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.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

What if Everyone Stopped Talking about “Political Correctness”?



I’m not going to tell people to stop talking about “political correctness”, because that would instantly cause some internet denizens to label me a member of the SJW thought Gestapo for daring to express an opinion about what people should do that can’t be reduced to “suck it up, snowflake!”  

Instead, I encourage us all to engage in something essential to both philosophy and science fiction: a thought experiment.  Imagine a world in which everyone woke up tomorrow and stopped talking about “political correctness.”   If you find that too far fetched, imagine you are a human, alien, or robotic historian in the year 2117 trying to understand the Culture Wars of the late 20th and early 21st century.  

Friday, August 25, 2017

Rediscovering Humanity: Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert




This is my third time through the original Dune series.  I always enjoy a visit to the Dune universe, but it's not because I'd actually want to live in that universe.  It's all too intense for me.  I love the books but I have to admit they're pretty bleak with all those "plans within plans within plans" in service of the raw pursuit of power.  Dramatized with internal asides in italics!

For all their machinations and glorious battle, nobody in the Dune books really seems to be enjoying themselves in anything approaching a healthy way.  At least until Chapterhouse: Dune, the sixth volume in the series and the last Frank Herbert wrote before his death in 1986.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Summer Movie Round Up, Part 2: Wonder Woman, War for the Planet of the Apes, Valerian, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Dark Tower



I need a little break from thinking about all the terrorism, natural disasters, and general upheaval in the world in the last week, so I figured it was finally time to write my follow up to my Summer Movie Round Up, Part 1.  I think I saw most of the big budget Hollywood science fiction and fantasy movies that came out since May (I deliberately skipped the new Transformers, but I'll bet my review would be, "Lots of explosions.  Kinda dumb.")

So does the 2017 movie season redeem Hollywood from the mostly terrible 2016 summer movie season?  Let's find out!


Wonder Woman

I'm not the biggest fan of the super hero genre or its domination of the SF/F movie domain in recent years.  But even a super hero curmudgeon like me could see that Wonder Woman was going to be special, seeing as Hollywood has managed to reboot Spider-Man three times in the last 15 years but had yet to make a big budget movie about the most iconic woman super hero.  And they even had a woman at the helm with director Patty Jenkins.  The best part for me: seeing this will annoy MRAs and other loathsome types.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Invisible Men: Wells and Ellison



Receptionist: Doctor, there's an invisible man in the waiting room.
Doctor: Tell him I can't see him.


H. G. Wells and Ralph Ellison each wrote a novel about an invisible man.  The titles are actually slightly different.  Wells's is The Invisible Man while Ellison drops the "the."  Aside from sometimes being confused with one another (as in the meme above), the books are typically thought to have nothing in common.  It's not even clear if Ellison, writing 50 years after Wells, was familiar with Wells's novel, although his protagonist does allude to one or more of the films based on Wells's work.

I think for all their vast differences these two books have some surprising connections, especially when it comes to the complex relationships between the individual and society.

I'm starting with Ellison because I happened to read his book first, although for me the connections reach both ways.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Roland Takes Manhattan: The Dark Tower (Bonus Reviews of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three)



A film like The Dark Tower presents a lot of challenges.  It's based on a series of eight novels, a series that has some of Stephen King's most fervent fans.  The universe is complex and weird enough that translating it to film is going to be tricky even over a few films.  Making a single film digestible for people who haven't read any of the books is nearly impossible.  And even worse: neither of the first two books would work as a stand-alone movie, because they're mostly set up and world building (see my bonus reviews of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three below).

I liked The Dark Tower.  Is it a great movie?  Not exactly, but I think it did a good job considering the challenges any Dark Tower movie would face.  I definitely don't think it deserves the mostly bad reviews it's been getting (although here's a fairer one from Allie Hanley).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Grief, Compassion, and Dairy Queen

Peanut Buster Parfait

My mom died 17 years ago today.  I usually commemorate this with what my mom liked to call "a recommended daily dose of Dairy Queen."  This year is no different: I had a Peanut Buster Parfait (that didn't look quite as good as the one in the picture above, but was pretty tasty).  Last year I wrote about reading one of my mom's favorite books, The Clan of the Cave Bear.  In 2015 I explained my Dairy Queen ritual of commemoration, and I encouraged others to remember their loved ones.

