Category Archives: made into movies

Books that were made into movies.

Review 93: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I have kind of a weird confession to make. It’s not really a confession as such, since you only confess things that you’re ashamed of or that you feel you have done wrong. But this is something that I believe people may find a little odd, so I suppose it’s the best word under the circumstances.

I don’t kill cockroaches.

Fortunately, I live up on the tenth floor in a nice modern apartment building, so they’re not really a problem for me. But even in my old place, where they’d turn up from time to time, or walking about in the city, where you’re bound to see them, especially after dark, I feel no desire to do what everyone else seems to do – freak out and jump on them with both feet. After all, why should I? They’re just being what they are. They’re just doing what millions of years of evolution have programmed them to do. They don’t act out of malice or with the intention of trying to harm me, so I say live and let live.

Oh, don’t get me wrong – I don’t let roaches stay. I’ll capture them, take them out to the riverbank or somewhere and let them go. I’ll put down deterrents to roaches around the house. I may be kindly-disposed towards all living things [1], but I’m not an idiot. My point is, I feel a certain empathy towards those little guys, just trying to make their way in a hostile, anti-cockroach world.

And that’s how I know I’m not an android.

When we talk about things like computer intelligence, one of the questions that comes up is how we would tell an artificial intelligence apart from the real thing? For a computer-bound AI, there’s the Turing Test – a conversation with a human wherein the human cannot tell that she’s talking to a computer. And that’s good, as far as that goes. But what if we start putting them into physical bodies? What if we make these AIs in our image? Fleshy, sweaty, hairy robots that look and behave just like humans do? How, then, would we be able to tell the difference between a made being and a natural-born human?

Philip K. Dick’s answer is empathy, and it is at the core of this book.

Dick is kind of like science fiction’s mad mystic. He explores the hidden inner worlds of the people involved in the story, peeling apart issues of identity and psychology and reality itself, forcing the reader to ask him or herself what’s really going on.

In other words, reading his work can be something of a head trip.

This novel introduces us to a near-future America, one which is greatly different from the one we know today. After a devastating nuclear war that wiped out countless species of plants and animals, the planet is being slowly emptied out. Those who are young, healthy and fertile are allowed to emigrate to off-world colonies. With them go the androids as servants, workers and slaves. Some people stay on Earth for reasons of their own. J.R. Isadore, for example, is a “special,” one who doesn’t make the genetic grade to leave the planet. Rick Deckard, on the other hand, is a bounty hunter, a man whose duty is to hunt down and destroy androids that come to Earth. Deckard has been handed a special assignment – six androids of the latest model, Nexus-6, have landed nearby. They’re strong, intelligent, almost indistinguishable from humans, and Deckard has to “retire” them all before they get away.

Like many people, I first encountered this story in the movie Blade Runner, which followed much the same path. And, probably like a lot of people who saw the movie first, I was a bit thrown by the difference between the two. Rick Deckard in the book is not the morose lone wolf that he is in the movie. He has a wife here, and an electric sheep that he keeps on the roof (though he’d never admit to his neighbors that it was electric.) He has an interest in animals – the keeping of which is a mark of true status in a world where so many species have gone extinct. He’s a more interesting character, with more depth and inner conflict than we see in the film. On the other hand, Roy Baty, Deckard’s adversary, is far less interesting. He’s intelligent and cruel, yes, but with so much less visceral power than Rutger Hauer gave him.

The major themes are different as well. In the movie, one of the overriding themes is the desire to live, the instinctive need that humans have to keep surviving even for just one more second. It’s what keeps Deckard hanging on the edge of the roof when Roy’s already broken his fingers. It’s what sends Roy to Tyrell’s home in the middle of the night with murder on his mind. The replicants in the film, despite being made beings, want what we want: more life.

The book follows a different path, though. The book looks at the difference between human and android, the Born and the Made, especially where it comes to that elusive quality of empathy. It is a capacity that only humans are supposed to possess, and indeed there is a whole religion founded around it – Mercerism. By using “Empathy Boxes,” a person can become one with the iconic Wilbur Mercer, and share the joys and pains of everyone else connected to him at the same time. Life in all its forms becomes utterly sacred, and the destruction of a living thing is one of the greatest sins one can commit.

The androids, on the other hand, know nothing of empathy. They would gladly give up one of their own to die in their place. In one rather vivid scene, the android Pris starts snipping the legs off a spider, an act so monstrous that it drives J.R. Isadore to betray her and the other androids, people he believes are his only friends. The androids can pretend to feel empathy, but a simple test of involuntary physical responses show that they cannot truly feel it.

So, in a world where life has been scythed clean, respect for life is the highest virtue. The androids have no respect for life, and must therefore be kept off the planet, eliminated if they set foot on it. But what happens when they get more complex? What happens when the androids are so good, the humans begin to empathize with them? How can you destroy something when you can imagine its pain as your own? And if you can refrain from killing a lowly cockroach because you have empathy for it, how can you then turn around and kill thinking, self-aware android?

