Brave new world revisited (Aldous Huxley, 1958)

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Brave new world revisited, by Aldous Huxley (1958)

Score: Painfully anachronistic.

Brave new world is an absolute classic. If you haven’t read it, go pick it up and don’t come back until you’re done. Read it? Good. I picked this up expecting to find some more of the genius displayed on the novel, and even I had heard that it was quite an interesting essay. I was crushingly disappointed.

Brave new world revisited seems to stem from an ad-hoc approach: that the world is not only heading to the state depicted in the novel, but terrifyingly close to it. And it just doesn’t work. It might have been good when it came out, but virtually all of the scientific papers he uses to support his arguments have been long debunked. Not to say he quotes papers and scientists and doesn’t bother to insert suitable footnotes with the author, paper, edition and page, as any serious essay should.

Huxley’s vision is heavily biased by terror of communism and and totalitarian dictatorship. This is very easy to say from this side of the fall of the Berlin Wall but it’s not less true for that. For starters, he denies the social nature of human beings, which is indisputable for any contemporary anthropologist or neurologist, with the sole purpose of positioning himself against communitarian views. Huxley insists that human beings are not social by nature, but some humans are social and some others are not, while pretending that every human being is social is imposing an insectile nature to them (probably the most hackneyed and mediocre metaphor against socialism), which is simply not true. Some human beings will adjust to a communitarian lifestyle better than others, but our social nature is ingrained in our biology and was one major reason Cro Magnon prevailed over Neanderthal.

Huxley cherishes as well the delusion of uniqueness, which the evil industrial society denies to individuals, trying to make them fit into molds that are not for them. Uniqueness, specialness, is something we all tend to cherish, due to our culture or not, I don’t know. But it’s just a delusion: not any one of us is special, we are all human beings and the same, with all our glory and faults. It catches my eye that he quotes Erich Fromm in this passage, claiming that our society is sickly and being misadjusted is a symptom of health, not of insanity. Says who? The mediatic psychologist who’s going to sell you a self-help book so you know how to regain your uniqueness in this grey, mean and traumatised world? Let’s be serious.

While he is painfully right about the dangers of overpopulation, about which we are doing next to nothing today, the rest of his arguments look like the ramblings of a paranoid: he reproduces the results of very dubitable papers about subliminal conditioning, propaganda, hypnosis, chemical brainwashing and conditioning during sleep… and once he’s used them to illustrate his point he admits they don’t pass a peer review because they didn’t use double-blind or control groups. Sadly, there is no elaboration or mention of the most interesting philosophical idea in the original book, that is, how people will prefer to be slaves in order to avoid any moral conflict or any distress coming from, well, being a live human being. Banality was a very important theme in the book, showing how people will cling to frivolity and meaningless pastimes in order to be away from conflict, suffering or even existential responsibility (the same reason books were burnt in Fahrenheit 451). That was a very deep and relevant piece of social criticism, mostly because I believe it is a universal and timeless tendency. Humans are such cowards. I’m guessing this issue wasn’t addressed in this essay because there was no easy way to blame it on the Commies.

All in all, this has aged incredibly badly. If you want a piece of dated and biased social criticism, this is your book, though.

Thus spake Zarathustra (Friedrich Nietzsche, 1883-1891)

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Thus spake Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche (1883-1891)

This doesn’t want to be a review (how could I write a review of Zarathustra?) but more like a reading guide for those of you who are interested in reading Nietzsche’s most famous work but find it a bit scary.

So, the first thing you need to know is that it’s not a conventional philosophical essay, but more like a collection of short reflections on a series of topics with a conducting thread and a bit of a plot. The eponymous Zarathustra is based on real-life founder of Zoroastrianism, whose name was (surprise!) