Reviews: Unicorn Variations, The History of the Franks

In what will probably be the final review in my year-long project, I add in a couple different books – one a collection of short stories (science fiction and fantasy) and essays by Roger Zelazny, and one a quite antique book of European History.  It’s been a little bit interesting to have a reason to note what I’ve been reading: my chief discovery was how very much I actually re-read; the other thing I noticed was that I rarely seem to have fewer than three books in progress at a time – if nothing else, I’ll have a bit of light reading, a more serious work, and then some other book at school for downtime – and this is without considering any devotional reading.

Unicorn Variations

A major theme of this collection is foreign intelligences – alien, man-made, or mythological.  Other stories are perhaps better thought of as Zelazny’s thought experiments on sex and death – not that they don’t overlap.  Most stories are introduced briefly, and interspersed with the stories are some short essays on writing fiction (some specifically addressing science fiction).  Not all feature Zelazny as his best – in particular, the lead and titular story “Unicorn Variation” is somewhat meandering, perhaps a result of having too many ideas attempted in too few pages.  (Alternatively, because the actual story is, at the length it is told, fairly uninteresting.)

Although this has nothing to do with the collection as a whole, I did notice with some surprise that when I read the story “Home is the Hangman”, I recognized it – from the very first Zelazny I ran across, a novel of sorts (which someone else had brought along to round-up for a high school Shakespeare adaptation) called My Name is Legion.  Having taken a look, I found that Legion is a rather artificial construct – three short stories featuring the same character (perhaps originally only similar ones?) strung together.

The History of the Franks

Gregory of Tours’ work, on the other hand, is a fairly scholarly piece of business written in a popular tone – to the point I wondered whether the translator ( Lewis Thorpe) might not have overdone it a bit in places.  To go through it properly would take a good deal of time and some careful note-taking to keep all the names straight.  It’s an enjoyable read, not too long: Gregory takes a section to go through the entire history of the world (as he understood it) and then gets down to the rather gory business of the Frankish kingdoms’ politics and occasional ecclesiastical disputes.

The book produced a number of impressions, of which I will mention the most notable.  First, Gregory’s history covers quite a bit of his own time, and it is curious how self-effacing he is when dealing with political matters, especially when contrasted with his lengthy narratives of a few ecclesiastical or religious controversies.  Second, it serves as a useful reminder to be careful about our self-evaluations: despite the History being mainly one of chaos and civil war, at one point Gregory calmly declares how much better off the Franks have been than those heretical Arian Visigoths (the Spanish kingdoms), whose king had to put down a rebellion by his son.  Third, remarkable mainly because of the weather this year, for several years in a row Gregory notes that the Winter was much warmer than usual.

A curious fact is the number of things Gregory (or his later copyists) managed to get wrong, despite all his evident care – the most startling are his misnaming or misarranging of Biblical persons in his introduction (the translator suggests that he must have felt confident enough to work from memory), but evidently (judging from the footnotes) Gregory’s account does not entirely agree with other contemporary works as to the names or order of various dynasties.  However, those same footnotes also mention periodically – perhaps a dozen times – that one or another of Gregory’s sources has, sadly, since been lost.

Discussion: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Now that this film has been out for a bit and everyone who wanted to see it right away has presumably done so, I’m posting this, with some thoughts about the plot and so forth – otherwise known as spoilers.  So if you haven’t seen it yet and you care about these things, stop reading now.  I wrote a brief outline shortly after waking up the morning after I saw it, and have spent some time since editing it.

The film is set some twenty to thirty years after Return of the Jedi.  This is long enough for a number of dramatic changes to occur, but short enough to provide some continuity.  Long enough for Luke’s first attempt to refound the Jedi order to have come and gone, but short enough that Luke is still around.  Long enough for the Imperial forces to have been clearly all-but defeated, but then reorganized under a new commander.  Long enough for Han and Leia to have a grown son, but short enough that both are still around.  And, long enough for political machinations in the new Republic to have left only a “Resistance” on the front lines against the new threat.

