Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bandstand Grandstand

Few experiences can make you either forget your age or remember it as effectually as listening to popular music. Our youthful selves are so thoroughly imprinted by the songs current during our teen years that we remember their lyrics for the rest of our lives. Hearing them immediately takes us back. The first sign of having exited “the younger generation” is thinking that music on contemporary popular radio stations is terrible by comparison. Perhaps that is the second sign; maybe the first is hearing the songs on the radio instead of some other platform.

With all that in mind I picked up Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal about the Meaning of Life by music critic Steven Hyden. He explores various sorts of rivalries within and between bands and also among listeners. There is the age-old rivalry between generations. That often fades but in one direction only: another sign of aging is noticing that our parents’ music (in my case Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, et al.) isn’t bad. But the most intense rivalries are among coeval listeners. The classic example for my generation was the common question, “Do you prefer the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” On the surface this seems like a simple matter of taste akin to asking what toppings you like on a pizza. It was understood to be a bigger question than that. An entire worldview and a statement about oneself were inherent in the answer. (I tended to sidestep the question by answering “the Animals,” which come to think of it also was telling.)

Hyden is Generation X so he doesn’t get around to Beatles/Stones until chapter 6, and then only reluctantly as “dad rock.” Mostly he speaks of what had emotional import for him, e.g. Oasis vs. Blur, Cyndi Lauper vs. Madonna, Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, Biggie vs. Tupac, White Stripes vs. Black Keys, etc. I wasn’t even aware rivalry was a thing for most of his opposing pairs, but I get it. Whether or not it is accurate or fair to regard, for example, Nirvana as outlaw and Pearl Jam as corporate (in the 90s I just lumped them both together as grunge), I can understand what a youthful listener might be trying to project by favoring one over the other – often passionately. It’s all about self-image really, and we are inclined to get passionate when protecting that. Hyden gives fair warning of what can happen if you play Metallica’s Black Album in “a room full of borderline psychopaths waiting for Megadeth to come on stage.” I’ll take his word for it. “Musical rivalries don’t matter,” he says, “until they matter to you personally.”

Some of the more interesting rivalries (touched upon by Hyden only lightly) are over alternate interpretations of songs by fans of the same band, but these are intellectual disputes and less likely to be quite so intense. Not always. As a non-pop example (not mentioned by Hyden) Friedrich Nietzsche developed key elements of his philosophy by arguing with himself passionately over Richard Wagner, first as an advocate and then as his fiercest critic. Even when the emotional volume is dialed down, such arguments can be more revealing than other kinds. For obvious reasons I won’t give a name, but in the late 90s a woman insisted to me in all sincerity that Cher’s Believe single was about addiction. Do you believe in life after love of drugs? For her (though I doubt very much for Cher) it was.

This brings to mind an old high school assignment about which I haven’t thought in decades. Every single school day in addition to other class assignments my senior English teacher required a 500 word essay. “On my desk by 5 PM. That does NOT mean 5:01!” To this day I feel I’ve forgotten something as 5 PM approaches. He usually let students pick their own topics but sometimes he would assign one. On one occasion we were told to interpret the lyrics of some popular song of our choice. My first inclination was to pick something truly weird such as MacArthur Park, Windmills of Your Mind, or Some Velvet Morning. I just about had settled on the last of those when on reconsideration I decided it was too much work for only 24 hours. (This was pre-internet, remember, so you couldn’t just look up interpretations online; you probably couldn’t even get the lyrics in 24 hours unless you owned the record and copied them yourself.) Instead I just went with the Beatles Nowhere Man, which really needs no interpretation at all. It means what it says, so that’s what I said in prose. I felt I was just skating by on minimum effort and was surprised (and oddly discomfited) by a good grade. Perhaps my punctuation was good or something. Then again, perhaps the rest of the class had been just as lazy as I in their choices. As that may be, I now realize Some Velvet Morning would have been a mistake. I hadn’t yet read Hippolytus by Euripides. (In case the reader has forgotten, it is about an ascetic young man who refuses to revere Aphrodite; Aphrodite punishes him in tortuous fashion by making his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him with tragic consequences.) No one on this continent would write lyrics with the name Phaedra in it without intending the reference. I would have missed it. My well-read English teacher would not have. He would have given me an argument and won. I was better off taking the easy route.

