Django unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

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Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino (2012)

Score: Steaming pile of rubbish.

***SPOILERS***

Now I’m going to say a lot of impopular things. For instance, that I think Quentin Tarantino is one of the most overrated directors in history. I used to like his work a lot, in fact I’ve watched every single movie he has ever directed or written, except for Inglorious Basterds and the very minor ones.

He’s got a very distinct style, no one can deny that, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. See, what I dislike about his work is that he has not only refused to watch good movies, but he is proud of having terrible taste in cinema and his whole career is a homage to it. Not to say he’s the most unoriginal creator I’ve ever seen. Nothing’s new under the sun, some tropes we know and love are older than dirt, yada yada yada. Say what you will, Mr. Tarantino has made a living out of plagiarising awful movies, Pulp Fiction being the great exception, and parodying himself.

My big problem with Django unchained is that the plot is retarded and so are the characters. Wacky European goes around freeing slaves, fine by me. Recently freed slave wants to free his wife as well, good. Let’s save up some money by hunting some bounties, excellent idea. But then instead of going there, buying Broomhilda and then leaving for home, let’s trick that slaver bastard into thinking we want to buy a couple of Mandingo fighters in hopes that he will throw in what we actually want in the deal as an extra. What the fuck? Why? Because there would be no plot otherwise. Solution? Think up a better plot. Period.

So off they go. And they decide that Django, despite being too stupid to be alive (like everyone else in the movie, that was no racist remark) and completely unable to make up and sustain a lie, should pose as a black slaver and play badass, hurr durr. Even Calvin Candie’s sister, who is portrayed as an inbred airhead, can see through the charade. The dinner scene is the most atrocious thing I’ve seen in a long time. First of all, it’s shot like shit. It looks like a badly lit evening party recorded with a cheap home camera, everyone looks orange in it. Then, it makes absolutely no sense. We know it’s your wife, but please stop staring at her and drooling, you’re supposed to be an obnoxious bastard who enslaves his own people. You can look at her when you’re out of there. Besides, she’s standing behind him, how does he manage to be so obvious? And, funny German guy: we know the guy is despicable. You have come all the way here. You’ve been caught red-handed (which wouldn’t have happened if you had the slightest common sense), but the only thing you have to do is shake that human waste’s hand and walk away. Nah, you couldn’t. Better go berserk and slaughter everyone. Then the movie goes on for another half-hour for no reason at all. For having watched so many movies that’s a weird sense of timing and planning. Also look out for the least subtle use of symbolism ever: blood on white cotton, white walls, white things in general.

It has good things. Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson do very good jobs, at least with the roles they’ve been given. Christoph Waltz also did a good job but god knows why they gave him two Oscars in a row. The part with the KKK and Jonah Hill was actually funny, the only scene in the movie that was. I can’t say I thought Jamie Foxx’s acting was good, though. He kept staring around him wide-eyed, trying to look badass and failing at it. The character is very unsympathetic both for the bad writing and the not so good acting.

Leo DiCaprio apparently cut his hand shooting the dinner scene and never broke character, which was actually fascinating to watch, given that I knew it beforehand, and it’s probably the only thing people will remember twenty years from now of this shoddy work.

All in all, as all of Tarantino’s latest works, Django unchained is unwatchable.

The wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2o13)

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The wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese (2013).

Score: Funny and entertaining, but much too long.

The wolf of Wall Street is based on the real story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who became a millionaire by selling penny stocks by the thousands to naïve wannabes, and other illegal procedures. He dumps his school sweetheart (Cristin Milioti) and marries a hottie (Margot Robbie), teams up with Donnie Azzoff (Jonah Hill), who is dumb and illiterate but wants to make as much money as the next guy and off they go to make millions, do a lot of drugs and bring prostitutes to work. It’s three fucking hours of watching them throw bank notes in the air, snort coke from women’s butts and be deplorable human beings, and that’s absolutely everything there is to it.

I’m thankful Scorsese at least refrained from being patronizing. In fact he refrained from being patronizing so much that it apparently went over some people’s heads. I was discussing this film with my dad before either of us had watched it and he was reluctant to watch it because he had heard on the radio it shamelessly glorified drug use and decadence. When I was watching the scene when ***SPOILERS*** Donnie and Jordan take those stale pills and end up drooling, babbling and crawling around, to say nothing of the fact that Donnie almost chokes on a ham roll and Jordan almost lets him die so he will have less to explain on court ***END SPOILERS*** I was thinking: ‘Yeah… apology of drug use… Some aesops are not ham-fisted enough for some critics, I can tell’.

Leonardo DiCaprio is great in this, as he has been for the last ten years. I consider him one of the best actors of his generation and at least for now he continues to deliver. Jonah Hill is really, really funny, much more than I had expected. The rest of the cast is good as well, and in general it’s a quite well-made movie, just like anything with a big enough budget these days. Oh, and Matthew McConaughey is there only for five minutes.

