Books: The High Crusade, The Future of the Mind
Movies: A Simple Plan
TV: Good Eats [season 6], Talking for Clapping
The High Crusade by Poul Anderson
This is Poul Anderson's classic 1960 sci-fi romp about a medieval English community that gets hold of an alien spaceship and starts causing mayhem.
It's refreshing how unabashedly *fun* this novel is. I feel like that's been missing from most science fiction I've read. Even Ready Player One was never more than a few pages away from another sententious warning about corporatocracy or global warming or catastrophic intellectual-property regulatory capture. Even the fun parts were there to remind you how doomed the whole world is.
And at the same time, I think writing that kind of fun novel required the sort of blinkered privilege that characterized the golden age of sci-fi. It's basically a novel about genocide, but the genocide is okay because the bad guys are evil space aliens. The whole thing can be rather jokey, because it comes from a time without, say, the horrors of Vietnam or the introspection of cultural relativism. Writing such a novel today, you'd have to make at least a token feint at hard, painful questions -- wouldn't all that combat give you PTSD? did every alien truly deserve to die? You'd have to do that just to prove that you're not an idiot.
I do think it's a good thing that society has moved on. Lord knows I don't want the solipsistic self-assurance of the early 60s to return. With this book, it's an interesting difference to notice. Even if you wrote a novel this unabashedly fun today, it would be a conscious throwback to an older style, and a careful rejection of the way we would handle this material now.
As usual, I'm a lot of words in and I haven't really talked about the book. Basically, The High Crusade reads like the best kind of authorial self-indulgence, a "what if a medieval village fought space aliens?" conjecture that lets Anderson indulge his interest in ye olden tymes, as he carefully, precisely thumbs the scale so that everything turns up hilariously in favor of the knights over the spacemen. Sure, the characters are thin and the prose is adequate, but this is golden-age sci-fi, so that's what you expect.
You're not there for the human condition. You're there for trubechets launching tactical nuclear weapons, and clerics arguing about whether the little blue men from outer space have souls, and medieval scholars trying to find some combination of contemporary words to describe hyperspace travel. On all of this, the book delivers ably.
And, again, it's fun. Don't knock fun. Fun is hard work.
The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku
This is the theoretical physicist and popular-science writer's book about the current state of neurology and its possible imminent advances.
This is a style of book that I haven't seen in a long time, part of a nonfiction genre I'd like to call "Gosh-wow Science!" It's the sort of breathless, unabashedly optimistic overview that really feels like it belongs in the 1950s or 1960s: "Soon, Betty will have ease and comfort as a home ro-but cooks the family a nice turkey dinner!" You read it, and you know that most of these innovations won't pan out, and you know that the ones that do will have horrifying unforeseen consequences, but you read it and you feel a peaceful warm glow. The same way that, in a romantic comedy, love poses no worse problems than those of bad timing and misunderstandings, in a gosh-wow science book, the only problem with science is that you just have to live long enough to see the glorious future.
So it's a fun indulgence.
The Future of the Mind is definitely science pitched at the broadest possible audience, with Professor Kaku, a physicist, hand-waving past a lot of neuroscientific detail His pet "space-time theory of consciousness" was unfalsifiable hokum, and he unfortunately spent long stretches (with several charts) explaining it. That was a bit of a slog -- and a frustrating slog, since nobody comes to a gosh-wow-science book looking for original research. But the rest of the time, he's excitedly recounting interviews with neuroscientists and doing a respectable job dumbing down their research to a high-school or middle-school reading level.
As far as content goes, the book is a giant grab bag labeled "neuroscience research". So there's material about promising treatments for depression and schizophrenia, there's coverage of the zillion new forms of neural imaging, there's the expected bits about reading brain waves and various brain/machine interfaces, and there's a quick overview of artificial intelligence that even just five years later feels a bit quaint and dated.
But again, it's fun, and the prose is decently written, and the wide variety of topics make it like a fun Disney ride through "the world of the brain".
A Simple Plan
This is Sam Raimi's film adaptation of the novel of the same name, about a pair of rural, small-town brothers who find 4.5 million dollars in a downed airplane.
