May 042015

Because I got to watch it for free on an airplane, I recently saw The Battle of Five Armies, without having seen the previous two entries in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. I was so struck by it that I decided to go through the whole trio of films on my own. Having done so I feel I can say with certainty that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films are the most startlingly inept adaptation of book to film that I have ever seen. They are bad movies in themselves, and they are even worse in the context of the book from which they were drawn. They were so bad I went back to watch The Lord of the Rings just to convince myself I hadn’t imagined my positive reaction to them.

I hadn’t; I still like The Lord of the Rings movies. They have their problems, but in them Jackson showed appropriate restraint both in removing bits of Tolkien’s books that weren’t really necessary and in adding as little of his own invention as possible. This is important because Jackson’s additions to the plot were generally not very good. Most were entertaining nonsense, like the appearance of the Elves at Helm’s Deep. At worst, they were insultingly stupid, like his changes to Faramir’s arc or the incident he added on the stair to Cirith Ungol. Yet at his very best Jackson managed to add masterful scenes like Denethor eating the chicken in The Return of the King.

His additions reach no such heights in The Hobbit. Few of them even ascend to the level of entertaining nonsense. Radagast is a Jar-Jar-level disaster of a character, and the entire subplot involving the Necromancer’s castle is only marginally comprehensible even if you’ve already watched The Lord of the Rings beforehand (I can only imagine what a mess it is for people going in cold). This is to say nothing of the dozens of actiony sequences added for no reason other than to make it seem like something was happening in a given chapter of this bloated mess of an adaptation.

Worse, Jackson seems to have lost whatever knack he had for creative deletion. The “break the plates” song is actually in here, despite its complete disagreement with the tone Jackson casts over everything that follows. I’m somewhat amazed we managed to get through this trilogy without any elves singing “fa-la-la-lally down deep in the valley”. A wise adaptation might have discarded this nonsense as too time-consuming, but seeing as Jackson managed to commit himself to showing every minute of the Battle of Five Armies and also pissing away some 15 minutes on the tale of Alfrid Lickspittle without bothering to resolve it, time was no object.

Of course I have yet to mention Jackson’s worst, and most controversial addition, Tauriel the elf, who exists so that an actual woman will be in the film somewhere. I am sympathetic to the complaint that Tolkien’s works are sausage-fests and that women deserve representation. However, adding an elf-woman whose main task in the plot is to lust after one of the dwarves and be lusted after by Legolas (a less-bad addition) doesn’t accomplish much. Besides, if you wanted to shoehorn a female character into this story over the objections of fanboys the only correct course is to gender-swap Bilbo. His character arc of going from a state of uncertainty and incompetence to a state of capability and moral strength through intelligence and empathy rather than physical force is one that’s typically given to girls anyway, and the gender swap would add interesting dimensions to the dwarves’ reluctance to accept Bilbo as a useful member of the team.

Of course, Jackson couldn’t have done this even if he had the onions, because he seems not to understand what the story is about at all. Everything about the staging of the films and the incidents he adds speaks to an unrestrained desire to make this into a massive, epic story, which The Hobbit is not. In the first movie Jackson actually adds a moment where Bilbo bravely leaps forward to defend a defenseless Thorin from an orc, essentially negating the point of Bilbo as a character. The whole idea is that Bilbo isn’t a classic warrior hero and he needn’t be. Peter Jackson doesn’t get this; thus the Battle of Five Armies, which occupies less than half a chapter of the book, gets its own film.

In this story, the heroic role ought to be filled by the dwarves, but they’re not available because Jackson thinks dwarves are funny and therefore reduces them to comic relief even as he tries to elevate this narrative from bedtime story to solemn epic. Hence, despite the grinding, torturous length of this trilogy they receive essentially no character development and must make due with ridiculous hairpieces and a superfluous romantic sideplot. Occasionally they get to put on a good show in one of Jackson’s dioramic action sequences but in all honesty the paint seems to have come off the plastic in these. The Hobbit never got me caught up in an action moment enough to miss the fakery.

Jackson doesn’t succeed in making The Hobbit the epic he clearly wants it to be. The core of the story can’t sustain that weight, because epic heroics are not only at odds with the book’s themes, they are entirely opposite. Jackson seemed to have at least understood what he was working with when he made The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings, however, and in trying to make them the same Jackson failed utterly.

