Tag Archives: doubts

The 12th Planet: I (don’t) want to believe

17 May

I realize that I read more science fiction and fantasy than is probably healthy for an individual, but even so, I think I have yet a modicum of intelligence and reason left in my head–which is why I gaped in shock and horror to find a copy of Zecharia Sitchin’s The 12th Planet in the back seat of my father’s car when we went to breakfast this morning.

For those of you who don’t know, The 12th Planet (1977) is the first installation of Sitchin’s “Earth Chronicles,” a seven-part series in which he attempts to prove that we are not alone in the universe:

Basically, all those Old Testament stories people have passed off as myths are really, literally true.  Fear our celestial overlords!  The Nefilim built the pyramids, and they can tear them down too.  (Note that Sitchin has collected indisputable proof.)

Oy vey.

The book has received some attention recently, probably because the final volume of the Earth Chronicles, The End of Days, was released just a few years ago–and what better to do in our last year of existence (or last week, if you expect to be taken up in the Rapture this Saturday) than read the “nonfiction” ravings of a crackpot writer?

I’m sorry, that’s unfair.  Zecharia Sitchin is a reasearcher, of sorts.  He is proficient in multiple ancient languages, Sumerian cuneiform purportedly among them.  He claims that his assertions in The 12th Planet are based on textual analysis of the original texts–the Hebrew OT, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, those mysterious cuneiform tablets, etc., et al.  Of course, the more *respectable* scientists and academics reject Sitchin’s hypotheses as the work of faulty interpretation of ancient texts and flawed astronomical information.  Personally, I think he simply suffers from an overactive X-Files Mentality.  In other words, he wants to believe.

I don’t.

That back cover blurb alone should be enough to make a reader with the barest amount of sense laugh out loud.  Until she realizes that the book is being sold as nonfiction, and that there are those (including the author) who believe every word.  Then the reading experience just gets sad–and more than a little creepy.

There are a number of problems with The 12th Planet:

1. Not only does Sitchin employ (more than) questionable methodology in fashioning his claims, believing those claims requires us the readers to shunt aside all sorts of scientific explanations of phenomena for which there is actual evidence.  Oh, like human evolution.  Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“The unanswered question is: Why–why did civilization come about at all?  For, as most scholars now admit in frustration, by all data Man should still be without civilization.  There is no obvious reason that we should be any more civilized than the primitive tribes of the Amazon jungles…

But, we are told, these tribesmen still live as if in the Stone Age because they have been isolated.  But isolated from what?  If they have been living on the same Earth as we, why have they not acquired the same knowledge of sciences and technologies on their own as we supposedly have?”

How about we read this instead, okay?

Astonishing!  I don’t think anyone has ever tried to answer that question before.  Except Jared Diamond.  Ever heard of Guns, Germs, and Steel?  Yeah, it’s that one that won the Pulitzer some years back.  Sorry, Zeke.

I won’t even get into that second part, in which Sitchin seems to imply that scientific knowledge is just chillin’ in the aether somewhere, waiting for some “primitive bushman” to pick it out of the air.  That’s for another paragraph.  What’s truly astonishing is where Sitchin goes from here.

One of the plethora of Discovery Channel conspiracy theory programs will attempt to raise questions about the origins of civilization–did space aliens give us knowledge and sink Atlantis in their rage, or something?  Sitchin says yes, the evolution of human civilization is actually extraterrestrial in origin.  And, he adds, modern man did not really evolve from the primordial ooze.  Male and female the aliens created them, because it would take too long to make apes talk.

That seems to me a total non sequitur, but it’s not like I can read cuneiform.  I bet those evolutionary biologists can’t either–so there!

2.  The second major problem I have with the whole “ancient astronauts” thing goes beyond Sitchin’s book.  My question is: Why is it so hard to believe that humans, with their own minds and their own contemporary technology, could have built the pyramids?  Because it’s always about the pyramids.  “They’re so geometrically perfect,” a Sitchinite might exclaim, “and how could they move those big rocks?”  There are a number of construction method hypotheses, all of them more plausible than the one that requires alien overlords cracking the whip.

