Category: Reviews

Spoiler Free Review: Star Wars – The Last Jedi

It’s good. I wouldn’t say brilliant but it certainly has its moments. Much better than any of the prequels and nothing truly horrible about it. There are moments where you thing the story is going one way and then it doesn’t.

There is a self conciousness about the film with respect to The Empire Strikes back including some obvious nods but this isn’t like A New Hope versus The Force Awakens. The film has its own story that follows naturally from the previous one and it ends in an interesting but unusual way for a Star Wars film.

I’m going to say it is the most left-leaning of the Star Wars films. This isn’t because it expresses any overtly left sentiments – as we’ve seen many times the right are happy to cast themselves as the rebels or see The Empire as communism etc rather than space nazis, and while we are here lets not forget the huge capitalist force pulling in all the money from this film. Even so, it has an aesthetic and awareness of ‘The Resistance” that won’t sit comfortably with the right and a sense in which the force of good here is not the defenders of the status quo but people who might want to make the lives of people better. The unadressed issues of shitty the Republic was in the prequels being hinted at as something the good guys are opposed to.

Kylo Ren is growing on me as a character. He still is the angry and whiny man from Episode 7 but there are layers and a system to him.

Not many mysteries answered. I hope this isn’t verging too much on spoilers but there is an unreliable revelation about Ray’s parentage that I hope they are sticking with.

My main complaint: not enough R2 in this film.

If you like Star Wars then you’ll enjoy this I think. If you don’t, then you might not like but it has a bit more too it than the last one.

 

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Review: Neoreaction – A Basilisk By Philip Sandifer and Jack Graham

The latest collections of essays from Philip Sandifer is named after the first and longest entry. Thematically the collection takes the reader into a strange world that has intruded into our space in the form of the alt-right. The first four are the most closely interconnected thematically:

  • Neoreaction – a basilisk: a look at the deep but incoherent ideas of a trio of thinkers behind neoreaction.
  • The All Seeing Eye of Gamergate: a reprise and discussion of the events and nature of Gamergate as a phenomenon.
  • Theses on a President: a discussion of Trump – primarily in terms of his prior history as a character.
  • No Laws for the Lion many Laws for the Oxen: an examination with regular collaborator Jack Graham of the Austrian School of economics

These are followed by two more:

  • Lizard People, Dear Reader: A look at the strange ideas of former UK TV personality David Icke
  • My Vagina is Haunted: A discussion of the anti-transgender prejudices of a set of some feminists.

And finally, the collection is capped off with a reprise of some of the themes in an essay entitled Zero to Zero.

The first four provide a historical tour of an idea-space that is both alien and familiar in which psychic monsters wrestle with the Enlightenment. Arguably they fall out of sequence, with the fourth essay perhaps making more sense as a starting point.

The Austrian School of economics should be little more than a footnote – or perhaps a case study in the pathology of ideas. It remains significant as an obsession among libertarians and libertarian influenced members of the right, particularly in the USA. As a form of economics, it is deep nonsense. Deep in so far as it has a complex set of ideas and represents an extensive philosophical program to establish a unique approach to economics within an ideological frame. Nonsense in so far as it makes no methodological sense. For anybody who has discussed politics on the internet for the past few decades, you’ll have encountered the apparently bright, earnest but oddly incoherent ‘libertarian’ who would assert that Von Mises had demonstrated such and such but was unable to explain what they meant. The key element is a strong and fundamental rejection of empiricism as a principle – the Austrian School attempted to build up economics as kind of axiomatic discipline.

To call it pseudo-science is almost misleading – pseudoscience implies a superficial imitation of the scientific approach. Instead, the Austrian school was what might be called a pseudo-geometry – one of many failed attempts to rebuild a discipline following the model of Euclid’s elements. This approach can create some magnificent but fragile intellectual architecture – Spinoza’s Ethics being the most lasting example. As an approach it is rather like dead reckoning as a means of navigation: it requires a sound starting point and no errors in the steps taken on the way but the further you progress without checking to see whether your calculated position matches observations, you are inevitably doomed to get lost. In the Austrian’s case, neither their starting position nor there derived conclusions were sound and the resulting edifice of a theory is essentially bunk. Yet this bunk remains influential as a repeated idea within the libertarian influenced the US right.

