bobI don’t often review widely-read books, as you may have noticed. I like seeking out hidden indie gems. This book has over 2000 reviews on Amazon, so it’s not really hidden. But it came recommended to me by not one, but two friends whose tastes run along the same lines as my own, so I had to give it a try. And am I ever glad I did.

The titular “Bob” is Bob Johansson, a software developer and science-fiction fan who signs up to have his brain preserved after his death, to be revived in some distant future. He little expects that a freak accident will cause that death shortly after he does so.

Bob wakes up in the distant future to find himself the subject of a study conducted under the auspices of a religious extremist government called FAITH. The ultimate objective of the operation is to place one of the revived minds aboard a deep-space probe, to be sent out to explore the galaxy. While Bob only gets limited information from the scientists conducting the operation, it soon becomes clear that political tensions on Earth—both within FAITH and elsewhere—are reaching a boiling point, and Bob is fortunate to have his mind sent off into the cosmos just as disaster strikes and full-scale nuclear war erupts.

From there, Bob begins creating a virtual reality interface for himself, just to feel more human, as well as countless “copies” of his mind, using the powerful autofactories at his disposal to deploy more “Bobs” to other parts of the galaxy.

The Bobs begin to develop their own names and personalities, and become different characters in their own right. Some return to Earth, to help what remains of humanity recover from the aftermath of the war, while others venture to new worlds, and encounter new forms of life, including one, the Deltans, who resemble primitive humans in ways that lead to some of the Bobs taking them under their care.

This book is a marvelous exercise in hard sci-fi—Mr. Taylor clearly did his research on every aspect, from space stations to interstellar travel to artificial intelligences. The Bobs make a few derisive references to “hand-waving about nanomachines” in sci-fi, which made me smile since I have been guilty of just that. While obviously any science-fiction work is bound to have some unexplained elements—it has to, otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction—the amount of research and scientific knowledge that went into We Are Legion is impressive.

But despite the technological elements, and the occasionally very abstract scenes where Bob exists as a consciousness with no apparent physical form, the book is written with a light, relatable touch. The tone is humorous, and all the Bobs share a sarcastic sense of humor, a penchant for references to classic sci-fi, and a fundamentally good nature.

I do have a few small criticisms. There is a brief period in the book, when Bob is first sent out into the universe, where things are so abstract it was hard for me to visualize what was happening. But this ends quickly when Bob creates the VR interface.

The religious fanatic government mentioned in the early chapters felt a bit over the top to me, but just as I was feeling this, Bob headed into space, and it became a relatively small part of the plot.

The lack of a large cast of characters might be a problem for some readers. Indeed, there’s really only one true “character”, albeit with multiple versions. For me, this worked–more on that shortly–but I can see that if you don’t like the basic Bob character, the whole book would be less appealing. It’s pretty much all Bob, all the time.

Finally, the ending felt a little abrupt–but then, it’s only the first installment in a series, so leaving the reader wanting more is really a good thing. There are certainly plenty of interesting themes here.

We Are Legion touches on a number of sensitive matters like politics, religion and philosophy. From the fundamentalist rulers of the former United States, to the struggles of humans in the post-war fight for resources, to the arguments among the Deltans on a distant world, the book explores both how political discord occurs and how it can be resolved. There are elements of satire here, but only rarely does it get too heavy-handed.

Religion too is handled in a very interesting way, quite apart from the FAITH government. By the end of the book, one of the Bobs is essentially playing God to an alien race. Again, Taylor is subtle about it, but the theological and philosophical ideas this raises are absolutely fascinating. It reminded me a little of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic, Childhood’s End.

But what I liked most of all is how the book plays with the concept of “self”—as I mentioned, most of the major characters are all copies of the original Bob, but they each evolve in distinct ways. The more senior “Bobs” liken this to having children, and that might be true. What it reminded me of was the experience of writing—as a writer, you create these characters who all have little facets of yourself in them. At least, that’s how it is for me. I can recognize aspects of me in every character I write, even the bad ones or the ones I consciously based on other people. 

This examination of multiple aspects of the same personality by spreading it across different characters is really interesting to me. It reminded me of the different incarnations of the Nameless One in Planescape: Torment. And I think you all know what high praise that is, coming from me.

I can’t say too much more without spoiling major plot points, but you get the idea by now: this is a really fun science-fiction novel, and I recommend it. It’s the first in a series, and I am looking forward to reading the next one. 

