Tag Archives: philosophy

Review 214: Harry Potter and Philosophy

LL 214 - Harry Potter and PhilosophyHarry Potter and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham

When a co-worker of mine noticed the title of this book, his response was distinct and dismissive, something along the lines of, “Huh. I don’t think she went in putting anything philosophical in those books.” The air of disdain was palpable, and while I didn’t have a chance to continue the conversation, I got the distinct feeling that he was not one of J.K. Rowling’s biggest fans.

However, he may have had a point, one which mildly threatens this whole series of popular culture and philosophy books that I enjoy so much: how much of what these pop culture philosophers talk about is really there in the text, and how much are they just spinning from thin air? When Rowling wrote these books, was she consciously thinking of Aristotle and Plato, of the reasons why Harry Potter’s decision to embrace death was so similar to that of Socrates? Was she asking herself questions about the difference between the Greater Good and the Common Good, about whether her writing was more aligned to radical feminism or liberal feminism or feminism at all? Did she set out to create a world where the concept of a soul made sense, to determine the true nature of love, or to decide what makes for a great leader?

What is the teleological importance of Hagrid's beard vis a vis the function of the Good in wizarding world?

What is the teleological importance of Hagrid’s beard vis a vis the function of the Good in wizarding world?

Probably not. Like many writers who are not philosophers, Rowling probably just set out to write a rollicking good tale. That tale, however, is necessarily supported by some of the most important issues in western philosophy, so whether she wanted to address them or not, they showed up in her work.

One interesting question that was raised in this book – and there are plenty – is the question of identity and agency. By looking at Sirius Black as a case study, Eric Saidel explores what it is that makes us who we are – is it that thing we call a “mind,” or is it something else? Sirius black is a man, who sometimes looks like a dog, and when he’s a dog he sometimes acts like a man. When he’s not doing that, he’s acting like a dog. Is there any reason why this should be so, why a man should be a man sometimes and a dog others? Who – or what – is making those distinctions for him? It seems like a trivial question, one that can probably be chalked up to Rowling’s dire need for an editor as the series went along, but for Saidel it poses an interesting thought experiment. Is there an “essential Sirius Black”, regardless of the shape he’s in, and what influence does that shape have on him?

And as long as we’re talking about matters ephemeral, what of love? Throughout the series, Harry is told that his mother’s love is what protected him from death at the hands of Voldemort. Indeed, the love that Harry feels for his friends is actually a potent protection against the Dark Lord’s evil. What is it about love that makes it so powerful, and what has Voldy done to himself that makes it so dangerous to him? Catherine Jack Deavel and David Paul Deavel explore the topic of love and its mysteries by looking at three characters that are far more similar than they might appear – Voldemort, Harry, and Snape. Three “lost boys” who grew up very differently and whose lives were drastically shaped by love in one way or another.

Really, I can't imagine how no one took her seriously...

Really, I can’t imagine how no one took her seriously…

Moving on to matters that are bigger than the human heart, Jeremy Pierce explores issues of destiny and prophecy in his chapter, “Destiny in the Wizarding World.” We all know that prophecies exist in the world of Harry Potter, rare though they may be, but what does it actually mean for an event to be prophesied? The slightly batty Professor Trelawney has had only two accurate foretellings in her otherwise fraudulent career – the first being the one that put Voldemort on the trail of Harry, and the other about Voldemort’s return. But how do we judge a prophecy for its accuracy, especially once we’ve heard it? Is there any way to stop it, or does the very nature of causality mean that hearing the prophecy necessarily forces it to happen? Pierce goes back to Aristotle on this one, and tries to untangle all the different ways that a brief glimpse at the future could be revealed without ruining everything.

There’s something for the political types as well. Andrew Mills looks at the issue of patriotism – what is it, and is it actually a good thing? How is the loyalty of a Hogwarts student to her House morally different from the loyalty of a Death Eater to their Dark Lord? Is patriotism morally acceptable in any way, and if so, how? And what about Dumbledore? His “hands-off” approach to dealing with the school has caused some people to hold him up as a model of Libertarian governance. He doesn’t meddle in others’ affairs, allows Harry and his friends all the freedom they need, and generally tries to govern as little as possible. But is he really a Libertarian? Beth Admiraal and Regan Lance try to figure that out. And what makes him worthy of the power and influence he has, anyway? Is this the sort of man who should be a leader? David Lay Williams and Alan J. Kellner hark back to the story of the Ring of Gyges and Plato’s assertion that the one best suited to lead is the one who wants it least.

Yes, he is. (art from Hijinks Ensue)

Yes, he is. (art from Hijinks Ensue)

Things even get a little meta-fictional, too, if you like that kind of thing. In 2007, after the series was finished and in the hands of the fans, Rowling announced that she’d always thought of Dumbledore as gay. Some fans loved the idea, and others utterly hated it. But there were some fans who refused to grant her the right to make that declaration ex libris. As she hadn’t put it in the books, the argument goes, it’s not really true. So, Tamar Szabo Gendler undertakes the very challenging task of trying to figure out how we can determine what is “true” in a work of fiction.

