Sunday, April 22, 2018

42: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams



Back when I started this blog in December 2014, I had a lot of ideas for what it might include, and one of these ideas would seem to be essential for any blog on philosophy and science fiction: a review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy!  For the past three and a half years my circuits have been irrevocably committed to composing this review.  I've also been preparing by spending much of that time wearing digital watches.

But considering that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has become a sacred text for science fiction fans, what can my humble exegesis contribute?  Giving up on the pretense of originality, let me discuss a few personal impressions, partly based on having re-read the novel most recently as part of my course on philosophy and science fiction.

The highest praise I have for this book is that it's not just a zany, hilarious read (although there's plenty of zany hilarity), it's also really good, thought-provoking science fiction.  And that's no mean feat - not quite infinitely improbable, but close.  My only real complaint is that Trillian (basically the only woman in the whole book) has almost nothing to do, although if I remember correctly, this changes in the later books.

(Spoilers ahead, but if you can't be bothered to take interest in your local affairs, I can't be held responsible...)

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Science Fictional Feminist Daoism: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin



The first time I read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, I liked it a lot, but realized I didn't completely understand it.  The second time I read it, I loved it, but still thought there was more to understand.  This third time, I've realized that this is not so much a novel to understand as one to experience.

It is impossible to do justice to Le Guin's genius in this humble review.  As a work of literature, Le Guin's writing is beautiful as is her use of mythological symbolism (from myths she herself created).  As a feat of world building, Le Guin's Hainish universe (of which this is part) is as breathtaking as Frank Herbert's Dune or Isaac Asimov's Foundation.  But I don't want to focus on the literary quality or world building here, as amazing as I think they are.

I've written before about how Le Guin was an educator more than a mere entertainer.  Re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness, it occurred to me that Le Guin blurs the line between literature and philosophy as much as anyone ever has.  Putting all this together, let's think of Le Guin as a philosophy professor.

Monday, March 26, 2018

APA Blog Post: "Provincializing Europe in a World Philosophy Course"



My first ever post for the Blog of the American Philosophical Association has just gone live!  It's about a course I created recently called World Philosophy and what I think courses like this can do for the discipline of academic philosophy.  (You can jump to the whole thing here, or keep reading for a preview).

Here are few quotes to pique your interest...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Dark Tower and the Meanings of Life: The Waste Lands by Stephen King


I originally read the first two Dark Tower books back in high school ... and I didn't really get into them.  But given my resurgence of interest in Stephen King in recent years and the movie that came out last summer, I figured I'd give them another shot.  I was probably one of about three people who enjoyed the movie at all, but it was the books that really clicked with me (see this post on what I had to say about the books and the movie).

After several months, I decided to continue my quest to read the series.

The Waste Lands, the third book in the series, is not quite as weird as the first one, but it's weirder than the second one.  I feel like I'm getting more into the core of the universe and getting a sense of what people love (or don't love) about this series.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Unfinished Project of Grieving: Thoughts on My Mom's Birthday

Today would have been my mom's 69th birthday.  I don't have much to add beyond what I said last year on this date (which involved thoughts on Dairy Queen and what we owe the deceased).

It did occur to me, now over 17 years after her death, that you're never done grieving.  Grieving is an always unfinished project.  You grieve for your loved ones until, inevitably, someone grieves for you.

Is this depressing?  Maybe.  But I think of it as part of what makes us human.  Grief connects us backwards and forwards to the great chain of humanity.  It is both deeply personal and a basic fact of all human life.

I had my Dairy Queen yesterday because life is getting in the way today.  But I nonetheless continue grieving, whether in frozen dairy form or otherwise.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Daoism for Wizards: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin



Brilliant.  Amazing.  The kind of book that changes you for having read it.  In other words: typical Ursula K. Le Guin.  I probably need a few more readings to probe the Daoist depths of this work.  This review simply can't do it justice, but then again one of the strengths of this book is that it presents merely hints of an inexhaustible universe.  There is much more than meets the eye, or even could meet any eye.

