2017年6月27日 星期二

"The Crystal World" by J.G. Ballard (1966)

"Radek paused, collecting his energies with an effort.  'Tatlin believes that this Hubble Effect, as they call it, is closer to a cancer than anything else - and about as curable - an actual proliferation of the the sub-atomic identity of all matter.  It's as if a sequence of displaced but identical images of the same object were being produced by refraction through a prism, but with the element of time replacing the role of light.'"

The Crystal World is the fourth of Ballard's novels, coming after The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World, and The Burning World.  It falls within his science fiction period, coming before more abstract works and the more historically relevant Empire of the Sun.

In the novel, a process of crystallization is slowly overtaking a patch of African jungle.  Many of the characters within the story speculate as to the ultimate cause of this crystallization process, and what this alteration of the physical landscape might portend for their personal struggles.  What is certain to all of them is that the process is irreversible.

Comparing this book to both The Wind From Nowhere and The Drowned World, I'd have to say that it's a far inferior product.  This is because it doesn't quite work in a dramatic sense, and also because the nonsensical scientific explanations for the crystallization process detract from a sense of verisimilitude that the novel would have otherwise possessed.  Most of the events set outside of the crystallization process center around two separate love triangles, in which two men compete for the love of one woman, and two women compete for the love of one man.  There is also a theme linking the crystallization process to leprosy, and this theme, which ought to have formed the backbone of the novel, is never explored in satisfactory detail.

Yet the biggest weakness of this book is how it portrays the violent conflicts between various characters.  These action scenes are incredibly disjointed, and it's hard to figure out what is going on exactly, or who's doing what to whom.  While reading through these passages, I began to reflect on the fact that Ballard was never good with such scenes, and his books are better when he avoids them entirely.

With all of the above said, The Crystal World is far from terrible.  If you're working your way through Ballard's bibliography I'd recommend it, though only after you've read his more famous books.  As for myself, I'll be on to either The Burning World or The Atrocity Exhibition soon.

2017年6月24日 星期六

Conversation with Bertrand Russell

The quotes below were taken from Bertrand Russell's essay "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?"  This essay is part of the 1957 essay collection "Why I Am Not a Christian."

B.R.: "My own view on religion is that of Lucretius.  I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.  I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization.  It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them.  These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others." 

Me: I guess I'll have to take your word for it, Mr. Russell.  It's been a while since I read any Lucretius.

But I think there is a lot to be said for this "disease born of fear" bit.  Much of our impulse toward religion is born of fear, though one might argue that the same impulse, with regard to more mystical traditions, can also spring from love.  To be sure, the superstitions of prior generations have caused untold misery, but I think that one has to be alert to the superstitions held by the present generation, too.  In the wrong hands any belief system, however well-intentioned, can became superstition.  Even the Science you so stridently espouse.

And I think you ought to give Religion a little more credit.  If we consider this impulse to religion a natural part of the human character - a point that I doubt even you would argue against - then many other branches of human knowledge can be traced back to it.  Religion stands at the very beginning of human civilization, and for this reason those priest-kings you despise could also lay claim to the development of writing, agriculture, and a host of other things.  Even atheism has theism as its antecedent.

B.R.: "The worst feature of the Christian religion, however, is its attitude toward sex - an attitude so morbid and so unnatural that it can be understood only when taken in relation to the sickness of the civilized world at the time the Roman empire was decaying.  We sometimes hear talk to the effect that Christianity improved the status of women.  This is one of the greatest perversions of history that it is possible to make.  Women cannot enjoy a tolerable position in society where it is considered of the utmost importance that they should not infringe a very rigid moral code."

Me: I agree wholeheartedly, and I think that the historical argument you're making here is also sound.  There is a kind of sexual sickness at the heart of traditional Christian belief, and the type of morality advocated in the Bible - if understood and taken seriously - can do nothing but diminish the stature of women.  In this our attitudes - even those of us who claim other faiths - ought to be examined.

B.R.: "The objections to religion are of two sorts - intellectual and moral.  The intellectual reason is that there is no reason to suppose any religion true; the moral objection is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow."

Me: I should add that in this instance there is a difference between the "religion" you are discussing and "belief in God."  You don't make this distinction in all of your essays, but it is fairly obvious in the parts of this essay that aren't quoted here.

I'm still working out how to define "more cruel" in a historical context.  Would this be the sum of all cruelties performed during a given time?  Or over the course of a historical epoch?  And what about the role of population?  Considering that during medieval times the world's population was only a fraction of what it is now, wouldn't that mean that the sum of cruelties was smaller?  Or is it a matter of quality over quantity?  How is one to assign a greater or lesser amount of cruelty to any act?