It’s the kind of logical and moral conundrum that Dick excels at. The capacity for empathy cannot be what makes one creature worthy of protection and another not. After all, cockroaches don’t feel empathy any more than androids do, yet they would be cherished in this world. It must then be the ability to generate empathy in others that is important, and in this book we see the androids cross that line. Deckard realizes that he’s beginning to feel for the things he has to kill, and cannot reconcile that feeling with his job.

The theme of Born versus Made is reflected all through the book, especially where animals show up. There are animals that are presented as real, which later turn out to be androids. Others which the characters think are androids, but turn out to be real. Some characters can’t even say with certainty whether they are not androids. All throughout the book, people find themselves in the position where they can’t tell the difference between biological life and constructed life, which then raises a whole new question – if you can’t tell the difference, then is there any difference at all?

It’s the kind of question best discussed over a cup of coffee at Denny’s with your friends in college.

Even today, people look down on science fiction as being less substantial than “real” fiction. Stories of androids and bounty hunters and off-world colonies, they think, can’t compete with tales of single mothers raising kids in the inner cities or soldiers fighting and dying in a pointless war. To those who think there’s nothing to grab on to in science fiction, I submit this book. It’ll stay in your head, keep you up at night, and make you ask the kinds of questions that you’ll never be able to answer.

If that’s not quality writing, then I don’t know what is.

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“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”
– Mercer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
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[1] Well, almost all living things. There’s still Ann Coulter….

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick official site
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Amazon.com

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Review 74: Starship Troopers


Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

This book is controversial. Says so right there on the cover – “The Controversial Classic of Military Adventure!” A quick look at its Wikipedia page seems to support this, claiming that the book has been criticized for its literary merit, its support of the military, up to and including fascism, racism, utopianism, and gods know what else. What is certainly true is that it’s a book that is guaranteed to make someone, somewhere very angry.

In the unspecified future, humanity has taken to the stars. In our efforts to colonize planets that are hospitable to us, we have spread as far and as wide as possible. Unfortunately, this has brought us into direct contact with alien races who are not entirely keen on sharing land with us, and, as we have always done, we are willing to fight, bleed and die for every inch of it.

Our main enemy is the Bugs, whose proper name we never actually learn, and they are a vicious enemy indeed. They possess a hive mind, made up of Soldiers, Workers and Brains. The Soldiers are, of course, the most dangerous, not least because they have no individual sense of self-preservation. Unlike the human soldiers, who value their comrades and brothers-in-arms highly, the Bugs will never go back for a fallen comrade and never consider the safety of their own when prosecuting a campaign against the humans. In other words, the Bugs truly are alien to us, and therefore need to be eliminated.

The story follows a young man, Juan Rico, in his journey from enlisted grunt in the Mobile Infantry to Officer in the Terran Federation. Through his eyes, we learn about the technological lengths that we have gone to in order to be able to fight the Bugs. First among these is the powered armor that the Mobile Infantry wears – an all-purpose exoskeletal suit that vastly increases its wearer’s speed and strength, in addition to providing him with instant contact with his squadmates and vital information that he needs to fight the enemy. Humanity in the future has made great strides in terms of warfare, all out of need to defeat the Bugs.

You might be forgiven, then, for thinking that this was a grand military adventure. That we would feel the thrill and terror of a young military recruit as he experiences a universe larger and wilder than he ever could have imagined. You would be wrong.

Not entirely wrong, of course. If you read it right, you can infer the newness and strangeness of the circumstances that Juan Rico finds himself in. But this book isn’t about Juan Rico, even though he is the narrator. In fact, we don’t even learn his proper name until nearly two-thirds of the book is finished. Before then he’s just “Johnnie,” which is one of the most generic soldier names out there. Juan Rico is so irrelevant to the story that we don’t even find out that English isn’t his native tongue until three pages before the end of the book. Juan Rico is nothing more than a cipher in this tale, about as important to the content of Starship Troopers as Glaucon is to The Republic.

In the classic tale of Socrates, the philosopher talks about justice and politics and society, with his wisdom inspired by a question-and-answer session with his students. Somehow, the students always manage to ask just the right questions to allow Socrates to expound on his theories, and they’re usually wrong in just the right ways to make Socrates look smart. So it is with Starship Troopers.

Juan Rico is the means by which Robert Heinlein is able to put forth his opinions on war and society, politics, citizenship, crime, child-rearing and, of course, military service. Instead of writing a series of straightforward essays, unfortunately, he decided to make his readers slog through Starship Troopers.

This book is a love letter to the military and all it stands for. Not just war and death and destruction, of course, but also loyalty, sacrifice and devotion to duty. It is an examination into why people become soldiers, why some succeed and others fail, and about the historical importance of the soldier class in human history. It’s about war as a tool of diplomacy, both in its startling effectiveness and its unfortunate inevitability, as well as the importance of the chain of command and proper military discipline. It’s about the comradeship of veterans and the lessons they learn during the service. There’s a good reason why this book is on the reading lists for both the Navy and the Marines.

