Monday, June 26, 2017

Twin Peaks and the Pleasures of Weirdness

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

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

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

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

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

WTF, David Lynch?

I love weird stuff.  I love it because it's weird.  And Twin Peaks is weird.  The original show draws in the viewer with a promise of a detective show/evening soap opera about a teenage girl's murder in a quirky town, but then it quickly becomes ... well, what, exactly?  Something about a mystical FBI agent who solves crimes by throwing rocks, a malevolent spirit (or something else?) called "Bob," a lady who talks to a log, a grumpy FBI agent who follows the nonviolent principles of Gandhi and King, an Air Force officer (coincidentally played by the guy who played Scully's dad on The X-Files) who is involved with aliens, and the weirdest of them all: a place called the Black Lodge, a place I won't even try to explain.

The return on Showtime (or season three, depending on how you slice that damn fine pie) doesn't bother sweetening the deal to attract viewers.  If you're not here for unfiltered weird, turn off your TV, because Lynch is not watering anything down.  Casual viewers be damned.  Twin Peaks is as weird as ever.  Scratch that, it's even weirder.  Lynch has gone full Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, or Mulholland Drive on this one (even a pinch of Eraserhead).

The Black Lodge is back and... more, I guess?  There's a guy called "Mr. Jackpots," who can make slot machines pay out.  There's a grown man who goes by "Dougie" (the weirdest thing about Dougie is imagining what he was like before the events of the show that makes people treat "Dougie" as they do).  A mysterious murder takes place in North Dakota with a head next to a body not originally owned by the same person (the gross out factor is way beyond network TV now).  A guy in New York City watches a clear box for a living.  And there's stuff I couldn't describe even if I wanted to give spoilers.

You might notice I said nothing about the town of Twin Peaks itself.  Not as much of the show takes place there as you might expect.  Still, a lot of old favorites are back, but I don't really want to spoil that with a who's who aside from saying that there are performances from a few deceased members of the cast (not with Rogue One-style CGI, but because they filmed their scenes before they died).  Some of the quirky humor is still there, but mostly the Twin Peaks scenes have the uncanny feeling you get seeing people you haven't seen for 25 years, only a dash more uncanny because, well, it's Twin Peaks.

And I have to specifically mention Episode 8 of the new show/season.  That is probably the single weirdest hour of television I've ever seen.

The Pleasures of Weirdness

But why is weirdness be so much fun?  My theory is that weirdness is so pleasurable precisely because making sense of the world -- something we do constantly -- is a lot of work.  Watching a scene in the Black Lodge is a way to relax your sense-making mechanism, to open up your mind to things without trying to squeeze them into pre-made conceptual categories.  To just experience.

Of course, making sense of the world is a good thing.  Usually.  You'd probably be dead by now if you didn't make some sense of things.  It allows us to predict and influence our surroundings.

But making sense of things gets exhausting.  It can also, as Buddhists and Daoists might say, lead to suffering, especially when the categories in your mind don't match what's going on in the world.  How many of the world's problems, how much anxiety and general crappiness result from people misapprehending the world around them because they can't be open to change or wider perspectives?

The sense-making drive is essential, but it can be harmful if pushed too far.  This is, as I see it, the greatest lesson of ancient skeptical philosophers like Sextus Empiricus, Nāgārjuna, and Jayarāśi.  For them, many philosophers represent sense-making run amok, so they develop a sort of therapy that short-circuits the harmful tendencies by using them against themselves.  This is meant to cure us of this ill, which in various ways leads to what I've called mental coolness, a state of mind beyond anxiety and unhealthy fixations.

Weird stuff like Twin Peaks does much the same thing for me: it turns the sense-making drive against itself, leaving us with a particular sort of aesthetic bliss (not that Twin Peaks can't also be disturbing, but in those cases it's still pleasurable in the same way that horror movies are).  Like anyone else, I go through my life constantly trying to make sense of things: the 2016 US election, why we can't all just get along, why weed wackers have to be so loud, how people can like kale so much, etc.

But Twin Peaks and other weird stuff reminds us that the universe is bigger, older, and far weirder than us.  Some part of it will probably always elude the grasp of our sense-making abilities.  And that's okay.  It's even something to celebrate.  Imagine how boring life would be if you had already made sense of everything!