This year as I partook of my frosty maternal communion, I thought about how everyone deals with grief and how this should be a route to compassion for each others.  We're all in pain, and we're all in this together.  So we should give everyone a break.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Nerd at the Beach


Exhibit A: Scenic beauty!

I recently spent a few days with my wife in Panama City Beach, Florida.  As a nerd by both profession and personal inclination, I've never been big on the beach life, requiring as it does physical activity in copious amounts of direct sunlight.  Still, there's a lot to love about the beach even for nerds.  So here are things I like and don't like about the beach!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Ghost Grandma in Space: Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds




Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds has been on my to-read list for years.  I've liked some of Reynolds's stuff, like last year's Hugo finalist Slow Bullets (although I honestly didn't love his much beloved Revelation Space).  What struck me about Blue Remembered Earth was was that it's SF set in about 150 years in a world where African countries are basically running things with a little help from India and China - I'm intrigued!  I'm glad I finally got to it, although it's not quite what I expected.

Reynolds starts slow and takes a long time to get going, but somehow this slowness didn't make me feel bogged down.  It took me awhile to get through this, but that's because I had to put it down for awhile to get through a couple library books and my Hugo packet.  This novel definitely could have been shorter, but I didn't mind the leisurely ride.

The plot begins with Geoffrey Akinya, a biologist in Tanzania who just wants to be left alone to study his beloved elephants.  But Geoffrey happens to be a member of a rich and powerful family.  When the matriarch of the family dies (Eunice, Geoffrey's grandmother), his cousins send him to the moon to pick up his grandmother's safety deposit box.  Also, while he's there, he visits his sister, Sunday, who is an artist on the moon.  This trip leads Geoffrey and Sunday on a bit of wild goose chase across the solar system that I don't want to spoil.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Root for the Apes: War for the Planet of the Apes



The thing I've always loved about the Planet of the Apes movies (as well as Pierre Boulle's novel) is how deeply subversive it all is.  Stories about "a planet where apes evolved from men" turn so many of our self-assured certainties on their heads when it comes to evolution, "progress," intelligence, race, and the place of humans in relation to our fellow animals and the universe.  If you didn't read "a planet where apes evolved from men" in Charleton Heston's voice, I must insist that you go back and do so immediately (see the clip at the end if you need help).

Saturday, July 15, 2017

2017 Hugo Ballot, Part Two


Hugo ballots are due TODAY (Sat. July 15, 2017).  See my previous post for part one of my ballot as well as my three principles of Hugo voting.  That post includes my votes for the main written fiction categories: novel, novella, novelette, and short story.  Here's what I think about the other categories!


Friday, July 14, 2017

Principles of Hugo Voting/ Hugo Ballot, Part One


Hugo ballots are due TOMORROW (Sat. July 15, 2017).  If you'd like to vote, you can do so from the Worldcon 75 website.  I had a great time at last year's Worldcon in Kansas City, but unfortunately I won't be attending Worldcon in Helsinki this year.  If you can't make it to Helsinki, either, you can still purchase a supporting membership for 35 euros, which entitles you to vote.  But do it soon!

There were a lot of great finalists this year.  You can see them all on the official Hugo Award site.  Way to go, science fiction and fantasy creators and fans!  There were so many good finalists, I thought of some handy principles to help.  Here are my three principles of Hugo voting (riffing a bit on Asimov's three laws of robotics just for fun).



Three Principles of Hugo Voting

  1. Works that are more ground breaking in the field in their construction, plot, characters, setting, ideas, etc. are to be preferred as are works that are neither sequels nor works by authors who have won Hugos in recent years.
  2. Works that delve more deeply into philosophical content are to be preferred.
  3. Works that are just plain fun and enjoyable are to be preferred as long as such preference does not conflict with the first or second principles.


