The universe has conspired against me as of late when it comes to regular blogging. Sad, I know! But the good news is that this means I have enough of a backlog for a bonanza of reviews! In this installment I've got two movies (Annihilation and The Laplace's Demon), a novella (River of Teeth), and two works of non-fiction (The Island of Knowledge and Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy). Stay tuned for part two coming soon.
I should start by noting that I haven't read the book, which I've heard is quite different. I hope to get to it soon. I also saw the film a few months ago, so my memories of it may be as hazy as the characters' memories in the film.
Natalie Portman plays a scientist whose soldier husband has disappeared. When she goes to find out what happened, she and three other women volunteer to go into a mysterious area called "the shimmer" that may be of extraterrestrial origin. I don't remember all the details of the plot, but I remember some of the sound and visual effects. There's a scene with a bear(?) that I may never forget, along with one of the final scenes. It's scary, I guess, but I'd say ... unnerving or eerie or uncanny are maybe better terms. It's Lovecraftian deep cosmic horror rather than 2010's jump scare schlock.
The deeper points have to do with the encounter with otherness. The alien ... force? being? mind? something entirely unknowable? is changing a part of Earth into, well, what exactly? Something partly Earthly and partly extraterrestrial? At one point a character wonders not just what it wants, but if it wants, that is, if it has the type of mind that forms desires at all. What do we do in the face of such radical alterity? How do you combat something that is not, strictly speaking, fighting you at all? Can it be understood? (Themes similar to Stanislaw Lem's Solaris abound...)
Annihilation is one of the best science fiction horror movies I've seen in a long time. I'd have to see it again and maybe read the book to be sure, but it may be up there with films like The Thing or - dare I say it? - Alien or Aliens.
The Laplace's Demon
I was lucky to see this at the 2018 Chattanooga Film Festival along with a bunch of other cool stuff (like Mohawk, All the Creatures Were Stirring, and Zombie Ninja). This was my second year attending the Chattanooga Film Festival, which I wholeheartedly recommend if you get the chance.
Imagine an Italian noir film complete with finely crafted sets and carefully constructed shots (one of the actors even sort of looks like Orson Welles). It all looks so cool! We meet our characters as they embark upon a sea journey to an island to meet a mysterious scientist. We learn that the characters themselves have been working on a way to predict physical events with increasing accuracy. They can almost predict exactly how many shards a glass will break into when pushed off a shelf. The mysterious scientist in question claims to have answers for them that will ensure 100% accuracy.
The island estate, of course, turns out to be a bit nefarious as they are trapped there. They slowly learn that the mysterious scientist claims to be able to completely predict human behavior as well. To demonstrate, he constructed a preset clockwork chess set and model of the house that shows everyone's movements as they make them. The chess set model sounds cheesy and looks cheesy at first, but it's surprisingly effective in the film.
I was excited to see this because of the reference to Laplace's demon in the title. It's all explained in the film, so you don't need to know the reference going in. But if you don't know the reference and want to feel smart when you see the movie, read on.
Pierre-Simon Laplace was an 18th-19th century French mathematician and scientist and a proponent of causal determinism in light of Newtonian physics. Determinism is roughly the idea that given the state of the universe at any particular moment, there is only one possible future. Laplace postulated that a being of sufficient intelligence (the demon in this case) could in principle predict the future state of everything in the universe given knowledge of the locations of all the parts of the universe at a single moment. (Note the "in principle" is doing a lot of work here; whether it is physically possible to process that much information isn't the point -- this is a philosophical thought experiment about the structure of reality itself, not about our current ideas concerning information processing).
In a Newtonian framework this is explained by there being natural laws. The situation has been complicated a bit by quantum physics, but for the most part scientific explanations require some form of determinism. If what a scientist tells you on Monday in Mozambique doesn't hold true on Tuesday in Timbuktu, Houston, we have a problem. It's because there are natural laws that a being like Laplace's demon could in principle predict the future with 100% accuracy: these laws provide the cement that binds the present to the future and the past.
This is all well and good when it comes to physical stuff so we can have cell phones and rocket ships, but hold up, many people caution: what about us? It certainly didn't feel to you like your decision to read this blog was merely the inevitable result of the laws of nature, did it? Rather, doesn't it seem like you chose to read it even though you could have done otherwise? That is, as almost every philosophy student says upon learning about determinism, don't we have free will?
I don't want to spoil how the movie tackles these issues, but I will say that The Laplace's Demon is by far the best cinematic portrayal of determinism that I've seen. Hollywood movies never get determinism right (see, for instance, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, which is a movie I like a lot, but it butchers Philip K. Dick's original stance on determinism in the short story).
