Philosophical Musings of a Book Nerd


Birth of Iron Man


Iron Man PosterDirector: Jon Favreau

Starring: Robert Downey Jnr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrance Howard

Release: 2 May 2008

IMDB User Rating: 7.9

Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 91%


I thought I had already written a review of this film (on IMDB that is), so it was a good thing that I have decided to go back and rewatch the Marvel Cinematic Universe films again (if only so I can have a better idea of what had happened previously, especially since the movies seem to reference events from the earlier films on a regular basis) so that I can review some of the films that I have watched in the past, but had not got around to reviewing. Anyway, this is the 'first' film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though some could argue that the Ang Lee version of the Hulk was actually the first since the events of the Incredible Hulk do seem to come after it, despite there being a number of changes to the Bruce Banner's history) and it certainly has kicked off a craze, with at least two films being released a year, as well as at least two television series.


Anyway, Iron Man literally sets the stage for what is to follows. First of all we have this guy wandering around saying that he is from the 'Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division' which is truncated to the acronym SHIELD at the end of the film. We also have Nick Fury making an appearance indicating that he is looking to start up a group and that Tony Stark isn't the only person around that happens to have super powers (even if those super powers consist entirely of a flying metal suit). It was probably logical to also have Ironman as the first movie since he apparently was the one who initiated the Avengers.


Well, the film is basically about how Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy who happens to run a corporation that develops and sells weapons, becomes Iron Man. The thing is that he is also a playboy, and a tinkerer, which means that he is more interested in building things, and having fun, than actually running the company, which means that the company is doing a lot of things that he doesn't actually know about. However the realisation of who his company is selling weapons to comes to light when he is captured in Afghanistan after demonstrating one of his weapons that he claims to have the capability of stopping a war with one shot. Well, the problem is that when he demonstrates the power of this weapon, the other side want it as well, so they kidnap him to force him to make one.


As well as being about how Iron Man becomes Iron Man, the film is also has an underlying theme about the military industrial complex. He we have a private corporation that years ago assisted the United States to develop a weapon to defeat the Japanese now double dealing – that is selling weapons to both sides in a conflict. It is the idea that the only person who makes money out of a war are the weapons manufacturers, and the longer the war goes on, the more money that they make, which means that it is in their interest for there to be a perpetual war. However, selling to just one side in the war doesn't really help with the profits, especially since one side may have a huge advantage, however selling to both sides means that the odds are evened out, and also that the war is likely to last a lot longer.


As for the villains, you sort of have two – there is the Ten Rings, an organisation that Iron Man is regularly confronting in the comics (and while they are operational in Afghanistan, when I first watched the film I simply thought they were insurgents, or at least Taliban, however this time I realised that they were actually a mercenary force working for the Taliban), and the Iron Monger, who also happens to be Tony Stark's 2IC, who then builds his own Iron Man suit to take on Tony.


As for the film, yep, it's pretty good, and I also picked up a lot more the second time round, which is not surprising since I do have the advantage of having seen many of the other films in the franchise already, so by rewatching them I also pick up a few more things, such as when Rhodey looks at one of the suits and says 'next time' which is flagging the arrival of War Machine in the next instalment. A good movie, pretty enjoyable, and I have to admit that Robert Downey Junior certainly plays the role quite well.


For those who are interested I have written a blog post on the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (if only as an aide de memoire).




The Greek Genesis

Theogony (Classical Library) - Hesiod, Richard S. Caldwell, Richard Caldwell

There seems to be a debate as to the usefulness of this little text and I would pretty much fall into the category of not much. The reason that I say that is because if this book was lost then we would lose very little of our understanding of Greek Mythology. Everything that is contained in this little book is also contained in more expanded works such as the Library of Greek Mythology and Ovid. While it is a primary source, it is still something that we could probably do without. Fortunately its small size means that it does not take up much space on my bookshelf, however I would probably not find myself ever actually needing to reference it. Okay, we could probably use it to talk about the accuracy of later works, but then again, this is Greek mythology, there is no consistency in it. In fact, there isn't even any consistency with the twelve tasks of Heracles.


Now, you would probably say that since this book is one of the earliest Greek texts then it gives us an idea of the development of Greek mythology, and yes, that is probably true to an extent, and from an anthropological view that is probably important, but I am not interested in that. On the other hand a lot of authors seem to look back at Hesiod with some sought of awe, and granted, it helps us understand the background from which they were writing, but remember most of Greek mythology back at this time was passed down by word of mouth and Hesiod is only one view of it.


I have written before, and will continue to write, about how my position with regards to the Greek gods is that they were humans that were deified, and Hesiod once again goes on to prove that point. This is a genealogical text much in the same way that sections of the Bible are genealogical texts, however by the time that Hesiod came around the Greek Gods had already been deified. There are some major differences between the two forms of genealogy though. As mentioned, the non-biblical genealogies tend to deal only with the gods, unless you are looking at a familial genealogy, where as the Biblical genealogies all deal with humans, and the Bible is very specific that the people mention in the genealogies are human. Secondly the biblical genealogies actually serve a purpose where as the non-biblical genealogies are simply a list of names.


The purpose of the biblical genealogy is to trace the line of people who in the end become the ancestors of Christ. These genealogies tend to reach their fulfillment in the Gospels, with both Matthew and Luke (and also, as some have argued, with John as well) containing genealogies. We do note that there are differences in the genealogies, and some have criticised the Bible for that, but I will simply say that the differences simply come out of methodology as opposed to inherent errors. My understanding is that in both maths and science one can reach the same proof even though two different methodologies were used.


Basically, whenever we see a genealogy in the Old Testament we are always looking at how it is directing us towards the saviour that was promised in Genesis 3. For those who are familiar with these genealogies you will note that they tend to only go down in one line, meaning that while a list of children may be given, the genealogy will end up focusing only one a handful of these children to narrow it down to a specific point. The exception is the table of nations in Genesis 10, the purpose of which is to outline the beginning of the nations as the readers would have known them to be at the time (namely during the Exodus). We do see a similarity between the table of nations and some Greek genealogies as it appears that a nation back then was defined by the father of the nation as opposed to a specific culture, language group, or location (and Apollodorus does give us that idea in the library of Greek Mythology).


There is a mention of the war of the Gods in Hesiod, and once again I have speculated on the origins of these wars. They can be twofold. The first is the idea that these wars developed out of different tribal groups moving into an already inhabited area bring their own culture and gods with them, winning a victory over the inhabitants, and installing their own culture (as defined by their gods). For instance, in early times we have a people group who worshipped Chronos as their chief God, but then they are invaded by a people who worshipped Zeus as their chief God and as the new group overran and conquered the old group, then Chronos was sidelined in favour of Zeus.


The second idea is the idea that I have proposed that these gods are little more than deified humans whose existence has been lost in the midst of times, so what we are actually seeing is some form of succession crisis. This would be particularly relevant if we are looking at an Antediluvian civilisation. In the era of short life spans and high morality, such succession crises would not be evident since when the old king died then the new king would still be old enough to assume the throne, but young enough not to have a number of children that would have to wait a long time for them to ascend the throne amongst a multitude of competeing claims. It differs today in that the Queen of England, the matriarch of the royal family, is still alive and well, and her grandchildren are now ready to marry and have kids. Pope John Paul II was the oldest living Pope in the history of the papacy, and it is likely that Pope Benedict will be around for a long time yet (unless he meets either with an unfortunate accident, or is removed for some reason or another - noting that this review was written prior to him stepping down).


When you have the antediluvian civilisation, where biblically (and elsewhere) you have people living for hundreds of years, even if you did not begin having children until the age of a hundred, by the time you die (even if it is five to six hundred years old) you still have at least four living generations below you, all of them struggling to get your position, and knowing that for them to get to that position they would have to wait a very long time. This is something that we see in this text, namely a fear in Chronos that his children would rise up and overthrow him, so he acts proactively and removes them before they have a chance of removing him. Much of it is allegorical though (and for the sake of space I will not go into detail here, for instance the gods all seem to have been born as adults, and also Chronos eats his children, but upon his defeat, all of them are released) so it can be difficult to understand what actually went on, though to take it literally can in itself be dangerous (and also somewhat ridiculous).


The final point I wish to make is the interesting note that Hesiod was a shephard tending sheep on Mount Helicon when he received this vision and wrote it down. This is something that seems to happen throughout the history of humanity in that many religious icons seem to have come from humble pasts and have made a tremendous impact upon human history. Many have suggested (and it is true to an extent) that history, up until the mid 18th century, was written by the upper class. However the reason for that is because it was only the upper class that had the time to write histories, as well as being the only ones who could read and write. However, this is not always the case, particularly with these early civilisations, because much of the history was passed down by word of mouth. This is why we can have shepherds actually becoming literary heroes because they did not need to read and write, they simply needed to be able to tell a story people could remember, and also convince them that they had a vision (or actually have had a vision) to make people sit up and listen.


Conned by a Charlatan

Tartuffe - Molière, Martin Sorrell

Isn't it interesting that there are some sectors of society that get really upset if you poke fun at them, or even criticise them in anyway. Normally this happens because these particular people are well aware that what they are doing is wrong and that they are simply playing on people's stupidity to get away with what is little more than fraud. Much of the offence that is generated is not so much offence at the fun, but rather that what the person are doing is ripping the veil off of their fraud and exposing it for the world to see.


