Along with half the world, or so its box office returns would indicate, I went to see Jurassic World last week. It’s all about the dinosaurs with me, and despite some middling reviews, I have an unrelenting optimism that you never know, a movie might be fun (see also: Star Trek Into Darkness). Or maybe I’m just addicted to being grumpy about underwhelming movies. Spoilers on…
The past year has been an interesting and diverse one for fans of cinematic science fiction. We’ve had Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, if flawed, Interstellar, and Alex Garland’s fascinating Ex Machina. Right at the moment, cinemas are sporting two further major releases that do what all good science fiction does: reflect the concerns of the present in visions of the future.
George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland are both visually stunning, but their similarities go deeper than that. Both films depict an alternate present instead of a distant future, albeit both warning in their own way of how our own present could go. In doing so, they become fables, trying to make their points symbolically, with characters who represent much more than the journeys that they go on. A central theme of both films is the need to avoid giving up, to retain optimism and humanity in the face of cynicism and despair.
But for all of the similarities, there are multiple differences too. Most glaring is their storytelling success—Fury Road is good enough that it’s hard to pick holes without coming across as petty, whereas Tomorrowland struggles to avoid being dragged back down into the summer blockbuster mire. Taking a look at the differences between them might help to illustrate this.
Every so often, I drop into a bookshop. I try not to do it too much, because once there, I have a tendency to buy things. On one of my more recent visits, I picked up three good-sized books, which did wonders for my loyalty card. Less so for my wallet. Luckily for this blog, there was a thematic connection running through all three of them, so I get to package up their reviews in a single post. (Arranged, for the convenience of the reader, in order of increasing worth.)
The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt
The concept behind Greenblatt’s book is an appealing one: in the 15th century, a bibliophile, classicist and proto-humanist called Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in an Alpine monastery. This lost work of Epicurean philosophy offered a new way of looking at the world and helped spark into life the Renaissance. Sadly, while Greenblatt weaves an entertaining story, he doesn’t quite manage to live up to the headline.
There are a lot of moving parts here, and Greenblatt does a good job of outlining Epicurus’s philosophy and why works like Lucretius’s epic poem were suppressed in an increasingly Christian world. He also succeeds in portraying the slippery character of Poggio Bracciolini, a cynical papal secretary in love with the classical world, as well as the political and religious milieu he operated in. Where the author falls down is in demonstrating how the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura fed into the heaving intellectual scene of the time.
Notable figures from Shakespeare to Da Vinci certainly read Lucretius’s poem, and Greenblatt points out many times and places where references to it crop up. However, as a work of classical poetry and philosophy, it’s hardly alone in that sense, and the book peters out rather than rises to a climax. It’s a shame—in the life of Poggio Bracciolini, the impact of Epicurean thought and the turbulent times of 15th century Europe, there’s enough material for a handful of books. As it is, Greenblatt has delivered an entertainingly told, but ultimately unsatisfying, tale.
Action Philosophers Omnibus, Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey
From the impact of one philosopher to the body-slamming impact of more than two dozen heavyweight thinkers in a comic book battle royale. Van Lente and Dunlavey’s exploration of the thoughts and lives of some of the greatest thinkers in human history is constantly entertaining and far more thought-provoking than its funnybook styling would suggest.
An omnibus edition of previously published comics, the individuals profiled are here arranged into something resembling chronological order, from the Pre-Socratics to Ayn Rand. And while the authors’ preferences sometimes shine through, they do their best to be even-handed, pointing out facts like Thomas Jefferson’s multiple hypocrisies and the fact that almost all we know of Socrates (who doesn’t get a section of his own) comes through the words of Plato, presented here as the former wrestler he actually was.
Unlike a lot of comic books and graphic novel, Action Philosophers requires the reader to pause in their reading and consider the words and thoughts of the great philosophers. This is to its detriment as a comic book, but given that there’s a lot of clever ideas and imagination at work in presenting these sometimes complex ideas, it doesn’t suffer all that much. And while philosophy majors might decry the short shrift given to their heroes in the few pages each one is afforded, as an introduction to some of the deepest thinkers of the past 2,500 years, it’s hard to beat. Plus, as a bonus at the end, a reading list and a guide to critical thinking and argumentation are provided in the same fashion as the rest of the omnibus. Highly recommended.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, Sydney Padua
Unlike her hero and heroine, Sydney Padua actually managed to turn her concept into an actual product, and we’re all the beneficiaries. From an initial one-shot webcomic about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, inventor of the first computer and the first computer programmer respectively, Padua spun off into an irregular webcomic and has now produced a book that manages to be both riotously funny and deeply informative about its two protagonists and the machine they never quite created.