What it is not about is any of the characters that are actually involved in the story. The only reason Juan Rico is who he is is because he is not someone else. He could have been Buddy St. Germaine or Phil Waxman or Marvin Crumplebottom and the story would have read exactly the same: son of a rich businessman who enlists in the armed forces just to tweak his father, learns a whole host of Valuable Lessons ™ and eventually discovers his calling. There is absolutely nothing about Juan Rico than makes him any more interesting than any other character except that he happens to be the narrator of the story.

If that were all, I might be able to let this book slide as just thinly-veiled military fetishism. But honestly, there’s no veil there at all. The story stops in several places while Heinlein uses his characters as mouthpieces to tell us how he thinks society should be run. Ancillary characters – students, subordinate soldiers – ask just the right questions or are wrong in just the right ways so that Heinlein, much like Plato speaking through Socrates, can make the points he wants to make.

Juan’s professor, retired Lt. Colonel Dubois, and the other lecturers repeatedly point to the 20th century as a model of how not to govern, happily cherry-picking some of the worst results of our system of government and holding them up as the inevitable result of a society that is not run by veterans. For that is how he sees the best of all possible states – one in which only veterans are full citizens and in which only veterans can run the country. The logic being that only someone who has voluntarily enlisted and served in the military is able to truly put the needs of society before his own, and is therefore the best person to run a country. Heinlein, through his fictional avatars, then goes on to show how much more superior the Terran Federation is to its more democratic predecessors and how stupid we were not to see the obvious truth.

The message, then, is that the reader is stupid if he or she does not agree with Heinlein. The ancillary characters who challenge Heinlein’s thesis are written as obvious idiots and are roundly insulted and abused by their superiors, which effectively becomes Heinlein abusing his readers.

In addition, Heinlein sets up so many straw men to knock down that it gets tiresome. Juan’s father, for example, is almost stereotypical as a foil to Dubois. Mr. Rico is rich and aloof and sees the military as nothing more than a bunch of violent thugs who have outlived their usefulness. The first time we see him, he is a snob and a jerk, and Juan’s decision to piss him off by joining is almost inevitable. The next time we see Mr. Rico, of course, he has joined the Mobile Infantry himself, and has seen the error of his ways.

Other members of the cast are overtly written to embody certain themes in Heinlein’s opinion of military rule, both positive and negative. Private Hendrick, for example, is a constant complainer, one who stands up for himself during boot camp and just barely escapes a hanging. He is not disciplined enough to be a soldier, and by extension a citizen, and therefore serves as a warning to others. Sergeant Zim [1], on the other hand, is the consummate soldier – hard on his charges in boot camp, yet as concerned about them as a father would be to his sons. Zim, along with an array of Lieutenants, Captains and other officers, serve as blatant father-substitutes for Juan Rico, with all of the qualities that one would want in a father and absolutely none of the drawbacks. If anything, their only flaws are that they are too concerned about their soldiers.

While reading, I wondered if maybe Heinlein was being sarcastic. If perhaps he was trying to demonstrate the true folly of military fetishism by taking it to its ultimate extreme. I have to admit, I didn’t disagree with all of his ideas. His thoughts on juvenile delinquency, for example, really struck a chord in me – he maintains that treating young offenders as rational adults who can learn from their crimes is foolishness since, like puppies, young people are not inherently rational and have not yet learned the difference between right and wrong. The term “juvenile delinquent,” he maintains, is an oxymoron, since a juvenile has not yet been able to learn of his duty to others, and therefore cannot be delinquent. To treat him as if he were is to fatally misunderstand human nature.

And I think there is a grain of truth to the idea that someone who willingly puts her or his life and body on the line for his or her fellow citizens might indeed have the perspective necessary to govern a country. I would point out, however, that this argument rests on a flawed assumption – that service automatically confers selflessness. There may be correlation, but causation is not yet proven.

But I don’t think he’s being sarcastic. The themes and ideas in this book resonate with those that permeate his other books. What’s more, Dubois sounds like Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus Long and Professor De la Paz – other characters from other books who all served as mouthpieces for the author’s political and social philosophies. And this is what makes Heinlein’s books so special – he is not afraid to stand up for his ideas and put them right there on the page for the reader to see.

It is not so much Heinlein’s ideas that I object to in this book, even if I do disagree with many of them. It is his presentation of those ideas that bothers me. Flawed logical methods presented as irrefutable discourse, transparent characters with no life beyond their purpose as object lessons, and a dissertation on military supremacy that is just barely disguised as a science fiction novel. It is written from the presumption that the writer is right and the reader is, from the first page, completely and utterly wrong.

I think the ideas that Heinlein presents in this book are important, and they are worthy of discussion. I just wish he had held his readers in a little higher esteem when he decided to discuss them.

