Category Archives: philosophy

Books about philosophy.

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.

—————————————————————-
“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”
—————————————————————-

Mad Men and Philosophy on Amazon.com
Mad Men Homepage

Leave a comment

Filed under analysis, consumerism, essays, ethics, James B. South, Mad Men, morality, philosophy, psychology, Rod Carveth, television

Review 142: Otherland 1 – City of Golden Shadow

Otherland 1: City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams

Let me just start by saying this: the first time I finished this series, I immediately went back and started reading it again. I can’t think of any other series that I’ve done that with.

This is one of Tad Williams’ “economy-sized manuscripts,” similar to his fantasy classic Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Similar in size and scope, anyway – four giant tomes chock full of all things awesome. It’s a series of grand scope, amazing scale and great imagination, well worthy of your time. It’s a complex, interweaving of tales, full of vibrant characters, implacable enemies, and important questions about destiny, identity, consciousness and the very nature of reality itself.

Seriously, top-shelf stuff here, people.

Mind you, Second Life's dreams aren't all that big.

It begins in a near-future world, and it begins with the children. Renie Sulaweyo, a teacher in South Africa, has a brother in the hospital. He, like many other children around the world, has gone into an inexplicable coma, the causes of which defy medical science. The only clue she has is that the outbreaks of these comas coincide with the availability of access to the Net – a virtual reality internet that is what Second Life dreams of becoming. Here, depending on your equipment, you can live in a virtual world that is more vibrant and exciting than anything the real world can offer. And you can do it in full sense-surround 3D.

Renie’s brother, Stephen, engaged in the usual mischief that any kid with access to his own virtual universe might do, and finally got caught. Something shut him down, and Renie was determined to find out what did it. With the assistance of her student, a Bushman named !Xabbu, Renie uncovers an amazing virtual world, something that puts the best virtual reality to shame. It is the Otherland, a playground for the obscenely wealthy. And it may hold the secret to what has afflicted her brother.

And if you think WoW is nuts now? Imagine it fully immersive. Okay, nerds, get back to gold farming...

That’s the short version, and since Renie is the one we’re introduced to first, it would be easy to think of her as the protagonist of the story. That would be highly inaccurate, though. There’s a lot of other storylines going on in there as well. There’s young Orlando Gardiner, who compensates for a crippling illness by being the baddest barbarian on the net. His best friend, Sam Fredericks, has stood by him for many years in an online game that makes World of Warcraft look like pen and paper D&D. They and others are lured into a deadly quest by a vision of a great golden city, more realistic and magical than they ever thought they could find.

Out in the real world, there’s little Christabel Sorenson, upon whose earnest desire to help the funny-looking Mister Sellars the entire future of the Otherland rests. There’s the aptly-named Dread, an assassin extraordinare whose strange “twist” gives him an edge in all things electronic. And, of course, there is Paul Jonas, a man trapped in an imaginary world, whose escape threatens the greatest dreams of the richest men the world has ever known.

All of this, as the series title suggests, centers on the Otherland project, a virtual reality of monumental proportions. It’s a digital world that is more real than the real world is, a world of computer-created, but very deadly, dangers. The slightest misstep could spell disaster and death – die in the Otherland and you die in real life.

This doesn't happen in Otherland, by the way. Lucky them.

And just FYI, Otherland predates The Matrix by three years and, kung-fu aside, is a much better story. So if you’re thinking, “Man, this is just a Matrix rip-off, you’re very, very wrong.

It’s a daunting series to begin. After all, it’s four books, each one clocking in around 800 to 900 pages. There are at least fifteen major characters, and the Otherland itself shows us seven different “worlds” in this book alone. There’s a lot to take in, and on top of all that, there’s a whole world happening outside the story – each chapter is preceded with a small news blurb that tells us about things that are going on in the world. Cops rounding up homeless kids in lethal “snipe hunts,” homicidal artists, legislative representation for the industrial sector of America – this world is both familiar and alien at the same time.

Then again, neither does this. Tad Williams does have his limits.

The good news is that it is a lot of fun to read. The pacing is very good, so you never get too bored watching any one character for a while. What’s more, Williams pays homage to some of the greatest fantasy and science fiction the English-speaking world has to offer. At one point, even the characters admit that they seem to be caught up in a very familiar story. So my advice is to just dive right into it. Once you get going, things clip along at a good pace and you’ll find yourself on page 943 in no time flat.

The really fun part is re-discovering things in this series. There are some things I remember very clearly, but other little details that pop up and make me think, “Oh yeah, I forgot all about that.” I enjoy seeing Williams’ prescience – after all, he wrote this just as the internet was really becoming popular, and a good ten years before things like online gaming and social media took over our lives. His vision of an immersive, VR world may have seemed a little wild and out there back in the mid-nineties, but not anymore.

So, make a sandwich and find a comfortable place to sit. This’ll take a while, but I guarantee – it’ll be worth it.

———————————————-
“If you have found this, then you have escaped. Know this – you were a prisoner. You are not in the world in which you were born. Nothing around you is true, and yet the things you see can hurt you or kill you. You are free, but you will be pursued….”
– Sellars to Paul Jonas, Otherland: City of Golden Shadow
———————————————

Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
City of Golden Shadow on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

Leave a comment

Filed under adventure, brothers, fantasy, fathers, friendship, gender, gender roles, internet, quest, science fiction, sisters, survival, Tad Williams, transhumanism, virtual reality, world-crossing

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.