This is what happened to Moliere when he wrote this play, and the thing was that he was not actually poking fun at the church but rather at certain fraudsters that go around scamming people out of their hard earned savings for their own personal benefit. There have been people like this this throughout the ages and many writers have laid into these types of people particularly hard. However the church itself ended up being quite offended at Moliere's play (which actually says something about the church of the day) and put enormous pressure on the king to pretty much ban it.


Tartuffe is about this religious guru who becomes involved with a family and many of the family members see him as this wonderful person who is bringing wisdom and salvation to the house. However, there are some who see right through his lies, though through his silvered tongue Tartuffe is able to alienate these people. However, when pretty much everybody wakes up to the fraudster that Tartuffe is, he pulls another trick, which involves confiscating all of the family's property.


As I have mentioned, there have been fraudsters like this throughout the ages, and the church knows very well they exist. However it seems that the church really does not appreciate criticism in any form. In a way it seems to be offensive to turn religion into a joke, even if they joke doesn't actually involve them. The thing is that people like Moliere are not turning religion into a joke but rather exposing how certain people use religion to entrap segments of society and pretty much enslave them. Religion is, and always has been, about control, and the problem is that when certain people get into positions of power, and they do not necessarily need to be single fraudsters like Tartuffe, they could be members of an orthodox Christian denomination, they use this power to feather their own nest. However, the idea of salvation and life after death is something that concerns us all, and due to the veil that has fallen down between God and ourselves, many of us believe that salvation is not certain. It is when we let that belief creep in that certain people are then able to hold our salvation for ransom.


The thing about Christianity is that salvation is assured, which means that people cannot actually hold the threat of excommunication over you with regards to your actions. Granted, there is a moral code, but the idea is that genuine Christians will live by that moral code rather than having that code forced upon them. It simply comes down to loving your neighbour as yourself, and loving the Lord your God. However, people don't seem to necessarily understand this, and many people, with good intentions (and we all know where good intentions lead us to) try to pass judgement on other's actions. Okay, there is always accountability, and with us being fallen human beings, we are always going to be led astray (I know I have), however we must always remember that Jesus said that we should look to ourselves and examine our actions before we go off an pass judgement on other people. Further, accountability should always be a two way street. Being accountable to somebody while that person is not being accountable to you is a fast way of becoming enslaved to that person.



Another City Watch Story

The Fifth Elephant (Discworld, #24) - Terry Pratchett

There was a time that I loved the adventures of Constable Carrot, Captain Vimes, and Nobby Nobbs, but is seems as of late the stories are starting to become really, really dry. Okay, maybe there are other factors, but I really don't seem to be able to get into the Pratchet books any more, to the point that I am starting to find them quite boring. Sure, there are probably people out there that will crucify me because I have spoken blasphemy, but fortunately those people are actually few and far between. As it happens a number of people I have spoken to have suggested that by this time, which is actually book number 24, is that the fun, wonder, and humour of the Discworld series is starting to reach its used by date.



The thing is that it seems that we only have two sets of protagonists in the stories – The Witches and the City Watch. In fact it seems that at this stage we are alternating between them. Actually, as I was reading this book I suddenly realised that it has actually been quite a while since Rincewind and the Wizards have been a major focus of a story (though I do believe there is one more coming up, but that is basically it). Sure, Rincewind did at first annoy me but the character sort of started to grow on me to the point that the last book that I can remember I quite enjoyed (I believe it was [book: The Last Continent], but the one set in Discworld's version of China was also quite good). However, now we just have the Watch trampsing off somewhere to do what the watch does, and in fact there is only a passing mention of a Fifth Elephant – the title actually doesn't have anything to do with the story itself.



What has happened is that Vimes is sent off to the Uberwald, which is a land inhabited by Dwarves, Werewolves, and Vampires, to strike a trade deal with the dwarves for fat (which was deposited there when the fifth elephant that carried the disc crashed into the area – pretty dumb idea I feel) that is buried beneath the land. However, while they are there the Scone of Stone, a mystical artifact that is important for the coronation of the low king of the dwarves as been stolen, and it is up to Vimes, and Constable Carrot, to get to the bottom of the situation.


Sure, Pratchet is still parodying aspects of our world, such us what is termed the Theseus Paradox – if an object's component parts are completely replaces is it still the same object. The classic example in my mind involves Captain Cook's Cottage. It is supposed to be the cottage that Captain Cook lived in in England, however was moved stone by stone to Australia. Okay, maybe it is not the 'Theseus Paradox' namely because the original stones and thatch are being moved as opposed to being replaced, however the original cottage was in England but it is now in the middle of a park in Melbourne, so is it the same cottage considering the location is basically on the other side of the world. Well, my position in this case is that it is not the same cottage, but a replica that has been built with the materials that comprised of the original cottage – the original cottage, in my mind, has been destroyed.


Anyway, that is beside the point, even though the idea was determining whether the Scone of Stone was the real Scone of Stone (and if you are not sure how to pronounce the word scone, just check out this Goodies Episode, there were other ideas in here as well, such as trade deals, oil (which is supposed to be the fat of the Elephant) and of course the tussles that occur between the dwarves and trolls (though we also have werewolves and vampires as well). The thing with the Uberwald is that it is supposed to be, in one sense, Eastern Europe, which is Europe but somewhat backward compared to Western Europe (though my closest experience of Eastern Europe would be Praque, and Greece, but Greece is technically the Balkans).


Anyway, I have to admit that I really don't feel to enthusiastic about writing much more on this book because it really didn't do all that much to inspire me, though I have to admit that it would be good to see them turn more of Pratchet's books into a live action television show in the same vein that they did with Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic.



The Rise and Fall of a Conquerer

Tamburlaine - Christopher Marlowe, Stephen Marlowe

I was going to have a look at both of these plays as a whole, but it appears that both of these plays are in fact a ten act play divided into two parts. This seemed to also be something of a debate with some of Shakespeare's plays, however the ones that are in two, or three, parts (actually, there is only Henry IV in two parts, and Henry VI in three parts, and it could be argued that all of these plays form one continuous play from Richard II to Richard III) seem to have their own internal consistency, of which this play seems to lack. In some cases it could be argued that some of the acts are superfluous as it appears that they are simply a bunch of kings making a stand against Tamburlaine, claiming that their army is bigger than his army, and then getting resoundly defeated by Tamburlaine, and thus starting all over again.


However, it could be argued that both of these plays do have an internal consistency, with the first play looking at the rise of Tamburlaine's power, which concludes with him standing on top of his conquests claiming to be prepared to move out and conquer the rest of the world, and part two dealing with his demise, as he becomes more and more caught up in his own sense of pride and self worth that he steps over the line by burning a copy of the Alcoran, and making mockery of the Muslim god by claiming that if he existed, why did he allow Tamburlaine so many victories.


The play was based on a real person named Timur, and you can read about him here (on Wikipedia). Timur is probably not one of the best known of the conquers (unlike figures such as Napoleon, Hitler, and Genghis Khan) and that is probably because he did not pose mush of a threat to Europe. In fact his war against Bayezid the Turk, who was attacking the Balkans and other parts of Eastern Europe (though Constantinople was still in the hands of the Byzantines at the time), is probably why Timur is considered a popular figure in European History. The other thing about Timur (or Tamurlaine) was that he was from central Asia and was only attempting to follow in the footsteps of Genghis Kahn (of which he failed, when you consider the extent of Genghis Kahn's territory and Timur's territory). He was also seen as being responsible for basically returning Persia, and much of the Middle East, to the stone age, as well as pretty much wiping out most, if not all, of the Nestorian Church (though you must admit that the American adventures in the Middle East in recent times have also assisted in that task).


Anyway, this is a map of Timur's empire:


and this is a picture of Timur himself:



It is interesting though how certain characters are seen differently under a different light. Here Tamurlaine is being painted in a light that is not all that bad, though we must also remember that Marlowe's version does not necessarily have Timur portrayed in the light of a hero, but rather as a conquerer that inevitably overstepped the natural boundaries, in relation to believing he was better than god. Also note that Marlowe uses the Alcoran as the means of his downfall as opposed to the Bible, despite Islam being considered an alien, and in some cases an enemy, culture to that of the Europeans. While this is a broad generalisation, remember that for a period of around four hundred years Europe were sending troops to the Middle East in an attempt to capture Jerusalem, and while the first couple were, to an extent, successful, they began to wane in popularity and effect as time drew on (probably because most of the capable fighting men had been killed off in the first couple of invasions, and also probably because the inhabitants of the Levant had become more prepared in the face of further crusades).


As for the play, and this is the case with many of the plays around this time, the story has been borrowed either from legend or history. Marlowe is doing the same thing that Shakespeare would go on to do with his great tragedies: take a little known character and little known story and turn it into a great play. Notice that it is Hamlet and the Scottish Play that are his most famous, and while they are based upon historical characters and events, they are such minor occurrences that most of us would not realise that these plays have actually been inspired by true stories (in the Hollywood sense of the phrase, of course).


The Ascension of an Emperor (Part 1)

This first part documents the rise of Tamburlaine from a simple goatherd from the plains of Scythia to becoming the emperor of the Middle East. The play opens with the king of Persia being declared Emperor after his army had just sacked India, however one of the reasons for this is because Tamburlaine was a part of his army. However Tamburlaine, who is a cunning general, ends up turning on the emperor of Persia and defeating him and taking his place. However, he is not satisfied at simply taking Persia and moves west to capture Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and Arabia. The play then ends with him standing victorious, but looking further West with the dream of conquering and becoming Emperor of Europe.