Perhaps more disturbingly is the underlying racial prejudices inherent in this argument.  I had a professor of archaeology my freshman year who worked on ancient Mesoamerican cultures.  He seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to the Mayans.  Why does everyone think the Mayans are so mysterious? he asked, multiple times during the semester.  He was a scientist, and had all sorts of perfectly reasonable (and more than that–empirical) explanations for the mysteries of the Maya.  And yet, the dilettantes of pseudoscience and pseudohistory seemed unable to resist groping for the mystical.

Because, of course, indigenous peoples of non-European origin must be primitive bushmen, right?

If it isn’t apparent by now that I’m intensely annoyed by The 12th Planet, let me be clear:

Zecharia Sitchin’s Earth Chronicles Series ranks among the very worst of pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical “nonfiction.”  It may be some people read books like his for entertainment, or because they have a case of the X-Files, but I for one think something like The 12th Planet cannot go without even this meager rebuttal.  Zecharia Sitchin’s books feed into the worst popular conceptions of ancient civilization, and commit an unforgivable crime: they rape history, underestimating and belittling the fully human people who lived before us.

That’s not okay.  And I sincerely hope my father was reading it as a joke.

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Rasputin Wants YOU! to read Whom God Would Destroy

12 Apr

Bless you, Alexis, and be cured of your haemophilia!

Or maybe that’s just my interpretation of this absolutely bizarre book trailer–and who better to have made it than the mysterious, mystical, highly heterodox Commander Pants?

The good Commander, you might recall, is the author of a delightfully blasphemous book, Whom God Would Destroy–which, as you might also recall, I reviewed a couple months ago.  If you don’t recall, you can read about the winner of the Spring 2011 Heretic Badge of Honor right here.

In any case, here’s the book trailer.  Watch and enjoy–unless you’re a person particularly susceptible to hypnosis, subliminal messages, and/or the piercing eyes of a really messed-up Russian mystic.  If you have any of the above weaknesses, you might want to click on another hyperlink, any other hyperlink, and get far away from here while you still can.  Just some friendly advice.

Bonus points to the first person to spot Rasputin.  And when I say bonus points, I mean it in the Whose Line way.

Have a Very Merry Atheist Advent!

30 Nov

Back when I sang hymns, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” was by far my favorite.  Maybe I was a gloomy, glowering child, but I liked the haunting advent melody much better than I ever did any of the garish Christmas Day songs (not least because they make sopranos so damn smug.  There have to be some altos in heaven, right?).  And besides, prisoners, exile, and lamentation are way more fun.

I know this is a science fiction review site, but ’tis the season, after all.  And since it’s almost December, it’s time for the 2nd Annual Countercultural Christmas posts!  Last year, you may recall, I laid out my reasons for not misleading my hypothetical future children into believing that a magical obese man will break into our house on the night of December 24– see: Natural Skeptics, Kids and the Santa Myth.

This year’s even better!

I’ve recently discovered in the blogosphere a fellow who, while less jolly than Santa Claus, is much more musical: “Atheist Advent” writes a song a day during the Advent season just for those who aren’t so into the Christ part of Christmas.  “Advent songs on a godless guitar,” as the motto goes.  Or in his own eloquent words:

I don’t want to cast bitter disillusion over the Advent season. The iron dustbin lid of winter, as it slams across this pole, does a better job of this than any human can. How I wish I was in Australia! –But I might as well wish to be in another solar system.

Atheist Advent is this: Me writing a song each day about the things that are on my mind as the solstice approaches. And if any of them are any good, and if anyone listens to them and likes them, that is a greater present than Santa Claus, mumbling incoherently into his yellow beard, and grinding the cracked paint of his blackened sledge, could ever heave down my chimney.

Listening to some of the songs from 2009’s Xmas season, I’m already enjoying them.  This holiday season, the Scattering will have some new songs to sing while the fam goes to church.

