Category Archives: made into movies

Books that were made into movies.

Review 153: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead, Compendium One by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore & Cliff Rathburn

Zombies are boring.

There. I said it. And I’m not ashamed.

They are, though. Zombies have no real motivation, they have no goals other than to kill all humans. They are mindless, a kind of twisted force of nature whose great terror lies in their sheer numbers and their unstoppability. As a concept, zombies are interesting, and as a symbol or a metaphor there’s a lot you can do with them, but the zombies themselves are kind of dull. They lurch about, slowly decaying, looking for people to devour. No one ever made a best-selling book or a hit movie with a zombie protagonist. [1]

Not many people know that zombies make great photographers. Photo courtesy of LaughingSquid.

Think about it: every zombie story rests on the same basic plot. The dead have risen and a small band of living survivors tries to find safety in a world that is actively trying to kill them. That’s it. Sure, the details may vary – fast zombies or slow ones, a cure or no cure, they eat brains or they’ll eat anything, trapped in a mall or a farmhouse – but the foundation of the story is the same, and woe betide the writer who strays too far from the formula. Writing a zombie story means agreeing to adhere to a set of predetermined rules, which allow only a little room for straying.

So what is it that makes zombie stories so popular? Why do people love books like this one, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or World War Z? Why do movies like Shaun of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead and even Resident Evil get people so excited? It certainly isn’t because of the zombies, although it is always fun to see the special effects improve.

We read and watch zombie stories because we love the survivors, and it is they who make or break a zombie story. The more closely we can identify or sympathize with a survivor, the more interesting and horrifying the story becomes for us. They are a great demonstration of the variety in the human condition, and illuminate new and interesting aspects of humanity every time. In this case, we are given Rick Grimes as our protagonist, a police officer from a small town in Kentucky who gets shot on duty and wakes up a month later in the hospital to find the world has been given over to the dead.

As he looks for his wife and son, Rick finds himself leading a band of survivors in their search for a place of safety away from both the dead who wish to devour them and the living who wish to kill them.

No, technically it's not. Which doesn't make things any better.

What makes this a really fun – and terrifying – read is that Kirkman carefully paces the plot so that we never really get much time to rest. A pattern quickly starts to emerge in the story, with Rick and his people finding safety, a kind of equilibrium between running for their lives and resting, only to have that equilibrium disrupted. Each time the interval gets longer and longer, both in terms of page count and story-time, but each time you know what’s coming. The hardest moments are the most peaceful ones, when they have found a refuge from the horrors of the world because you know it isn’t going to last, and you know that when the balance is finally undone, it’s going to be worse than before. Kirkman uses this pattern and this expectation to his advantage, creating a tight and tense narrative.

He also provides us with a look at some of the ethical problems that arise from a world where the dead outnumber the living. In nearly every zombie story ever written, the living immediately start killing the zombies, but is that the right choice to make? We don’t know all the facts. We don’t know what caused this outbreak, whether it can be cured, or even whether the people affected might just get better. We just start taking head shots in ignorance, but might it not be worth it to try and learn something about these “monsters?” [2]

There’s also the question of how to organize a post-outbreak society. What kind of person or people should run the survivors’ societies? Is this an opportunity to remake civilization, or should the old ways be adhered to? How much leeway to we have in restarting the world, and what will that look like in the end? The characters in this story have to deal with how to define a family when one’s partner or parents or children could die at any time. They have a chance to redefine what is lawful and illegal, to toy with the notions of what is right and wrong, and to re-evaluate the role religion plays in their lives. It’s a chance to rebuild the world from scratch, and the characters in this story test those limits in interesting and sometimes unsettling ways.

Remember, thou art mortal. Remember, thou art mortal. Remember, thou art mortal...

And that’s assuming that the living will actually survive and thrive in a zombified world. This is a world where death is always only moments away. It is only a matter of time before the living survivors join the ranks of the undead, and the awareness of that fact is the classic existential puzzle with a little extra twist to it: how do you live when you know that you will die, and especially when you know the horror that your death will entail? One of the more heartbreaking moments is when one character gets killed, and Rick has to break the news to his young son, Carl. When he asks his son if he is upset, Carl replies, “No. People die, dad. It happens all the time. I’ll miss [him]… but I knew he was going to die eventually. Everyone will. Everyone.”

That is an observation that, frankly, no child should ever have to make.

The characters in this story make hard choices and sometimes do terrible things in the name of survival. But, with very few exceptions, there are few characters that we cannot truly come to understand and identify with. Their decisions and their reactions make them richer, more interesting, which is what truly makes for a fascinating and engaging story.

The zombies are really incidental to all that.

Pages and pages of this. I feel for you, Adelard.

As this is a comic series, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art, which is overall quite good. There were a few times when I had trouble telling some characters apart, but the high rate of attrition generally took care of that problem. The detail in the artwork is very impressive, though I can imagine there were more than a few times that Charlie Adlard cursed Robert Kirkman for setting a large part of the series in a locale with a prominent chain-link fence that couldn’t easily be ignored. As this is a horror comic, the art is sometimes horrifying, very graphic and quite satisfying without being gratuitous. Well, mostly without being gratuitous….

It’s a really excellent book, though I do have one caveat if you’re planning to buy the compendium edition: get a reinforced reading harness, or rest the book on a solid piece of furniture with a low center of gravity. This is one of the densest books I’ve ever read, packing nearly five pounds of book into less physical volume [3] than the last hardcover installment of The Dark Tower, a fairly hefty book. I think the ink may contain uranium or something. So, take measures to prevent back injury and hernias when you read this and you’ll be just fine.