But I think that on the whole you are pointing to the fact that the moral conscience of previous ages should belong only to previous ages, and should not be carried into future ages via scripture or established ritual traditions.  With this I would tend to agree.

B.R.: "The Christian emphasis on the individual soul has had a profound influence upon the ethics of Christian communities.  It is a doctrine fundamentally akin to that of the Stoics, arising as theirs did in communities that could no longer cherish political hopes.  The natural impulse of the vigorous person of decent character is to attempt to do good, but if he is deprived of all political power and of all opportunity to influence events, he will be deflected from his natural course and will decide that the important thing is to be good.  This is what happened to the early Christians; it led to a conception of personal holiness as something quite independent of beneficent action, since holiness had to be something that could be achieved by people who were impotent in action.  Social virtue came therefore to be excluded from Christian ethics... with this separation between the social and the moral person there went an increasing separation between soul and body..." [underline added]

Me: I think that the missionary activities of some present religious institutions speak against your charge that they lack social conscience.  In many poorer countries, in fact, the humanitarian work of such organizations overshadows that performed by other, non-religious, public or private institutions.

There is also the fact that some of your argument above isn't as novel as it first seems.  This is merely a reinterpretation of the "faith vs. works" argument that so preoccupied medieval theologians.  It was, moreover, one of the great arguments leveled at the Catholics by the early Protestants.

I like, however, the connection you're drawing between the social aspect of Christianity and the Christian idea of the soul.  This, I think, is something I haven't heard before, and I believe it's worth contemplating the inward, non-physical leanings of Christianity to the lack of social progress in many Christian settings.  Have Western societies experienced most of their social progress because of Christianity?  Or in spite of it?

B.R.: "It is amusing to hear the modern Christian telling you how mild and rationalistic Christianity really is and ignoring the fact that all its mildness and rationalism is due to the teaching of men who in their own day were persecuted by all orthodox Christians."

Me: Yes, it is.

B.R.: "Now, what is 'unrighteousness' in practice?  It is in practice behavior of a kind disliked by the herd.  By calling it unrighteousness, and by arranging an elaborate system of ethics around this conception, the herd justifies itself in wreaking punishment upon the objects of its own dislike, while at the same time, since the herd is righteous by definition, it enhances its own self-esteem at the very moment when it lets loose its impulse to cruelty."

Me: I can only say "Amen" to that.  When I think about my own life, and when I think about the moral judgments, handed down to me from "on high," I can only reflect upon the times when what is said above has been proven true.  We would like to think we moralize for the sake of improving our fellow man, but more often this trend toward moralization points toward a herd mentality, a desire to belong, a desire for self-aggrandizement, and a disposition toward cruelty.  It is a state of affairs no newer than the scapegoat mentioned in the Bible, and we are cautioned to remember that those who most often claim to be speaking for the community, and in the common interest, are often those who, in the long term, are doing anything but.

But anyway, I've got to go do something less philosophical now.  I thank you, Mr. Russell, for your time.  I've enjoyed your book, even though some of your arguments could have been made in greater detail.  Next time let's invite Mr. Sartre and Mr. Aurelius over.  It ought to be an interesting conversation.

2017年6月22日 星期四

"Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline (2011)

"When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts.  Over the past five years, I'd worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list.  Douglas Adams.  Kurt Vonnegut.  Neal Stephenson.  Richard K. Morgan.  Stephen King.  Orson Scott Card.  Terry Pratchett.  Terry Brooks.  Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkein, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny.  I read every novel by every single one of Halliday's favorite authors.

"And I didn't stop there.

"I also watched every single film he referenced in the Almanac.  If it was one of Halliday's favorites, like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, or Revenge of the Nerds, I rewatched it until I knew every scene by heart.

"I devoured each of what Halliday referred to as 'The Holy Trilogies': Star Wars (original and prequel trilogies, in that order), Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Mad Max, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones (Halliday once said that he preferred to pretend the other Indiana Jones films, from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull onward, didn't exist.  I tended to agree.)

"I also absorbed the complete filmographies of each of his favorite directors.   Cameron, Gilliam, Jackson, Fincher, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg, Del Toro, Tarantino.  And of course, Kevin Smith."*

Ernest Cline is an American author and screenwriter.  He has written two novels, with a third novel, the sequel to Ready Player One, to be released soon.

Part ode to social anxiety, part love letter to the 1980s, Ready Player One follows a young man's quest to save a virtual world, win the girl of his dreams, and bring an evil corporation to its knees.  It is comparable in many respects to novels like The Eden Cycle or movies like The Matrix, though it lacks the existential overtones that made those two other works of fiction so memorable.