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra – Some Velvet Morning

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Saluting Summer

Summer is the one season to which we insist on giving an unofficial start and finish. Memorial Day and Labor Day are fine holidays in their own right (the former rather somber), but defining summer by them is fundamentally a marketing scheme. I have nothing against marketing schemes per se: they may prod economic activity to the general benefit. FDR tweaked Thanksgiving, for example, to extend the holiday shopping season a few days; formerly it sometimes fell on the last day of the month. But while I don’t object to marketing schemes I don’t feel bound by them either. Summer starts officially on the solstice (June 21 this year, at 4:24 a.m. GMT [12:24 EDT] to be precise) and ends on the equinox (September 22). These are orbital phenomena not subject to the desire for auto, carpet, and beach furniture sales. I’ll stick with the official dates. Stonehenge is a bit far from my house, so I have yet to greet the sunrise there with the Druids, but I take note of the day in my own way.

Richard (not me, another Richard) and
Gill bringing some sunshine to a cloudy
day get-together. No virgins were 
sacrificed in the proceedings
In ancient times the summer solstice was a major holiday. In much of the modern world it still is. This is not the case in the U.S., but I find it a convenient time for a party anyway. Roughly midway between Memorial Day and July 4, it doesn’t compete with other parties and barbecues, and in this part of the country the weather has a good chance of being favorable for anything outside. Despite my remarks above, I’m not overly dogmatic about the date for the celebration, for the calendar doesn’t always cooperate neatly. As a practical matter, weekdays are not ideal celebratory days for anyone with a job or classes. Accordingly, when (as this year) the solstice falls on a weekday, I’ll pick the weekend before for a get-together so that more of the usual guests can attend. At the autumnal equinox I’ll pick the weekend after if need be, though this year I see it falls conveniently on a Friday.

A plurality (29%) of Americans list autumn as their favorite season. To me this seems odd. Autumn has its attractions but I always am mindful of the slide toward winter. There are geographical differences in the answers, of course: summer can be punishing in some of the southern states making it predictably less popular there. Nonetheless summer overall still gets its fair 25% national share, and I’m squarely in that camp. As a kid I used to claim I liked winter best. To be sure, there was fun to be had in snow, but mostly I said it just to be contrarian to the grown-ups who asked the question. In truth I recall far more fun in the summer back then and I had the usual schoolboy’s affection for summer vacation. Since I became an adult (a questionable move, by the way), I’ve had to shovel my own walks, repair ice damage on my own property, and pay my own heating bills. So, I’ve given up any pretense. I’ll openly declare summer to be my season. Given an either-or choice, I’ll opt for a sweltering heat over a bone-chilling frost every time.

A good reason why became evident minutes after I wrote the above paragraph yesterday: the first significant local power failure of 2017 turned out my lights (and computer) for 12 hours. The storm did some damage regionally, but I was fortunate and merely had the outage at my place. Simply contemplatively sitting on the porch in the dark without distractions other than the sound of rain actually was rather pleasant. I often do that anyway (yes, sober), though admittedly seldom for hours at a stretch.  Compare that to my post from November 7, 2012 following Hurricane Sandy:

“It’s another evening hunkered at my office. Power is still out at my home, which means there has been no light, heat, or water (I’m on a well) there since the 29th of October. Snow is falling tonight as is the temperature. This poses a threat to my pipes in which some water no doubt lingers.”

I’ll take watching rain on a warm evening, thank you. Since I jumped the gun by a few days with the party, I’ll also toast the sun (even though it will be below the horizon) 24 minutes past midnight local time tonight.

Sam Cooke – Summertime

Friday, June 16, 2017

On Trees and Apes

From Hell It Came (1957)
In my pre-teen childhood I loved monster movies, as do most kids. Slasher films were not a thing back then and I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted to those, but I loved Wolfman, Dracula, Rodan, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and so on. I enjoyed the outpouring of low budget productions from studios in the 50s and early 60s, some of which I saw in the theater but most of which I watched on Saturday TV; they included such monsters as a giant spider, giant snails, a giant bird, a giant lobster (yes, really), giant octopus, disembodied brains, aliens of all kinds, and a 50 foot woman. One of the most ludicrous was a vengeful murdering tree. TCM, of all channels, played this on Wednesday. I hadn’t seen it in decades, and I couldn’t pass up the nostalgic silliness.

