About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman - review with spoilers

I followed up my recent re-read of Heinlein's Starship Troopers by re-reading Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (my copy was signed by Joe way back in 1980, when I first met him... we must both have been so young back then...).

Haldeman's book is often seen as an answer to, or critique of, Heinlein's - and there's some truth in that. But it also owes much to Heinlein's, with similar narrative structures and techniques on display.

The Forever War compellingly depicts the harshness of military training and the sheer terror, danger, and suffering of armed combat; but to be fair to Heinlein, Starship Troopers does not deny or downplay any of these things. They are always present, and even emphasised, yet they are painted with an overlay of anti-glamorous glamour. By that, I mean that there is no glamour in the daily discipline and tasks of a working soldier, as presented by Heinlein - it's all acknowledged as difficult, tedious, demanding, and dangerous - but there's a kind of allure or mystique created around being the sort of person who will step up and embrace this as a form of social responsibility. Haldeman, by contrast, removes even that kind of attraction from his portrayal of military life and all that it involves.

Like Starship Troopers, The Forever War is told in the first person by a narrator who has obviously survived the experiences he describes to us. In each case, the narrative depicts the military career of an individual soldier as he advances through the ranks. There is, perhaps, a grittier feel to Haldeman's prose: more focus on the grim details of training, work, and combat, as if we were there ourselves, with less reflection on the experience from the narrator's current perspective. When, however, that reflection is offered, it comes from a voice that sounds far more bleak and cynical than that of Heinlein's narrator, Juan ("Johnnie") Rico.

By contrast with Rico, Haldeman's William Mandella never comes to appreciate the essential benevolence and wisdom - or the necessity - of the military forces in which he serves. There's no sign of any of this - at most, we can say that some individual officers are personally impressive, and that Mandella encounters some of the difficulties of active command in a war zone. If Starship Troopers can be read as recruitment propaganda, The Forever War is fairly much the opposite.

Most shockingly, however, the eponymous war does not actually last forever (unlike the war against the Bugs in Starship Troopers, it has an ending that is revealed in the book). The shocking part is that the war turns out to have been completely unnecessary, based on a misunderstanding for which human beings, and especially human military leaders, have been mainly responsible. The dreaded and (to humans) visually disgusting enemy - the Taurans - have been the relatively innocent party throughout, while we have been the aggressors from the start.

Whereas Heinlein takes war to be inevitable and beyond moral criticism - its inevitability is an amoral feature of the background against which moral judgments are made - Haldeman presents war not only as Hell (Heinlein also does this, and with almost as much literary force) but as an unnecessary, futile, absurd sort of Hell. Whereas Heinlein depicts high-level military commanders as essentially wise and benevolent, Haldeman depicts them as utterly ruthless in their exploitation of the men and women who serve under them.

Leaving aside its obvious critique of war and the military, The Forever War contains much in the way of social and moral commentary as it depicts the varied mores of several periods in future human history. Because Mandella spends much of his military service in space vessels travelling at relativistic velocities, he effectively keeps time-travelling into the future. That is, in fact, one reason why he renews his military service: there is no place for him in the radically changed human society that he encounters the first time he returns to Earth from a battle with the Taurans. But it also gives Haldeman the opportunity to comment slyly on sexual mores and varied conceptions of freedom.

Perhaps strangely, Haldeman provides a happy ending in a way that Heinlein does not. The war is eventually resolved amicably and abandoned by both sides, and Mandella finally discovers a path out of military service, along with his lover, Marygay Porter. If we don't buy Heinlein's line about the necessity of war, we may actually see the narrative arc of his novel as more pessimistic than that of Haldeman's. (Conversely, the ending of The Forever War feels, to an extent, like a cop-out, given all that we have seen to that point; whatever its weaknesses, and however much its political philosophy might seem untenable or infuriating, no one could make that particular criticism of Starship Troopers.)

Over the past forty years or more, Haldeman has been one of the most respected SF writers among his peers, while also establishing a large fan base. The Forever War shows why he's so admired and popular. He was - and is - a superb exponent of the craft of fiction writing. His portrayals of futuristic equipment and military tactics are especially vivid and convincing. There's always a sense with Haldeman that he's the real deal: as a talented and capable author, and as someone who knows what he's writing about.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Footnotes to Plato

I've accepted an invitation to join the new Footnotes to Plato [edit: "Cogito"] blog at The Conversation. As yet, none of the blog members have dipped their toes in the water and begun writing there, but it's an interesting - and certainly diverse - group of philosophers based at Australian universities. My author profile at The Conversation is here.

I'll link here to any and all future publications of mine that appear on The Conversation's website.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Amanda Marcotte, Black Widow, and Avengers: Age of Ultron

While I'm giving credit to Amanda Marcotte - a cultural commentator with whom I've sometimes disagreed in the past, and one with whom I'll doubtless have disagreements in the future - she also offered some charity and clarity in recently discussing Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Here, the issue was an allegedly sexist representation of the Black Widow, when it's revealed in her dialogue with Bruce Banner that she was forcibly sterilized at the command of her political masters. I share some of Marcotte's annoyance at the frequent valorization of motherhood in our culture, but I also share her understanding that forced sterilization is a terrible event for any woman to have to endure. Moreover, as Marcotte points out, we are given plenty of other information about what else the character was put through in her back story and the deeds she's carried out that make her (in her own eyes) a kind of monster. The attempts to find sexism in the relevant movie scene show an overly hostile or suspicious approach to the movie mixed with (as Marcotte makes clear) a degree of cinematic illiteracy.

Age of Ultron came in for a lot of flak on grounds relating to its supposed sexual and racial politics, but none of the flak really seems to have much merit. In an email exchange with Jerry Coyne, I tried to get clear what the issues seemed to be, and (with my permission) Jerry published my comments in a post a few weeks ago, where he discussed the whole kerfuffle. With one spelling correction, I'll repeat what I said in order to get it all in one place:

I do have some insight into the background, having seen the movie and knowing a bit about the Marvel Comics stories that it draws on. There seem to be four things that have led to the attacks:

1. The movie is as violent (in a stylised way, etc.) as you’d expect of a superhero movie. There’s a scene, as I mention in my review, where it makes some fun of male competitiveness, etc., but as you’d expect a lot of it consists of battle scenes. [Jonathan] McIntosh has been banging on about this on Twitter: “toxic masculinity” and so on.

2. The main female superheroine is the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. In her backstory, she was a Russian spy, trained to be a perfect/near-superhuman assassin before she turned good, etc., etc. Some people seem to object to the revelation that she was trained and brainwashed from childhood, which I suppose might arguably deny her agency and responsibility or something. Second, she is captured at one stage by the villain – the malevolent artificial intelligence, Ultron – creating a “damsel in distress” situation. Third, it’s revealed that she was forcibly sterilised as part of the process of brainwashing/training her. In a scene with Bruce Banner (the Hulk), with whom there’s a romantic sub-plot, she reveals this, and she comments that both of them are monsters. This has been taken to indicate that Whedon thinks that women who can’t bear children are monsters. In context, that’s not what she’s saying at all. She’s reassuring him, in response to his fear that any children he had would be freaks, that she can’t have children anyway. She also tells him that both of them are, in their ways, monstrous.

3. At one stage Tony Stark/Iron Man – who is always a bit of an ass – apparently jokes (I missed this entirely) that if he were in charge he’d institute the right of primae noctis. This is apparently viewed as a rape joke.

4. Whedon is supposed to be a racist for presenting two characters – Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch – as Eastern European but not of any other particular ethnicity beyond the fictional Balkan country they are from. In the comics, they were long supposed to be the children of Magneto (who is Jewish) and his Roma wife, and they were brought up as Roma. Eliding this supposedly makes Whedon/Marvel Studios racist. I liked the connection with Magneto myself, and I regret that Marvel has now altered it in the comics as well, but much of what is going on here relates to intellectual property rights. The movie rights to Magneto are held by FOX, not by Marvel Studios. The IP thing with these companies/properties is a mess.