————————————————
“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
————————————————

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

Leave a comment

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

Review 127: The God Engines

The God Engines by John Scalzi

There is not, to my knowledge, a whole lot of theological science fiction. Madeleine L’Engle’s books may qualify, but to be honest, it’s been years since I read them so I don’t know. The Golden Compass books, too, but they struck me more as fantasy, seeing as how there were no spaceships. My only successful foray into National Novel Writing Month produced some theological sci-fi, but it was questionable at best and is still fermenting on my hard drive somewhere.

In any case, that is what John Scalzi has given us, and if you’re a regular reader of his blog and his other books then you may find this one to be a little… off. You see, like many accomplished writers, Scalzi has a Voice, a way of writing that is immediately identifiable as his own, and which a lot of his fans have gotten used to. There’s no single thing I can point to that really illustrates what this is, but trust me – it’s there. A certain whip-quick sarcasm, a way of looking at old questions from a new angle and the ability to cut through the requisite fuzzy thinking that seems so endemic to the human race.

Not quite like this... but kind of.

In this book, he tries on a new voice, something that sounds kind of like his, but at the same time like he’s trying on something new. It’s as if Jonathan Coulton started doing Manowar cover songs. It’s not bad, it’s just something that takes a little getting used to.

Captain Ean Tephe is the commander of a great starship, the Righteous, one of the many ships in the fleet controlled by the Bishopry Militant. He and the other captains in the fleet are charged with carrying out missions for the Bishopry in the name of their God, a being of immense power who uses the faith of millions to rule them. Their Lord is a powerful and active god, one who brooks no dissent from His followers and who will suffer no challengers to His dominion. Long ago, the Lord battled countless other, smaller gods, and won, chaining them to his will and turning them into the engines of the great starships that carry His people out into the universe.

Some gods are less tractable than others. (art by Evolvana on DeviantArt)

The god that powers the Righteous, however, is not cooperating. Some ships’ gods are quiet and obedient, others chatty, some cowed into good behavior by fear. The god on this ship is defiant, despite the prayers of priests and acolytes, and the horrible whip that the captain wields to compel obedience. This god soon reveals itself to be part of a greater plan, one which enfolds both Tephe and his crew and reveals a truth about their God that is enough to drive men mad. It is a test of faith for the men aboard the Righteous, and if they should fail, their lives will end in short order.

It’s a very cool concept, really, one which I haven’t seen done before. Scalzi has powered a civilization by faith, quite literally, in a God that not only exists, but it quite active in the lives of His worshipers. His high priests exert complete control over a population that rightfully fears for their souls, and manage to channel the God’s power into various science-like applications. Through the use of amulets called Talents, the God facilitates communication over great distances, compels obedience, and opens gateways. He has a civilian population whose faith nourishes Him, and a military arm that travels the galaxy spreading His word and destroying His enemies. And it all makes sense.

As cool as the idea is, though, the book itself felt like a rough sketch rather than a fleshed-out novel. It’s quite short, as novels go, and we are introduced to a lot of concepts and characters in a fairly brief amount of time. The Bishopry Militant, for example, sounds like a great place to see intrigue and double-dealing, lies upon lies that somehow manage to get things done, and we do see a bit of that when Captain Tephe gets a secret mission to a new world. Scalzi showed us in The Last Colony that he can handle this kind of multi-layered politicking, and I think it would be even better in a place like this. Add to that the Rookery, a kind of church-sanctioned brothel/therapy center aboard the ships, where the women who work there have nearly as much power and influence as the Bishopry itself. What would happen if these two institutions came into conflict, and what weapons would they wield?

This god has some opinions he'd like to share.

The chained gods, too, are a wonderful chance to explore a lot of ethical questions. They are undoubtedly sentient beings of great power, enslaved by a God that is stronger than they. Is this kind of slavery justified? Would it be possible for a ship to work with its god-engine, rather than compelling it with whips and prayers. What do these gods know, and how reliable are they? The god powering the Righteous seems to know a lot about how this universe works, including some terrifying tales about the God that Tephe follows, but how much of what it says can be trusted?

And what are the powers and limitations of a faith-powered science? Much in the way that engineers and scientists in our world manipulate a few basic laws of nature to achieve amazing things, what could be done in a world where prayers have power and where a high priest’s whim can decide the outcome of an entire mission? How do you creatively solve problems in a reality like this one, where they deal in belief and faith, rather than wavelengths and mass?

So yeah, there was a lot that I wanted from this book once I figured out what Scalzi was doing with it. After a great opening line (and a third line that just left me confused), the learning curve was a little steep. Once you figure it out, though, the possibilities seem endless. Unfortunately, the book itself ends rather sooner than it should.

The less said about this album, the better.

It’s not my favorite book by Scalzi, not by a long run, but since he’s said he’s going to lay off the Old Man’s War universe for a while, I should be thankful that he is willing to experiment and try new things. As many music lovers know, it’s sometimes very hard to accept that an artist you love wants to try to do things that are new and different, rather than keep doing the things that made you love them in the first place. I remember when U2 put out Achtung Baby and my friends who fell in love with The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were almost personally offended. Zooropa, of course, was not to be mentioned aloud in their presence.

