Quislings to All Humanity

Review of ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, by Liu Cixin

Warning: this post contains details of premise which are not revealed until midway through the first novel.

     I suppose there comes a time for every dedicated science fiction reader when they must ask themselves, ‘would I collude with an alien species to destroy the human race?’

The Three-Body Problem Cover     I have just finished the first two books of Liu Cixin’s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy, best known to English readers by the title of its first book, ‘The Three-Body Problem’.  ‘The Three-Body Problem’ was nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel and won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel (the first non-English language novel ever to win, I believe, and the award was shared with his translator Ken Liu), and has met enormous acclaim since its publication in English.

     The premise of the trilogy is thought-provoking: during the Cultural Revolution in China, a persecuted physicist discovers, via the Chinese equivalent of the SETI program, evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization.  These aliens live on a planet which is located within the gravitational field of three suns, and since three objects do not form a repeating orbit (the ‘three body problem’ of the title), they are subject to lethal climatic extremes.  The aliens are thus in need of a new planet and the human scientist, who had become convinced that humankind is unable to govern themselves justly, reveals the location and suitability of Earth to them.  The first two novels of the trilogy tell the story of this scientist and the organization she builds to destroy humankind, and, once she is discovered, of humanity’s preparations of for the coming of the alien fleet.

     The best purpose of science fiction is to pose moral problems in a context which, through novelty, clarifies them, and, by that metric, ‘The Three-Body Problem’ is a success.  The problem it poses is a particularly acute one for me.  The scientist at the heart of the premise believes that humans are innately and ineradicably evil – I believe that humans are innately and ineradicably evil.  She believes that, if left to govern themselves, they will always and inevitably turn to murder and wickedness – I believe that as well.  And so when she sees a technologically superior race, she decides to hand over mastery of our lives and world to that race – would I do the same?

     No, of course not.  There are several glaring errors of thought required to reach her conclusion, several unjustified leaps of logic.

aliens-peace

     First, technological superiority does not imply moral superiority.  Simply because aliens are more advanced scientifically does not mean that they are more “advanced” ethically.  You encounter this thinking often in science fiction; the notion is that civilizations which divert resources into constant, intra-species strife lack the resources for the development of interstellar travel.  The conclusion is that, therefore, any extraterrestrials likely to reach us are probably going to be some hippy-dippy, beatific, highly pacifistic race which has “evolved” past war.  

     This is completely bogus.  If human history is any example, war is a great engine of technological progress, not an impediment to it.

     More than that, the fact of the approaching alien fleet almost certainly tells the morality of the approaching alien fleet: any race willing to conquer an alien planet and either enslave or exterminate another intelligent species is not pacifistic.  They are not morally superior to us; they are not better or kinder.  They are, to put it simply, as evil as we are.

     The last problem is this: that you are capable of evil does not mean that you necessarily deserve death.  It does not mean that you are capable only of evil and not capable of good, that evil and evil alone defines you, or that individuals among your population are incapable of living entirely good lives.  A species like ours which carries its capacity for evil within it, innate and unchanging, may also carry a like capacity for good, just as innate and just as ineradicable.  And each generation of that species should be given the chance to choose their own goodness over their own evil.

     So, after much thought, I have decided that, when the time comes, I will not help extraterrestrials exterminate humankind.  It was a tough call, but I’m going to throw my lot in with us.  I still think we’re our own best bet.

The three novels of the ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past‘ trilogy are: ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End.

Featured Image:

From the 1996 movie ‘Independence Day

It Definitely Follows

Review of ‘It Follows

I finally, after many weeks of reading reviews and absorbing buzz, went to see ‘It Follows’.

Horror fans, of which I am one, tend to maintain a carefully calibrated set of expectations.  Horror movies can be characterized according to several sub-genres, all of which observe certain tropes and obey certain rules.  Movies rarely transcend their sub-genre, and part of enjoying horror movies is appreciating the limitations and traditions of these categories.

But it’s nice to see something a little different once and a while.  ‘It Follows’ is unusual in a couple of ways: the premise is unfamiliar and completely unexplained: the creepiness is simply allowed to exist – it is never demystified or justified.  There is no reveal: it’s an alien!  It’s a demon!  It’s a girl who was drowned!  It’s a cyborg!  It simply is, and must be contended with.