Author Response: Faith, Science, and The Proximian

4 Aug

After I raised some objections in a review to what I see as an incongruous blending of biblical literalism in his science fiction novel The Proximian, I wanted to make sure author Dennis Phillips had a hearing too.  He felt strongly enough to leave a very generous comment on my review, and I felt strongly enough to re-publish my review of atheist Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. But not everyone scrolls down to read the comments, so here’s Mr. Phillips’s response to an admittedly critical reception of The Proximian from the Scattering:

Thank you, Isabela for taking time to review my work, and thank you for your kind comments. You mentioned in an email to me that you are an athiest. As such, I understand that you would be biased with regard to any blending of religion in science.

You seem to believe there is some disconnect between faith and science. I do not. You seem to believe that if someone is true to science, that they cannot be religious, which is why you wrote “I find it difficult to believe that an astrophysicist like Carl Sage could accept Creationism.” Yet many like him have and do. I can no more prove the existence of God, than you can disprove it. In the end, a belief in God, like a belief in the theory of evolution, must be a matter of faith.

Many thanks again and best wishes for a successful future,

Dennis Phillips, author, The Proximian

And here’s my comment in reply:

I’d hate to get into a theological argument in a comment thread, but one thing you said in particular stuck out to me as rather off– “A belief in God, like a belief in the theory of evolution, must be a matter of faith.”

Absolutely not!

Tim Minchin said it best: “Science adjusts its views based on what’s been observed. Faith is denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”

In regard to the “absence of evidence” vs. “evidence of absence” argument, here’s briefly what I have to say:

Observation and experimentation is the basis of science, and these pillars allow not only for dialogue but the opportunity for other scientists and researchers to disprove a hypothesis–and so get closer to the truth (knowing something is wrong is just as valuable as knowing which answer is right). The fact that one cannot, as you mentioned, disprove the existence of God only serves to highlight the very real disconnect between faith and science: that’s completely the opposite of the scientific ethos.

Sam Harris’s short “Letter to a Christian Nation” would be a great resource for anyone wishing to better understand atheism.

– Isabela Morales

Well, the debate isn’t going to be solved in the comment thread of a second-tier science fiction review blog, but I hope that gives readers a more rounded-out view of author Dennis Phillips’s philosophy and reasons for including some Genesis apocrypha in his novel.  The stakes, as he let me know, are high:

One of us is wrong. We can’t both be right. And if I’m wrong, when I die, I’ve lost nothing; but if you’re wrong, then some day, when you die, you’ve lost everything.

Damn.

Souls in a Petri Dish (Review: Letter to a Christian Nation)

4 Aug

“Atheists are the most reviled minority in America.”

Sam Harris has it exactly right.  Polls—even some taken shortly after 9/11—show that the majority of Americans would rather have a Muslim president than one who doesn’t believe in any God at all.  Maybe that seems hard to believe when we think back to the horror over our current Presidents highly suspicious middle name, but the number bear it out.  Atheists aren’t likely to achieve high office.

Maybe that’s why one of our most famous nonbelievers in American history, Thomas Paine, is the most notable of our founding fathers not to have a monument.  They don’t even mention him in the recent History Channel documentary America: The Story of Us(which is otherwise both moving and surprisingly objective) in the Valley Forge segment.  George Washington thought the political pamphleteer important and inspiring enough to read to his starving, freezing men at Valley Forge (and thus keep the army together through a terrible winter)—but this isn’t the Age of Reason anymore.

In high school, I was nostalgic for the political pamphlets of Thomas Paine rallying patriots to the Revolutionary cause.  Nostalgic not because I’d been there (though I’m still holding out for time travel), but because today’s political debates involve so much more mudslinging and snide soundbites than any meaningful debate, and because—to someone who compliments acquaintances on brilliant extended metaphors in emails and cries after every re-reading of Plato’s Phaedo—good rhetoric is so, so hard to find.