That kind of experimentation and risk-taking, however, is ultimately what helps an artist grow. You may not like what comes of such experimentation, but that’s tough – it’s not about you.

I don’t know if Scalzi will return to this universe or not, but I hope he does. If he does, I hope he lingers longer than he did in The God Engines, and brings forth another wonderful and complex universe.

————————————————————
“Faith is not for what comes after this life. Faith is for this life alone.”
– A God, The God Engines
————————————————————

John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Wikipedia
The God Engines on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s Blog

Leave a comment

Filed under gods, good and evil, John Scalzi, morality, religion, science fiction, sins, space travel, theocracy, theology, totalitarianism, war

Review 125: Logicomix

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

I have a question for you. It’s a simple-sounding question, but hard to answer, so I really want you to put a good amount of thought into it before you do. Okay? Yes, I’m still in Teacher-mode, but that’s not important right now. My question is this:

What is truth?

Good luck with that whole "free will" thing.

It’s one of those unanswerable questions that has bugged us ever since we started being able to ask unanswerable questions. Along with “Why is there evil in the world?” and “Do we have free will or are our lives pre-determined from the beginning?” or “What’s the deal with that Justin Bieber kid? I mean really?” this question is one that people either ignore or obsess over.

Didn’t think I could do a pop-culture reference like that, did you? Shows how much you know….

This graphic novel is about one man’s pursuit of this question, and the ways in which it nearly destroyed his life. The man was Bertrand Russell, and we follow his life from his childhood to late adulthood as he searches for an unshakable foundation to mathematics and logic, and thus an absolute truth that he could rely on.

Bertrand Russell does not find the truth. He teaches it to come when it is called.

As a child, Russell lived with the question of why things are the way they are, and got no good answers from his domineering grandmother. It wasn’t until his introduction to geometry and the wonder of mathematical proofs that he could finally say there was something about which he could be absolutely sure in the universe. Mathematics, he thought, would be the answer to everything. Pure, unsullied and utterly, utterly reliable.

But there was a flaw in math – the Axioms. Mathematics in the 19th century was a direct descendant of Euclid’s work, and rested on a series of axioms in order to function. An axiom, then, is something that is assumed to be true so that you can go on to prove other things. For example, if you have a line, and a point not on that line, there can be only one line drawn through that point that is parallel to the first. Why is this true? Well… it just is. If you have to prove that, then you have to prove a thousand other things first, and you never end up being able to prove the thing you were trying to prove in the first place. It was like, he thought, the cosmological model of the world on the back of a turtle. Which stood on another turtle. Which stood on another, and another – turtles, all the way down.

The bottom turtle's name is "Jeff." (art courtesy of Kenneth Rougeau)

That didn’t satisfy young Russell, and he went off in search of the floor upon which the last turtle stood, as it were – new mathematics that would be able to define the foundations of math, and thereby give a concrete understanding of the universe. Along the way, his desire to apply the certainty of math to human thought and interaction led him to the discipline of logic, a strange chimera of mathematics and philosophy. By becoming a logician, he thought he might finally be able to pin down some absolute truths about not only abstract math but human nature itself.

Of course, he failed. Spectacularly. Broken marriages, broken friendships, ill health – his obsession with an absolute truth to the universe nearly destroyed everything he had. Fortunately for him, Russell pulled back from the abyss before it could swallow him whole, and became one of the early 20th century’s greatest philosophers in the process. His failure to find an ultimate foundation for logic and math was not entirely without fruit – thanks to work by Russell and others, these disciplines were pushed forward in ways that made our modern lives possible. New ways of understanding the universe, from the unfathomable depths of infinity to the simplicity of 1+1=2, everything was open to examination in those days. Because of men like Bertrand Russell, humanity advanced in great leaps and bounds.

1+1=2. Seriously. No more arguments.

In the end, it’s a compelling book. I read and re-read it, convinced each time that there was something else I had missed. I was very often right. Doxiadis and Papadimitriou have put together a compelling tale of a man often overlooked by the general public, and they did so in a medium that’s close to my heart – the graphic novel. The art, done by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, is wonderful. It has a simplicity that belies the complexity of its topic, and shows an excellent sense of storytelling. Hats off to the two of them, without a doubt.

This book, it should be noted, is not a primer on logic. If you’re looking to know how logic works, or you want to know a bit more about higher mathematics and how to do them, then you’d best look for another book. As the authors tell us right in the beginning, this book is a story, a great tragedy that owes its inspiration to the ancient productions of the Greeks. It’s the story of a man who pitted himself against the universe and lost, but who did so in such a way that he – and the world – came out better for it. The book ends with a scene from The Oresteia, a classic Greek drama about another man who found himself in a no-win situation with no absolutes to rest upon.

"Stop asking me to prove beauty, dammit!"

Much like Orestes, when faced with two choices that could lead to his destruction, the only way forward for Russell was to compromise and to move forward. By doing so, he not only became a happier man, but became involved with humanity again, as a philosopher, a teacher, and an anti-war activist.

