Friday, October 20, 2017

I Believe You

Last weekend the hashtag #metoo was shared by millions of people on social media.  This hashtag was mostly – but not exclusively – posted by women, often accompanied by stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault.  You can read more about the origin of the idea here

I have yet to comment on #metoo.  I don’t think at the speed of the internet, and besides, the last thing I want to do is make this about me.

I do want to say this: to everyone who posted #metoo and to those who could not, I believe you. Of course, there’s a hashtag for that, too - #ibelieveyou.  But I want to dig a bit beneath the hashtag, something that can be helped by a stubborn tendency to think more slowly than the internet.  

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Non-Spoilery Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

After 35 years the iconic science fiction classic Blade Runner has a sequel in Blade Runner 2049. Should you see it?  Is it any good?  What's it about (without spoilers)?  Check out my non-spoilery thoughts for answers!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Polyphonic Games: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

The two-volume version of The Book of the New Sun

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun is not for the faint of heart or shallow of mind.  It is equal parts challenging, beautiful, incomprehensible, maddening, and intriguing, a multi-tiered, polyphonic literary game the reader plays with the author.  The reader is playing in Wolfe's house -- and the house always wins.

The Book of the New Sun was originally released as a series of four novels: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982), and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983).  There is some truth to the idea that this is a series, but, as with all appearances within the novels, there's a greater truth: it's really one long novel in four parts.

I almost never read a series straight through.  I like to put down a series to let it percolate in my mind as I read other things for awhile.  This was an exception.  Maybe it's because I read it in a more recent two-volume edition from Macmillan with the titles Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel, maybe it was because I couldn't stop playing this game, hoping (whether vainly or not) for some degree of winnings in the currency of understanding.

The Book of the New Sun is somewhat fractal: you can zoom in on the details or zoom out for the bigger pictures, each of which forms a pattern (whether you can see the whole pattern, of course, is a different matter).  To capture this aspect of the work, I'm setting out the reviews I wrote as I finished each volume with an appendix at the end.

The Shadow of the Torturer

Reading The Shadow of the Torturer is like taking an acid trip through a thesaurus.  I'm not sure I understood or even liked everything, but I'm pretty sure this is genius.

Our hero Severian seems to be a Gary Stu who becomes romantically entangled with every woman he meets (after describing their breasts, of course).  Partly because of this, he seems like a standard teenage boy embarking on an epic fantasy quest in a vaguely Tolkienesque fantasy setting ...

... or so it would seem if Wolfe wasn't engaged in an elaborate, layered game with the reader that makes me question anything I think I know about this book.

There is a more-or-less coherent plot that starts out with Severian in a guild of torturers.  He falls in love with one of the women to be tortured and breaks the rules of his guild.  Rather than sentencing him to torture or death, the guild assigns him to a post in a remote village.  So he embarks on an epic voyage to this village, er, well, not exactly.  Instead, things start to get weird.  I don't want to give spoilers, but then again, I'm not sure I could if I wanted to.  Things quickly get kaleidoscopic and seemingly random (but not really, of course -- the underlying order is just not immediately obvious, and I feel like I wouldn't completely understand it until a third or fourth reading, if even then).

On top of all this is Wolfe's challenging, but deeply beautiful prose.  I thought there was a lot of invented vocabulary, but apparently Wolfe has merely memorized a thesaurus along with the deepest cuts of the Oxford English Dictionary.  He would blow the vocabulary section of any standardized test out of the water.  This can be overwhelming, but there's a deeper reason for this lexical excess explained in the appendix.  (The appendix made the book twice as cool for me, but don't read it until the end.)

I normally wait awhile to continue a series, moving on to other items on my to-read list before coming back, but I'm intrigued enough to make an exception for this series.  I can't claim to completely understand whatever games Wolfe is playing, but I nonetheless find myself wanting to continue playing them.

(See also my Goodreads review)

The Claw of the Conciliator

The second in the series continues to be as challenging, baffling, and beautiful as the first -- and even more mind-bogglingly complex.  I'm still not entirely sure what Wolfe is doing or how he's doing it, but I've been pulled into the vortex with no hope of escape but to dive head first into the rest of the series.  Part of me thinks I have to wait until I've finished the whole series to give The Claw of the Conciliator anything like a complete review, but here are some thoughts so far.

We meet our hero(?) Severian not long after the end of the previous volume.  The narrative moves, but not in anything that feels like a straight line.  It's more in fits and starts, curves and gaps, and seemingly extraneous details followed by glossing over what seems like some of the important stuff.  I suppose it's closer to how memory actually works, which is funny, of course, because Severian tells us several times how great his memory is.  We also come to wonder just how reliable a narrator he is.