Some of these points about the movie could be worth civil, subtle discussion by aficionados, but nothing in them could possibly excuse the way Whedon has been abused.

I don't propose to go more deeply into these points. Some might be arguable, or at least worth discussion, but they are all dubious, and, once again, at a minimum none merit the abuse that was handed out to Whedon on Twitter.

For the sake of completeness and fairness, I should note that Whedon subsequently played down the abuse as a factor in his decision to leave Twitter. I gather that many people think this was disingenuous, but I'm inclined to take it more or less at face value. It seems that it was not just the abuse on this particular occasion that got Whedon to leave so much as Twitter's ongoing effect in distracting him - not only the abusive comments, but even comments expressing praise. As he says (see below), he is used to being "attacked by militant feminists" so that in itself would not have run him off Twitter.

That makes sense to me. Twitter can, indeed, be irritating and distracting. To be honest, I sometimes feel that it's bad for me, helping make me a more anxious, exhausted, distracted, bad-tempered person than I want to be ... and I'm sometimes tempted to leave it, even though I find it useful.

Still, none of that excuses the abuse Whedon received, even if that particular wave of inexcusable abuse was not, in some simple, direct cause-and-effect way, the cause of his departure.

I don't necessarily agree with every point Whedon makes about the internet, Twitter, and the current culture wars, but I must also note (and I share) his exasperation with feminists and liberals who waste time and resources by attacking their allies rather than showing solidarity:
"Believe me, I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That’s something I’m used to. Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause."
Yes, quite. Later in the same interview, he expresses frustration at the endless, politicized hyper-analysis that he receives:
"I’ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically," he said. "Because suddenly that’s the litmus test for everything you do — for example, in my case, feminism. If you don’t live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one instance, then you’re a misogynist. It circles directly back upon you." 
That noted, these issues do need to be discussed. But they can be discussed carefully and charitably, with some media literacy (such as I've praised Marcotte for) and without the layers of hostile parsing and decrying, and the "hate and then hate and then hate".

Finally, Marcotte's piece makes a fair point - which I've also made in the past - that it would help if there were more women in leading roles in, for example, movies based on Marvel's Avengers. I'm pleased that there will be a movie based on Captain Marvel, a character I've wanted to see in the Marvel/Disney movies for a long time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein - review with spoilers

Following yesterday's post about Starship Troopers, I finished reading the book. To keep all this in one place, I'll self-plagiarise, with small adjustments, some of what I said yesterday, before making some observations about the book as I encountered it this time round. I need to talk about some of its overall structure, which inevitably means that there will be spoilers for people who have never read it.

Starship Troopers is one of Robert A. Heinlein's most loved, yet most reviled works. It won Heinlein a "best novel" Hugo Award in 1960, but it is despised by most academic critics and many others.

From my viewpoint, it is a key novel in Heinlein's oeuvre, but also in science fiction's tradition as a literature of ideas. Does that mean I actually agree with its ideas? No. But the book is written off by many people who seem unwilling to grapple with its merits, its philosophy, and its complexities. Up to a point, it can reasonably be viewed as militarist propaganda. At the same time, it is an important and thoughtful didactic novel that deserves careful, imaginative engagement - and some close attention and nuanced discussion.

The book features an ongoing interstellar war between humankind and the alien "Bugs", but it does not portray the Bugs' ultimate defeat. As the novel ends, the war continues, despite some military successes for the human side. It is also notable that no justification is given for the war beyond the rival territorial ambitions of the two species. The implication is that war is inevitable, and must be accepted - and we must plan accordingly. Moral systems that condemn war outright or justify it only in narrow circumstances (as in the scholastic tradition of just war theory) are non-starters. For Heinlein, it seems, morality has to work with inevitabilities, and warfare is one of them. That is going to be an unpalatable message for many of us, and to that extent the book deserves its reputation for militarism.

If the story is not of military victory against the odds, what is it really about? The narrative voice gives us a clue: it is narrated in the first person by its protagonist, Juan Rico, who clearly survives the action and is now reflecting - from a position of greater wisdom and self-understanding - on his own life trajectory. He tells a story of the formation and building of a military officer, from his confused decision to enlist through the accumulation of events that moulded him into a man who can lead other fighting men.

Thus, the story is not humanity's war against the Bugs, but, rather, an individual's psychological (as well as physical) growth through hardship and dedication. As Rico undergoes the rigours of military training and combat, he learns - and we are shown - that military life is an honourable and (if things go well amidst the dangers) satisfying choice. Again, many of us may find that an unpalatable message - one that we might naturally tend to resist - but Heinlein builds an impressive case: this is done not so much through the book's heavy-handed passages of debate and instruction as through the accumulation of events that we share with Rico as he endures and matures.

Rico tells us about the events in a way that is slightly distanced from them - there is a certain amount of personal reflection woven through his narration, and the prose is not quite as thick and gritty as we might expect from a third-person style of narration focused on the character's moment-by-moment thoughts and perceptions. Nonetheless, we are shown the hardships of military life in considerable detail; indeed, Heinlein ups the ante by presenting us with a military system that is supposed to be extraordinarily efficient, but also very brutal by modern standards, with routine use of flogging as a punishment. (Some of the most off-putting material in the book, from my perspective, is rather crude propaganda for corporal punishment, not only in the military but also in the process of child-rearing.)

Notoriously, Starship Troopers portrays a society in which the right to vote is granted only to retired military personnel - not necessarily those who fought on the frontline, but anyone who volunteered for service and successfully served out their term. This limited franchise is defended not as a reward for virtue or as a recognition of any form of intellectual superiority (the latter idea is explicitly dismissed); rather, the idea is that those who volunteered and served have demonstrated they are exceptionally responsible people who place the welfare of the many ahead of their own personal safety. Thus, they can be trusted with the vote. Supposedly, this system works well in producing wise political decisions.

Since the story is set in the future, Heinlein can postulate new developments in human knowledge, not limited to technological advances. Most importantly, moral philosophy has supposedly become a mathematically exact science. This is bluff, of course, and despite much talk of mathematical demonstrations the classroom debates that we are shown involve rather banal and sloppy arguments. Still, this device enables Heinlein to suggest the possibility of a single true moral theory (at least for human beings) based on various levels of survival: individual, familial, social, etc., up to the level of the species itself. Just how all this is supposed to be reconciled is never explained (perhaps just as well!), but we're assured that the future society can somehow justify all its political structures and decisions, including the various rituals, customs, and quirks of the military.

Although this is bluff, it works to the extent that what we are actually shown (or at least told about in detail) is consistent with the sketchy theory. Rico really does seem to mature as events move on for him, the military forces of humanity really do seem to operate efficiently, the regime of harsh training and discipline seems justified insofar as it produces desired results, and so on. All of this could doubtless be criticised from numerous viewpoints - not least one that notes an element of sentimentalising of senseless violence - but the book is, by and large, successful on its own terms. At a minimum, it is a highly skilled exercise in recruitment propaganda: it shows military life as hard, rigorous, and unglamorous, yet gives that a sort of glamour or allure of its own.

No one could claim that Starship Troopers is an anti-war book that merely shows the honour and the plight of the troops. It openly embraces the necessity of war. Again, that might be an unpalatable (and perhaps untenable) message. However, some critical readings or comments that I've encountered strike me as exercises in avoidance of the book's genuine literary skill and power. Even potentially embarrassing scenes, as when Rico's forty-something father follows his son into military service near the end of the book, are handled rather deftly.

Starship Troopers was rejected by Scribner's for its series of juveniles by Heinlein, and, indeed, despite its relatively young protagonist, this does not feel like a book written primarily for an adolescent market. For younger readers, it offers something of the mystique of military life, but it is also a novel of ideas - primarily ideas in political and moral philosophy - aimed at an audience of all ages. Palatable or not in its ideas and its occasionally over-explicit didacticism, it puts science fiction tropes to serious use in examining deep questions about the nature of a good society and a good life. It merits thought, and perhaps even some hostile scrutiny, but it is not an achievement that we can dismiss.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Currently reading Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

It is many, many years since I read this novel, which is one of Heinlein's most loved and most reviled works. Starship Troopers won Heinlein a "best novel" Hugo Award, but it is despised by most academic critics and many others.