Rowling probably didn’t write this series with the intention of scoring philosophical points, but the fact that these philosophers can do it is a testament to the care and thought she did put into her writing. She not only took from hundreds of years of fantasy literature, but also drew on some of the most fundamental aspects of being human – the need for love, the desire for power, the fear of death – and made them the centerpieces of her books. And, as luck would have it, those are just the kinds of things that philosophers love to talk about.

So, if you’re a fan of the books and a fan of philosophy, give this one a read. Then go back and read the books again, and see what else you can get from them.

——-

“Doing what we want to do may be necessary for freedom, but it’s not sufficient; we must also have the freedom to do otherwise.”
– Gregory Bassham, “Love Potion No. 9 3/4”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under fantasy, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, 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 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 80: Common Sense


Common Sense by Thomas Paine

This being an election year, there are a lot of people telling us what we should think about our country and its purpose in the world. Newspapers, magazines and books are churned out at a dizzying pace, each one designed to bend our wills to the writers’ opinions. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by them, honestly, especially the hardback tomes that – more often than not – turn out to be 300 pages of poorly disguised propaganda and party talking points.

From out vantage point, with a myriad of news sources at our fingertips – print, internet, and, of course, the insatiable maw that is 24-hour TV news – it’s difficult to truly appreciate the impact that Common Sense had when it was released as an anonymously penned pamphlet back in 1776.

No matter what your history teachers told you, the American colonists back then were not unanimously crying out for independence and liberation. Tensions were high between the Colonies and Britain, what with the various tax schemes and the conflicts in Boston, Lexington and Concord, but for everyone calling for independence, there were just as many who were looking for reconciliation between the Colonies and the Crown. They were British subjects, after all, and the thought of breaking from their God-given sovereign caused them great distress.

“We are his subjects,” the argument ran. “Who are we to disagree with his decisions? This may not be so great right now, but surely if we acquiesce, if we bow our heads, then we’ll receive all the benefits due his loyal subjects.”

Thomas Paine thought that this line of thinking was, in modern terms, bullshit, and he set out to explain precisely why.

Common Sense was written as a call for independence, aimed at convincing those hoping for reconciliation that their hopes were in vain. He believed that there could be no benefit to reconciling with the Crown, and that the only hope for Americans to have a decent future lay in the severing of bonds with Britain.

Without resorting to personal attacks, without naming names or pointing fingers, Paine systematically lays out a logical and clear rationale for independence. He begins by arguing against the legitimacy of Kings in general, and the King of England specifically, and puts forth the benefits that could only arise from representative government. He puts forth the practical economic and political reasons for independence in a calm and clear manner, and he does so in a way that makes it all sound like, well, common sense. It’s easy to imagine him standing there, saying, “Come on people! It’s friggin’ obvious!”

Political writers in the 21st century don’t really appreciate the things that they can get away with these days. If Ann Coulter wants to write a book about how Barack Obama is the vanguard of a Liberal Muslim Homosexual Revolution, she can. If Michael Moore wants to do a movie claiming that George W. Bush is the demon love child of Margaret Thatcher and Adolph Hitler, he can. The worst that’ll happen to them is a libel suit and a humbling public apology.

The worst that could have happened to Thomas Paine was a public hanging – if he was lucky.

Common Sense is such a pivotal document in American history – its influence cannot be overstated. It was so widely read, so acclaimed, that it is reasonable to say that the United States as we know it might not have come into being without it. It’s writing that I wish we could see these days. Not a call for independence per se, but rather clear, level-headed writing that treats its readers with respect. I’ve read a lot of political books in the last few years, and none of them were as straightforward and to the point as this book was.

What’s more, reading it is a reminder of the hopes and dreams that the founders of this country had for it. When they finally risked their lives and signed the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, when they fought and suffered and died in the years following, when they argued and compromised to create a Constitution, they did so in the hopes that the country they were forging would be a good one. They did so in the knowledge that they would never see the era of the United States’ true greatness, but in the hopes that it would one day come.

It is the responsibility of all Americans to live up to those hopes.

—————————————————
“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense . . .”
-Thomas Paine, Common Sense
—————————————————

Thomas Paine on Wikipedia
Common Sense on Wikipedia
Common Sense on Wikisource
Common Sense on Amazon.com
Cracked.com – 8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think

Leave a comment

Filed under american history, politics, Thomas Paine

Review 74: Starship Troopers


Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————————————-
“My mother says that violence never settles anything.”
“So? I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.”
– Student to Mr. Dubois
—————————————————-

[1] As a side note, the entire boot camp sequence is much, much more entertaining if you read Sgt. Zim with the voice of Invader Zim. It exponentially improves the book.

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

4 Comments

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

Review 66: Life of Pi


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn’t nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.

The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, “I think you’d really like it.”

He was right.