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“My mother says that violence never settles anything.”
“So? I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.”
– Student to Mr. Dubois
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[1] As a side note, the entire boot camp sequence is much, much more entertaining if you read Sgt. Zim with the voice of Invader Zim. It exponentially improves the book.

Starship Troopers on Wikipedia
Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
Starship Troopers on Amazon.com
The Heinlein Society

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Filed under made into movies, military, philosophy, Robert Heinlein, science fiction, war

Review 47: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency


Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

I want an electric monk.

As Douglas Adams tells us in this book, every civilization creates mechanical devices designed to save us from our labor. We have dishwashers to wash our tedious dishes for us, VCRs to watch those tedious television programs so we don’t have to, and finally the Electric Monk to believe in those things we can’t be bothered to believe in.

Is that cool, or what?

As strange as it sounds, the Electric Monk is actually integral to the plot. But this plot is complex enough to deserve it. The main character, more or less, is Richard MacDuff, an up-and-coming young computer programmer who has several unique problems. The first problem is that of his couch – it’s stuck in the stairwell and, by all logic as affirmed by the best computer modeling systems, should never have gotten where it was in the first place.

The second problem is that he’s wanted for the murder of his boss. He didn’t do it, of course, but that kind of thing doesn’t really impress the police. And, of course, there’s the problem with the woman he loves, Susan, who just so happens to be the sister of the boss whom Richard is accused of murdering.

Add into all that the titular Dirk Gently, if that is his real name. Dirk is a man who, since college, has unswayingly, constantly denied having any kind of psychic powers whatsoever – which caused him some problems during his university days when he managed to correctly predict, down the the comma, the contents of a major exam.

Now older and weirder, Dirk runs his Holistic Detective Agency. His work rests on one simple principle: the Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things. Based on a common misunderstanding of quantum theory, Dirk believes that all things are fundamentally connected to all other things, no matter how tenuous those connections might appear to the unaided eye. So during the course of, say, looking for a lost cat, it is entirely possible that he may have to go down to the beach in Bermuda. Because, fundamentally, all things are connected. And billable.

Then there’s the matter of a time machine hidden in Cambridge and the temptation that can arise from having one. With what amounts to a TARDIS, one could go to any point in time and space. You could visit ancient lands, pet extinct animals or, if necessary, fix something that had gone terribly, terribly wrong. It’s tricky, but it can be done. And if you’re the ghost of an alien whose simple mistake – putting his trust in an Electric Monk, for example – consigned it to billions of years of insubstantial solitude, a time machine might be very tempting indeed.

There’s really no good way to summarize this book. As Douglas Adams is fond of doing, there seem to be several plotlines and events which, at first, seem to have no relation to each other. But as you read, you find out that the Electric Monk isn’t as funny as we thought he was, that putting a salt shaker into a piece of pottery can cause more problems than you think, and that you should always be afraid of people with nothing to lose.

As Dirk claims, all things in this book are fundamentally interconnected, even if it’s not obvious at the moment.

Yes, even the couch.

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“My mind is my center and everything that happens there is my responsibility. Other people may believe what it pleases them to believe, but I will do nothing without I know the reason why and know it clearly.”
– Dirk Gently, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
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Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency on Wikipedia
Douglas Adams on Wikipedia
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency at Amazon.com

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Review 45: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What is there to say about this book that hasn’t already been said? I mean, it’s one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the last fifty years, and is considered a classic of American literature. It’s required reading in nearly every high school in America – and at the same time it’s a regular guest on the American Library Association’s “Most Banned Books” list.

A lot of minds, many better than mine, have turned their thoughts to this book, and have no doubt picked every last shred of meaning, metaphor and symbolism from it. So what’s left for me to say about it? Sure, I can talk about how it’s a classic coming-of-age tale, about how Scout Finch, a young girl living in a small, insular town in Alabama, saw her world shaped and changed by the goodness and integrity of her father, Atticus. We can look at the family dynamics of the story – a family without a mother, save for the surrogate matriarch roles played first by the maid, Calpurnia, and then by Aunt Alexandria, Atticus’ sister. We can analyze how the power in that family structure changes and shifts, and ultimately rests in Atticus’ capable hands.

Or we can look at the elements of symbolism in the book – the mad dog, foreshadowing the vicious Bob Ewell, whose hatred for Atticus costs him his life. Or the title, as we wonder throughout the book, “Who is the mockingbird?” Is it a person, even, or could it be something as intangible as Innocence? Of course we find out, in the end – it’s the shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley, who must be protected as a mockingbird would be.

And who is Boo, anyway? What does he mean to the America of the 1930s, in which the book was set? Or the 1960s, in which it was published? Or the Aughts, in which I’m reading it? Is he a metaphor for America at that time, too consumed by its troubles to venture out, yet willing to protect those it holds dear, an intentional foreshadowing of the Great War that lays only six years in the future? Or is he the ghostly antithesis of Atticus Finch, a man who does the right thing only once in his life, rather than every day?