The thing that I remembered about this play is that there are scenes (I think about two acts worth) where the emperor of Turkey is being carted around in a cage, as if he were an animal. However, I suspect that there is some idea behind this in that what Tamburlaine represents is a reversal. He is a goatherd become emperor, and the other kings, the ones that have arrayed against him, as they are defeated the situation is reversed so that they go from being emperors to little more than animals. In fact, in once scene we have the emperor of Turkey bash himself to death against the cage, and another scene has a king commit suicide at the fear of going from a powerful monarch to a prisoner.


We see this even in our world as well, such as the suicides that occur when there is a stockmarket crash and a billionaire is turned into a destitute. This is the idea of the bankers throwing themselves out of windows in 1929 because they had lost all of their money, or the German millionaire who threw himself in front of a train because he could not handle the idea of living penniless. In a way it goes to show how much of an idea wealth and power can being when somebody will actually commit suicide when that idol deserts them, and in fact when they realise that all of their hopes and dreams were built on nothing more than shifting sands.


The Folly of Pride (Part 2)

I have noticed that there seems to be a lot less reviews of this play than there are of the first one – actually on Goodreads there is only one. Maybe it is because most people either read the two plays as a unity, or maybe they did read both plays, but if they wrote a review, they would have simply written it on the first one. This I can understand because it seems that there is little difference between the two plays with the exception of one act, that being act 1 in the first play (where Tamburlaine first comes onto the scene) and act 5 in the second play (where Tamburlaine finally takes one step two far and ends up dying of a disease).


The reason I say that is because the first play seems to, after the first act, simply have another group of kings appear making statements as to how their army is superior to Tamburlaine, and then they go to war with Tamburlaine and end up losing, and the kings are either captured and reduced to animals, or they end up killing themselves so as to retain at least some form of self respect (in the Ancient World, the act of suicide was seen as an honourable action, especially if it was a choice between poverty, imprisonment, or death – which in many cases is probably still the same today), and then it repeats itself in the next act.


A part of me was hoping to see that what this play encompassed was Tamburlaine's fall, but instead it seemed to have him becoming more powerful and, to put it bluntly, more cocky. In this play we have a number of kings who are defeated in battle, and by the end of the play are pulling Tamburlaine's carriage as if they were horses. Also it seems that we have Tamburlaine extending his kingdon into Egypt, the Levant, and Turkey, and even crossing into Greece and the Balkans, however, near the end of the play, he suddenly decides to turn around and make a path towards Babylon.


This I found rather odd because one would have expected that if he had been conquering the lands off to the west, why would he leave a fortress in the middle of his empire undefeated. Most, if not all, generals worth their salt would at least attempt to make an alliance with them, but would not leave them standing because capturing it would have been a little too hard. This was the case with Tyre and Alexander the Great, and as it turned out, capturing Tyre was not all that difficult anyway, despite the fact that it had been moved onto an island just off shore after Nebucadnezzar had successfully defeated them about three to four hundred years earlier.


However, as I have suggested before, and will continue to suggest, and that is that this play is, to an extent, about the fall of Tamburlaine, despite the fact that most of this occurs in the last act. Here he has finally captured Babylon and is in the library ordering the books be burnt and he is brought a copy of the Koran (written in this play as Alcoran). When presented with the book Tamburlaine mocks the religion upon which it is based, claiming that if Allah had any power whatsoever then he would have intervened and prevented Tamburlaine from conquering all of the said territory (despite the fact that the real Tamburlaine was actually a Muslim and this event would probably not have happened).


It is interesting that Marlowe takes this approach, namely having Tamburlaine mocking a god and the having the said god step out and demonstrating his power by inflicting Tamburlaine with a disease. It is true that the Bible says 'God shall not be mocked' but we see a lot of Bible burning and god mocking in our society (at least towards Christianity) and I must admit that we do get the same statements directed against Islam, and we do not see hordes of god mockers succumbing to disease, though I must admit that in the end everybody dies.


I guess the idea that comes out here is how, in many cases, people like Tamburlaine will, in many cases, end up overreaching and becoming overconfident in their abilities. We see that at the end of the first play where Tamburlaine had already dreamed of taking over the world, and at the end of this play, as he lies on his deathbed, looks at what he hasn't conquered, and then anoints his son to continue where he left off. It is interesting how when we review our lives, many of us look at what we have not accomplished, and actually forget what we have accomplished, and regret what we haven't done rather than look at what we have done.



Sorry for the Inconvenience

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish - Douglas Adams

When I first read this book I loved it namely because I happened to be a hopeless romantic and our protagonist, Arthur Dent, finally gets a girlfriend. Well, finally is probably not the best way to describe it because Adams does raise the possibility that Arthur may have had a relationship with Trillian (and when the question is metaphorically asked the reply is basically 'none of your business'), and also suggests that there is a rather long gap between books two and three where we end with Arthur together with a Gulgafringan and then beginning again years later with Arthur by himself in a cave (having discovered that all the Gulgafringans has died off, just because).



Anyway, more time has passed since the end of book three and the beginning of book four and we once again meet up with Arthur, who happens to be standing in the rain at the side of the road on a planet that looks remarkably like Earth, and in fact happens to be Earth. Okay, there are a couple of minor differences, though I would hardly call not having been blown up by the Vogon Constructor Fleet as being a minor difference (though Arthur's house still standing, in the grand scheme of things, is). However there is also the fact that the dolphins have still vanished, and everybody happens to have a fish bowl with the inscription 'so long and thanks for all the fish' upon it.



The thing about this particular book is that it is more of a romance than the other books in the series, which sort of gives it a different feel. The other thing is that for a bulk of the book the story is set not only on Earth, but both Arthur and Ford are going their separate ways – it isn't until we get close to the end that the two once again come together, but it is only for a short while as Arthur and his girlfriend (Fenchurch, so called because she was conceived in the ticket line at Fenchurch Street station, though my only experience of Fenchurch Street station is having a meal at a pub underneath it) head off to try and find God's final message to humanity (or the Universe to be precise).



It also goes back into the old style where there is little to no plot and the main characters just seem to stumble around trying to work out what is going on, only to discover that the answer that they were looking for, in this case God's final message, is a piece of absurdity. Actually, there is sort of a plot, but not in the same sense that Life, The Universe, and Everything had a plot. Rather it involves the main characters continuing their search for meaning, and when they finally discover this meaning, as I mentioned, and as is the case in the other books, the answer that they were looking for turns out to be absurd. In a way it even seems as if God's message to the world is not so much an answer to the reason why we are here, namely because there doesn't seem to be any real reason at all, at least in Adam's mind.



In a way I guess this is where our secular society is heading, even though many people in the Western realms still seem to consider themselves connected to some form of religion. Mind you, when you head out of the cities you do tend to discover a much more religious, and conservative, culture, but that has a lot to do with the country being very conservative, and new ideas filter in much more slowly (if ever). In a way, with their religious outlook, people in the country still seem to have a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, and a sense of identity. However, once you head into the cities, and into the realms of the intellectuals, this traditional purpose and reasoning suddenly seems to get thrown out the door. In a way it is this rejection of religion that leads to these rather absurd views of the universe, and meaningless understanding of life.



However, we aren't necessarily the first, or only, people in the history of the world because many other civilisations, particularly those who eventually freed themselves of the tyranny of a king, because in a such a system the purpose and meaning of life is to serve the king, but then one wonders whether the king, who seems to exist in this world to be served, would eventually suffer an existentialist crisis. I'm not sure, particularly is the king never really gave it that much thought – it is only the intellectuals that would start thinking along those lines since most of the kings would probably just be incredibly self-absorbed.


As for this book, well it is much shorter, and a lot different, than the other entries in this series, and while I may have gushed over Arthur's romance when I was younger, these days it is a lot different as I am somewhat (or a lot) over that hopeless romantic streak that I used to have. As for the story, it is okay, and the message is interesting, but in the end the first two were much, much better (and this one was quite a lot less funnier as well). Oh, and the fact that Arthur, and to an extent Fenchurch, can fly really doesn't appeal to me all that much.



An Evolutionary Concept

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein

While this book is considered science fiction it is not what I really expected from science fiction because it seems to explore the idea of religion in a universe in which there is intelligent life on other planets. The main reason that I read this book was probably more to do with a song by Iron Maiden (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the book) rather than it being, as is written on the cover of my edition, 'the most famous science fiction novel of all time'. I am glad that they put 'the most famous' as opposed to 'the greatest' because I would be very hesitant to call it 'great' in the sense of a great novel. It is a good book, and a challenging one at that, but I would hardly call it the greatest.




The story is about a man named Mike Smith. He was born on Mars after the ship that his parents were in crash landed. It should be noted that this was the first ever voyage to Mars. However the crash meant that he was orphaned, so he grew up under the influence of the inhabitants, but when a second ship arrived and left colonists, they decided to take Mike back to Earth. However, while Mike looked human in all respects, his mind and his culture was not.