Much like Asimov's three laws, I'm not sure it's possible to coherently follow these principles, but I did the best I could.  So without further ado...


My 2017 Hugo Ballot, Part One 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

CONvergence 2017 Report


Last weekend I attended CONvergence in Bloomington, MN, which is, according to the website, "an annual convention for fans of Science Fiction and Fantasy in all media: a 4-day event with more than 6,000 members, and the premiere event of our kind in the upper mid-west."

CONvergence is also special for me personally as it was one of the first cons I ever attended back in 2001.  I attended every year up through 2005, and I've been meaning to go back ever since.  So this year's CONvergence was 12 years in the making for me!  (What happened?  Short answer: I moved away from the Twin Cities in August 2005 and never quite managed to get back to visit during CONvergence ... until this year!).

Monday, June 26, 2017

Twin Peaks and the Pleasures of Weirdness

A relatively small dose of weirdness from Twin Peaks: The Return

When I was in junior high in the early 1990's, my friend Adam kept telling me about this weird show called Twin Peaks.  It didn't sound like the sort of show typical 14-year-olds would be into.  I couldn't really tell what it was about, honestly, beyond some sort of murder mystery and an FBI agent who really liked pie.  I probably watched a couple episodes, said, "Cool," and moved on.

Several years later when we were (technically) adults, Adam had a weekend Twin Peaks marathon on VHS (this was way before Netflix made marathon viewing a normal thing).  I've been a big fan ever since.  I've watched the original series a few times, most recently to prepare for the new season/return on Showtime.  Incidentally, Adam and I are still good friends, and it may be no coincidence that he became a horror and fantasy author -- check out his stuff as well as what he has to say about Twin Peaks.

The original Twin Peaks was many things: a murder mystery, an evening soap opera, an investigation into the seedier side of small town America.  But as compelling as all that was, for me the greatest achievement of Twin Peaks was its unrepentant weirdness that constantly leaves me wondering, "How in the hell did this get on TV?" (Okay, the commercial success of movies like David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) probably had something to do with it, but that really only deepens the mystery if you actually watch his movies.)

(Warning: Very minor spoilers ahead.  I'm mentioning things in general terms, not discussing major plot points).

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cultivated Callousness: Is This What We Want?

Philando Castile

The problem with our contemporary culture isn’t that people can often be callous and irrational.  That’s our lot as imperfect creatures.  The problem is that we seem to have given up the idea that we can do any better. 

In fact, being callous toward others seems to be increasingly worn as a badge of honor.  It can be a form of powerful moral grandstanding to be callous toward a particular group of others.  Even our entertainment often celebrates individuals who obtain what they want through callousness to everyone else.

Many white Americans have a cultivated callousness toward black Americans, demonstrated most recently after the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castile.  Although this case also has to do with structural legal issues that make it almost impossible to convict police officers, I see no sense in denying that responses would be different had Castile been white, especially from white Americans who say things like, "He didn't comply!" (with the implication that he thereby deserved to die) or the NRA's near silence in a case that ought to be a rallying cry for Second Amendment defenders. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Science, Magic, and Silliness: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders



I picked up All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders after it won the Nebula Award for best novel and to do my diligence as a Hugo voter as it's a Hugo finalist.  I found it mostly entertaining with some interesting ideas and funny bits, but I don't understand the hype.  Maybe Anders is close friends with a lot of SFWA members (Science Fiction Writers of America - the group that votes on the Nebulas)?  Maybe her rightly praised work on the i09 website is doing some of the heavy lifting in the background?  Maybe I just don't get it?

