Category Archives: morality

Books that discuss morality.

Review 171: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

As I was reading this book, a student saw me reading it and asked what it was about, I had to think for a few moments before answering.

“It’s about terrible people in a terrible place, doing terrible things to each other,” I said. And that really does just about sum it up.

The story that McCarthy tells is a complete destruction of the mythology of the Old West that Americans had come to know and love over the years. Some of the more modern Western films had begun to explore this territory when the book was published in 1985 – many of Clint Eastwood’s films spring to mind – creating a West where the “hero” is just the least bad person in the film. Even then, though, there are still undercurrents of the nobility of the cowboy, out to tame a savage land for the good of a civilization that will no longer need him when it’s done.

Next to these bounty hunters, Boba Fett is practically Gandhi.

This book features characters who are violent and vicious, thieves and murderers who will stop at nothing to get what they want. It starts with the nameless Kid, a young man who joins a group of bounty hunters riding the US-Mexico border in the years before the Civil War. They’re ostensibly looking for Apaches, bringing back scalps for gold, but they’re not especially picky. Any black head of hair ripped from the head of its owner will do, and if that means ravaging some small Mexican villages, then so be it.

The bounty hunters are led by Judge Holden, a man who gladly takes his place as the antithesis of everything that was supposed to be right and good about the old west. In both form and philosophy, Holden is barely human, and he only becomes less human as the book goes on. Insofar as the book has an antagonist, it is he.

He contrasts greatly to our ostensible protagonist, The Kid, in many ways. For one, the Judge has a name. For another, the Kid routinely disappears from the story for pages at a time, only to reappear to get to the next stage of the story. It’s actually very easy to forget that the Kid is in the book, until you see him again and think, “Oh yeah. Him.”

The Judge, on the other hand, is impossible to miss. He holds court out in the wilderness and expounds upon his philosophy of the world. He is huge and pale and clean, standing out amongst the filthy and starving band of killers that he’s assembled. Whenever he’s off-stage, you find yourself wondering when he’s going to show up again, and how much worse things will get when he does.

Kind of like this, only worse. Much, much worse.

Another image that McCarthy decides to destroy is that of the Native Americans as being honorable heroes, out to save their land from white invaders. Just as the cowboys of old were not all knights on horseback, the natives of old were not all noble savages who resorted to violence only as a last resort. The Apaches – and other native Americans in this book – are just as violent and bloodthirsty as their American and Mexican counterparts. Everyone, regardless of background, ultimately resorts to violence and savagery, throwing aside all morality in the name of either profit or survival, or simply the demonic glee of seeing things destroyed. No one comes out of this book looking good or ultimately redeemed. All are villains.

All of this made it something of a tough read for me. Not because of the scenes of horrifying violence – I can deal just fine with those – but because there was no one I wanted to like. I mean, I was fascinated by The Judge, but with that same kind of fascination that made me watch tsunami videos or that made people visit Ground Zero in New York City. It’s horror on a scale that we hope never to experience in our own lives, but we can’t look away.

Without someone to like, it was hard to care, and when it’s hard to care about a book, I find reasons not to read it. The writing was amazing, don’t get me wrong. McCarthy’s use of language was a joy to read, even if his refusal to use quotation marks got me a little annoyed from time to time, and I sometimes found myself reading passages out loud in the voice of Sam Elliott. In describing the landscapes of the West, McCarthy turns nature itself into a character, one that is every bit as violent, dangerous and hateful as the humans traversing it.

In addition, he does a very good job with the pacing of the book. The narration tends to grow as the book goes on, with sentences becoming longer and more elaborate as they unspool across the page, some taking a page or two to themselves, only to be stopped short by a single line or a rapid exchange. It’s hypnotic in places, and something I wish I knew how to do half as well.

All that aside, though, the only thing that really kept me going – other than the writing – was morbid curiosity. That, and the hope that I would figure out what McCarthy was trying to say in the book. What it all means.

So true, so true...

And that, friends and neighbors, is one of the pitfalls of being an English teacher. Always looking for meaning in things, for the bigger picture, the author’s Big Message to his readers. And as far as I can tell, McCarthy’s message is that man is a savage, terrifying animal, capable of cruelties that the average book-buying person cannot even begin to contemplate. The horrors that are depicted here are so brutally displayed and so viscerally described that we eventually become numb to them – which is a new horror by itself. There are things depicted in this story which should evoke nothing less than absolute moral condemnation, a rejection that such things should be possible to contemplate, much less carry out.

So when you find yourself glossing over these horrors as though they were mundane, it’s jarring. As you read, you want to keep a distance from the monsters populating the book, but isn’t ignoring their evils a kind of acceptance? And do you really want to be the kind of person who accepts these things? At the same time you’re trying to convince yourself that real people shouldn’t be capable of the acts you’re reading about, you end up accepting them.