As an essay, I thought ‘No Laws for Lions’ was less successful than the others, mainly because it sought to contrast the Austrian School with Marxist economics. It isn’t that the contrast isn’t interesting but in the company with the first three essay (which I will come back to) feels like a diversion. That is not really a fault with the essay as a thing in itself more with how it fits with the historical theme that develops when you look at the four topics as they develop in historical order:

  • The Austrian School as an influence on modern US rightwing thought (chapter 4).
  • Neoreaction as a 21st-century philosophical pathology grounded within internet culture. (chapter 1)
  • Gamergate as an intrusion of the ‘alt-right’ into the mainstream popular culture. (chapter 2)
  • Donald Trump (chapter 3)

The steady decline into nightmarish incoherence and simplistic fascism on the right are what becomes clearer through these essays.

The title essay is the longest and most complex. It has more of the complex (perhaps self-indulgent) structural play that Philip Sandifer does well (well I enjoy it – your mileage may vary) and inevitably that means a lengthy diversion into the visionary mythology of William Blake. However, even if Blake isn’t your thing, this is worth a read (and you can skip the Blake bits if necessary).

Neoreaction: A Basilisk looks at three figures that play a kind of foundational role among the rightwing of internet culture. They are simultaneously figures of great influence and nearly no influence at all when it comes to the alt-right. They are highly influential in so far as they helped create (for one of them, unintentionally) a dialogue which encouraged a rejection of much of the development in political-philosophy since (and including) the enlightenment – if you’ve been wondering why when talking about the alt-right we keep bumping into a distorted view of the middle-ages or find that we have to re-litigate debates from the 14th century, this is why. On the other hand, the current alt-right really have no intellectual foundations at all and best understood as the same toxic form of racism, misogyny, paranoia and authoritarianism that is best described as fascism.

The three figures examined are Eliezer Yudkowsky, Mencius Moldbug, and Nick Land. Of those Yudkowsky is the most interesting and, as Sandifer does repeatedly point out, not a ‘neoreactionary’. What Yudkowsky has in common with not only Moldbug and Land but also the Austrian Economic school, is this same expectation that a broader understanding of the world can be built up from some secure intellectual foundations. As a way of understanding the world, it is doomed to fail for the same reasons I’ve described above.

We lack a good word for the process. ‘Madness’ is to associated with mental illness and as a fallacious way of discrediting those you disagree with. However, it is the best analogy we have. I’ve used the term ‘pathological’ but that still has medical overtones – what we need is a word for how a person can follow apparently (or superficially) rational steps and find themselves advancing anti-rational positions. In Yudkowsky’s case, this is particularly ironic as he has been overtly concerned with avoiding fallacious reasoning.

With Land and Moldbug, this push towards a philosophy that is both far-right and anti-rational is more intentional – a desire to create an edifice of connected ideas to reject modern assumptions about democracy, society and humanity. Sandifer connects all three with their sense of horror about the world that is best described as ‘Lovecraftian’ – as if they each peered into their own ideas and saw horrors and two of them found the horrors particularly attractive.

The Gamergate essay is more familiar territory. Familiar villains (Vox Day, Milo et al) and their villainy. A more simplistic alt-right the baroque complexities of the neoreactionaries but connected by a common theme of internet culture, as well as a kind of nihilism used to justify authoritarianism. Within the process of Gamergate, the kind of epistemological angst explored by Yudkowsky’s thought experiments about future AIs becomes a direct and immediate problem as Gamergaters faced their own confusion as to who was who, which false-flags where which and what anything meant anyway. As the Gamergate proceeded, flinging deep and serious harm at individuals, the epistemological nihilism grew in turn with pranksters and trolls not always clear whether they were one, the other or sincere campaigners for a set of ideals that nobody could adequately express.

Which takes us to the punchline: Donald Trump. The escape from the crisis for the right becomes as inevitable as the Greek tragedy. With a loss of any sense of truth (empirical, observational, logical, ethical) the singularity becomes not some all-knowing future AI but an authoritarian solipsist. A man for whom truth is purely subjective and who the right puts in charge apparently because he is the only being who does not doubt – of course he does not doubt because he doesn’t understand why he should (again rejecting empiricism, observation, logic, ethics and empathy).

The essays chart a landscape of something – a monster or a mad-god that we encounter as either unvarnished evil in our modern world or as gibbering edifice of ideas that simply do not form a coherent whole and which seek only to justify the unvarnished evil. I’m not sure these are even ideas that can be understood or should be but I think collectively these essays help define the ugly shape of them.

Review: River of Teeth – Taste of Marrow Sarah Gailey

This pair of novellas is much better to read as a single novel. The first introduces the premise of a 19th-century alternative version of America, where hippos are ranched and some live feral in the Mississipi river.

River of Teeth follows a plot where former Hippo rancher Winslow Houndstooth recruits a party of outlaw misfits to run a job for a federal agent. The job in question is blowing a dam to destroy an artificial lake that has become infested with bloodthirsty feral hippos.