Many thanks to my brother Michael for knowing I would enjoy this, and I look forward to watching the AMC television adaptation.

————————————-
“But honestly… I just don’t know what anyone’s thinking. To me, that’s scarier than any half-rotten ghoul trying to eat my flesh.”
– Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead
————————————-

[1] Cue angry email pointing me towards exactly that book or movie in 3… 2… 1…

[2] Short answer: no.

[3] It comes out to 1.147 grams per cubic centimeter, which isn’t nearly as dense as it feels when it’s making the straps of your bag dig into your shoulder….

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Filed under comic books, death, disaster, existentialism, family, graphic novel, horror, made into movies, morality, Robert Kirkman, society, zombies

Review 141: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

As all dedicated readers out there know, there is a rule when it comes to books that are made into movies: the book is always better. [1] With a book, you have more time to really savor the story, to think and consider the plot and the characters and the motivations. You can go back and re-read, stop and give the story some thought and, most importantly, let the characters come to life in your own mind. This is key, and part of what makes reading so much fun. The author gives you a basic outline of who each character is, but the details of that character will vary from reader to reader, and I guarantee – my Randle Patrick McMurphy is different from your Randle Patrick McMurphy.

And my Randle Patrick McMurphy is most certainly not Jack Nicholson. I know there’s a lot of love out there for Jack, but let’s face it – Jack Nicholson was the non-comedy equivalent of Jim Carrey in his day. The same way Carrey is the default choice for “Wacky” these days, I’m pretty sure producers back in the 70s and 80s said, “We need someone who can play nuts – get Nicholson!” And he’d come out and give That Nicholson Look which made you think that he was liable to tear your throat out at any second and that’s it. I’m not saying he’s bad at what he does – he plays one note, but he plays it well.

This is a face you can trust.

The problem is that McMurphy isn’t actually nuts. He’s brash, temperamental, insolent, contrary, but not crazy. And, to borrow from the perspective of the narrator, Chief Bromden, I don’t think that Nicholson was big enough to be McMurphy. I’m not sure if I know who would have been.

So after all this about who McMurphy isn’t, let’s take a look at who he is.

There is a mental institution up in Oregon, which caters to all kinds of mentally ill patients. They care for them as best they can, keeping a close eye on the men in their care and making sure they stay in a rehabilitative state. Through the use of regular counseling sessions and the occasional narcotic therapy, they are trying to make these men back into functioning members of society, if that is at all possible. Not all of the patients can be helped – some suffer so badly that they will live out their remaining years in the institution. But there are others who have a chance, some self-admitted, even, who are looking to move towards the path to wellness. The hospital, and especially the Head Nurse of the ward, Nurse Ratched, are devoted to their tasks and do whatever they can. This being the middle of the twentieth century, their methods are, by our standards, barbaric at times – the liberal use of electroshock, for example, or even occasionally resorting to lobotomies. But mostly Nurse Ratched uses her own innate ability to cajole, nudge, scare and shame these men into line so that her ward operates as a smoothly-running machine.

No, THIS is a face you can trust...

Until the appearance of McMurphy, a man who is not ill but is rather facing madness to get out of working on a prison farm. As soon as he appears on the ward, he becomes a threat to the Big Nurse’s clockwork kingdom. He has no patience for her rules, and indeed sees her as a challenge – how soon can he get that perfect, porcelain facade to crack and show what’s really underneath? He’s sure he can, and he’s willing to sacrifice his own freedom to do it. In doing so, he shows the other patients on the ward that they don’t have to be afraid – of her or of the world.

The book is a cracking good read, and well worth your time, just as a story of a perfectly ordered world tipped upside-down. As an allegory, of course (and a very clear one, at that) it’s even better. This is a story about order and chaos, about freedom and security. Nurse Ratched has a very well-ordered world over which she exerts perfect control. The men in her ward are taken care of, if not exactly helped, by her and her crew. There is no freedom for them, but no danger either, and for many of the men, that’s a life they can live with, if not enjoy.

McMurphy, then, is chaos. He’s the sand in the gears, the hair that won’t go where you want it to go no matter what kind of salon goop you put in it. He’s the rebel who will break the rules just because they’re rules and who prizes freedom above all else. This isn’t to say that he’s a saint – McMurphy spreads his own brand of freedom mainly by manipulating the other patients. In that way, he’s very much like Nurse Ratched, though I think he’d strangle anyone who said that to his face. But whereas the Big Nurse gets her pleasure from watching men get cut down and made docile, McMurphy gets pleasure from men finding their strength. And if he manages to make some money or have some fun of his own while he’s doing it, then all the better.

Or "freedom"

It’s a novel of freedom, naturally. It’s about people choosing their own destinies (even if the people in this book are mostly men – with the exception of Nurse Ratched, women don’t come off so well in this book.) It’s also about freedom as a society. The Nurse and her minions represent a culture that insists on conformity, that finds comfort in rules, regulations and regularity. Called “The Combine” by the book’s narrator, it would rather cut people down to size, because that’s the only way it can exert control. McMurphy shows us that we are the ones who should be in control of our lives. It’s hard, it requires risk, but the rewards are far, far greater than blind, sheeplike obedience.

The book is narrated to us by one of the more far-gone patients, a half-Native American man named Chief Bromden. He has been in the hospital for many years, and as far as the others are concerned, he’s a deaf-mute. McMurphy catches on that he’s faking pretty quickly, though, and manages to make Bromden feel like the big man he used to be. But as a narrator, it must be remembered that Bromden is unreliable – he occasionally drifts off into hallucinatory visions, and his interpretation of events is filtered through the strange, paranoid reality he’s constructed where the world is run by an Illuminati-esque “Combine” that replaces people with machines. In fact there’s a line in the very first chapter that made me wonder about the whole story: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. And it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

Two guys playing chess under an oddly-shaped chandelier. What?