Apr 032012

Joel Stein wrote an annoying little article in the New York Times recently where he castigated adults for reading YA fiction. I would rebut his article in detail, but a much better writer than I has already done so. Indeed, he did it 60 years ago. I repeat it here for your benefit.

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

– C. S. Lewis

Inherit the Tropes

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Jan 102012

I got a Kindle for Christmas, thus semi-joining this millenium… at this rate, in another 20 years or so I’ll have a smartphone. I naturally had some high-minded ideas about delving back into the classics, but what really happened was that the travel schedule and desire to read in between watching football games made me grab for the popular fiction. So, in some bits of time I had over the past two weeks, I read Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle.

I didn’t hate it.

This is not to say that the books are modern classics or that Paolini is the next Tolkien (or even the next Feist). The Inheritance novels, particularly Eragon, are an adolescent writing experience made excruciatingly public. Considering that, they’re quite well-written, but as one might expect from the circumstances, they’re derivative, suffer from rather ad hoc world-building, and star a Mary Sue.

It would be unfair to criticize Paolini too loudly for any of it, in my opinion. Almost any creative teenager at one point or another has imagined himself as Jedi ninja Cool G. Beans, Duke of Radsylvania, accompanied by his trusty sidekick Sir Suspiciously-similar-to-your-best-friend on a mission to save Princess That-girl-from-math-class from the evil Lord Obviously-your-gym-coach, adjusting as needed for your gender, orientation, desire to bone your best friend, and whatever horrible slang was used to identify coolness during your adolescence. Paolini happens to be the lucky guy who leveraged that into a reasonably popular novel.

Paolini also seemed to understand the criticism and take at least some of it to heart, although his response mostly took the form of obvious flailing in the second book. In the first novel Eragon can do almost no wrong, going from a simple farmboy to a world-class swordsman and magician within the space of a few months. In Eldest, Paolini does all he can to tear Eragon down, repainting him as foolish, arrogant, and weak, not to mention giving him a pimple in the form of his accidental cursing of Elva. This incident hinges strangely on a point of grammar, makes the rules of magic less clear rather than more so, and generates a powerful character Paolini never really figures out how to use. Like this, the whole effort turns out poorly. Eragon’s disability is temporary, his huge mistake with Elva turns out to be accidentally beneficial, and his most serious weaknesses are magically erased (I mean this literally). Above all, it is very boring because we are already past the point where we as readers really believe Eragon will fail, or even get derailed temporarily in an interesting way.

Yet, Paolini does manage to tell an interesting story in this book, continuing on into the remainder of the series. It is not Eragon’s story, but his cousin Roran’s, that is worth reading. Roran has no magical powers, no capacity for wielding a sword, and nothing to rely on besides his strength, creativity, and charisma. He uses these talents to defeat a group of soldiers, lead an entire village across the world, and rise to high command and great success in the rebel army. Of course this is quite conventional — Roran is motivated by a desire to rescue, then protect, his personal princess — but well-told nonetheless. Having accidentally created a class of essentially unbeatable superhumans in the world-building for Eragon, Paolini ably uses Roran’s story to show how the world can work despite their existence.

Unfortunately, as the cycle winds to a close, Roran has to step back because the actual business at hand is Eragon’s conflict against the unstoppable Dark Lord Galbatorix. The problem is that Galbatorix has been overbuilt: vastly outnumbered, he nonetheless defeated the ancient order of Dragon Riders, spent the next century growing stronger, absorbing all that they knew, and ultimately succeeded in finding a way to control all magic in the world. Thus, he must be defeated by a technicality; despite his insuperable knowledge and power, he is unaware that you can cast spells without saying anything.

Arguably, The Lord of the Rings similarly hinges on a technicality. However, the idea has a kind of logic. Since Sauron put all his power into the ring, destroying the ring will destroy him. Moreover, the technicality is introduced very early on, at a point when we’re still just accepting what we’re told about the world rather than trying to piece things together for ourselves, and it motivates the whole quest that the trilogy relates. Paolini, on the other hand, lays out his (poorly conceived) system of magic in excruciating detail, the relevant technicality doesn’t flow naturally from that system, and it’s buried somewhere in the second book and forgotten until it’s needed for the finale.

