Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2016

The tragic life of Mitsui

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Leonardo Nam on Westworld

In the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, the film critic Wesley Morris has a reflective piece titled “Last Taboo,” the subheadline of which reads: “Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality.” Morris, who is a gay black man, notes that full-frontal male nudity has become more common in recent years in movies and television, but it’s usually white men who are being undressed for the camera, which tells us a lot about the unresolved but highly charged feelings that the culture still has toward the black male body. As Morris writes:

Black men [are] desired on one hand and feared on the other…Here’s our original sin metastasized into a perverted sticking point: The white dick means nothing, while, whether out of revulsion or lust, the black dick means too much.

And although I don’t want to detract from the importance of the point that Morris is making here, I’ll admit that as I read these words, another thought ran though my mind. If the white penis means nothing, then the Asian penis, by extension, must mean—well, less than nothing. I don’t mean to equate the desexualization of Asian males in popular culture with the treatment of black men in fiction and in real life. But both seem to provide crucial data points, from opposite ends, for our understanding of the underlying phenomenon, which is how writers and other artists have historically treated the bodies of those who look different than they do.

I read Morris’s piece after seeing a tweet by the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, who connected it to an awful scene in last night’s episode of Westworld, in which an otherwise likable character makes a joke about a well-endowed black robot. It’s a weirdly dissonant moment for a series that is so controlled in other respects, and it’s possible that it reflects nothing more than Jonathan Nolan’s clumsiness—which he shares with his older brother—whenever he makes a stab at humor. (I also suspect, given the show’s production delays, that the line was written and shot a long time ago, before these questions assumed a more prominent role in the cultural conversation. Which doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what the writers were thinking.) Race hasn’t played much of a role on the series so far, and it may not be fair to pass judgment on a show that has only aired five episodes and clearly has a lot of other stuff on its mind. But it’s hard not to wonder. The cast is diverse, but the guests are mostly white men, undoubtedly because, as Nussbaum notes elsewhere, they’re the natural target audience for the park’s central fantasy. And the show has a strange habit of using its Asian cast members, who are mostly just faces in the background, as verbal punching bags for the other characters, a trend so peculiar that my wife and I both noticed it separately. It’s likely that this has all been muddied by what seems to be shaping up to be an actual storyline for Felix, played by Leonardo Nam, who looks as if he’s about to respond to his casual mistreatment by rising to a larger role in the story. But even for a show with a lot of moving parts, it strikes me as a lazy way of prodding a character into action.

John Lone in Year of the Dragon

Over the last few months, as it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about the representation of Asians in science fiction. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m Eurasian—half Chinese, half Finnish and Estonian.) I may as well start with Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column, a novel that he wrote on assignment for Astounding Science Fiction, based in part on All, an earlier, unpublished serial by John W. Campbell. Both stories, which were written long before Pearl Harbor, are about the invasion of the United States by a combined Chinese and Japanese empire, which inspires an underground resistance movement in the form of a fake religion. Heinlein later wrote that he tried to rework the narrative to tone down its more objectionable elements, but it pains me to say that Sixth Column actually reads as more racist than All, simply because Heinlein was the stronger writer. When you read All, you don’t feel much of anything, because Campbell was a stiff and awkward stylist. Heinlein, by contrast, spent much of his career bringing immense technical skill to even the most questionable projects, and he can’t keep from investing his characters with real rhetorical vigor as they talk about “flat-faced apes” and “our slant-eyed lords.” I don’t even mind the idea of an Asian menace, as long as the bad guys are treated as worthy antagonists, which Heinlein mostly does. But when the leaders of the resistance decide to grow beards in order to fill the invaders with “a feeling of womanly inferiority,” it’s hard to excuse it. And the most offensive moment of all involves Mitsui, the only sympathetic Asian character in sight, who sacrifices himself for the sake of his friends and is rewarded with the epitaph: “But they had no time to dwell on the end of little Mitsui’s tragic life.”