As a plot element, the “Resistance” provides a good way to set up the (relatively) small-scale confrontations in this film, but its status is a problem that will need to be resolved.  What is their relationship to the Republic’s capital, exactly?  They seem to be made up of (or at least commanded by) some of the “old guard” from the Rebellion era.  This gives three plausible situations.  From most to least official: first, they might be a front-line “commando” unit, with a name supposed to have historical connotations.  (In this case, the squadrons we see could easily be only a few of a larger group.)  Second, they could be an unofficially official force, with orders from Fleet but not Senate (or possibly, less plausibly, vice versa) to confront a threat the politicians won’t recognize.  Or third, they could be a militia force cobbled together by governments (or organizations – the Star Wars galaxy is littered with armed NGOs).  I suspect the second is going to prove correct as I think it fits closest with Abrams’ general storytelling tendencies.

In coming films, the actual Republic fleet and government are going to have to be dealt with; how this is done will be interesting, as the First Order destroyed the seat of government and (according to the panicked Resistance pilots) at least some of the Fleet.  (Almost certainly not all of it – even a Pearl Harbor analogue would leave the various garrison forces, patrols, and so forth.)  Leia may turn out to be the ranking military commander at this point, which would solve that problem neatly, but not the political one.  Abrams may not tackle that directly but he will at least have to figure out what background events our protagonists must refer to.

And, ah, those protagonists.  Clearly there’s some backstory to fill in.  That Darth Vader’s grandson is a powerful Force user with Dark side temptation is not really news.  How he managed to get in a position to sabotage or destroy Luke’s Jedi training needs a little bit more explanation than we’ve gotten.  “Spoiled kid flips at not being treated nice” would seem to be the clubhouse leader, but that’s still going to require more detail.  The new Sith (?) Snoke, and his briefly-mentioned “Knights of Ren”, will likely make an appearance, and probably have something to do with it.  (Though, where are these “knights” now?)

I was initially fairly unhappy with how Han and Leia’s relationship had apparently broken down; on the other hand it’s not really implausible (especially given what we know of Han) and the reconciliation was touching.  Han’s ensuing death was maybe telegraphed a little bit, but the manner was a surprise – and the acting sold it.  That arc was well-done.

On the other side, it’s not clear what exactly the “First Order” is.  Some kind of Imperial remnant, with new funding and a new backbone in the form of two commanders – one Sith (I’m going to use this as a convenient shorthand for any Dark-oriented Force user, though the “Darth” title seems to have been dropped) and one fanatic, whose name escapes me.  (I thought the actor did a phenomenal job selling the “military dictator” role; I also thought a couple times he was modeled perhaps a bit on Putin, but there’s nothing solid enough to really make a convincing case there.)  That tension will be interesting; of course in the original trilogy Tarkin’s role was completely gone after he got blown up, but in this case the military commander will likely be in charge for at least one film while Kylo Ren works out whatever final training is in store.

On that military end, it’s a bit odd that after 30-some years, TIEs (admittedly an updated version) and X-wings (similarly with some changes) are still apparently front-line starfighters.  On the other hand, we do have an updated shuttle.  I thought having landing craft for the stormtroopers was a good touch (their aim seems to have improved as well).  While it makes sense that the Star Destroyers are still the First Orders capitals, I’ll be disappointed if the Republic Fleet doesn’t have purpose-built ships whenever we finally see them, as the Star Cruisers are canonically conversions.

My biggest complaint about the movie was the ending.  R2’s activation isn’t really explained, which bothered me, but with good work in sequels could be justified; the map bit doesn’t really make sense to me.  With BB-8, R2’s portion of the map shouldn’t really be necessary at all in a near-galaxy-wide civilization.  I can’t remember if they threw in anything about “uncharted”; if they did, then that helps plausibility, but R2’s section of the map becomes more curious, in that he apparently got back from wherever without being able to give directions.  Odd all around.  So this seems like a weak link in the plot to me.