The wooden hearted fellow means to
toss her in the quicksand
The initial crawl sets up the plot: “Our story occurs on a savage island where a Prince is killed unjustly. The victim was buried upright in a hollow tree trunk. The legend says that ‘the tree walked to avenge its wrongs!’” The legend proves not to have been a one-off event. As is common in un-PC 1950s B-movies, the island witch doctor is a scheming murderer; he frames and executes Kimo, the island prince, for a crime. An American scientific research team on the South Sea island soon finds a tree growing in radioactive soil where the prince was planted. The tree has characteristics of both plant and animal; it even has a heartbeat. (It also has a knife sticking in it that was used to kill the prince.) The researchers dig up the tree and take it back to their lab. It seems to be dying but Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) insists on using her experimental formula for countering effects of radiation. She injects the tree and then they inexplicably all go to bed, figuring they’ll check on the tree in the morning. Of course the formula works during the night and the ligneous beastie lumbers off to avenge himself on the villagers.

This is a 1950s movie, so spoilers are hardly possible. You know pretty much the fate of the monster, but he doesn’t meet it until evildoers get their comeuppance. The whole thing is so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but enjoy it…but I don’t think I need to see it again.

** **
King Kong (1933)
After From Hell It Came I did feel the need to revisit the archetype of all monster movies. It wasn’t the first monster movie by any means. The 1925 The Lost World showed what was possible with stop action, but we first see the full panoply of what would become standard plot elements for the genre in King Kong. Besides, while I didn’t see Kong: Skull Island (2017) in the theater, it will be on DVD in month or two, so a revisit to the original was in order anyway as a proper precursor. As always, it was rewarding good fun even though there are ways in which the movie doesn’t rise above its time.

I don’t think the 1933 King Kong needs a plot description. Though I have met a surprisingly large number of Millennials and GenZs who haven’t seen it, I haven’t met one unfamiliar with the plot.

There is a hypothesis widely bandied about on the net that the theme of King Kong is racist. I don’t buy it. The movie is immensely racist beyond all possibility of argument, but not thematically. (The hypothesizers might be on firmer ground with the remakes.) The racism in the original King Kong is overt, unselfconscious, blatant, and simple-minded – not uncommon in a 1933 movie – which are the opposite of subtle, reflective, cryptic, and thoughtful. The minds of Cooper and Schoedsack were thinking more broadly when it came to the underlying theme.

A few words are in order about Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the creators and directors of King Kong. They were adventurers of a type uncommon in their own day and extraordinarily rare today. Cooper flew for the US Army Air Corps in World War 1 and then for the Poles against the Soviets. Shot down in 1920, he escaped from a Soviet POW camp. In the 1920s he met and struck up a lifelong friendship with Schoedsack. They traveled the world together on tramp steamer, acquired cameras and filmed remarkable documentaries from Iran to Thailand. Cooper is much like the Carl Denham character in King Kong and much of Driscoll’s awkward dialogue with Ann (Fay Wray) in the movie reportedly was lifted from Schoedsack’s own utterances. Moving on to Hollywood, they made three iconic films in succession, all of which shared sets: King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Fay Wray), and She. The inspiration for King Kong in particular was a World War 1 propaganda poster that was on Cooper’s office wall. Cooper and Schoedsack appear in the movie: they are the pilot and gunner who take out Kong at the end.

What is the theme? That transcending the inner beast is not about the superficial trappings of civilization. Kong, the villagers, and Americans all behave in fundamentally the same (violent) way and for the same reasons despite the surface differences in technology and civilization: at bottom they all act as beasts. When she hears about Kong, a woman in a New York scene even makes a remark about gorillas, “Gee, ain't we got enough of them in New York?” It is only in the pursuit of beauty that any of them transcend themselves. Beauty kills the beast. It’s why we feel bad for Kong, unlike, say, the critter in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms that would have chomped Ann without a thought. It’s why Kong is still the king, and why he keeps turning up in popular culture.