It’s also a defense of the American legal system. The trial of Tom Robinson is hopelessly unwinnable, but Atticus knows that it is something to be marveled at that Tom even gets a chance. A thin chance, yes, but in so many other times and places, Tom would have just been killed right on the scene of his alleged crime, and no one would have done anything about it. But in America, the courts are the great levelers. Even a black man, who in that time and that place was a citizen only on sufferance, can still have his day in court. He had very little chance, but with a lawyer like Atticus, who believes wholeheartedly in the purity of Law, he had a better chance than most. “Our courts have their faults,” he says, “as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.” Without this system, however, even a man of Atticus’ talents and integrity wouldn’t have been able to help Tom Robinson.

I guarantee – someone, somewhere has thought about all of these things, and has probably written more about them than I ever could. And with more passion and skill. So I’ll just write about what the book made me think, and hope I can put that into words that sound good to all of you.

I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up.

As much as the book may be narrated by Scout, and Boo Radley haunts it like an unquiet ghost, the story is about Atticus – a good man in a small town who tries to do everything he can to make his part of the world a better place.

The central event of this book, which echoes from first page to last, is a trial in which Atticus has to do an impossible thing – defend a black man from charges of raping a white woman. By taking this case, Atticus knowingly risks his reputation, his safety and his life, as well as those of his family. It’s hard for us here, in an age when the United States has a black President, to truly understand just how racially broken the country used to be. Not that everything is hunky-dory now – anyone who claims that the election of President Obama somehow solved the problem of race in America has a lot of re-thinking to do. But it was so much worse back then.

Atticus Finch is a man with an unshakable moral compass, who knows the difference between right and wrong and how to make sure he does the right thing. He knows that he is a role model not only for his children, but for the people of his town – in several parts of the book, he’s likened to a savior.”We are so rarely called on to be Christians,” says Miss Maudie, a rather progressive neighbor of the Finch’s, “but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.” He exhorts his children to spend time in another’s skin, to really look at the world from their perspective, in order to understand why they do what they do. He values intellect and reason over emotion and fighting, but is not afraid to take action when it’s absolutely necessary. He bears an immense responsibility on his shoulders, not only for the people of his town – black and white – but for his family, that he may raise his children to be good people as well.

Probably my favorite Atticus moment in the book comes in chapter eleven, with the redemption of Mrs. Dubose. A cantankerous old woman living down the street, Mrs. Dubose is a terror to Scout and her brother Jem. She eventually provokes Jem into a fury, whereupon he destroys her camellias, the punishment for which is that Jem must go to her home and read to her for a month. He does, as he’s Atticus’ son and therefore keeps his promises, but it’s not a pleasant duty. She drifts off into nearly comatose states by the end of their reading sessions, which last longer and longer as what Jem believes must be further punishment for his crime.

It is only later, after Mrs. Dubose dies, that Atticus reveals the real reason Jem was sent to go read to her – so he could help her overcome a crippling morphine addiction before she died. She wanted to die free of her burden, and Atticus wanted his son to see what it means to truly be brave. It was important that Jem understand, before the trial got into full swing, that, “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.” Mrs. Dubose won, thanks to Atticus, and his son learned what it means to be brave.

The only real criticism I can think of with regards to Atticus Finch is that he’s too good. It’s hard to find a flaw in the man, other than his nearly unbending insistence on doing the right thing, even if it should put his family in danger. He’s kind of like Superman in that regard – his greatest flaw is his unwillingness to compromise on what is right, even if it hurts those close to him.

Of all the flaws one could have, though, that’s not too bad.

I am reminded that one of the greatest questions of philosophy is “Why should we do good?” Atticus knows why. Because it’s the only thing he can do and still live with himself. He doesn’t need to justify what he does to anyone else. He doesn’t need to convince anyone that he’s doing what is right. He only needs to convince himself. As long has he can look his children in the eyes, he knows that what he’s doing is right, and that’s all he requires. And perhaps he is an idealist, yes. But he’s an idealist who lives up to his ideals, who lives through those ideals every day. He knows that what he does won’t necessarily change his little town, much less the world, but he does it anyway. Because that’s what living a good and honest life means, and that’s what I learned from Atticus Finch.

What surprises me, honestly, is that this is the only book Harper Lee’s written. It’s so rich, so gripping, just so damn good that it’s hard to believe she never had another story she wanted to tell. Her entry in Wikipedia says that she’s written some essays and started a few novels, but never finished them, which saddens me. But then, perhaps some writers have countless stories in them – some of them great, some of them not – and others just have one. And in Lee’s case, it was a humdinger.

If you’re going into high school and you’re reading this – you will be required to read this book at some point. I know how irritating it is to be forced to read a book, and I know that anything an adult tells you is good must automatically suck. Nevertheless, I’m going to ask you to trust me on this one and give it a fair shake. There’s a lot to learn from this book, and it’ll stick with you for years.

If you haven’t read this one since high school – read it again. It’s far better than you remember.