That’s the kind of racism that rankles me: not the diabolical Asian villain, who can be invested with a kind of sinister allure, as much as the legion of little Mitsuis who still populate so much of our fiction. (This may be why I’ve always sort of liked Michael Cimino’s indefensible Year of the Dragon, which at least treats John Lone’s character as a formidable, glamorous foe. It’s certainly less full of hate than The Deer Hunter.) And it complicates my reactions to other issues. When it was announced that Sulu would be unobtrusively presented as gay in Star Trek Beyond, it filled me with mixed feelings, and not just because George Takei didn’t seem to care for the idea. As much as I appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, I couldn’t help but think that it would have been just as innovative, if not more so, to depict Sulu as straight. I’m aware that this risks making it all seem like a zero-sum game, which it isn’t. But these points deserve to be raised, if only because they enrich the larger conversation. If a single scene on Westworld can spark a discussion of how we treat black men as sexual objects, we can do the same with the show’s treatment of Asians. The series presumably didn’t invite or expect such scrutiny, but it occupies a cultural position—as a prestige drama on a premium cable channel—in which it has no choice but to play that part. Science fiction, in particular, has always been a sandbox in which these issues can be investigated in ways that wouldn’t be possible in narratives set in the present, from the original run of Star Trek on down. Westworld belongs squarely in that tradition. And these are frontiers that it ought to explore.

Quote of the Day

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H.P. Lovecraft

As to how I write a story—there is no one way. Each one of my tales has a different history. Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of the basic condition or situation chosen…That my results are successful may well be disputed—but I feel at least sure that, had I ignored [these] considerations…they would have been much worse than they are.

H.P. Lovecraft, “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”

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October 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

The unwritten rules of the game

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Philip Abelson

Part of the strength of science is that it has tended to attract individuals who love knowledge and the creation of it. Just as important to the integrity of science have been the unwritten rules of the game. These provide recognition and approbation for work which is imaginative and accurate, and apathy or criticism for the trivial or inaccurate…Thus it is the communication process which is at the core of the vitality and integrity of science…The system of rewards and punishments tends to make honest, vigorous, conscientious, hardworking scholars out of people who have human tendencies of slothfulness and no more rectitude than the law requires.

Philip Abelson, “The Roots of Scientific Integrity”

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October 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

The importance of stupidity

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Martin A. Schwartz

We don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid—that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about “relative stupidity,” in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our “absolute stupidity.” That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, “I don’t know.” The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

Martin A. Schwartz, “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research”

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

The better angels of our nature

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Angels & Demons

Inferno, the third installment in Ron Howard’s series of Dan Brown adaptations starring Tom Hanks, arrives in theaters this weekend. Like Jack Reacher, it’s a franchise that doesn’t exactly have an enthusiastic following, and it seems to exist largely as a strategic component in the careers of its star and director. (This sequel, at least, appears to have a realistic view of its prospects: its budget is half that of its predecessor.) I wouldn’t even be mentioning it here if it weren’t for an embarrassing personal confession. I’m not a fan of the Robert Langdon books. If anything, I’m inclined to dislike them more than many readers, because I genuinely enjoy the idea of the conspiracy thriller. I even wrote an entire novel, The Icon Thief, in part to tell precisely that kind of story in the way I thought it deserved to be told. Even after the letdown of The Da Vinci Code, I was optimistic enough to buy The Lost Symbol, on the reasoning that a sequel released under high pressure by a major publisher would be a slick, tightly edited product—which didn’t turn out to be the case. I haven’t read any of the others. But here’s my confession: Angels & Demons, the film based on the first novel in the series, might be one of my stealth favorite movies. Even as I type this, I know how ridiculous it sounds. This isn’t a film that anyone remembers fondly. You don’t see video boxes proclaiming: “The best thriller since Angels & Demons.”