Messer Chups - Curse of Stephen Kong

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wonders Never Cease

Two Dianas:

The New Original Wonder Woman (1975)  Before seeing the new Wonder Woman currently in theaters, I whimsically revisited a version from four decades ago.

Wonder Woman in 1975 was no newbie to the superhero scene. She first appeared in comics in 1941 and has been around in one form or another ever since. The character Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) was created by psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston who wrote about the cultural and educational value of comic books. He also invented the polygraph lie detector, which puts the “lasso of truth” in perspective. Marston was fond enough of women to live simultaneously with two; the ladies stayed together after he died. He felt a strong female superhero would be a cultural plus: “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

The two-hour made-for-TV pilot for the 70s Wonder Woman TV show is a generously budgeted and surprisingly elaborate production for what was intended to be a much less ambitious weekly series. Lynda Carter was a wonderful pick for the main part, and the 1940s setting was very much the way to go. (The TV series was later re-set in time to the 1970s for budgetary reasons, which I personally consider regrettable.) The plot: pilot Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) crashes by the hidden island of the Amazons and is rescued by Diana, daughter of the queen (Cloris Leachman). Attracted to Steve and convinced by him and by events that Nazis are dangerous, she leaves the island and joins the Allied war effort. The style of this TV-movie was strongly influenced by the campy ‘60s TV series hit Batman. It imitates much of Batman’s comic book style silliness without going quite so far over the top. It is a well-cast and entertaining TV-movie with old school fx: the flashes on the bullet-deflecting bracelets, for example, are small explosive charges triggered by a button in Lynda’s palm.

** **
Wonder Woman (2017)
This year’s Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins, avoids any hint of camp. It is written, played, and directed in earnest straight-face. All humor (and there isn’t much) comes naturally from the characters, not from self-referential satire (of which there is none).

The origin story retains many elements of the original. The Amazons have been hidden and empowered by a dying Zeus to one day fight Ares, god of war, when he returns and plunges earth into total war. Once again Steve Trevor crashes a plane just offshore of the Amazons’ hidden island and Diana rescues him. Learning of a global war, she is convinced that Ares is behind it; she leaves with Steve to find Ares and kill him. Steve is doubtful about her analysis, but after all he didn’t previously believe in a secret island of Amazons either, so he is unconvinced but somewhat open-minded. In this iteration, however, the time frame is World War 1. The reason, presumably, is that World War 1 morally is a much more ambiguous conflict than World War 2, and this version of Wonder Woman is no Allied partisan. She is an internationalist – or rather non-nationalist – heroine. She does fight alongside Steve against Germans, but not because she sees the war from the Allied point of view. She does so only because she suspects that General Ludendorff of all people is Ares. Steve’s special concern (which puts him and Diana in the same place) is a war-changing new poison gas being developed by Ludendorff’s protégé chemist.

There are the smash’em-dash’em CGI battle action sequences culminating in a big climactic one, as we expect in a blockbuster superhero movie. They are well done, as are the fx in general. What is missing is the cynicism that has tinged characters both in the DC and the Marvel universes in the past two decades. Instead there is noble sacrifice and doing the right thing. Even when Diana comes to learn that Ares alone is not wholly responsible for the darkness in human hearts, she doesn’t lose her empathy for people or her ability to see their redeeming virtues, too. Naïve? Yes. But sometimes a little heroic naiveté is refreshing.

Kitty Kallen The Wonder of You

Sunday, June 11, 2017

June 10 Local Derby Recap

Last night at its home track in Morristown the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) hosted the Jersey Shore Roller Girls, an experienced rival of both Morristown derby leagues. It was a knockabout match with the outcome in doubt into the final minutes.