In the end, this book is about the compromises we all have to make as human beings. The world may be a logical place, but we are not. There is a limit to our logical understanding of ourselves, and sooner or later we have to accept that and deal with people as people, rather than as problems to be solved and equations to be balanced. Bertrand Russell’s quest, as interpreted by this novel, is an example of how far we can push the need to know exactly what’s at the bottom of it all. The fact that the foundations of our world appear to be unprovable and unknowable is, ultimately, unimportant. What is important is that we are here, now, and we need to make sense of our own lives.

—————————————————————
“The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. So long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.”
– Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays – Philosophy for Laymen
—————————————————————

Logicomix on Wikipedia
Apostolos Doxiadis on Wikipedia
Christos Papadimitriou on Wikipedia
Bertrand Russell on Wikipedia
Logicomix on Amazon.com

2 Comments

Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Bertrand Russell, biography, Christos Papadimitriou, graphic novel, logic, mathematics, nonfiction, quest

Review 124: The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of the Day Watch Auxiliary Brigade

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

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

Team ANTON!!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or does he?

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

————————————————
“You accuse us of cruelty, and not entirely without reason, but what’s one child killed in a black mass compared with any fascist children’s concentration camp?”
– Zabulon, of the Day Watch, The Night Watch
————————————————

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

2 Comments

Filed under ethics, fantasy, good and evil, horror, identity, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, short stories, society, USSR, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Review 123: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

Gods, where do I even start with this?

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

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

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

Art by Party9999999 on DeviantArt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new faces of the Party. DOUBLEPLUSGOOD!!

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

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

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

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

How adorable....

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

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

Freedoms available to us. Not these people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under classics, dystopia, ethics, existentialism, fiction, futurism, George Orwell, language, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, psychology, totalitarianism, truth

Review 120: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Well, here we are. After a long road – longer for some of us than for others – we have finally reached the end of The Dark Tower series. For some of us, it’s been twenty years in coming, so if you’ve only started reading this series recently, count yourself lucky. You don’t know how we waited for this book, the book wherein Roland would finally attain his goal, and we would see if all the sacrifices he made were worth it.

Were they? Kind of.

Art by Eredel on DeviantArt

I’ll get into more detail later, after I dutifully put up the “Here Be Spoilers” sign, but this is the book where everything gets resolved, and our heroes are given their reward for the hard work they have done. The bad guy is beaten, the world is saved, and all is well. Although “well” is a very relative term in this sense, and while the bad guy is beaten, it’s not very satisfying, and the reward that many of our heroes get isn’t necessarily the reward they would have chosen.

If I sound like I’m dancing around the story, that’s because I am. I have an aversion to spoiling books in these reviews, mainly because I know how satisfying it is to get into a good book and discover things. To see old characters appear from the past, and to witness the heroism of the characters we have come to love. To look at the journey they take and see their relentless pursuit rewarded. At the same time, I don’t want your experience poisoned by knowing the drawbacks to a book – the soft spots in the plot, the characterization problems, the disappointments and the heartbreaks. [1]

Art by lilbenji25 on DeviantArt

This book contains all of these, and if I avoid talking about them, then this review will be awfully short. So, Constant Reader, I tell you this: you can stop here. You can click away to another page, perhaps to Amazon to buy the book and read it yourself (I recommend the Kindle edition if you can – I have the hardcover and it is quite the doorstop), perhaps to put off the reading of the book for a while longer. You don’t have to learn things that will taint the journey of discovery that is reading , and you can live on with a vision in your head of how The Dark Towerseries should end, instead of how it actually does.

Would you stay, then? Very well. After this point, there is no turning back. What is learned, as they say, cannot be unlearned.

This is not the book I wanted. It is unbalanced, hard to get through, and disappointing in many ways. There are also some beautiful moments, and some interesting ideas which, upon post-reading reflection, make the whole story more meaningful. But my overall feeling was one of great disappointment. Let’s start from afar, shall we?

Art by DiosBoss on DeviantArt

The structure of this book is rather lopsided. The most climactic event in the book, the battle of Algul Siento, is quite exciting and fun in that it is what we readers expect from a climax – gunfire and death and the saving of worlds. By freeing the Breakers from their work on the Beams, Roland and his ka-tetdo indeed save the macroverse from complete dissolution. They have literally saved the world and, as we learn later, have completely thwarted the evil designs of the Crimson King. The story could end there, the characters could go on their separate ways, and all would be well.

The problem is that this occurs in the first half of the book. It’s followed soon after by a minor climax – Roland and Jake saving Stephen King from certain death by drunk driver – but even that is done a little more than halfway through the book. Stephen King is safe, the New York Rose is safe, and we find out later that not only are the last two Beams intact, they are regenerating and will probably regenerate the other four. Reality has been saved.

But the story goes on, because saving reality was never Roland’s goal. It was only, in the parlance of Dungeons and Dragons, a side quest. There’s a larger quest to be resolved.

This wouldn’t be so bad if there were an even bigger climax waiting for us at the end, but there isn’t, and this is where I feel kind of betrayed. When Roland gets to the Dark Tower, we know he will have to face the Crimson King, who has been held up as the incarnation of death, evil and chaos. He has been the main antagonist throughout this whole series. His reach is long, his power vast, and his hate for Roland of Gilead is as focused as a laser and as hot as the sun. He is as close to the Devil as we can get.

