Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Review Bonanza, Part Three: The Frankenstein Chronicles, Three Virgins, Are Prisons Obsolete?, and More!

The Frankenstein Chronicles
Welcome to Part Three of my Review Bonanza!  See also Part One, which covered Annihilation, The Laplace's Demon, River of Teeth, and Moreand Part Two, which covered The Expanse, The X-Files, Infomocracy, Navigators of Dune, and More.

Here in Part Three, I've got The Frankenstein Chronicles, Three Virgins and Other Stories by Manjula Padmanabhan, Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis, The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction by David Carrasco, and What Kind of Creatures are We? by Noam Chomsky. 

The Frankenstein Chronicles (Season One)

I'm planning to include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in an upcoming class on horror and philosophy, although I could have covered it in my science fiction course as well, since there's a good case to be made that Mary Shelley invented science fiction.  Few novels have been as influential or subject to so many adaptations and re-interpretations.  It was published exactly 200 years ago and shows no signs of slowing down, as hinted at by the title of a new book, Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years.

The Frankenstein Chronicles is not yet another adaptation of the novel.  Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are not here, although Mary Shelley herself makes a few appearances.  In London in 1827 detective John Marlott (Sean Bean) is investigating the disappearances and murders of children, one of whom he finds washed up on the river bank.  Or not one, but rather a corpse made up of, you guessed it, several different bodies stitched together.  He learns of another girl who has recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances and vows to find her.

The investigation puts him in contact with some of the seediest parts of the London underworld and well as some high ranking government officials and some surgeons trying to make anatomical research more legally and morally acceptable.  Eventually he learns about Mary Shelley's book and meets the author herself out of a worry that her novel may have inspired the crimes.

It's worth noting that the sets and costumes as well as the downright grittiness and (often literal) darkness of the show create an aesthetic that works for the story (you might call it grimdark, as in this article, but it's not quite bleak enough in my opinion - and that's a good thing).  I don't know if this was intentional or if they just filmed in the winter, but you can often see the characters' breath, which added to the chilly atmosphere of the whole thing.

The investigation is a bit of a slow burn, with plenty of twists and dead ends.  It's not the fastest moving show out there.  It was sometimes hard to remember which stodgy rich person was which, but it all sorts itself out in the end.  I would've liked to have seen more Mary Shelley, but I guess this wasn't really her story after all (although she plays a critical role, especially in a flashback that suggests the novel may not have been entirely fictional).  I'll be interested to see how it all plays out in season two.

One big question is: does Sean Bean survive the whole season?  Well ... I don't want to spoil it, but do keep that question in mind as you watch.

The show brings up a lot of the same philosophical questions as the novel: Is modern science eroding traditional values and religious meaning?  Has science made "a world without God"?  If we are merely part of the natural world, does that make us less special?  If we could conquer death, would we want to?  Does death make life meaningless, or does it provide meaning to our lives?  Are we all, in some sense or another, "monsters" just trying to be understood?

But there's one question the novel couldn't have included that the show might help us consider: Why are we still so fascinated by Frankenstein 200 years later?

Three Virgins and Other Stories by Manjula Padmanabhan

Three Virgins and Other Stories by Manjula Padmanabhan is a collection that has something for at least three types of people: fans of literary fiction, fans of science fiction and fantasy, and lovers of India and its many cultures - foreign and domestic.  While I'm an occasional member of the first group, I'm solidly a member of the second and third groups.  Padmanabhan's unique voice is also worth mentioning: strong without being overbearing, literary without being snooty, whimsical without silliness. (Okay, there's a little bit of silliness, but it works: I imagine Padmanabhan writing with a wry smile rather than a full belly laugh).

The straightforward mimetic fiction stories (like "Stains," "Khajuraho," "The Strength of Small Things," and "Three Virgins") are so well done and so imaginative that even a science fiction nerd like me can enjoy them.  Literary fiction fans will claim "Hot Death, Cold Soup" as their kind of thing, but it's so odd it feels science fictional to me.

There are two stories that take up characters or stories from the Ramayana ("The Other Woman" and "Exile"), albeit in Padmanabhan's unique science fictional twist (I assigned "The Other Woman" in a recent class on science fiction and philosophy).  "A Government of India Undertaking" imagines modern Indian bureaucracy applied to ancient notions of reincarnation with hilarious results.  "Teaser" is a bit of the odd story out.  The vampire story, "Feast" originally wasn't that interesting to me (vampires aren't my thing), but it ended up being one of my favorites in the collection with a deep theme about how culture and religion shape what scares us, what gives meaning to our lives, and, of course, how we think about mortality (and immortality).  In fact, I plan to assign that story in my upcoming class on horror and philosophy.

It's a testament to Padmanabhan's strengths as an author that I genuinely enjoyed reading every story even when I didn't find the topic all that interesting.  Her prose is like a lazy river that sweeps you along until you find yourself arriving at new, unexpected shores you didn't even know you wanted to explore.

See my Goodreads review.

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

One of the most powerful things about philosophy is how it encourages the questioning of seemingly unquestionable assumptions.  Angela Davis is a philosopher both by academic training and because of her ability to question the unquestionable.  The assumption she questions here is one that is extremely pervasive in most countries today, especially here in the United States where we incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other country.  Why do we have prisons?  Should prisons remain the primary mode of punishment?  Could we abolish the prison? Can we imagine alternatives to prison?

Are Prisons Obsolete? is not an easy book to read.  I admit a lot of it left me feeling sick to my stomach.  Davis unflinchingly details the morally troubling history and contemporary state of prison, from the convict lease system to rampant sexual abuse in women's prisons to privatization and the prison industrial complex.

In the last chapter, Davis considers alternatives to prison, noting that there is no single alternative to everything we use prisons for today.  Some of her proposals, like seeking treatment for drug users rather than prison time, are eminently sensible.  Others, like reconciliation between a murderer and the victim's family, may seem more far fetched, especially to readers with more retributive views of punishment.

But Davis admits she doesn't have all that answers.  She exemplifies another benefit of philosophy: not only can it question assumptions, it exercises the type of intellectual creativity we will need to think of solutions.  As she mentions, 200 years ago many Americans assumed slavery was inevitable and unquestionable.  Perhaps our descendants in 200 years will look back on our present-day assumptions about the prison in the same way.

See my Goodreads review.

The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction by David Carrasco

There are a lot of details for a short introduction (maybe too many?), but overall it's quite readable and interesting.  I read this partly out of personal interest and partly because I've started teaching a short section on Aztec philosophy in my World Philosophy course and thought I could use a bit more historical background.  It was good on both counts as the Oxford Very Short Introductions tend to be.

See my very short Goodreads review.

What Kind of Creatures are We? by Noam Chomsky

This is a relatively succinct, but by no means dumbed down, overview of Chomsky's views on linguistics, cognition, politics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language.  Only one chapter is on politics, so exclusive fans of Chomsky's politics may not enjoy this one as much.  I'm particularly interested in his famous distinction between problems (that we are cognitively equipped to solve) and mysteries (that remain beyond our ken), which he applies to the history of early modern European philosophy in chapter four.  I think it might provide an explanation for the entire cross-cultural history of philosophy and human thought more generally.  What kind of creatures are we?  Apparently not the kind that can unravel deep issues concerning language, mind, reality, etc.  But, according to Chomsky, recognizing our limitations need not be depressing.  Rather, mysteries give us a framework within which we can engage those problems we are equipped to solve.

See also my Goodreads review.

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