your view is automatically right because it is yours (see Rule 1). How dare they question it?

5. All issues must be black-or-white, with-me-or-against-me.  There can be no coalition building with people who disagree about a few issues; there is no such thing as an in-house disagreement. You are either 100% in my house or 100% outside of it.

6. All positions must be believed with the searing zeal of the martyrs; your enthusiasm for your position must burn as hot as your hatred for any opposing view. USE ALL CAPS TO EXPRESS YOUR COMMITMENT TO YOUR VIEW AND CONTEMPT FOR OTHERS!!!!!

7. Godwin’s Law is in full force: your opponents and/or their associates must be compared to Nazis as soon as possible.  It doesn't matter whether you're talking about powerful politicians or your local PTA.  No issue is too trivial to be compared to genocide.

8. Bombastic, hastily generalized claims must be made and clung to irrespective of nuance, truth, or new evidence.

9. You get to choose your own facts! If people disagree with your facts, direct them to a conspiracy theory or partisan website as evidence. Bonus points for hour-long YouTube videos of people rambling in their basements.

10. And of course, if your view can’t be expressed in 140 characters, it is not a view worth having. Sad!

Friday, January 6, 2017

2016 Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre

The heroes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Like the year itself, the movies of 2016 were a mixed bag that included a few gems and a lot of flaming garbage.  I've already written a post about this year's mostly wretched summer movie season, but since most of the gems arrived toward the end of the year I thought it would be good to continue my tradition of reviewing the year's movies that I found to be good, bad, and mediocre (see my 2015 list here).

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Bound to the Past: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters is an interesting alternate history set in a modern day America in which the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal in four states, aka "the Hard Four."  It's also written in a sort of thriller/mystery/noir style, which makes for fun reading.

The main character is known by many names while none of them seem to be his real name, somewhat like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (this is no surprise as Ellison is mentioned in the book, or at least an alternate history version of Ellison).

It's hard to say much about this book without spoilers, but I will say that it involves US Marshals who search for escaped slaves in non-slave states (most of the book takes place in Indianapolis), a daring mission to an Alabama slave-holding company, and enough plans within plans that you need to pay attention to catch them all.