All of this could have been overcome. Paolini is a reasonably talented writer, and given some time and some life experience — which might have, for instance, prevented him from exoticizing nearly all the major female characters — the Inheritance cycle could have turned out much better. Unfortunately, Eragon was published before he had enough time to reconsider it, and at that point he was locked into a world that had a bit too much of Tolkien and McCaffrey (the bonding and mental-link stuff is practically straight out of the Dragonriders of Pern novels), and a story that had a bit too much of George Lucas. All the same, the novels are fun to read, and the errors, though numerous, are tolerable and occasionally instructive.

Loss of innocence in space

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Oct 192011

Having read Fiasco, my favorite Stanislaw Lem book remains His Master’s Voice. In part this is because His Master’s Voice concerns scientists and the workings of science, which is a major part of my own life. Also, His Master’s Voice is far closer to how I think SETI efforts will turn out than Carl Sagan’s similar, but insanely chipper, Contact. Fiasco, like Lem’s other works, is pessimistic about humankind’s chances to make productive contact with alien life. If Contact is the counterpart of His Master’s Voice, however, then Fiasco is the counterpart of Star Trek, an epic scolding of America’s quintessential positive contact fairy tale. Although I think the scolding is richly deserved, Fiasco doesn’t quite work for me.

I like Roddenberry’s work well enough, but although it tries to be about “new life and new civilizations”, Star Trek is really a paean to human potential. The humans of Star Trek are insufferable cultural imperialists, and the human way is always the best way. This was always most apparent to me in Kirk’s eulogy of Spock from The Wrath of Khan: he speaks of Spock as being “human”, as if that were a virtue, as if Spock wouldn’t (rightly) find the implication insulting. In many ways, Fiasco is also a story about human potential, especially our capacity for unwarranted war. Of the two visions, only one belongs to the world of Cortes and Pizarro.

Fiasco has a strange structure. It starts with a long, incredibly dense “blizzard story” set on Titan. Two men went out into a dangerous area and were lost, another man went out and was lost. The final man, Parvis, goes out in a mechanical strider to look for the others. An accident occurs, the strider is practically destroyed, and he decides to use a crude flash-freeze apparatus, never proven to be effective, in a last-ditch effort to survive. We never find out whether it works; a man rescued from vitrifax awakes centuries later on the world’s most advanced spaceship as it sets out to the planet Quinta in hopes of contacting an alien civilization. Perhaps he is Parvis, perhaps someone else. He adopts the name Tempe, and gets a chance to see the Quintans.

Fiasco includes, among other themes, a thinly-disguised parable about the Cold War, and particularly the demented kinds of decisions that can be made in the context of seemingly endless stalemate. The humans find Quinta locked in a permanent power struggle, swaddled in satellites and sheathed in white noise meant to jam radio communications. The siege mentality of its warring states contributes to their taking an aggressive stance towards the humans, seeing all that is external as a foe. This attitude results in their choosing to essentially destroy part of their planet in order to make sure the humans are seen as the enemy.

The situation on Quinta is presaged by an earlier story within the novel about endlessly warring termites. The book ends with Tempe’s realization that he has seen the Quintans, but does not explicitly say what they are. It implies, however, that the Quintans are something very like those termites. Tempe’s instruments, for instance, tell him that the Quintan lifeforms feature an aerobic/anaerobic symbiosis (true of humans as well, but an essential part of the termite digestive system), and the wart-like structure he attacks looks like an anthill on the inside. It doesn’t really matter what the Quintans look like, however, because they mimic something here on Earth.

More properly, they mimic something that was here on Earth. Like all Cold-War fables, Fiasco seems far less biting today than it must have in 1986, when the conflict had simmered for 40 years and seemed fit to go on another 40. At that time not even creative fiction writers like Lem saw that the communist empire would crumble within the decade, its threat eventually supplanted by terrorism. With so many now alive who never experienced a day of the Cold War, Fiasco must seem even more fanciful than it is.