More specifically, this was the film that Sam Raimi made right after he saw his old friends the Coen Brothers make Fargo. So he adapted a well-regarded crime novel, making a twisty, bleak, wintry crime caper of his own, complete with corpses bleeding out in pristine fields of snow.
And yet. This was a fascinating film to see after watching the Coens' entire catalog, because the movie tells a story that has the same shape as a lot of Coen capers -- there's crime, there are bad and impulsive decisions, there are mounting consequences, and the whole story kind of vanishes in on itself, à la Burn After Reading -- but the rhythm feels completely different. More specifically: if you look at any one scene of A Simple Plan, you'll see a scene that has things to *do*. This is the scene where Sarah convinces Hank to keep the money, so you can watch the scene check off the boxes on its to-do list: now Hank is mentioning the money; now Sarah is suggesting keeping it; now they're arguing; now Hank is agreeing to it. It's well-written, but it's all business.
Compare this to an average scene in really any Coen brothers film, and A Simple Plan feels laser-focused and shooting forward through plot like a rocketship. ("Stay on target!") A Coen brothers scene will start somewhere that plants it firmly in the plot, and end in a place that clearly sets up a later scene -- but in between the two, the scene just doesn't care about the plot. A Coen scene will wander. Sobchak will talk about the nation of Israel. Marge and her husband will eat their Arby's at the police station. Penny will talk about all the perfectly respectable people who've been hit by trains. Everything breathes, and all the characters seem to have better things to do than be in a movie.
But the way that A Simple Plan works is still perfectly valid. The film has a breathless quality as it skids inexorably towards disaster, with the tension increasing unrelentingly. Honestly, "when you've just finished marathonning every Coen Brothers movie" is probably the worst time to watch A Simple Plan, because it makes the film's approach feel like a flaw. You miss the shaggy-dog, dilatory, sprawling nature of the best Coen pictures -- when really, you should just appreciate the film for what it is.
Good Eats [season 6]
This is yet another season of Alton Brown's cooking show that focuses on science, cultural anthropology, and debunking bad 'common knowledge' about everyday ingredients and cooking practices. It continues to be solidly entertaining and solidly informative, though I'm sure 95% of the information is going in one ear and out the other. Basically this show is priming my brain for some later point in my life when I might actually learn a thing or two about cooking. At this point, they've done a hundred-odd episodes of the show already, so the greatest joy at this point is seeing how they try stranger and stranger things, just because they've already done everything normal. And that's how you get the show about beets, where the 'viewer' keeps changing the channel to other shows (because who wants to know about beets?), and the cooking show keeps infiltrating those other programs.
Talking for Clapping
This is the latest comedy special from Patton Oswalt; it dropped on netflix a week or two ago.
I did feel a little underwhelmed by the special, but I wonder if I was sort of predisposed to think poorly of it. I often assume that when a comedian marries, settles down, and raises kids, that their humor becomes blunted and innocuous. The thought is utterly unfair -- I can cite countless counter-examples, and hell, I personally know some parents who are damn fine stand-ups -- but here I am stuck with it. And so I looked for the signs that this special would be bland.
And what I got was, sure, a special that wasn't up to the level of Oswalt's best work -- but what is? I was happy to see him make no attempt to live in the past, but instead to apply his perspective to his current life experience. And yes, some of the edge is blunted (not a lot, but some), but his summary of parenting -- "I'm so pissed off right now, but I kinda want to see where this goes." -- is, in context, worth the price of admission all on its own.
So: not particularly mind-blowing, not something I'll scurry back to re-watch, but I laughed for an hour or two.
For next week: I'm watching season 7 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, and I'm finally finishing off Fullmetal Alchemist Real Soon Now.
 ... though on the rare occasions he touches on physics, he's in fine form -- he gives a surprisingly cogent lay-explanation of how MRIs work, for example.
 It helps/hurts that Bill Paxton's character, the protagonist of the film, always always reminds me of my cousin, so I categorically don't want anything bad to happen to him.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none