Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human by K.W. Jeter

jeterkw-bladerunner2The 1982 film Blade Runner was based on an earlier novel by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. That novel is much quirkier and more upbeat than the dystopian movie adaptation by Ridley Scott. The plot is also significantly different, if I remember correctly. My first question, then, on approaching this written sequel, is whether it is a sequel to the book or the film. The answer is the latter. Jeter’s book captures the dark tone of the movie and makes direct reference to characters and scenes from it.

The story is set in a future Los Angeles, where the sky is abuzz with flying cars set against a backdrop of neon. And the city is even more polluted than it is at present. Signs advertising off-world colonies seduce people into leaving the planet behind for good. Central to the story is the Tyrell Corporation, responsible for creating synthetic humans, called replicants, as a source of off-world labour and entertainment. Sometimes replicants try to sneak away and get to Earth. And that’s where blade runners come in. A blade runner is a police officer tasked with hunting down and killing replicants – only they don’t say “kill”, they say “retire.”

Rick Deckard, our main protagonist, is (or was) a blade runner. The movie concluded with this lovestricken cop running away from his job, and the city, with Rachael Tyrell, the replicant “niece” of the murdered Eldon Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation. The book picks up the story of couple of months later, with Deckard living in a cabin in the woods with Rachael. The authorities locate Deckard, tear him away from Rachael, and ferry him back to the city for one more job. Apparently, there is a sixth replicant, in addition to the five that Deckard retired in the movie. If Deckard ever wants to see Rachael again, it’s his job to track down and terminate this loose end. Only, in a complicated twist, he’s going to have the whole LAPD out to get him at the same time.

Many characters from the movie make an appearance, even some we thought were dead. Resurrecting them is done relatively convincingly. I don’t want to spoil anything here. The book is let down somewhat by the story itself. It’s just not interesting enough. At times I couldn’t tell what was coming next, not because the story was unpredictable in a good way, but because I couldn’t make head or tale of some of the characters’ motivations. Some of the resurrected characters don’t even advance the plot; they’re just there as morbid background curiosities. Fans will probably want to know whether the book develops the matter of whether Deckard is a replicant himself? Yes, it does, but we’re still left with uncertainties.

Ultimately, if you loved the movie and you just want to immerse yourself in the same atmosphere a second time, you may appreciate this. Jeter writes with more artistry than is common in fiction these days, but sometimes it comes off as more confusing than descriptive. Ultimately, I just didn’t find the story interesting enough. In the end, we have fisticuffs mirroring the Deckard-Batty showdown in the movie (a tiresome trend in sequels) and mistaken identity shenanigans (which is rather predictable in a story about clones). The Edge of Human is the first volume in a trilogy, so maybe the plot improves. But I’m not sure I’m willing to invest the time.

Impossibility by John D. Barrow

barrowjd-impossibilityThe subtitle of this book is what really attracted me to it: “The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits”. As a philosopher, I’m fascinated by the idea that there are not only things we don’t know, but things we can’t know. Some scientists are searching for a theory of everything – a set of equations that will account for everything in the Universe. I don’t believe such a thing is possible for us, because it’s not possible for, say, a goldfish. Mankind is just another branch on the evotionary tree, subject to much the same limitations of perception and cognition. I read this book as an attempt to get some additional clarity on this issue.

The content of the book is diverse and deep, covering many areas, from language to mathematics to cosmology, and more. There’s a great deal packed into 250 pages. The most memorable section, for me personally, was a discussion on how complexity occurs on a particular fractal level of the Universe (terrestrial life), not at the extremes of the very large (stars and galaxies) or the very small (atoms and sub-atomic particles). The human brain is the most complex structure in the known Universe, and this gives us reason to speculate that the very function of the Universe could be to bring about the likes of us. We tend to assume that size equals importance, and the images from the Hubble Space Telescope certainly make us feel very unimportant. But what if complexity equals importance?

The book also contains a fascinating discussion on how the speed of light restricts us from ever getting a complete view of the Universe. When we look into deep space, we see it as it was billions of years ago, not as it is today, because it takes so long for light to reach us. And we can’t see the more distant parts of space at all, because the light emitted by very distant stars hasn’t yet had time to reach Earth at all. This puts us in a fishbowl of sorts and it causes us to make assumptions about what is beyond our knowledge. Since we are able to identify inflexible laws of nature in the part of the Universe that we can see, we assume that these laws apply across the entire Universe. But we simply don’t know, and furthermore, we can’t know.