I'll say more on the humor and the ideas in a bit, but first a bit on what didn't work for me.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nostalgia for a Future that Never Was: The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds



I enjoyed The Medusa Chronicles, a novel-length sequel to Arthur C. Clarke's novella "A Meeting with Medusa."  It really does feel a lot like reading Arthur C. Clarke but with a few modernizations, including the presence of a few actual women (granted, most of them don't have particularly major parts, but there is at least one prominent alien gendered as female and she's not even sexy to human males, so that's something).

Clarke is one of my all time favorites, and my favorite of the so-called Big Three ahead of Asimov and Heinlein.  Reading Clarke as a teenager, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, is what got me fully hooked on science fiction literature (as opposed to science fiction movies and TV, which I had been enjoying as long as I can remember).  In fact, Clarke's mind-expanding Big Ideas also probably helped set me on the path to becoming a philosopher.  Thinking about human origins and destinies, the vastness of time and space, and the fathomless mysteries of the universe is what continues to draw me to both science fiction and philosophy. (It also motivates this blog!).

Since Clarke took his own journey through the Star Gate in 2008, he's not producing anything new (at least that we know of - maybe he's working as a Star Child somewhere).

So what's a Clarke fan filled with nostalgia to do?  Here's where Baxter and Reynolds come in!  They wrote a novel as as sequel to Clarke's novella "A Meeting with Medusa," in which Howard Falcon descends into the atmosphere of Jupiter and discovers life in the form of giant, two-kilometer-wide creatures he calls medusae.  The story ends with a tantalizing line that the main character, half-human and half-machine, lived on for centuries.  The Medusa Chronicles is that story.  (It was also cool to re-read Clarke's novella and to read the sequel soon after the recent real life photos of Jupiter from the Juno spacecraft).

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Uses of Philosophy, Part 3: Intellectual Empathy - Understanding Without Agreeing



In recent years famous scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Stephen Hawking have declared that philosophy is useless.  I shrugged this off for the most part since I'm used to people making uninformed pronouncements about my discipline.  Still, given philosophy's public relations problem, it's troubling to hear this sentiment from respected public figures.

But as Socrates says in the Apology, if people are mistaken, you should calmly correct their errors rather than punishing them (informing people about philosophy is in fact part of the mission of this blog).  I also still admire Tyson, Nye, and Hawking (or maybe I'm in an abusive relationship with science).  Tyson, for his part, later added a little bit of nuance to his comments.  Besides, he has said philosophical things, too (see above).

Rather than getting all confrontational and claiming that philosophy is better than science (I like both just fine) or that philosophy is harder than science (I'd say they're difficult in different ways), I'm continuing my series on the uses of philosophy.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Time Travel is Hilarious: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis


Time travel stories can be mind-bending and thrilling. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis shows they can also be funny.

This was my first time reading Willis. I had heard of her, both as a frequent Hugo and Nebula winner but also as an example of a humorous SF writer. I don't think there's enough humorous science fiction out there, so I was keen to check this out.

The basic idea: Oxford historians in the 2050's use time travel to go back to a variety of eras. They can't take any objects back with them or make any major changes to the timeline, but they are able to interact with and observe the past. Given these limitations, time travel has no real commercial applications and is left mainly to historians and wealthy eccentrics. The main character Ned Henry has done several too many "drops" into the past, resulting in excessive "time lag" (sort of like jet lag but funnier). To recuperate and to avoid the overbearing benefactor of the time travel program, Ned goes back to Victorian England in 1888. Of course, it turns out he's actually been sent on a mission to locate a certain artifact, a hideous Victorian monstrosity called the Bishop's bird stump, which they need to replicate as part of the rebuilding of the Coventry Cathedral that was destroyed in WWII. Hijinks and hilarity (and even a bit of romance) ensue.

Summer Movie Round Up, Part 1: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword



After a mostly terrible summer movie season in 2016, I've been hoping for a better one in 2017.  Early results are showing that we may be in for something a bit better than last year.  That is, at least if the first three summer movies I've seen are any indication: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What Counts as a Tradition in Indian Philosophy?: The Case of Skepticism

Devanagari version of the Hymn of Creation in the Ṛg Veda



Scholars of all types of philosophy are fond of referring to philosophical traditions. But what does this mean? What counts as a tradition?