Now, before I go into detail on the ideas behind this novel, I should outline the nature of the Martians. While we don’t meet the Martians in this novel, we do hear a lot about them, mostly from Mike, but also from those on the second ship that. It is very clear that the Martians are a highly advanced and civilised culture, and are clearly not human. When I mention that they are civilised, this is in comparison with that of Earth, who are considered to be barbaric in the eyes of the omniscient story teller. So, the title of the book refers namely to Mike Smith, a human who was not raised by humans but by a race that is far more advanced than humanity is, returning to Earth and attempting to learn about human society.


In many ways this book is a criticism of human society. I have already indicated that the omniscient author considers that humans are basically barbarians. This is demonstrated throughout the book in that they are ruled by jealousy, greed, and a misguided sense of morality. Humans, in many cases, are isolationist. They only come together in groups when the mutual interests of everybody in the group are directed towards the same goal, however when the goal is achieved, the group then dissipates into the atypical infighting that defines humanity. This is contrasted with the people of Mars, who for the most part, are not only patient, but have no concept of property or money, and desire to be in communion with each other. However, the Martians are not human, particularly in the sense that there is no concept of gender amongst the Martians.


This is translated differently when it comes to humanity. While the Martian biology enables them to come together as one, the only way that humans can do this is through sex. Now sex plays an incredibly important role in this novel, and I must admit that Heinlein's concept of sex here is very similar to my own. The barbaric nature of humanity defines sex in one of two ways, for the pursuit of pleasure, and to procreate. This outlines the two sides of humanity, as Heinlein describes, being the Apollonian (that is the 'moral' and 'righteous') and the Dionysiac (that is the sensual and debaucherous). However, in the book, sex is a way to get to know a person better (Heinlein uses a word that he created, called 'grok' however, I will get to that a little later). The difference between my Christian upbringing and his outline is that with me, apart from our relationship with God, we only are supposed to (in a perfect world that is) know one other person to that intimate level, however Heinlein suggests that this kind of knowing should be shared throughout the human race. Before I continue, though, I wish to make a quick comment on homosexuality in the book. It is not mentioned, it is implied, but not mentioned, and I suspect that this is because that when the book was written, it was still very much a taboo subject. Remember that this book was written before the sexual revolution went into full swing, and as such many of the concepts were still quite controversial.


Now, the idea of his religion, if one is to call it that because Mike Smith constantly denies that his idea is either a religion or even a faith, it is more of a knowledge and an understanding. The two ideas are that we are all gods, and it is when we come to that understanding we can then move forward, and that is to evolve. The second concept is that of the community. It is not the ideal of a Christian community, that is unique individuals living together in a community of love, but rather a collection of individuals coming together as a whole. While there is uniqueness, it is suggested that the community comes together so that all of this individuals become a whole. Granted, that is suggestive of Christianity, but I felt that is concept was much more pantheistic (as Christianity has a concept of God that is separate from us and from the world).


I note that Heinlein borrowed a lot from other religions in developing this book. We have the concept of love and community from Christianity, the idea that it is only by learning Martian that one can truly understand his religion (which is taken from Islam), and the concept that we are all god (from Buddhism). Now, I know that Heinlein emphasises in his book that this is not a religion, but I beg to differ. It is a belief system that tells us where we come from, where we are going, and our purpose for existence. I know others might disagree, but in my mind, this is a religion, and there is no escaping from it. However, it should also be noted that Heinlein did not write this book so as to start a new religion. Somebody did, and Heinlein did keep tabs on it, but he was not, and is not, involved in it.


I will finish by outlining the concept of grok. Now grok is a word that Heinlein created for the purpose of this book. I guess he used it to demonstrate the inefficiencies of the English language (and there are many). Grok is to know something in its fullness, that is to drink of it. It is not simply to know, but to know, to understand, and to be able to experience (that is drink of) it. The whole book seems to evolve around this concept of grok, as Mike comes to Earth to grok Earth and its inhabitants, but it is much more than to learn and to know, it is to become apart of and to dwell within. In a sense we could easily say that God desires to grok us.


I wanted to finish there, but I feel that there is another aspect of this book that needs to be brought out, and that is evolution. Now, first of all, Heinlein was not the first to write of Mars as having a highly advanced and civilised race, C.S. Lewis did the same thing in Out of the Silent Planet. Secondly, the question of religion and science fiction was also explored by C.S. Lewis in 'Religion and Rocketships'. However, it is clear that Heinlein is not a Christian, so therefore is unlikely to hold the same views as did Lewis. Now, the idea of evolution among many of us involves physical changes, but as Lewis indicated in his book Mere Christianity that this is a rather narrow view of evolution. It is Lewis' proposition that when Christ came to Earth and founded Christianity, the human race evolved, and it was not a slow movement, but a sudden jump. So to here, Mike Smith comes to Earth (as a Messiah, and dies as a Messiah) and through his interaction with humanity, enables them to once again evolve, not as a slow movement, but as a sudden spurt. This is indicated very clearly at the end where it is said that the Martians decided to be patient with humanity, but in being patient, humanity moves forward to a point where the Martians discovered that they were too late to do anything about it. They may have been advanced and civilised, but they did not hold all wisdom.


Enough of the Fat Owl

Billy Bunter Among The Cannibals - Frank Richards

I remember my Dad telling me once that he didn't particularly like the Billy Bunter books where Bunter went for adventures abroad, that is outside of the immediate vicinity of Greyfriar's school. After reading this book I can now see why – it was absolutely atrocious, or more so really really painful. Okay, the excessive use of the N word in reference to people with skins darker than ours may have been acceptable coming out of Bunter's mouth because it is, well, Bunter, but the reality is that even if it is just Bunter's character to be so rude, crude, and racist, it still doesn't mean that I have to accept it. In fact the character of Billy Bunter has become so annoying that I highly doubt I will read any more of his books.



The story goes that Bunter is given a position as an assistant clerk for one of his father's companies, though the catch is that the role is on an island located in the stretches of the South Pacific. Anyway, he is sent out there, all expenses paid, and his school buddies (for want of a better word), the Famous Five, accompany him, if only so he can settle down somewhat. However, upon arrival at the main island they discover that a rather brutish man has taken over, and after giving him a bit of a thumping, they are then taken to the island of Lololo where they discover that the shop has been deserted because the island has been over-run by cannibals.



Maybe Billy Bunter has started losing its appeal, but I was able to read all of the Secret Seven and Famous Five books without being put off as much as this book put me off (though there were some of Blyton's books that I found almost as painful as I found this book). Not only was I rather disappointed at Bunter's excessive use of the N word (and the fact that the guy is a pretty elitist, and quite racist, individual as is), but also the fact that is he so lazy and so oblivious to the fact that nobody likes him, and why nobody likes him. There was one book where they decided to teach Bunter a lesson, namely because everybody had become sick of his attitude, however the thing with Bunter is that he never learns, and you get to the point where you simply start banging your head against the brick wall because you know that nothing is going to change.


Okay, in some ways people love to laugh at stupidity – that is why the Simpsons is not only so popular but why Homer Simpson eventually overcame Bart as being the show's most popular character. However, there are some redeemable features with Homer (despite the fact that I eventually became so sick of the show, and the character, that I stopped watching it years ago) – Bunter has none whatsoever. In fact the only reason that he manages to solve all these mysteries is through sheer luck. The other thing is that Bunter may be the title character but there are a lot of books where he actually ends up in the background (though that is not the case with this book). In the end the premise has started becoming a little worn out where I'm concerned.


Yep, I'm Talking About It

Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk

I will start this review off by suggesting that there is so much in this book that it deserves an entire blog post to itself, however I don't want to actually write one now because I would like to watch the film again. Unfortunately I just don't have enough time this weekend to simply put a couple of hours aside to watch the movie so that I can write a blog post to coincide with this review (not that I need to have a blog post to coincide with the review, but I would like those of you who like this review to at least have an opportunity to read the extended post). As such, I will post this review now, and when I get around to watching the film again (for the umpteenth time mind you – I love the film) I will repost this review with a link to the blog (minus this paragraph because by that time it will be obsolete). By the way, don't let the lack of a post on Flight Club prevent you from reading some of the <a href=”>posts on my blog</a>.


When considering this book I have to be honest and say that I actually preferred the movie. In fact when I first saw this book sitting on my friend's bookshelf I immediately thought that it was one of those really bad novelisations that you tend to come across every so often. However, as I was writing a review on a completely unrelated book (the name of which I can’t remember), and made mention of the fact that I believed that Fight Club was simply a novelisation of the film somebody politely corrected me and pointed out that the book came first. Well, since that was the case I decided that actually reading the book might actually be worth while.


First of all the book the grabbed my attention right from the beginning to the point that I found it really hard to put down. However, I also found that the film was much more crisp and polished than the book. In fact there were parts of the book that actually came out a lot better in the film than they did in the book (though there were also aspects of the book that were much better than the film). Normally this is not the case because it is really difficult, if not impossible, to turn what is in effect a classic book into a classic movie – the media are completely different and there things that can be done on the silver screen that would be impossible to translate onto the page and vice versa. However, occasionally, very occasionally, there comes a film that actually trumps the book, and I believe that Fight Club is one of those rare occurrences.