Upon the death of the author (or a specific author: Ursula K. Le Guin), I took some time to reflect on everything I've learned from Le Guin (see my post "Five Lessons from Le Guin").  I also reminded myself that, while I had read most of her well known science fiction work, I had yet to read what is probably her most popular work: the fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea and its many sequels.  Part of this is that I'm generally more of a science fiction than fantasy fan.  But it seemed an inexcusable oversight when it came to someone I always say is one of my favorite authors.  It would be like claiming to be an Isaac Asimov fan without having read the Foundation trilogy or an Octavia Butler fan without having read the Earthseed duology.

So I dug out the old copy I picked up at a library sale many years ago and gave it a shot (see picture above; I believe this copy has made at least two interstate moves with me and has been lurking on my bookshelf for years).

Like most of Le Guin's work, you have to allow her to work her magic.  It takes time.  You may not find yourself turning the pages quickly.  As Le Guin herself might ask, why should "page-turner" be a good thing for a book to be, anyway?  Is it not more meaningful to savor a book, to let it seep into your being?

That's just what A Wizard of Earthsea does.

Instead of imagining what Le Guin might have said, I should let her speak for herself:

"All power is one in source and end, I think.  Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man's hand and the wisdom in a tree's root: they all arise together.  My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars.  There is no other power.  No other name." (A Wizard of Earthsea, p. 164)

The novel isn't of course merely Daoist philosophy (although there is plenty of that!).  We meet a boy named Ged, who as many young boy protagonists in fantasy novels are, is special.  He is, it seems, destined to become a great wizard.  He travels to a wizard school (Hogwarts avant la lettre). Ged is, again like many fantasy protagonists, a bit full of himself.  A spell miscast releases a shadow (of himself?) that becomes his main antagonist.  Sure, we meet the occasional dragon (as does Ged), but are we ultimately all our own worst antagonists?  Along the way Ged becomes less full of himself and more full of all things.

The magic system relies on finding the true names of things, perhaps reminiscent of the first line of Laozi's Dao De Jing. This line is variously translated, but Laozi may be suggesting that true names cannot be spoken.  Is this true in the novel?  Or can true names only be spoken by wizards?  Does the very speaking remove us from the names of all things?  Are there other, more direct ways of realizing our connections with the way and its power?

A Wizard of Earthsea can work as a straightforward fantasy, maybe even a YA fantasy.  But it's not merely entertainment.  It teaches you something about the universe and most deeply about yourself.

One of the lessons of the novel seems to be in line with the Daoist idea of wu wei (literally "non-action," but really more acting as skillfully and minimally as possible).  Thus, it seems appropriate to end my review here, to review more by writing less: my words can merely gesture toward the novel's fathomless depths, which I encourage you to experience for yourself.

Friday, March 2, 2018

A Nerd's Guide to the Oscars (2018)

The Oscars sort of look like robots.
As a nerd, most of the movies I see aren't the sort of things that Hollywood elites deem Oscar worthy.  Typically I haven't even heard of some of the nominees for best picture.

This year, however, two of my favorite movies of the last year (Get Out and The Shape of Water) were nominated for best picture.  And other favorites like Blade Runner 2049, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and War for the Planet of the Apes were nominated for things like cinematography, sound editing, and visual effects.

Have nerds gone mainstream?

Nah.  I still had to google Phantom Thread when I looked up the list of nominees, and there's a lot of pretentious "serious drama" type stuff.  And two WWII movies, of course.  (Will we never tire of WWII movies?)

This year I decided to meet the Oscars half way, and I saw a few more mainstream best picture nominees like The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as well as I, Tonya, which received a few other nominations (like Margot Robbie for lead actress).  So, while I haven't seen all the Oscar nominations, I feel like I've seen enough to make a rare delve into "mainstream" films.  So I offer the following: A Nerd's Guide to the Oscars!