But it’s unbearably long. It could have lasted just under two hours easily, but it just went on and on. And it adds very little to the experience, because I watched it a few months ago and I don’t remember half of it. I miss the old times where you went to watch something that was three hours long and thought: ‘oh, the director must have something really complex to say if he needs three hours, or the source material is excruciatingly long and the screenwriter didn’t know how to make it shorter’. Now, getting dangerously close to the three-hour mark is considered the norm and I fucking hate it. Please, directors and screenwriters: use fucking ellipsis. Be economical, go to the point. Stop sucking your own dicks with tedious character development scenes you could have used to advance the story as well. Look back to the 80’s and 90’s. My boyfriend and I recently rewatched The Matrix because they were airing it and commented on how economical it was: every scene and dialog gave you relevant information and either advanced the story, developed the characters or did both. I can’t say the same aboutThe wolf of Wall Street, or any recent movie that lasts two hours and a half or more, for instance.

If you haven’t watched I definitely recommend it, it will be a fun three hours of your life.

Demon’s souls (From Software, 2009)

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Demons Souls (PS3, From Software & SCE Japan Studio, 2009)

Score: Not that good, but things get personal.

Demon’s souls, and particularly his cousin, Dark Souls, is (in)famous for being terribly difficult. That’s why I say things get personal. If everyone says it’s so challenging, you have to beat it, dammit!

So why is it difficult? See, in this game you collect souls, which count as experience points and also currency. If you die, you lose every soul you were carrying with you, and you can only recover them if you go to the spot where you died and touch your bloodstain. If you don’t get killed in the way, that is. If that were to happen, because you slipped and fell down a cliff, for instance, your previous bloodstain disappears and all those souls are lost forever. There is no way to store your souls away, you can only keep them, spend them, or lose them. Also there is no selling that sweet, sweet heavy armor you looted and you can’t wear because you happened to build a mage. You can only stash it and forget about it.

Mainly for this reason, that you will lose your progress if you get killed, this game makes you play like a coward. A lot of corners and corridors are badly lit and hide a monster, or a cliff, so you learn to walk very slowly and look all around for nasty surprises, and also to backtrack and go home to spend your precious souls, lest you find a ridiculously overpowered monster (or you fall to your death in a ridiculous way) and you’re left without anything, pretty much like a player in Who wants to be a millionaire? So you have to repeat every stage, a lot, pretty much until you know it by heart and you can finally beat it.

On the other hand, even a mediocre player like me can beat it because all it really takes is learning the obstacle course by heart and trial and error and then devising a strategy for beating it (or looking it up on the internet). There are ridiculously cheap ways to beat difficult monsters, such as throwing poison darts at them and hiding or tricking them into falling down a cliff or a flight of stairs. For instance I killed both Scirvir and Old King Allant by poisoning them while they just stood there like ‘Gee, I’m feeling a little sick, I think’, threw fireballs at Garl Vinland until he got bored and died, sniped all the dragons and basically sneaked my way through 5-2 because I hated that level. And I’m not ashamed of it, isn’t not cheating, just really boring. And I want to think that the final boss fight is the biggest trolling I got from a developer since I finished Mass Effect 3.

Also something that makes it easier than it looks is that monsters are incredibly dumb. They just patrol their area and attack you following exactly the same patterns time and again, so they’re mostly easy to counter, and if you can’t beat them, go do some farming and come back later. If you run away from them fast enough they will lose interest and go back to their post. Oh, I didn’t mention it, but you can’t pause the game. You can open the menu but the action will go on. This only means you can’t change your equipment during battle or pause to heal and you have to get used to using hotkeys quite fast, but it’s not really difficult once you get used to it. And if you need to go to the toilet you can park your character in a dark corner away from the monsters and nobody will care to find you.

Even with all this downsides, or upsides, I don’t know, it still gets quite frustrating from time to time. It has taken me very, very long to beat it mostly because sometimes it gets past the territory of challenging fun and into the territory of ‘it feels like doing homework’. As I said you can beat it even if you’re a not very good player like me by using insane amounts of farming (insane for a Western player, nothing comparable to what you need to get 100% in Tales games or Star Ocean 4). You can do it the difficult way or just level up until the monsters of the level you’re stuck in just tickle you. This will take hours of repeating a particular section that nets you a lot of souls in a short time. Special mention goes to The Valley of Defilement, which made me start the game over again by being basically unbeatable with the poor build I had made for my character.

I didn’t mention the story because it’s not very elaborate and the artistic design is ugly, but it’s safe to assume it was on purpose. Apparently an evil fog has come down to the Kingdom of Boletaria because its king had never heard of a faustian deal and thought it was the greatest thing ever. You also go to a mine, an abandoned jail, a ruined castle full of skeletons and flying mantas and to a sort of dumpster where corpses and aborted fetuses stack up knee-high. It’s really, really ugly and depressing and there are so few NPCs that you might as well be in purgatory.

