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.
Most stories have a hero. Most also have a protagonist. The two roles aren’t mutually exclusive, but nor are they synonymous. The hero is almost always the protagonist. The protagonist is not always a hero. Following the latter course can lead to interesting places in the hands of a clever writer, but it also risks sacrificing the audience’s engagement in search of those interesting places.
Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve watched films that gave us protagonists who fell quite some way short of any definition of the word hero. Sadly, in neither case did the scriptwriters seem to acknowledge that this might be the case, let alone that it might be a problem.
The first case was the latest Will Smith vehicle, Focus. Smith plays the leader of a ring of conmen and criminals, a slick mastermind of innumerable crimes, both petty and serious. Into his world wanders the much less slick Margot Robbie, whom he takes first under his wing and then into his bed. So far so conventional, and in the manner of all criminal movies since The Sting, there are double crosses and fake outs aplenty to keep the audience guessing.
Sadly, the movie throws it all away early on, with a scene in which Robbie is taught to prey on sports fans at a championship game. Not high rollers, just ordinary fans and tourists, whose pockets are picked, valuables lifted and holidays ruined all so Smith’s crew can saunter off at the end of the weekend significantly richer, with no authorities any the wiser.
Films about criminals are common enough, and there are two main camps: the Robin Hood types, who prey upon the rich and greedy, and the hardened criminals, who tend to suffer just as much hardship as any of those whom they victimise. Focus seems quite happy to present its unrepentant criminals as heroes without making them suffer overmuch, content to coast on Smith’s slick personality and Robbie’s scantily clad charms (to be fair, Smith is scantily clad at least as often, and if I’d been working out as much as him, I would be too).
Skipping over whether any of the plot twists actually hang together (spoiler – they don’t), the fact that the film doesn’t bother making its characters sympathetic leaves the entire exercise hollow. Focus’s central romance never convinces, so the engine of the plot for the second half of the movie, centring around Smith’s efforts to get Robbie back, simply sputters and dies. The result is an impressively produced piece of nothing much at all.
More recently, I went to see Chappie, Neil Blompkamp’s latest offering. Unlike Smith, who lapsed into underperforming blockbuster mode a while back, Blomkamp has a 50-50 average so far, following up the impressively grungy District 9 with the unconvincing Elysium. With Chappie, the director and cowriter returns to the happier hunting grounds of Johannesburg, but he brings back with him some of the habits of Hollywood shallowness.
Actually, let’s be a little more direct here—Chappie is so shallow that if you dived in, you’d barely get wet before you broke your nose. The “Idiot Ball” is a common term in scriptwriting circles, denoting a character who does something stupid in order to advance the plot. The character doing so is said to be holding the Idiot Ball. In Chappie, it seems that they received a truckload of Idiot Balls, as the plot relies on everyone being stupid all of the time.
Mark Kermode summed up the film as Short Circuit meets Robocop, a description it’s hard to improve on. Dev Patel plays a genius robotics expert who never convincingly manages to explain how or why he wants to create a truly conscious artifical intelligence in the chassis of a police robot. Hugh Jackman plays a villain who’s just a moustache-twirl away from tying damsels to railway lines and cackling. Sigourney Weaver is … in the film. And the members of Die Antwoord play themselves pretending to be Jo’burger gangsters who adopt the titular Chappie by way of kidnap and some of the most half-baked scheming ever committed to celluloid.
That said schemes prove completely successful indicates that the scriptwriters had other things in mind. Quite what those things are, it’s hard to tell. Sharlto Copley does a decent job of portraying Chappie as a precocious infant, but his character’s intellectual growth spurts and stalls according to the needs of the plot. For all of Patel’s argument that this kind of AI could be “smarter than a human!”, the only bit of exceptional intelligence shown is a kind of reverse Idiot Ball, where Chappie’s AI brain provides a solution to a problem that enables the final denouement.
Amid all of the handwaving explanations and unconvincing twists, the arms corporation that everyone apart from the gangsters works for proves the least convincing element of all. Despite being solely responsible for the company’s success, Patel has a cubicle in the same open-plan office as Jackman, who has a barely concealed, quasi-religious objection to his AI products. Sigourney Weaver is the boss whose only role is to say yes or no to each of her underlings at plot-significant moments, and the security guards are only there to be conspicuous by their absence whenever Patel or Jackman want to do something underhand. Which accounts for about two thirds of their working hours, by my calculations. Performance reviews at that company must be amazingly lax.
Amid all of this, if you root for anyone, it has to be Chappie himself by default. This is despite the fact that his personality is limited to say the least. He defaults to obeying/remaining devoted to Patel, who doesn’t do much for him beyond creating him and bossing him about. He likewise mimics and obeys his gangster foster parents without learning much from either of them. There are a few scenes in which you sympathise with his plight, notably early on, but tonally the film jumps all over the place, right up until that ending.