In the Indian context one way to discuss a tradition is with the word darśana, which literally means view or viewpoint from the root “dṛś” – “to see.” It can also be translated as “school.”

We might also look to the etymology of the English word “tradition,” which derives from the Latin “traditio” (a handing down, delivery). Must a tradition be handed down through interpersonal transmission from teacher to student in the traditional Indian model? Or could it be a matter of later philosophers being inspired by reading particular texts, or perhaps some combination of interpersonal transmission and textual inspiration?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Libertarian Lunacy: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein



Heinlein has always been my least favorite of the Big Three (my ranking: Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein), but I thought I'd give him another chance.  I checked out The Moon is a Harsh Mistress from the public library, because the thought of borrowing a book about libertarian revolution from my favorite tax-supported socialist institution amused me.  There were some things I liked about this one, but there's also a lot I disliked, especially the misogyny.  The rest of this review will take place in the form of an imagined dialogue with a Heinlein fan, because that's how I was able to work out what I thought about this one.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Uses of Philosophy, Part 2: Coolness of Mind



How do you get the philosopher off your porch? 
Pay for the pizza.

Jokes like this demonstrate the eternal verity that philosophy is useless, an attitude that goes back to ancient times.  As a person who makes a living teaching and writing about philosophy, you’d expect me to disagree with this negative assessment of philosophy.  And I do!  Back in 2015 I wrote a post called “Three Uses of Philosophy” that suggested philosophy has at least three uses: it can be fun, it cultivates intellectual skills such as critical thinking, and it can make us less dogmatic.

I happen to think that philosophy has lots of uses, a lot more than three, anyway.  So I decided to make a series based on my earlier post.  Another use occurred to me a few months ago when I was teaching the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza in one class and the classical Indian skeptics Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa in another.  I call this coolness of mind, a state in which your worries melt away, a freedom from the heat of mental disturbance and the churnings of suffering and anxiety.  Coolness of mind contains a subtle and peaceful beauty of its own, like the quiet of the desert just before dusk or a moonlit midnight after a gentle snowfall.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Movie Round Up: Life, Logan, Get Out, Kong: Skull Island, A Dark Song



Lately I've seen a fair number of movies in the science fictional/fantastic realm, but with the exception of Ghost in the Shell (both the 1995 anime and the 2017 live action remake) I've been remiss when it comes to reviewing them.  Alas, it's time to rectify this unconscionable situation with a movie round up!  Here are my short reviews of Life, Logan, Get Out, Kong: Skull Island, and - just to keep things from being 100% Hollywood - the Irish/Welsh indie film A Dark Song.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dear Fellow White Dudes…

White dudes

Dear fellow white dudes,

It’s pretty cool being a white dude, isn’t it?

We’re well represented. Here in the United States (my home country and focus here), the majority of Senators and Representatives have always been white dudes, not to mention 44 out of 45 US Presidents.  The majority of actors in leading roles in Hollywood movies are white dudes, as are most Hollywood directors.  Most corporate CEO’s, military leaders, educational administrators, and so forth are white dudes. 

We white dudes have done some pretty cool stuff.  Plato and Aristotle were white dudes, although nobody realized this until the construction of modern racial identities in the European Enlightenment, which was also the work of white dudes (and a few white dudettes).  Many of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors are white dudes: J. R. R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, etc.  Some of my best friends are white dudes.

White dudes are far less likely than others to be harassed or to receive threats of violence in person or online.  We are less likely to be murdered by our romantic partners or by the police.  White dudes who engage in mass murder are framed as troubled loners, but rarely as terrorists or thugs.  We statistically get paid more for the same work as other people.