All in all, it’s a refreshing experience, especially if you’ve only played videogames for the last fifteen years or so. If you played before, probably you’ve played old-school stuff that was more challenging than this. Also note that despite having a quite Western look it’s a Japanese game, so expect to find common tropes of JRPG.

The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (Philip K. Dick, 1965)

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The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick (1965).

Score: The most alien book I’ve read in a long time.

Before we start, I’d like to shout out to my friend Fran, who recommended this book to me and is a fan of K. Dick’s works. Vaya libros más raros que recomiendas.

In The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch the Earth is so overheated that people have to be constantly indoors and a lot of the population are drafted to become forceful colonists of the other planets and moons of the Solar System. Work in the colonies is so menial and life is so miserable that colonists pass their time chewing a hallucinogenic drug called Can-D and experiencing the life of a Barbie-like doll, Perky Pat, and her boyfriend. For the “translation” to actually happen, they need the dolls and their layouts, filled with minned objects; the company that manufactures these layouts is also the company that surreptitiously distributes the illegal drug.

But now the system-famous industrial Palmer Eldritch is back from a trip to Prox System, and he’s bringing with him a new drug, Chew-Z, which he claims is much better than Can-D. Leo Bulero, CEO of Perky Pat Layouts, is willing to do anything to stop the competition.

Mingled with all this there are also psychics, used for the everyday task of predicting what will be trendy and what won’t (that’s the level of decadence), evolution therapy that makes people sport hydrocephalic-like crania, and some insane hallucination passages, everything coated with a thick layer of delicious, delicious zeerust. It’s quite enjoyable as a novel, though.

Before this I’d only read two other books by K. Dick before, Do androids dream of electric sheep? and The man in the high castle. I was guessing those were in the group of the “sane” books he wrote, and The three stigmata was in the pile of the ones that aren’t. Now I see that’s not true, they’re all insane to some degree because the poor guy had a psychiatric condition and you can either follow him into alternative realities or hop off the train. I feel it’s the closest you can get to reading Vonnegut without reading Vonnegut, with the difference that Vonnegut looks chaotic but his books are carefully thought-out and rely heavily and deliberately on literary devices, while K. Dick reads like a desperate cry and attempt to make something out of reality, not necessarily sense. Vonnegut is sardonic. K. Dick is completely pessimistic and hopeless.

In fact reading this along with getting some context helped me better understand The man in the high castle, which disappointed me because I was wrongly reading it as a simple alternate history novel. In order to understand and enjoy K. Dick’s work you have to know that the single most important theme in his books is the duality between the real and the unreal, in its multiple forms. In Do androids dream of electric sheep? it’s the duality between the real, natural animals and people and the electric ones, better suited to live in a hostile environment we have created for ourselves. In The man in the high castle it’s the duality between a horrible historic reality and the empowering hope that the world might be a better place… if history had played out differently. InThe three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch it’s the duality between a reality where we’re miserable, mediocre, and have no goals in life, and a collective hallucination where we’re young, rich, careless and hedonistic. Well, at least part of it. Like with the other two, this is just one aspect of what K. Dick is trying to say.

So the big question is: do I prefer a life where I’m happy and I have everything I could ever want, but is a lie, or do I want to be miserable in a true world? It’s a legit question, and all of us have asked it at one time or another, but for K. Dick it has a tragic tint, since suffering from schizophrenia meant that a lot of the time he could not choose to live in a real or unreal world and therefore had constant doubts about the reality of what he was experiencing. Just like his characters.

I find it really curious that because K. Dick is an immensely famous and influential sci-fi author he’s usually and widely recommended, but I feel it’s a terrible idea to recommend his work to someone who’s not familiar with the genre because he’s quite difficult to read (okay, not Moby Dickdifficult, but it’s not Harry Potter either), he’s got the most ludicrous ideas for plots and he can be downright abstruse. It is the case with this book. It’s ambiguous and vague at explaining what really is going on and will leave a lot of things to your interpretation. But if you think hard enough you will find an interpretation.

True detective, Season 1 (2014)

True detective, Season 1 (HBO, 2014).

Score: Outstanding in everything except for the last 5 minutes.

Two detectives (played by Tory Kittles and Michael Potts) interview former members of law enforcement Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) about a serial killer case they closed in 1995 because it looks like the killer, who was supposedly caught, is out there again. Cohle and Hart have not spoken to each other since roughly the time of the case and are cooperative with the detectives (at least Hart is) but it looks like there is something they don’t really want to talk about. The narrative switches constantly between the present (2012 in the story) and 1995. The first three episodes are slow and it’s kind of hard to not lose the thread, but if you watch them the other five are your reward, in all their glorious awesomeness.