So what happens?  I can capture the surface level randomness of the story best in a list of a few highlights, which I guess contain spoilers, but I doubt this list would actually ruin the book for anyone:

[Minor spoiler alert]

Severian meets a man with green skin who claims to be from the future, he meets up with his old pal Jonas (who turns out to be a robot from a space ship that landed a long time ago), he glimpses Agia, gets a note that purports to be from Thecla (the woman he feel in love with in the first part of the previous book), fights a bunch of ape-men in a cave who are weirdly afraid of the jewel he obtained in the last book (the eponymous Claw of the Conciliator), he meets the rebel Vodalus from the previous book who invites him to a feast where get Thecla's memories by ingesting her flesh after ingesting an alien drug, Severian is imprisoned in a prison that serves cake and coffee and allows people to leave even though they've been there for generations, Severian meets his old acting troupe with whom he puts on a play that contains important back story/world building, he leaves with Dorcas and Jolenta (both of whom he has sex with, of course), Jolenta gets sick (and dies but after some mystery), Severian seems to remember he was supposed to going to Thrax, there's some kind of giant sea person, they meet a strange group who give them a vision of a strange town's past(?), and there are some hints that some people see all points in time -- past, present, future -- equally and that time is what (real world present day) philosophers would call eternalism or block time (past, present, and future equally exist), all of which means that Severian may be subject to such all-time-seeing forces on his Messianic path, and the appendix hints that part of why the time line of the narration is so wonky is because Severian has been dealing with people who see time in this way.

Whoa. I'm excited to see where this crazy ride takes me next.

(See my Goodreads review.)

The Sword of the Lictor

The appearance-reality distinction continues.  Of course, the series (really one novel in four parts) is science fiction that looks like fantasy.  None of the characters are who they first seem to be, and nothing is really as it seems.  More fundamentally, the reader constantly feels that the realities underneath the surface of the story are unfathomable -- one might scratch a bit deeper in a second or third reading, but Wolfe demonstrates that there is always more than meets the eye.  The abyssal depths of reality can never be fully ensnared by our cognitive nets.

That said, I can't tell if I'm just getting used to Wolfe's style, but this third installment feels slightly more comprehensible -- at least at the surface level -- than the previous volumes.  This isn't to say I understood everything.  This is still no easy read.  As enriching as the journey is, some of the steps along it are hard to take.  As with the previous installments, the middle part is the hardest.  You have to have a bit of faith that Wolfe is taking you somewhere interesting.  It helps to ride the waves of his prose: when the content threatens to sink you, let the form keep you afloat.

Severian finally gets to Thrax, which was his quest way back in the first part.  He has a steady job and a steady girlfriend, both of which cause the sorts of growing pains for him that careers and relationships cause most people these days (a strangely relatable part of this unnervingly strange tale?).  Of course, our hero(?) rarely stays in one place or with one woman long and finds himself having an affair and then on the road again, where of course many more strange things happen.  A somewhat spoiler-y list of highlights:

[Minor spoiler alert]

He fights a bizarre alien creature that devours memories as well as flesh.  He fights humans who have deliberately become part animal.  He meets a family with a boy named, well, Severian.  His old nemesis/lover Agia shows up again.  The family is killed and Severian ends up sort of adopting the lad Severian, who later dies (insert your favored quasi-Freudian diagnosis here).  He meets a two-headed man who claims to be a long-lived monarch.  He takes up with a group of islanders to fight their oppressors, who turn out to be, well, people he's met before, of course.  A somewhat epic battle ensues, along with some deep thoughts on politics, poetry, and philosophy ... and of course more mysterious people (aliens this time) tell Severian that he is destined for almost unthinkable greatness, or is already there depending on how you look at time. At the end, Severian describes three states: normality, a higher state of mystical insight, and a state of obedience to some unknown.

[End of spoilers]

Wolfe's story moves between normality (there is a relatively coherent story here), higher insight (all the mind expanding stuff about time, aliens, humanity, reality, appearance, etc.), and obedience to an unknown (wherever this story is taking me, I'm compelled to go along for reasons I don't entirely understand).  Just as the endings of the three volumes so far have generally been my favorite parts of their respective volumes, I'm hoping the end of the whole series will be my favorite overall.

(See my Goodreads review.)

The Citadel of the Autarch

I'm not entirely sure I'm any closer to understanding The Book of the New Sun after finishing it, but, on the other hand, maybe I am. Perhaps Wolfe's genius is leaving his readers unsure of what they know.