From my viewpoint, it is a key novel in Heinlein's oeuvre, but also in science fiction's tradition as a literature of ideas. Does that mean I actually agree with its ideas? No. There is much, I think, to view with horror! Yet, this book is written off by many people who seen unwilling to grapple with its merits, it philosophy, and its complexities. Up to a point, it can reasonably be viewed as militarist propaganda. But at the same time, it is an important and thoughtful didactic novel that deserves careful, imaginative engagement and some nuanced discussion. I have about 50 pages to go, and I'll give it some sort of review very soon.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Amanda Marcotte on Game of Thrones - major spoilers if you click on the links

Amanda Marcotte is undoubtedly not my favourite cultural commentator, and she sometimes takes serious missteps. There will be times when I'll want to criticise her judgment. This, however, is not one of those times.

Credit to her where it's due: whatever her faults and past mistakes, she sometimes shows an appreciation of contemporary art and entertainment that is superior to most. At her best, she has an ability to see and explain the complexity of what's in front of her nose when she's looking at, say, a statue, a movie, or a television episode. When she's in the zone, she resists vulgar, crassly politicized interpretations, rather than trying to rationalize them; yet she still provides some sharp commentary.

This week, while many other people were writing pretentious, censorious pieces about Game of Thrones - often seeming to rationalise essentially irrational responses - Marcotte wrote a couple of Slate articles that largely defend the show, and specifically defend its most recent episode.

I don't necessarily accept every general point that she makes in (major spoilers in the link!) the first of these pieces, although where she is critical of GoT I do see the basis for her argument. However (same warning about major spoilers), the second article gives the first more credibility: it is exactly right - exactly what was needed in the circumstances - and it shows a strong intuitive and intellectual understanding of the TV series' dramatic intentions. That gives her more credibility in general.

If she can keep producing analyses as detailed, careful, and critically sensitive as the second of these pieces, in particular, then more strength to her arm.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Ben Radford reviews Mad Max: Fury Road - and some thoughts about media franchises

Ben Radford has a good review here. Watch out for spoilers!

Toward the end, he has some interesting observations about tried and true franchises, with a plethora of movies coming out this year from the likes of Terminator, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park:

As I walked out of the theater, however, I noticed ads for upcoming films whose franchises began many decades ago, including Jurassic World, Star Wars, and the Terminator. As long as there's an audience for these characters and stories, the films will continue to be remade and inspire sequels (don't think for a moment that Peter Jackson's seemingly insuperable version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy won't be superceded in ten or twenty years by a new director with a different vision and a whole new suite of computer-generated tools at her disposal; similarly, the next generation will almost certainly have a Harry Potter not played by Daniel Radcliffe). There's nothing inherently wrong with this, aside from the countless new and original screenplays that would make great films if the studios were willing to take a chance on something that hadn't already proven to be a moneymaker.


Yup. I think some of these franchises have become so popular, and continue to generate stories, because they each speak to something deep in us - or at something least deep in Western culture. Just what that might be will vary in each case, but they have all become culturally resonant, iconic, almost mythic narratives, and it is difficult to create new stories and characters to compete with them for the public's imaginative investment.

Still, it happens. Look at the iconic status that has now been achieved by Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire, if you prefer the prose fiction version). There will always be new ideas for characters, worlds, and situations that also achieve this kind of near-mythic status, but it's a challenge. Many very good ideas will likely fail just because of timing, failures of execution, and the like. But others will succeed imaginatively and commercially.

For a time, I wrote media tie-in novels with a bit of success - at least enough success to show that I can do the job competently and that I sort of know what I'm talking about with all this. The Terminator trilogy that I produced about 12 years ago gained some credibility with fans, but my King Kong novel, Kong Reborn, really had no impact - not because there was anything terribly wrong with it (I believe) so much as its timing. It appeared shortly after the tragic death of Byron Preiss, who had commissioned it, and shortly before his publishing empire went bankrupt. (Meanwhile, my main interests were moving in other directions.)

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to work with some of our era's great iconic characters and to create some characters of my own for their worlds. As for King Kong... Radford's point certainly applies. I expect that sooner or later someone will have another go at a King Kong movie, superseding the rather impressive 2005 one directed by Peter Jackson. Meanwhile, there's a sort of prequel, Kong: Skull Island, scheduled for release in 2017. I'll look forward to it.

Currently reading Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction by H. Bruce Franklin

This 1980 study of Robert A. Heinlein and his work is still valuable, though Heinlein went on to publish another four novels, including a very solid SF adventure novel, Friday, and an amusing, Hugo-nominated fantasy, Job. Nothing about that late body of work, however, invalidates Franklin's approach.

Franklin is especially good at explicating Heinlein's fiction against the background of socio-political currents in the US during the period from the 1930s to the 1970s. Sometimes his readings seem politicized to the extent of overreaching and distorting, but Franklin usually wears his Marxist political ideology lightly (and where it does show through, it leads him to opinions, such as those relating to the ills of post-war US foreign policy, that actually strike me as persuasive).

Some of the gems include a careful account of why I Will Fear No Evil (perhaps my least favourite Heinlein book, and Franklin seems to dislike it even more) found and entertained a large audience, and a detailed, relatively sympathetic, thematic analysis of The Number of the Beast. The latter is a book that I should dislike on principle, with its endless self-reference and apparent self-indulgence... and yet, the characters are fun and likeable, and the story can be enjoyed on its own terms if you're sufficiently a fan of Heinlein's earlier fiction and the other SF and fantasy worlds that are endlessly referenced. Someone approaching it without that background would, I imagine, be hopelessly lost and quickly out of patience with it.

I wasn't sure how useful a 35-y.o. critical study of Heinlein would be. I'd dipped into Franklin's book many years ago (I think... I read a lot of SF criticism in some earlier phases of my life), but it made no lasting impression. However, it does offer thoughtful, plausible perspectives on Heinlein's fiction, identifying elements that might be elided in less historically and politically savvy readings. It is written straightforwardly - to provide information and express ideas, rather than impress with its author's cleverness and erudition - and it will have insights for almost any student or fan of Heinlein's work. It's fitting that this is still considered an important book its field.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hugo Awards voters packet

I've just downloaded most of what is in the Hugo Voters Packet, which became available to members of the World Science Fiction Convention a couple of days ago. Although it's now most unlikely that I'll make it to the Worldcon in Spokane (a pity, but that's the way it goes), I do intend to vote for the Hugo Awards, at least in what I still think of as the main categories: i.e., the various categories of prose fiction.

I'll be reading as much of the material as I can, and I'll be voting squarely on what seem to me the merits of what I read. As is well known, there has been much controversy over the Hugos this year, and some people are even urging that we all vote for No Award in many of the categories. In my opinion, that would be an extreme reaction. It's unfortunate if some outstanding material has not ended up on the nomination lists because of politicized campaigning by some parties, but as long as there is material that I consider good enough to deserve an award I'll vote for it.

The Hugos have always been partly a popularity contest - i.e. popularity within the amorphous (but somewhat consistent) group of people who join the Worldcon from year to year. Very often, awards have been won by work that was probably not the best of the year, judged by the criteria that professional critics might use. And often, I expect, some deserving work has been overlooked. (That certainly applies to other popular awards with which I have some experience!)

Whatever the extent of the genuine problems, there has been a massive overreaction this year by a group of people (or, seemingly, two rather different groups of people) who are disenchanted.

I can think that those people have greatly exaggerated whatever real problems existed with the Hugos - and that they have made things worse by introducing an unprecedented level of blatant, politicized campaigning - without  wanting to take part in a campaign of retaliation that could destroy the awards. Further: I can think that those people are probably wrong, misguided, thinking about the issues ahistorically, acting counterproductively, etc., while also thinking that they, or at least most of them, are decent, sincere individuals who are doing their (misguided) best and may even have identified some good material that would normally be overlooked. As to the latter, we'll see. Meanwhile, some of these people have been subjected to personal vilification and abuse, harassment, and even death threats; there is utterly no place for any of this.