So how much of the story is real? We have no idea. The Chief tells us everything he can in the best detail he can, and is an excellent relater of the tale. But knowing that he’s rather biased, we have to wonder if the heroism of McMurphy and the wickedness of Ratched are as bad as they’re made out to be, or if Bromden’s mind has changed them, made them into the avatars of freedom and control that he feels represent the way the world works. We can never know, and if you assume that he is reliable, the story is excellent.

A small confession, though: I feel kind of sorry for Nurse Ratched. I know, I know, it’s like saying, “Yeah, Hitler was bad, but I see where he was coming from.” She is undoubtedly one of the best villains in modern American fiction – frankly, between her and Darth Vader, I think she’d have him sobbing like a little baby within ten minutes (“Mister Skywalker, do you really think that this habit of choking people is beneficial to you? Would it not be more mature to discuss your feelings of disappointment? What would your mother say if she could see you like this?”) But I am a fan of order in general. I know how it feels to have a well-ordered routine get screwed up, and I think it sucks. So, putting myself in her shoes, I can see how she’d view McMurphy as a threat, and try to beat him in the only manner she knew how.

And she does beat him. But she has to cheat to do it, so I can’t really say that she wins.

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“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”
– R. P. McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
—————————————

[1] The exceptions are Lord of the Rings, where I like the movies better, and Watership Down and The Princess Bride, both of which I hold equal to the books.

Ken Kesey on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Amazon.com

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Filed under fiction, humor, Ken Kesey, made into movies, psychology, therapy

Review 140: The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King

I’m going to have pick on Jack Nicholson here, but I’m pretty sure he can take it. If I get an angry email from him, I’ll let you know. I’m also going to take a couple of shots at Staley Kubrick, who is dead and can’t defend himself, although I can probably count on some of his loyal followers doing so in his stead. Basically my goal in writing this review is to encourage you to completely ignore the film version of The Shining and appreciate the book.

Thankfully, the original line - "DY-NO-MITE!" - was cut.

To be fair, though, the film and the book really are two different beasts. They share a basic story line, yes, and some characters, but they’re looking at the story from different points of view. The film did create some iconic moments – Danny running his bigwheel down the hallway, the elevator vomiting blood, and “Heeeeere’s JOHNNY!” which isn’t outdated at all, of course. Note to filmmakers, no matter how brilliant you think you are: pop culture references have a short shelf life. Avoid them. But I think that Kubrick’s film kind of misses the point, which disappointed me greatly.

Anyway, this isn’t a movie review. So let’s shut up about that for a while, shall we?

The book is one of King’s earliest, written in 1977, and like so many of his early works it’s one of his best. It’s a tale of a hotel that’s more than just haunted – it’s possessed. It’s a place that has been a witness to all kinds of evil, inhumanity, and malice, and the spirits that inhabit it are always looking for company. So allow me to present Jack Torrance. A once-promising writer, former teacher, and an alcoholic, Jack is man whose life is on the edge of collapsing. After being fired for beating the daylights out of one of his students, the job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel is, as far as he’s concerned, the only thing keeping him and his family from complete destitution and shame.

And let’s be clear about this right up front – Jack loves his family. He loves his wife, Wendy, even if she does get under his skin from time to time, and he is utterly devoted to their son, Danny. He knows that his own upbringing, with an abusive, alcoholic father, didn’t prepare him to be a good head of household. He knows that his own drinking problems led to the breaking of his son’s arm, an incident which very nearly destroyed his marriage. He also knows – or at least believes – that he can change. That’s why he took the job at the Overlook, in order to have some time to reset. Spend sober time with the family, finish the play he’s been working on – take a breather and get ready to rebuild their lives.

See? A cozy, family-friendly place.

The Overlook is one of the premiere hotels in Colorado. It’s a place that just exudes luxury, with a history stretching back to the early 1900s and everything a person vacationing in the Rockies could want. But because it’s perched in the mountains, it has to close down for the winter. No sane person would drive up there when the snow really got started, and so the need arose for a live-in caretaker to make sure the place doesn’t succumb to the elements. It’s a lonely and perilous job, miles away from help and civilization, but the right kind of person can probably do it.

Jack might have been able to manage, if the hotel weren’t the vessel for some evil, malevolent entity that thrived on the horrible things that men do to each other. For lack of a better phrase, the hotel is psychically charged – memories permeate it, making it haunted on nearly every level. Normal people can’t perceive this – they might feel uneasy in a certain room, or hear some strange sounds at night, but if you’re a garden-variety person, you won’t notice a thing.

Any kid who talks to his own finger has gotta be watched.

Five year-old Danny Torrance is not a normal person. He has the Shine, as it is called – a psychic ability of great and wondrous strength. He can read his parents’ emotions, he can predict the future and see the past. While his power isn’t fully under his control, he knows that he’s not like other children. His is a unique mind, and it is this power, this shine, that both dooms and saves him. (As a note to Dark Tower fans – don’t you think Danny would have made a great Breaker? I wish King had hit on that….)

The hotel knows it too. It wants to use Danny to power itself, to perpetuate its evil. But it can’t get to Danny – so it gets to Jack. It preys on his weaknesses (and Jack Torrance has oh so many weaknesses) and uses him as a tool to destroy his own family.