#8 Emma Effa for Jersey Shore put the first points on the board but JDB quickly built a substantial lead. #8 Lil MO Peep, #235 A Bomb, and #3684 Californikate for JDB all showed their usually skill at slipping past or pushing through stiff blocking. Jersey Shore proceeded to chip away at the lead, relying heavily on #8 Emma Effa, #9 J9 Jolter, and #570 Slammabelle Lee. Blocking was strong with #16 Anita Guiness delivering Lil MO Peep a hard hit while jammer #812 Purple Part Breaka took down a JDB blocker. A particularly effective jam by #9 J9 Jolter closed the gap to 3 points. In a power jam by Emma Effa the Shore overtook the JDB bringing the score to 77 – 82. Though Lil MO Peep brought the score to 81 – 82, Emma Effa widened the gap again 85 – 91 in favor of Jersey Shore, which is where the score stood at halftime.

A 6 point difference is negligible in derby, and the second half saw a redoubling of efforts to widen or reverse the lead. In a spirited jam Lil MO Peep added 25 point while Emma Effa added 17, thereby returning the lead to JDB. For the rest of the second half the point gap would widen to 20 or more points only to shrink again to single digits. Blocking remained tough with #00 for JDB taking down #9 hard in one important jam. In an exciting final jam of the bout the outcome was still up for grabs as both jammers continued to add points. The whistle blew with a final score of 199 – 183 in favor of JDB.

For Jersey Shore Roller Girls – #29 Lita Floor Her as blocker, #8 Emma Effa as jammer
For Jerzey Derby Brigade – #00 Mental Block as blocker, #8 Lil MO Peep as jammer

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Ac-Quitting Well

While channel surfing last night, I caught a bit of Galaxy Quest, a self-referential scifi comedy that is more homage to Star Trek than parody. The actors play actors whose characters live by the slogan: “Never give up! Never surrender!” Nearly all of us since we were small children have been told we should cultivate this mindset. Coaches, teachers, parents, and comic book heroes all harangued us on the virtues of perseverance. There are times when this is sterling advice. If you’re being pursued (as are the characters in Galaxy Quest) by an evil alien reptilian general bent on killing you, there isn’t much downside to resisting to the end. In any sport with a time limit, there also is little downside for players on a losing team to keep playing hard long after defeat in a game is a practical certainty; it is good for players’ morale, they at least get some good practice, and the fans like it. In a lot of circumstances, though, the advice is lousy. Knowing when to quit is at least as important as knowing when to persevere. (I’m consciously avoiding a Kenny Rogers lyric.) “Don’t ever give up on your dreams,” we are told. Well, it depends on the dreams.

Professor Deepak Malhotra advises graduating Harvard MBA Students to “quit early and quit often.” This is harder than it sounds when it comes to the big matters. We resist doing it. “Sunk costs” are the problem. It is a quirk of human psychology that our instinct is to feel pain from losses far more intensely than any joy from equivalent gains. Consequently, a classic error of neophyte investors is to sell only stocks that went up while hanging on doggedly to stocks that went down in hopes that they’ll rise again to their purchase price – i.e. in hopes of not suffering a loss. The result over time is that a portfolio becomes filled with nothing but badly performing stocks, many of which never recover their purchase price. Meantime the investors incur opportunity costs: the rewards they could have from trading weak stocks for stronger ones. In the same way, we are apt to continue in a career we hate because we spent so much time and money on education and licensing. In general, this is not a good decision for either the wallet or peace of mind. Getting out early and moving on to something else is not necessarily failure but can be a path to success; even when it is failure, it may be a lesser one than sticking it out to a truly bitter end. (Yes, I’ve made plenty of quit-too-late and not-quit-at-all mistakes and am sure to make more, so I’m trying convince myself as much as the reader.)

Sometimes the refusal to abandon sunk costs can have horrific results. In the first few months of World War 1 the major combatants suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties – so many that none was willing to abandon the fight lest the casualties “be for nothing.” So, the war dragged on, casualties mounted into the tens of millions, and the end result was to make the world safe for fascism and communism. It would have been better for all in December 1914 to have swallowed the losses and called the whole thing off as a bad job.