Once again, in any event, I plan to play it straight. I will vote for material on its merits, and I'll try to review some of it here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road - shortish review with various vague spoilers

You are warned about the vague spoilers.

Okay, I loved this movie, though it will not be for everyone. Most of the action consists of two long, epic, expertly directed road battles. The pace seldom lets up, and if this causes a problem it's just that the various crashes, gunshots, explosions, and hand-to-hand beatings take place with such unrelenting speed and density that you need to concentrate to keep up.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a quintessence of its franchise - think of the vehicular battle scenes in Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome dialed up to eleven.

Indeed, if this movie had appeared in the late 1980s we might have wondered what was the point. Although it is even better than its predecessors in its loud, catastrophic, metal-wrenching effects - all set against a stark, hot, dusty desert backdrop - there is a sense in which it would once have been simply more of the same, or even a kind of devolution. But appearing thirty years after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Fury Road is not so much a repetition or a dumbing down as a brutally beautiful distillation.

Importantly, the movie stands on its own. Anything you need to know about the background is conveyed transparently enough, without a need to see any of the earlier instalments of the series. Thus, it's an entry point: younger viewers could watch it, then go back and enjoy the original three movies, treating them more or less as prequels.

The events of Fury Road could, indeed, take place at any time after the original Mad Max. I.e., there is little to suggest that they happen after the events of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: for all we know, they could happen even before Mad Max II, or between it and Beyond Thunderdome. This is not about further development of Max Rockatansky as a character so much as another example of Max getting caught up in a series of events in which he emerges as a culture hero - contributing to one of the new, more civilized societies that supersede the brutal epoch of warlords following a nuclear apocalypse triggered by warfare over oil.

If anything, Max seemed younger to me than he did in Beyond Thunderdome (though Mel Gibson was somewhat younger at the time than Tom Hardy is now). Messing things up for anyone who wants internal consistency and realism, it becomes clear that a considerable time (seemingly a couple of decades or more) has passed since the events of Mad Max... and yet, the hero does not seem much older. Never mind: it has never been crucial to this franchise that we are able to reconcile the larger framework of events in a literal way. More generally, the Mad Max franchise thrives on symbolism and visual aesthetics rather than any commitment to continuity.

As is now widely known, the plot of Fury Road involves an effort to rescue a handful of "wives" (basically sex slaves) of a crazy theocratic warlord, Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Burn, who also played the Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Immortan Joe is, more or less, the Australian desert's answer to Darth Vader.

The five beautiful, scantily-clad young women (scarcely, it appears, more than adolescent girls) are initially timid and helpless (not to mention more or less interchangeable) as spectacular battles are fought over possession of them. As events continue, however, they become much more than eye candy for the gaze of whoever is interested: they are gradually differentiated as individuals, while also being shown as pulling themselves together, doing their best to assist in the running battles, and gaining in determination, grit, and competence.

Charlize Theron co-stars as Imperator Furiosa, a high-ranking functionary for Immortan Joe who commandeers his massive "war rig" to transport herself and the wives to safety. Furiosa is a kickass strategist and warrior, though she is not a match for Max himself when they initially come to blows. That episode aside, it's refreshing to see such a formidable female character (think of the Australian desert's answer to Alien's Warrant Officer Ripley). Theron/Furiosa never quite steals the show from Hardy's impressive version of Mad Max, but she is a powerful, likewise impressive, off-sider for him.

Even more refreshing, perhaps, are the tough, brave women from whose clan Furiosa was stolen years before (when she was only a child). Just for once, in a Hollywood movie, we see women of middle (and older) years represented as competent planners, culture builders, and fighters.

Amongst it all, however, Max is the dominant figure. As in the previous movies, he is a complex, dangerous, yet essentially decent man: he is tortured by what he has seen and done in a terrifying past, extraordinarily competent in all the skills and ways needed for physical struggle and survival, and devastatingly destructive to his enemies. Again - as in the previous movies - his talents are all important in defeating the crazies and warlords, enabling a better society to come about. But (again, as in the earlier movies) he does not take part in the new social order for which he has been a catalyst and a liberator. As he edges off at the end, with barely an acknowledgment from the other survivors, he appears doomed to go on roaming the red-and-brown desert, finding sustenance where he can, and endlessly clashing with motorized barbarians and evildoers.

As I observed a decade ago, writing about Mad Max and the Mad Max franchise for The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, "The old civilization had gone, and there seems to be no place for such men in any new one that he has helped bring about."

Latest on Box Office Mojo - Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, and more

The US Box Office this past weekend was dominated by the new musical comedy Pitch Perfect 2, which rode all over Mad Max: Fury Road. The latter nonetheless made a whopping $45.5 million over the weekend, as shown in the actual figures for the weekend (which update/correct the figures in the article I first linked to).

All the box office figures for Avengers: Age of Ultron show it not doing quite as well in the US domestic box office as the original Avengers movie, though it still looks headed for half a billion or more dollars. What interests me about all the figures, though, isn't any of this - it's the monstrous figure tucked away of nearly $160 million for Age of Ultron in its first six days in China. This continues the trend for China to become an enormous, expanding market for Hollywood action movies, especially, but not solely, superhero movies. These are now being aimed largely at the Asian markets, especially China, but also Japan and South Korea - with increasing use of settings in those countries, sometimes with local star actors, and with care taken not to offend local sensibilities.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Shock! Horror! Single random person calls for boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road

I see that this Aaron Clarey person, apparently a men's rights advocate, has called for a boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road on the basis of its supposed feminist message or some such thing.

First, let me say that I would never call for a boycott of a film, song, book, etc., on the basis of what I take to be its message. At most, I might write about it in a way meant to make the message clear and to criticise it. There might be some circumstances in which I'd not see the film, listen to the song, read the book, etc., myself, if, for example, I had some serious objection to the director/singer/author/etc., but I would certainly not try to organise a boycott of some cultural product for its message. That is, in effect, trying to punish and deter speech that I disagree with - it shows an authoritarian, anti-liberal impulse. (Much better, I think, to be positive about good art than get into the game of punishment and deterrence.)

Second, Clarey would probably hate my own fiction - including the novels I wrote for the Terminator franchise some years ago now. Those novels and my other work are notable for their highly capable, kickass female characters, and that was a conscious strategy on my part. I enjoyed creating characters such as Jade Tagatoshi in the Terminator books, Idol Le Saint in "Lucent Carbon" and "Idol", my version of Queen Zenobia in "The Sword of God", and so on. If the powers that be ever made a movie based on my Terminator books (which they are legally entitled to do), Clarey would want to boycott that as well, I suppose.

But third, I hesitate to write this post because so many other people are blowing this incident out of all proportion, as if the silly - and yes, rather authoritarian - proposal of one stray MRA with a platform amounts to some sort of crisis. I'm sure that far more people have read denunciations of Clarey - together with suggestions that his piece represents a cultural crisis - than would ever had read his article in the normal course of events. Furthermore, this publicity is probably helping the box office of Mad Max: Fury Road. Let's keep a sense of proportion.

Edit: Someone on Twitter informed me that "Return of Kings" claims not to be an MRA site. Well, I don't know all the technical terminology of the (Zeus help us!) "manosphere" - however, you don't have to look very far to see that it is, at least, an explicitly anti-feminist site. Whether the site and the author are, speaking strictly, putting an "MRA" position, as opposed to some other bloody sort of (perhaps more extreme) anti-feminist position, was not my point or something I would want to insist on.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Noises off

A month back, I wrote a post in which I said that I'd be taking this blog back to basics - to something more like what it was when it began back in 2006. I noted, though, that I'd be disabling comments, and that I'd have more to say about this.