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“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
– Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
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To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikipedia
Harper Lee on Wikipedia
To Kill a Mockingbird on Amazon.com
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikiquote
To Kill a Mockingbird at the Encyclopedia of Alabama
The Boo Radleys on Wikipedia

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Filed under children, classics, coming of age, family, fathers, fiction, Harper Lee, made into movies, murder, racism

Review 35: The Andromeda Strain


The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton passed away recently, so I thought he would be a good choice to read. I know there are people who have problems with Crichton – his later books revealed some distinct political leanings and display very clear biases, the most obvious of these being State of Fear, in which he attacks the environmentalist movement’s support of global warming. His attacks are blatant, and even though the novel is said to be a good read, it’s burdened by the obvious slant of the author.

It’s tough to know what to do with authors who inject their own personal morality into their works. Some of them, like Heinlein, do it in such a way that it’s not a distraction – it’s Heinlein. Others, such as Orson Scott Card, are so vocal in their political opinions that they risk losing a large portion of their readership. In this situation, you have to make a decision: read the book for the story or read the book for the author’s politics? Or don’t?

I take the same route here that I do with actors, musicians and other artists who make their political and social views known. I disregard those views and just judge their work on its own merits. It’s not that hard to do, really….

Anyway, I remember seeing this movie for the first time, and it scared the hell out of me. Not in the same way that my childhood slasher films scared me, of course. In those, there was always someone – Jason, Freddie, Michael – who was lurking behind curtains, waiting to turn you into steak tartar if you were foolish enough to have sex in the camp counsellor’s cabin. But at least they were human (sort of), and they had motivations, however insane these motivations were.

In this book, we are not facing a psychopath with a chainsaw. It’s something more terrible and more impossible to deal with.

The premise – The US space program, in an attempt to figure out exactly what is lurking in the upper atmosphere, has been sending up special satellites – the Scoop satellites – to sample the air up there and then return so that scientists can do what they do best. The theory was that if we were to encounter extraterrestrial life, the odds are that it would be some sort of simple organism rather than a four-foot grey humanoid.

People like Carl Sagan seemed to support this theory, and Crichton makes a very good case for it through his characters. Radio waves attenuate, even light pulses can’t last forever – but build an organism that can survive indefinitely in space? That is an excellent way of telling the rest of the universe that you’re out there. A microbe needs a lot less to keep it going than your average movie E.T., so it would be reasonable to assume that it would make an excellent message in a bottle in a vast and harsh cosmos.

Back to the book – most of these satellites went up and came down without incident, but one – Scoop VII – had some unexpected problems and crashed in the American southwest, just outside a small town called Piedmont. The good citizens of Piedmont, wanting to know what it was, brought it home to have a look.

Within eighteen hours, nearly everyone in Piedmont was dead. The lesson? Never go near something that comes screaming out of the sky. Yes, it might give you super-powers, but odds are that it’ll kill you.

The government, always looking for the worst case scenario, had planned for this, and put Project Wildfire in action. Wildfire called for a team of scientists with varied backgrounds to be brought to an isolated lab in Nevada. Scoop would be brought there, and they would attempt to unravel the mystery of what killed the people of Piedmont.

The story sounds pretty simple, and Crichton makes a point of saying that, ideally, there should be no story to tell. Wildfire facilities are insanely well-guarded, and the design of the complex itself is nearly foolproof against something escaping – to the point that, if the facility becomes insecure, it will be vaporized in a nuclear explosion.

As usual, Crichton is meticulous in his science. The book has a bibliography in the back with 58 references to justify his use of x-ray crystallography, culture growth, electron microscopes, and other theories. The point is, he is saying that the incident in The Andromeda Strain could happen. Maybe. And it is possible that, despite our best planning and efforts, we might not be able to stop it.

This brings up the question: is this really science fiction? Well, yes, because A) it’s fiction and B) the story is dependent on the science. But it’s not science fiction in the way that we’re familiar, since very little of it is actually fictional. Most of the technology is extant, and the tech that is a little more outlandish is certainly within our ability to create. The only thing that is really speculative is the Andromeda organism itself. And even given that, the story is not so much about the organism as it is about the race to figure out what the organism is – it’s about the scientists, not the science.

Where the actual story comes in is with the introduction of Mistakes. A simple malfunction in a piece of communications equipment. A medical problem that is hidden until it is too late. Miscommunication and assumption abound, which is what makes this book interesting. Otherwise, it would just be a matter of the scientists trying to figure out what this wee beastie that hitched a ride on Scoop can do, and why. Perhaps it’s not so much science fiction as it is scientific fiction. If that makes any sense….

Indeed, the silly humans are saved from worldwide extermination by virtue of the microorganism’s own nature, oddly enough. This isn’t The Stand – Crichton didn’t set out to write an End of the World story. He wanted to talk about science and what might happen if an unknown pathogen should appear from the darkest regions of space.