I don’t have much time to read these days.  For this reason, I find audiobooks really convenient–I can listen to them while I’m doing something else.  It’s a real time-saver.

So it occurred to me that I’m probably not the only person who doesn’t have time to read much.  And that led me to realize maybe my readers would find it convenient to have audio versions of some of my really long posts.

While recording some of the poetry readings I’ve posted, I also recorded a reading of one of my recent posts on geopolitical and religious history. (The original post is here.)

And so now you can listen to me pontificating about various subjects while you are doing other things.  It’s like having a little Ruined Chapel RSS feed running in your mind, as if a dystopian government had placed a propaganda chip in your brain.

Uh… bad analogy.  Never mind.  Anyway, try it out if you like.

[The video above is substantially the same as the text below.  The text has more links and a few additional notes.  The video may be more convenient for some.]

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very interesting column imagining a conversation between Jesus Christ and Speaker Paul Ryan. There will no doubt be controversy as to whether it is brilliant satire or blasphemy.

Kristof’s point is that Ryan is a hypocrite for professing to be a Christian and yet supporting a health care bill that would result in poor people losing health insurance coverage.

The theme is one that Democrats have hammered on for decades: how can the Republicans get such strong support from Christians, and vocally proclaim their own devout Christianity, while simultaneously pushing policies that appear to be in opposition to what Christ taught?

Not being a religious person, I don’t really consider myself qualified to get involved in this argument.  What I can do, though, is talk about the historical and philosophical background of this apparent hypocrisy.  As my readers know, I like to try to understand things in their historical context.

In this case, we are going to need some 2000 years of historical context to properly understand what’s going on here.

Buckle up.

(more…)

I thought Oliver Stone’s JFK would be the weirdest movie I ever saw about the Kennedy assassination, but Jackie has surpassed it.  I went to see it again, thinking I must have been mistaken in my first impression.  The film can’t possibly be as bizarre as I remember, I thought. I must have just misunderstood it.

I didn’t.

I did get a few lines of dialogue slightly wrong in my original review, but as it turned out, the lines were even stranger than I remembered.  In Jackie’s frenzied query about the caliber of the bullet, she not only says she thinks it’s a heavier round “like soldiers use”, but also like those used for deer hunting.

Also, her aide doesn’t say “build a fortress in Boston and disappear.” He says “Disappear. Build a fortress in Boston.” Not appreciably better.

I talked to someone else about this movie, trying to work out what it was all about. She had an interesting interpretation: that the Journalist and the Priest who Jackie talks to aren’t meant as literal characters but as representatives of Journalism and Religion.

This would explain why these characters don’t have names; they are just “the Journalist” and “the Priest”. It also explains why their dialogues with Jackie seem so surreal. The Journalist, in particular, is way too rude to her–I don’t think a journalist would speak like that to any interview subject, especially not the President’s widow. But if he’s representing Journalism in general, Jackie’s perception would be that Journalists are incredibly rude.

Interpreted this way, the dialogues aren’t two characters talking; they are philosophical exercises meant to examine Jackie’s relationship to the institutions of the Press and the Church. And by extension, it makes sense to guess that most of the rest of the movie is her interaction with another institution: the Government.

If you watch the movie this way, you get the sense that Jackie is extremely disenchanted with all three of these.  That’s sort of what I meant when I wrote the movie was subversive–major institutions appear useless or untrustworthy.

All that said, I’m still not convinced that this is the way to interpret the movie.  Besides which, I’ve never been a big fan of allegories, and this one–if indeed that is what it is–is still ham-handed.  A piece of drama must work first as drama, and only then can it have allegorical or symbolic meaning.  The dialogues in Jackie are not smooth dialogues, no matter how much philosophical depth they may have or aspire to have.

But I don’t want to just give a short-attention span dismissal and say, “Oh, the script is rotten. Sad!” Because while it gets almost all the micro-level details of dialogue wrong, there is one very macro-level idea that it gets right, and that is the use of images and symbols (e.g. JFK’s funeral procession) to create legacies, and to shape the perception of history.

A few other observations:

  • The soundtrack didn’t seem as bad this time, although I still thought it came in too loud at inappropriate times when silence would have been better.
  • The scene where the Priest sums up his reflections on Life and Death is very strong, largely because it is the late John Hurt delivering the lines.  Great actor. R.I.P.
  • I said this before, but it’s worth repeating: all the acting was great, which was especially impressive given the problems I’ve mentioned with the dialogue.
  • Have I mentioned I have some issues with the script?