So far, I'm pleased with the experiment. I'm feeling free to write posts that might have appeal only to a niche audience - without worrying about popularity - and, to be honest, I find it liberating not to have comments. Anyone who reads what I have to say is free to respond on their own blog or elsewhere, but meanwhile I'm finding it much easier to express myself freely and quickly if I don't have to worry about providing yet another online forum.

In the past, my regular commenters were usually thoughtful and civil, but engaging and moderating was nonetheless time-consuming and a distraction from whatever else I was doing. And even then, there were some people who wore me down with negativity, attempted to hijack the blog to promulgate their own lengthy rants, or even (in one case in particular) posted threatening messages aimed at me and my family.

The bottom line is that - at least for the foreseeable future - I plan to avoid all that by using this blog as simply a place to express some views on issues that I happen to find interesting, develop (or merely play with) some thoughts, and record some events in my own life. Hopefully, there are people who will find the mix interesting enough to want to read, but if my approach diminishes the blog's popularity - and if it never regains the audience it had at its peak a few years ago - I'm not going to worry about that.

My attitude is bolstered by my general observation of the current state of debate and discussion within the blogosphere, on Twitter, and more generally in the social media. A great deal of it seems to consist of tribalism, dogma, mutual abuse, and rival attempts at "calling out" and shaming real or perceived enemies, rather than any rational attempt to identify what might be the strong points on various sides of current controversies, what room for common ground or compromise might be available, and what issues are left underdetermined by the available evidence (so that it is most reasonable to suspend judgment, or at least to hold opinions in a tentative and not-very-insistent way).

My general impression is that anyone who attempts to look in a rational, relatively detached, way at issues of current political or cultural controversy is simply going to be attacked from more than one side. Well, I fully intend to express views on some controversial issues. Those views won't please everyone, and some won't please anyone, because I feel that both (or all) sides have at least some legitimate points, and that both (or all) sides are engaging in hyperbole, demonization, and general unfairness.

I'm not usually going to be interested in attacking individual people - when I do criticise individuals, I'll try to do so in a fair and relatively moderate manner, especially if they are not especially powerful and they are merely expressing views that I disagree with. But I'm likely to express a few views of my own that even some of my friends will dislike because (perhaps) of my lack of zeal in a mutual cause, or because of my preparedness to look for the strengths, the legitimate grievances, and so on, in what is being said by opponents. In my view, that's how you make intellectual progress, but I don't fool myself that most people agree with me.

Once again, readers can discuss anything I say in other forums - though I hope they will do so carefully and charitably. In any event, I am not proposing at this stage to provide an additional forum, with all the distraction that goes with it in the current climate. I'll rethink this policy from time to time, but any change is likely to be a long way in the future.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome - more a reflection than a review

I've just watched Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome - released in 1985 and the third movie in the Mad Max series. I hadn't seen it for many years, and I tend to get its events mixed up with those in Mad Max II (1981; known in the US as The Road Warrior). I have a fondness for these movies, partly because I wrote the entry on them - a decade ago now - for The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Indeed, the last time I watched Beyond Thunderdome was probably when I was working on that encyclopedia article.

Max is, as I point out in the article, a dangerous man whose talents are mainly for death and destruction. And yet, he always has close links with children, and in his adventures he becomes a bridge between the ruined, post-apocalypse world that is apparent in the second and third movies in particular and the new societies that emerge from the ruins. (The second and third movies are both narrated by children who have grown to adulthood and become leaders, thanks largely to Max's efforts. For them, he is a kind of culture hero.)

I was interested to watch Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome again, refresh my memory of it and see how it stands up after all this time (surprisingly well). I wanted its feel and its events at the front of my mind because I'm eager to catch the long-awaited, just-released fourth movie in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road. I'll go along and see Fury Road very soon, and I'll report back.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Introductions to philosophy - a couple of useful threads over at Leiter's place

1. A discussion of 25 must-read books before postgraduate study in philosophy. There are different opinions about the classics (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc.) and about modern introductions to the field. What mix would you recommend for someone with a few months for a program of intense reading? (I make a contribution to the thread at one point.) Some of the suggestions sound interesting.

2. A good thread here on advanced (graduate level) textbooks in various areas of philosophy. I'm familiar with the books by Miller and Kymlicka that they are talking about, and these really are important books for students of metaethics and political philosophy (respectively) to come to grips with. A number of the others mentioned in the thread are not familiar to me, while looking useful. One that I clearly should familiarise myself with, but I hereby confess that I haven't read it, is the Mark Murphy book on philosophy of law, published in 2006.

I'm writing this post mainly to bookmark these threads for my own use, but it may be useful to others.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" by Robert A. Heinlein

"The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" is a short novel that was originally published in Unknown Worlds in 1942. It is most easily accessible, as far as I know, as the title story of Heinlein's collection, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. This also includes such classic stories as "'- All You Zombies -'" and "'And He Built A Crooked House'" (in each of these cases, the title of the story includes inverted commas).

Although it's not of great interest to me for the purposes of my forthcoming book on science fiction and the moral imagination, "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" is an amusing story that ultimately takes a dark - almost horrific - turn. It follows a husband-and-wife team of private investigators hired by the amnesiac Jonathan Hoag to discover what he actually does at work during the day (each evening, he forgets the events of the day; he lives a somewhat luxurious lifestyle without knowing where his comfortable salary is coming from).

Although the final pages are frightening, the explanation of Hoag's eponymous "profession" does not seem satisfactory or entirely coherent. There's a vibe here of an author making things up as he went along, though I don't know how carefully the book was planned or revised.

The bottom line for me is that this is a short novel that Heinlein aficianados and SF aficianados can do without. It is lighthearted, almost comic, fantasy that gradually morphs into something more like a horror story. But you can enjoy the ride. It's only a couple of hour of reading, and it rewards the effort.

Judith Shulevitz on "safe spaces" and campus self-infantilization

Here.

This is, of course, in the US context. I've not yet encountered this sort of on-campus craziness in Australia, and perhaps it seems a more prominent feature of American college life than is actually the case. I hope so. All the same, many of the crazy incidents that we hear about each week seem to be real enough. I don't entirely blame the students: somewhere along the line, older generations have conveyed to them that this kind of self-infantilization is normal, reasonable, acceptable behaviour.

I wish it went without saying that higher education institutions should provide milieux in which students expect, and receive, many challenges to their precious, deeply held beliefs - whatever those beliefs might be. Apparently that is now a controversial claim.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Miyazaki's beautiful, troubled dreams

Just quickly - here is a loving, detailed, sensitive discussion of Miyazaki's animated movies, focusing mainly on their anti-war elements, but also on their dreams of graceful flight. This can be seen as another example of the thesis (which I owe to J.P. Telotte) that science fiction narratives (as some of these Miyazaki films are) often have technophobic elements, emphasizing the power of modern technology to degrade and destroy, while simultaneously having a technophilic component. They portray, and perhaps embrace, something of technology's allure.

"Gulf" by Robert A. Heinlein

"Gulf" is a novella that was first published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1949, though it is most readily found in the collection Assignment in Eternity (available in various editions). The title refers to the yawning gulf between ordinary human beings and a new evolutionary breed of supermen.

The story is of special interest as an early attempt by one of the most prominent SF practitioners to explore the implications of people with extraordinary capacities... and how those people might relate to the rest of us. The answer, in a nutshell, is paternalistically: by standing apart from the rest of humanity, forming their own shadowy organisation, and taking decisive, competent action, as and when necessary, to save us from our follies. As acknowledged in the dialogue among its characters, there is a strong anti-democratic theme in "Gulf". It expresses distrust for democratic electorates, public officials, and the agencies of government: modern-day risks have reached a point, Heinlein seems to suggest, where we need ultra-competent people to take charge for our own good.

The novella begins convincingly with a scene where the main character - secret agent Joe Greene, although we yet don't learn this name - attempts to avoid detection by enemy agents. He is, nonetheless, followed and soon captured. Imprisoned, he meets another prisoner, "Kettle Belly" Baldwin, and they communicate by playing a coded card game. Baldwin later turns out to be one of the new breed, and he suspects (rightly) that Joe is also one; as becomes apparent, Joe merely needed recruitment, briefing, and special training.