I remember we started watching this because my boyfriend was staying at my dad’s and they stumbled upon it, and they thought it was actually a movie. The artistic direction, pacing, photography and cast make you think about a really high-quality production, you know, like movies used to be and TV now is.

One of the highlights is definitely the character of Rust Cohle. It’s a hardcore nihilist in mainstream TV, ladies and gentlemen. He’s not a straw nihilist, he’s not a moderate nihilist, he’s a nihilist through and through and if you think he takes it a bit too seriously I’m sorry but you’re no nihilist. His presence in the show is totally hypnotic and as a character he’s incredibly well-built. I say this and that he’s not a straw nihilist because why would one of them become a policeman? Because even if he thinks existence is pointless he still has a solid ethical system he wants to live by, but at the same time he is no saint at all, and that’s a book example of making your character human and well-rounded. I really, really enjoyed this character as a philosophy major. I’m going to say a really mean thing right now but I never expected the star of How to lose a guy in ten days to deliver this sort of performance. I mean it, Matthew McConaughey is jaw-dropping in this. I tip my hat to you, sir.

Woody Harrelson doesn’t stay behind, though. His character might look really down-to-earth and creeped out by his buddy’s philosophy but he’s got some skeletons in his closet as well, and you’re going to see them. The two of them make a lovely couple of cop buddies, believe me. They’ve got chemistry between them and they’re the main source of funny moments in a show about ritualistic serial killings.

Look out for the six-minute long sequence shot and cry out of joy like I did. Then watch it again and marvel at how many things they crammed into it and how perfect their timing was. I watched them very closely, and they didn’t screw up once!

Everyone and their mother has already said it but in case you’re not convinced yet: it’s not the typical whodunnit, forensic, cop buddies show. It’s a really, really well-done crime thriller with some awesome characterization. It’s a must-watch, and I’ll dare to say, even for people who don’t particularly enjoy the crime genre, because it’s much more than that.

And why did I say that I liked everything but the last 5 minutes? Well, I need a spoiler tag to explain that.

***SPOILERS***

I hated Rust’s final confession. I said it, he is presented and developed as a nihilist and of course an atheist, with no sugar coating. And then after a near-death experience he starts babbling about having felt his daughter’s love through the veil of death, and mystic experiences and crap. I don’t buy the official explanation, I think it’s a cowardly move from Pizzolatto, who maybe couldn’t bring himself to leave Rust the incurable pessimist we have grown to know and love? As an atheist I find it quite annoying when people resort to the old cliché of atheists shitting their pants in their deathbeds and praying or having mystical experiences. I’m scared shitless of death now that I’m young, and now prayer and religion don’t do the trick for me, why should they when I’m dying?

I’m fine with the closing line “Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” I think it’s good character development for Cohle to come out of this adventure a little bit more of an optimist, in fact, go for it, it’s bold and original. But all the bullshit with the near-death experience? Probably I’m reading a bit too much into it, but it feels to me that you’re invalidating Cohle’s nihilism and atheism, and by extension, my atheism (yes, you can be an atheist but not a nihilist). But I’m not one of those people who go around looking for things to be offended by, so let’s just say I didn’t like the ending because it didn’t feel consistent with previous character development.

Masters of sex, Season 1 (2013)

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Masters of sex, Season 1 up to episode 5 (Showtime, 2013).

Score: Too little sex study, too much soap opera.

Late 1950s, Missouri. Bill Masters (Michael Sheen), gynaecologist, is determined to study what no other physician has scientifically studied before: human intercourse. Of course, he is viewed as eccentric and perverted by his peers, who refuse to cooperate with him in any way and he basically has to work incognito in brothels with what little equipment he can bring there. When young, sexy, twice-married and prejudice-free Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) starts working as his secretary, Masters knows that an assistant like Virginia might be just what he needs to make his project take off. Meanwhile, Mrs. Masters (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is the epitome of the perfect 50s wife: meek, polite and totally devoted to becoming a mother. The problem is that, despite him being one of the best fertility doctors of the area, the Masters haven’t managed to have children yet.

Masters and Johnson existed in real life and led a breakthrough sexology research project for decades. Hint: don’t read about the history of it, there are spoilers.

I only watched five episodes out of twelve and then got bored with it, but I thought I could review some aspects of it anyway. Maybe some things change later and I’m wrong about the show, but here’s what I thought.

I enjoyed the first two or three episodes because they centered more in the study, in how much sex was a taboo back then and what Masters and Johnson aspired to do to change it. But after that soap opera ensued. The episodes were much more about whether the Masters could have a child or not, about Virginia’s struggle to be a working mother, about who sleeps with whom in the hospital… Stuff I couldn’t care less about because I started watching this because they promised it was about the research project, not exclusively about how prudish, sexist and willfully ignorant people were back then.