Maybe that was what McCarthy wanted all along – for the readers to look at how we view violence and what our understanding of it really is. To force us to re-assess the limits of what we will tolerate and why. To make us look again at our heroes and villains and try to figure out exactly what the differences are, and whether we are really that far removed from them.

Or maybe McCarthy just really likes writing this kind of thing.

Either way, it’s a fascinating read, one that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the book.

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“In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of a few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, neither ghost nor scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.”

Cormac McCarthy on Wikipedia
Blood Meridian on Wikipedia
The Cormac McCarthy Society
Blood Meridian on Amazon.com

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Filed under Cormac McCarthy, death, dystopia, fiction, good and evil, morality, murder, survival

Review 161: Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Once upon a time, there was a man named H. Beam Piper, and he wrote a series of books that began with Little Fuzzy, a tale of space-going humans who have to learn to live on a world with an adorably cute, yet sentient, species. While I haven’t read these books, my research tells me that they’re the type of fun, optimistic science fiction that is so emblematic of the early 60s. They dealt not only with the issues of human expansion into space, but with what it means to be an intelligent, sentient species. Given that we only have one case study – us – that definition will necessarily be narrow, and challenged. Humans have trouble relating with other humans who live only a six hour drive away, after all. Being able to relate to a non-human sentience that evolved on another planet will be a massive philosophical undertaking.

In 2010, John Scalzi announced on his blog that he had done a “reboot” of Piper’s work, revisiting the characters, themes and world that Piper had created and seeing what he could do with them. He did this partly because it seemed like a good idea, but also because it was something that hadn’t been done before in literature.

Some reboots are more imaginative than others. (Art by Evan Shaner)

If you’re a fan of science fiction, you know that stories from the visual media – TV and movies especially – get rebooted from time to time. The most notable recent examples are “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and include shows like “Smallville” and the most recent run of Batman movies. If you read comics, you know this happens all the time as well, in ways big and small. Characters like Green Lantern, Thor, and the Fantastic Four are fundamentally the same as when they were created, but have evolved in ways their creators may have never expected.

In all of these examples, the fundamental core of each story is kept from the original – the world, the characters, the themes – and given new life. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and Scalzi felt that Piper’s world was good enough and interesting enough that it deserved to be re-introduced to a modern audience who might not otherwise know about it.

So, just for fun, he started writing Fuzzy Nation, a book that uses the characters and ideas from Little Fuzzy, the first of Piper’s books, and builds an entirely new story out of them. What resulted was a story that he thought was good enough to let out into the wild, and so – with the help of some intellectual property law and the blessing of Piper’s estate – he published Fuzzy Nation in 2011.

As I said, I haven’t read the original Piper books, but if they’re half as much fun to read as this one was, then I have to pick them up.

Sorry, I was looking for something pretty. Try again.

In the future, humankind has expanded out into space, as we so often do. With us, we have taken that peculiarly human trait, naked avarice, and brought it with us. The Zarathustra Corporation (ZaraCorp for short) is one of the leaders in exploiting and extracting usable resources from a planet. They’ve cornered the market on Sunstones – a decorative rock that glows with its wearer’s body heat and makes diamonds look like beach pebbles – and turned the ravaging of worlds into an art. A horribly environmentally destructive art.

Jack Holloway is a contract surveyor, a former trial lawyer, and not a very nice man. He helps ZaraCorp search for Sunstones on the hostile world of Zara XXIII, with the help of Carl, a dog with a fondness for explosions. Holloway finds seams of Sunstone and gets his cut of the money. It’s a nice enough arrangement out on a backwater world, and it doesn’t get complicated until he (and Carl) discover a Sunstone deposit that could fill the company’s coffers for decades.

At the same time, he encounters a curious form of life – or rather, it encounters him. Small, bipedal, intensely curious and undeniably clever, the Fuzzies (as Jack names them) seem to be truly remarkable animals. It is not until the ZaraCorp field biologist (and Jack’s former girlfriend), Janice Wangai, suggests that they might be sentient that things get truly complicated. After all, Colonial law is very clear on what companies like ZaraCorp are and are not allowed to do on each planet they run, and “ravaging the world of another sentient species” is pretty much at the top of their Do Not list.

The Fuzzies would make an AMAZING vest...

It soon becomes a race to save the Fuzzies from ZaraCorp and its army of lawyers. If they win, the Fuzzies will have a planet on which they can grow and thrive. If ZaraCorp wins, they’ll have nothing but the least useful bits of dirt and shrubbery left. Holloway has to do a good thing but he has to do it his way – a way that rarely has him acting like a good man.