Why do I love it so much? Maybe it’s because it came out only seven years ago, but it already feels like a relic of another era, in which a studio could spend $150 million on a ridiculous summer movie aimed squarely at viewers over thirty. I’ve written here before that what I want from Hollywood, more than just about anything else, is slick, entertaining junk for grownups. These days, the industry has gravitated toward two opposing extremes, with superhero movies giving way in the winter to prestige pictures that feel like the cinematic equivalent of taking your medicine. Yet the most exciting periods in movie history were in decades when you could often see a reasonably clever director and screenwriter doing diverting things for ninety minutes with a couple of attractive stars. Aside from the occasional Bond or Ethan Hunt vehicle, this sort of thing has become dishearteningly rare, to the point where I’ve actually found myself looking forward to movies like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. (Oddly enough, we’re currently in the middle of a fairly good stretch for mainstream adult thrillers: along with Inferno, the last few weeks have given us The Girl on the Train, The Accountant, and a second Jack Reacher movie. I haven’t managed to see any of them, of course—which may be the real reason why adults in their late thirties aren’t seen as a desirable demographic.) And while Angels & Demons is far from a masterpiece, it feels like a blockbuster from an alternate universe, in which a lot of money and talent could be gloriously squandered by a film that couldn’t possibly interest a twelve year old.

Angels & Demons

But I don’t want to downplay its legitimate strengths, either. To say that the money is all there on the screen may not seem like heartfelt praise, but it is. There’s plenty of digital imagery, but it’s unobtrusive, and at a time when the climax of every comic book movie makes me feel like I’m watching a cartoon about two robots having a fistfight, it’s nice to see an expensive production set in something like the real world. It’s equally refreshing to watch a movie that takes pleasure in the locations, simulated or otherwise, of a single beautiful city. Its Rome is a nocturnal metropolis of golden lights against water, glossy marble churches, and fast cars winding through narrow streets, and it reminds us of how films like the Bourne movies flit so quickly from one landmark to another that we never have a chance to enjoy our surroundings. It helps, too, that the movie is populated by so many appealing players. There’s Hanks, of course, who I suspect secretly relishes playing Robert Langdon as kind of a smug asshole, and Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgårdwho are here only for the paycheck. But we also have the tough, beautiful Ayelet Zurer; Armin Mueller-Stahl, very good in the thankless role of a red herring in a cassock; and character actors with great faces like Pierfrancesco Favino and Nikolaj Lie Kass. The script by Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp keeps all the wheels turning nicely, and it clearly learned the lessons of The Da Vinci Code—the action is clean and rapid without being relentless, and you’re left feeling refreshed, rather than pummeled.

It all adds up to one of my favorite guilty pleasures, right up there with the first season of The Hills, and for many of the same reasons. There are sequences of high camp that make me grin like an idiot whenever I think about them: Langdon’s unsolicited lecture about Pius IX and “the great castration,” which makes him seem even more pompous than usual, or the priceless moment when the Camerlengo points a finger at his assailant and shouts: “Illuminatus!” This kind of thing pleases me enormously. I also like how the villain’s master plan hinges entirely on Langdon’s ability to figure out the plot with split-second precision, and how the whole conspiracy would be foiled if the timing were off by a few minutes in either direction. And unlike so many thrillers, it knows how to give a worthy death scene to its bad guy, who, after being exposed and pursued through St. Peter’s Church, burns himself to death at the altar, and for no particular reason. The result slips invisibly over the borderline from being a great bad movie to one that I can almost recommend on its own merits. Although it’s ravishingly pretty, it’s probably best experienced at home, on a disc bought from a cutout bin at Best Buy, which makes its immense technical resources—a little overwhelming or oppressive in the theater—seem like an act of unsolicited generosity. And it sticks in your head. A few months ago, I was watching Spectre, which was filmed on many of the same locations, when I found myself thinking: “I’d rather be watching Angels & Demons.” I’m probably the only person in the world who said this to himself. But I did. I’d be happy to put it on again tonight. And maybe I will.

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2016 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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Stuart A. Kauffman

The rate of exploration of novel possibilities must be gradual enough that natural selection can weed out the losers. If not, the biosphere as a whole would diffuse into new ways of making a living so rapidly that selection would not be able to control the exploration, and we would soon falter…Globally speaking, for the entire biosphere, this suggests that we enter the adjacent possible about as fast as we can get away with it.