That does not necessarily mean that the book was bad – by no means – it is just that I found that the film was much better. Sure, there were aspects that the book handled much better, however I simply could not read the book without picturing Brad Pitt everytime Tyler Durden was mentioned, Helena Bonham Carter whenever Marla Singer was mentioned, and Edward Norton whenever the narrator was the central character, which was pretty much all of the time. Mind you, having two different actors playing the roles of the narrator (we actually never know his name) and Tyler Durden in the film does throw us a bit, but for those of us who have seen the film, and know the truth about the identity of the narrator, it sort of doesn't come as a shock when it is revealed (I would have put up a spoiler alert, but if you are reading this review then I assume that you have seen the film and know what I am talking about – if you don't, then you either haven't seen the film, or haven't worked it out yet, or both).


Anyway, Fight Club is your classic anti-materalist extistentialist novel (if there is such a thing). In fact it is still as relevant today as it was back when it was released. The world of Fight Club is dark and pointless, which very much defines the 90s. It is interesting that the nineties represented the final victory over the evil empire and what was in effect the end of history – tyranny had been defeated, capitalism reigned supreme, and everybody could look forward to peace, prosperity, and endless happiness – except that didn't happen. In fact the complete opposite happened – my memory of the nineties was that of the goth, and later the emo – of bands like Portishead and Radiohead, who were dreary and depressing – it was not that we had won, it was that in defeating the evil empire we had lost our way and our purpose. In a sense all that was left was the basic anxioms of capitalism – the accumulation of wealth, yet the accumulation of wealth in and of itself has no meaning, no purpose, and no soul. In a way we had defeated the commies, but in another way we had lost our soul.


Fight Club is not just a question of materialism but also a question of identity. In many ways we define ourselves by our job, by our car, by our house – in effect by our possessions. I guess this is why the scene in which the narrator mugs a convenience store clerk to force him to quit his job and pursue his dream is so important. It is also the reason why in the film they target is the credit corporations – it is debt that is actually holding us back. I see this around me everyday – people are prevented from reaching their true potential and from truly sucking the marrow out of life because they have bought the lie of the American dream. In the end they have gone to collage, got a degree (and a debt with that degree), got a job, married, had children, and taken on more debt to put a roof over their head. Ten years down the track they are stuck in a dead-end job with no hope and no purpose and the only incentive that they have is the fact that they get paid every fortnight. In fact it is that pay check that prevents them from realising their true potential.


However Fight Club endeavours to make us realise that the ordinary people are in fact the people that hold all of the power. Sure, the managers might say that those of us that do the ordinary jobs are the ones who make the company turn over and be the success that it is – those of us who sit in the trenches and cop the brunt of all of the crap that is thrown at us – however we return home to our appartment tired, in debt, trapped with no way out. Mind you the advertising industry doesn't help because they paint this picture of the perfect life that we buy into, but we can only afford this lifestyle by going into debt, which we do only to discover that we are now trapped in this endless existence from which we cannot escape.


There is actually a lot more to Fight Club than what I can really explore in such a short time, though I know that I am not the only one who writes incredibly long reviews exploring every aspect of a novel. However, since I have set up my blog I feel that I don't need to do that any more as I can do that elsewhere. However I still can’t resist exploring the themes expounded in the novel - in Flight Club the main idea is how we have become slaves to the machine and the novel seeks to open our eyes to the reality of this machine so that we might break away from it. However, in reality we won't, and Palahnuik realises this – we are sheep – pretty much all of the characters in the book are sheep. Sure, they are enslaved in their day to day existence, but Tyler Durden doesn't free them from that existence, he only becomes what is in effect another messiah for them to follow. Capitalism has let them down and he offers them another way out, and they follow him like sheep.


I guess that is the reason why the book didn't actually end the same way the film did and that is because in the end one of the things that the book is criticising is organised religion. The book (and the film) begins with the narrator and Marla cruising the support groups, which are in effect mini-religions, and finishing by creating a new religion through the fight clubs. What the book is suggesting is two things – even though they are sheep, the sheep in fact are incredibly powerful and can reach a point where the sheep actually take control of the religion – in a way the religion takes a life of its own and is moulded and developed by the sheep. The other thing – don't talk about fight club – is genius. If you keep something secret then people actually want to know it. In fact the interest lies in the mystery not in the answer – by not talking about Fight Club makes people so much more interested in Flight Club, to the point that it grows so big and powerful that it takes on a life of its own. In the end the Narrator, even though he is Tyler Durden, has lost control over it – Fight Club has become a monster with its own will, conscience, and identity. In considering this, it is interesting to note that Jesus Christ did refer to his followers as sheep – did he have an insight into human nature?


There is one final thing I wish to touch upon before I go and that is the idea of masculinity, which is evident in both the book and the film. In a way it is one of those very uncomfortable truths and that is that men are basically defined by their John Thomases, and it is interesting that at the beginning of the book you find the narrator in a support group of men who suffer from testicular cancer. However, fast forward through to the end and we discover that the members of the Fight Clubs will deal with people who are seeking to shut them down by threatening to castrate them. Interesting considering that only men can be castrated, however in many cases it is the men who are very much in control. In fact the whole idea of the fight club is that men are seeking to re-estabilish their primal and brutish nature in a world in which they are effectively being castrated. Fight Club is not a story about collapsing civilisation, it is a story about returning us to our brutish past and that the trappings of civilisation only exist as a thin veneer over this brutish reality. In a way one of the main reasons that the fight clubs become so successful, and literally run out of control is because there is that underlying desire to cast of civilastion and return to that primal instinct that is always wanting to well up from inside of us and completely engulf us.


A Tale of Forgiveness

Measure for Measure - William Shakespeare

When I was recently in London I picked up a box set at The Globe containing a collection of plays that they had filmed and kindly decided to release. As such when I sat down on the train and began reading this play I half expected to be able to then go and watch it at a later date. As it turned out one of the plays that wasn’t included in the box set was this one, which was a real shame because when I was at the Globe I did see a number of plays that weren’t included that could be purchased alongside it (which I had done with Merchant of Venice). Before I continue I probably should make mention that The Globe is one of the most uncomfortable, and annoying, theatres that I have had the displeasure of visiting. When the seat is labled as ‘restricted view’ the view is actually really restricted (I was sitting in front of a pillar). I’m not going to go as far and say that it is ‘the most uncomfortable’ theatre since there are some in Greece (such as the Theatre of Dionysius, though that isn’t actually used, but the Theatre of Herod Antipas just down the road is) that are probably somewhat more uncomfortable.


Theatre of Dionysius



Anyway, you are no doubt going to hear me harp on about how uncomfortable the Globe is again, which does surprise me a little because they still seem to regularly sell out their plays. I ended up waiting too long to purchase tickets for A Midsummers Night Dream (namely twelve weeks before the show I wanted to see) only to discover that there were no longer any available. That meant that I had to put up with just seeing Macbeth, which really isn’t one of my favourite Shakespearian plays, but still, it was at the Globe, and it was Shakespeare done well, so I’m not complaining about that (though I am complaining about the hard seats and the pillar that was in front of me).


Enough of my experience at the Globe because I’m sure you are more interested in my take on this play. The problem is that like many of the other plays that I have read I would have really liked to have seen this one performed (even if it is on screen) because it actually seems to be one of those really cool plays. One of the things that I particularly like about the version that I read is that it contains essays on the play itself at the end, and these essays can be really engaging. Anyway, the thing about this play is that there are so many Christian allegories in it that it doesn’t actually seem to be very Shakespearian. For instance we have the main plot of the Duke going on a holiday and handing over the rulership of the city to Angelo, who then begins to rule it with an iron fist. We also have the concept of forgiveness permeating throughout the play, and not the form of forgiveness that we see in the Tempest where Prospero decides that he has had enough fun with his captives, reveals himself, and says all is forgiven, but rather more Christlike forgiveness where the guilty party is forgiven without any form of revenge being taken out, and not deserving it one bit.


You have probably guessed the story already, but as I mentioned before the Duke decides to go on a holiday (well, not really, but that is what he tells everybody) and appoints Angelo in his place. However Angelo is a bit of a purist and realises that Vienna is a pretty sleazy place and decides to clean it up a bit (actually a lot). The thing is that it isn’t as if the sleaze is permitted, it’s illegal, it’s just that nobody particularly cares (or at least the Duke didn’t). So, he basically decides that since the laws are on the books they should be enforced, which creates a few problems because Claudio, another protagonist in the play, has got his girlfriend pregnant, which is a big no-no, and he has him arrested and sentenced to death. Mind you, it isn’t as if Angelo is all that pure either, namely because he ended up dumping his fiancee because her dowry was lost when the ship that was carrying it sunk in a storm.


The parable of Jesus that automatically comes to mind is the parable of the vineyard where the master goes off on a journey and leaves his plantation to his servants, and the servants basically run amok causing all sorts of problems. However this is slightly different in that the duke doesn’t actually go anywhere, he just disguises himself as a monk and watches to see what happens. Also, Angelo isn’t actually running amok, but rather he is trying to clean the place up. However there is a little catch – it seems as if there is actually an ulterior motive – get rid of Claudio and thus marry Isabella. This was the plot in the original story. However they decide to get around the problem by executing a pirate instead and passing it off as Claudio, and then having Angelo’s old flame pretend to be Isabella.