Some of the content of the book was beyond me, particularly the more mathematical parts. Also, some of the content struck me as irrelevant to anything of practical value, such as a section on time travel paradoxes. If anything, this illustrated the importance of philosophy alongside science. It’s very easy to think of time as something physically real, but the only place that time exists, in the sense of a recording of events, is inside brains. Hence, no time travel paradoxes are possible, because there is no time. There is only an ever-changing now. Any discussion of time travel involves a misperception of time as a literal thing making a literal recording of the cosmos as it moves. This material in the book was a waste of time – no pun intended. The book culminated in a discussion of hidden problems in the voting process, which was a bit flat for an ending.

Overall, I felt this was an important book for me to read. The author has a very rational mind and a broad range of knowledge.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

suzukis-zenmindbeginnersmindThis short book is a transcription of several talks given by author on the rights and wrongs of Zen meditation practice. It’s very simple and non-intellectual. No attempt is made to qualify assertions with arguments. Suzuki often just says, “This is the right understanding,” or “This is not the right understanding,” and he doesn’t explain why. This is a little irritating for a reader like me, but I also undersand that Zen is about doing, not thinking. I imagine the author is speaking with a “try it and see” attitude.

I definitely got some clarity about Zen practice as a result of reading, particular on the notion that Zen is not goal-oriented. You don’t do it to get something specific out of it. Enlightenment (a word I hate), according to Suzuki, is not something you achieve through the practice; the practice itself is enlightenment. I think I sort of get what he means. In meditation, you just let whatever happens happen. The mind takes care of itself without conscious intrusion. So, there are results from meditation, but you can’t set out with an idea of what those results should be beforehand.

I’m fascinated by Zen meditation, but I’m still not convinced that it’s any kind of necessity. I think the same results can be obtained by simply going for peaceful walks regularly. Ultimately, one should make room in one’s life for periods of non-thinking and non-stimulation. It seems to restore psychological wellbeing and channel creativity.

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell & Thomas M. Campbell

campbelltc-chinastudyThis book is a detailed study of nutrition containing some shocking assertions about what the common Western diet is doing to our health. What separates it from the mass of “fad diet” books is that it is attempting to identify the natural diet of the human species, and it makes a compelling case that this is plants, not animals.

The unusual title of the volume comes from a medical study in China that sought to account for the the high incidence of cancer among affluent people, compared to a low incidence among the poor. After extensive study, differences in diet were the prime suspect. Affluent people had a far greater intake of meat.

You’ve probably heard the argument against vegetarianism that goes “Where are you going to get your protein?” The book blasts this misconception, asserting that we get all the protein we need from plants. It goes as far as saying that the cause of our health problems is an overabundance of protein from animal food sources. The arguments are detailed and appear sound, but since I’m not a scientist, I have to be a little cautious. Sometimes what we don’t know from the opposing corner can change what we think we know about an issue.

That said, I did personally make the move to a diet that is 95% vegan, from a diet where I was eating red meat five days per week. I did this less because of the technical arguments in this book, and more because of a simple observation: no animal is fundamentally confused about its own nature (including its diet). Humans do not have the elogated fangs of a predator, nor the short intestine that digests animal protein quickly, and we have a natural aversion to gore. What comes naturally to the lion does not come naturally to the human. We have to go through an elaborate cooking ritual just to make the meat safe, and we take no pleasure in even handling uncooked meat. This is telling us something about our natural dietary inclinations. We’re plant eaters.

The reason I am 95% vegan and not 100% is because of a lack of interesting vegan options in supermarkets and restaurants. So occasionally I will indulge in meat, usually fish or chicken. I’m just not hardcore enough to go the full 100%. But I can tell you that having a high plant low meat intake has been very beneficial to my health. Food passes through my system much more cleanly and easily than ever. I used to have the impression that vegans were scrawny people who lacked physical strength and stamina, but that’s not the case at all. That’s what happens if you don’t eat enough food. But on a vegan diet, you can satisfy your appetite wholeheartedly with big meals, and not run the same risks of weight gain because there’s far less fat in the diet.

Whatever an expert may think of a book like The China Study, what is undeniable is that rates of obesity, heart disease, and cancer are far higher today than they were several decades ago. And food is the main factor in this. The bottom line is that something’s got to change. The first step is to educate ourselves about what our eating habits are doing to us.

I highly recommend this book for anyone considering a change in diet.