Never quite created in the real world that is, as the conceit of Padua’s book is the creation of a bubble universe, in which the wonders of steampunk technology and boundless optimism have allowed Lovelace and Babbage to indulge their every technological whim while encountering just about every major figure of Victorian England’s social scene (Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a burly action hero is a particular highlight). That the result is such a well-balanced book is down to a combination of Padua’s skill as an artist and writer, her comprehensive research, her clear affection for her protagonists blends nicely with the poignancy of the fact that in the real world Lovelace died young and Babbage old, having never brought to fruition any of the schemes that he devised.
The Thrilling Adventures is simultaneously a tribute to its heroes, a rollicking series of adventures in which they star and a deep dive into their lives and the technology that almost (but probably never could have) started the computer revolution a century early. Add to that the fact that the hardback edition of the book is a beautifully made tome and I can’t really recommend it highly enough. It’s enough to make you wish you were living in a steampunk world of dashing, pipe-smoking female mathematicians, absent minded technological geniuses and action-hero engineers.
“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”
Next Friday, the people of Ireland go to the polls in a referendum to add the above sentence to the constitutional definition of marriage.* Ireland seems to hold a referendum every few years, far more often than its neighbour, the U.K., mostly because a referendum is the only way in which amendments can be made to the nation’s constitution.
In this way, referenda have come to serve as an important marker of Ireland’s sense of itself and how that sense of itself has changed over the less-than-a-century in which the country has existed. That the marriage referendum is not only being put to the people but appears to have broad popular support is a marker in and of itself—it was only in 1993 that homosexual relationships were decriminalised, and only in 1996 that the constitution was altered to remove a prohibition on divorce.
The most recent polls suggest that voters in favour of expanding marriage rights are in the majority by two-to-one over voters opposing the change, with as many as a quarter of voters undecided. This might suggest a foregone conclusion, but as the recent U.K. elections showed, it’s unwise to trust polls too much. Voters have a tendency to be cautious of change, especially when that change brings uncertainty.
This referendum campaign has also been notable for its vitriol on both sides.** Posters have been defaced and torn down, and social media has become a battlezone between camps who have set out their positions and are prepared to think the absolute worst of anyone who disagrees with them. There are more sensible, rational voices to be heard on both sides, but they’ve been getting drowned out in the noise. The traditional media doesn’t help much either—entertainment sells, and a calm discussion of the points is never going to attract as many viewers as a shouting match.
For myself, I intend to vote yes in the referendum. Why? I’m not gay, but I believe that I deserve the same rights as everyone else. I shouldn’t be privileged with rights because of who I am any more than I should be denied them by the same.
By far the strongest voices on the No side come from a conservative Catholic background. To anyone familiar with Irish history, this won’t come as much of a surprise. What’s more notable is that the church itself has taken a back seat to these campaigning groups—the scandals of recent years have damaged the church’s moral standing, perhaps irreparably. Those who believe strongly that Catholic morality, as practiced in Ireland since its founding, ought to be the guiding light for the nation, have had to get out ahead of a church that advises a No vote but isn’t willing to shout about it.
Yet behind all of the shouting, there’s an interesting split developing in the church itself, between dogma and conscience. Whereas the hierarchy of the church in Ireland have hewn to the party line that marriage is a sacred institution***, many voices closer to the people that make up the church have dissented. The most famous is Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, founder of the Focus Ireland charity, who has described entitling gay people to marry as a “civil right and a human right.”
Next Friday’s vote, whether yes or no, would change Ireland overnight. That change has been happening for decades, and will continue to happen for decades yet. Hopefully, it will never stop changing. Change can be frightening, especially for those who have known only one truth all their lives and have been told that everything different is false, dangerous or the just the first step towards chaos and damnation. Yet human beings have been dealing with change, for better or worse, for as long as we’ve existed. We’re good at it. And I believe that a yes vote would show that in Ireland we’re getting better.
*There’s also a vote on whether to lower the age requirement for the Presidency of Ireland to 21, but that has been seriously overshadowed by the debate over the marriage referendum.
**Although perhaps not that notable. As Joseph Cummins points out in Anything For a Vote, the idea that the past was an era of genteel political debate is a fallacy. If anything, campaigners in centuries past were even more likely to be vitriolic to the point of slander and abuse.
***The history of marriage and the church and the co-opting of the former by the latter is too long to go into, but suffice it to say that marriage has been around for a lot longer than the church, and in far more forms than the church recognises.