As I said before, this is what makes it so terrifying. The villain of this story is a bacteria. We don’t know where it comes from, how it works, or why. It has no ambition, no plan. It is not hostile, malicious, or vindictive. It can’t be bargained with or tricked.

Perhaps that is why disease stories are so interesting. On the one hand, they point out how vulnerable we really are to something we have never encountered. On the other hand, they show how sometimes, just sometimes, we can avert disaster with the ingenuity that keeps popping up in humanity.

So – it’s well-written and well-researched, not to mention a sci-fi classic. The movie’s pretty good as well, and sticks relatively close to the book. Either are recommended.

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“He [Stone] often argued that human intelligence was more trouble than it was worth. It was more destructive than creative, more confusing than revealing, more discouraging than satisfying, more spiteful than charitable.”
– Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain
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Michael Crichton on Wikipedia
The Andromeda Strain on Wikipedia
The Andromeda Strain on Amazon.com
NASA’s Exobiology Branch

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Filed under disease, made into movies, Michael Crichton, science fiction

Review 31: The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

Sing to me, O Muse, of a long damn poem,
which saddled the backs of many a Freshman English Major before me
and brought the mist of term papers down around our eyes

Can you tell me, O Muse, of the deeds done in this book
in less time than it takes to fight the actual war
in which the blood of many a legendary, some say mythical, figure
was spilt and lost, fed into the hungry earth of Troy?
Sing to me of feasting and fighting and the filching of treasure
of Dawn and her Rosy Fingers as they greet the tenth year
of the War of the Acheans (which are also known as Greeks,
but only by the terribly uneducated)
against the great city-state of Troy.
Tell me of ten years’ warfare, the great hollow ships
ranged against the shining walls of Ilium!

Of all the Acheans, only one could be the Hero of this war
a man spawned of a Goddess, a son of the oceans and a scourge
on all who oppose him, who would flee and crap their singlets
at the very sight of his blazing armor.
As a three year-old child sits in his room and sulks
upon not receiving a bicycle for his birthday,
ignoring all the treasure heaped upon him by otherwise doting parents,
crying to the walls and his toys in the closet
and raging against the injustices of those older than he,
so does Achilles, the greatest of Egos in the Achean army
sit in his tent and whine about Briseis,
the woman he won in warfare, only to have her taken by Agamemnon.

“Help me Mother, goddess of the ocean’s foam,” he cried.
“Agamemnon’s pissing me off and I want him to suffer for it!”
And so did his doting mother appeal to Zeus,
he of the Thunderbolt Libido with a Thing For The Ladies
and the King of Gods did make it so,
giving the troops of Troy and their leader, Hector, advantage
only to crush them in the end so as to increase
the glory of Achilles.

Who can sing the insanity of this plan, this war?
Should I live a thousand lifetimes, I would wither of age
before I could recount the acts of treachery and pettiness
brought about by gods and men on the blood-soaked plains of Troy.
Would that I had the time to list the dead and dying
the blood and the viciousness of unholy war,
balanced by rare acts of humanity and kindness.
If only I possessed that rarest of gifts, the patience
to list the atrocities of the Gods wrought upon men.
Such was the gift of Homer, to do so long ago
what we cannot, weak as men are now.

Great Agamemnon, whose pride and stubbornness rival Father Zeus
Himself. Achilles, the mighty, the hero who becomes human
only when all that he truly loves is taken from him.
Hector, breaker of horses, the father and defender of a city
doomed from the outset.
Priam, Aged King of Troy, watching his sons die one by one.
The libidinous Paris, whose inability to think
with the right head started all of this,
and Helen, would that she drowned before reaching Troy,
watching the terrible battle from her rooms.
And her rightful husband, the red-haired Menelaus
whose rage brought a thousand ships across the wine-dark seas.
Patrolcus, incapable of following one simple little instruction.
Godlike Telamonian Ajax, clever Odysseus, and aged Nestor
always with a long-winded, vaguely relevant story at hand.
These are the heroes of this play, O Muse.

And there are certainly villains –
those immortal Gods whose every whim costs the lives
of noble mortal men.

White-armed Hera, scheming against her husband
Zeus, who grants the ascendancy of Achilles at the cost
of uncountable Trojan and Achean lives.
Aphrodite and Ares, fighting for Troy,
grey-eyed Athena and Poseidon with his blue hair, urging on the Argives.
All playing their games, and in the end, the same as they began.
For, being deathless Gods, they cannot change
and what cannot change cannot learn.
And so the Gods, whose machinations set this tragedy in motion
escape unscathed during the passage of many a mortal soul
into the dark arms of Hades.
And the mortals, playing parts in Zeus’ puppet show
dying to bring greater glory to Achilles.