Letters from the Devil by Anton Szandor LaVey

laveyas-lettersfromthedevilAnton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, wrote five books over the course of his life, expounding his philosophy of essentially atheistic Satanism – where the mythical character Satan is used as a potent and meaningful symbol for individualism and rebellion against common religion. I’ve read and reviewed all of LaVey’s works on this blog, and I found parts of his philosophy very useful for my own life. I consider him something of a visionary, having a penetrating insight on what it means to be human. Sadly, he died in 1997, and I had to content myself with the knowledge that Satan Speaks! (an essay collection published posthumously, not long after his death) would be the last words of Anton LaVey.

Not quite! In the very early days of the Church of Satan (the late 1960s and early 1970s), LaVey wrote a weekly column for the newspaper The National Insider and later The Exploiter. It was called Letters from the Devil. The public was invited to write letters to the infamous Black Pope. The most interesting ones were published, accompanied by LaVey’s responses.

Despite the dubious reputations of these tabloid publications, it appears that LaVey took his job seriously. His responses have all the insight and wit of his books. Some of the letters are hilarious, often assuming LaVey to be a devil worshipper, or treating him like a genie in a bottle, able to dispense wishes. LaVey’s responses were equally funny, as he exposes the letter writers’ shortcomings to them. There are also more serious letters, genuinely asking for advice with a difficult life situation. LaVey gives respect where it is due and provides his unique perspective.

When the book arrived in the mail, I was surprised to see that it was roughly A4 in size. This is because the editor has chosen to reproduce scanned images of the original newspaper pages, rather than reformat the text to suit a typical paperback book. I like the authenticity of this approach. The only drawback is that A4 is smaller than the original newspapers, and the originals have had to be shrunk to fit. The text is extremely small. It didn’t irritate me too much, because I wasn’t intending to read for extended periods (I wanted to draw out the experience of having new Anton LaVey material), but I think some readers might find it annoying.

There are just under 70 articles in the volume. They are chronologically organised, but sadly there are gaps. Since most people throw newspapers out, I imagine this small collection took a lot of time and effort to compile. It’s nice to think that some more gems from the mind of Anton LaVey might still be waiting out there, stored away in someone’s attic. One small gripe: most of the pages in the volume feature the name and date of the newspaper, but some do not. This makes life slightly difficult for anyone wishing to track down missing issues on eBay.

My thanks to Kevin Slaughter (and Chris X, who collected the issues) for putting this volume together. It was a most welcome surprise.

Blake’s 7: Lucifer by Paul Darrow

The closing scene of the last ever episode of the British television series Blake’s 7 was so shocking that it forever imprinted itself on my nine-year-old brain back in 1981. Be warned, this review contains spoilers, but my guess is, if you’re interested in the new Blake’s 7 novels, then you’ve already watched the series. In the dramatic finale, Blake finally comes back into the picture after being absent for the best part of two seasons, only to be shot dead by Avon in a tragic misunderstanding. Literally seconds later, the Federation troops arrive and gun down every member of Avon’s crew: Vila, Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin. The series concludes with Avon standing over Blake’s body, gun in hand, surrounded by troopers, all with their blasters held really. Avon raises his weapon, smiles. Credits roll over the sound of blasters. It was almost Shakespearean. When the series was eventually released on videotape in the early 1990s, I had forgotten so much about it, including many of the main characters. But I could never forget Avon and that final scene.

Imagine my delight when I learn, in 2012, that Big Finish are planning to publish brand new Blake’s 7 novels. Even better, one of them is written by the very actor who played Avon: Paul Darrow. Lucifer is set in two different time periods. One of these tells the story of how Avon escaped death in the final episode. The other is set twenty years later.

First, let’s talk about how Darrow tackles the escape. I was glad that the author stuck to the idea that his crewmates really are stone cold dead. Some fans have speculated that they were merely stunned, since there was no blood. But those are clearly Federation blasters going off, and they’ve never had a stun setting. Avon gets away in the only manner I’ve ever been able to imagine him getting away; the scene is interupped by intuders. Predictable, but necessary. However, what is truly disconcerting is the manner in which Avon leaves without a single acknowledgement of his fallen comrades. I don’t think he even glances at the bodies. We know that Avon is emotionally disconnected and borderline sociopathic. Even so, I expected something. Maybe not grief, but just something. If anything, it was the perfect moment to reflect on the illusion of invincibility. But no, Avon just moves forward with his usual bravado.