How do we know when to persevere and when to quit? Dr. Will Meek at Psychology Today, making a similar point to that of Professor Malhotra, writes “a simple rule of thumb for when to quit is: when something is not improving with substantial effort.” The “substantial effort” qualification is key. Neither prof is encouraging anyone to quit just because an endeavor is tough. They recommend it when the toughness isn’t worth it: when one’s serious efforts don’t move the needle enough (or at all) in the right direction. Personal happiness counts as a “right direction.” Malhotra says, “I'm not saying quit something because it’s hard. I'm telling you to quit something because it sucks.”

So too for our personal lives and relationships. Most divorced couples will say they quit too late rather than too early. Once again, sunk costs (in personal time and effort) held them back. Perseverance is a dubious virtue while dating, too. Contrary to the plots of most RomComs, relentlessly pursuing an unwilling romantic interest will more likely get a restraining order than an inamorata/inamorato. Sometimes you really can’t win. That’s why there are beer and country music.

Linda Ronstadt – Sometimes You Just Can`t Win

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Page Gauge

June is upon us at last, and it is not a month particularly conducive to inside activities. Yet even June has quiet nights and rainy days when a book in hand is welcome. Below are reviews of the most recent five to stain my fingers with ink – yes they were paper-and-ink rather than electronic format.

** **
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Human minds don’t work linearly. It is why AI has so much trouble aping human thought. Even when computing in parallel, AI just doesn’t match the digressions, tangents, flashbacks, and fantasies that make up ordinary thought. One of the best fictional representations of this not-quite-chaos is Baker’s The Mezzanine. The entire novella is the thoughts of a man from his approach to an escalator to the moment he reaches the top. In between he thinks about his lunch, shopping bags, shoelaces, ear plugs, childhood moments, his wife’s fastidiousness, CVS drugstore aisles, the embarrassment of buying a men’s magazine from a female clerk, a Penguin paperback of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, drinking straws, the shininess of the escalator rail, and a myriad other things.

It is a truly marvelous and readable little book. I can’t help thinking though that trips up escalators might on average be less contemplative in 2017 than when the book was published in 1988. Might not the same journey today consist of watching a cat video on a cell phone?

** **
Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot by James B. Stockdale
Most of those old enough to remember the 1992 US Presidential election probably remember Stockdale as the Vice Presidential pick of Reform Party candidate Ross Perot in an election year that was almost as bizarre as last year. After choosing Stockdale, Perot withdrew from the race at a point when polls showed he had a real chance of victory only to reenter the race late in the election season when his moment had passed. In October of ’92 Stockdale suddenly found himself back in the race and scheduled for a televised Vice Presidential debate with Dan Quayle and Al Gore. He had no time to prepare and didn’t even have an operational hearing aid – too much time around jet engines had damaged his hearing. He came off as confused when he hadn’t really heard the question. A Saturday Night Live parody of him the next weekend was devastating. The Perot/Stockdale ticket nonetheless won 19% of the vote, the best showing for a third party since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

The doddering SNL parodic figure is not the Stockdale we meet in Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (published 1995), a collection of speeches and essays from the previous two decades. Here we meet the erudite Vice Admiral Stockdale: awarded the Medal of Honor, four Silver Stars, two purple hearts, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Navy Distinguished Service Medals, etc., etc. With an MA from Stanford in international relations and comparative Marxist thought, he was obviously more qualified than any of the other 1992 candidates. Shot down over Hanoi in 1965 he spent seven years in a POW camp where he got by with a commitment to his values and his hidden book by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Most of the entries in Stockdale’s book deal with maintaining one’s values under those extreme conditions.

I’m not a big fan of the ancient Stoic philosophers in a general way. (See my blog on Seneca a few months ago.) It’s not so much that their advice is wrong as that it typically is trite and comes from an unhappy place: all duty and no pleasure. Unlike the Epicureans, they seem to lack a sense of fun. However, in a POW camp where there isn’t fun to be had, Epictetus is not trite but deadly relevant.

If only for the reminder not to judge a person on a single un-telegenic debate appearance, this or another of Stockdale’s several books is worth a look.

** **
Schrödinger’s Gat by Robert Kroese
Anyone who has a blog site called Richard’s Pretension is not in a good position to call someone else’s book pretentious, but I’ll do it anyway. Kroese has written a scifi noir mystery into which he has infused his thoughts on free will, theology, time travel paradoxes, determinism, politics, and ethics while basing his plot on a popular magazine-level summary/interpretation of quantum theory. All that doesn’t make this a bad book. It is, in fact, modestly entertaining, but be forewarned that much of it is reminiscent of the nighttime exchanges of undergrad liberal arts students in dorm rooms under the influence of pot.

