Fables of the Future: Fury Road and Tomorrowland

There's a whole thesis to be written about movie posters. Someone else's thesis.
You’d never guess which future is more appealing.

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.

Continue reading Fables of the Future: Fury Road and Tomorrowland

Reading Philosophy, History and Engineering

  

I'll settle for eclectic. There are worse alternatives.
The “eclectic” results of a bookstore raid, as someone else described them.
 

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.

A Referendum on Ireland

I hope you remembered to register to vote.
Kind of giving away the side of the fence I’m, but please read on…

“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.