Art by morganagod on DeviantArt

So, when Roland finally makes it to Can’-Ka no Rey, the great field of roses within which the Dark Tower stands, who do we see? A “satanic Santa Claus” who throws explosives from the only balcony of the Tower he’s been able to reach. He’s generically ugly, screams like a madman, and talks in villain cliches – “GUNSLINGER! NOW YOU DIE!” or “YOU DON’T DARE MOCK ME! YOU DON’T DARE! EEEEEEEE!” or “EEEEEEEE! EEEEEE! STOP! IT BURNS!” On top of all that, the Crimson King is finally defeated not by Roland’s guns or some great battle on the physical, intellectual or spiritual plains, but by a guy with a sketchpad. He is simply erased from afar. And thus ends the reign of what was supposed to be the greatest horror of all worlds.

What’s more, their meeting at the Tower was not acually the defeat of the Crimson King – he conceded defeat way back during Wolves of the Calla. We find out that, with the defeat of the Wolves, the King foresaw the end of the Breakers and thus his plan to unmake creation. So, he broke his Wizard’s Glasses, killed nearly everyone in his castle. killed himself by – for reasons I still don’t understand – swallowing a sharpened spoon, and then, undead (which I also don’t understand), rode off for the Tower.

Even then, though, he couldn’t win. In order to enter the Tower he needed either Roland’s guns or Mordred’s birthmark, neither of which he had. So he climbed up into one of the Tower balconies with all the weapons he could carry and just waited. If Roland hadn’t come to the Tower, he would have waited there forever and never harmed anyone again. By bringing his guns, Roland raises the possibility that the Crimson King could still triumph. So, by continuing his quest, Roland endangers all existence.

Art by Michael Whelan

As much as I hate to call out authors on what they “should have” done, I feel like I have to here. A hero is only as good as his villain, and the Crimson King, in the end, turns out to be a pretty crappy one. I wish King had made their meeting worthy of the image he had built up. The same goes for one of our favorite characters, Randall Flagg (or whatever name he chooses to use). He has floated through this series and others like a cancer, bringing nothing but death and pain with him. He’s a charismatic madman who revels in chaos and is probably one of the most enjoyable characters King has created. So how does he die? He gets killed by Mordred, the bastard son of Roland and the Crimson King, of Susannah and Mia. He gets killed and eaten without much of a fight. I think a lot of fans would agree that Flagg deserved better.

And while we’re on the topic – Mordred.

One of my measurements of good characterization is a question: If this character did not exist, could the story have ended the way it did? With Jake and Father Callahan, Susannah and Eddie, with Oy and Flagg and Cuthbert and Susan and Cort, the answer is, of course, No. Each of those characters contributed something vital to the story, something that no other character could have done. To reach the same end without one of those characters would have meant a vastly different story.

Art by Michael Whelan

The same cannot be said of Mordred. Of the people he kills, only two matter to us: Flagg and Oy. Flagg should have been the penultimate End Boss, the final challenge for Roland before reaching the Tower and the Crimson King. And there are many ways to kill a Billy-Bumbler – I think King could have thought of one that gave Oy the same honorable and heartbreaking death that he got trying to save Roland from Mordred. Other than that, Mordred had no impact on the story at all. He just followed Roland, Susannah and Oy, shivering and whining and feeling sorry for himself. He kept telling us that he was meant for great things, but never showed even the slightest hint of that potential. He follows Roland like Gollum follows Frodo, but at least Gollum turned out to be important.

The one thing we do get from Mordred is a frustrating bit of knowledge – that the Crimson King and Roland are both descended from the mythical king Arthur Eld. In that way, their battle is between cousins, and Mordred represents a unification of two bloodlines – demon and human. If their conflict had been framed in that context, it could have been so much more interesting when we finally got to the end.

Speaking of the end. We, like Roland, didn’t know what to expect when we finally got into the Dark Tower. And I don’t think anyone expected that the series would loop around to the beginning again, dumping Roland back in the Mohaine Desert to follow the Man in Black once more, unaware that he had already done so so many times before. It was an unsatisfying ending at first, but upon reflection, it does work, and there are two ways to look at it.

The first is that Roland is being taught a lesson, one which he still has not learned. He’s being taught to value life, to reset his priorities. From his youth, he was so focused on the Tower that he let all else fall aside – his friends, the girl he loved, and the sacred artifacts of his forefathers. He brought death with him, and passed it on to all whom he loved, and ended his quest as alone as he began it. And so, despite saving the multiverse, Roland failed his true quest – to learn how to love others and share who he was with them – and had to be sent back to start again. In appreciation of his effort, however, he was granted a change: the horn of Eld, which he had previously neglected on the field of the last battle of civilization. Perhaps it will make a difference.

The other way to look at this ending is a more metafictional one, something that Stephen King himself finds distasteful. Like it or not, though, one of the overriding themes of this series is the impact that fiction has on reality, and vice versa. To readers, a character might be more real than real people. We learn lessons from them, we have kind or unkind memories of them, and in many ways, our fictional characters possess a special reality. To a writer, this is even more true. Ask any writer and they will tell you about how their characters talk to them, sometimes appear in front of them, or even take over their bodies for a little while. A writer will discover things about a character that she never planned, as if the character himself were revealing them. The Dark Tower relies on this kind of ur-reality of fiction, up to and including fictional characters saving the life of their own writer.