At least fifty percent of the novel concerns itself with Federation politics. Servalan is there, along with a complement of new characters, none of whom come in contact with Avon. There seem to be two stories, told in tandem, which only intersect peripherally. One is the restructuring of the Federation after it is decimated by enemies that attack from something called the “Beyond”. The other is Avon trying to get off a planet. The Avon story is fairly simplistic. After surviving Gauda Prime, Avon is deposited on an earthlike planet, where he is marooned for two decades and makes a couple of friends. When the Federation gets wind of his presence, he plays cat and mouse with them until he can steal one of their ships. Avon then heads back to Gauda Prime and fetches Orac. Most of the political stuff in the background struck me as highly irrelevant. It’s possible, I suppose, that it will be developed further in Darrow’s next book (Lucifer is the first in a planned trilogy).

With any space opera, you have to suspend disbelief to an extent. We don’t worry about weapons that make sounds in space, or spacecraft that have artifical gravity. But there is a limit. When I said Avon was marooned on a planet, I was being too kind. It’s actually something the author calls an “island planet” (see the book jacket illustration). A fragment of a larger planet that somehow “fell away” but retained full gravity, atmosphere, and population.

The politics are also a little unconvincing. Somehow, on Earth there exists a Chinese empire called Eastern Earth. I find it hard to believe that the Terran Federation can’t take control of a rogue nation on their home turf when they’ve taken ownership of countless planets throughout the galaxy. Another bizarre inclusion was the continual references to present-day weaponry, such as napalm and machine guns. It was a strange choice for the author to make and it causes the novel to feel inauthentic as a Blake’s 7 story.

The Avon character is written convincingly, but lacks a lot of the dry humour he came out with in the series. I don’t think we can blame Darrow for that, since the humour was usually centred around mocking the now deceased Vila. Sadly, when Avon and Orac finally get together, the exchange is unconvincing. When Avon says, “I’ll be damned,” Orac replies, “You were damned a long time ago.” This is simply not a sentiment that I can picture the computer ever making.

What can I say? I was disappointed. I really wanted this to be great, because I love Darrow’s character in the series. And having seen the actor in interviews and read his autobiography, You’re Him, Aren’t You?, I also really like the man himself. In a sense, I don’t wish to be too hard, because when you’re writing a story that begins at the point where much of what made Blake’s 7 entertaining has just been killed off, you don’t have a lot left to work with. Maybe this was a tale best left untold.

Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner

warnerb-sitdownandshutupBrad Warner is a Zen Buddhist priest who runs a group called Dogen Sangha in Los Angeles. Dogen was a monk who lived in the 12th century and authored a Buddhist book called Shobogenzo. This work is Warner’s primary reference point for his own philosophy. And Sit Down and Shut Up is his attempt to write a commentary on excerpts from Shobogenzo.

Shobozgenzo should not be understood as a Buddhist equivalent of what the Bible is to Christians. There is nothing divinely inspired about a 12th century text (nor about the teachings of Gautama Buddha himself). It just so happens that Warner agrees with the bulk of Dogen’s philosophy, and so it becomes the main reference point for his life. He is also not averse to poking fun at some of the more culturally irrelevant aspects of the ancient book. Warner’s commentary is not dry and technical. He often defends Dogen’s insights by drawing from his own life experience – both as a priest and a punk rock musician.

Sit Down and Shut Up is the second book in Warner’s canon – a follow-up to his highly successful Hardcore Zen. Having read several later books by Warner, I can see that the volume under review here contains essays that are the genesis of themes that the author later expanded into whole books. The essay “Sex and Sin” provides the basis for his book Sex, Sin, and Zen. In the essay “Zazen by Alone,” Warner discusses the holier-than-thou personality that spiritual teachers have a tendency to project; this was destined to flower into his book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. And although I have yet to read Warner’s book There Is No God and He Is Always With You, I have a feeling that his essay “God” is where that book germinated.

There isn’t really one overall theme to Sit Down and Shut Up. The book’s title is a reference to the importance that the author places upon the practice of zazen meditation – something that I don’t often practice and I’m not convinced is a necessity for my life. Although I will say that psychological health is certainly maintained by any practice where one sits down and shuts up. In other words, you stop busying yourself as a means of running away from yourself. Give your mind the breathing space it needs to sort itself out. Warner’s elaboration about zazen allowed me to see parallels in my own life, even in my past as a Christian where I would go off somewhere quiet to be alone with God. It didn’t matter that this “personal God” was a figment of my imagination. The practice itself had a healing effect of its own. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by zazen in particular, and I have a mind to try it out more seriously, to see what all the fuss is about.

In summary, this is an excellent book. In comparison to Warner’s other works, it’s hard to say where it ranks, because they’re all worthy of your attention. If you’re looking for diverse content, this is a particularly good one to read. But I would read everthing written by Warner (and I plan to), which is the highest praise I can give to an author.