We white dudes have a lot of privileges, which as science fiction author and white dude John Scalzi has pointed out, is like playing a video game on the easy setting.  We still have to put in the effort to play the game, but it’s easier for us, especially if we're straight, cisgender, non-disabled, and come from middle to upper class socioeconomic backgrounds.  White dudes’ greatest privilege is that we can choose to ignore all this and go about our lives in the invisible safe space of a world made for us.

Man, it’s pretty awesome to be a white dude!  But you’d never know it if you listened to a lot of white dudes these days, which as a white dude myself I find kind of weird.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Unprofound Meditations: Ghost in the Shell (2017)



I didn’t hate everything about the 2017 Ghost in the Shell remake. If I weren’t a huge fan of the 1995 anime film, I maybe even would’ve liked it a lot.  But alas, the remake falls as flat as anyone who stands in the Major’s way.

I debated for a long time whether I even wanted to see the remake.  There’s of course the whitewashing issue of having most of the main characters played by white actors (more on that later).  There’s also my general fatigue with Hollywood remakes and sequels (although I’d be lying if I said I weren’t as excited as I am apprehensive about the upcoming Alien and Bladerunner sequels).


Why, Hollywood, Why?

But this particular remake didn’t seem like it needed to happen.  I don’t watch a lot of anime, but Momoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film is nothing short of a masterpiece of philosophical science fiction (see my post: "Buddhist Philosophy and Ghost in the Shell: Studying the Ghost to Forget the Ghost").  One does not simply remake a masterpiece.  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Women’s History of the Future: Reviews of Works by Okorafor, Brackett, and Le Guin




March is Women’s History Month. Last year I celebrated by writing a post on women's history in philosophy and science fiction.  This year I thought I'd review work from three prominent women science fiction authors: Nnedi Okorafor, Leigh Brackett, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

The three works in question are all relatively short, hovering near the border between long novellas and short novels.  Okorafor's Binti: Home is a longish novella while Brackett's The Nemesis from Terra and Le Guin's Planet of Exile are each really short novels.

All three works deal with the idea of being at home.  This theme is clearest in Binti: Home (it's right in the title!), where the title character returns home after an interstellar sojourn.  Brackett and Le Guin ask whether you can be at home in a place you're not expected to be at home; Okorafor deals with not being at home in a place where you expect to be.

What do I mean by all this?  See the individual reviews below!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

200th Post Spectacular!


Reflection on 200

This is my 200th post for Examined Worlds!  To celebrate this momentous occasion, I thought I'd pause to reflect a little bit.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Intellectual Wandering: A, B, C: Three Short Novels by Samuel R. Delany


A, B, C is a nice omnibus collection of three early short novels of SF genius Samuel R. Delany. Each novel was originally written in the early 1960's, although Delany did some revision of Çiron in the 90's.  There's quite a bit in the way of forword and afterword written in 2014.  The afterword gets a bit academic, which may not be to everyone's taste, but then I suspect most serious Delany fans aren't the type to scared by citations of Derrida and Wittgenstein and lengthy footnotes.

Like most of Delany's early work (e.g., see my review of Nova), the novels are well written with hints of the depth of his later genius.  The Ballad of Beta-2 was my favorite, but I enjoyed the others more than I was expecting.  Sticking with the alphabetic contrivance of the title, I'll review them in order.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Recommended Daily Dose of Dairy Queen: Thoughts on my Mom's Birthday


Today would have been my mom's 68th birthday.  Although she died almost 17 years ago, I still commemorate this day every year with a little tradition that she called her "recommended daily dose of Dairy Queen."  Today is was one of her favorites: a hot fudge malt!

As I took my maternal communion, I thought about how much I miss her and how much she made me who I am today.  As I usually do, I also pondered a lot of "what ifs?"

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Tale of Two Conferences: Con Nooga and Central APA

Posing in front of a cool backdrop at Con Nooga!

In the last few weeks I've been lucky to attend two conferences that correspond to the two sides of this blog: Con Nooga here in Chattanooga, TN and the APA Central Division Meeting in Kansas City, MO.