Truly this is a creepy book. The descriptions are careful and evocative, and when King wants you to be scared, you can be damn sure that you’ll be scared. It’s cabin fever in book form, and the longer you read it, the more you can feel the hotel pressing in on you from the pages. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy, the slow destruction of what could have been a good and happy family, had they not come to this place. To be fair, Jack Torrance was not a very good human being to begin with, and the odds are good that he would have ruined his family eventually. Under the roof of the Overlook, though, he never even had a chance. As you read, you realize that while it’s hard to like Jack, you can certainly understand him.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Shelley Duvall!

And that’s why I like the book better than the movie. The film makes Jack the villain. It makes him into a guy who snaps under the pressure of not drinking, not being able to write and having a wife played by Shelley Duvall, who could have been replaced with Munch’s “The Scream” on a stick to as much effect. In the end, it’s Jack who betrays his family, Jack who tries to murder his wife and son, and Jack who dies frozen in the hedge maze.

The thing is, that’s not how King wrote it. While Jack certainly isn’t redeemed by the end of the book, it is clear that the person who was chasing Danny through the halls with a roque mallet, the person who nearly bludgeoned Wendy and Hallorann to death was not Jack Torrance. He may have looked like him, but what was doing all the evil was the thing that had defeated Jack – it was the thing that had killed him. And I think that story, about a man who was just not strong enough to resist a far greater power, is more interesting than a story about a guy who just goes nuts. Jack’s character in the book is far more nuanced and deep than I thought he was in the film, and it saddened me to see him pressed into two dimensions. And again, I think Jack Nicholson – while perhaps adequate for the role as Kubrick saw it, was not the Jack Torrance that I saw in this book.

As an aside, I thought the TV miniseries was much closer to the book and, thusly, better. True, it lacked a lot of Kubrick’s more famous directorial panache, but since a) Kubrick ruined the movie and b) I’m not a big fan of his anyway, I didn’t hold that against ABC.

Jack is not that far from Homer Simpson, really....

The book wasn’t written, I think, with a lot of Deeper Meaning in mind. I’m sure King would be the first to admit that. It’s a kind of psychological study of how to turn a weak person into a bad person, and how much pushing it would require to make a man turn to evil. It looks at the bad choices we make, and how we fool ourselves into making them. Jack Torrance is a cautionary tale against self-pity and self-delusion. Jack views himself as a perpetual victim, held back by his upbringing, his wife, his alcoholism – nothing that goes wrong in his life is actually his fault (according to Jack). Had he taken responsibility for his actions and his errors, he might have withstood the Overlook’s attacks.

The big question for this book is this: was any other outcome possible? Did the Torrance family have any choice in what happened to them, or were they doomed from the moment they set foot in the hotel? I vote for the latter. While they certainly had their chances – many chances – to get out and escape the horrible future that was bearing down on them, it was clear that was never going to happen. Jack was a man who was far too weak, too selfish and too self-absorbed to let himself leave the Overlook. And so they were doomed. The fact that anyone got out of there at all was a miracle.

This is part of the Stephen King Required Reading set – if you’re going to read any King at all, you need to read this one. It’s a horror book that’ll stay with you for a long, long time.

———————————————
“The boiler’s okay and I haven’t even gotten around to murdering my wife yet. I’m saving that until after the holidays, when things get dull.”
– Jack Torrance, The Shining
———————————————

Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Shining on Wikipedia
The Shining on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s homepage

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Filed under children, death, family, fathers, fear, horror, made into movies, madness, murder, sons, Stephen King, wives

Review 132: Cosmos

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

If you’ve known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by the math, and I probably couldn’t call up all the right data from my head at the right time, it is the idea of science and the stories of science that truly interest me. Just the fact that we live in a universe where it is possible to know how things work, where we can devise a way to look at the whole of creation, from things so large that they defy imagination to things so small that they can barely be said to exist at all. Science is imagination put into practice against the universe, and as much fun as stories and myths are, as hope and prayers may be, science is the best, most reliable way for us to come to grips with the Cosmos.

It is to Carl Sagan that I owe this love of what humans have done with ourselves.

Go ahead. Stare at this for a while.

When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Cosmos, and, since I was but a child, I never really read it. I tended more to flip through it for the interesting pictures – the speculative Jovian life forms on pages 42 and 43, the Viking photos of Mars in chapter 5, the gorgeous paintings of the views from other worlds around other stars, the photos of nebulae and galaxies, all of these things fascinated me, and if I had been a bit more patient I would have found out about them. But I was a kid, so that can be excused. What the book did for me was to open my mind to a universe of possibilities that were all within our reach, or at least would be someday.

As I got older, I saw the TV miniseries of the same name on PBS. Now the pictures that I had lingered over in the book were right before me, accompanied by Sagan’s soothing baritone. His ship of the imagination somehow managed to take us unfathomable distances from our home and bring us back again. He talked to his viewers like we were intelligent adults, fully capable of understanding and appreciating the vast scope of scientific discovery rather than a bunch of attention-deficit teenagers who couldn’t be trusted to keep watching without a jump-cut every ten seconds. Carl Sagan believed, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, that human beings were capable of overcoming our barbaric pasts and forging a bright new future together in the stars.

The purpose of Cosmos, both the book and the TV show, was to educate. It was, as Sagan put it, “to engage the heart as well as the mind,” perhaps to help shed the image of science as a cold and passionless pursuit. He wanted to show how science became what is is, from the ancient scientist/philosophers in Ionia and Alexandria all the way up to the engineers and astronauts working at NASA. It’s all part of a long chain of knowledge that ties human history together and which engages one of our deepest desires: to know how the universe works.