But the weaker bit of storytelling was, in my opinion, to include finding Luke right at the end.  Obviously, there’s the desire to please fans by bringing the whole original trio into the film; but that Luke didn’t do anything, making it rather a flat discovery.  It also causes, I think, problems with the sequel.  If we had ended with Rey leaving (compare Lando leaving at the end of Empire) the next one opened with Rey reaching Luke, we would have a clear beginning to work from; or even if the next one opened in the middle of training, we’d have a clear parallel with Snoke’s manipulation of Kylo.  Alternatively, the map could have been only a starting point for a continued quest.  As it was actually done, apart from the potential for silly jokes about the Cliffs of Insanity, we didn’t really get anything to work with at this end, and I think it will be harder to pick up in the next film.

Thematically, The Force Awakens borrows heavily from both The Empire Strikes Back and from A New Hope.  The plot is more closely parallel to the latter on rough outline: new to-be-Jedi, big fancy threat, mentor dies, blow up the thing, yay.  The overall feeling is more like Empire, though: Abrams clearly knew he was picking up a continuing story, and the tone tends tragic rather than triumphant.  The idea of defecting Imperial troops had been thoroughly explored in the previous EU, and it’s not surprising Abrams brought that in: it also is a story element that seems to fit his personal themes well.  To me,  the biggest question is how Kylo/Ben will play out as a villain.  He could get a redemption arc (though I suspect that’s been all-but quashed); he could become the main villain; but I suspect he’ll get a treatment as some kind of lesser evil to Snoke – whether this means he challenges Snoke and dies, or what, I’m not sure.

Obviously more could be said, but these are some of my more or less preliminary thoughts.

Political Series: What Modern Liberalism Gets Right

In a previous post, I outlined the fundamental truths on which my political views are built.  In this post, I want to describe some of the things I find useful or correct in the views an arguments of today’s liberals.  (I am not going to do something similar with “the general conservative outlook” because that matches my own much more closely.  I have problems with some common assumptions but not in such a way as to fit into a generalizing post.)

First of all, I want to outline roughly what I am here referring to as liberalism.  I am talking about the strain of thought increasingly common in academic, media, and popular arenas.  It might be dubbed “egalitarian identity-focused interventionism” (or “EIFI” for short).  The philosophical axioms underlying much of this movement could be described as follows: that all persons are in all essential respects of equal value (thus “egalitarian”); and that a “person” necessarily is self-identified (thus “identity”) to some larger or smaller extent, generally in accord with emotions, perceived ideals, or desires.  It appears (at least from the outside) that social groups are understood generally as naturally coalescing from sets of these self-identified persons.

In fact these two axioms seem to be held equally by many who might be called “libertarian” (and thus often “conservative” rather than “liberal” in the modern political dialogue), but on the whole this interpretation of humanity tends to be more commonly associated with political programs which expect the machinery of the state to be the chief means by which society collectively works to correct problems (thus adding “interventionism” to my description, whether the intervention is the commonly discussed economic regulation and redistribution or more directed towards social structures and institutions).  The appeal of such a model given the personhood axioms is fairly simple to understand, and it is possible to summarize the outline of the argument, though perhaps not its details and qualifications, as follows: that persons are (essentially) equal; but in the world we find their circumstances actually (if accidentally) unequal; thus government (whether defined as “force” or “social will” or by some other formulation) must have as a priority the maintenance of the essential reality of equality against such things (entropic or malevolent) which disrupt it.

In the abstract, this is a fairly cohesive social model or ideal.  I believe that, even in the abstract, it faces certain internal paradoxes; certainly when it encounters reality, it proves insufficient to explain actual behavior and even when correctly identifying social flaws, tends to prescribe “solutions” which, at best, only address symptoms.  In the worst case (which I believe we see to some extent even today) this results in those holding this view attempting to coerce unrealistic conformation to their ideal.  But apart from this qualification, I want to move on to talk about some of the things this kind of egalitarian identity-focused interventionist tends to get right.  I divide them into three major categories.