Lastly, I don’t get why people are calling this a “biopic”.  It isn’t one. A biopic should give you a sense of who a person is, and how they evolve over time.  Jackie takes place over a very short time frame, and it deals with a woman’s reaction to a tragic and shocking crime that had few historical parallels. That’s fascinating subject matter, but it’s not a biopic because it really doesn’t give you a larger sense of who Jackie was or what her life was like.

I’m not complaining about that.  I think this was a far more innovative thing to do.  I’m just saying they shouldn’t be calling it a “biopic”.  It’s more of a historical drama, on the order of Julius Caesar.

That’s all for now.  I might write more later.  This movie has limitless potential for discussion.

This hashtag started trending on Twitter after Hillary Clinton’s speech about the Alt-Right movement.  As some readers may remember, I’ve had lively debates with some Alt-Right writers in the past, so I was interested to see that the existence of this ideology is seemingly news to many people.

I started thinking about how I’d concisely describe the Alt-Right.  The best I could come up with was “unabashed nationalism”, but that seems inadequate.

After thinking about it a bit more, I settled on this definition:

The Traditional Right got outraged about movies that they believed blasphemed against the Bible, like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Life of Brian.  The Alternative Right gets outraged about a movie that they believe blasphemed against Ghostbusters.

It’s a rather awkward definition, but very revealing, in my opinion.

 

Sir Thomas More (image via Wikipedia)
       Kim Davis (Image via Gawker)

Every once in a while you just get a stroke of luck as a blogger.  I was thinking about Thomas More because of my post last week, and then the news this week has been dominated by the story of Kim Davis, the Kentucky Clerk of Courts who refuses to certify marriage licenses for gay couples in her county.

For background: More refused on religious grounds to acknowledge King Henry VIII’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn.  He resigned his post as Chancellor because of his refusal to compromise his beliefs.  That wasn’t good enough for the King, who ultimately had him executed over his continued refusal.

I’m not even a religious person, but I do kind of admire More’s guts.  Somebody really did need to stand up to the King.

Fast forward about five centuries: Kim Davis also refuses to recognize marriages on religious grounds.  Is she an outstanding example of defending one’s principles, like More?

Nope.

Notice the bit above where More resigned.  Davis refuses to do that.  She is effectively saying that her beliefs trump the rule of law.  More never said that–he just said that he would not carry out something that violated his beliefs, and refused to be part of a system that required him to do so.  Davis is trying to have it both ways: be part of the system and put her beliefs over and above the system itself.

And that is the difference between being a principled martyr taking a stand and somebody just trying to make a scene.

I was wandering through the library the other day, and as inevitably happens when I do that, I wound up in the History section. I started looking at some books on the English Civil war.  I began by looking for a book on Oliver Cromwell, but ended reading some about his opponent, King Charles I.

I really know very little about the period, so almost all of it was new to me. (I didn’t check any of the books out, so I can’t remember who wrote them, sorry) What I gathered from my cursory reading was that the main causes of the war were (1) Parliament’s belief that King Charles had too much power and (2) religious differences between Parliament and the King. Parliament was Puritan–or at, least Cromwell was–and the King was Anglican, and seen as having ties to the Catholics, or ‘Popists’, as they were apparently called.

In one of the books, I came across the assertion that after King Charles was removed and Cromwell created the Commonwealth of England, it ushered in a new era of Religious Toleration.

Now, for all I know, this is true. But it sounded weird to me.  The Puritans were many things, but as far as I was aware, they weren’t really famous for being the most tolerant bunch.  Now, I can believe that Puritanism was tolerated more under Cromwell et al. than it was under King Charles, but was religion in general more free?  That I’m not so sure of.

Anyway, I’m about to embark on an internet odyssey to find out more about the English Civil War, because until this week most of my knowledge of the period came from Monty Python’s song about Oliver Cromwell. So stay tuned; I’ll probably be doing more posts about stuff I should have learned in school.

John Trumbull’s ‘Declaration of Independence.’ 1819

So, first of all, happy Independence day. My conservative friends may not believe me, but part of the reason I spend so much time criticizing politics in this country is because I think it really is a very great country. One of my favorite JFK quotes is “This is a great country, but I think it could be a greater country.”

[This is the same reason that when I write about football, I critique good teams–it’s way more interesting than criticizing lousy ones.]

With that in mind, let’s talk about the Supreme Court.