Go ahead, do this one yourself. We'll wait.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme of knowledge – from the way the planets form and what they’re like to the nature of the furthest reaches of space. He starts with how Eratosthenes measured the world with just a shadow and some math, and how the ancient thinkers of Alexandria were asking the same questions about the nature of the Earth that we ask today. He follows the tortured path of Johannes Kepler in his quest to understand how the planets move, the arrogant brilliance of Newton as he completely redefined the clockwork of the cosmos, and the casual miracle that Einstein pulled off when he told us that not only are we not the center of the universe but that there is no center. Each great mind led to another.

Unfortunately, each setback cost us what may be valuable time. For all his wonderment, Sagan understood how petty and ignorant human beings could be. From the beginning, and at various points in the book, he reminds us of the millennium we lost with the destruction and corruption of the ancient thinkers of the Mediterranean. As far as we can tell, the men and women who made their home in Alexandria were investigating questions and scientific problems that would have changed the way we understand the world. If the library hadn’t been burned down, if religious terror hadn’t murdered scientific insight, who knows where we would be today? It’s impossible to know, but it’s tempting to think that we might have been well on our way to the stars by now.

My brother gave me this poster. He knows me so well...

The latter chapters underscore that theme pretty heavily, reminding us over and over again that we have one world, and only one world. Not only does Sagan fear that we could obliterate ourselves with the nuclear weapons we love and fear so much, but he also fears that self-annihilation may be a natural outcome to any intelligent civilization. Our search for intelligent life on other worlds may be fruitless, because they might be just as self-destructive as we are.

But we don’t know. We can’t know, at least not yet. Our understanding of the universe is still not clear enough, our technology is still not good enough, and perhaps it never will be. But for all our stumbles and failures, Sagan wants us to remember and understand just how much humanity is capable of, and how good we could be if we really put our minds to it. And in that sense, there is a lot of value to reading it now, thirty years after it was published.

A glorious dawn indeed....

While we have not eliminated nuclear weapons, we have made great strides towards controlling them and reducing their numbers. The hopes that Sagan had for future space exploration – Mars rovers, a probe to Titan, contact with comets – have all been made real, and with outstanding results. We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact – something that Sagan is clearly unsure of at the time of writing. We have mapped the human genome and developed personal computers that have revolutionized the way we explore space. With the internet, any person on earth can catalog galaxies or explore the moon, there have been advances in nanotechnology and materials and bioengineering and evolution that would have made even Sagan’s eyes pop.

Despite all our flaws, we continue to advance. We continue to build knowledge upon knowledge and to further our understanding of how the universe works. Maybe we will one day leave this planet ourselves, perhaps just for a visit or perhaps to start a new world. Maybe if we persist in our quest to comprehend the world we live in, to shut out the howling and screaming of the voices of unreason, we can make the world a better place for generations to come.

Maybe we should all just have some pie. How much time do you have? (photo by Nicole)

In the great argument that is raging these days between the rationalists and the believers, the faithful and the atheists, it has become fashionable to try and shout the other side down. To adopt a position that excludes compromise and promises only defeat for one side or another. Sagan never would have wanted that, and I think he hit upon a solution that needs to be revisited.

Rather than try to turn people to science through cold logic or heated words, through derision and coercion and fear, do as Sagan did: win them over with wonder. The cosmos is too big, and there is too much to know to waste our time with petty arguments and pointless feuds. If you want people to appreciate science, turn to people like Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, Mary Roach, Michio Kaku, Ann Druyan, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, or Dava Sobel – people whose enthusiasm and love of science will instill people with wonder, one person at a time. And it is in that way that we will go furthest towards ensuring humanity’s place among the stars.

—————————————————-
“Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Carl Sagan on Wikipedia
Cosmos on Wikipedia
The Carl Sagan Portal (music plays when you open it, just FYI….)
Cosmos on Amazon.com

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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Carl Sagan, evolution, made into movies, nonfiction, science

Review 129: The Day Watch

The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

The distribution of this review has been banned as injurious to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

The previous book left us with an unbalanced Moscow. The forces of Light gained a powerful ally in the form of Svetlana Nazarova, a potential Great Sorceress. Even before she knew she was an Other – one of that mysterious class of beings who can work magic, who can curse, bless and change their shapes – she was able to create a curse that very nearly destroyed Moscow. She, and the city, were saved through the bravery of Anton Gorodetsky and the Night Watch, who guard against the excesses of the forces of Darkness. In the end, the Light prevailed.

But this battle between Light and Dark is far from over….

Summer camp is different when Others are around

As with The Night Watch, this volume contains three books. In the first, a young witch named Alisa Donnikova has overreached herself. In a fight with the Night Watch, Alisa poured every last drop of her magical energy into supporting her fellow Day Watch members, an act of selflessness that nearly cost her her life. Burned out, she’s directed to take a break at a children’s summer camp in the Crimea. Posing as a camp counselor, she would be in a prime position to feed off the nightmares of impressionable young girls.

A word about Others and their powers. The foundation of an Other’s power comes from humans. While any Other has her own reserves to call on, she may… feed on the normal people around her. The Light Others take happiness and joy – literally. Have you ever been feeling really good, and then somehow the feeling just drains away? That’s what the Light Others do, and it powers them to no end. Much like a flowering shrub, pruning someone’s happiness doesn’t make it go away forever, and it may even come back greater, but still – in order to become stronger, the Light Others have to weaken people.

Those on the side of the Dark, on the other hand, feed off of fear and anger, but when they do, that fear and anger remain. It’s like warming yourself by the fire – as long as you keep feeding it, it’ll keep you warm. A Dark Other at the height of his power could probably super-charge himself just by going to a snowed-in airport for a day. Believe me. This stew of rage and frustration is a little too much for Alisa, however – she must subsist on the “thin broth” that is children’s nightmares.