Especially on the issue of religion and faith.  On a small scale, the University of Alabama club “triple-A,” Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, had its chalking vandalized by devout Southern Christians about half a dozen times this past year.  Pouring slushies on a chalk portrait of Darwin is the college equivalent of a shut-down of intellectual debate, I guess—which is something atheists face in the “Christian nation” of the United States.

I can’t help but have a wonderful time reading the gleefully irreverent Christopher Hitchens.  As might be expected, I can’t say the same for my ex-roommate at UA, who never looked at me the same after she found God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything on my Kindle.  But Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation satisfied my sentimental longing for Thomas Pain-esque writing, and then some.  His short book—more a manifesto—echoes Paine’s celebrated Age of Reason in that he’s not on the defensive.  Harris explains that the New Atheism isn’t just a negative (not believing in God): it’s about a positive too, belief in science and reason.

Last fall, I awarded Thomas Paine the Scattering’s premier literary award—the Heretic Badge of Honor—for his 1794 Age of Reason.  Today, I’m awarding the Heretic Badge to Sam Harris for Letter to a Christian Nation, for taking up the torch.  He writes in his conclusion, after all, that:

“This letter is the product of failure—the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, the failure of the media to criticize the abject religious certainties of our public figures—failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God an despising those who muddle differently.”

In his letter, the New Atheist does revive for a modern audience some ideas that reminded me of past doubters very strongly.  The foundation of atheism, he argues, is a scientific mindset, but that might mean something different than many people expect:

“The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honest.  It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t.”

Atheists don’t revile God (although, as Harris points out, there’s a whole lot of evidence to do just that)—we respect rationality.  That’s the scientific mindset.

This definition of “intellectual honesty” struck me as particularly reminiscent of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, in which he wrote my favorite 18th-century quote:

“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

Or for Harris, what is impossible to believe in in modern society, with so much scientific evidence stacked against the need for a God.  It’s as incongruous as, well, to use one of my favorite expressions from the Letter—“souls in a Petri dish.”

I won’t go into detail on Harris’s arguments, because I couldn’t begin to write more clearly or concisely than he does in Letter to a Christian Nation.  And personally, I wonder how many of the Christians the book’s addressed to will actually read it—but for those who do or are considering it, let me say that while it’s bold and certainly controversial, it’s written in some of the most clear, logical prose I’ve ever read.  It’s accessible, and written more to persuade than inflame (like some of Hitchens’s writings).

The book’s only 900 locations on the Kindle (as opposed to the 5-8,000 of the average novel), so I’d place it at about 100 pages.  In any case, it’s a one-afternoon read.  So head on outside on this beautiful summer (is it summer yet?  I never really know) day, relax in the sun, wear a hat or a beekeeper’s veil if you’re easily sunburned, listen to the rustle of leaves in the wind and insects buzzing in the grass, and remember that you can thank evolution for it all—not God.

Happy Pentecost, everyone!

Letter to a Christian Nation is available in paperback as well as an ebook on Amazon for $8.64

Souls in a Petri Dish (Review: Letter to a Christian Nation)

24 May

“Atheists are the most reviled minority in America.”

Sam Harris has it exactly right.  Polls—even some taken shortly after 9/11—show that the majority of Americans would rather have a Muslim president than one who doesn’t believe in any God at all.  Maybe that seems hard to believe when we think back to the horror over our current Presidents highly suspicious middle name, but the number bear it out.  Atheists aren’t likely to achieve high office.

Maybe that’s why one of our most famous nonbelievers in American history, Thomas Paine, is the most notable of our founding fathers not to have a monument.  They don’t even mention him in the recent History Channel documentary America: The Story of Us (which is otherwise both moving and surprisingly objective) in the Valley Forge segment.  George Washington thought the political pamphleteer important and inspiring enough to read to his starving, freezing men at Valley Forge (and thus keep the army together through a terrible winter)—but this isn’t the Age of Reason anymore.