Perhaps its chief virtue is awareness.  At least partly because they find personhood itself defined by identity, the EIFI tends to be very much aware of certain kinds of problems that others, even other activists, miss or ignore.  Particularly in the modern context this has led to a concern about “identities” marginalized or even dehumanized by society generally.  This puts them in a much better position, at least in theory, to address real problems and concerns.

The second main positive of this attitude I am going to call activism.  That is a little inaccurate or incomplete, but because the general expectation of this worldview is that somebody in charge should do something, there is a built in incentive to get that something done.  That can keep a cause driven, even if initial returns are discouraging – the general belief that the problem ought to be fixable is quite powerful.

My final big category I am going to call politism, after Chesterton’s observation that “politeness” and “police” share the same linguistic roots, in the Greek concept of the city.  Chesterton would of course hardly be an EIFI himself, but he would I think be somewhat distressed at the extent to which American conservatives, with whom he otherwise would have much in common, tend to view government as, at best, a necessary evil.  Along with other liberals the EIFI tends to overestimate the good of particular governments, but certainly the idea that governments, speaking generally, exist at all primarily for good purposes is one not to lose sight of.

Reviews: Inversions, 2046

The problem with break is that it means I have more time to read and watch things, which means I get behind on this.  Almost done with 2015, so my project of reviewing all the new things is just about over.  But for now, another twofer.

Inversions, by Iain M. Banks

Iain Banks is best known for his science fiction, oddly personal stories set in a cosmos starkly unforgiving, not to say amoral and at times inhuman (literally or figuratively).  Inversions is not one of those, however, but is a fantasy set some time after the fall of a great Empire, leaving warring kingdoms squabbling over the remnants with late-Medieval technology.  The title refers at least to the structure of the story, as Banks presents concurrent events from the perspective of members of two such courts.  However, I think the reference is supposed to go deeper than that – the story has layers – I am simply not sure how far.

I am inclined to consider this one of Banks’ better novels; it is also probably a good place to start for the reader curious about Banks but put off by his reputation, as his normal tendency to vulgarity (and depravity) is toned way down.  He may even suggest something like a moral.

2046, dir. Wong Kar-wai

I stumbled across this film by accident, trying to track down on YouTube the music of Hanyu Yuzuru’s recent phenomenal free skate, “Seimei” by Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru.  Various tracks he did for 2046 came up – and the full movie, which tells, in what is apparently Wong’s signature style, the story of some of Mr. Chow’s various affairs, over which the number “2046” seems to hang.  The Chow character, a journalist and writer, serves as narrator as he recounts his various misadventures and reflects on what love is, or could be.  I am not entirely sure whether to regard the film as attempting to be profound or at least “human”, or to see it merely an exercise in displaying pretty women in pretty dresses (or out of them but carefully covered up, in a plethora of sexual moments throughout the film).  At times Chow reminded me of Hemingway (either the author or his characters), of Hitchcock’s film of The 39 Steps, or of some of Le Carre’s work.  A very finely made film, and one I would not mind seeing again, if only to puzzle out its “message”.

Review: Star Wars Episode VII

The Force Awakens is the newest installment in the Star Wars film series – and significantly more satisfying than the last few to be released.  In terms of plot and structure it takes a lot of cues from the first two films made.  The plot is well-organized and not too complicated to communicate.  Visually it is very cleanly filmed, and the aesthetic fits in well with the expected “Star Wars” look.  Perhaps most impressive is that the trailers played up the hype without giving away the plot twists.

It’s not really a film that could stand on its own.  Coming in, it might  work for a completely new viewer, though all of the references and a lot of the drama would get lost.  Going out, it has set up many questions and answers very few of them, as well as outlining the main tensions for the next couple films, so it is not a finished story.  With that understood, overall I’d give it about a B+.