It’s one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you’ve finished. It’s one of those books where people see you reading it and say, “I read that – it’s really good, isn’t it?” It’s one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we’ll get to that….

It’s a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it’s the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine – who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name – develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.

He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India’s political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.

Until the ship sinks.

Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship’s sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can’t forget the tiger.

Pi’s mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There’s only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other’s company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest – a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don’t want to be controlled. Pi’s ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.

But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It’s also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It’s about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it’s about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, “The author is cheating,” and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn’t have.

The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It’s the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.

It’s kind of a modified version of Pascal’s Wager – the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal’s idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you’re right, then you’ll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you’re wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you’re wrong, again, no harm, no foul.

There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, “I believe I am losing brain function” lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. I think it’s an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don’t believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth – a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip – born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don’t need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.

But Martel’s isn’t about what is provably true.

Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi’s adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi’s story, because it’s fascinating. We don’t sit there and think, “This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze.” We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, “true.”

So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is “true,” because it’s a more interesting story. And Pi’s adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn’t to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn’t care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that’s the better story.

The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi’s conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. That’s just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.

—————————————————
“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
—————————————————

Yann Martel on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Amazon.com

Leave a comment

Filed under death, fiction, gods, memoir, story, survival, Yann Martel

Review 58: Sum – Forty Tales from the Afterlives


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

So. What happens after we die?

I’ll wait.

Is it a Heaven of clouds and harps and angels? A Hell full of fire and brimstone and horrible torture? Do you get to come back again and live a new life, perhaps building on the mistakes of your previous one? Yeah, I guess that’s all well and good. I mean, the classics never go out of style, right? Perhaps some pearly gates with Morgan Freeman hanging out nearby, or an place of endless torment where David Warner is ready to turn you into a cockroach. Variations on an old and well-worn theme.

But how about an afterlife where you get to live with every possible version of yourself? You know the “many worlds” theory of the universe, right? For every choice you make, a new universe is born, and in that universe there lives a different you. Perhaps one who made better choices, perhaps worse. Well, after you die, you get to hang out with them all! Including, unfortunately, all the yous who made much, much better decisions than you did.

Or perhaps you get the afterlife where you re-live your entire life, but with all moments of the same quality grouped together. So that means you get to spend thirty years sleeping, or two hundred days taking a shower. Doesn’t sound too bad, except for the eighteen months you spend waiting in line, or the five months you spend on the toilet, or the 27 hours of intense pain.

Maybe you discover that there is no afterlife for us, just as there is no afterlife for a computer chip. We’ve all been components in a great computer, wherein every nod of your head, every word, every blink is merely a signal sent to other processing units (AKA people). Of course, the programmers don’t know why we’ve thrived as we have – they didn’t make us to be sentient, and still don’t realize it’s happened. But our world is the greatest of the computer worlds they’ve built.

There are forty other afterlives in this book, all described in two or three pages. Each one is an attempt to break free of the traditional sense of what the afterlife “should” be, and shows a great deal of creativity.

What’s fun is reading this and understanding that any one of them could be true. Just as true as the traditional heavens and hells we’ve been building for the last few millennia. After all, why couldn’t we have an afterlife where we’re given the opportunity to come back – but with one change of our own choosing? Or another where we get to choose the form of our next life, but are betrayed by our inability then to remember why we had chosen it? Just because they don’t have the weight of a Church’s doctrine or thousands of years of philosophy doesn’t make them wrong.

Because, after all, we don’t know. We can’t know. We may think we know, or believe we know, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Hell, I came up with my own afterlife scheme that sounded pretty good to me, but does that make it true? Nope. The one big constraint that seems to apply to all afterlives is that no one ever gets to tell the living how it worked out. Why this should be is unknown to me, but that just puts me in league with every philosopher who ever lived. Not bad company.

But since all afterlives could be true, it can be argued that none of them are. And if you can’t know what will happen to your soul after death, and how to ensure that your eternity is a pleasant one, then perhaps you should stop worrying about it. The nature and requirements of your afterlife are totally out of your control.

The same cannot be said for your life. That is something that you have knowledge of and control over. So appreciate that little fact and go do something with it.

Go ahead and entertain speculation about life after death. Let your imagination go wild. But don’t for a moment think that you know what will come when you breathe your last. Because it probably won’t be anything you ever expected.

Or maybe it will. Who am I to say?

In any case, this is a fun little (and I do mean little) book, suitable for reading in one sitting or in forty tiny bites of time. And who knows, maybe it’ll spur you on to thoughts of your own afterlife. If you have one, I’d love to hear it.

————————————————
“Among all the creatures of creation, the gods favor us: we are the only ones who can empathize with their problems.”
– David Eagleman, Sum
————————————————

David Eagleman on Wikipedia
Sum on Wikipedia
Sum on Amazon.com
David Eagleman’s homepage

Leave a comment

Filed under afterlife, David Eagleman, death, essays, philosophy, theology