In high school, I was nostalgic for the political pamphlets of Thomas Paine rallying patriots to the Revolutionary cause.  Nostalgic not because I’d been there (though I’m still holding out for time travel), but because today’s political debates involve so much more mudslinging and snide soundbites than any meaningful debate, and because—to someone who compliments acquaintances on brilliant extended metaphors in emails and cries after every re-reading of Plato’s Phaedo—good rhetoric is so, so hard to find.

Especially on the issue of religion and faith.  On a small scale, the University of Alabama club “triple-A,” Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, had its chalking vandalized by devout Southern Christians about half a dozen times this past year.  Pouring slushies on a chalk portrait of Darwin is the college equivalent of a shut-down of intellectual debate, I guess—which is something atheists face in the “Christian nation” of the United States.

I can’t help but have a wonderful time reading the gleefully irreverent Christopher Hitchens.  As might be expected, I can’t say the same for my ex-roommate at UA, who never looked at me the same after she found God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything on my Kindle.  But Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation satisfied my sentimental longing for Thomas Pain-esque writing, and then some.  His short book—more a manifesto—echoes Paine’s celebrated Age of Reason in that he’s not on the defensive.  Harris explains that the New Atheism isn’t just a negative (not believing in God): it’s about a positive too, belief in science and reason.

Last fall, I awarded Thomas Paine the Scattering’s premier literary award—the Heretic Badge of Honor—for his 1794 Age of Reason.  Today, I’m awarding the Heretic Badge to Sam Harris for Letter to a Christian Nation, for taking up the torch.  He writes in his conclusion, after all, that:

“This letter is the product of failure—the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, the failure of the media to criticize the abject religious certainties of our public figures—failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God an despising those who muddle differently.”

In his letter, the New Atheist does revive for a modern audience some ideas that reminded me of past doubters very strongly.  The foundation of atheism, he argues, is a scientific mindset, but that might mean something different than many people expect:

“The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honest.  It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t.”

Atheists don’t revile God (although, as Harris points out, there’s a whole lot of evidence to do just that)—we respect rationality.  That’s the scientific mindset.

This definition of “intellectual honesty” struck me as particularly reminiscent of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, in which he wrote my favorite 18th-century quote:

“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

Or for Harris, what is impossible to believe in in modern society, with so much scientific evidence stacked against the need for a God.  It’s as incongruous as, well, to use one of my favorite expressions from the Letter—“souls in a Petri dish.”

I won’t go into detail on Harris’s arguments, because I couldn’t begin to write more clearly or concisely than he does in Letter to a Christian Nation.  And personally, I wonder how many of the Christians the book’s addressed to will actually read it—but for those who do or are considering it, let me say that while it’s bold and certainly controversial, it’s written in some of the most clear, logical prose I’ve ever read.  It’s accessible, and written more to persuade than inflame (like some of Hitchens’s writings).

The book’s only 900 locations on the Kindle (as opposed to the 5-8,000 of the average novel), so I’d place it at about 100 pages.  In any case, it’s a one-afternoon read.  So head on outside on this beautiful summer (is it summer yet?  I never really know) day, relax in the sun, wear a hat or a beekeeper’s veil if you’re easily sunburned, listen to the rustle of leaves in the wind and insects buzzing in the grass, and remember that you can thank evolution for it all—not God.

Happy Pentecost, everyone!

Letter to a Christian Nation is available in paperback as well as an ebook on Amazon for $8.64

Here’s to Amazon’s Group Mind

18 May

On the Internet, everything is connected.

Case in point: Amazon recommendations.  I was a loyal Barnes and Noble shopper up until Christmas, when I got my beautiful Kindle and abandoned the brick and mortar B&N for Amazon ebooks.  As is often mentioned, digital books cost less than physical copies (and for online shoppers, eliminate the need for paying postage)—but Amazon probably makes up more than the difference in the sheer volume of books people are buying.  A lot of Amazon testimonials say something about users reading more on their Kindle because of the ease of purchasing, 60-second delivery, and 400,000+ title selection.  But in my experience, the real reason I read more these days is because I’ve learned something very important—the Algorithm knows best.