The protagonist, Wade, inhabits a world on the edge of catastrophe, wherein our supply of fossil fuels has been exhausted and most people live in crushing poverty.  Fortunately for the inhabitants of this world, they're able to retreat into a virtual world called OASIS, in which many compete for an Easter egg hidden by its creator, James Halliday.

All of which sounds interesting, though this book grows extremely masturbatory at times.  Early on it becomes obvious that both Wade and James Halliday are stand-ins for the author, and the characters' collective obsession with the 1980s is both mystifying and hard to take seriously.  

Imagine being forced to attend a convention on a movie, book series, or TV show that you don't particularly like.  Then imagine being forced to hold conversations with various attendees, all of whom can discuss little outside the subject of the convention.  It sounds boring, right?  Pretending to like something just because everyone else in the room is obsessed with it?  Well I'm sorry to say that such an experience would resemble reading this book, and would be about as pleasant.

There were a couple "real events" at the end of this novel that I liked, but compared to other, more noteworthy science fiction novels this book is only distinctive with respect to the amount of trivia it employs.  The characterizations are weak, the plot has been done better elsewhere, and the ending is entirely predictable.

I'm guessing that the film version of this book will be quite different from the novel.  If so, this will be a good thing, because only those trapped in the most self-destructive kind of 80s nostalgia will find greatness in Ready Player One.  I have faith that Spielberg will find ways to make the material better, and if the book has a strength it lies in this very fact: Ready Player One leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Related Entries:

Stranger Things, and Growing Up in the 80s 

*Just to be clear on our chronology here, not all of these people, places, and things are from the 80s.  I think the reason that many of them aren't is the fact that many of the properties the author WOULD have cited were copyrighted, and those owning the copyrights balked at their inclusion in the book.

1. The authors listed in the quote were for the most part common currency in the 80s, with the exception of Gaiman and Scalzi.  While Gaiman WAS doing UK comics in the late 80s, his run on Sandman didn't begin until the 90s, and I doubt James Halliday would have been acquainted with Gaiman's work on Judge Dredd.  Scalzi wasn't published until the late 90s.

2. The Star Wars prequel trilogy didn't appear until 1999.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy didn't hit theaters until 2001.  The first of the Matrix films wasn't released until 1999.

3. Peter Jackson DID do a couple films in the 80s: the super underground Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles.  I doubt James Halliday, then a kid living in the Midwest, would have ever heard of him until much later in his career.  David Fincher (I assume this is who's being referred to) didn't direct a feature film until Alien 3 in 1993.  Guillermo del Toro didn't direct anything until the obscure Chronos, also in 1993.  In the 80s Tarantino had only directed a single short film.  Kevin Smith wouldn't direct his first film, Clerks, until 1994.

2017年6月11日 星期日

"The Island of the Day Before" by Umberto Eco (1995)

"'Sir,' the libertine replied, 'You cannot present to us ideas that all of us consider true, then demand that we not draw from them the ultimate consequences.  I suspect that at this point we no longer need God or His infinity, because we already have enough infinities on all sides reducing us to a shadow that lasts only an instant without return.  So, then, I propose banishing all fear, and going - in a body - to the tavern.'"

Umberto Eco, when he wasn't being unbearably pretentious, was a writer and Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna.  He wrote 7 novels, and countless works of non-fiction.

In The Island of the Day Before, a young Italian nobleman meditates (endlessly) on the meaning of life, time, and other topics while trapped on a boat.  About 3/4 of this novel could be described as "trapped on a boat," and the remaining 1/4 could be described as "everything that happened before."

The island mentioned in the title is an island somewhere in the South Pacific, located near the "antipodal meridian," or the 180th parallel of longitude.  We might define this antipodal meridian as a kind of International Date Line, where one assumes that the island, sitting as it does on the opposite side of the line, is actually inhabiting a previous day.

All of which makes The Island of the Day Before sound like it could be a fun, lighthearted nautical adventure, but in Eco's hands it becomes a ponderous, often nonsensical diatribe consisting of obsolete philosophical topics.  The "everything that happened before" parts of the book are actually pretty good, and offer an interesting window into medieval thought, but the "trapped on a boat" portions contain so little in the way of plot twists, character development, or actual emotion that this book quickly becomes a real chore to get through.

Judged against other pretentious books like Infinite Jest, Gravity's Rainbow, or (in my opinion, the prize-winner) The Flounder, The Island of the Day Before isn't unreadable.  It just isn't very interesting.  If you liked In the Name of the Rose (as I did), you'll find some redeeming features in it, but if you struggled to get through Foucault's Pendulum (as I did), you'll find The Island of the Day Before even slower going.