He's a real catch, ladies!

While she’s there, however, her plan hits a snag in the form of a handsome, solid, beautiful man named Igor. Despite herself, she falls in love with him, and she falls hard.

The fact that he’s a Light Other doesn’t come up until it’s much too late.

The second story brings a mysterious figure to Moscow. Vitaly Rogoza has no memory of who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he has to go to Moscow, and that he has power – the power of a Dark Other. Despite his personal amnesia, he has no trouble ingratiating himself with the Moscow Day Watch, and soon discovers that his power appears to have no upper limits. Why this should be, no one knows. Is he some Dark magician, beyond classification? Or is he something else entirely – something new and terrible? Whatever he is, what is his goal, and what is his link to the theft of Fafnir’s Talon, a Dark artifact of unspeakable power?

The third story brings it all together – the sad fate of Alisa Dinnokova, the theft of the Talon, and the rise and fall of the Great Sorceress Svetlana Nazarova. What’s more, the greater plans of the Light and the Dark are laid bare – and changed forever.

As before this book is heavily laden with the philosophy of Good versus Evil, Light and Dark. More importantly, it addresses the issues of freedom, a central tenet to the forces of Darkness. How free, they ask, can we really be?

The Light wants to make humanity better. They believe that, given the right influences and incentives, humanity can be great. But they need to be guided. Molded. Shaped. Consequently, the Light occasionally embarks on grand, world-changing plans, few of which actually work out the way they intend.

No one ever said freedom was nice....

The Dark, on the other hand, worships freedom. Every person, they say, should be free to choose his or her own path. If that path means doing good, then so be it. If it means doing evil, well, that’s cool too. The point is that every person is capable of deciding how their lives should be led, and no one – human or Other – should be able to take that freedom away from them.

It’s one of the oldest questions there is – how much freedom do we really deserve? And it’s a question that can never be definitively answered. But in these books, it’s fun to watch it play out.

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“There are some who think that we Dark Ones are evil. But that’s not true at all. We’re simply just. Proud, independent and just. And we decide things for ourselves.”
– Alisa, of the Day Watch, The Day Watch
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The Day Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Day Watch at Amazon.com

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Review 124: The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

Imagine a world where magic is real. A place where people known as Others are born with powers they don’t understand. Their destinies are unwritten until that fateful day when they first become an Other – when they discover the strange, shadowy and powerful world known as the Twilight – and have to make a choice: will they stand with the Light or with the Dark. Will they dedicate their lives to Good or Evil?

Maybe it ain't what it used to be, but it's still dramatic.... (art by mirerror on DeviantArt)

It’s not an easy decision to make, by any means. Joining either side has its limitations and its rules, for the battle between Good and Evil isn’t what it used to be.

Long ago, it was simple – Good fought Evil, Dark fought Light, and blood was shed on both sides. It was a vicious, unending war that threatened to decimate the world. Finally, the two sides reached an agreement. A Treaty, well deserving of the capital letter. There would be a truce between the two sides, a balance that would be maintained at all costs. Any act of evil would be balanced by an act of goodness, and vice versa. Neither side is to have an advantage.

Part of the Day Watch Auxiliary Brigade

Making sure the peace is kept is the job of the Watches – the Night Watch, staffed by elites of the Light to guard against advances by the Dark, and a Day Watch, staffed by the elites of the Dark to guard against excesses of the Light. We begin our look at the Others of Moscow with a young adept named Anton Sergeeivich Gorodetsky, a wielder of magic and an analyst forced into the more exciting realm of field work. His job is to find out who a pair of vampires are illegally attempting to seduce and stop them. In the process of doing that, and saving the soul of a young Other named Egor, he stumbles upon something that threatens the entire city of Moscow, if not all of Russia. A young woman has a curse upon her head, so horrible and so powerful that the forces of the Light may have no chance to disperse it. If she dies, the city will die with her. If she lives, even worse may befall the world.

There are three stories in this book, somewhat independent but entirely connected. The first details the discovery of Egor and the cursed Svetlana. In the second, an Other of the Light, a maverick who doesn’t know about the rest of the Others, or the Treaty between Light and Dark, is murdering Dark adepts. Somewhat alarmingly, Anton is being framed for the murders. In the third book, Moscow is gripped in a heat wave. In the midst of this, the leaders of the Light are attempting to change the world. Whether it ends up being for the better or the worse, no one can know. But Anton is convinced that it must not come to pass….

Team ANTON!!!!!

It’s a gripping fantasy, in a very complex world. It’s compared to Rowling’s work, and justly so (although I don’t think there’s much of a case to be made for an attempt to ride on Rowling’s coattails – Night Watch was originally published in 1998, only a year after the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). There are substantial differences, of course, making Night Watch a much more adult book than the Potter series. There are very few children, and the few that are there are not in very substantial roles. There’s far more drinking, smoking and sex in this, of course. But the world that Lukyanenko has created is every bit as deep and complex as the one Rowling has made. There are any number of roles that could be played, and an almost infinite number of situations that could be built on the fairly simple rules that are set up by the Light-Dark Treaty.

The biggest difference, of course, is in the complexity of the world. Rowling’s world is fairly definitive in its divisions between good and evil – there is good, there is evil, and there is no question of which is which. The evil characters are definitively evil, and the good characters are definitively good, and the reader doesn’t have to worry too much about who’s on which side, Snape notwithstanding.

The Others of Moscow, however, are not nearly so clear-cut. Yes, the Light is trying to do the work of the Good, to make the world a better place. But their machinations and their plots don’t always go as planned. See the Russian Revolution and World War II for examples why. They ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences and the horrors it can unleash. By trying to do Good, they unleash great evil upon the world.