The more purely literary merits (of which there are plenty!) are better discussed by others (for instance, see here).  I will say that Wolfe's prose can be beautiful even as it's veering into incomprehensibility.  And the intricacies of the plot(s) and settings are breathtaking and not immediately obvious.  I will admit I didn't always enjoy reading The Book of the New Sun in the usual sense of "enjoy."  There's a lot of "WTF?" and head-scratching and "Wait, what the hell is going on?"  But as an overall aesthetic experience this is an enjoyable read: something this baffling, challenging, and just plain weird is enjoyable for the fun of playing the games Wolfe sets up even if you don't win those games (and you aren't going to win those games.  Wolfe is simply too good.)

For previous volumes, I gave a bit of a summary of plot points.  For this last volume, it's maybe easier just to set it up, partly because I don't entirely understand what all happened in this book. The Citadel of the Autarch picks up right where the previous volume left off.  Severian meets a dead soldier, whom he revives with the claw, and ends up involved with a war with the Ascians, people who speak in strange parables.  He becomes, as we were told in the first volume, the Autarch, but not in the ways you might expect.  Seriously, it's weird.  And cool.  Check it out.

I thought there might be slightly more resolution and explanation in this book, at least in the last appendix.  How naïve I was!  It's not that we're not given anything at all.  We get some really good hints.  In particular, I was aware that time travel was part of the background for the story ever since the second book, but we learn in the last book that it's far more integral to understanding the whole structure and plot of the series.  It will be the number one thing on my radar if/when I do the re-read that seems necessary to make sense of the series, as Severian himself tells us at the end.

As Peter Wright writes in this review: "The Book of the New Sun reminds us of our potential and our vulnerability as readers and, in so doing, it reminds us of our potential and vulnerability as individuals."

Let me take this in an epistemological direction (epistemology being the part of philosophy that looks at knowledge: what it is, whether have as much of it as we think, etc.).  Part of what is enthralling and, to be honest, a bit unsettling about encountering The Book of the New Sun is that as a reader I never entirely knew what was going on, and even more deeply, I could never be sure I knew what I knew.  Because I am encountering a radically estranged world though the perspective of a radically estranged narrator (using "estrangement" in the sense of Darko Suvin), because Severian is a deliberately unreliable narrator (his constant iterations that he has a perfect memory are a red herring - I think), and because of Wolfe's literary game playing, as soon as I think I know what's going on something else makes me unsure.  And then I come to another conclusion and the cycle continues.  I finished reading the book two days ago and I feel like I'm still piecing it together, but only in a piece meal fashion and in a process that will continue.

That this process is so rich and seemingly interminable is what makes The Book of the New Sun a great work of literature.  The deepest philosophical point can be found in our awe and intellectual humility as we touch the limits of human understanding, attempting to fathom an unfathomably vast and secretive universe -- whether that universe is Wolfe's or our own.

(See my Goodreads review).

Appendix: On the Knowledge of Ignorance and the Ignorance of Knowledge

In his rich and insightful review of The Claw of the Conciliator, Jonathan McCalmont draws a comparison to what some people have called the paradox of inquiry from Plato's Meno (a version of this is discussed by Indian philosophers as well).  The paradox is this: If you don't know the answer, you won't recognize it when you find it, and if you already know it, then you don't need to seek the answer.   So in either case it seems that inquiry is impossible.

Reading The Book of the New Sun is like seeking an answer to a question.  When the story started, I didn't know what I was looking for.  And I was never sure I found the answers.  To be clear, we get some hints and some context as we go.  I feel like I have some of the major pieces of the puzzle in place, but I don't have the picture on the box to compare it to.

McCalmont's review takes this in a somewhat different direction (with some help from Wittgenstein's private language argument), but I do agree that of course we don't start from complete ignorance.  I had some ideas from reading reviews and hearing people talk about it.  Still, I don't take this in the epistemically optimistic direction that, at least in some interpretations, is taken by Plato and Wittgenstein.

Speaking of Wittgenstein and the private language business, as a speaker of English (like all real languages, a very public one) I knew most of the words.  Still, Wolfe uses an awful lot of words I didn't know.  I only occasionally looked them up, partly because I didn't feel like stopping the flow of reading and partly because I figured that not knowing which words are real, but archaic English and which were Wolfe's creation was in fact part of the aesthetic experience of the work.  I was aware of my ignorance, and I took this to be integral to the estranging effect of Wolfe's prose.

Zooming out on the fractal, I can say that much the same pattern fits with the overall plot(s) and structure.  One of the most challenging and dazzling feats of Wolfe's work is that he is always working on multiple levels simultaneously.  See, for instance, the three levels I mentioned above with regard to The Sword of the Lictor: normality, higher insight, and obedience to the unknown.  This is a straightforward fantasy narrative, a weird far-future science fictional story, and a baroque, mystical literary experiment all at the same time.  It can be read as any one of these or all three.