So, by connecting the end of the last book with the beginning of the first, perhaps King is implicating us, the Constant Readers, in Roland’s suffering. Roland cannot rest as long as there are readers reading him, and we are all guilty of making him go through it again and again. While King may have created Roland and his quest, we propagate it, and every new reader ensures that it will never, ever end. [2]

Art by Chesheyre on DeviantArt

In the end, we have a series that started off strong, and then kind of careened to an unsatisfying end. Having been written intermittently over the course of thirty years, I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising. Ideas which seemed like good ones at the time served only to cause trouble later down the road, and loose ends that needed to be tied up took up far more time than they should have. Perhaps with a clearer vision of the journey at the beginning, King could have held it together better. And perhaps without his brush with death in 1999, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to get the last three volumes out as soon as he could.

It does, however, gift us with some wonderful characters, a rich and brilliant world, and a fictional cosmology that holds together all the worlds that King has created thus far. It’s an examination of the importance of fiction in our lives, and the way that stories can reach out and touch so many more people than the storyteller ever intends. If you are a fan of Stephen King, and you haven’t read this series yet, then you should. For all that the last couple of books disappoint, there is still much good to be found in the whole series, and the first five are generally really well done.

Art by Deviata on DeviantArt

There is more to read, if you’re interested. King’s assistant, Robin Furth, has put together an excellent Concordance, detailing pretty much everything you want to know about the series – characters, places, history, language and concepts. She has also written a series of graphic novels for Marvel Comics which detail Roland’s youth, starting with the events told in Wizard and Glass and going up to the terrible battle of Jericho Hill. So if the original series leaves you wanting more, there’s certainly more to be had.

That’s it, then. Long days and pleasant nights to you all.

——————————————————–
“Even when you were in the shadow of death there were lessons to be learned.”
– Jake (narration), The Dark Tower
——————————————————–

——————–
[1] To be fair – this book was published back in 2004. If you haven’t read it by now, I doubt you’re really going to be chuffed by some spoilers, and you have no one to blame but yourself if you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

[2] A third option is suggested by his short story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French” from Everything’s Eventual, wherein a woman riding with her husband in a car on vacation keeps re-living a terrible accident. It is implied that she is dead, and that hell is the eternal repetition of one’s mistakes. It is possible that Roland is dead, and that this series is his Hell.

The Dark Tower on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
The Dark Tower on Amazon.com

2 Comments

Filed under adventure, apocalypse, Dark Tower, death, existentialism, fantasy, good and evil, meta-fiction, quest, Stephen King, time travel, world-crossing

Review 119: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

A king is killed, usurped by a weak man and his overbearing wife.

A ghost haunts the castle, waiting for his son to come and avenge him.

On the highlands, three Witches hold their meeting, plotting the future of the kingdom.

I think Granny would not appreciate this image....

Sound familiar? It should. These are some of the most enduring tropes of English literature, and they’re all thanks to a singular playwright. Wyrd Sisters is Terry Pratchett’s tribute to some of the blood and gore and guts, tragedies and twists of Shakespeare’s great plays.

In fact, this book encapsulates my three favorite Shakespearean works – Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Yes, they’re all tragedies, but that shouldn’t surprise any of you by now. They plumb the depths of humanity to try to find glimmers of hope and bravery and redemption, and everyone usually ends up dead, but dead with a true sense of purpose. In this book we have, respectively, a king murdered by his own family, a woman who pulls the strings of the usurper, and a bloody great storm.

Anyone have some Purell?

Verence, the king of Lancre, has been assassinated. An accident, everyone says. He tripped and fell down the stairs, landing on his own dagger. Funny, that. But the new ruler of Lancre, Felmet, is not so steady in his convictions. He sees the blood on his hands, although he didn’t do it. He’s absolutely sure he didn’t do the deed. Anyone who says he did do it is likely to be shorter by a foot or so by morning. And his wife wasn’t there either. She didn’t hand him the knife. The point is that Verence is dead, long live the King, and now everyone can enjoy the easy life of a royal couple.

However, as so often happens in these things, complications arose. The dead king isn’t allowed to go away. He is confined to unlife as a ghost, unable to contact or interact with the world of the living – except in very small, nearly unnoticeable ways. As his murderers rule over his kingdom, Verence exercises his ectoplasm and plots a way to bring Felmet down. The king’s infant son was stolen after the assassination, you see – brought by a dying man to the home of one of Lancres witches, where he passed the infant to the three women there, and begged them to care for it.

Huh. Actors.

They did what some people would think would be the exact opposite – they gave the child to some traveling actors. As alarming as that might seem, they thought that a traveling troupe would be a much better place for a child to grow up than with three of the greatest witches of Lancre.

And that would seem to be the end of it, really. The king is dead, with no one to contradict the original version of his death. The infant son of the king is stolen, never to be seen again. By all rights, the kingdom should move on. Assassination, of course, is perfectly natural in Royal circles, happens all the time. The kingdom shouldn’t even blink.