He's just a big softie, really....

And how about the Dark? Yes, they’re populated by werewolves, witches and vampires, but they are advocates of utter and total freedom. They do not destroy for the sheer joy of destruction, but because they want to increase the personal freedom of the world. They’re not interested in making humanity “better,” or making a better world. They simply want to live in the world as it is, free from restraints – both internal and external.

While it may be pretty clear who is on the Light and Dark side, it’s not entirely clear who is doing Good or Evil at any given time. And, more importantly, it is almost impossible to know who is actually right.

It’s a great read – full of anguish and self-doubt and torture, like any good Russian novel should be. Anton knows that the Light doesn’t live up to the standards that it preaches, but he knows that he needs to be on the right side. He picks apart the intricate, decades-long plot of the Night Watch and very nearly figures out how to foil it. But even in revealing the truth, he does not manage to save the world from the doom of the Light.

Or does he?

We’ll have to read the next book and find out….

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“You accuse us of cruelty, and not entirely without reason, but what’s one child killed in a black mass compared with any fascist children’s concentration camp?”
– Zabulon, of the Day Watch, The Night Watch
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The Night Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Night Watch at Amazon.com

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Review 123: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

Gods, where do I even start with this?

As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I read this during Banned Books Week for two reasons. First, it’s on the ALA’s list of top banned or challenged books, and second because it’s really, really good.

As with all the books I read, there’s always a little part of me thinking about what I’m going to say about the book once I finally decide to write about it. Sometimes I start composing in my mind, coming up with the pithy words and phrases that have made me into the international book reviewing superstar that I am.

This time, however, I could barely concentrate for the cacophony in my head. There’s just so much going on in this novel that doing it any sort of justice would probably require writing a book that was longer than the book that it was analyzing. And as much as I love you guys, I’m not about to write a whole book about this. Probably because I reckon better minds than mine already have.

Art by Party9999999 on DeviantArt

Regardless, it’s hard to choose where exactly to go on this one. There are so many political, sociological, psychological and philosophical threads to pick up here that no matter what I write about, I’m pretty sure I’ll get responses about how I didn’t mention the solipistic nature of Ingsoc and its relationship to the philosophy behind modern cable news network reporting strategies. Don’t worry, guys – I got that one.

I suppose two big things came to mind while I was reading it this time, and the first of them was inspired by the previous book I read, To Kill a Mockingbird. In that book, Atticus Finch talks a lot about bravery. To teach his son about what it truly means to be brave, he gets him to take part in an old woman’s struggle to free herself of a morphine addiction before she dies – an excruciating process that is more likely to fail than to succeed. But she does it anyway. Atticus says to his son about bravery, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

The question in my mind, then, was “Is Winston Smith brave?”

I really want to put this on a t-shirt....

It’s a hard question to answer, really. By Atticus’ definition, you could say that he is. A member of the Outer Party that rules the superstate of Oceania, Winston Smith is a part of a greater machine. He works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth, diligently altering and “rectifying” the data of the past to bring it into alignment with what the Party wants to be true. His is a world where there is no such thing as objective truth – the truth is what the Party says it is.

A good member of the Party sublimates his will to that of the Party. What Big Brother wants, she wants. She has no love but love for the Party and no dreams but to do what the Party wants of her. A good Party member doesn’t have plans or hopes or dreams. He doesn’t ask questions or idly wonder if things could be different from what they are. A good Party member doesn’t think. He is born, lives, consumes, and dies.

Winston, however, cannot be a good Party member. He wonders why the world is the way it is, and begins down a road to assert his own identity as a human being. He knows full well that he will fail, that in the end he and the woman he loves will be delivered into the hands of the Thought Police, and he is appropriately terrified. But he goes through with it anyway. He keeps a diary of his thoughts and actively tries to join an underground movement that is determined to overthrow the Party and Big Brother. He declares himself willing to undertake acts of heinous treason, all in the name of resistance against the Party.

The new faces of the Party. DOUBLEPLUSGOOD!!

And in the end, he fails, just as he knew he would. So does this make Winston, a man who is so far in character from Atticus Finch, a brave person? Well, yes and no.

He does meet Atticus’ definition of bravery – persisting in what you believe to be right, even in the knowledge that you will probably fail. Winston puts his own life on the line multiple times, committing Thoughtcrime of the highest order. But is he doing it for some higher ideal, or is he doing it for more selfish reasons? Flashbacks to his younger days suggest that Winston Smith was an unrepentantly selfish child, who was willing to disregard the dire straits of his own mother and baby sister in order to get what he wanted. Could we not say that the adult Winston does the same? That he is more interested in freedom for himself than for others? Is his rebellion against Big Brother political or personal? He claims that he wants to see the world changed and freedom brought to all people, but how far can we trust a mind that’s been well-trained in Doublethink?

This, of course, gets right back to the Big Question of why people do the right thing, when it might be so much easier and profitable to do otherwise. Atticus Finch could have let Tom Robinson swing, thus saving himself and his family a whole lot of trouble, just as Winston could have just given up and emulated his neighbor, Parsons, becoming as good a Party member as possible. Neither man could do that, though, because is was not in their nature to do so. It was impossible for Winston to continue to live the way the Party wanted to and, given time, he may have been able to reach beyond meeting his own personal needs and seen to the needs of his greater community.

Unfortunately, we never get the chance to find out, as the Thought Police eventually get tired of watching him and take him in. To his credit, he does hold out to the last extreme before he betrays Julia in his heart, so perhaps he is brave after all.