Still, of the two films, Chappie is easily the better. That it retains some of the beautifully scrungy appeal of District 9 and a few imaginative and emotive scenes fails to hide the fact that it’s also wildly inconsistent, shallow and ultimately pointless. Despite this, it remains a long way ahead of Focus, which never stretches itself beyond shallow and self-satisfied.
Edit: In an interview, Blomkamp notes that unlike his other films, Chappie has no socio-political context. Which tallies with my feelings about the film – shorn of that context, it falls back on the infant AI and its implications for meaning but never follows through on that possibility with any conviction.
One definition of insanity is to repeat the same activity and expect a different outcome. A modern variation on that might be to go to a Wachowski Siblings movie expecting something akin to The Matrix. Watching Jupiter Ascending last week, I wondered if this was a case of optimism triumphing over experience or a more simple case of refusing to heed the signs.
This is not to say that The Matrix is a perfect movie—it hasn’t aged well. Nor is it to say that the Wachowskis haven’t done anything else of worth—their movies have remained visually imaginative and have never shied away from incorporating big ideas. All the same, the shadow of their game-changing early success seems to weigh as heavily on them as it does on their audience.
So what do we get with Jupiter Ascending? We get a weirdly unbalanced mix of overstuffed science fantasy, underplayed “big ideas” and a selection of narrative cliches that combine to waste just about everyone’s time. It’s remarkably ambitious, but it doesn’t seem to be ambitious to do anything in particular—it’s happy enough to just be ambitious.
To trade in spoilers for a little while, one of the nicer things about Jupiter Ascending is its heroine. Mila Kunis is a Russian emigre housemaid, cleaning the toilets of the super-rich in Chicago. Essentially, she’s a romantic comedy character who suddenly finds that not only is she in a science fiction epic, but that she’s genetically destined to be the ruler of the Earth. Actually, she’s the genetic owner of the Earth, rather than its ruler, but the legal basis for that, as well as just how she came to inherit her genetic payload (if it wasn’t just random chance), is one of the many things that Jupiter Ascending skips over rather than engages in.
So what is the galactic civilisation that she finds herself a player in? Well, you could watch the entire movie and not really have a clue. There’s a galactic police force that mostly exists to give people a spaceship to fly around in (because they’re certainly not enforcing any laws). There’s a bureaucracy borrowed from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, to the point of including a bizarre cameo by Gilliam himself. And there are the main antagonists, who are competing over a valuable youth treatment—not that there seems to be anyone around to actually buy the stuff.*
This absence of context infects the entire movie, making it feel oddly hollow even as it tries its best to fill itself up with incident. The main victims of this include the aforementioned antagonist family: Of the three of them, one is shunted off the stage after explaining the plot to the heroine, another has an interesting scheme that he abandons at the end of the second act, and the last just pouts and scowls in the background until it’s time for the big finale.
If the movie had the confidence it desperately needed, it wouldn’t have felt the need to fire off every arrow in its quiver in one go. Whereas The Matrix was a focused, low-stakes, personal story—which led to the sequels increasingly revealing the lack of a coherent universe—Jupiter Ascending puts the fate of the Earth at stake from the start, leaving it nowhere to go but sideways.
So what about those big ideas that the Wachowskis like to play with? Well, they’re there, sort of. As mentioned, there’s the Soylent Green-style youth serum, but as it’s embodied in just three people, none of whom are given any depth as characters, it’s a rather one-sided critique of capitalism. (There’s even a wedding two-thirds of the way through the movie where the crowd are all robots.) Beyond that, well, aren’t the chase scenes and the explosions nice? Certainly, there’s nothing like The Matrix’s juxtaposition of an appealing simulated world with a grimy reality. Both movies might count as high concept, but The Matrix’s high concept informs the entire film. Jupiter Ascending’s high concept drifts out of sight for long stretches of time and is entirely absent in the finale.
Whatever flaws there are in the film though can’t be blamed on the actors. Eddie Redmayne happily chews away at the scenery as the final boss, and Douglas Booth is surprisingly good as his kid brother and the penultimate boss. Kunis and Channing Tatum are likeable enough leads, if never particularly believable in their underwritten romance, and Sean Bean commits to his supporting role as well as he ever does. The sad fact though is that there’s no one else in the film of note. This is a very, very empty galaxy.
The Wachowskis might never make another Matrix, but that’s hardly a criticism—few filmmakers ever make a film that has such impact. But their triumph is also their curse. Knowing what they’re capable of, we’re always going to hope, if not expect, that they’ll reach those heights again. Jupiter Ascending aims for that, but it never even comes close.