But it does. Not only does the kingdom blink, it is furious. Not the people, mind you. The people barely notice a new king, except for the parties and the slight increase in executions. The Kingdom. As a body is an amalgam of cells, a Kingdom is the whole of its people and history. Felmet hates the new kingdom he has acquired, with its gorges and trees and people you couldn’t bully no matter how hard you tried. He hates the Kingdom, and the Kingdom hates him for it. A Kingdom, you see, is like a dog. It doesn’t care if its master is a good man or an evil man, so long as he cares for the dog. Felmet actively detested the land and its people, and in return the larger entity that was The Kingdom hated him right back.

In the meantime, Felmet’s Fool, formerly the Fool to Verence, is showing him how words have power, and how that power could help break the animal kingdom he ruled. Cutting the trees down, for example, might be called “horrible” or “terrible” by the people – and the kingdom – of Lancre. But call it, “Planned deforestation for industry growth,” and that’s a whole new story.

"Senior citizen"

Words have power, Felmet learns. The Fool eventually goes on to demonstrate the true power of words to the king.

Liar. Usurper. Murderer.

Words like that have a wondrous effect.

And then there are the Witches, who are a threat to Flemet, in his own mind. He can’t kill them, he can’t torture them. But he can change how people think about them, and so he decides that a play is the way to go….

It gets a little complicated after that, but rest assured, it’s a kicker. Felmet is insane, and his wife is worse. Their plan to destroy the witches of Lancre goes beyond what the Puritans of Massachusetts could ever have come up with – altering their very natures by altering perceptions. And fate sticks her fingers in all over the place, as the Witches try to restore a true leader to Lancre – even if the true leader doesn’t even know who he is.

Oh, what Shakespeare could have done with Granny....

Not only does this book showcase one of Terry’s best characters – Granny Weatherwax – but it takes an interesting look at the way we can alter our perception of things merely by altering what we call a thing. Words shape the world, whether we want them to or not, and the right word in the right ear can shift the balances of history. As with so many of his other books, Terry gives us a profound philosophical insight and shows it to us as something we knew all along.

————————
“Oh, obvious,” said Granny. “I’ll grant you it’s obvious. Trouble is, just because things are obvious doesn’t mean they’re true.”
Granny Weatherwax, Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters on Wikipedia
Discworld on Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
Wyrd Sisters on Amazon.com
Terry Pratchett’s homepage

1 Comment

Filed under assassinations, death, Discworld, fantasy, ghosts, good and evil, humor, madness, revenge, Terry Pratchett, witches

Review 117: I Will Fear No Evil

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

One of the things I enjoy about Heinlein is that he likes to play with Big Ideas. While he did dip into the well of action and adventure, especially for his juvenile stories, he treated his readers like they were only slightly intellectually inferior to him, and so explored concepts that required a lot of heavy thinking. The need for war, the inevitability of messiahs, revolution, life, death, immortality – he’s not afraid to look at some of the greatest philosophical topics that reside in the human heart, and this book is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is a very old, very sick, very rich man. He built himself up from nothing and rose to financial prominence in what is a little more than a regular human lifetime. Smith had it all – a rich and exciting life, complete financial security, good friends and good memories in a world that had, frankly, gone to hell. He had very nearly everything a person would want to have.

Photo by openDemocracy

What he didn’t have was time. He lived in daily pain, kept alive by only two things: an ever-increasing number of machines and a plan to release himself from the geriatric horror his life had become. He knew that this plan would probably fail. He knew that he was facing death no matter what happened. He knew that it was crazy, and not necessarily crazy enough to work. But it was all that stood between him and suicide.

That plan was, in theory, very simple: transplant his healthy brain into the body of a healthy young person. By doing so, he would gain a whole extra lifetime to enjoy the fruits of his first lifetime’s labor. Not being a monster, he was prepared to do this in a legal and ethical fashion. With his legal, medical, and judicial contacts, he made arrangements with a medical advocacy group to get the body of a healthy young person who died due to some massive brain trauma. And – and this is important – who consented to having their body used for medical experimentation. Everything would be above-board, legally sound and ethically certain. All Smith had to do was stay alive until a body became available.

Now just put the two of them together... IF YOU DARE!

When it did, however, he was in for a double surprise. Not only was the healthy, youthful body that of a female, it was that of his healthy, youthful, beautiful secretary, Eunice Branca. Eunice had been murdered, but her body was in excellent condition. She had the right blood type, and had consented to have her body used for Smith’s experiment. The one doctor in the world who could perform the surgery was brought in to perform it, and against all odds, it worked. Johann Sebastian Bach Smith was reborn as Joan Eunice Smith, and her new life began.

But she was not alone.

By some means, Eunice’s mind survived to live with Joan, and tutor her in all the ways of being a woman. Joan dove happily into her new life, exploring her new femininity and sexuality as best she could.

In that sense, this whole book is an exploration of sexual identity. Here we have a man who is now a woman, even though that was never his intention. He soon finds himself thinking like a woman, though, bringing up the question of whether gender is determined by a person’s mind, or by the body it inhabits. If you put a male mind into a female body, with the vastly different hormones and sensory inputs, will that male mind start to act like a female? And even if it does, should it?