I like new fiction.  I didn’t know I liked new fiction until this year—because I didn’t know what was out there.  And then came The Algorithm.

The Algorithm is Amazon’s recommendation system, that takes into account past purchases, search history, purchase history of other customers, and the whole great cloud of interconnected tags (I’m pretty sure a couple accio spells are involved too).  It’s like a book club with millions of members.

The Algorithm is scary accurate.

Back in ye olde simple days, I thought I could pick out my own books.  But after a couple weeks with Mr. Linus (my Kindle), I came to the realization that the group mind of the Internet knows me better than I know myself.  I’d bought Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series online at B&N; Amazon didn’t know about it.  But after I came over to the dark side, I got an email recommending China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which has a narrative style so amazingly similar to Peake’s that I was almost jumping up and down.

I think that sealed the deal.

That’s why I don’t buy the arguments that Apple’s iPad is going to kill the Kindle or loosen Amazon’s hold on the market.  The balance of ereaders might shift, but Amazon’s group mind, at this time, has no parallel.  Even people who’ve switched from the Kindle to the iPad (which can run a Kindle app) say the same.  From a comment thread on Facebook’s Kindle fan page:

I hate to admit it, but I just gave my Kindle 2 to my sister. I *LOVED* my Kindle, but I bought the iPad and the Kindle just sat on my nightstand. Yes, the Kindle is lighter and yes, the eInk is easier to read, but I will say that the backlight is nice at night (vs. a clip-on light). Anyway, I’ll NEVER leave Amazon – I now just read everything through Kindle for iPad.

Am I a Kindle traitor? LOL

No, not a traitor.  I love my Kindle, and extol its virtues to strangers on the bus, but the group mind’s the thing.  The accumulated search and buying histories of millions of customers is a major databank, and not something an oversized iPod Touch is likely to beat in the ebooks market in the near future.  And hey, if the Apple Algorithm can generate recommendations that good, more power to Steve Jobs.  It’s still a win for the customer.

But still, stop calling it magical.

Just an aside: speaking of Internet interconnectedness, Amazon’s beta-testing their new Kindle software (Kindle 2.5), which I’m told is going to allow the export of annotations and highlights directly from the book to Twitter or Facebook–which is kind of awesome, right?

Who says men are funny?

17 Apr

Vanity Fair’s flame war between journalists Christopher Hitchens and Alessandra Stanley centered on the supposed gender gap in humor—their articles titled, respectively: “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” and “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?”

The irreverent Hitchens, a proud member of the New Atheism “Unholy Trinity” (along with fellow horsemen of the apocalypse Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennet), makes the expected argument that humor has its roots in natural selection.  Human males, lacking gaudy tail feathers and large antlers with which to battle other human males, rely on a sense of humor to attract a mate.  On the other hand, a human woman’s reproductive struggle is rather different—the dangers of childbirth requiring that, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “the female of the species must be deadlier than the male.”  Of course, Hitchens doesn’t miss the opportunity to use this as a launching point into a couple one-liners about religion—women being, in their biological solemnity, “the rank-and-file mainstay of religion… the official enemy of all humor.”

Stanley rebuts with a litany of contemporary female comedians (comediennes, to use the gender-specific nounage): Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, and so on—many of whom, she notes, do not fit the “hefty, dykey, or Jewish” boxes Hitchens attempts to place women humorists into.  Only briefly, however, does Stanley touch on Hitchens’ central, evolution-centric argument.  Addressing the nature versus nurture issue, she writes: “It’s a shame that Margaret Mead never made it to that tribe in Papua New Guinea where women tell the jokes, and men pretend to find them funny.”

And yet—that line may be the most compelling point in her entire article.  While Hitchens makes the assumption that men are compelled by nature to make women laugh for reproductive purposes, the truth may be that women are compelled to laugh by culture for their own survival (ask any women who’s felt a duty to giggle for a boorish date).  A follow-up article could easily read: Who says men are funny?