The first thing I thought when I finished this, actually, was, “I needed that.” My reading choices for a while have been kind of heavy, or at least not a whole lot of fun to read. Good, yes, but not fun. I know this because I find myself doing things that aren’t reading – listening to podcasts, reading through articles I’ve saved on Instapaper, going through old columns at Cracked.com, things like that. With this book, though, there was none of that stalling. I read it every chance I could and blew through the whole thing in two days. So let that be take-home lesson number one: this book is fun to read.

And while it is an adventure, it does hit on some interesting and contemporary topics, not the least of which is the question of how ethically a corporation should be expected to behave. ZaraCorp, like any company, has a primary mission to make money, especially as the company is publicly traded. They have to get money to those stockholders who have invested in them so that they can make more money to exploit more resources. And that’s a point that Scalzi has made in his own blog: “I think the majority [of] corporations act logically and rationally and in a manner consistent with the general reason for their existence,” he writes. “And the reason most corporations exist — and most large multinational corporations in particular — is simple: To maximize shareholder value.”

Go on - take the pension fund. They'll probably just waste it on food...

In Fuzzy Nation, he takes this to the place where corporate rational self-interest turns bad. You see, it is perfectly possible for a corporation to achieve its goal while still being environmentally responsible or socially conscious. In other words, to fulfill its responsibility to the shareholders without violating the ethical or moral codes of the people who actually make up those groups.

But there are those who are all too willing to put the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation above the ethical responsibilities of people, and that’s where the Evil Corporation comes in. ZaraCorp fits this to a T. They see nothing but profits in Zara XXIII, and if the Fuzzies stand in their way – sentient or not – they will do whatever is necessary to eliminate them while at the same time doing their level best to stay within the legal bounds prescribed by the Colonial Authority. Or not to get caught crossing them, at least.

In the end, this becomes about why we do what we do, and how we project those reasons onto other people. ZaraCorp is motivated by untempered greed, and assumes that Holloway will be too. Holloway is interested in himself, but finds himself needing to be interested in other people. The motivations of the Fuzzies, for most of the book, is unclear, but they too have to learn the difference between what they think other people want and what they really want.

It’s a fast, tight book that is great fun to read, has characters that you like, even if they’re despicable, and has some moments of wonderful emotion that come around the corner and hit you like a hammer. It’s part philosophical adventure, part legal thriller, and part sarcastic comedy, verging on satire. Books like this are why I keep coming back to Scalzi.

———————–
“…with all due respect for your considerable skills and intellect, the fact of the matter is that you have absolutely no clue what it is I want out of this.”
– Jack Holloway, Fuzzy Nation
———————–

John Scalzi on Wikipedia
Fuzzy Nation on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog
H. Beam Piper on Wikipedia
Little Fuzzy on Wikipedia

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Filed under aliens, business, colonization, corporations, ethics, first contact, humor, John Scalzi, morality, science fiction

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 149: Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead
by Orson Scott Card

In his introduction to the book, Card says that the main reason he wrote his most famous book – Ender’s Game – was so that he would one day be able to write this. I think this is something that probably happens a lot to authors. They get a Big Idea in their head, something with great depth and complexity and meaning, and quickly discover that they don’t actually know what they’re writing about yet. There’s too much to say, there’s too much that even the author doesn’t know yet, and to go forward from that state of ignorance will result in what is, ultimately, an inferior narrative.

Andrew Wiggin, the Speaker for the Dead, comes to the human colony Lusitania in order to speak the death of a local man, Marcão. While given the same reverence and privileges as priests, Speakers are not the same. Their job is to learn about the dead, to understand who they were and who they wanted to be, and then tell the truth as plainly and as clearly as possible. They do not give eulogies, where they try to paint the dead in as good a light as possible. They reveal who this person was, and in the process try to help those left behind understand them. It’s a calling that requires an insightful mind, great empathy for others, and the ability to tell the truth despite how hard that truth may be to hear.

As a Speaker for the Dead, Andrew Wiggin is very good at his job. It was he who was the first Speaker, who wrote a text that is as revered as the Bible – The Hive Queen and the Hegemon – in order to understand how humankind could kill the only other intelligent species it had ever encountered. The book reveals who the Buggers were and why they attacked humanity. It tells how their understanding of what it means to be intelligent led to a century of warfare and, ultimately, their own destruction. The book also reveals humanity, the dreams and fears that it faced when it met the Buggers. And it tries to understand why humans were so afraid that they took one of their own – a little boy named Ender – and turned him into the greatest monster in human history. The Xenocide. The one who destroyed an entire alien race.