But perhaps the most novel thing about ‘It Follows’, the genre convention which is most surprising in its abandonment, is this: the teenage characters in it do relatively few stupid things.

Stupid actions done by teenagers are the sine qua non of horror plots.  Split up the group, go explore the weird noise alone, break into the boarded-up asylum, don’t check under the bed, in the closet, or behind the door: without this basic toolkit, pretty much no horror movie could advance its plot.

And that’s fine, but it gets a little old: you watch a blonde in a crop top walk into another obvious trap, and you think, “Haven’t these people ever seen a horror movie?  Can’t she hear the ominous music?”

But what’s cool about ‘It Follows’ is that, with one or two exceptions, most of the kids in the movie act exactly the way you would act if you or someone you knew had contracted a sexually-transmitted zombie.

The central problem, besides the zombie, obviously, is this: how, exactly, could you come to be sure that something was following you?  If it could take any form, and could only walk after you, that thing would kill you long before you even knew you were being chased.  And how would you ever convince anyone else, your friends and family, who couldn’t even see it?

It Follows’ deals with this efficiently and well, getting the first part, convincing the main character, Jay (played by Maika Monroe), of her danger, out of the way with plenty of time leftover to watch that creepy thing walk after her.

And it’s really creepy.  Because the creature walks everywhere, you must adjust your horror-movie expectations again: you are no longer looking into shadows waiting for something to spring out at you – rather, you spend the movie scanning crowds, like a secret service agent, looking for someone, anyone at all, walking in a straight line.  The thing follows Jay to public places, schools, beaches, and it comes day and night.  And because she’s not safe anywhere, you’re not safe anywhere.  You can’t relax and wait for the normal cues to alert you that trouble is coming – trouble is always coming, slowly, but inexorably, in any guise it chooses.

All of which makes ‘It Follows’ the best horror movie I’ve seen in a while, certainly the scariest.  I saw it days ago, and I won’t lie: I’m glad Spouse wasn’t away at all this week.  I’m not a kid anymore  – it’s an unusual horror movie that leaves me uneasy in my mind.  This was one.

“One Half the World Fools and the Other Half Hypocrites”

A Disgression on ‘ How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions‘, by Francis Wheen.

I’m reading a genuinely scary book: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen.  It’s a catalog of the absurdities and errors which, according to the author, characterize the thinking of modern Western man: post-structuralism, catastrophism, Reaganonimcs, alternative medicine, &c.

Two years ago, this book would have made me feel smug.  I suffer from none of the pernicious un-reasons which afflict the men and women in this book, despite the fact that many of them are actually smarter than I am.  I try to be empirical, and I think I largely succeed (but, then, again, obviously, everyone thinks they’re empirical).

Two years ago, I would have read How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and shaken my head in self-satisfied dismay about how stupid and gullible other people are.  But that was before I took a spin class.

I’ve taken one spin class, a little over a year ago.  I really enjoyed that one spin class I took, although I would never describe it as pleasant.  It was in a small dark room filled with bikes armed with excruciating sharp little seats.  The music was thumpy and very loud and there was an extremely fit woman in the front shouting at us.

But it was encouraging shouting.  This woman with insanely muscular arms kept yelling at me that I was beautiful, that I was killing those hills, that I could definitely do another, that I was looking really great today.

These were all lies, or at least, none of these things were objectively true.  I didn’t look beautiful or even great – I looked horrible, like a sweating person in bad pain who wasn’t going to be able to sit comfortably for a week.  And I was not “killing” the “hills”  – I was lurching up them in near-despair.

Nevertheless, I believed everything the woman screamed at me that day.  Somehow the dark and the music and the numbing pain and the arms and the yelling combined to make me love that shrieking woman, and I would have followed her into battle if she had asked me.  Yet I remember that somehow, in the dank thrumming spin room, it managed to occur to me how cultish my feelings were.

I didn’t care at all – I was having a blast.  But it was humbling: I was susceptible to spin class-level manipulation, which is not, let’s face it, super-sophisticated.  And I knew I was being manipulated, and it still didn’t matter to me: feeling pumped in that moment was worth more than occupying my precious intellectual high-ground.