I've often suspected that there's something about most Americans that makes determinism a particularly hard pill for us to swallow, what with all our freedom-loving and whatnot (although of course there's no necessary connection between political freedom and metaphysical freedom). Maybe Italians are generally more likely to accept something like determinism; after all, ancient Roman Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius accepted a form of determinism thousands of years ago. On the other hand, it seems like a tough pill for the characters in the film to swallow, too. I also suspect some form of determinism is compatible with many Hindu and Buddhist worldviews, but that would take us even further afield.
Whatever the truth about my wild speculations about cultural backgrounds and philosophical views might be and whether you have any sympathy for determinism or not, if you're at all interested in the convergences of philosophy and film I am determined to tell you that The Laplace's Demon is a philosophical and science fictional thriller well worth becoming part of your future.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
I read about this novella a few months ago and then it was nominated for a Hugo this year, so I thought I'd check it out. It's about as fun as you'd think a hippo caper (or operation) in alternate 1890's Louisiana would be. I particularly love the tender relationships between the tame hippos and their owners (imagine something like 2,000 pound dogs). The setting of a "Wild South" in which hoppers (basically hippo cowboys and cowgirls) roam an often lawless expanse of marshland is really cool. It's a great example of alternate history made interesting - rather than asking boring old questions like, "What if someone else had won this war?" it asks, "What if a crazy scheme to import hippos to the southern US had reshaped that part of the world and its inhabitants?" It gets a little silly at times, but don't worry, there's also plenty of violence to keep things serious.
Our histories should not be, as many of them were for me back in elementary school, merely a list of dates of battles and wars. Rather, our histories should reflect the vast matrix of decisions and happenstance that shaped the everyday lives of our ancestors and which in turn continue to shape our lives today. Likewise, alternate history need not be unduly focused on war to do what alternate history does best: like science fiction, alternate history sheds light on our past and present by juxtaposing them with how things could have been. A world in which hippos roamed Louisiana and gender was less policed is just as contingent as our actual world. There's no particular reason things have to be a certain way, a fact which is a gift both for storytellers and those who want to improve our actual world.
And if you're not in it for the deep thoughts on the contingencies of history, at least you've got the hippos.
Check out my full review on Goodreads.
The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning by Marcelo Gleiser
And now for some non-fiction! Given the philosophy bashing we've seen lately from celebrity scientists like Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Gleiser is breath of fresh air. Some of what he says about philosophy is a bit sophomoric by professional standards ...
But I can forgive the faults of this book for the fact that Gleiser is a scientist who is willing to question the sort of dogmatic scientism that seems to be gaining popularity these days. Besides, I'll go easy on him because I'm sure everything I say about science sounds sophomoric to a professional scientist! (Thought experiment on my scientism point: imagine a literature professor with no scientific training denigrating physics - would the media take that person seriously?).
I'm particularly thrilled to read a scientist who admits that the history of science shows that we ought to be quite a bit less confident we've gotten things right today than most of us are. Gleiser's metaphor of the island of knowledge, in fact, requires that every expansion of knowledge also involves an expansion of the boundaries between knowledge and ignorance.
Not that I'm science bashing. I love science! But what I love about science is what Gleiser seems to love about it, too: science is not a dry collection of facts or data sets or even a mere source of economically lucrative technology, it's one of the ways we as humans brush up against our own ignorance and expand our minds. On this point science and philosophy, while not exactly the same, have a lot in common. It's refreshing to read a scientist who understands this.
See my full review on Goodreads.
Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 by Peter K. J. Park
One of the things I love most about the history of philosophy is how it can show that ideas thought to be obvious today have specific histories. Such ideas were once strange and new. People had to argue for them in the face of controversy; it was only much later that they became obvious.
Many philosophers today take it as obvious that Africa and Asia have no philosophy or at least no philosophy worth knowing about. Africans and Asians, it is thought, have religion or mythology or literature or "wisdom traditions," but real philosophy is, like the word "philosophy" itself, derived from a specifically Greek phenomenon. Few philosophers these days will explicitly say this (although more will say so than you'd think), but the shape of the discipline (at least in North America) continues to tell a deeply Eurocentric story.
Park's book gives a historical explanation for the exclusion of Africa and Asia from the history of philosophy in Western academia, looking to the history of European (primarily German) scholarship in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During this period scholars like Joseph-Marie de Gérando and Freidrich Schlegel did compose histories that included African and Asian thought, but eventually a Kantian a priori method won out, culminating in Hegel. Park gives a thorough history of histories of philosophy and demonstrates how the burgeoning theories of scientific racism and the notion that a history of philosophy could be written in a scientific, Kantian vein made it possible to entirely exclude what had previously been included.
As someone whose career involves putting non-Western traditions (in my case Indian philosophy) into the history of philosophy, I learned a lot from Park's book about the specific history of the exclusion. Perhaps most important is the lesson that what was once deliberately excluded can now be deliberately included. Cross-cultural philosophy is not some newfangled development but a putting right what was wrong, making whole a story that has been partial.
See my Goodreads review.