Heinlein's depiction to this point is concise, well-paced, and fascinating. As it turns out, the new breed of supermen (and superwomen) are characterised mainly by the ability to think with extraordinary swiftness, clarity, and accuracy. Long before this ability is explicitly identified, we see Joe using it as he engages brilliantly and decisively with his enemies.

Unfortunately, the story seems to spiral increasingly out of the author's control. It might, perhaps, have worked better as a full-length novel. By the end, much is being conveyed to us through exposition, long speeches, and reports of off-stage action, all to an extent where the second half of "Gulf" seems amateurish by today's standards for genre fiction. There may be biographical reasons why Heinlein wrote in this way: perhaps he needed to cram the events into far less space than was truly required to convey them (and the weighty themes) via onstage action and dialogue, and through the thoughts and perceptions of the viewpoint character. The skill shown in the opening pages, in particular, suggests that Heinlein was equipped for the creative task, but for whatever reasons he produced a story that is far from an artistic success.

"Gulf" also dates more sadly than much of Heinlein's other fiction from this period - or at least the passage of time dates it severely for me. While I can get into the spirit of a story about Venus and Mars as habitable planets (accepting this partly as a convention, and partly as reflecting the scientific uncertainty about the surfaces of those planets in the 1940s and 1950s), I find it much more difficult to swallow the pseudoscientific gobbledegook in stories, such as "Gulf", that dabble with ideas of Korzybskian "general semantics" dialled up to eleven to suggest that study of general semantics could grant extraordinary mental powers to someone with the right potential. This plot element might have been more acceptable if simply introduced as a kind of magical technology, without ponderous explanations suggesting that we entertain it seriously.

"Gulf" is a story of some historical importance in Heinlein's development as a writer, and in the development of the science fiction genre. It contains some fine, swift-paced superspy writing, but eventually it seems to fall apart under its own weight of themes and events. Once again, it might have worked better if the second half had been expanded to bring the total to full novel length. Alas, that didn't happen, for whatever reasons, and we're stuck with the story as is.

As is well-known to fans of Heinlein, Friday (1982) can be read as a sequel to "Gulf"; it includes Kettle Belly Baldwin among its cast of characters, and it deals, once again, with relationships between ordinary human beings and individuals with extraordinary abilities. I haven't read Friday since shortly after it was first published, over thirty years ago, so I'll be returning to it soon. At the time, I viewed it as a return to form for Heinlein after a sequence of very long and self-indulgent books (beginning in 1970 with I Will Fear No Evil). We'll see how well it has aged. But first, I plan to read (in most cases re-read, since I've read most of Heinlein's body of work), some more of the earlier novels.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein - review with not many spoilers

I picked up Between Planets because it happened to be on the shelf of my university library, not because I have been reading/re-reading Heinlein's books in any systematic order (beyond concentrating, for the moment, on his work prior to the 1960s).

This is, however, a fine example of Heinlein's juveniles (today we'd use the expression "Young Adult novels") published by Scribner's in the 1940s and 1950s, and aimed largely at an audience of teenage boys. Between Planets first appeared in 1951 (initially in serial form and then in book form from Scribner's). 1951 was relatively early in the author's career when viewed from today's perspective, but it was already a few years after the end of the John W. Campbell "Golden Age" of SF. Between Planets was the fifth of the Scribner juveniles, and by 1951 Heinlein's career was well established, even if his most important books (such as Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) were yet to come.

The story is focused on the efforts of a teenager, Don Harvey, to get home to his parents on Mars. Don is attending high school on Earth when war breaks out - as settlers on Venus rebel against Earth's oppressive empire. This rebellion is compared throughout the narrative to the American War of Independence, and we are invited to take the rebels, pretty much uncritically, as the good guys. Some individuals on the rebel side do show flaws, but the rebel forces display decency and restraint throughout the conflict, while their Federation enemies are unscrupulous and even cruel (albeit sometimes cunning and charming).

Don gets caught up in complicated events that involve a long detour to Venus, and extensive efforts to make some sort of life there, while still working out how to get in contact with (and eventually return to) Mars. Not surprisingly, for this kind of story, he ends up playing a vital role in the revolution.

There's little not to love about this well-told tale, which features physically impressive (but always reasonable and kindly) "dragons" from Venus, a lost super-civilization to investigate on Mars, much discussion of revolutionary strategy, and plausible descriptions of interplanetary routes and the required futuristic infrastructure. Thematically, the novels displays Heinlein's concerns with freedom, choice, and the value of all intelligence - human or otherwise.

Between Planets has, of course, dated in many ways. Most obviously, it shows Venus as an inhabitable world, while a more modern version of the story would doubtless offer more to female readers and pay far more attention to the female characters (that said, Don's love interest, Isobel, does get some good showings during various incidents on Venus). If you cannot imaginatively place yourself in the ethos of 1950s SF, the story will not entertain and move you.

Otherwise, it's another good example of why the Heinlein juveniles are loved and revered by many older readers... and can still attract an audience. They are well-made, cleverly worked out, optimistic, and (perhaps above all) respectful to young readers. These novels were already long in print even 40-something years ago, when I was first introduced to them, but if you can get into the right frame of mind they continue to offer much enjoyment.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Leiter Reports, American Sniper, and critique

Disclaimer: I have not seen American Sniper, so I can't make an informed judgment about it. To that extent, what is said below is tentative and provisional.

But much can be said even while bracketing off any final interpretation, or judgment, of the movie itself. This discussion over at Leiter Reports a few weeks ago greatly interested me. The background was that American Sniper was originally to be shown at a University of Michigan social event. This screening was cancelled after protests, although it was apparently still intended to screen the movie separately, accompanied by a discussion of some kind. Ultimately, the initial plan was reinstated.

The University of Michigan debacle raises interesting issues, including issues about freedom of speech, including, in turn, whether the decision whether or not to cancel the screening actually did involve freedom of speech worries at all. In turn, this raises problems about how we are to conceive of "freedom of speech" or "free speech" in current social circumstances. If the course of events at the university did not raise a free speech issue, exactly, was there nonetheless a serious issue of some other kind? Perhaps even if this wasn't about free speech, in some straightforward and classical sense of that concept, there were nonetheless important values favouring going ahead and showing the movie as originally planned. But if so, might some serious countervailing values also have been at stake?

I don't intend to get too deeply into these questions, although I may return to them at some future stage, whether or not I manage to watch American Sniper in the interim.

Meanwhile, a couple of tentative points:

First, the thread on Brian Leiter's blog is actually worth reading, unlike much else in the blogosphere. In particular, a couple of the people disputing manage to reach a certain level of agreement, or at least mutual understanding, right at the end their discussion. The general quality of the interaction helped my faith in philosophers, since everyone managed to stay reasonably civil and thoughtful; and even some of the people with whom I tend (without having seen the movie) to disagree made challenging, well-formulated points.

Second, though, it's disappointing that even among philosophers - who are supposed to be trained to look at issues relatively dispassionately and objectively, to search out the strongest arguments against their own initial positions, to be open to changing their minds if confronted by strong arguments and evidence, etc - there can be a degree of political tribalism skewing debates. In this case, some contributors seem to take it as obvious that American Sniper must be some sort of crude, warmongering movie, and that its attitudes to Muslims and people from the Middle East must verge on those in works of race hate propaganda.

But why make such assumptions, given everything we know about Clint Eastwood's history and his cinematic oeuvre as a director? Why not, more plausibly, expect a movie that would take a broadly anti-war perspective (and particularly a perspective critical of far-flung US military adventures) while simultaneously displaying sympathy for the motivations and the plight of soldiers caught up in the reality of war? Why not expect a movie with impressive layers of moral, psychological, and artistic complexity? Why not expect to be confronted by considerable ambiguity, and to be sent home from the experience teased into thought?