There are also some short scenes, reminiscent of House MD scenes with House’s general medicine patients, that were cute and gave good background at first but later became about as subtle as hitting me in the head with a paperweight that says ‘Aesop’. They are all about how repressed women were back in the good ol’ days for their exclusive roles and mothers and wives and their difficult access to education and means of life. They come begging to Masters for contraceptives, tubal ligations and abortions because their drunken, beating and cheating husbands are making their lives hell. Maybe it’s new for younger or less educated people, learning that women were treated like wombs with legs until not so long ago, but it wasn’t telling me anything new and it wasn’t telling it in an entertaining way anymore. It also had some comical tidbits about people who were ridiculously ignorant about their own physiology but if you’ve read this Reddit thread you’ll know that we haven’t come a long way in the past fifty years, sadly.

So I basically stopped watching because I got tired of the show not being about the study anymore, which I found genuinely interesting and wanted to learn more about, and being instead about how prudish and hypocritical people were in the 50s, which didn’t really come as a surprise. The soap opera and overly dramatic bits of it made me lose interest, so I wouldn’t say it’s a bad show but strayed from what I expected, drifting into plots and themes that I wasn’t really interested in. On a positive note I have to say that the acting, design and researching were good, so in technical terms it’s not a bad show at all.

Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson, 1992)

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Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992).

Score: An absolute classic of its genre.

Snow crash follows Hiro Protagonist, a half-African American, half-Japanese hacker and urban samurai, and Y.T., a teenager skater and Kourier in their pursue to find out what the new and mysterious drug in town, Snow Crash, does.

Also, in this cyberpunk adventure, the USA has been fragmented into corporative micro-states called franchulates and the general decadence of the western lifestyle has led to pizza boxes having a timer to prove they weren’t delivered late, whole sites closed to the public for being too polluted and everyday life needing advanced self-defense techniques due to the rampant social darwinism. The less you know about the specifics, the better, so I don’t wanna ruin the surprises for you.

It’s a cyberpunk novel through and through. Some people call it a parody of cyberpunk, I say if you wanna do cyberpunk, you better overdo it, it’s a silly genre anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I love cyberpunk, it’s only a genre that’s not particularly known for its moderation or sensible plots, and that’s fine. So Stephenson goes and overdoes it in a glorious way. It would make a great campy movie, with its explosions, dark humour, punchlines and overflowing badassery. Everything about it is so badass, and when it’s not, it’s hilariously hyperbolic. It connects especially well with The diamond age, which was written later but I happened to read before Snow Crash, in the sense that they are set in the same universe and for the first few chapters have the same tone, then The diamond age does a one-eighty, like Stephenson likes to say, and transforms into post-cyberpunk.

It does take its time to develop, though. Snow Crash is not mentioned until a tenth into the book, and to even have an explanation of what it does you have to read half of it, but I was having fun with every episode.

Also the speculative part was interesting as an alternative interpretation of history and reality, things that I love but wouldn’t take seriously at all. It’s obviously unrelated to reality and actual history work, but if you take it as a work of fiction, an exercise on alternate interpretations, it’s quite fun to read. I wouldn’t advise to take any of the book seriously if you want to enjoy it at all, so this aspect of it is no exception. It’s just a book, it doesn’t have to be true or even plausible, get over it.

To sum it up, it’s a must read for anyone who says they like cyberpunk.Neuromancer will look restrained next to this.

Some side-splitting stuff I don’t want to spoil for you: ***SPOILERS***

-The first chapter, especially the few pages at the beginning. He was delivering a fucking pizza.

-The chapter where Y.T.’s mom’s job is described, down to where the report about the toilet paper is transcribed. Someone’s sore with the administration, eh?

-“after that it’s just a chase scene”. And he leaves it at that.

-“The kid’s name is Transubstanciación. Tranny for short”. It’s a really stupid pun but having grown up in a catholic country it cracked me up.

-Raven’s and Y.T.’s romance scenes, ending with Raven K.O.’d by dentata, comedy gold.

Utopia, Seasons 1 and 2 (2013-2014)

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Utopia seasons 1 & 2 (Channel 4, 2013-2014)

Score: Outstanding.

Five strangers see their lives changed forever when they come across the manuscript of Utopia, an obscure graphic novel that an unscrupulous secret organization, the Network, wants so bad.

I said that Akira was convoluted and action-packed and this is it to the nth power. As one of the characters puts it, there are no sides here, just people who help you and people who don’t. The characters are wonderfully developed and given opinions, interests, motivations and personal ethics, which results in a whirlwind of interactions, chases, treasons, numerous deaths and things that are not quite what they seem. I have to insist, the characters are one of the strongest points of the series. They are very well rounded, and thoroughly developed, constantly changing and being changed by the plot. There’s also quite some gallows humour and an intense flavour of conspiracy. Conspiracy is in fact the one thing that keeps the plot going.