At the most basic micro level, events are probabilistic rather than deterministic. What if there were a way to change the odds at a micro level but with macro effects? A scientist discovers a way to do just that. A young woman named Tali tries to use the method to save lives, an insurance executive sees a way in it to turn a profit, and a young man (whose life Tali saves) pursues Tali but finds himself caught up in violence. What about the universe itself? Will it allow tinkering with the odds without broader consequences? If by writing this book Kroese inspires someone to invent a way to try it, perhaps we’ll find out.

** **

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
In this weird but interesting almost-novel from 1999, interviews with unidentified men are interspersed with more or less conventional short stories. The interviewed men are usually talking about sex and they say what we’ve all heard men at various times. Some of the guys are sociopathic. Others play nicely but acknowledge they do so as a self-serving seduction technique. All are egoistic. Are they hideous? Maybe. Their utterings are certainly distasteful, but they are honest. That is the problem. They say frightful things such as, “I’d always had a dread of marrying some good-looking woman and then we have a kid and it blows her body out but I still have to have sex with her because this is who I’ve signed on to have sex with the whole rest of my life.” While the hideousness is overwhelming male, the female characters in the short stories are hard to like too: for example the woman in therapy with the bad childhood who not just suffers from depression but opportunistically seizes on it to excuse always making herself the center of attention and egregiously imposing on her friends whenever it suits her.

Wallace tries – perhaps too hard – to write unconventionally, and he strains the rules to absurd lengths without quite breaking them. A single sentence can go on for pages, but it is technically grammatical. Footnotes can be longer than the chapter being footnoted. One short story (the first one on page 0) is all of two paragraphs. He often resorts to bizarre abbreviations. The result is intriguing even though most of the subject matter is unpleasant.

Parts of the book were made into movie in 2009. I haven’t seen it but only 32% on Rotten Tomatoes like it: the consensus was “tries hard but doesn't match the depth of the book.”

** **
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
For more than half a century novels and films about the end of civilization and about its sole survivor(s) have been so commonplace as to be a genre. I even wrote one myself (Slog) in my more youthful days. Stories in which the end is caused by plague are numerous enough to be a subgenre. Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I am Legend about a sole healthy survivor of a plague was three times made into a feature film: The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, and I am Legend with Will Smith. The granny of the genre, though, is The Last Man.

Mary Shelley is of course best known for her wildly successful 1818 novel Frankenstein. Her 1825 novel The Last Man was not a hit in its day, but it suits 21st century sensibilities better than it did 19th.  After the anti-stylings of Wallace, I also found myself enjoying her highly literary prose with its unabashedly complex sentences and deep vocabulary.

The novel is set in the 2090s though Shelley’s vision of the future involves little technological change from her own day. The social issues of future England are also much the same as in her own day with a three-way power struggle among royalists, aristocrats, and commoners. The tale is told retrospectively by Lionel, a mysteriously immune sole known survivor of a humanity-destroying plague; it is written presumably for the benefit of any other immune survivors who might possibly stumble upon his record. As far as he knows, however, no such survivors exist.

Much of the novel involves the pre-plague personal romances and intrigues of Lionel and his coterie, which happen to include men and women prominent in society and politics. None of the characters acquit themselves well. There are charming aristocrats who lack ethics, ethical men who lack competence, personally likable royalists who are rudely power-hungry, and a leader of the commons who speaks the right words but lacks nobility in the broader sense. All fail to deal with the growing threat of plague and all fail in their personal lives as well.

Tragically having lost her husband and children in the years prior to this this book, Shelley did not entertain a cheery worldview, and it shows in this novel. In an era that believed if not in the perfectibility of mankind at least its amelioration, Shelley’s despair disaffected readers. Today her nihilism is better understood and shared. Her appreciation of transient life while it lasts is better noticed, too. Thumbs up.

Alice Cooper – The Last Man on Earth