Even Hitchens notes that women aren’t funny because wit, as a sign of intelligence, threatens men attempting to assert their own comic dominance.  But this isn’t a reason for women not evolving humor in the first place—it’s a matter of gender and culture, not sex and nature.

It’s not socially acceptable for women to be funny—sarcasm’s fairly aggressive, and gibes can cut away at a man’s fragile ego (not having, as it is, plumes or horns).  If humor often reveals a subversive perspective, chipping away at established authority, funny women represent a threat.  As an example, Stanley cites the biblical case of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, eavesdropping on her husband and a visiting angel: when the angel tells Abe that his wife (age ninety-plus) will soon conceive a child, Sarah snickers at the tent flap; later, when she does give birth, she names her son the Hebrew word for laughter, Isaac.  That’s one point against Hitchens’ assertion that childbirth is no laughing matter for women.

Sex and gender aren’t synonymous.  If women aren’t funny, the problem isn’t an evolutionary predisposition to be a good audience—it’s a cultural injunction to be a good sport (Hitchens didn’t think Dorothy Parker funny either, by the way).  And that’s something that should make men nervous: perhaps their much-vaunted sense of humor doesn’t really exist, after all.

Quick review: Geosynchron (Jump 225 trilogy)

8 Apr

Alas, alack!

I had such high hopes for this trilogy after Infoquake, but Geosynchron really fell short of my expectations. Edelman, as always, does a great job building his highly believable technological world, but his characters are less believable.  In fact, they’ve been getting less believable with every new book.

The series started off strongly character-driven, but Natch’s tortured melancholy and humanitarian turnaround just made him rather flat. I found myself rooting for Petruccio Patel, for goodness’ sake, for lack of a more compelling protagonist.

As for the ending–I’m hoping Serr Vigal was right and it was all an alternate reality within an alternate reality. In any case, fanfiction writers can have at it, with an ambiguous ending like that.

I’ll tackle this in more detail when the disillusionment begins to fade.

God’s Little Finger (FlashForward 1.11, 1.12)

21 Mar

Yes it’s true that, at least while ABC’s cult hit finishes up its final 8 hours, FlashFoward will remain LOST’s less cool, less popular little sister who didn’t get asked to prom because no one on FlashForward has a contract with L’Oreal yet.

Still, last week’s double episode (“Revelation Zero,” parts 1 and 2) brought the second half of the season to a competitive place: I don’t think it’s any question that Dominic Monaghan makes a much better Simon Campos than Charlie Pace, and that FlashForward’s quantum physicist beats Daniel Faraday (bless his twitchy little heart) hands down.

[Spoilers below]

The second half of season one begins with a nauseatingly inspirational story: a window washer who nearly died in the blackout has become a super-religious inspirational speaker intent on telling the world that the blackout, with its multi-million life cost and consequent tragedy, is a dramatic piece of God’s plan.  Of course, his words drip fervor better than I can paraphrase:

“God is breaking into human history in a way that’s never happened before—and you!” he shouts in his vision, preaching to a packed crowd.  “You are right at the center of everything!”

Critiquing the idea of a master plan of God for insufferable conceit isn’t anything new.  Carl Sagan in Contact wrote a priest who laughed at Creationists and other sundry fundamentalists for seeing Earth as “God’s little green footstool.”  Is there a master plan?  Or is human insistence on one just a psychological defense mechanism that kicks in when we start to look into the abyss?

Revelation Zero’s cup filleth over with such God complexes.