Everyone in the cast is great but the special mention goes to Neil Maskell, who plays Arby. His acting is so amazing that he makes the character creepy, hilarious and endearing, nearly coming out of the screen. Also it’s worth noting that the actors that play the same character at different ages look remarkably like each other. Another thing I really liked is the portrayal of children. They are not there to be funny, sappy, adorable, or to say catchphrases, and that’s something I was really thankful for. They are characters on their own right and contribute to driving the plot, sometimes by making mistakes and getting in trouble, and sometimes by being incredibly awesome. Also, the baddies are not reduced to mentally unhealthy and therefore evil, they are characterised very carefully and damn, you can even relate to their goals. At least I did, of course not to their methods but their goal is incredibly relevant in the present day and will surely make you think.

So go on and watch this, you won’t regret it. And never forget the importance of this question: ‘Where is Jessica Hyde?’

And now for the spoilery part of the review!

***SPOILERS***

Let’s go from beginning to end.

I loved that Grant was a kid, and a bratty, neglected one at that, it set everything up for a very interesting character. I found it hilarious when he refused to meet at a house because the guy ‘might be a rapist’. The torture scene on S01E01 was definitely hard to watch but at the same time really got me into the series because I could tell that the writers were going to go into risky places and say uncomfortable things. I find it amusing how every torturer in this series uses extreme politeness as a form of psychological torture (except for Arby, who just can’t be bothered). I also thought it was a very clever way to portray how resourceful Wilson is when he says he can give them Jessica Hyde’s address and when that doesn’t work he tells them she’s dead, having figured it must be some sort of trick question. When the door opens at the end of the chapter and the woman says she’s Jessica Hyde– I think that must be the most exciting thing I have seen in a long time! Much better than we were expecting in those few seconds before the door opens (hint: we thought it was Arby).

What about the reveal of what Janus does? I had sort of a similar reaction to Wilson’s, like: ‘oh… but I thought these were the bad guys and wanted to do random evil things just for the lulz…’ Of course then things like Children of men and The handmaid’s tale came to me and obviously it’s not such a good idea, but at the same time, if nothing is done about it the situation is not going to be much better. In this line I really liked the conversation between Terrence and the woman with the kid at the beginning of S02E06. I’m not having kids because I don’t feel like it anyway, but it is an act of selfishness, having more than one at least. I’d say having one is still the smallest evil since if population grows older and older we’re screwed anyway, two I find acceptable (replace the parents, keep population stable, even though there’s already too many of us) but more than two? Totally on your side, Terrence, those people are looking at the environmental problem the wrong way.

The reveal of the true identity of Mr. Rabbit and the nature of the manuscript? When they said: ‘there were X people and Y were men’ I instantly thought it was going to be a woman, for no particular reason, actually, just because it would be cool, and it was. When they revealed that Janus was in Jessica and not in the manuscript at first I thought they had just pulled that out of their ass and felt it didn’t make a lot of sense except as a twist ending, but thinking about it closely it does work. In fact the answer is right under your nose because Arby/Pietre keeps asking where Jessica is to people who are related with the manuscript, not where the manuscript is. Both the Network and the writers use the manuscript as a macguffin (is it? I could actually write a whole thing analysing if it qualifies as macguffin or not) to trick both the characters and the audience into thinking the manuscript is important– when it’s only important to Jessica, because it’s a memento of her father. The thing is Jessica is hardly ever in the house and hardly ever lowers her guard, and that unchains all the events in series one. But you never notice because you’re all the time distracted with the manuscript, and whether it says who Mr. Rabbit is, and whether the formula for Janus is there or not.

S02E01 actually tells you nothing new, but it’s handy for organising all the info you already had. Well, apparently they reference several real-life important events and relate them to the Network but I was quite insensitive to those because I’m an uncultured swine.

In this season it turns out that Philip Carvel was alive because everyone was too busy fighting over the manuscript and Janus to actually check on the sanitarium where they dumped him. It was a nice surprise because when it was hinted we were watching and trying to remember if anyone had actually said that Carvel was dead and came to the same conclusion: everyone just assumed he was. The scene with Marius the translator was comedy gold: ‘Okay, this Romani is Romanian, but you’re still racist!’ Also Lee pops out of nowhere with a paralysed arm and has some hilarious scenes with Wilson as well, and Pietre gets a degree in awesome to add to his diploma in funny creepiness.