This book changed the way humankind saw the universe, and themselves. With the Buggers gone, but their technology still available, humans expanded out to a hundred worlds. Though their starships could only go just under the speed of light, the ansible provided instant communication between the stars. It formed a communications network that held the Starways Congress together and allowed humanity to become a multi-system species.

Ender – Andrew – is ultimately responsible for all of this, and is therefore the linchpin of this entire universe. In order to write this book, to understand the culture and the history and the politics that would be necessary to write Speaker for the Dead, Card first had to understand who Ender was. So, with the blessing of his publishers, he was able to turn Ender’s Game into a full-length novel. Once that was done, he was able to turn back to this book and craft it into what it has become.

Question: Will the aliens wear hats that are sillier than ours? No? Good.

The colony of Lusitania is a small place, a group of Catholic settlers who live in a small and insular town. They have all the troubles that any new world would have, except for two that make it truly unique. The first is the descolada, a virus that nearly destroyed the colony and, thousands of years before, life on the planet. This illness literally unzips and recombines your DNA, ravaging your body utterly. If not for the dying work of the colony’s two great xenobiologists, everyone would have died. As it turned out, Gusto and Cida were the last to die, leaving their sad, strange daughter Novinha behind.

Even that wouldn’t be enough to make Lusitania a truly remarkable place. No, for that, we must introduce the Piggies – the third intelligent life form known to exist in the universe. They’re small, look like little pig-men, and are indisputably intelligent. They learn quickly, even despite the law forbidding xenologists from influencing their development, and present humanity with an important chance: the last time we encountered an alien intelligence, we obliterated it. Let’s not do that again.

This becomes harder, however, when the Piggies kill two of the xenologists in what appear to be a horrifyingly painful method. Now it looks like humanity may have to revert to type again, and that there truly is no way that humans can share the same space with other intelligences.

Into all this steps Ender. His years of lightspeed travel have kept him young while three thousand years have passed, and he has wandered from world to world to speak for the dead. Now he is on Lusitania to speak for Marcão, an investigation that will lead him to uncover secrets kept for decades, and to once again change the way humans understand their universe.

There’s really so much to say about this book that it’s hard to decide what to leave out and what to keep in. For one thing, Card is trying to write a very different kind of science fiction story. In his introduction, he says that a lot of fiction is adolescent in nature, science fiction especially. It’s about adventure, about people seeing a way out of their conventional lives and going off alone. It’s about being freed from responsibility and living a fast and crazy life. When that loneliness of adventure finally becomes too much, the hero settles down, but that’s usually the last chapter of the book, if ever.

Isolation. Not just for murderous adolescent geniuses.

Card wanted to go the opposite way, to take a lonely adventurer and show him trying desperately to become responsible, to become a member of a community. In class, where I’m teaching Ender’s Game, we’ve identified isolation as being one of the overriding themes of the novel. Ender is constantly taken away from those he loves or held apart from others. In the end, he becomes a solo wanderer. Even more than that, he is made into a monster, a name on par with Lucifer itself. He is virtually thrown out of humanity, and it is only because no one knows who he really is that he can travel unmolested.

So we’re seeing Ender in that stage where the loneliness and the wandering have become an unbearable burden to him, and all he wants is a place to belong. But as a Speaker, as a man speaking a death that could completely upend the lives of everyone in the colony, he has his work cut out for him.

There is also the element of redemption. In his years of travel, Ender has carried a very special package with him – the cocoon of the last Bugger hive queen. In exchange for her story, he promised that he would find a home for her, a place for her to rebuild her vast family. And on Lusitania, there is that chance. But first he has to save the Piggies, to prevent them from suffering the fate of the Buggers at the hand of a fearful and suspicious Humanity. If Ender can do this, perhaps he can make up for the horror that he unknowingly perpetrated.

There’s a lot going on in this book, to say the least. It’s a great book, better in many ways than Ender’s Game. It is more complex and adult and difficult, with moments of true emotion, a well-built socio-political system befitting a species that spans hundreds of worlds, and addressing the needs for changes in culture, politics and even language that would arise from the need to define relationships between worlds and between species.

Ender would have been a natural for the Indigo Tribe. You listening, Geoff Johns?

Fundamentally, though, this book is about what the Speaker for the Dead does best – understanding. It’s about how we deal with The Other, even when that Other is completely alien to us. Humans and Buggers, Humans and Piggies – hell, Humans and Humans, we have a hard time understanding people who are not like us. We find it very difficult to look at the world from their point of view and to see the world through their eyes. Understanding what they love and fear, what they value and honor, or what they abhor – and more importantly, understanding what they see in you and how they understand you – is the best and surest road to making peace with those who are different from yourself. And that’s a lesson that is valuable for all of us.

