Encountereds. I came, I saw, I commented.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Jeffrey Eugenides - Middlesex (2)

A fiction so convincing that I needed to remind myself several times that I was not reading an autobiographical account. The story of a hermaphrodite growing up in Detroit, and his/her family's history stretching back into Turkey are told in epic breadth, and with a lot of fascinating historic detail. The narrative holding it all together, that of the girl Callie turning into the man Cal, seems to dissolve to little significance against that background, making me wonder if more focus on the story and main character itself wouldn't have served the overall experience better.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Frederik Pohl - Gateway (2)

I've been busy checking out the Hugo and Nebula award winners, and this one was a particular delight. An unknown alien species, the Heechee, disappeared a long time ago, but left some artifacts, most notable a space station equipped with hundreds of interstellar ships attached. The ships are mostly operational, but nobody knows how the course setting machine works, what the destinations are, and how long the trip will be. Mortality on these trips is high, with most coming back emptyhanded, so the exploration of the Heechee legacy is run as a kind of lottery, where explorers might die or disappear, but might also come back with incredible new artifacts or knowledge, making them rich for life. This is the background to the story of one man, who struck it rich on one of these trips, but can't cope with what happened, and what he had to do to survive. We witness his therapy sixteen years later, and the original events unfolding in parallel, with documentary material, like classifieds from the station's newspaper, ingeniously strewn in.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Sun Tzu - The Art of War (3)

When a dog pees on a mountain, does the mountain care? Depends on the size of the dog, you might answer, but in general it won't. In general - what better segway that that to lead into my two cents on Sun Tzu's Art of War, commonly hailed as the essential read for business strategists, soldiers, garbage collectors, and, really, everybody, for war is a metaphor for life, and we all have one of these, after all. In spite of that Master Sun's strategic nuggets of wisdom were a bit lost on me. I don't object to anything said, and the style of the translation, and, I presume, the original, is very concise and poetic in it's condension, but what in this book I find applicable is obvious, and what isn't obvious doesn't seem applicable. On top of that this edition has been translated an edited by Thomas Cleary. Cleary follow every few sentences of Sun's text with serveral different commentaries, and the sequence of Sun's dense, poetic writing, and the commentators clumsy, wordy rephrasing makes this an odd comedic experience.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Johhny Cash (with Patrick Carr) - Cash (3)

Johnny Cash was an amazing artist, and his recent death has been a great loss. I love the recent American Recordings series of records as well as his older stuff. Sadly, he is not quite as amazing an author, and Carr's co-authoring didn't fix the shortcomings. There are cool stories in this book, but they are often told in a laundry-list fashion, where people, events and facts roll by without much coherence or reflection. Biggest eye-rubber: Cash's admission that he and June avoided shopping in towns that had no Wal-Marts and even graded them by the number of evil moneysucking behemoths ("tomorrow is a two Wal-Marter"). Biggest chuckle: to get out of a contract with a record company in the early nineties, Cash wrote a whole abysmal album, including a song called "Chicken in Black". It worked.

For All Mankind (1)

The story of lunar exploration, from Apollo 11 in July 1969 to Apollo 17 in Dezember 1972, in a beautiful collage, narrated from the original recordings and additional comments from the people who have been up there. Amazing footage gives you a glimpse of what it might be like to go where now man has gone before. It's a bit unfortunate that they emphasized a seamless narrative over historic accuracy, blending the 7 missions into one long trip to Luna, but in the end, it doesn't matter.

Earth, floating in blackness, yet struck by the intense light from the sun, made me realize for the first time the intuitive oddness of space close to a star: dark and empty, not for lack of light, but for lack of illuminable things. That's got to be an analogy for something.

Robots (5)

If there's anything meaningful that's not sickeningly cute and mindlessly inspirational in this movie after the first fifteen minutes, feel free to knock up the rating to a solid "4/avoid". We switched off when pabot told sonbot to follow his life's dream, cause pabot never did and now sorely regrets it. Sniff. To think of all the cool gadgets that could have been made from the robot parts if the moviemakers (Two directors! Two writers! Ack!) would have done as father did, not as he says.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Gichin Funakoshi - Karate-do Kyohan (1)

This is a wonderful and concise introduction to all mayor aspects of karate, from the basics and kata to free sparring. What I found most fascinating - besides the insightfully detailed kata descriptions - was how meaningful those detailed notes become when you don't read them as descriptions or recipes, but as commentaries on something you already know - or, even more interesting, know in a similar shape. Since I've been studying all the Kata's in their Wado form, Funakoshi's reasoning is most intriguing where he describes the rationale for doing something different from how we do it. The dialectics of form become apparent, the fact that one needs to be restricted, to see the unfoundedness of that restriction, and thus overcome it. Which makes me realize that Hegel was a very eastern kind of Swabe.