The downside of this is that Fiasco can’t rely on its parable of escalation to help tell its story, and here’s where the book faltered for me. The critical moment where things go irretrievably wrong comes when the humans decide to make a show of force by destroying the moon. Lem does his best to make this seem like a deed that is totally within the powers of the humans and that seems to them unlikely to result in disaster. However, in the worst Star Trek tradition, this whole plan rests on technobabble, and it’s a problem because an operation like blowing up a moon does not seem like a harmless show of force, no matter how much technobabble you throw at it.

This gives too big an opening for the reader to distance himself from the human explorers. The moment the characters made this decision, I stopped seeing them as really human, distancing myself from their mission. Fiasco would have topped my list if Lem had drawn me along, put me in a place where I agreed with the actions of the human explorers as they tried to talk to the Quintans. At the destruction of the moon, however, I stopped agreeing even remotely with what the humans were doing. I saw them as monsters too early for their quest to have a real impact on me.

That’s not to say that Fiasco is a bad book. It is miles ahead of most other science fiction, full of fascinating ideas and clever writing. Unlike the best of Lem’s work, however, I was merely watching events unfold, rather than following along on the ride.

East 2 degrees 20 minutes 57 seconds

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Sep 062011

Today it is possible to pull out your telephone and know immediately where you are and what time it is, so the prospect of, say, setting one’s watch by Immanuel Kant’s daily walk seems intrinsically absurd. Yet, before the turn of the century, it was not unusual for the time in one town to be very different from the time in the next town down the road, and the only unification of clocks came from the local rail line. Lacking a global idea of time, our knowledge of longitude was uncertain, so much so that cartographers could not pin down even the distance between London and Paris, much less that between the Americas and Europe. Our transit from “here there be dragons” to your iPhone’s GPS function owes much to French mechanist Henri Poincaré and physicist Albert Einstein, contributions Peter Galison examines in his book Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps [Amazon].

Einstein comes first in the title, but it is clear from early on that Galison’s real interest is in Poincaré. Most Americans have an opposite preference, and it’s easy to understand why. Einstein’s peregrinations and iconoclasm speak to certain American sensibilities. Poincaré, by contrast, was French, and fiercely so, a student of the École Polytechnique, a member of many Academies and Societies, and an important member of the Bureau of Longitude.

That last may seem faintly hilarious, now, but at that time the determination of longitude was no small task. One of the first tasks of the mighty transatlantic telegraph cables was to fix the time of events at two distant spots, thus determining the longitudinal difference between them. Following on the international adoption of the metric system, the French hoped to have the Prime Meridian fixed to Paris, where the meter, kilogram, and associated measures lay. Poincaré even became involved in an effort to create a metric system of time. Rather than bothering much with Relativity, Galison devotes most of the book to examining the multiple levels where one if its key insights (the synchronization of clocks) played a role. As he puts it:

In to the precision swing of master clock pendulums, out to the undersea telegraph cables crisscrossing the oceans. In to follow the minutiae of individual train schedulers, jewelers, and astronomers; then back out to the legal recalibration of  national and world-covering time zones. In this process of scrutiny, historical light necessarily plays off the very different scales utilized by technological, scientific, and philosophical activity. Between 1870 and 1910, conventions of space and time scintillated with a critical opalescence.

One can see that Galison is not afraid to engage flights of fancy, and also that he is unusually fond of the word “opalescent”, which I saw more times in this book than in the preceding 30-odd years of my life. Niggling about style aside, the passage does give a feel for the many lenses needed to capture the drama. In Europe, intellectual titans like Poincaré were involved in the struggle to map the world and unify time, while in America, time became the province of businessmen and rail magnates, eventually resulting in the creation of the time zone system we find familiar (albeit not without digressing into some curious permutations along the way).

If you’re wondering how time itself could be so confusing, Poincaré did not. One of the central beliefs of his life was that systems, like time, were just conventions, only to be used until another, more convenient tool came along. If he had been able to follow this belief to its logical end, perhaps it would be he who was remembered as the discoverer of Special Relativity. Certainly his modifications of the Lorentz transformations were essential. Yet he ultimately became too attached to the familiar ether, insisting that there was one “true” time, while Einstein managed to punch through that barrier and recognize that time itself was variable. Galison seems to like Poincaré just a bit too much to judge this failure harshly, but that’s a forgivable flaw in a work that shines a much-needed light on a somewhat-forgotten genius.