But the great achievement of the season is Wilson. From the moment he learns what Janus does he knows he somewhat relates to the Network. He doesn’t feel ready, but under the tutoring of Milner he ends up rolling head-first down the slippery slope. He sees it this way: it’s either condemning billions to starvation and poverty in the future, or killing and terrorising a few thousand now. Add a few dozens of innocent by-standers and people who knew too much and they still don’t stick out of the bundle too much. He decides to pay this price, but obviously, Janus+vaccine+Russian flu is preposterous so he helps abort that plan, although in the aftermath he can’t live with having killed those people for nothing at all. Janus must live on to pay for the deaths of all those people and make it worthwhile. And this is when the Mr. Rabbit persona eats him whole. Milner used this reasoning to justify her actions and Wilson will as well. As a general note, the body count in this series is so high that you end up being totally insensitive to murders and yell at the screen: ‘No! He knows too much to be walking around! *Headshot* Oh, that’s better’. I think the same thing happens to Wilson, he stops looking at it in a humane way and can only look at it with pragmatic eyes. All in all I think he’s one of the cleverest, roundest villains in recent television and I give my thumbs-up to that. To think that in the first episode he was a wacky conspiranoid that lived with his dad…

Another very interesting idea is in Becky’s arc and its reflection on euthanasia. It’s not very common to see in mass media such a bold defence of the right to die with dignity, or whatever you want to call it. I’m only saying it’s your life and if you want to kill yourself for whatever reason you’re perfectly entitled to it. Becky’s met with reluctance from Ian, which is natural, since this is a situation quite hard to swallow, and with disdain from Jessica. Good thing she was not really sick in the end and that she thought she could do without a stomach protector.

Beggars in Spain (Nancy Kress, 1991)

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Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress (1991 novella).

Score: Good.

There are two different versions of Beggars in Spain, the novella, which is shorter and won the Hugo and Nebula awards, and a longer novel version which didn’t and I plan to read and review further on. You will have to tell them apart by the year of publishing (1991 and 1993) and the number of pages (100 and 400).

This is the story of Leisha Camden, a genetically modified person who is the 21st person ever to be modified to not needing any sleep. She has a sister who is not genetically modified and next to her she looks… mediocre. Because the Sleepless, apart from having extra time for work and study which is not taken up by sleep, are intrinsically more intelligent than Sleepers. Obviously, tragedy ensues.

The book is quite easy to read and has a telegraphic style. It describes very briefly and in not a lot of detail the story, which spans over decades in just a hundred pages. It’s John Doe did this and that and a few years later this and this happened. The secondary characters are not that fleshed out, in fact I tended to get them mixed up because pages or even just lines are not devoted to actually help you remember what makes them different from each other. Give this to a R.R. Martin or a Stephenson and you get a 400-page-long manuscript out of exactly the same plot. But it was an enjoyable read anyway.

Also the novel is allegedly based on objectivism, so let’s answer the question: what do we owe the eponymous beggars in Spain? I reached more or less the same conclusion as Leisha. We don’t owe them anything, but being charitable with them is not immoral either, as apparently Ayn Rand thought. You can give them a dollar or not, it’s up to you. Anyway the picture Kress draws is difficult to look at. Some people are better at some things than at others, and everyone has a gift at something, or at least almost everyone. But there are people that are strictly worse than others in the sense that they are less intelligent, healthy, skilled, handy or beautiful than others, and that’s a fact. It’s a very hard fact to accept but at the same time it’s no-one’s fault, not the gifted person’s, not the mediocre one’s. The novel tries to explore this and I think it’s the most interesting thing about it.

***SPOILERS***

At first I thought the hatred and irrational fear of the Sleepless was unrealistic, but then I remembered homophobia is a thing so I bought it all. I want to read the novel version because apparently the story goes on after the moment the novella ends, I want to see where it all goes because this is only the beginning of the story.

Also someone in Amazon decided to compare this with X-Men and it kind of ruined it for me because the themes are so similar and I kept seeing the similarities, so if you liked that you’re probably going to like this, only that there is no superhero theme anywhere.

Starship troopers (Robert A. Heinlein, 1959)

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Starship troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

Score: Don’t waste your time with this pile of nonsense.

You’ve probably heard a lot about this book, and most of what you’ve heard is very likely true. It’s been described as a book-long recruitment poster, and I would call it a novelised rant about what’s wrong with the world and what would an everyman (namely, Robert Heinlein) do to fix it. I can picture him drinking his coffee in the morning, reading the newspaper, shaking his head, ranting about it for a good half an hour to the barista and then going home and writing this.

In the world of Starship Troopers franchise is not universal, it’s gained by being a war veteran. Yes, that’s the whole point of the book, describing how much better the world would be if this were true. There is no plot, no character development, no nothing. It just follows the career of Johnny Rico, the heir of a wealthy family, in the Mobile Infantry, where he gets to wear the coolest servo-armor ever and to kill giant, sentient spiders with a flamethrower. It even goes out of its way in ridiculous manners just to have an excuse to have Johnny listen to filibusters on why the world is so much better now that only war veterans get to vote. He could have, you know, used third-person narrative, instead of first-person.