Chan-wook Park - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (1)

A nice coincidence that this movie would be the next on our Netflix-list after Dirty Harry - this is the movie Dirty Harry should have been (of course that's somewhat unfair, considering the time gap, but would Harry want me to be fair? There). Where Eastwoods cop sets out to right wrongs in a very private moral (or lack-of-moral) code, this movie unfolds as a giant tragedy, where we can have empathy with everybody, even as they do things that are wrong to begin with, and turn out even worse. "I know you're a good guy" says the vengeful industrialist in the climactic scene, "so you'll understand why I have to kill you". So do we, caught in the same violent logic, and as unable to escape it as any of the characters. Terrific and terrifying.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Frank Herbert - The Green Brain (3)

Probably one of the first science fiction novels to have the ecological threat posed by modern humanity at the core of its plot, this 1966 action drama puts all its effort into getting the message through, with very little meaningful plot. It's an unfortunate choice, as the central premise - being under extinction pressure from an Orwellianly named International Ecological Agency, insects adapt by cooperating to form complex and conscious societies, capable of concerted action and motion - would have been fascinating to explore in depth. Instead, the book spends most of its time following a subplot of international politics and intrigue, and its protagonists down a jungle river, and ends when things would become interesting, with what feels like a compromise between a happy ending and gloomy doomsaying. The book leaves the distinct feeling that Herbert wasn't quite happy with his setup, and didn't want to put too much effort into working it through. Maybe that's why he revisited the hive mind a few years later in The Hive.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Don Siegel - Dirty Harry (4)

It's a classic among vigilante movies, the best of the series it spawned, and it has Clint Eastwood in it, playing a socially disconnected moralizing force of one, dealing revenge and retribution without restraint. That setup works in Leone's Man With No Name series, probably in part because of the cool, detached direction and abstraction of the old west setting, but also because we are never supposed to take Eastwood's side in those. I wanted to rewatch Dirty Harry because it's set in San Francisco, quickly realized I had never seen it before, and found myself distracted from the sweeping views of bay and bridge by the manipulative moralizing message that weaves through the film. Mores are crumbling, and with a weak justice system unable to keep the depravity in check, men like Harry have to clean up, and get dirty in the process, a dark avenger, protecting us all. Feel reactionary today, punk?

Abe's Exoddus (1)

I just revisited the second installment in the Oddworld series of games, and the last I played - the third and fourth, sadly, are only available for the Xbox. If you like platform games at all, this quirky mix of ironic oddness, fascinating story and character design, tough puzzles and fast paced jump and run episodes will entertain your for many, many hours. And even if you don't, you'll have to appreciate some of the lovely, innocative ideas in game design.

Also pretty cool is the list of influences the game designers list on their website.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Joe Haldeman - Forever Peace (2)

This is a story of many plots, ranging from the destruction of the universe, or a substantial fraction thereof, by nanotechnology, to modern warfare and social philosophy to moral conundrums of modern life - interracial dating, for example - and it tries to both set up these varying fields as enormous problem zones, and then present realistic solutions. Most of the central ideas and technologies, and the problems caused by them - the social impact of full automation both on the society controlling it and the societies controlled by it, or the psychological and military implications of remotely controlled superwarriors, to name two - are daring and impressive, and the extrapolation of US foreign policy into the year 2048 seems frighteningly believable. But against the tapestry of these towering problems, Haldemans solution falls somewhat short, both within the universe of his novel and our own. Still, with its very gripping, thoughtful and empathic plot, Forever Peace fully deserves the Hugo and Nebula awards it won.

Ursula K. Le Guin - The Farthest Shore (2)

The final volume of the Earthsea Trilogy, and, to me, the strongest of the three. It's main theme, the struggle caused by the realization that life and death are intricately linked (a thought which is part of the dualist/taoist thinking that weaves like a thread through the whole trilogy, and indeed much of Le Guin's other writing) and one is impossible without the other, unfolds against a backdrop of exciting encounters, and the overall athmosphere of impending doom caused by the widespread refusal to accept mortality still has a very realistic tone today, more than 30 years after it was originally written.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Amanita Design - Samorost (1)

This game is just brilliant in design, storyboard and execution. Very otherworldly level designs and a brilliantly surreal game logic, paired with cuteness - its only fault is that it is too short.