1. Our window washer, whose “center of everything” speech might have made Galileo cringe;

2. Mark Benford, accused by his FBI-mandated psychiatrist (he kind of held a foreign government official at gunpoint, recall) of the same—“I’ve read your file—you have a God complex.  Something you saw made you think that you’re at the center of the universe”;

3. Benford’s babysitter Nicole, who insists that her vision of drowning must be a punishment from God… for something not yet done;

4. And best of all, Simon Campos, who has both more and less power than we viewers probably thought before.

First of all, Simon’s a scientist, that archetype of dangerous knowledge-seeking. It’s no coincidence that Nicole’s slightly unstable mother quotes Genesis before setting fire to the family Bible: “And if you eat from the tree of knowledge, you shall surely die.”  Fear of the experimenter goes back to Adam, Eve, and Prometheus themselves.  From the serpent’s mouth, “in the day ye eat thereof” (he hisses), “then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.”

Our window washer probably doesn’t want to open his eyes: the master plan might not be God’s after all, but a mere mortal’s design—or worse, no plan at all, and just a mere mortal accident.  Simon and Lloyd’s “kidnappers” do say that they didn’t cause the blackout with their plasma wakefield experiment, but rather “amplified” it.

In any case, we the viewers have a lot of evidence suggesting that this isn’t God “breaking into human history,” but human history plain and simple—emphasis on the human.

Power’s a major theme in episodes 11 and 12: from Janis tracking Simon with an ankle bracelet, to Simon tirelessly hatching escape plans—his beatific grin after faking anaphylactic shock and a penicillin allergy was priceless.  Not to mention the bizarre Ring of Power (natural, since Monaghan’s used to being a hobbit, after all) Simon’s “Uncle Teddy” (also known as Mr. Flosso) gave him to keep him awake during the blackout—oh, right, because Simon Campos is Suspect Zero.

As Simon’s shadowy puppetmasters lurk in dark rooms moving chess pieces around, we learn that he’s been part of a very long-term plan since age thirteen, Uncle Teddy supporting the family and moving them to Toronto to make sure brilliant little Simon Campos got the education he needed.  His father died in a “hunting accident” just days before the blackout so Simon would have the funeral as an alibi; his sister Annabelle was kidnapped as “insurance” for his cooperation; his favorite professor was murdered and stuffed in a car trunk as a “last warning” for the physicist to cooperate; and Simon himself was kidnapped with Lloyd Simcoe, losing a pinky to Uncle Teddy’s cigar snips to keep the FBI getting too suspicious.

But before we start feeling too bad for Simon Campos the pawn, all fans of the Ben Linus-like character can breathe a sigh of relief that Simon is just as much a sociopath as we ever hoped:

Since Simon was awake during the universal blackout, his “vision” of strangling a man (and liking it) wasn’t actually an event from the future after all—but from the past.  On the day of the blackout, in a tunnel leading out of the baseball stadium, he quite happily chokes the man who’d killed his father.  And in the present, in the backyard of his mother’s house during a family dinner (with FBI’s Janis Hawk inside no less), he suffocates Uncle Teddy as well, knocking him down and pressing on his chest until those emphysema-afflicted lungs starve he heart and brain of oxygen entirely—and as Simon tells his victim cheerfully, the bruises on the old man’s chest will be his alibi, the signs of failed and desperate CPR.

(Speaking of his family—I’m told that you can tell a lot about a guy by how he treats his mother, and Simon’s relationship is interesting to say the least.  She worships him, and he returns the kindness by mocking her with his impressive vocabulary.  “Don’t be so magniloquent,” he says to ‘comfort’ her as they embrace during Annabelle’s disappearance.  Magniloquent, naturally enough, means ‘using high-flown or bombastic language.’  Of course.  Two more English lessons from Simon Campos: winge, and cogitate.)

So maybe Simon Campos is exactly what Wedeck calls him—“that squirrely SOB.”  But at the same time, he might be the only character on FlashForward with the right to a God complex (there’s more knowledge of the blackouts in that little finger he lost than on all of Mark Benford’s corkboard).  And Simon Campos, done being manipulated (or, more magniloquently, “I’m done being your bitch”), is shaping up to be an angry God:

“I never get pushed around,” he says, standing over Uncle Teddy’s corpse, “And I always get even.”