I don’t think I betrayed the Enlightenment by enjoying my spin class.  But we all abandon the strict precepts of reason every once in a while to make our world a little more comfortable.  That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it admirable: ideally, we would all be empirical all the time.  We would be data-driven: we would not believe what is not true, and when we do not possess sufficient data, we would remain agnostic.

But someone who actually did that would be insufferable.  We must act on what we believe we know and we must, in a world of contradictions, at some point choose to believe something: I chose to believe in that moment that I was a hill-crushing goddess.  I think that the best that we can reasonably do is change our minds when new information requires it: when I saw myself in the mirrors in the hallway after class, I quickly revised my estimation.  We’re all going to turn out to have been wrong about much of what we believe, whether we like it or not – in the meantime, we might as well spin.

Title quotation by Thomas Jefferson. Featured image, from Thomas Paine’s Age Of Reason, taken from rationalrevolution.net.

“The Perfect Love Affair Is One Which Is Conducted Entirely By Post”

A Review of ‘The Affair‘ on Showtime

This post contains spoilers and refers only to Season 1.

I’ve been binge-watching the first season of ‘The Affair’, which is a T.V. show about a likeable but resentful married man, Noah (played by Dominic West), who has an affair with a unlikeable but fuckable married woman, Alison (played by Ruth Wilson).  The show, which seems to have gotten mixed but largely positive reviews, has some problems: there’s a whole lotta plot for not a ton of pay-off, and everyone spends a lot of time in Montauk looking agitated and unresolved.

But there are some things I really like about ‘The Affair’, and one of those things is the relationship between Noah and his wife Helen (played by Maura Tierney).  It seems, despite his affair, like a happy relationship, a long and companiable marriage between two people who essentially like each other.

Normally, when a relationship with a cheating member is depicted on T.V., the blame for the infidelity is put, in part, on the spouse cheated-on.  They are cold; they are mean.  I appreciate that ‘The Affair’ is willing to have a spouse step out on a good relationship.

Or I did like that, until, in the middle of the first season, Helen learns about Noah’s affair, and, in couple’s therapy, comes out with this little speech:

“”Do you know why I married you?”

“Because you love me?”

“I thought you were safe…Do you remember how quiet you used to be?  You got paralyzed if there were more than three people in the conversation.  I mean, you only spoke to me; everyone else thought you were mute.  And I could have had anyone, when I was young – I’m sorry if that sounds crass, but it’s true, and I chose you.  And I knew you were never going to be President or famous or rich, but I didn’t care about that because I had a rich, famous father and he’s such a fucking asshole and you adored me.  I knew you would never cheat; you wouldn’t leave and you would be a good father and we would have a nice life and we would grow old and die together and everyone would talk about how lucky we are and what a smart choice I made.””

This is some bullshit right here.

She’s horrible!  For the entire first half of the first season, she’s been doing a very good impression of a devoted wife and mother, but she fooled you!  She’s a narcissist – she only chose him because she thought his mediocrity would trap him with her and make her look good by comparison.  Their life, their marriage, their children, all were props in her one-woman show: Smart Choices of Helen Solloway.  She is revealed as moral monster.

There was no good reason to pathologize this character or this relationship this way.  It shows an intolerance for the fact that most humans are complicated.  If a husband (or wife) is unfaithful, it does not mean that their spouse must be secretly awful.  There are plenty of people who like, or even love, their spouses, and still cheat on them.  Not every unfaithful spouse is escaping a rotten marriage: people get bored, or lazy, or have some other existential crisis, or they meet someone else they really, really want to have sex with.

In order to make sure that we stayed with Noah, that we continued to care about his story, they threw his wife under the plot bus: they made her the villain so that his fidelity would make sense.

But infidelity already makes sense – it doesn’t need explaining.  Anyone who has ever wanted to have sex understands the idea of wanting to have sex with someone else.  And it’s an old and cheap trick, making the wife emotionally responsible for the husband’s failing.  It’s retrograde and stupid.