American Sniper might, of course, be a complex cinematic masterpiece while still portraying Muslims, for example, in stereotyped and unfortunate ways. That is not a contradiction. If it's so, it could be demonstrated and explained in a reasonably charitable, critically sophisticated "reading". Although that's very possible, it can't be assumed from the start. And it certainly can't be assumed that Eastwood is a simple-minded political enemy from whom we should expect a work of outright militarist propaganda. He is an expert and brilliant director who does, in fact, have somewhat complicated political views as well as the talent to create powerful, morally ambiguous cinema.

Once again, I suppose I need to see American Sniper for myself, much as war movies are not usually my thing. Perhaps it really is as crass as its detractors claim... but everything I know about Eastwood suggests it's unlikely.

Finally, we are talking about a hugely popular mainstream feature movie: it didn't do all that well outside the United States (not as well as the big superhero movies of its year, for example), but in the US domestic market it was monstrously successful. It was the number one movie at the US box office among those released in 2014 and also among those released in the past 365 days. Perhaps it succeeded commercially on a wave of simplistic patriotism, but most likely not. In any event, American Sniper was very widely watched in the US over the last few months, and the idea that showing it on the University of Michigan campus was endangering anybody is rather absurd.

We are certainly not talking here about a Nazi propaganda film such as Triumph of the Will, and that sort of comparison, where it has been made in public debate, actually does no credit to people who make it. If it has weaknesses or points that are open to critique, it's fair to identify and discuss them, but as part of an informed and imaginatively adequate interpretation.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein - a review with spoilers

It's difficult to say much about this particular book without giving away the overall plot and outcome, so I'm putting spoiler warnings up in lights here.

Read on...

... if that is not a concern.

Double Star is one of four novels to have won Hugo Awards for Heinlein. The others were Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Whatever their particular faults, all four are among the classics of the science fiction genre. They were published over a period of about a decade (1956 for Double Star to 1966 for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and this was the period when Heinlein was a truly dominant force in SF. For those familiar with his work, think how diverse these four books (and others published during the same period) are.

While the title might suggest engagement with vast astronomical objects, that is misleading - as are some of Heinlein's other book titles, such as The Star Beast. Double Star is about an actor who is called on to impersonate a politician who has been kidnapped, and who, after being released, suffers serious illness. The words "double star" can be read in various ways, but of course the actor thinks of himself as something of a "star", and he is a double for the politician. There is plenty of room to take this idea further, though I don't know exactly what Heinlein and his publishers had in mind. At any rate, even when we're in the know, there's a small frisson of pleasure in the contrast between what might be immediately connoted by such a title and what the book actually gives us.

The story is narrated in the first person by the actor - Lawrence Smith, also known as the Great Lorenzo - who is called on to play the role of political leader John Joseph Bonforte. At least on its face, the book uses first-person narration in the classic way: to present the story of someone who has survived life-changing experiences and is now reflecting on them, as well as merely recounting them, from a position of greater knowledge and wisdom than when he began.

Such narratives can also, notoriously, raise questions about the reliability of narrators, how much they have really learned, and so on. Often, an author can give us subtle, or not so subtle, clues about a narrator's unreliability. First-person narratives can also be ambiguous or unstable, insofar as the narrator may actually have learned, and yet we're given intimations of the limits to what has been learned, and that he or she has a (possibly long) way to go.

There are interpretations of Double Star along these more complex lines, but I'm somewhat resistant to them. I just don't think the book is all that complicated, much as it is intelligent and well executed. The narrator starts out as a clever, but also vain and shallow, man who eventually matures - becoming trapped in his role, but also obtaining a degree of wisdom and depth, and certain satisfactions (not least, ultimately marrying the woman who was in love with Bonforte when the story began). Most of the events portrayed take place during a relatively short period in Lawrence's life when he made the switch to (more or less) becoming Bonforte. However, Bonforte dies, the switch becomes permanent, and it becomes clear at the end of the novel that Lawrence is telling us the story from a perspective twenty-five years later. That's probably complicated enough.

Interestingly, there is little in the action that requires a futuristic scenario. A very similar story could have been told involving only events and political machinations on Earth and in the present. I.e., the story could have been a mainstream political and psychological thriller with little adjustment.

True, the political intrigue involves relations between humans and extraterrestrial aliens, but this is quite explicitly analogous to the relations of imperialist Europeans and colonised peoples. Part of Bonforte's political platform is anti-imperialist, in that he favours expansion into space in a way that involves some kind of inclusivity among all intelligent life forms, rather than a kind of speciesist human imperialism.

However, this is secondary to the story's focus on Lawrence's predicament and how he responds to it. Really, almost any vaguely idealistic political viewpoint would have been just as effective for the purpose: all that's needed is that Bonforte's views and (vaguely evoked) policies not be ones that readers would find repellent. If they had been, that would have created a very different and more sombre book (think, perhaps, of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night). As a result, Double Star does, indeed, seem to endorse Bonforte's ideals, and in doing so it contains something of an anti-imperialist message, but at the same time there is a sense that this is not what is important; it is not what is really going on, thematically. We have more a story about individual identity and how it can change, even radically. Again though, it seems to change for the better in Lorenzo's case, making this seem an optimistic story even if its apparent that the narrator has been guided and shaped largely by forces beyond his control.

Heinlein writes with great efficiency, as usual. By this point of his career, in the 1950s, he had mastered many techniques for moving a story along and dealing with challenges. One is his ability to create brief set-piece debates where one character is always a step ahead of the other - and manages to push the other to accept some viewpoint that initially appears odd or unreasonable. Heinlein is skilled at dealing with artistic problems, or potential objections, by using this formula; thus, he resolves difficulties on stage (the theatrical metaphor is especially appropriate for this book) while also getting them out of the way swiftly.

The technique also enables him to show Lorenzo's growth: in the beginning, he is the one who gets bamboozled and browbeaten by characters who are a step ahead of him, but as the action settles down he is increasingly the one who gains a deeper understanding of situations, and soon he is bamboozling and browbeating others.

Double Star is highly regarded by Heinlein fans: in my experience, some prefer it to more famous books by Heinlein, such as the other three novels that won Hugos. Despite its thematic complications, it is, as I've suggested, not all that complicated, and it ends up being a good, rollicking, amusing yarn. There is a simple movement of events: from the beginning when the narrator is asked to impersonate Bonforte to the implied vantage point from which the story is being narrated (a vantage point that is made explicit only in the final few pages).

All in all, this is a lovely little (an ordinary fast reader could whip through it in a couple of hours; I am more distractable, but it didn't take me long) book that deserves its continued classic status. Its main interest, however, does not especially depend on the science fiction elements. It is interesting to see how they do and don't play a role (as it were), and, conversely, to observe how Heinlein dealt with this kind of thematic and psychological material in an SF setting.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Joss Whedon cancels his Twitter account - why?

Joss Whedon has left Twitter: he has cancelled his account. Why? Well, he has not made an explanatory statement, and we always have to be careful before we make assumptions about people's motives. Perhaps, for example, he no longer feels the need to maintain a prominent social media presence. Perhaps...

But at the same time, we can't ignore the fact that the US release (a few days ago) of his latest movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, has led to this kind of abuse and demonization from some quarters. It should go without saying that much of it is deplorable from any reasonable viewpoint ... although it's notable, today, how few people with large footprints on the internet have been prepared to stand up and plainly condemn the viciousness. If it's not clear from what I've said above, I hereby do so. There is no excuse for it.

Whatever Whedon's personal faults may be, and whatever legitimate critiques of Avengers: Age of Ultron may be available from a range of viewpoints, many of the responses on Twitter are unfair, unprovoked, vile, cowardly, and morally despicable, and I utterly, unequivocally denounce and condemn them. This won't prevent me, in the future, from making whatever criticisms of the movie I might think fair and fitting; however, I will always try to show appropriate generosity and charity toward Whedon, as I always do when discussing movies, books, and other such cultural products (and their creators). That attitude is obviously not the case for the people who have attacked Whedon with the poorly evidenced and patently ridiculous claims that he is a racist, a misogynist, etc., etc.

