Wednesday, May 27, 2015

In Praise of Paper Books

I love books.  Not audio books.  Not e-books.  Physical, paper books.

Some of my favorites
I'm not a Luddite.  I have a blog (you're reading it!).  I check my digital devices dozens of times a day.  I don't have the general fear of technology that fuels so many science fiction stories (see for instance my review of Ex Machina).

I may not be a Luddite, but I've also never been one to embrace technology quickly or blindly.  I didn't get a cell phone until 2005, and I didn't get a smart phone until 2012.  Since I'm neither a computer nor a child, I harbor a curmudgeonly dislike of hash tags, text speak, and emojis.  I prefer to get directions off a map before I leave rather than using GPS audio directions.  Most tragically for my earning potential as a nerd, I've never had any interest in computer programming.

The increasing availability of books in non-paper formats has arisen in the context of my mixed feelings about technology.  Note that I'm NOT telling other people how to read.  If audio books or e-books help you to enjoy books, then I am in full support of reading in whatever manner you choose.  Books are awesome.  Reading is a huge part of my career as well as my favorite hobby.  But for me, paper books are superior.

How do I praise paper books?  Let me count some of the ways.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Knowledge, Death, and the Sublime: Review of The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

I’ve been both anticipating and dreading reading The Hydrogen Sonatathe last of the Culture books: anticipating because the Culture books have come to be among my all time favorites since I started reading them in publication order a couple years ago and dreading because, since Banks himself Sublimed out of our dimensions in June 2013, I now have no new Culture books to read. 

(If you're not familiar with the Culture, I provided background information in my review of Matter). 

As I suggested in my review of Surface Detail, one of the lessons to learn from Banks is that the end is not always a bad thing.  On the other hand, there’s a rumor that Banks asked his friend, fellow Scottish science fiction author Ken Macleod, to carry the Culture on after his death, so maybe it’s not the end after all.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review of Mad Max: Fury Road: Fierce Furiosa and the Lessons of Dystopia

As this review from Jen Yamato says, Mad Max: Fury Road will melt your face off.  I’ve seen it twice in as many days, and I plan to go back for a third fix soon.  You need to see this movie.  If you like the original Mad Max movies, or even if you don’t or haven't seen them.  If you like action movies, even a little.  If you like thoroughly constructed dystopian worlds.  If you like sci-fi movies in which women are portrayed as human beings with their own thoughts and goals.  If you like movies that pass the Bechdel test.  If you think action movies don’t have to be mind-numbingly stupid (cough, Michael Bay).  If nearly universal critical praise impresses you (it’s currently 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).  If you like movies.  You need to see this movie.

And the pièce de résistance of the symphony of awesomeness that is Mad Max: Fury Road … 

I cackled maniacally every time this was on screen (quietly, though - I was in a movie theater)
.... this truck outfitted with a flame-thrower/guitar/bass, stack of amps, and drums on the back!  This is exactly what I would have if I were a post-apocalyptic warlord!  How did we ever imagine a dystopian wasteland without this? 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Robo-Relationships, Part Two: Ex Machina

In Part One, I discussed the issue of relationships between robots/AIs and humans with the movie Robot & Frank (2012).  Now it's time for Part Two on a very different film, Ex Machina.

Ex Machina (2015)

This movie got a lot of buzz.  I was not immune to the buzz.  It's still in theaters if you want to be buzzed, too.  This one lies somewhere between the comfy art house smallness of Robot & Frank and the big budget blockbustingness of RoboCop or Terminator movies. 

In the first few seconds of the film, a programmer wins a contest to spend a week with the shadowy founder of a huge tech company in a remote, undisclosed location (the tech company has a search engine named Blue Book after Wittgenstein's Blue and Brown Books).  After being helicoptered in, he finally meets this enigmatic genius and (spoiler alert, but not really) he has a robot!  A sexy lady robot (This fact is slightly less cheesy than it appears once it's explained later.  Slightly.).  

I don't want to spoil too much (although I will give a pre-spoiler alert that I will discuss the ending in a couple paragraphs), but one of the big philosophical issues has to do with the Turing Test (an idea from Alan Turing, the basis for the recent film, The Imitation Gameas well as the computer on which you are reading this).  Nathan (the reclusive genius) contends that a better test of whether a robot is truly capable of intelligent thought is for the judge (in this case his employee/guest, Caleb) to know that he's talking to a robot.  See the clip below.

Robo-Relationships, Part One: Robot & Frank

The last few years have been good for thoughtful movies about the relations between robots, AIs, and humans.  Her (2013) was a poignant look at one man's love for his computer operating system and high waisted pants.  Last year's remake of RoboCop not only focused on the robotification of Murphy and the trouble this causes him and his loved ones, but it had references to philosophers like Sellars, Dennett, and Dreyfus.  And of course we have The Avengers: Age of Ultron and the upcoming Terminator movie if you're into more dysfunctional robot-human relationships (Why, oh, why, did SkyNet break our hearts?  Not to mention our heads, livers, etc.).

Two of my recent favorites in the robo-relationships genre have been Robot & Frank (2012) and Ex Machina (2015 - still in theaters!).  In this post, I'll get to Robot & Frank.  I'll discuss Ex Machina in Part Two.