Revenge and betrayal but also new found relationships mark the first novella. However, the calamitous events at the end of the novella feel rushed and it comes crashing to an end before we’ve really engaged with the characters.

The plot of the second novella seems ostensibly simpler. Houndstooth is looking for his lover Hero after they were separated at the end of River of Teeth. Yet this is when the story as a whole really begins to hang together. The characters pop out into three dimensions and leave their hastily drawn versions behind. Overall, the second is a more satisfying read, it assumes the readers have immersed themselves in the premises of this familiar yet utterly different 19th century America and just lets the current of the events take their course.

Submerge yourself into the story let your disbelief float away and then let the prepostorous menace of the book drag you under…

Trek Tuesday: Patterns of Force

To continue on the them of classic Trek episodes relevant to Star Trek Discovery, I wanted to look at some episodes that I call ‘bad Federation’ episodes i.e. episodes in which the Federation or agents of the Federation do particularly bad things.

Patterns of Force is not a famous title for an episode because it is simpler to call it ‘the one with the Nazis’. I think of it as also one of many episodes where the Enterprise find themselves in a different time period – sometimes because of literal time travel, sometimes because of alien shenanigans and sometimes because a future planet resembles Earth of a given time for some reason. Now, I had mis-remembered the ‘some reason’ in this case being a rogue starship captain but it is actually a Federation historian who was off on a non-interference observation mission but decided to make everybody Nazis instead. I feel it forms one of a pair with the later (far worse) episode “The Omega Glory” which I’ll get to next time.

A quick plot summary:

The Enterprise is heading to a system with two inhabited planets: Ekos and Zeon. When Starfleet last visited, Zeon was peaceful and more technologically advanced than Ekos. Spock and Kirk beam down in disguise (jeans! a wolly hat!) so as to blend in with the locals as they look for the lost Federation historian John Gill. On arriving they are mystified to find that Ekos is run by Nazis who are stoking up hatred of people from Zeon.

Various shenanigans ensue, mainly involving knocking out passing gaurds and stealing their uniforms. Kirk and Spock discover that the Führer is actually John Gill and then later discover he is no more than a figurehead, kept drugged by an even more evil Nazi. McCoy helps Gill get better and he denounces the more evil Nazi only to be shot. At that point everybody gives up being a Nazis – mainly because the inner party seems to have been largely infiltrated by Zeon sympathizers.

It’s better than it sounds. It is often inadvertently funny and sometimes deliberately so. The major and glaring problem is John Gill – who seems to have had some utterly delusional ideas about Nazism. Worse, Spock also affirms these idiotic claims that somehow Nazi Germany was particularly efficient. In Spock’s defense, at the start of the episode Spock had revealed that he’d learned about Earth history from Gill’s books – so there you go, if you learn history from a closet Nazi you’ll end up saying stupid things about Nazis even if you are Spock.

Spock’s history mangling is there to both explain Gill’s very odd behaviour (and direct violation of Federation policy on non-interference) but also to give Kirk something to push back against. Kirk more clearly articulates a Nazis-are-always-bad line but we are still left with an uncomfortably equivocal stance on the obvious badness of Nazis.

The positives? The episode forms part of a growing emphasis on non-interference and a concept of planetary civilizations needing a chance to develop at their own pace. In this case we have a Federation observer breaking that directive in the worst and least subtle way possible.

Dark Debrief

I’ve finished watching the German Netflix show Dark and it was indeed Dark. I also bought and ate a Twix today without thinking. Spoilers below as this post is for me to take stock and make notes of the twisty turns – particularly if there is a second season as the ending implies.

A fold and then don’t continue unless you like spoilers or have watched it all already.

Continue reading

Trek Tuesday – Trouble With Tribbles

The pretext for tying this to Star Trek: Discovery is slim:

  • It has Klingons in it
  • It has a Harry Mudd stand-in character, Cyrano Jones
  • It has a Klingon spy in it

Aside from that, the episode is a long way from Star Trek: Discovery. It is also brilliant.

giphy

I had feared that Trouble With Tribbles would let me down. It was easily one of my most favorite episodes as a child and I was apprehensive that it was not as good as I remember it. Truth is that it remains genuinely funny, partly because of some great physical comedy and timing from William Shatner but also some great ensemble banter among the rest of the Enterprise crew.

Other neat features is that the Klingon characters get a bit more to do than act villainous and also there is overt continuity with other episodes. The ‘Organian Peace Treaty’ is discussed as a shout out to the events of Errand of Mercy. I suspect part of the reputation of the episode is that it helps establish Star Trek as a story with continuity and existing in a wider universe. This also helps explain some of the love for Harry Mudd episodes that I otherwise find mystifying – TV audiences found that they liked when incidental characters came back and that one episode connected with another.