How adorable....

The other thing that came to mind while I read was the modern use of the word “Orwellian,” and how it falls vastly short of what is depicted in this book. It gets thrown about any time a city puts up a few CCTV cameras downtown, or a business decides to put surveillance cameras in their store. It comes up when we put RFID chips in passports and credit cards, or when we think about how much data Google can hold about us. The word brings to mind a sense of constant surveillance, never being able to move or act without some government or corporation knowing what we’re doing.

While the concept of the two-way telescreens in this book certainly are a logical extension of surveillance culture, to call a customer database or red light cameras “Orwellian” is like calling a Bronze-age chariot a Ferrari. It betrays an incredible lack of understanding of what exactly is going on in the world that Orwell has built. We may be watched by these people, but in comparison to the average citizen of Oceanea – prole or Party member – we are still remarkably free.

Freedoms available to us. Not these people.

There are still freedoms available to us that people like Winston never had, and couldn’t understand even if they were offered. We can protest, we can voice our disagreements, we can channel our energies into whatever pursuit we choose, or not channel them at all. We have the freedom to decide who we want to be and how we want to live, at least within the limits of a well-ordered society. We do not live in daily terror that we might be abducted from our beds, our lives ended and our very existence erased from record and memory. Honestly, I think a few security cameras pale in comparison to the horror that is Oceanea and the world of Big Brother.

There is so much more to talk about with this book. I find Newspeak fascinating, and its foundations both amazing and terrifying. The idea that a concept can only truly exist if there’s a word for it brings to mind those “untranslatable” words you find in every language. For example, there’s no equivalent to the English “miss” in Japanese, as in “I miss my mother.” Does that mean that people in Japan are incapable of missing people? Of course not, but the underlying theory of Newspeak suggests otherwise. Once the party reduces the English language to a series of simple words with no nuance or subtlety of meaning, the idea goes, Thoughtcrime will be literally impossible. After all, how can one wish for freedom if the concept itself is impossible to articulate?

Then there’s the idea of the mutability of the past. The way the Party exerts its unbreakable control over the population is by virtue of the fact that they control all media – newspapers, radio, television, publishing of all sorts. If the Party wants to, say, claim that Big Brother invented the airplane, all they have to do is revise all relevant media to reflect their desired past, and then replace and destroy anything that disagrees with them. With no evidence that Big Brother didn’t invent the airplane, all that’s left is fallible human memory, and those who do think they remember the “right” version of the past will eventually die anyway. Whoever controls the present, the Party says, controls the future. And whoever controls the past controls the present. By remaking the past, the Party guarantees that they can never be gainsaid or proven to have erred in any way.

Even Big Brother would crumble before 4chan....

Fortunately for us, Big Brother never had the internet to contend with. As anyone who’s been online for a while knows, nothing on the internet ever goes away. Ever. The words of any leader or influential person are all there, in multiple copies, all of which can themselves be copied and distributed in mere seconds. While it is possible to fake a photograph, the awareness of that possibility, as well as the technology to suss out the fakes, are just as available to anyone who wants them. Even in cases where there are disputes about the past, or re-interpretations of past events, it is impossible for one version to systematically replace all others. While this sometimes results in competing versions of the past, the one with the most evidence tends to prevail.

Continuing in that vein, the understanding that the Party controls all information about itself leads to a very interesting question that’s not addressed in the book – is anything that is not directly witnessed by Winston Smith true? We are led to believe, for example, that there are three world powers – Oceanea, Eastasia and Eurasia – which are locked in a state of perpetual war. The nature of this war and how it serves the interests of these three nations is laid out in Goldstein’s Book, which is the text of the Revolution that Winston and Julia want to join. But here’s the thing – Goldstein’s Book is an admitted fiction, written by the Party as a kind of honeypot to bring suspects through the last stages of their Thoughtcrime. So we have no proof that the world of Nineteen Eighty-four actually is laid out the way it appears.

Is this the real world? GO TO ROOM 101, CITIZEN!

The Party could in fact dominate the world, using the pretext of war to keep the world’s citizens terrified, needy and compliant. On the other extreme, Oceanea could just be Britain, turned in on itself like some super-accelerated North Korea, its borders sealed and its citizens kept in utter ignorance of the world outside. We don’t know. We have no way of knowing, and neither do any of the characters in the book. Even the Inner Party members might not know the truth of their world, and wouldn’t care if they did.

One more thing, and I’ll keep this one short – Doublethink. The ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind, believing in both of them simultaneously and yet being unaware that there’s any conflict at all. Knowing, for example, that last week chocolate rations were at thirty grams, and at the same time knowing that this week they had been raised to twenty. All I can say here is to look at the health care debate in the United States. Here’s a fun game: see how often someone says, “We have the best health care in the world,” and then see how long it takes before they tell us that health care in the United States is irrevocably broken. Your average politician and pundit does this kind of thing all the time and, in accordance with the basic principles of Doublethink (also known as Reality Control), they immediately forget that they had done it.

No! Not Obamacare! Do it to Julia! DO IT TO JULIA!!! (Art by Scott Sullivan on Flickr)

This game is much easier if you watch Glenn Beck for half an hour. You’ll be missed, Glenn.

There is just so much to be gleaned from this book. Probably the most important is this – the world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-four is certainly not an impossible one, but it is unlikely. The people of that world allowed the Party to take over for them in a time of crisis, and in that sense this book is a warning to us all. It is a warning to keep the power that we have, and to resist the temptation to let a government decide who we should be.

——————————————-
“I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.
Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-four

George Orwell on Wikipedia
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Wikipedia
Online comic adaptation
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Amazon.com

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