And I can’t help but notice that while Helen, Noah’s wife, must bear the weight of his error, Alison’s husband Cole (played by Joshua Jackson) is allowed to remain sympathetic.  In each relationship, it is the woman who is ultimately responsible for the infidelity

The Affair’ got a lot less interesting when it decided to make Helen horrible.  Before, things were murky and hard and muddled.  There were four complicated people in a mess, and the fact that the mess was of their own construction did not mean that I did not feel for them; now, there are only irritating people acting badly.  The show is flat now, and I can’t seem to care anymore who sleeps with whom, or leaves whom, or knows what.  They can all go to hell in a handbasket for all I care, and good riddance.

Features image from imdb.com.  Title quotation by George Bernard Shaw.

Death By a Thousand Screens

Digression on ’15 Million Merits’, in Season 1 of ‘Black Mirror

In the first season of the show ‘Black Mirror’, in the second episode, titled ‘15 Million Merits’, the episode’s main character, Bing, faced with a panel of judges on a ‘Britain’s Got Talent’-esque reality show, comes out with a speech, of which this is an excerpt:

“Show us something real and free and beautiful – you couldn’t.  It’d break us.  We’re too numb for it.  Our minds would choke.  There’s only so much wonder we can bear – that’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions, and only then ‘til it’s augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters, ‘til it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride day-in, day-out – going where?  Powering what?  All tiny cells in tiny screens and bigger cells in bigger screens and fuck you.  Fuck you – that’s what it boils down to is: fuck you.”

Well, actually, pardon me, but fuck you.

I really like ‘Black Mirror’; I think it’s clever, well-made, and well-acted.  And while I don’t mind being preached to about my T.V. consumption, I don’t like the author of that sermon being the T.V. itself.

If you believe that we are all becoming slaves to our T.V. habits, then perhaps you shouldn’t go into television production.  And while I am consuming your product, please don’t lecture me on what a pathological sucker I am for enjoying it.  This is like Pablo Escobar handing you an eightball and saying, “You know, this is really bad for you.”

One possibility is that the maker of ‘Black Mirror’, Charlie Brooker, believes that his show is qualitatively finer stuff than the rest of the dreck that occupies our tiny and big screens, and we, his audience, are meant to be pleased that we are, likewise, cleverer than the bovine masses.  We should be flattered by our own good taste and impressed with our shared acuity.  However, I doubt that the great demarcation between the enlightened and hoi polloi is who is binge-watching ‘Black Mirror’ on Netflix and who isn’t, and I dislike media which attempts to assuage my critical judgement by trying to convince me that I am more sophisticated than I am.

The other possibility is that Charlie Brooker wants to be able to shame us for our screen time while at the same time benefitting from it.  That he has observed, along with everyone else on the planet, that television makes zombies of us, and he wants to preach about that while not losing viewers, and that he is in some measure, a hypocrite.

Presumably, whatever caution he intended to inspire against technology is meant to exempt his own show.  I doubt very much that I was meant to listen to that righteous little speech, smack my forehead in epiphany, turn off my computer, and stop watching ‘Black Mirror’.

And I didn’t; as I said, I like ‘Black Mirror’.  More than that, despite the fact that, in the mouth of a T.V. character, Bing’s speech is smug and pedantic and offensive, it has the insuperable defense of being also right.  And entertaining.  And maybe the message is more important than the medium.  And perhaps the screens are only as evil as the content on them is vapid.

And ‘Black Mirror’ may be self-satisfied, but it isn’t stupid.

Black Mirror is also available on Netflix.

War Must Be, While We Defend Our Books Against a Destroyer Who Would Devour All

I have seen the hill on which I die; I have seen the banner which flies above it.  I have read the words on that banner, the same words which will, I expect, adorn my tombstone, words which have never made anyone better loved but which have become a mantra, words which I have spoken a thousand times in vain: “That’s not in the book”.

The third Hobbit movie, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’, is also the worst, a particularly ignominious end to an already-bad trilogy.  The special effects are cheesy, the writing is abysmal, the acting is insufficient, and it is years too long.  However, the most urgent problem, one which is the most pronounced in this third installment, is that it isn’t ‘The Hobbit’!

‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ has characters, scenes, battles, sub-plots, creatures, and romances which are not in ‘The Hobbit’, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and for which lack that book suffers not at all.