I shan’t recap the plot because for the most part it doesn’t matter. The stakes are low, there is a bar fight, there is a conman and the assistant of the obnoxious Federation bureaucrat is a Klingon spy in disguise. Luckily, Tribbles react badly to Klingons which leads to the spy being exposed. It is shallow and inconsequential but brilliantly establishes the Enterprise as setting in a broader universe. Kirk has to contend with Starfleet giving him not-unreasonable but vexing orders, managing relations with the vexatious Klingons, his  own crew variously misbehaving or innocently causing trouble, not to mention a creeping infestation of cuteness.

A low stakes episode of a Trek series can do a lot of work in establishing that the cast is a crew. Trouble With Tribbles also demonstrates the capacity for Trek to do comedy without falling into parody.

One last note: Errand of Mercy and Trouble With Tribbles share plot continuity but another common thread is that they also both involve Kirk being taken down a peg or two. I suspect that is a common theme in the episode I like best. Sorry Kirk! (and again kudos to William Shatner who plays those moments very well).

Review: Dark – Netflix

This is a part review as I’m just past the halfway point of this German production. There are some inevitable twists coming but I think I have a good sense of the series now. The obvious comparisons are with Twin Peaks and Stranger Things but both comparisons are misleading. The show has very little in common with either of those when it comes to the tone or the non-science fiction elements. The similarity lies in the basic premise and the setting but if you tune in expecting humour of Stranger Things or the oddball qualities of Twin Peaks, you will be disappointed. A better comparison might be with the US/UK show The Oaks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oaks_Trilogy ) which used time periods and supernatural elements to examine different families. [ETA: less similar in terms of plot but Fortitude has a similar mix of heavy drama with SF elements]

The show has a double setting – primarily the focus is on the town of Winden in 2019. The town is set amid an extensive forest and the main employer is a nuclear power plant – which is scheduled to be decommissioned in the near future. In 1986, thirty-three years earlier, the show we meet many of the same characters as teenagers or younger adults. Joining the two eras are a series of disappearances of boys and what is best described as a presence in the Winden Caves that lie deep in the forest and which extend towards the power plant.

It is no spoiler to say this is a time-travel/time-slip mystery. From the beginning elements such as clocks are underlined, we get repeated quotes from Einstein, snippets of lectures on Black Holes, and an old guy warning that ‘it is happening again’. On top of that, we get an opening title sequence that (very effectively) uses reflections to create a disturbing view of the normal and a teacher lecturing his class on the use of symmetry and foreshadowing in the work of Goethe. I wonder if the producers entirely trusted their audience to follow where the show wanted to go.

The pay off comes at the end of episode three when the connections between 2019 and 1986 characters are made overt. What was an initially a confusing set of characters becomes clearer as the set of families involved and the relationships between them become clearer. Betrayals and loss and teenage romance form a web and events between the two eras become more entwined.

The science fiction plot is not new but is well executed even if some aspects may seem familiar (e.g. one Doctor Who episode in particular which I won’t name because of spoilers but which you can probably guess). It is well supported by an eery tone and really unsettling music that creates an atmosphere of malevolence. To what extent the underlying evil at work is supernatural, human-made, science-fictional or metaphysical is still unclear – and of course, it is more than likely a full resolution won’t be given.

There are a few hints to a fairy-tale aspect to the story: children lost in the primordial forest, caves, labyrinths, but also a repeated motif around foxes.

Some misses: the only gay character is portrayed as this being their shameful secret – which also leads to a cliched representation of a transgender character as a sex worker. There is also an annoying apparent amnesia among the 2019 cast about things we know they witnessed in 1986. These are not the genre-savvy protagonists of Stranger Things – in particular, Ulrich who is a detective in 2019 and a surly teenager in 1986 takes an age to spot an important connection and nearly ALL the adult of 2019 appear to have missed something very obvious (although distrubingly mind-bending) about somebody they all knew.

In the defence of the adult characters in 2019, they all have messed up personal lives and what the show does well is connect the toxic relationships between the families (and their 2019 teenage children) with the ongoing trauma of missing boys both in 2019 and 1986.

I prefer more humour to leaven the creepiness but the serious tone does work with this show. The tone is more serious British drama than pop-culture SF but it does drag you in to a story that uses familiarity to unsettle you.

  • I have four episodes left to watch. Events in 1953 are now in play and at least one character has a better sense of what is going on.
  • Lots of content warnings around child endangerment and kidnapping themes. Some disturbing images and an unsettling tone.
  • Netflix has an English audio track but I found the German audio with English subtitles easier to watch.