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“No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one’s life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.”
– Ender Wiggin, Speaker for the Dead

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Filed under children, colonization, death, disease, empathy, family, friendship, morality, murder, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, sins, society, space travel, teenagers, women

Review 143: Mad Men and Philosophy

Mad Men and Philosophy edited by Rod Carveth and James B. South

If you had asked me a few years ago which television show you should absolutely make time to watch, I would have immediately told you to start watching Mad Men. Deep, complicated, and made with great attention to detail, it is a show that rewards viewers. The characters reveal themselves over time, minor plot elements emerge as major turning points, and they give us 21st-century viewers a chance to look at the ’60s in a whole new light. The show had had three outstanding seasons, and up until that point, I would have recommended it unreservedly.

What were they THINKING??

Until they dropped my brother from the cast.

I understand that I did not really default to my rational soul in this instance. The third season was one giant setup for the surprise ending in which Sterling Cooper is bought out (again) and Don and Lane hatch a plan to break away with all the staff and clients they could carry. In this situation, they needed their strongest people, and when it came down to choosing writers, there was no question that Peggy Olsen was a better writer than Paul Kinsey. It had been shown again and again during the season, so that when Kinsey was left twisting in the wind at the end, it made sense – from a writing perspective.

That didn’t mean I had to like it.

So when season four rolled around, I started to download the episodes, but I resisted watching them. I just sulked. Was I being childish? Immature? Petty? We may never know the answers to those questions, but I can tell you this – the reason I finally gave in and started watching it again was this book.

Oddly enough, this book does not discuss the ethics of office bloodbaths.

Part of the Pop Culture and Philosophy genre of books, this volume takes a deep, intellectual look at the series, examining its characters, its ethics and its messages, to see what kind of lessons we can learn from it. From Aristotle to Ayn Rand, thousands of years of human thinking are illustrated in this tv show, and the authors who have contributed to the book are able to tease fascinating concepts from whiskey and smoke. How do Betty, Joan and Peggy represent second-wave feminism? What are the responsibilities of advertisers to their target audience? How might be Peggy a Nietzschean Superwoman, and why does Pete fail so hard? Is Don Draper a good man, and would Ayn Rand have salivated over him, as Bert Cooper claimed she would? The book is full of interesting ideas, and I’ll share a few of my favorites with you.

In “Pete, Peggy, Don, and the Dialectic of Remembering and Forgetting,” John Fritz examines the Nietzschean virtue of willing forgetfulness and how it applies to these three characters. The way it goes is this: Nietzsche believed that the past should serve the present, that you should be able to use your memories to push yourself forward. Not all memories do this, as we all know, and to hold on to memories that simply hold us back – to live in the past – is detrimental to leading a good life. Pete Campbell, for example, perpetually lives in the past. He can’t forget anything, especially if it is something he perceives as a slight against him. When Ken Cosgrove gets a story published, Pete stews over it, bitter that Ken did something worthwhile and he did not. Rather than do the adult thing – congratulate Ken and move on – Pete cannot let go. He ends up nearly forcing his wife into the arms of another man just to try and match Ken’s accomplishment. Pete’s inability to forget causes him almost constant distress.

Not that I'm holding on to any memories myself, mind you. Perish the thought.

Don is a little better. Don knows that you need to forget things, and tries to live that way. When his estranged brother shows up, Don tells him, “My life moves in only one direction – forward.” He chooses to forget the things he has done if they will interfere with the way his life is going now. When he gets into a car accident, and Peggy has to bail him out, he doesn’t remember to pay her back until she very pointedly reminds him. It’s probable that he used this willing forgetfulness as part of his strategy to cheat on Betty. The only way to live both lives at once is to forget the one that will cause you trouble, and then recall it when it’s time to get some nookie again.

But Don’s not perfect. His memories are triggered again and again – sights and smells bring him back to his childhood, to his abusive father, and to the traumatic day in Korea when he became someone else. Don’s past follows him, like a loyal dog, occasionally nipping at his heels and reminding him where he came from, no matter how much Don would like to forget it.

Peggy, on the other hand, is the champion of willing forgetfulness. The birth of the child she had with Pete is a fantastic example of this, and my favorite moment is when she finally tells Pete what had happened. She sits him down, and very calmly explains that she had his baby and then gave it away, and the tone of her voice is less exciting than someone talking about the new shoes she has bought. Peggy forgot about the baby – she chose to forget about the baby, no matter how much her family and Father Whatawaste tried to remind her. But for this one moment, she unpacked it, held it out at arm’s length just long enough to tell Pete, and then she wrapped it up again and buried it in her mind. Peggy knows that there are things in her past that will hold her back if she clings to them, so she doesn’t. In this way, she is the model of Nietzsche’s virtue of willing forgetfulness.