In fact now that I think about it it seems as if Angelo is playing the hypocrite in this play – while he is insisting that everybody live moral and upstanding lives, he himself is doing the complete opposite. Sure, maybe it was well within the law to execute Claudio for being a little randy (and it is interesting that it is the man that is being punished here as opposed to the woman because it seems that in our day and age the holier than thou lot seem to want to punish the women), but the fact is that Angelo wants the opportunity to be randy himself, and almost gets himself into no end of trouble in doing so. The thing is that he effectively gets away with it in the end, which some have found to be a little unsatisfactory – here we have a guy that is pretty much throwing his weight around and executing people for minor indiscretions and effectively getting away with it, while commiting those same indiscretions himself.


In the end I guess it is one of those plays that we need to sit down and chew on a bit, and one that I would like to visit again in the not too distance future, though this time I would like to see it performed as opposed to reading it in a book. At least there is a modern, non-BBC version on Youtube (I really don’t like the BBC performances – they were so dry, dull, and completely lacked any life).



It's all just a game of cricket

Life, the Universe and Everything - Douglas Adams

I'm going to have to be honest here and admit that I really wasn't all that impressed with this book. In fact the story was originally meant to be a six part Doctor Who series which was rejected by the producers, and I can see why – it just really didn't seem to be what I would expect from Doctor Who. Okay, the Doctor can be pretty tongue in cheek at times, and while there are suggestions that some Earth practices have extra-terrestrial origins, the who idea of cricket being a reflection of a huge intergalatic war really doesn't seem to fit well with the genre. I guess that having been rejected as a Doctor Who serial, being redrafted and made the third part of the Hitchhiker's Guide series sort of makes the story feel a little forced. Moreso it has a plot, and the one thing about absurdist literature is that it isn't really supposed to have a plot. Sure, the first book dealt with the search for the answer to the ultimate question, and the second dealt with the search for the true ruler of the galaxy, however they sort of sat in the background, and even then there was no real conclusion in the same way that Waiting for Godot really didn't have a conclusion.


The difference with this book is that the plot is front and centre. Arthur and Ford are trapped in prehistoric Earth however after parting ways for four years (and having some random person appear and insult him), they meet up again and discover a temporal anomaly in the form of a couch. So, what does one do when they see a couch in a place where it really shouldn't belong – well they sit on it. Anyway, the couch then proceeds to take them to Lord's at a time when the Australian Cricket Team simply cannot beat the English (and once again lose). All of the sudden these robots appear, hit bombs (that look like cricket balls) all over the place with bats that look like cricket bats, steal the ashes, and disappear. As it turns out the ashes aren't supposed to represent the 'death of English cricket' (well, they do, but that was only a representation) but rather are a piece of a key that is supposed to open the 'Wikit Gate' beyond which is imprisoned the world of 'Krikit'.


What is then revealed is that eons ago the world of Krikit was isolated due to a dust cloud, however one day a spaceship crashed, and after examining the spaceship, and realising that things existed beyond the sky, the inhabitants of Krikit decided to go and have a look, and it turned out that they didn't really like what they saw there. So, they proceeded to declare war on the entire universe. After a long and protracted period of hostilities the people of Krikit eventually lost (should I call them Krikitters? I'm not really sure) and they, and their world, were imprisoned in a field of slow time. However, a single spaceship full of robots managed to escape and proceeded to travel the galaxy and reassembling the key that would open the Wikit Gate. Ironically, parts of the key also included Marven's leg, a part of the infinite improbability drive, and the part of a trophy which represented the most gratuitous use of the world 'fuck' in a serious drama (though apparently when the book was released, this section of censored, so the world Belgium was used instead, which I have to admit is probably somewhat more clever that the other word that is used).


Look, as I have already mentioned, I wasn't particularly enamoured with this story, and I still have two more to go. I do remember liking the next one, but until I have read it I won't say anymore (though most people sort of write that one off as a load of rubbish). As for this book I don't want to write it completely off because there are some really good scenes, and jokes, in it, but it doesn't really have the panache that the previous books had. For instance, the whole discussion of flying being throwing yourself at the ground, and missing, was actually quite stupid. Okay, it did have a purpose in the book, but the Hitchhiker's Guide entry just simply didn't seem to be as clever as the entries in the first (and second) book. I guess that is the problem with a lot of books where they start off as a single book and quickly morph into a never-ending series (though Terry Pratchett seemed to have been able to solve that problem with his Discworld series).


Anyway, let us consider the title of the book, which is relates back to the original concept of the series, and in a way comes around to the question at the end of this book – what is life all about. The thing is that the answer to this question seems to be forever out of reach, or simply unobtainable through normal means (such as asking a computer, but then again how is a computer going to be able to answer such a question, particularly when the computer is limited by its creator). Okay, some people believe that they have the answer, which is what religion is all about. Actually, that is the prime definition of a religion, namely that it provides the answer to the questions of 'where did we come from, what are we doing here, and where are we going?'. Sure, most religions boil down to God, God, and God, but not all of them. Dare I say that scientific materialism answers those three questions: dust, whatever we want it to be, and dust. However I suspect that this whole scientific materialistic view of the universe is what created absurdism in the first place because despite providing the answers to these questions the answers weren't satisfactory.


Sure, the answers that end with God can be considered satisfactory answers, yet for some reason we insist on killing each other over the exact interpretation of what 'God' actually means. Okay, it technically means, as Bill and Ted put so well, 'be excellent to each other and party on dudes' yet this simple thing seems to be beyond us. Sure, there are some (such as myself) that imply that being excellent to each other also involves being excellent to God, but that sort of comes hand in hand. The baffling thing is that despite the fact that we agree that being excellent to each other is a really good idea we seem to not actually want to do it where we are concerned. In fact Adams even touches on that point namely because anybody who comes along and suggests that being excellent to each other would probably solve all of our problems ends up getting killed.


The problem is that our interpretation of being excellent to each other pretty much involves letting me do what I want to do and anybody who stops me from doing what I want to do is not being excellent to me. So, when we do things that are technically not being excellent to each other (such as polluting the world because, well, we want to live our hyperdisposable lifestyle) and people pull us up on it then we get upset and claim that being excellent to each other is not actually as great as it is cracked up to be and we might as well look for another solution to the ultimate question that doesn't involve me giving up all the really cool things that I have. Okay, I'm sure I could participate in this challenge that one of the social justice organisations is suggesting– namely living on one power socket, but I would cheat by having lots of powerboards and lots of extension cords so that my life isn't actually impacted all that much (or I could just live off my laptop as opposed to desktop and computer in the lounge room, but that is beside the point). Actually, come to think of it, there is a computer in the lounge room that I don't use – I think I should format the hardrive and turn that into my video machine as opposed to using my laptop, but I think I have drifted so far off topic that I might bring my story to an end now.



A Man Who Wants to Be Bad

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson, Vladimir Nabokov, Dan Chaon

Like me, many of you out there in Booklikes Land probably have never read this story and only know it through images like this (though since this is Booklikes then I suspect more people have read the book than the general population):



This is not surprising since many of the stories that we have grown up with have been so butchered by Hollywood that we actually don't know the real story that is behind them. For me, all I could tell you was that this story is about a good man named Dr Jeckyl who creates a potion that turns him into a monster, and that is basically about it. Okay, there are scenes where he runs around scaring people, but the actual story, well, I couldn't tell you anything about it.


What surprised me about this novella is that it is more of a detective mystery than a horror story, though there are a lot of horror elements in it. As one person has suggested, you can actually skip a large portion of the story and go straight to the last chapter, which is a letter written by Doctor Jekyll about what had come about of him, and where he ended up.


The funny thing is that I find it difficult to accept that Dr Jeckyl is actually a good and pure hearted man when he is performing experiments to pretty much unleash the side of him that is basically a monster. However, I do not get the impression from this book that the monster that is Mr Hyde is a monster in the sense that we see in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Rather the monstrous aspect of the character is that he simply has no morals whatsoever, and no sense of guilt over what he had done. Seriously, why on Earth would a human, who is actively trying to suppress that side of him, suddenly want to unleash it through the use of drugs.


Now this is an interesting concept, and it is something that was sitting at the back of my mind as I was reading this book: the connection with drugs. Now, at the time of writing people were using drugs, and as far as I am aware, one could get access to drugs like cocaine and morphine quite easily, but I suspect that it also applies very much to alcohol as well. The funny thing is that what Stevenson is writing about is a substance that basically reduces your inhibitions and that in many cases are what drugs and alcohol do. I have heard many times that beer is referred to as a social lubricant.


However, there is another aspect to this, and that is the fact that alcohol can cause you to do things that you would not do when you are sober. Currently in Australia, particularly in Sydney, due to the death of another person who had been caught up in alcohol fuelled violence, there is a debate as to what to do to prevent it (they have since introduced lock-out laws and mandatory closing times, which has effectively destroyed Sydney's nightlife – not to mention the bouncers that are everywhere). People have also suggested that violence caused through the use of alcohol be treated as an aggravated offense (and even then, the defense of 'I was drunk and did not know what I was doing' isn't a defense that will hold water in a court of law). Yet sometimes I wonder whether this is simply an Anglo trait because when I was in Europe I noticed that the Germans, who are famous for drinking their litre glasses of beer (though is it turns out that is actually a myth that is not true in places of Cologne), did not seem to be as loud and raucous as the English were when I was wondering around the streets of London late at night (or even what I notice when I am wondering around the streets of some unnamed Australian city).