Robot & Frank (2012)

Like Her, this one feels like an indie art house film more than a blockbusting, big budget sci-fi movie.  And that works just fine to make a lovable little movie.  Frank is a retired jewel thief in the near future.  His age is catching up with him, so his son buys him a robot to help around the house.  Frank at first doesn't like Robot (poor Robot never gets a name!), but Robot's lovable charm wins him over (he's not quite as lovable as Chappie, though).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Daoist Dreams: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

As I've mentioned a few times on this blog, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite authors.  In The Lathe of Heaven (1971), Le Guin's depth and artistry shine in taking what in most people's hands would be a silly plot about a man whose dreams change reality and turning it into richly textured ruminations on dreams, aspirations, reality, knowledge, and relationships.  It's all the more amazing that she pulls this off in under 200 pages!  (See also my Goodreads review).

A lot of people (including many book blurb writers and one of the characters) talk about the central dilemma as whether one should "play God."  I don't think that's quite right.  Although George Orr's ability to alter reality through his dreams sounds God-like at first, as he repeatedly explains, he doesn't make the changes consciously and he doesn't control them.  Herein lies the Daoist core of the novel.  It's not about "playing God," it's about acting in harmony with the nature of things, which often means setting aside the will to dominate, to intellectualize, to control.  Those who do not do so are destroyed by heaven, although not necessarily by a lathe!  The title "The Lathe of Heaven" comes from an old translation of the classical Daoist text, Zhuangzi (Ch. 23); Le Guin said in an interview with Bill Moyers that she later learned that this was a faulty translation (see around 8:10 in the the interview below).  It still sounds cool, so I'm glad she didn't change the title.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sad Puppies and Good Old Boys in the Land of Yahoos

The other day I noticed a large number of views on my post "Sad Puppies and Good Old Boys: On Diversity in Science Fiction and Philosophy."  That post currently has over 300 views, which is far more than my previously most viewed post on The Dress and philosophical skepticism (with 160).

Where were these views coming from?

After poking around on the internet for awhile, I discovered that the post had been the subject of a question on Yahoo! Answers: "What do you think about this article about resistance to diversity in sci-fi, and in philosophy classes?"

Yahoos pulling a Houyhnhnm in Gulliver's Travels

Once I became a stranger in the strange land of Yahoo! Answers, I noted an answer from a person called "Minister of Truth."  The self-appointed Minister had declared my post to be "an amateurish grab-bag of clichés."  I found this highly amusing, but thought I ought to respond with a counter-answer of my own to make sure that my "amateurish grab-bag of clichés" did not go undefended. 

Also, I should note that the person who posted the question, going by the name "ChemFlunky," seems like a nice and thoughtful person who asks lots of interesting questions, often on gender issues.  I am thankful that ChemFlunky saw fit to ask a question about my humble blog.

In poking around Yahoo! Answers, it occurred to me that the world of internet forums like Yahoo! Answers is a lot like the land of Yahoos in Gulliver's Travels (which may be a type of proto-science fiction - see this entry from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction).  

And now, having lived for a time among the Yahoos, I feel like a full citizen of the internet.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review of Reviews: Cloud Atlas, Perdido Street Station, Sisterhood of Dune, Classical Indian Philosophy

This is my second Review of Reviews (see the first one here).  Here are short reviews of four books I've read recently.  Enjoy!

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Since I saw the Wachowskis' movie version a few months ago (which I reviewed), I've really been wanting to read this.  I'm glad I did.  While the book and the movie have roughly the same six stories in different genres (historical fiction, crime thriller, science fiction, etc.), the book and the movie are different, but equally worthwhile, experiences.  

The structure of the book is one of the most remarkable things about it.  I compare reading the six interrelated narratives to moving through a series of concentric spheres from the outside through the center to the other side.

The Big Idea behind it all has to do with the question of whether humans are doomed to domination and slavery or whether we might aspire to something better in our social relations.  In the last few pages a character writes, "... one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.  Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost.  In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction" (p. 508).  The character's father calls him naïve for becoming an Abolitionist (this particular story takes place around 1850), saying "your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!"  To which Ewing replies, "Yet what is any ocean but multitude of drops?" (p. 509).

Cloud Atlas is a beautiful novel in that it encourages readers to ask themselves: to which tide in the ocean of humanity does my drop of individuality belong?

Rating: 96/100.  See my Goodreads review for more.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

42nd Post Spectacular!: Six things I've learned from the blog so far

Thanks to Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the number 42 is an auspicious number for science fiction fans that concerns the philosophical question of life, the universe, and everything.  In light of this being my 42nd post on a blog about philosophy and science fiction, I thought it would be appropriate to write a post engaging in every blogger’s two favorite pastimes: navel gazing and self promotion! 

Here are six things I've learned in the several months since I started this blog.

A profound Venn diagram

Why six?  Because 4 + 2 = 6 and 42 things would be too many.

1. Blogging is fun! In high school, college, and even for a bit in grad school, I wrote opinion columns in my respective student newspapers.  I always enjoyed the chance to collect and organize my thoughts on a variety of topics and to share those thoughts with others.  Blogging is a continuation of this activity by other means, although it's more geographically dispersed than a student newspaper (see #6 below).