I mean, I suppose I could still be a little annoyed about the whole thing, but who wouldn't be?

In “‘In on It’: Honesty, Respect, and the Ethics of Advertising,” Andrea Novakovic and Tyler Whitney ask about what ethical rules bind advertising, if any, and how advertisers relate to consumers. The essay centers around the season 2 episode, “A Night to Remember,” wherein Don uses his wife as a demographic model for Heineken beer. During her meticulously-planned dinner party, full of international cuisine, Betty reveals that they are drinking Heineken, from Holland, which comes as a welcome surprise to Don and Duck Phillips. Betty is upset by this, and after the party accuses Don of purposefully embarrassing and humiliating her, and Don doesn’t quite get what the problem is. No surprise there.

But does Betty have a legitimate beef with Don and Sterling Cooper? Well, that depends on why she bought the Heineken. If she bought it because she likes it, or because she had heard good things about it, then no. But she suspects that Don had done his research too well, and that the only reason she picked up those nice green bottles was because he knew her so well that he could make her think she wanted to buy it. From her point of view, he manipulated her, (which in fancy-pants philosophical terms might be called depriving someone of agency) and then laughed about it. Don has shown no respect for his wife and her ability to make choices on her own, and this reflects the larger issue of respect between advertisers and the consumers they target.

You bring back Paul Kinsey and I give you the antidote. For the poison YOU JUST DRANK! AAHH-HAHAHAHAA!!

It is, of course, a challenging topic, even within the show. In the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Don actively rejects psychological profiling in coming up with an ad for Lucky Strike, yet in that season’s finale, “The Wheel,” he is quite clearly using psychological manipulation to sell his idea for Kodak’s Carousel. So what is the difference between profiling Betty to sell beer and using nostalgia to sell a slide projector? It’s a matter of respect. It is easy for people watching the Kodak ad to understand what is going on in an ad that uses their memories to evoke an emotional response. The advertiser respects the consumer’s intelligence and agency, and uses that to sell their product. In Betty’s case, however, the manipulation was more subtle. Display techniques, signage, subtle and professional methods which start from the assumption that the consumer doesn’t know her own mind.

Finally, in “What Fools We Were: Mad Men, Hindsight, and Justification,” Landon W. Schurtz asks the question we all asked about the people in this show: how could they be so dumb? I mean, when Betty’s daughter shows up with a dry-cleaning bag over her head, Betty is angrier about the possible state of her clothes than the chance her daughter could suffocate. When we first meet Sal Romano, he is so ridiculously gay that we can’t believe no one notices. And Sterling-Cooper gleefully take on Richard Nixon as a candidate when we all know what the man is clearly a crook. From our perspective, these things seem completely obvious, yet the characters on Mad Men just don’t seem to know any better. So why is that?

Tell you what I know - "Paul Kinsey: Two-Fisted Copywriter!" I'm telling you, it's Emmy GOLD!

Well, it depends on what you mean by the word “know,” and that’s what Schurtz tries to figure out in this essay. We can know things through direct experience, for example, but Betty has probably never had a daughter asphyxiate on plastic, Don and the others have probably never met an openly gay man, and, well, historians still don’t know how Nixon convinced America that he wasn’t a weasel in an ill-fitting suit. We can know things through the testimony of others, but again – those bits of knowledge hadn’t quite permeated the culture yet. Even if they had, whom could you trust for accurate testimony? Don rejects Doctor Guttman’s suggestions for the Lucky Strike campaign because he rejects the significance of psychological research. The elders of Sterling Cooper continued to reject Pete’s ideas because they didn’t believe young people could know anything worth knowing.

In short, no – the people in the ’60s weren’t stupid. They just didn’t know any better.

Kinsey laughs. He's in a better place now, I'm sure.

This book got me to give up my sulk and start watching Mad Men again. Even though it is clearly diminished with the absence of Paul Kinsey, I was reminded that the show is immensely complex and worth the time to watch. So I am recommending it to all – watch the show. And read the book. Together, they defy the common wisdom that modern entertainment has nothing to offer us. Indeed, they give us a new perspective not only on the show, but on our own lives. Pretty impressive for an hour a week.