In a way many of us want to put the story of Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde purely into the fantasy realm, but I suspect that maybe this is not where Stevenson was intending. As I have explained, we don't need to lock ourselves in a laboratory and attempt to create a potion that will turn us into a monster, that potion already exists, and can be purchased at any number of shops as long as you are able to prove to the vendor that you are of an age that will allow you to purchase the product (though of course not everybody turns into a monster when drunk, but in many cases they will still do things that they will unlikely do when they are sober).



Die Ausnahme und die Regel - Bertolt Brecht

This is another of Brecht’s short plays that he referred to as Lehrstucke, or more precisely morality the plays, though this one is a little longer than the other three in the book. Anyway the play is about an unnamed merchant who is wandering across the desert to look at selling some oil that he has discovered. However he becomes lost and it appears that the water is running out. His guide, or more precisely the Coolie, had been given some extra water but decides to let the Merchant have some because if he survives and the merchant dies (or at least comes back a lot weaker than when he left) then the Coolie believes (quite correctly mind you) that he is going to get into serious trouble. However the Merchant is hallucinating at this time, believes that the Coolie actually has a rock, and then proceeds to shoot him.


Long story short, the merchant makes it back to civilisation and finds himself in court having to answer charges of murder, and also a suit that has been brought against him by the Coolie’s wife. The thing is that while we know what went on, the judge is only going by the evidence that has been brought before him, and the evidence is coming from two different avenues – the Innkeeper, who supports the merchant, and the Guide, who supports the murdered Coolie. Okay, we also have the Merchant, but the Merchant is always going to be a biased witness.


However, the problem is that I can’t say all that much more without basically giving away the end of the play (which would be a real bummer for somebody who actually wants to read it), but the thing is that based on the outline that I have given you, you can probably work this out anyway, particularly since Brecht is a communist. Mind you, I can sort of see this at work in our world anyway, especially if you happen to be rich and powerful. There are stories of newspaper moguls here in Australia committing outrageous acts of contempt of court (and parliament), yet getting away with it scot free. In a way this the what the title of the play is about – there are the exceptions and there are the rules.


What Brecht is getting at here is that while we may have a rule of law, there are always going to be exceptions to these rules, and the events in this play are clear in that regard. Well, it’s not so much an exception but rather a rule for one person, and a rule for everybody else. When the Merchant says that he was suffering from heat stroke, hallucinating, and acted irrationally because he was hallucinating, then it is accepted. However the Coolie is correct when he decides to be generous with his water because if he isn’t, and the merchant dies, then he is going to be brought to account. However the exception in the eyes of the judge is that the Coolie acted against his character by being generous – what is expected is that when the merchant is weak then the Coolie will take advantage of him, therefore the Merchant was well within his rights to act in self defence.


This brings me to the question of white privilege; or more particularly white male privilege. While there is a huge debate raging as to whether it exists or not, from my experience it does and the reason I say that is by looking at where I am. I am currently gainfully employed, have a university degree, and live a comfortable existence where I want for little, however if I was not white then it is unlikely that I would be in the same position that I am in now. However the catch is that in our society, at least in Australia, it isn’t so much a question of white privilege – if you are Southern European, Indian, or Asian, then no doubt you will be afforded the same privileges that I am. Sure, there are some extreme racists out there that will target people who are not white, but in general as long as you are not an indigenous Australian then you will pretty much be okay.


Yet there is also a question of money – somebody who grew up in one of the lower class suburbs in Australia is less likely to have the same opportunities than those who grew up in the more affluent suburbs. In fact I knew people that would specifically move into a suburb so that their children could go to a specific public school. Therefore I don’t necessarily believe that it is always a case of white privilege, until you realise that the proportion of Aboriginals in goal far outweighs those of the others. In fact it is more likely than not that indigenous Australians are going to find themselves living in areas where the socio-economic situation is much lower – and don’t even think that you are going to have an easy time getting a rental property in the upper class suburbs if you happen to be aboriginal – it is hard enough for middle class people to get rental properties.


What Brecht is on about is that there is human nature, and there are the exceptions to human nature. This comes about through racism, even if the person making the stereotype doesn’t come across as racist. It could be considered a form of racial profiling – such as indigenous Australians (and Americans) are nothing more than alcoholics that are so desperate that they will resort to drinking methylated spirits. In a way it is similar with Afro-Americans who are generally viewed as violent criminals. This is what Brecht is challenging us with here – the idea that we will categorise somebody of a certain race, and certain class, into a certain mould and will not let them break out of it.


Plato's Dystopia

The Laws - Plato

For some reason when people think of Plato and government we seem to automatically jump to the though 'gee, what a wonderful idea' as if a Platonic government would actually be a good thing. The question that I raise is what if it isn't? What if this form of government that Plato outlines actually isn't all that good, or moreso what if it doesn't work. In a way it is a bit like the western reaction to Buddhism. For some reason the young and hip seem to love Buddhism, believing that it is the one religion that you can do whatever you like, but as long as you treat other people okay then everything will be all right. However, when they delve into it (such as offering to volunteer at the Tiger Temple in Thailand) they pretty quickly discover that Buddhism is not all that it is cracked up to be – what no sex!?! No alcohol !?! Okay, I've known Buddhists that have breached both of those restrictions – at the same time – however they probably fall into the category of 'nominal'.


As for Plato we seem to have this idea that because he is this really famous, and apparently really smart, philosopher then any form of government that he comes up with has to be good, and has to work. Well, my argument is what if it turns out that this wonderful form of government sort of turns out to look a little like this:



The thing is that the more I think about Plato's political theories the more I realise that the freedoms that we enjoy under our modern democracies will be basically non-existent. For instance, you know how when you are in school you get to choose what you want to study at University, or even if you go to university – well, that won't happen in Plato's realm – your career path will be chosen right from the word go, and if you don't like it then tough, deal with it because the state that Plato envisages is a perfect, and efficient, state, which basically means that human free will sort of takes a back seat because free will is actually the thing that causes half the problems that we face today. Oh, and you know that idea that is known as the family - well we have none of that in Plato's realm because families are bad since they work to undermine the perfect nature of the society (or was that 1984: I don't know, but I recently saw it in London, and this book was so long and, well, dull that I may have got the two mixed up).


Another interesting thing about Plato's state is that it happens to be communist – it is against the law to have excess wealth, and if you have excess wealth well, at best it simply gets confiscated, at worse you are severely punished. Oh, and don't think that you can get around it by hiding it in another form of currency because he has that area covered as well. Oh, and let us talk about punishment because in Plato's mind nobody does wrong willingly – the only reason they do bad things is because they don't actually realise that they are doing bad things – even though we have free will this free will isn't actually free because we only do things out of ignorance, and if we weren't ignorant then we wouldn't do these things. However, Plato seems to acknowledge that people will do bad things even if they are told that they are bad. Well, it seems that in Plato's mind they have some sort of inherent defect so we might as well kill them. Yep, you heard me right, Plato is a big fan of the death penalty – if you are criminal then, well, there is no way that you are going to change so off with your head (or whatever way they decided that they will kill you).


Another rather interesting thing that I noticed in this particular edition was that the editor, and I assume translator, had a go at us moderns because we look down on slavery, and because we look down on slavery then we consider the ancient Greeks to be somewhat barbaric. Well, it is probably a good thing that we consider slavery to be barbaric because as far as I am concerned we really shouldn't be owning people and forcing people to do things against their will. However, those who look down on the Greeks because of slavery really don't understand the world in which we live – we have a form of slavery – it is called employment. Okay, we can leave our job whenever we like, but when we have a mortgage, and countless other debts, then the ability to walk away from our job really doesn't exist. While our employer may not be the slave master, the banks certainly are because if you don't pay back those debts they will let you know about it.


Which brings me to an interesting point about bankers – being a Christian I have heard how a number of people have given up a promising career in banking to become ministers of religion. Most of the time I just let it go over my head however I suddenly realised that banking is hardly what you would call an ethical profession. Okay, there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with banking, just as there is nothing intrinsically wrong with law, accounting, or even politics. However, I would hardly call the lot who brought about the global financial crisis paragons of virtue. Moreso, I have never heard anybody say that somebody has given up a promising career in plumbing to become a minister of religion (despite the fact that you can make some pretty decent money as a plumber) even though plumbing is actually a lot more honest than banking. Okay, there was one minister that I knew indicated that he didn't leave the legal profession for some holy and righteous reason, but rather because his conscience really couldn't handle the rubbish that he had to deal with. Actually, the more I think about it – bankers, fund managers, and lawyers as ministers of religions – I think I'd rather go with the plumber.


As for this book, well all I can say is don't bother – it really isn't all that great. In fact it is sort of half philosophy half idealistic legal text. In fact the translator writes it as if it were a piece of legislation, or at least the parts appeared to have been like that rather confusing stuff that politicians get paid ridiculous amounts of money to argue over. Sure, Plato may have some good ideas, however what I discovered was that these good ideas were few and far between and in reality were buried deep within what appears to be little more than a totalitarian state. Sure, Plato says that the military (otherwise known as the Guardians) and the rulers were to behave in a certain way but seriously, these are humans that we are talking about – as the saying goes power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As for the Greeks being less sophisticated that we are – all I can say is that I don't think so – apparently our lust for technology and luxuries have pushed us past the point of no return – we have destroyed our environment and the global financial crises has resulted in a greater discrepancy between the haves and and the have nots that it feels as if we are returning to the middle ages, that is if we don't nuke ourselves over Syria first.