Stuart A. Kauffman, Investigations

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October 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

The stress test

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Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back

When you’re trying to figure out how the world works, you can often learn a lot from extreme cases. If you’re putting together a computer simulation, for instance, you can test it for degeneracy by entering zeroes—or another lower or upper bound—for all the parameters and watching how the model responds. In engineering, it’s the principle behind the stress test, in which you subject a system or a machine to unrealistic conditions in order to find its breaking point. Semiconductor manufacturers, for example, talk about process corners, which are the extremes of the parameters within which an integrated circuit is supposed to keep working. As part of the design process, they’ll make corner lots, which are essentially batches of chips that have been deliberately fabricated with these extreme values, and test them against various conditions to see how they hold up. The result can be graphed on a chart called a shmoo plot, which allows you to visualize the operating range of the device that you’re developing. Even if these conditions seem unlikely to come up in practice, they can provide you with valuable data that wouldn’t be obvious using more moderate or conservative assumptions. They can show you the limits of the design. And they can allow you to prepare for “black swan” events that occur more often than experience itself would imply.

Over the last month, we’ve experienced two unforgettable examples of such extreme values in the real world. The first, obviously, is the strange case of Donald Trump, who sometimes behaves as if someone had created a political candidate using an avatar editor in a video game and turned all the knobs to their lowest setting. Trump isn’t qualified to hold office. He isn’t a likable human being. You can’t even say that he appeals to the ideologues, since his ideas are either nonexistent, repulsive, or so unreliable as to be meaningless. He isn’t a good debater; he’s at war with the establishment within his own party; he’s gone out of his way to alienate entire groups of voters; and these days, he doesn’t even seem all that interested in campaigning. Yet his support has held more or less steady at forty percent. It’s alarming, but it’s also an immensely important piece of information. Trump’s share of the popular vote, whatever it turns out to be, represents the effective floor for a Republican nominee in this country. It’s hard to imagine what he possibly could have done to make it harder on himself. As a result, he’s established a baseline for candidates in the future, and he’s taught us that the marginal difference between the worst and the best conservative candidate amounts to something like ten percentage points. If this were a simulation, we’d have trouble believing it.

Donald Trump

But we recently saw another test case, at the opposite end of the spectrum, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan has failed to even acknowledge the honor, which has led at least one member of the Swedish Academy to call his behavior “impolite and arrogant.” Yet his response only underlines what many of us subconsciously realized when the award was first announced. It’s going to be harder to take the Nobel Prize seriously in the future, not because Dylan isn’t a deserving recipient, but because when you put the prize next to him, it looks small. Dylan, like Trump, is an extreme case: he’s already acquired all the wealth, critical acclaim, and popular success that any artist could desire. This means that his selection gives us valuable insight into the real worth of a Nobel Prize, when you’ve stripped away all of the usual benefits that it confers. The answer isn’t all that flattering to the prize itself. In fact, it starts to look like it doesn’t mean anything. When you give the most prestigious award in existence to one of the world’s most famous men, it’s a stress test, not just for the Nobel Prize, but for all prizes whatsoever. The committee presumably hoped to make a statement by picking a popular artist, but it would have been better off continuing to award European poets and playwrights who are virtually unknown outside their native countries. By presenting it to Dylan, they’ve inadvertently exposed their own irrelevance.

And such examples are interesting primarily because of the light that they shed on more routine cases. Trump is less illuminating in isolation, since I doubt we’ll see a candidate like him ever again, than in the perspective he affords on all the little Trumps with whom he surrounds himself. He tells us how large a proportion of the Republican base is utterly indifferent to its candidate’s strengths or weaknesses, which is a data point that needs to be taken into account in every future election. Bob Dylan’s lesson is less obvious, but even more instructive. There’s only one Dylan, but he’s just an extreme instance of what every artist ought to be: you stick to your principles, you don’t sell out, you follow your own intuitions rather than those of your audience, and you find satisfaction in the work itself. We should all be little Dylans. If the Nobel Prize doesn’t make a difference to him, then maybe any material reward whatsoever shouldn’t matter to any working artist. (And yes, this includes the money, which few artists would turn down, but which ultimately seems unnecessary, or at least beside the point.) From now on, whenever we hear that someone has won an award, we should ask ourselves: “How would this change Bob Dylan’s life?” The answer is that it wouldn’t, which should serve as a reminder to those who strive to embody his virtues without his fame. The Nobel committee couldn’t add a cubit to Dylan’s stature, any more than Trump could lower the bottom any further. And we’ve learned a lot from them both—which doesn’t make it any less stressful.

Written by nevalalee

October 27, 2016 at 9:13 am

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