The epistemological effect is simultaneously estrangement and disorientation, but also -- in those rare moments of clarity of knowledge and/or obedience to unclarity -- a deeply satisfying experience.  Sometimes you know what's going on, usually you don't.  And if you take a wide enough and self-cognizant enough zoom backwards you can never be entirely sure which of these situations you're in.

So in this mode Wolfe's work is philosophically not so much akin to Plato or Wittgenstein, but perhaps to ancient skeptics like Zhuangzi, Nāgārjuna, and Sextus Empiricus for whom the question of whether we really know what we know may be difficult, even impossible to answer.  Whereas most of us find this type of ignorance deeply troubling, the ancient skeptics teach us how to live with our ignorance in a universe where we may not even know what answers we're looking for.  And if Wolfe can help us do the same, all while playing an elaborate, infuriating, enthralling literary game, then this series might indeed be worth several re-reads as Severian recommends.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Death of Subtlety?

One of Tolkien's subtler bits...

The problem with our civilization is the death of subtlety.  Or – scratch that.  One of many problems with a lot of the culture of the United States in 2017 is that there is less subtlety than there maybe should be.

I continue to have – albeit with somewhat diminished enthusiasm as of late – hope that subtle questioning is on the whole a better method than bludgeoning people with the truth.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Midlife Crisis Year One: Thoughts on 41

Birthdays are a time to stop and contemplate one’s life, to celebrate another revolution around the sun.  And of course to eat some cake.

Last year marked my 40th birthday.  I wondered, “Which midlife crisis is right for me?”  My next birthday is nearly upon me, so it’s natural to reflect on how that midlife crisis has been going.  

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Where Did Far-Future Science Fiction Go?

Many of the most beloved science fiction series of the 20th century are set thousands or even millions of years in the future: Frank Herbert's Dune series, Ursula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle (which includes The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, and so on.

By comparison, relatively few science fiction stories written in the last 20 years take place more than a couple hundred years in the future and most take place in the 21st century.

Where did all the far-future science fiction go?

This is a question I've thought about a lot lately.  I recently re-read the last book in the Dune series and am working my way through the delightfully/impossibly difficult Book of the New Sun, which my Goodreads review describes as "like taking an acid trip through a thesaurus."

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Adaptations: IT (2017)

IT is not just a scary clown, but that clown is scary.

Having read the book two years ago (see my review), having vaguely creepy memories of the 1990 TV miniseries, and having read some positive early reviews, I was excited to see the new film adaptation of Stephen King's IT.

Is IT a good adaptation?  Is IT a good movie?  The answer to both questions is, "Yes, but IT is not perfect."

The book as everyone notes is long, really long -- a door stopping 1,100 pages.  There is simply no way to faithfully adapt the details into a single film (or even a miniseries).  The biggest decision made in the new film is to only cover the childhood parts of the book.  The second biggest is to set those scenes in the 1980's rather than the 1950's.

In the book the childhood and adulthood sections are interspersed, which creates (and muddies) a sense of connection between the characters and children and as adults.  Focusing on the childhood parts is an eminently practical choice for a film adaptation given time constraints, but it does completely remove one of the deepest themes of the book: namely, that we are to some extent the same people as adults as we were as children, but on the other hand we aren't.  Adults don't really remember who they were as children.  Adults' childhood nostalgia is necessarily false.  We are always projecting forward and backward in time, and our identities are, as Buddhists will tell you, more fragile than we like to think.

The new film does manage to keep some of the related themes about death and loss (although they have a different hue given the absence of the child-adult theme).  Bill's (Jaeden Lieberher) grief and coming to terms with the loss of his young brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is particularly poignant.  I got a bit misty eyed a few times, but I have no way of knowing if this is because it triggered memories of the book or if the film itself was able to touch an emotional nerve.  Perhaps viewers who haven't read the book can say.

As long as we're talking plot choices, I should say that a certain bizarre and controversial scene from the book is not present in the new film.  I wasn't offended by that scene so much as utterly confused.  I think King was drinking and doing a lot of drugs at the time.  The scene is sort of replaced in the film with something much tamer that almost makes sense (it's still a little lame, though, for how it uses Beverly's character).