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“The basic desire to feel okay is deeply human, but if Don Draper can take this generic human longing and create a desire for a particular product, are we genuinely free?”
– Kevin Guilfoy, “Capitalism and Freedom in the Affluent Society”
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Mad Men and Philosophy on Amazon.com
Mad Men Homepage

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Review 137: The Last Watch

The Last Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review is acceptable to the forces of Light. – The Night Watch

This review is acceptable to the forces of Darkness. – The Day Watch

When I finished The Twilight Watch a couple of years ago, I thought that was it. Night, Day, Twilight, done. But when I announced that I would be doing the Night Watch trilogy as my end-of-month podcast, I got several emails from listeners who were quick to correct me. The series is not a trilogy, they said, but rather a tetralogy (okay, no one actually used this term). There is a fourth book out there, and I had no idea it existed!

Also thanks to modern technology, I can recycle images! Everybody wins!

Thanks to modern technology, I was able to get the final (as far as I know) book, The Last Watch on my Kindle and get myself up to speed.

Much like the previous volumes, this one is divided into three novellas, which all tie together into a greater plot. In the first, we are once again introduced to Anton Gorodetsky, an agent of the Moscow Night Watch. Due to the events of the last book, Anton is now a Higher Other, having been elevated by the use of the fuaran a mystical book that can create or raise Others. His abilities are far beyond most, and that makes his responsibilities that much greater.

He is assigned by his boss, Gesar, to investigate a mysterious killing in Edinburgh, Scotland. A young man, the son of a Russian magnate, has been murdered, and it looks for all the world like a vampire – a Dark Other – has done the deed. The pact between the Dark and the Light expressly forbids such actions, and the violation of treaty could lead to terrible consequences for all.

You'd think a Scottish vampire wouldn't be so hard to find....

Problem is, the Day Watch has no idea who or what killed the young man, and they’re just as hot to find the killer as Anton is. And of course, the clues don’t add up. The method of the murder doesn’t fit the M.O. of your standard vampire, and the place where the murder occurred – a horror funhouse in the middle of the city – has its own mysterious properties as well. Anton knows he’s on the right track, though, when someone tries to kill him, and he ends up fighting his way through the Twilight to get his answers. What he finds, however, is evidence that the mythical Merlin had left something in Edinburgh for safekeeping. Something truly terrible, no matter whose hands it fell into.

In the second story, Anton is sent out to Uzbekistan to find one of the greatest Others who had ever lived, a man by the name of Rustam. Almost a legend among Others, Rustam is probably the only one who can come even close to figuring out what Merlin hid, and why. But he won’t be easy to find. Anton not only has to deal with the Watches of Samarkand – which are far less efficient and well-staffed as others in Europe – but there’s still someone out to kill him. This time, though, they’re using ensorcelled humans to do the job, something that is also expressly forbidden.

It soon becomes clear that there is a small conspiracy of very powerful Others – one Dark, one Light, and an Inquisitor, who serves neither – who are trying to recover the artifact that Merlin left behind. Their reasons are unknown, but they’re willing to destroy anyone who poses a threat to them. Including, of course, Anton.

It is in the third story where the whole plan finally comes together. That three-person conspiracy is determined to get their hands on Merlin’s power, to collapse the Twilight and fundamentally change the world. If they have to kidnap Anton and threaten Moscow with a nuclear warhead to do it, then so be it. Their ends are, in their minds, wholly justified. It is up to Anton and his allies to avert this tragedy and see to it that the power they seek is never wielded by anyone ever again.

As with the other books, the great supernatural action hides a greater exploration of the fundamental differences between right and wrong, good and evil. As terrible as the Last Watch are, they are doing what they believe to be right, and even Anton can come to understand their motives at one point. But they way they go about it, through dark magic and darker murder, doesn’t nearly justify their aim. And so we see that evil done in the pursuit of good merely produces more evil.

Or how you define "Eeeeeevil."

Depending, of course, on how you define “evil.”

What’s more, there’s quite a bit of metafiction in this book. It’s clear that Lukyanenko is a fan of fantasy – he references Tolkien and Pratchett, just to name a couple of great authors. But he also knows the tropes of fantasy that have survived for so long, and makes sure his characters know them as well. When words are written on the walls, when people go in search of a great object of power or an unwinnable quest, chances are that one of the characters has read something like it in a fantasy book.

Go ahead. Write a 5,000 page epic fantasy about these guys.

At one point, when talking about how there are Others who would like to rule the world, the Inquisitor Edgar notes that it’s what people really want. It’s why fantasy is so much more popular than science fiction, he claims, because everyone dreams of being the magician or wielding the magic sword. It all makes sense, in a way that science fiction doesn’t. Anton, of course, doesn’t buy this, noting that most people who live in a Medieval Thaumocracy would be just like the peasants of long ago – poor, dirty, and dead by forty. So even in a world where magic is very real and very important, the characters know the difference between fantasy and reality in a way that we can relate to. I just find that fascinating.