Would that I had the time to underscore the glory of this tale
and how centuries of the written word have been built upon it.
Give me the strength, O Gods, to tell of this cornerstone!
As a single oak tree, growing tall and splendid towards the sky,
reaching for the sun and spreading its roots into Demeter’s
fertile earth, put forth leaves whose numbers are unknown to man
so has this epic poem inspired more works than can be counted
by a writer as simple and humble as myself.
So reach out, dear Reader, reach out and find this tale,
and as a vast tank holds enough rainwater to replenish
fields and fields of fecund earth, bringing forth
crops to feed people by the thousands,
so will you become a repository of literature and history
and be able to show the world just how utterly
utterly
cool you really are.

Come with me, O Muse. I need a drink.

———————————————-
“And now as the armies clashed at one strategic point,
they slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike
with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
and their round shields’ bosses pounded hide-to-hide
and the thunder of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.”
Homer, The Iliad (8:71-77)
———————————————-

Homer on Wikipedia
The Iliad on Wikipedia
The Trojan War on Wikipedia
The Iliad on Amazon.com

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Review 30: Fight Club


Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Well, now I reckon y’all have seen the movie, so there’s probably not a whole lot that you need to know about this book.

You know Tyler Durden.

He’s the Id, the unchained spirit that wants what he wants and he wants it now. He’s the voice in your head that tells you that everything is worthless, that chaos, death and the end of civilization would be better than anything our so-called “society” could ever create. He’s the one standing over your left shoulder, whispering “Burn it all down. It’ll be fun.” He acts in secret, he has an army of minions, and he has a plan.

Oh yes, you know Tyler Durden.

The narrator of this dark and strange cautionary tale knows Tyler all too well, and tells us of how he and Tyler tried to change the world. It all started very simply – with basement fight clubs where men could let out their rage and frustration on each other. There were very few rules to fight club, but that was okay. Rules were, in fact, the problem. The regimented society in which we live imposes constant rules on us – social rules, cultural rules, corporate rules – that tell us who to be and what to think. The rules of our society have sapped us of our strength and purpose, making us soft. Pliable. Weak.

But Tyler’s plan doesn’t end there – the fight clubs morph into Project Mayhem, a well-oiled anarchist movement, determined to bring down the very fundamentals of our society. With an army at his beck and call, Tyler is sure that his plan will succeed.

It’s a book with a couple of very powerful messages, one overt and incorrect, the other subtle and accurate. The overt message is Tyler’s message – we are a generation with no cause, no purpose. Our lives are governed by what we buy and what we wear, and none of us will die having done anything with our lives. In order to be Real Men, we need to strip away the veneer of civilization – our Ikea furniture, our make-work jobs and our cornflower blue neckties – and rediscover the inner core of ourselves. The brutal, unafraid, unapologetic beast that is Man.

This, to no one’s surprise, appealed to a lot of people when the film came out because it’s a very believable world view. Those of Gen X and beyond are reminded over and over again that the generations before us were the ones who actually did things. The Baby Boomers got herded into the slaughterhouse that was Vietnam, toppled a President, faced down the chaos of the Sixties and fought to change the world. Their parents, of course, were the Greatest Generation – a label that I have come to despise – who fought Hitler and freed Europe. Their parents struggled through the Depression, and their parents fought in the trenches of World War One.

What have we done? Until the beginning of the 21st Century, how had we suffered? What had we sacrificed? Not a whole lot, and I think a lot of us secretly believe that we’re not only not pulling our weight in the world, but that since we have not suffered, we’re not really adult. Our miseries have not been those born of chaos, war and destruction. Ours have been tiny, personal tragedies that are, in their way, insignificant.

I can see where Tyler Durden is coming from on this point – I do sometimes look around me and ask, “Where are our great challenges, our Normandy or our moon landing?” And I fear that without these milestones, my generation will never really be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, this is about where most folks stopped thinking and decided, “Shit, man, he’s right! I wanna start a fight club!” And short-lived fight clubs sprang up all over the country, lasting about as long as it took for people to realize that while Brad Pitt on the movie screen can get beaten within an inch of his life and still look cool, a normal human cannot. They missed the subtle message because it wasn’t one that they really wanted to hear.

The book is not about the triumph of nihilism over a consumer-driven culture. It’s not about being a Real Man. It’s not about being a unique snowflake or a space monkey.

It’s about overcoming both the desire to destroy society and the desire to be completely subsumed by it. It’s about the need for purpose, and the need for connection with other people, and what can happen when one is deprived of those things. Tyler doesn’t show up because the narrator is rootless or bored – Tyler shows up because the narrator has forsaken people for things. He has replaced personal achievement with material gain, and that’s not a very fulfilling way to live.

It is a cautionary tale for our generation – you are not your tragedies. You are not the club you belong to. You are not your scars. You are neither worthless nor undeserving.

You are what you make yourself to be, no matter what Tyler Durden wants.

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“If you could either be God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?”
– The Narrator, Fight Club
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Fight Club on Wikipedia
Chuck Palahniuk on Wikipedia
Fight Club on Amazon.com
Official Chuck Palahniuk Fan Site

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Filed under anarchy, Chuck Palahniuk, fiction, identity, made into movies, satire, society, terrorism