From a point of bankruptcy in the 1990s, Marvel has built its comic-book properties into a billion-dollar film and television franchise that’s so omnipresent you never have to wait long for the next Marvel product. Two movies a year and multiple TV series are enough to sate the most avid fan, and while we may be nearing oversaturation, the quality has remained remarkably high so far. The latest two offerings—Avengers: Age of Ultron and Daredevil—represent Marvel working harder than ever to maintain that quality as it stretches the limits of what superhero fiction can do on screen.
A:AoU is of course the follow-up to Joss Whedon’s ensemble blockbuster movie, whereas Daredevil marks the first offering from Marvel’s tie-up with Netflix, presenting heroics at a more gritty street level than Avengers’ apocalyptic, primary-colour adventures. Having watched them both to completion over the past weekend, I thought comparing the two might prove interesting.
Spoilers abound below…
When I first started up this blog, it was with the purpose of keeping a record of a months-long trip around the world. Since then, it’s drifted away from that towards reviews of games and movies, punctuated by the odd political or cultural rant. This drift shouldn’t be all that surprising – it’s not like I can afford to go on holiday every month.
Still, when I do go on holiday, even when it’s only for a few days, it’s fun to keep a diary, one that can be illustrated with photos. Sharing experiences isn’t just for Facebook, though Facebook is the obvious gateway through which to usher people to these pages.
In short, I’ve added another entry to the Travel menu above, courtesy of my just-ended five days in Brussels. Five days of sunshine and late nights, during which I made strenuous efforts to balance out my intake of beer, frites and waffles with some industrial grade walking. By the end of it all, I felt like I’d gotten a pretty good feel for the city, and I’m looking forward to getting the chance to go back some day. For some small clue as to why I enjoyed it all so much click here.
(And apologies in advance if the prose is a bit clunky. I’ve fallen out of the habit of writing these articles, and it’s not always easy to jump right in again.)
Certain authors and novels, if you come across them at the right age, will change your life. Terry Pratchett was one of those authors for me, and while his recent death was long anticipated, due to the cruelty of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the news, when it came, proved just as gut-wrenching as the original announcement of his illness had been.
Already, there have been plenty of appreciations of the man and his work. It’s a mark of both the nature of the man and the talent of the author that someone who primarily wrote comedic fantasy touched as many people across as many fields as he did.
I never met Terry Pratchett—the closest I came was during one of his visits to Dublin, when I spotted him walking in College Green, heading from Trinity College to (presumably) a pub, surrounded by a gaggle of students and admirers. It would have been nice to have the chance to talk to him, but at that stage he’d been talking to me through his work for years.
Books like Good Omens, Small Gods and Pyramids reduced me to helpless giggling more than any since Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Another author and decent human being taken too soon.) Across the 40 books of the Discworld series, Pratchett mixed the deftest wordplay with humour both low and cutting and serious thoughts that stole upon you in the midst of the laughter and stuck around long after the jokes were done.
As a kid growing up in a Northern Ireland still caught up in the lunacy of the Troubles, Pratchett provided constant reassurance that there was a better humanity out there. That being decent to other human beings mattered most of all, that you ought to be suspicious of anyone or any organisation that would tell you what to think, that being curious, patient, and argumentative were all good things. Thoughts that I found it hard to express, even as I was working them out in my own head, I found reflected in his prose.
As an aspiring writer, the most important thing I learned from him was that it was possible to underlay fantasy and science fiction writing with serious topics without preaching to your audience. I learned as well that language was a game, one that you won if you brought a smile to your audience’s face, or just made them pause and consider for a moment.
As a human being, he was, like his collaborator Neil Gaiman, like Douglas Adams and Charles Darwin, one of those people it was possible to admire without having to look up to them. Possessed of immense talent that never overwhelmed his innately decent humanity, yet driven by an inner anger that allowed him to churn out books of breathtaking quality and wit year after year.
That same anger helped him to deal with the unfairness of his diagnosis. Deeming it “an embuggerance,” he continued to live his life even more fully than before, fighting on behalf of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and those who believed that they had a right to end a life that had become unbearable. His eloquent arguments in favour of the right to die in the manner of his own choosing revived a debate that is still going on.
Reading Pratchett and authors like him and growing up where I did and among my family and friends has led me to the belief that if we have a purpose in life, it’s to increase the amount of happiness in the world, both your own and that of those around you. Far more than the number of books he sold, the joy that his work and personality brought to so many is a marker of his success in life.
If I ever have any kids, I’ll enjoy sharing his books with them. And whether or not they turn out to be fans like me, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned in reading his books will be the same lessons I share with them.