Smith makes a decision to, with Eunice’s help, be the best woman he can be, mostly because he feels that is what is expected of him. After a lifetime of conforming to male societal roles, Smith wholeheartedly embraces the female ones, up to and including seducing his best friend of many decades. Gender identity in this book is a tangled mess of biology and intention, and it looks at being female from a distinctly male point of view.

It was a different time....

Which brings me to my first problem with this book: the casual misogyny. I know it’s a pretty loaded word to throw around, and it’s not entirely accurate, but it was the one that kept coming to my mind. While Heinlein is certainly capable of creating strong and independent female characters, and emphasizes over and over again that both Eunice and Joan are actively choosing the lives they lead, those lives are almost entirely dependent on and revolve around men. One of Smith’s first actions when he goes from Johann to Joan is to latch on to a man – her old friend Jake Saloman. She views her identity as a woman as incomplete without a man to base it on, and spends most of the book trying to figure out who she is in relation to men – Jake, her security guards, Eunice’s widower, and more. She repeatedly mentions how helpless she is without a Big Strong Man in her life, and all of this culminates in what is possibly one of the most misogynist moments I have ever read in sci-fi: a spanking scene.

And not a sexy one, either. In a moment of adolescent pique that Jake won’t sleep with her when she wants him to, Joan throws a fit, disrupting their dinner plans. Jake proceeds to throw her over his knee and give her a spanking because, and I’m quoting here, “You were being difficult… and it is the only thing I know of which will do a woman any good when a man can’t do for her what she needs.” Joan accepts the spanking meekly, not only thanking Jake for his spanking, but also claiming that she had her first orgasm while he did it.

Wow. That’s nearly as bad as the other major female character, Winnie, who talks about a gang rape experience with what can almost be imagined as fondness.

Oddly enough, this is not my biggest problem with the book. I mean, it was written in the late ’60s, and it reflects the thinking of that era. For all his progressive beliefs, Heinlein was still a man of his time, and it really shows here. Legend [1] has it that he was really sick when he wrote this book, and that may have had something to do with the fact that no matter how many complex hot-button issues he touches (gender roles, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, overpopulation, government overreach), the fact remains that there is no story in this book.

This picture contains more conflict than this book

Let me explain. A story needs conflict. It needs not only a protagonist that is trying to achieve something, but obstacles that impede that achievement. There were so many potential goals and obstacles to be explored in this story – a man’s brain in a woman’s body – but Heinlein manages to artfully dodge all of them. The story of Smith’s inner struggle to resolve the gender he grew up with with the gender he now possesses would have been fascinating. But it didn’t happen. Smith pretty much accepts the change right away, with few if any reservations. Even so, he could have struggled with how to live as a woman – should he adopt the identity that a patriarchal society would confer upon him as a woman, or forge his own as a uniquely gendered person who has gone from the privileged to the unprivileged sex? Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t even occur to Joan. She decided to be the best woman she can be, constantly asking others what that entails, rather than asking herself.

Or how about the concept of Identity itself? Smith is an old brain in a new body, so is he legally the same person he was before the surgery? That would be an amazing story as he tries to prove that Johann has become Joan, and that even though Eunice’s body is still walking around, she’s actually dead. But no – Smith has some powerful legal friends with ironclad arguments, and the legal proceedings are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Or how about rejection by society? Regular transgendered people have a hard enough time getting society to accept the modification of the body they were born with – what about when someone takes on an entirely new body? Joan could have struggled to get her friends and family to accept who she has become, to stand before the world with her head held high. But no…. She has enough money that she doesn’t really need society’s approval, none of her friends have any trouble with what she’s become, and even Eunice’s widower has only a moment of uncontrollable emotion before accepting that his wife is dead, but still walking around. And he might get to sleep with her again.

Imagine this in your head ALL the TIME.

One last one – the soul. Joan hears Eunice’s voice in her head, but it’s unclear whether it is really Eunice or if it’s just Joan’s imagination. What’s more, they never fight. They never have a serious disagreement and have to resolve their differences so that they can continue to occupy the same skull. Eunice and Joan live together like wisecracking sisters and never have to deal with the problem of living with someone you can’t get rid of, even if you’re not sure if they’re real.

In other words, there’s no there there. It’s a long, talky, philosophical exploration of some fascinating topics, but as a novel, it’s incredibly dull. You keep waiting for the blow-up, for the accident, for the Big Problem that Joan and Jake have to struggle to overcome, and it never arrives. Everything works out either through money or force of will or Heinlein’s trademark Sheer Damn Reasonableness. Between that and the constant thought of, “He did not just say that,” I found this book rather stressful to plow through. It offers up a lot of big ideas to think on, raises some very important questions, and Heinlein’s gift for dialogue makes some fun conversations, but I think I would have liked it more if it had been completely different.

——————————————————
“Sir, if you want to give me a fat lip, I’ll hold still, smile happily, and take it. Oh, Jake darling, it’s going to be such fun to be married to you!”
“I think so too, you dizzy bitch.”
– Joan and Jake, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
——————————————————

[1] Wikipedia

Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Amazon.com
The Heinlein Society

1 Comment

Filed under afterlife, bad, death, existentialism, friendship, gender, gender roles, ghosts, homosexuality, identity, Robert Heinlein, romance, science fiction, sexuality