It’s good fun, and a nice way to close out a very imaginative series. It’s exciting and heartbreaking and funny – with a nice hat-tip to the Night Watch movie thrown in near the beginning. What’s more, it’s a well-built magical system and society that allows for a great variety of stories and characters. Honestly, I would love to see Lukyanenko expand on this universe, or even open it up for others to play in.

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“There is very much in the world that is bad. But usually the attempt to defeat evil engenders more evil. I advise you to do good; that is the only way to win the victory!”
– Rustam, The Last Watch
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The Last Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Last Watch on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, apocalypse, death, detective fiction, fantasy, ghosts, good and evil, morality, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry, world-crossing

Review 133: The Twilight Watch

The Twilight Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

This world is one that is riddled with possibilities. Even though Lukyanenko has been pretty single-minded in his themes throughout the trilogy, there’s a lot to work with here. We have two distinct groups of Others, the Light and the Dark, with different character classes, powers, abilities, levels and ambitions. If anyone wanted to write fan fiction or even a role-playing game based on the world of the Night Watch series, they would be able to let their imaginations roam free. It’s an open-ended universe, rife with possibility.

So why isn’t it is popular worldwide as, say, Harry Potter? Probably because it’s more grown-up than the Potter series, and is therefore less attractive.

Sure, Draco turned out to be faintly ambiguous, but Crabbe and Goyle? They're just bad apples.

Don’t get me wrong – I liked Harry Potter. But for all its merits, it deals with human-level issues: friendship, family, duty, loyalty. And those are all well and good, and many a great story has been told from those elements. The Night Watch series, on the other hand, deals with harder, less everyday topics, such as the nature of freedom, and the fundamental differences between Good and Evil, if there is any difference at all. The themes in these books are headier, and it’s not as easy to look at a Light Other like Anton Gorodetsky and say, “I want to be like him.” It’s also hard to look at a Dark Other like the vampire Kostya and say, “Oooh, I hate him.”

This is because these characters are, more or less, human. The problem with humans is that their motives aren’t always clear, and Lukyanenko doesn’t tell us everything we need to know to judge them properly. With the exception of Anton, who is a first-person narrator, we don’t get into their heads, and so can’t completely understand why they do what they do.

In this volume we are introduced to some new players, some grand plots and some terrible secrets. There is an Other out there who has knowledge that everyone thought was merely a myth: how to turn an ordinary human into an Other. The ramifications of such power are immense – there are few Others in the world as it is, and they hardly get along. To create new Others at will would mean chaos, death and destruction. All the Others’ forces are sent out to find this mysterious person. The Night Watch, the Day Watch and the Inquisition are in search of the impossible.

Anton Gorodetsky, of course, is on the front lines of this, searching for leads in a Moscow apartment complex. What he finds there isn’t quite the secret he thought it was, but it is something he never expected.

How about some free-market capitalism, Scarecrow?

In the second story of the volume, he meets an ancient witch, Arina, who may have single-handedly destroyed the Soviet Union’s potential for greatness. In his search to defeat her, he learns the true nature of the Others, what gives them their power and how they truly interact with the world around them.

And in the third story, the Fuaran has been found – the mythological text with the spell to convert humans to Others – and it will be used in a truly novel manner. But the Other behind the plan that could tip the world into supernatural anarchy is the last person Anton would have ever expected….

As with the other volumes, this one blurs the line between good and evil. It tells us what we already know, but don’t really want to admit: that good people can do evil things – start a bloody revolution, for example, or try to brainwash thousands of people – and that evil people can do good – save children from wolves, or avert a chaotic and terrible future. People do things for reasons that are sometimes known only to themselves, not out of a higher allegiance to the abstract concepts of “good” and “evil,” but for reasons that are intensely personal.

There are, however, times when labels work just fine.

It is something to be remembered. We have a habit of idolizing and demonizing people in this world, elevating them to paragons of virtue or sin, and ascribing motives to them that we think they acted by. But that doesn’t work. Even to the end, Anton believes he knows why the holder of the Fuaran wants to convert people into Others – to raise an army and control the world – but he’s so very, very wrong. The true reason is much more personal and, oddly, much more human than that.

That is probably the best lesson to be taken from these books. “Good” and “Evil” are tags that we affix to people because it saves us the effort of thinking about them. Behind every act, however, is a personal reason that defies such simplistic labeling. Every saint, every monster, is only human. Just like us. I don’t know if knowing that makes the world better or worse, but it at least makes it a little more familiar.

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“We weren’t meant to fly.
All we can do is try not to fall.”
– from The Twilight Watch

The Twilight Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Twilight Watch on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, detective fiction, disaster, fantasy, morality, mystery, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, war, werewolves, witches, wizardry