So since there is no plot or characters to comment on, let’s comment the only actual content of the book: why Heinlein thinks only war veterans should vote and why he believes physical punishment would end juvenile delinquency (seriously).

“‘What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?’ ‘The difference’, I answered carefully, ‘lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not’.”

This is a really old problem, should everyone be able to vote? Should everyone’s vote have the same weight? I don’t feel like answering these questions, but if only certain people should be allowed to vote I’m quite sure that soldiers like the ones in this book aren’t the ones more entitled to it, and the next quote tells you why:

War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him … but to make him do what you want him to do. Not killing … but controlled and purposeful violence. But it’s not your business or mine to decide the purpose or the control. It’s never a soldier’s business to decide when or where or how—or why—he fights; that belongs to the statesmen and the generals. The statesmen decide why and how much; the generals take it from there and tell us where and when and how. We supply the violence; other people —‚older and wiser heads,’ as they say —supply the control.

So I’m willing to kill just because I’m commanded to, and I don’t even care why because other people make those decisions. And I call that my moral virtue. Sweet.

But why are soldiers the vessel of moral virtue? Let’s find out:

Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.

You can agree with this or not, but pay close attention and you’ll see it contradicts the following idea:

This very personal relationship, ‚value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him … and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts that ‚the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted … and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears. „Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.“ He had been still looking at me and added, „If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier … and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. 

The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion … and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself—ultimate cost for perfect value…

One of my favourite professors back when I studied philosophy, Mr. Tomás Pollán, had this theory about what he called “sacrificial mentality” (mentalidad sacrificial), which said that human beings tend to think of happiness and suffering as a product and a currency, respectively. If you want to be happy, or enjoy a pleasure, you will have to pay for it by suffering later, and contrariwise: if you suffer long enough you will eventually be happy, go to heaven, and so on. Virtually every religion works basically because of this principle, and a lot of human constructs and ways of thinking, as well. You can see both ideas here: in the Marxian definition of value that Heinlein scorns, the reasoning is, if I put effort in this product, it must be valuable, onlybecause I put effort into it. Heinlein correctly criticises this idea in the fragment, but then goes on to apply exactly the same principle on his own idea: voting, sovereignty, is definitely a good thing, so it must be worth something, namely, blood, sweat and tears. It’s exactly the same reasoning, and if it’s wrong in one case it must be in the other, too. Some good things in life are free, and sometimes people are good for no reason.

So what does Heinlein have to say about morality?

No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not—and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind.”

And how to we do that? Brace yourselves:

‘Juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms, one which gives a clue to their problem and their failure to solve it. Have you ever raised a puppy?“
„Yes, sir.“
„Did you housebreak him?“
„Err … yes, sir. Eventually.“ It was my slowness in this that caused my mother to rule that dogs must stay out of the house.
„Ah, yes. When your puppy made mistakes, were you angry?“
„What? Why, he didn’t know any better; he was just a puppy.
„What did you do?“
„Why, I scolded him and rubbed his nose in it and paddled him.“
„Surely he could not understand your words?“
„No, but he could tell I was sore at him!“
„But you just said that you were not angry.“
Mr. Dubois had an infuriating way of getting a person mixed up. „No, but I had to make him think I was. He had to learn, didn’t he?“
„Conceded. But, having made it clear to him that you disapproved, how could you be so cruel as to spank him as well? You said the poor beastie didn’t know that he was doing wrong. Yet you indicted pain. Justify yourself! Or are you a sadist?

This passage is longer and juicier, but basically it says, in a very Socratic way, that children should be raised and disciplined the same way dogs are. We might as well take our children to poo in the park and slap them with a rolled newspaper across the nose when they misbehave. He is perfectly convinced that if people were flogged when they shoplifted, shoplifting would stop altogether. He calls it moral sense, I call it being afraid of beatings.

And the festival goes on:

…Ah, yes, the ‚unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‚right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‚right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‚right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‚unalienable’? And is it ‚right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‚natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

Yeah, just because accidents happen and people may choose to give their life for others there is no right to life and I can kill whomever I feel like killing.

There are many, many more batshit crazy passages I highlighted while reading but I don’t want to be boring. Let me just finish with this:

The practical reason for continuing our system is the same as the practical reason for continuing anything: It works satisfactorily.

Now here are we with still another system … and our system works quite well. Many complain but none rebel; personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits, crime is at its lowest ebb. Why? Not because our voters are smarter than other people; we’ve disposed of that argument. Mr. Tammany can you tell us why our system works better than any used by our ancestors…

Yeah, it works in a fictitious world that you invented, Mr. Heinlein.

To sum it up, don’t waste your time with this if you’re not in the mood for absurd ramblings like those above.