The story of Winter

Hymn to Demeter - Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Matthew Vossler

While the title of this poem is ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ and the poem is a part of a collection of poems referred to as the Homeric Hymns, a part of me feels that these titles are a little misleading, which is why I am more inclined to refer to this as a poem (or a song) as opposed to a hymn. First of all, having grown up in a Christian tradition my idea of a hymn is a song that is basically about how wonderful the Christian God (and in turn Jesus Christ) happens to be and is generally accompanied by an organ and a choral ode. Further, most of these songs tend to follow along the similar pattern of, well, Amazing Grace, which is basically a song about how John Newton (the composer) was this huge crook, but then he discovered that Jesus loved him and died for his sins, and all of the sudden everything was fine and dandy (despite the fact that he continued trading slaves).


The second problem that I have with the categorisation of it being a Homeric hymn is that it doesn’t feel like it was written by Homer. Okay, I would hardly call myself an expert on Homeric writings, and while I did study the Odyssey in the original language back at university I don’t sit in my sun room with a copy of the Greek text and a pot of tea, and casually read it (in fact the only book that I happen to read in Greek is the Bible, and that is usually when somebody is reading it aloud in English). However, despite my lack of authority, I still don’t believe that it was written by Homer – it just didn’t feel right. First of all the poem doesn’t take up 24 scrolls, nor does it go into explicit details of the surroundings and the people, nor does it break off into massive tangents. In fact the poem is actually quite self-contained (and pretty short as well). The other thing was that as I was reading it (though it may have more to do with the translation, which was pretty shocking by the way) it reminded me for some of the Ancient Babylonian texts that I had read in times past.


Actually, when I read a commentary on this poem, the explanation as to why it was considered a Homeric Hymn was not because they believed Homer wrote it but because tradition since the Roman times had attributed it to Homer. Actually, the whole debate over the attribution of these songs, as well as the Odyssey and the Iliad, to Homer has more to do with them being written down as opposed to composition. Actually, come to think of it, if Homer was blind as legend has it then it does make me wonder how he would have been able to write it down anyway (though no doubt he could still have been an oral poet). Well, being blind hasn’t stopped people from becoming famous poets in the past, as was the case with Milton, but that is beside the point. Anyway, the attribution to Homer, in my opinion, has more to do with the poems being written down from an oral tradition as opposed to the original composer.


I probably should actually start talking about the poem itself as opposed to the reasons as to why I don’t consider it a hymn, or having been composed by Homer. So, the story is about the Greek God Demeter, who happens to be the god of the harvests. Basically she is the one that makes sure all of the wheat grows so that nobody starves. Anyway she had a daughter by Zeus (who else – it seems that whenever a god, or a mortal, becomes pregnant, Zeus seems to have something to do with it, which makes me wonder whether this arose as an excuse for pregnant women to cover up infidelity) and one day Zeus sort of lets his brother Hades kidnap Demeter’s daughter and take her into the underworld to be his wife. The thing is that Demeter doesn’t know what happened to her daughter (Persephone), despite the fact that not only was Zeus well aware of this, but he basically feigned ignorance when asked. Mind you, despite the fact that most of the gods were being tight lipped about the whole event, not all of them were, and Demeter soon found out what happened. As a result he basically turned her back on Olympus and travelled to the city of Eleusis where she basically becomes a domestic servant.


Eleusis Ruins


The Ruins of Eleusis


The problem was that now that Demeter had left Olympus there wasn’t anybody there to make sure that the crops grew and as such the Earth plunged into a period of darkness and sterility – can anybody say Ice Age? However, this was turning out to be a bit if a problems for the gods because, well, despite the fact that they are immortal, they still need to be worshipped, and feared, and with humanity dying off through hunger they knew something needed to be done, so they pressured Hades to let Persephone return to her mother. There was one problem – she had eaten a pomegranate, which meant that she was now a denizen of the underworld and while she could return to her mother, she couldn’t stay, so for three months every year she had to return, which as it happens tends to coincide with the winter months.


So what we have here is what is called an aetiological myth, namely a myth that tells a story of why something is the case at a time when people didn’t have a rational scientific explanation as to why the world did what it. It is like that story of the witch with the salt machine that broke down and ended up dumping countless tonnes of salt into the ocean which is the explanation as to why the ocean is salty. However, while this myth is supposed to explain the seasons I think that it goes a little deeper than that, namely because it also tells of a time when there appeared to be a huge famine in the land, which could well have been an account of an ice age. Mind you, the origins of this myth may have been far back in the mists of time if it is talking about what could have been some sort of ice age, or even just a time when there was a severe famine, though the suggestion also is that it was after this that the seasons started to become noticeable.


The other really cool thing about this poem is how it happens to be about Demeter disguising herself as a human and becoming a nurse maid for a family in Eleusis. This event eventually gave rise to what became known as the Eleusian Mysteries, a yearly festival that was performed in a small city on the outskirts of Athens. In fact even today you can visit the city, and even visit the well of the Nymphs, which is the well that the story indicates Demeter was sitting beside when she was discovered, and taken in, by this family (and no doubt the festival was based entirely around this event). Yet I also find it interesting as to how complex this myth actually is – here we have a story of a god becoming a human and living amongst humans, not so much in the Jesus is God and lived among us sinful humans type story, but rather the story of the member of an aristocratic class having a fight with the monarch and leaving to live among the normal people. In a way it is a story that is still told in different forms even today (though many of these stories tend to be based more on the story of Jesus Christ as opposed to the Ancient Greek versions).


Oh, and here is a photo of the Well of the Nymphs that I took when I visited Eleusis back in 2011.


Well of the Nymphs



The Tragedy of a Man Who Loves his Books

Stoner - John Edward Williams


When you discover that this book is about the life of a university lecturer you may automatically think about a certain movie in which a certain music teacher has a dream of creating a fantastic piece of music only to find himself trapped in a high school teaching music until his retirement to then discover the impact that he has actually had on all of the students that had passed through his class – and you would be wrong. Or, you could think about a high school chemistry teacher that discovers that he has cancer and to provide for his family decides to start cooking meth and, well, you would be wrong again. Mind you, with a title like Stoner (and the fact that is was written in 1965) you might end up thinking the the book is about somebody like this:



A Stoner


and, well, I guess you would be wrong again, though one sometimes wonders if the fact that William Stoner is actually a university English teacher then he must have had the occasional smoke, but in all seriousness the only drugs that appears in this book is a glass of whisky and a half-empty bottle of Sherry that is so old that one ought to throw it out (despite the fact that it probably will give you hallucinations).



However, I should say something about this particular book, and in a way it actually feels as if it is one of those feel good books, namely because upon reading it you feel somewhat relieved that your life is nowhere near as bad as Stoner's. Look, there are a couple of things I envy about the guy (okay, one, other than the name, and that is the fact that he is a lecturer in the liberal arts, and gets to have sex with a heaps intelligent post-grad, even though it is only an affair), however when you consider what has gone wrong with his life I guess one's envy of the fact that he is a lecturer pails in comparison.



It is not that his life started off bad but it appears that he made some choices that set his life on a course of what one could consider to be ordinary, though I would suggest that an ordinary life would be much better than the life he had. For instance, after taking a dislike at a poser of a post-grad (and as I think about it, he did give this particular post-grad a lot of chances) and basically seeing through his rubbish, he earned the eternal enmity of another lecturer (who seemed to stick up for this particular student to the point that makes you wonder if there were some shenanigans going on behind closed doors) which resulted in his career going nowhere. Mind you sometimes the idea of climbing the corporate ladder can result in a lot more burn out than simply being content with the job one currently has, though the problem with the world in which we live is that rewards seem to be commemorate with how high up the management ladder you are, and some of the good jobs can only be obtained if you have actually held a management role. However I digress.



Then there was that nightmare of a woman that he ended up marrying. I'm not really sure about this Edith woman, and sometimes I wonder if this particular woman was unrealistic because I find it very hard to believe that such a person could actually exist in real life. I'm not even sure if I could blame Stoner for making the wrong choice because it seemed like it was only after the wedding vowels that Edith began to show her true colours. In a way, if the saying 'behind every great man is an equality great woman' then maybe this book is suggesting that 'behind every rank failure is a bitch of a wife'. That's probably being a bit harsh, but then the picture that Williams paints or, or should I say tar and feathers, Edith, I sometimes wonder if he has a rather nasty misogynistic streak running through him.

Anyway, I want to finish off by looking at some of the ideas that comes out of another review that I read a while back, and that is what I will refer to as 'The Death of the American Dream'. It was something that I never really thought about until my American History lecturer one day began to ridicule the whole idea of the inalienable right of the pursuit of happiness. It is not so much that it is such a vague concept, but it does not necessarily define what happiness is, and suggests that if one is not happy then there is something wrong with them. However it is not so much an American thing but in many cases an Anglo thing. Yet consider the fact that depression is literally running rampant in our socirty, which makes us wonder whether this whole idea of happiness is actually working, or whether the American experiment has failed. Or what about the rights of others to be happy – what happens if your desire to be happy ends up forcing others into depression, and if you cannot do what you want to be happy then you are forced into depression. As for Stoner we cannot even consider whether he is happy – he seems to persevere against struggles that mere mortals like me would cave under, yet one wonders if, at the end, he dies happy – I don't think so, but I guess I will throw that open to a debate because while I have my own opinion, I really can't be bothered using the spoiler tab at this point in time.