I had a great time at both events, but they conspired to put me a bit behind in my usual responsibilities (like grading midterm papers).  So rather than an elaborate report, I thought I'd offer a few highlights from my experiences at each conference.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Buddhist Philosophy and Ghost in the Shell: Studying the Ghost to Forget the Ghost



My colleagues Talia Welsh and Bo Baker asked me to visit their team-taught course Honors 3590: Non-Western Cultures: Zen, Film, and Anime at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. In preparation for this event, I thought I’d write a blog post to collect my thoughts on the film we’ll be discussing, which also happens to be one of my favorites. Note that I am discussing the original 1995 animated film directed by Mamoru Oshii.



“Do you even know who you are?”

– The Major



I’ve honestly never been a huge anime fan, but I’ve loved Ghost in the Shell since I first saw it in the 90’s. First of all, it’s one of the most beautiful anime films out there. The meditative city montages alone are worth the price of admission.

But it’s also one of the most philosophically profound movies out there, anime or otherwise. It gets deep from the first moments. The intro tells us, “the advance of computerization … has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups” (Is there a reason to think it will?). There’s also the issue of all those lingering shots of the Major’s body: What’s the line between a problematic male gaze and artistic statements about corporality?

But the deepest issue of all is personal identity. Consider the Major’s post-scuba diving soliloquy.
“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others. But my thoughts and memories are unique only to me. And I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.”
Like anime science fiction more generally, Ghost in the Shell combines modern, computerized themes with ancient philosophical roots. The personal identity questions in the film are asked with the accent of modern computer technology but the deeper grammar is that of Buddhist philosophy.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Serious Humor in Trumpian Times


Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live

While Donald Trump himself often comes across as a buffoon, there's nothing particularly funny about Trumpism as a political ideology: it's by and large a bleak, dystopian affair filled with horrific problems that only a superhero/savior can fix.  "I alone can fix it," Trump said during the Republican National Convention.  "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now," he said during his inauguration speech.

There wasn't much humor for people who were detained at airports due to the administration's ill-conceived and possibly unconstitutional travel ban.  Trump's cabinet thus far, which includes controversial members like Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, and Betsy DeVos, is no laughing matter.  And those are just the major points.  It's frankly almost impossible to keep up with the administration's deeds from the nefarious to the bizarre (this website makes a good attempt).

It might seem like there would be precious little levity in these Trumpian times.  Yet in the last few weeks comedy has been made great again.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Recent TV Round Up


I originally intended to write a Best TV of 2016 post.  But now that we're veering toward mid-February 2017, it seemed a bit late for that.  Also, I watched a few new things while I was putting off writing this post.  So I give you: Recent TV Round Up featuring Stranger Things, The Good Place, Westworld, Sense8, and The OA!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Most Interesting SF/F Novels of 2016

Some of the books on the list

Last year I wrote about my favorite books of 2015.  In 2016 I read a lot of interesting books, but nothing I loved quite as much as my favorite book of 2015: Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora.  So this year I've decided to forego a "Best of" list in favor of a "Most Interesting" list.  Maybe this will be more interesting, too!

The following list is limited to science fiction and fantasy novels published in 2016.  I read a lot of other interesting stuff in 2016 that doesn't fit those parameters. Some notable fiction I read included: Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem, Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, Nnedi Okorafor's Binti, Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bearand C. S. Friedman's This Alien Shore.   Some interesting philosophy books I read last year were Mary Midley's Utopias, Dolphins, and Computers and B. K. Matilal's The Character of Logic in India.  If you want a more comprehensive list, see my Year in Books from Goodreads.

In any case, here's my list of most interesting science fiction and fantasy novels of 2016!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

ChattaCon 42: Cons, the Universe, and Everything



This weekend I attended ChattaCon, which is a nice little science fiction/fantasy convention here in Chattanooga, Tennessee that celebrated its 42nd anniversary this year.  This makes it one of the oldest conventions in the southeastern United States.  This was my third ChattaCon (my first was just several months after I moved here).