Samorost | Samorost 2

Joseph Jennings - Winning Karate (3)

With martial arts training, it's mre about the form, the spirit and the attitude of the student than it is about the actual specific movement or skill that's trained. So a physical description of the basic techniques provides technical rather than spiritual insight - at least when it's read rather than physically studied. On the other hand, the illustrations in this book demonstrating how to deal with an attacker armed with a gun, knife or rifle, are extremely spiritual. And by spiritual I mean funny.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

On Humour - Simon Critchley (3)

It is a very common notion that the study of humour is a dry and boring thing to attempt. While that is true, it is not necessarily a bad thing. We wouldn't expect hydrodynamics to be wet, or neuroscience to be clever, so why should humour theory have to be funny, or even just entertaining? It should, however, have substance, and here most attempts are lacking, this book being no exception. It is little more than a collection of quotes and tidbits from humour theorists over the centuries, with a lot of the name dropping which is so oddly popular in the humanities. "This is what X means, when he says Y" seems to take on the force and role of a stringent logical argument, and rather than being a mepotistic anecdote, it's supposed to illustrate something deep. But I digress.

The main theses the reader is left with in the end are that the highest moral value o slaughter is achieved when it's reflective; when we laugh at ourselves, and that humour is the uniquely human ability to counter the absurdity of physical existence with a psychological distancing movement, and a mocking finger pointed at the physical from afar. Which, of course, is just reactionary balderdash.

Arrested Development (1)

If you've watched this show at all, it doesn't come as news to you that oftentimes hilarity is caused by it. But recent episode five of season three, titled Mr. F, surpasses anything they've done so far. The whole episode is an elaborate sequence of absurd coincidences that set up a climactic scene, where a group of Japanese investors is shown a miniature city (which they believe to be the real size model homes they are about to help finance) being trashed by Tobias in a mole suit and George Michael with a jet pack. I have not seen anything so funny on TV in quite a long time. Sheerr brilliance.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Karate Dojo - Peter Urban (3)

Partly insubstantial ramblings, partly interesting Martial Arts stories, this was a nice and entertaining read. Slightly annyoing that he mixes fact and fiction in his anecdotes, without making clear, which is which. But judging from his website, he's just too great to care.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - CS Lewis / Andrew Adamson (3)

I should have known. While I enjoyed the charming simplicity of the plotlines in the Narnia series, and appreciated them as the children's books they were intended to be, none of their story elements packs the mythological punch of Tolkien's writing, and the Christian parable feels tired once you've spotted it. Which is hard not to.

To start with the positive, the movie is nicely done, devoid of cringe-inducing lines or badly done characters, wich is saying something for Disney. But it is also quite boring, and at least a half hour too long. To strip a story about an oppressive regime, war and an epic battle for the survival of a whole world of all the nastyness these things should involve, and leave it with decoratively frozen puppets and the frosty looks of Tilda Swinton, is to deny the book its impact. Sure, you shouldn't frighten your underage audience into little whimpering heaps, but surely some sense of the consequence of evil would have been appropriate.

Plus, not surprisingly, seeing the crude metaphor for the New Testament, Aslan's sacrifice for the reinforcing of the "old magic", rather than reading about it, makes it's crude and unsubtle symbolism so painfully apparent, that I change my initial statement above - there is a cringy moment there, but it's all Lewis' fault.

A Wizard of Earthsea / The Tombs of Atuan - Ursula K. Le Guin (2)

I loved Le Guins The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, so even though I'm not very keen on people in pointy hats throwing speels (unless they're called Gandalf, obviously) I thought I'd give Earthsea a shot, and I'm glad I did. Like with her other books, I found the most interesting element of these books their outright refusal to play by the base rules of the genre. While there are magical gadgets, spells, castles and monsters, it's clearly not those that Le Guin is interested in. Where a Wizard of Earthsea was about one boy's journey to discover and master the evil in himself, the Tombs is about a clash of worldviews and belief systems, one religiously closed and involved in power struggle, the other, though based in magic, rational and open, and striving to find balance. In a nutshell, these stories are driven by psychological archetypes (the dark of the tombs, the faceless evil) than by plot, in fact, so much so that I wondered why there needed to be any magic in them at all - the fantasy elements are, so far at least, quite superficial.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Way Station - Clifford D. Simak (2)

Simak won the Hugo in 1964 for this quiet piece. Enoch Wallace, a civil war veteran from southwestern Wisconsin, is chosen by Galactic Central to operate a way station on earth, where alien lifeforms pass through on their way elsewhere.

While there is a dramatic plot, Simak clearly puts the emphasis on fleshing out the central idea of a brotherhood of all beings, to which humanity, even though standing on the brink of self-extinction from an atomic war, seeks admission. It is a nice read - and also an interesting piece of 60s optimistic pessimism.

While in the end the brotherhood of sophonts is sustained, nuclear war averted, and balance is returned to the force (possibly one more "inspiration" for all-around plot-thief Lucas, otherwise just a common cliche), this is achieved only because of sheer luck, the special sensibilities of an outcast, and a magical Deus-Ex-Machina superdevice.