First off, let me talk about Chief Justice Roberts.  I can’t figure him out.  Liberals I know say he is just a Conservative who rules however the Conservatives want something to go.  But that’s obviously not true; or else he would have struck down the Affordable Care Act. So he isn’t just some guy who rules based on the party line.  He has some kind of judicial philosophy–the question is, what is it?

Second item: the latest Supreme Court case in the news is the Hobby Lobby case, wherein Chief Justice Roberts ruled, along with the Majority, that employers don’t have to pay for insurance plans covering contraceptives.  I’ve heard a lot of criticism of this ruling, saying it is a disaster for women and a re-ignition of the “War on Women” from 2012.

My opinion? Yes, but it’s even worse than that.

The trouble is, when religion gets involved, things always get murky.  I don’t want to insult anybody’s beliefs, but the fact of the matter is that religion is based on faith, not legal precedent or factual evidence.  Which is fine, but it makes it tough to deal with in a legal case, because it is about unquantifiable, supernatural things.  As the greatest legal mind in the English-speaking world, the Lord Chancellor from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, said:

Ah! but, my good sir, you mustn’t tell us what she [Chorused nature] told you — it’s not evidence. Now an affidavit from a thunderstorm, or a few words on oath from a heavy shower, would meet with all the attention they deserve.

There are a lot of different religions. And all of them give different versions of what God is supposed to have said what to do or not do.

My question is: how far does this really go? What if I’m a business owner and my religion forbids all health insurance?  Can I not provide coverage?  For that matter, if I’m a business owner, and my religion forbids following government safety mandates, can I get out of that, too?

Obviously, this Court ruling doesn’t really mean that. But the question is, why doesn’t it mean that? Because that is the implied logical precedent, it seems to me.

Whenever the issue of gay marriage comes up, you’ll often hear the opponents talk of it meaning “re-defining marriage”.

Does it really mean that?

I’m not so sure.  All I ever heard all my life was that you were supposed to marry the person you fell in love with.  For a long time, this has always been the standard.  Now, society assumed for centuries that you could only have romantic love between a man and a woman.  But gays obviously show that is not the case.  So, if you have two people of the same gender in romantic love, the logic suggests they should be allowed to marry, under the current definition.

Of course, marriage was not always based on romantic love. In other cultures through history, there have been examples of arranged marriages, or marriages made to cement some treaty or alliance between families or some such.  So, it’s true that at some point, a re-definition of marriage went on.  But it obviously happened quite some time ago; as for centuries now people have been getting married based on love.

I talked before in this post about why opponents of gay marriage use the Bible to justify their position.  And I’ll say this: given the circumstances of the tribes wandering in the desert, the Biblical prohibition of homosexuality makes sense.  The mortality rate must have been extremely high back then, so I figure they knew that they needed everyone who could reproduce to do so, regardless of preference. “Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, and all that.

But of course, that was then, and this is now.

The same sort of thing applies to this “re-definition” claim. It would be right if this were five hundred years ago.

Peter Hitchens is one of my favorite conservative writers.  I do not agree with him on very much, but he is an intelligent man, who usually analyzes political and social matters very well, even if he comes to very different conclusions than I do.

That said, sometimes he makes some pretty wacky assertions. For example, in his column today, Hitchens writes:

I am worried by the TV popularity of George R.R. Martin’s clever fantasy Game Of Thrones.

Mr Martin’s imaginary world is frighteningly cruel. The society it describes is far worse than the Middle Ages, because its characters are entirely unrestrained by Christian belief. [Emphasis mine] There’s a lifeless, despised religion but nobody takes it seriously.

I fear it will make those who watch it worse people than they were before.

I never watched this show, or read the books it is based on.   Yet, I still find this statement very, very difficult to believe.  There were a lot of bad things done in the Middle Ages, and its hard to see how George R.R. Martin could have invented something crueler than any one thought to do back then.

My core disagreement with Hitchens is that “Christian belief” made the Middle Ages more restrained.  He would have been correct if he had said that people who practiced Christian teachings were more restrained–“All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword“, after all–but the fact is there have been many people throughout history who professed Christian belief without ever letting the tenets of such belief color their actions in any way.

I think it’s pretty clear there were people in the Middle Ages who were unrestrained by Christian teaching.  And I am only talking about in the places that were generally “Christian” lands–that becomes even more obvious when you consider all the non-Christians in the Middle Ages.

Is April Fools’ Day on the 6th this year? Or am I missing  something?  I wish Hitchens would have gone into more detail about what cruel acts the Christian restraint of the Middle Ages prevented, because I frankly can’t come up with much evidence for the claim.