As I've discussed before, even with the plethora of online fandom communities, it's still worthwhile to get together in person.  Especially given the uncertain times of our new President here in the US, it was nice to be among my people for a weekend (although I did take a break to attend the Chattanooga Women's March on Saturday).

Here's some of what I did:

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Some Lessons from the Obama Years


In the grand scheme of things the world hasn't actually changed that much since Barack Obama took office in January 2009.  I've never bought the idea, touted by tech journalists and people who write books about "synergy", that the world changes over night.  The world is much the same place it was before, piling up small changes while we're looking for big ones.  Nonetheless, the world of 2017 is not exactly the same as the world of 2009.

When Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, a recession threatened to destroy the world's economy, only the more tech savvy among us had smart phones, social media was mostly a way to keep up with high school friends, anything called a "tea party" usually involved actual tea, and Donald Trump was a reality TV star. 

As the Presidency of Barack Obama ends, it's worth reflecting a bit on the Obama years.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

MLK Day 2017: The Moral Arc, Philosophy, and Science Fiction




I don’t have a lot of heroes, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of them.

While the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. have a special significance for African Americans that I in no way mean to undermine, I also think we all have much to learn from King.  For all his personal faults and the ways his message has been diluted and distorted in recent decades, he was one of the best that this country of ours has ever produced.  This is why Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is my favorite American holiday.

I’ve written posts for MLK Day in previous years (see my posts from 2015 and 2016).  This year, amid continuing racial disparities and a contentious election season that has emboldened old fashioned bigotries, King’s famous quote about the arc of the moral universe feels especially apt.  I admit to finding some comfort in it in the last few months, most recently when the US President-elect went on Twitter to belittle John Lewis, a beloved American hero and Civil Rights icon who worked directly with King.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Ten Rules for Public Discourse as Internet Comments Section



Back when Donald Trump's candidacy was still funny, there was a joke going around that he was the personification of an internet comments section. But the real joke has turned out to be that all public discourse now happens at the level of an internet comments section.  Or if not all of it, far more than is healthy for us as a society or as individuals.

One consequence of our comment section discourse is that we spend so much time telling people what they think that there's no time to ask them what they think and why.  We’re so busy cultivating cynicism and trying to be edgy that we forget to be kind and compassionate.  This situation has been the source of some of my melancholic mood as of late.

Alas, if we are to live in the era of public discourse as internet comments section, we ought to know what we’re getting into.  So without further ado...


Ten Rules for Public Discourse as Internet Comments Section


1. You must never think critically about your own beliefs. Your view is automatically right because it is yours. USE ALL CAPS INSTEAD OF REASONS!!!!

2. You must never empathize with people who disagree with you.

3. You must never admit that people who disagree with you might be decent human beings. 

4.  If people tell you that your view dehumanizes them, you must never reflect on whether they have a point. Remember: your view is automatically right because it is yours (see Rule 1). How dare they question it?

5. All issues must be black-or-white, with-me-or-against-me.  There can be no coalition building with people who disagree about a few issues; there is no such thing as an in-house disagreement. You are either 100% in my house or 100% outside of it.

6. All positions must be believed with the searing zeal of the martyrs; your enthusiasm for your position must burn as hot as your hatred for any opposing view. USE ALL CAPS TO EXPRESS YOUR COMMITMENT TO YOUR VIEW AND CONTEMPT FOR OTHERS!!!!!

7. Godwin’s Law is in full force: your opponents and/or their associates must be compared to Nazis as soon as possible.  It doesn't matter whether you're talking about powerful politicians or your local PTA.  No issue is too trivial to be compared to genocide.

8. Bombastic, hastily generalized claims must be made and clung to irrespective of nuance, truth, or new evidence.

9. You get to choose your own facts! If people disagree with your facts, direct them to a conspiracy theory or partisan website as evidence. Bonus points for hour-long YouTube videos of people rambling in their basements.

10. And of course, if your view can’t be expressed in 140 characters, it is not a view worth having. Sad!