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.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What Counts as a Tradition in Indian Philosophy?: The Case of Skepticism

Devanagari version of the Hymn of Creation in the Ṛg Veda

Scholars of all types of philosophy are fond of referring to philosophical traditions. But what does this mean? What counts as a tradition?

In the Indian context one way to discuss a tradition is with the word darśana, which literally means view or viewpoint from the root “dṛś” – “to see.” It can also be translated as “school.”

We might also look to the etymology of the English word “tradition,” which derives from the Latin “traditio” (a handing down, delivery). Must a tradition be handed down through interpersonal transmission from teacher to student in the traditional Indian model? Or could it be a matter of later philosophers being inspired by reading particular texts, or perhaps some combination of interpersonal transmission and textual inspiration?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Libertarian Lunacy: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein has always been my least favorite of the Big Three (my ranking: Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein), but I thought I'd give him another chance.  I checked out The Moon is a Harsh Mistress from the public library, because the thought of borrowing a book about libertarian revolution from my favorite tax-supported socialist institution amused me.  There were some things I liked about this one, but there's also a lot I disliked, especially the misogyny.  The rest of this review will take place in the form of an imagined dialogue with a Heinlein fan, because that's how I was able to work out what I thought about this one.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Uses of Philosophy, Part 2: Coolness of Mind

How do you get the philosopher off your porch? 
Pay for the pizza.

Jokes like this demonstrate the eternal verity that philosophy is useless, an attitude that goes back to ancient times.  As a person who makes a living teaching and writing about philosophy, you’d expect me to disagree with this negative assessment of philosophy.  And I do!  Back in 2015 I wrote a post called “Three Uses of Philosophy” that suggested philosophy has at least three uses: it can be fun, it cultivates intellectual skills such as critical thinking, and it can make us less dogmatic.

I happen to think that philosophy has lots of uses, a lot more than three, anyway.  So I decided to make a series based on my earlier post.  Another use occurred to me a few months ago when I was teaching the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza in one class and the classical Indian skeptics Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa in another.  I call this coolness of mind, a state in which your worries melt away, a freedom from the heat of mental disturbance and the churnings of suffering and anxiety.  Coolness of mind contains a subtle and peaceful beauty of its own, like the quiet of the desert just before dusk or a moonlit midnight after a gentle snowfall.