IT contains some of King's most beloved and feared characters.  How does the film do?  The new incarnation of Pennywise the Dancing Clown is as terrifying as you'd hope.  I don't think I've seen the miniseries since it aired 27 years ago, but I do remember Tim Curry's Pennywise.  So creepy!  So malevolent!  Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård had a tough job filling the giant red shoes of Tim Curry and an even harder job giving form to the nightmares of King's readers.  He succeeded.  His Pennywise captures the malevolence and otherworldliness of IT, which simultaneously pays homage to Tim Curry while doing his own new thing.  Some critics have complained that Pennywise has far too much screen time so that his scare factor has diminishing returns.  I agree to some extent, but when the scare factor starts as high as this, it still works okay the 12th time.

As for the beloved Losers Club, the kids are great.  Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things fame) as Richie is good, although he's not nearly as wacky as the character is in the book.  He only does his weird voices once or twice and you barely notice.  Maybe they thought it was too corny for 2017 audiences, but I missed it (to be clear, I blame the filmmakers for this problem -- I can't criticize Wolfhard himself given my love of Stranger Things).  Sophia Lillis does a great job as Beverly, and they manage to make her more than just "the girl" of the group as she does her best Molly Ringwald impression (remember, this is the late 80's).  She and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) trade jokes about The New Kids on the Block, which for people about my age who were kids in the late 80's is pure hilarity.

My major complaint, however, is that Mike (Chosen Jacobs) seems to barely be in the movie or have any lines.  In the book he was one of my favorites, and I remember him being more a part of the group even though he shows up last. And they seem to completely cut out his research into Derry's past.  They only show Ben doing this research in the movie, although I'm pretty sure they both did in the book. Of course, part of this is that the book is just much longer and richer than a film could possibly be.  Also, Mike's key role as an adult may be influencing my opinion.  Still, especially since he's the only African American main character, it'd be nice to see a Hollywood film do more with him.  So that was a disappointment, but maybe he'll shine more in the sequel.

As a fan of the book it's impossible for me to completely separate whether IT works as a movie from whether IT is a good adaptation, but I'll try.  I do think this movie will do well (as the early box office returns indicate) because it manages to combine what fans of the book and miniseries love about the story with all the trappings of a hip, contemporary horror film.

My wife (who rarely sees horror movies with me, but remembered the miniseries enough to want to see this) commented that it's like a scary Goonies.  The kids-solve-a-problem-on-their-own-because-the-adults-in-their-lives-are-garbage has a totally 80's vibe to it.  The book was published in 1986, and it's fun that one of the kids from Stranger Things is starring in a Stephen King adaptation, since Stephen King was a major influence on Stranger Things.  And of course a King story also inspired Stand By Me, a classic in the kids-go-it-alone genre.  The death of "free range" parenting in America may have killed that genre for any film set after 2000, which makes me sad as a consumer of entertainment and as a human being.  I guess nostalgia will have to do.

But IT wouldn't be so popular if only nostalgic oldsters like me were into it.  The filmmakers manage to merge the 80's style kids story with the look and feel of a contemporary horror movie, which is perhaps the doing of director Andy Muschietti.  There are jump scares and CGI aplenty.  The scary parts tend to be in dark, dank hovels that could be leftover sets from a Saw movie.  Waiting for Pennywise to show up is as creepy as anything any of those dime-a-dozen 2010's ghost movies could conjure.  I predict that Pennywise himself will inspire legions of teenagers and 20-somethings this Halloween.  Get ready for your pumpkin spice latté to be delivered by "Sexy Pennywise."

At the end of the film there is a strong hint that a sequel is coming, which is apparently actually in the works at New Line.  I'll be glad to see it, not just because the story requires it and it will take place around 2016, but because I think it might be able to make up for the faults of this one while doing more of the good stuff.  I also hope they will be able to explain why this story is science fictional and not supernatural horror, a subject about which I have some mixed feelings given King's attempts as science fiction.  Nonetheless, I hope to see this part of the story adapted into film.

If I can be permitted a flight of metaphor, it occurs to me that the issue of adaptations of the book-miniseries-movie variety is merely one level of adaptation.  To go a bit deeper, this is a story about adapting to new life stages as well as horrors as old as humanity.  My favorite thing about the new film is that is managed to adapt the deepest theme of the book, although you have to dig a bit more into the film to find it: the true horror is not some malevolent clown, but the horrors within ourselves and others -- hatred, bigotry, and the sheer cruelty of our inhumanity to one another.  You can find a similar theme in many of King's other works, like Carrie or The Shining.

We can adapt to these horrific aspects of our natures by letting go and allowing them to dissolve the better parts of our characters, or we can fight against them to the best of our ability, forcing them to adapt to our decency, knowing all along that the horror may be too much and we may be devoured by it (or IT) in the end. The enduring popularity of IT is explained, I think, by its message about one of our deepest struggles as human beings: if we have any hope at all of fighting the horrors writhing within the human heart, it is only if we losers stick together.