I suppose it is the old story: absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Peter Jackson probably had something very like absolute creative power over the Hobbit movies, and the movies themselves have paid the price for that.

It must have required a monstrous, overweening arrogance to roll up to ‘The Hobbit’, a small, cinematic jewel of a book, penned by no less an eminence than Tolkien, and to say, “I know what this needs: Legolas, some elf-on-dwarf action, and yet more roles for Benedict Cumberbatch’.  All of these impulses were badly wrong, and it is startling that they should have been the impulses of the man who adhered so slavishly to the master’s text in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.  Between those movies and these, someone convinced Peter Jackson that he had better creative vision than Tolkien.  He had not.

The Hobbit’ was a tight, sweet little book, which could have made a lovely movie if Jackson had not determined that it be a swollen prelude to the ‘Lord of the Rings’, continuous in tone and character and preposterously identical in length.

But, despite its miserable badness and its total lack of integrity, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’ made nearly $55 million its opening weekend in the United States alone, reaching a worldwide gross of $100 million in only four days.  I am alone on my hill, obviously, one confused and indignant voice talking to absolutely no one: “But none of that was in the book!”

Image taken from tolkienbooks.net.

The Hobbit‘, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

George Orwell Isn’t Angry, He’s Just Disappointed

Review of ‘The Maze Runner

I’m about to do something despicable: I am about to judge a story by its movie.  Obviously, this is not the done thing – it’s like judging a wine by the picture on the label, or a symphony by how comfy the seats in the opera house are.  I can offer only this: I am more disgusted with myself than you could ever be.

I haven’t read The Maze Runner, nor its sequels, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure, by James Dashner.  Let me be the first to admit the possibility that it is a literary masterpiece, plagued by none of the plot difficulties which I am discussing here.

Let me also say that ‘The Maze Runner’ movie is a ton of fun, at least until the climax.

Let me also also say I am going to spoil the ending.  Fair warning.

‘The Maze Runner’ is the story of a group of boys who wake up inside a gigantic mechanical maze with no memory of how they got there.  The maze is patrolled by large, shrieking mechanical bugs, who occasionally sting them with the Rage Virus from 28 Days Later.  To make a long and entertaining story short, they escape, and learn that they have been placed there by a sneaky cabal of Bilderberg-esque scientists (the same exact crew, I believe, who keep chasing poor Alice around in the Resident Evil sequels).

The scientists have the placed the children inside the maze to stop the zombie apocalypse which has swept the population in the aftermath of catastophic global warming (or so we are told in the last five minutes of the movie).  The young men, who might be immune from the zombie-ism (called ‘the flare’), were being studied by the scientists, who apparently needed fMRIs of their brains under…maze conditions.

This is all, obviously, deeply stupid and without any scientific rationale of even tissue-paper thinness.  Putting the potentially immune in a maze is not effective in combatting either zombie-ism or global warming.

[Side note: I can hear some internet asshat now, saying, ‘Scientists put animals in mazes all the time’.  Yes, but not to study disease immunity.]

I understand that peri-adolescent dystopias are all the rage these days, but the global catastrophism added nothing whatever to ‘The Maze Runner’.  In fact, the things which were entertaining about the story, the arbitrary creepiness of the maze, the dynamic among the boys in the face of the unknown, are starker and more interesting without the half-baked reveal of the puppet masters.  Sometimes, creepy stories stand better alone, without context or elaboration.

Dystopias ought to have a point.  The malignancies they depict are meant to have their roots in our own times and places.  They are meant to show us our danger.  ‘Global warming might burn the surface of the earth’ – OK.  Is it scarier, more revealing, more enlightening to add, ‘Global warming might burn the surface of the earth and then someone might put kids in a maze’?  It teaches us nothing, and detracts from an otherwise pleasingly weird story.

By all means, write a terrifying post-global warming dystopia.  Even put a maze in it, if you like.  But connect the two things!  Perhaps an angry group of Republicans has hidden the secret to passing a carbon tax, and a group of young men must find their way through their labyrinthine conservative thinking to find it!  Perhaps a scientist has found a way to scrub atmospheric carbon, but he has lost it deep in the bowels of a University designed to thwart PETA protestors!  But justify the inclusion of global disaster; don’t just throw it in at the end.