In a week or so I will be posting a longer bit to discuss some of my thoughts about the plot and background, but for now I am steering well clear of even possibilities of spoilers.

Review: Dr. Zhivago

Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago is by the standards of Russian novels positively svelte, which means it still goes on for some five hundred pages.  I suspect at least in the United States the film of the same name, based on the novel, may be better known – although I have not myself seen the film and am only familiar with the score.

Set in Russia in the first half of the 20th century, Dr. Zhivago tells the story of a man who grows up with the unrest at the turn of that century, serves in the army in World War I – and then must deal with the ramifications of the ensuing civil war and Soviet state.  Pasternak is less than flattering on the subject of the Communist Party apparatus, and although he names no names that was still enough for the USSR to refuse it publication: it was instead (wikipedia informs me) smuggled out to an Italian publisher.

It does share one quirk with the other Russian novels I’ve read, which are Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s War and Peace: both characters and author will periodically digress on philosophical tangents, and not only do different characters state different views, the authors seem to feel no need to make sure at least some character agrees with them.  This is most noticeable with Tolstoy, I think, who is constantly pointing out that such-and-such a conclusion is incorrect.

Not only much shorter, Zhivago is also much faster paced than those other two books.  I think if the events and many of the characters’ decisions were as drawn out, it would be much harder to read; as it is, Pasternak keeps his readers’ interest and his characters their sympathy.  It is not, I think, one of my favorite novels but is one I am likely to read again.

Review: The Rising Sun

It is a bit of an odd coincidence that I would get around to writing about John Toland’s history of World War II as perceived by Japan on December 7th.  I even considered putting it off another day, but I think there is a certain fitness to it as well.  Titled in full The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945, Toland’s work focuses in some detail on Japanese politics leading up to war with the United States and on the internal negotiations required before the Japanese surrender.  The military campaigns between are sketched, with a curious amount of detailed attention paid to Guadalcanal (perhaps as a sort of icon of Japanese difficulties throughout the war) but otherwise as much said about the infighting, misperceptions, and socially driven problems of the Japanese campaign.

It is an interesting book as much as for what is left out as for what is put in.  Japan’s campaigns in Asia proper are mentioned briefly, but despite contending that the drain on resources was significant – an entirely plausible claim – little detail is given to them.  Similarly, Japanese atrocities in the Philippines are examined fairly closely, but those in China or Korea barely mentioned.  This is – unfortunately – hardly unique in writing on World War II, but curious given Toland’s clear intention to at least outline the entire scope of Japanese planning and action.  Intention outrunning performance is of course also less than uncommon.

The most interesting aspect, especially in comparison with more standard histories (especially from the period relatively soon after the war; The Rising Sun was published in 1970), is Toland’s examination of Japanese ideals and actions – contrasted with Allied ideals and actions.  For a brief summary: what do we make of Japan’s conception of itself as a Pan-Asian leader, contrasted with its colonialist brutality in its campaigns; but then set against American proclamations of democratic idealism, as against actual connivance with continued French or (save for a popular revolt) Dutch colonialism?

Toland I would guess began with a thesis, which in the course of his research faded to something more like the desire to convey an impression.  The most distinct impression created is the tragedy of the war: the Japanese pre-war judgment (which led, Japanese military theories being what they were, directly to the Pearl Harbor attack) that as they stood the Japanese ambitions were incompatible with American interests seems incontrovertible, but Japanese and American misunderstandings of each other’s politics and culture contributed to the way the war came, and the way it ended, both far more dramatic and destructive than it seems they might have been.  That the narrative ends more or less with the Japanese surrender was perhaps the only plausible option; however,  a continuation or another work considering both the continuation and transformation of Japanese politics and culture would be necessary, I think, for any kind of real conclusion to the story Toland begins.  Though 1936 is rather a middle of things place to begin the tale, as well.