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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (11/27/16) 6:27pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Agent to the Stars, The Language Hoax [audiobook]
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Key & Peele [season one]

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi
This is Scalzi's novel about a junior Hollywood agent who's enlisted to run PR for an alien race that's secretly planning a first-contact mission to modern-day earth. It was a 'practice novel' that he wrote in the late 90s to prove to himself that he could write one.

And in this earliest dry run of a novel, I see things that mildly bugged me in Redshirts that stand out a little more sharply. Again, everyone speaks in that relentless banter where the jokes are insulting, but never quite funny: "What part of 'no' didn't you understand? Was it the consonant, or the vowel?" There are lots of lines like that -- the ones that feel like placeholder insults in a sitcom script, intended to be punched up later on in the writers' room. And again, we're defaulting to a 20s white dude who spends a lot of time lecturing women and people of color about how stupid they are -- something that might not have furrowed my brow back in the late 90s, but that smells like 'punching down' now.[1] And, again, Scalzi tries to gear-shift from his 90s-sitcom-sounding scenes to more serious and dramatic scenes, but it never quite gels: it would take a deft hand to follow up badinage about pop culture with a painful conversation with a Holocaust survivor. Instead, one of those scenes is always going to feel like it's in the wrong book.

That said, Agent to the Stars is still a fun read. Scalzi presents a detailed and, from my uninformed perspective, convincing view of the movie industry. He ably sets up zany situations around smuggling an affable alien creature around Hollywood. And Scalzi does a good job with his world-building, creating a fun alien culture with very foreign biology. Wil Wheaton is, again, the perfect narrator for Scalzi's work. He nails the snide-nerd tone perfectly, has fun creating a wide variety of voices for the story, and (in my opinion) handles the abrupt variations in tone better than the book does.

So: it's a fun, light read, and I'm guessing the less you think about it, the more entertaining it is.

The Language Hoax by John McWhorter [audiobook]
This is pop-linguist John McWhorter's manifesto against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an attractive but specious claim that the language you speak dictates the way you think about the world.

If you're any kind of language geek, McWhorter's work is accessible and absolutely engrossing, and this one is no exception. His prose is stylish, funny, and crystal-clear. His reading is animated and neatly highlights the structure of his writing. And the content itself is fascinating, full of interesting trivia about how various languages are put together, as well as providing a comprehensive overview of the state of "neo-Whorfian" research.

His thesis is simple: the notion that your language gives you 'a unique set of lenses' with which you view the world... is wrong. Academics who are not linguists love this idea -- it promotes the value of diversity, and it feeds into a sort of 'noble savage' narrative when an anthropolgist tells us that this one tribe in Australia, man, they don't even *have* a word for 'time'. (You can mentally add the "mind blown" gesture and sound effect here.)

The problem is, experiments don't back that up. McWhorter digs deep into the research here, concisely recounting brilliant work from modern-day "neo-Whorfians" who painstakingly tease out the effects of language on cognition. And in fact, they do find some links -- but they are very, very slight. Russian, for example, doesn't have a word for "blue" -- it has separate words for "navy" and "sky-blue".[1] And Russian speakers are, in fact, able to distinguish shades of blue faster than English speakers. It's statistically significant, but it's only about a tenth of a second.

And so it goes with every other such experiment -- every time the press breathlessly reports categorical proof that the way you use syntax rewires the way you see things, it turns out to be something unreproducible, or minuscule, or unconnected to anything like one's 'world view'. People are largely the same the world around, and even the Australians with no word for 'time' can find some way to get the concept across in their language.[3]

Again, the book is well worth your valuable time if you have any interest in linguistics. Mr. McWhorter is a hell of a writer, and the material is fascinating. And frankly, we live in a society where science gets misreported to us at every turn, pared down to shouty, clickbait headlines that egregiously misrepresent the source material. It's always nice to read a book that bucks that trend, and offers corrections.

Key & Peele [season one]
This is the beloved sketch show from comics Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

Sketch comedy is so hard for me to write about, because I know so little about how it works. I've tried writing sketches over the years, and trust me: it is hard, and I am not good at it. So most often I walk away from a show like this with either "It's funny!" or "It's not funny!", and little else to say.

So, first things first: it's funny!

Erm. Um. Yeah. What else?

I appreciate how fast is goes. It's just a half-hour show, and each half-hour is packed with sketches, so we don't fall into that logy SNL swamp of watching a sketch outlive its premise, and then go on, and on, and on, like some sort of catchphrase-spouting zombie. Most episodes have a 30-second cold-open -- get in, ha-ha-ha, get out.

I love the conversational interstitials -- just the two of them, onstage, giving each other crap about some topic tangentially related to the next sketch. They have great, easygoing, convincing chemistry, and they lean nicely into playing their contrasts: Keegan playing energetic, eager, and enthusiastic, and Jordan more leaning back, sardonic, and still.

And I love how much of the show feels like their lived experience. The pair introduces the first episode by telling the audience that they're both biracial, and they base a lot of sketches around sharp observations about what that experience is like -- hell, the opening thirty seconds of the series might be the funniest sketch about code-switching we're ever going to see. And the usual commonplace about art holds true here: by going hyper-specific, they arrive at something universal.

The show has killer production values, clearly stretching a small budget and already using it to create some pretty badass genre parodies.

Aaand that's about it for my commentary. It was funny!

For next week: I'm watching the Gilmore Girls reunion, reading a book about the fight to pass Obamacare, and starting in on an audiocourse about the economic history of the world. While exercising, I'm still watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.

[1] ... which is odd and unexpected, given
how eloquently Scalzi writes about social issues in his essays.
[2] It's kind of analogous to how English has words for "eat" and "drink", but no generic verb that covers both.[2b]
[2b] Yeah, you're probably going for "consume" or "ingest" right now, but neither of those really connote drinking, do they?
[3] English has no beverage equivalent of 'feed'[3b], but hey, look, I just explained the concept to you.
[3b] ... apparently 'drench' used to fill that role, but no longer. Damn tragic loss.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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