Those terms have not entirely lost their hurtfulness for those of us who support basic ideas of social justice, although they are starting to leak away their meaning as - increasingly - they are applied to decent, gentle, thoughtful people with solid liberal and feminist credentials. They are used as a weapon against precisely those sorts of people because they are the people who can be most hurt by them. It's a case of using words as weapons - of using them to wound - rather than using them accurately.

It's long past time to push back against this.

Taking the point a bit wider... I am very unhappy with the sort of personal nastiness - even against individuals who should be acknowledged, respected, and assisted as cultural and political allies - that has become so prevalent on the internet over the past few years. Again and again, reasonable charity and basic decency are not even factors. Accusations are made in the hope of inflicting psychological wounds and social harm.

Very many people have disappointed me in recent years with their abdication from the realm of rational debate and discussion - preferring the tactics of smearing, abuse, and psychological destruction. The result is a toxic environment for everyone. People trying to oppose it are often poorly organised and confused about what they are trying to achieve, and some of them are prone to counterproductive actions. In certain cases that I won't specify, I am unhappy with the approaches they have taken. Some appear to have unpleasant ideologies and agendas of their own - but who can be sure these days?

This is an unhappy situation, and I'm unsure what can be done about it that might be meaningful and effective. I'll continue to monitor developments, but I don't have to acquiesce in what's happening.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Rocketship Galileo (by Robert A. Heinlein) - a brief review

As I mentioned the other day, I am currently starting a program of reading/re-reading a whole bunch of books by Robert A. Heinlein, and I'll review some of them here as we go.

Rocketship Galileo does not merit a lengthy review, but it is notable for being the first of the Scribner juveniles, written by Heinlein in the 1940s and 1950s. It was published in 1947 - obviously not long after World War II, V2 rocket attacks against England, the Nazi Holocaust, the Manhattan Project, and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of these momentous events were in the immediate historical background - and, indeed, at the forefront of consciousness - for Heinlein's original readers. Conversely, 1947 was well before any meaningful space program by the United States (or even the USSR's dramatic launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957).

Accordingly, Rocketship Galileo is the product of a special time in recent human history, making it dated for contemporary readers. Most notably, perhaps, it hugely underestimates the cost and complexity of real-world efforts to send spacecraft to the Moon, despite Heinlein's efforts to portray a private space program with considerable circumstantial detail and thus a degree of verisimilitude.

In essence, the story is of a successful moon journey arising from the work of a distinguished (though still relatively young) scientist, Don Cargraves, who enlists the help of three teenage boys (they seem to be about 17 or 18) to help him design, build, and fly his nuclear-powered rocketship. On the Moon they discover that a military base has already been set up by a group of Nazis, who have equipped themselves with nuclear weapons and an effective delivery system. These bad guys plan to blackmail the earth's nations to surrender and accept Nazi rule.

Obvious themes include the fear of nuclear war (together with an embrace of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, such as powering electricity grids and space vehicles, e.g. the heroes' eponymous rocketship). Since the bad guys are out-and-out ruthless, totalitarian fanatics, there is no complexity here when it comes to good versus evil. I don't imagine that I'd have much - or anything at all - to say about Rocketship Galileo in my forthcoming book on science fiction and the moral imagination. There's nothing especially subtle or innovative about the book's moral positions apart from the strong interest in nuclear war and its potential for catastrophe.

Nonetheless, whatever its faults, however dated it might be, and however incredible its premise might seem (the idea that a small group of teenage boys could get together with the uncle of one of them to develop a successful space program), the novel is elegantly crafted. Heinlein displays his expertise in moving the action along at just the right pace to make unbelievable events seem somewhat believable, without cheating by solving problems offstage.

There is also a careful balance in giving credit to Cargraves but also to each of the three boys. Cargraves has to be shown as heroic (putting ourselves in the shoes of Heinlein's adolescent male readers, he is the cool, adventurous, smart uncle we might have wished we had back in 1947), while also being dependent, to an extent, on the much younger Ross Jenkins, Art Mueller, and Morrie Abrams. Each of them is given a chance to shine as they overcome odds, battle and outwit evildoers, and ultimately become heroes.

While Cargraves is brilliant, resourceful, physically strong and courageous, and otherwise impressive, he makes mistakes and has limitations. Most obviously, he soon realises that he is too staid and adult - and that he lacks the required youthful reflexes and nervelessness - to pilot the rocketship as well as needed. At crucial moments, he hands that over to Morrie. In all, the book praises and encourages (and offers some guidance to) the sorts of teens who were headed for engineering careers and were keen on fooling around with home science experiments and hot rods.

Again, it is a book from another, albeit recent, era: for one thing, a contemporary novel along comparable lines would not be so overwhelmingly aimed at adolescent males; we could surely expect female characters among the Galileo's crew. For what it is, however, and read with an imaginative sense of its time, audience, and original context, this remains a fine story. Rocketship Galileo still creates some sense of realism, and certainly a satisfying level of suspense and intrigue. Although it is not one of Heinlein's most revered works, it began his run of SF juveniles from Scribner's with evident storytelling skills and considerable cunning in the way it addressed its audience. There was better to come, but this was a sufficiently auspicious start.

Age of Ultron opening in US

The United States opening weekend for Avengers: Age of Ultron has fallen short of the opening for the original Avengers movie three years ago, but was still an enormous $188 million $191 million [edit: original, lower, figure was a studio estimate].

Outside the US, Age of Ultron appears to be doing even better than its predecessor - and it has yet to open in China and Japan. The rapidly developing Chinese market has a seemingly insatiable appetite for Hollywood action movies, and particularly superhero movies, and it will probably produce far bigger numbers this time around than were possible in 2012. In all, Age of Ultron may ultimately bring in higher global receipts than The Avengers, though it will pretty clearly end up lower in the lucrative US domestic market.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Currently reading: The Heritage of Heinlein

I'm currently reading The Heritage of Heinlein: A Critical Reading of the Fiction, by Thomas D. Clareson and Joe Sanders. I'll be reviewing this for The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Clareson and Sanders (mainly Sanders, since Clareson's contribution was some early chapters of the book that he drafted before his death in 1993) have produced a clear, careful, often insightful, and comprehensive discussion of Robert A. Heinlein's entire oeuvre of novels and short fiction.

In fact, reading this book has inspired me to go back and reread (or in a small number of cases, read for the first time) all of Heinlein's novels. We'll see how many I get through, and I expect to review some of them here - starting soon.

Heinlein has a strong claim to have been the most important science fiction writer of the twentieth century.  If there is an SF writer who clearly surpasses him in importance, it is H.G. Wells, but Well's best and most innovative work was published in the 1890s. (Jules Verne was another great innovator, of course, but his most important books were published in the 1860s and 1870s; he died in 1905).

Obviously Heinlein has a few twentieth-century rivals - Arthur C. Clarke, to name just one - and some individual SF novels by more mainstream authors are more important than any single book by Heinlein. Think of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and perhaps some of the works of Margaret Atwood, such as The Handmaid's Tale. Nonetheless, Heinlein's fiction was innovative, varied, often superbly crafted, and enormously influential.

It is, moreover, often undervalued by academic scholars and critics... for whatever reason. For example, there is no chapter on Heinlein in Blackwell's reference work A Companion to Science Fiction (ed. David Seed, 2005), even though there are chapters on H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Gwyneth Jones, Arthur C. Clarke, and Greg Egan (I mean no disrespect to any of these fine writers - indeed, I wrote the chapter on Egan, and elsewhere I've written in depth on Delany). Nor is there a chapter on, say, Stranger in a Strange Land among the ten chapters on individual books.

As I've previously announced, I have a contract with the academic publisher Springer to write a book that will be (in brief) about science fiction and moral philosophy. This will involve much research that I expect to be enjoyable, in the form of immersing/re-immersing myself in much classic SF. There will be updates here as that book proceeds.

Friday, May 01, 2015