Weirdness brings a double pleasure: it allows your sense-making mind to relax while at the same time opening your mind to novel experiences.

The Comedy of Explanation

Of course, many people try to explain Twin Peaks.  Maybe they'll succeed.  More power to them. Maybe David Lynch understands what he's doing.  I can't say.

But for my part, the fact that Twin Peaks can't be explained is the whole point.

I think it's kind of funny when people try to explain weirdness or other forms of deliberate ambiguity (like the ending of Inception).  It reminds me, perhaps, of the comedy of a species of primates on the third planet of an unremarkable star having the hubris to think they know much of anything about the universe.  I'm not saying we shouldn't try to know some stuff.  By all means we should.  Knowledge is cool.  But maybe we need a little weirdness like Twin Peaks to remind us of our limitations -- and how lucky we are to have them.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cultivated Callousness: Is This What We Want?

Philando Castile

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

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

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

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

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

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

As befits a novel that mostly takes place in 1888 England, the humor is largely in the vein of English comedy of manners. I chuckled a lot and laughed out loud a few times. I especially love the cat, Princess Arjumand (fear not, cat lovers, the eponymous dog is just one half of the pet comedy team).

This worked fine as a stand alone novel, although some of the background from the previous book maybe would've helped a bit. Some of the bits may have been funnier if I were more familiar with authors like Jerome K. Jerome, P. G. Wodehouse, and Agatha Christie.

The Philosophy Report

I often don't like time travel stories because they tend to become incoherent rather quickly. When I was about 14 it occurred to me that if you went back in time to change something then whatever you did in the past would've already happened in the present, so you could never change the past. Hence, most "time travel" stories are really stories about alternate dimensions and the like. (I've written more about the philosophy of time travel in my discussion of Terminator Genisys).

Willis (mostly) accepts all this, which I find refreshing. She introduces other features that you may find cool or lame depending on your taste in time travel. The time continuum can't accept incongruities, which is why objects from the past can't be brought back to the present. Various factors can, however, cause "slippage," which means that it's harder to hit your target when you go back (you might be off by several minutes or hours). There are also things called "crisis points," or major historical episodes, usually (coincidentally enough) just the major episodes you'd learn about in history class, mainly decisive battles, espionage, leadership changes, etc. Like a lot of historical fiction, this was a bit eurocentric. Apparently strikingly few of the "crisis points" in history happen outside of Europe.

While these rules give a nice framework to the narrative, which works on a literary level, on a more philosophical level I find it all rather anthropocentric. Why would the time continuum care about the actions of (European) humans? Is the universe itself really all that concerned about who won WWII or the whereabouts of the Bishop's bird stump? Sure, if you could bring objets back from the past, two versions of that object would exist at the same time in the future. You could create causal loops by taking items from the present into the past (like giving 1590's Shakespeare your old volume of Shakespeare's collected works). None of that is actually logically incoherent. Weird, for sure, but as long as you're not killing your grandparents before they meet, no laws of logic have been violated (and there are good reasons to think you would simply fail to kill your grandparents, as the philosopher David Lewis has argued).

Of course, the characters discover a neat loophole later on, but let's not spoil it.

Another criticism is that the novel feels longer than it has to be, especially in the Victorian sections. As amusing as the details were about Tossie, her mother, the atrocious Bishop's bird stump, jumble sales, and the cat (to say nothing of the dog), sometimes I found myself wishing we could get on with the next plot point. It was also hard to see sometimes how it all hangs together.

Of course, one of the larger points of the novel is that these details do matter. On the surface the novel seems to be working on the level that it's major leaders and big events that shape history, but there's also another strand that it's the seemingly insignificant details that shape history (this tension is dramatized rather nicely by a debate between two scholars in some of the 1888 scenes).

By the end you might wonder if the second philosophy of history is winning out (with chaos theory to boot, at least in the 21st century portions), but I think the situation is a bit more complex. Perhaps it's both theories acting simultaneously in harmony and tension. Perhaps the big events and individual characters are reducible to the minor details and blind historical forces. Or maybe the relationship is far more complex than we meager humans can understand.

Whatever the answers to these heady questions might be, they're fun (and funny) enough to keep philosophers, historians, and science fiction fans busy for the foreseeable future, to say nothing of the past and present.

Rating: 88/100

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

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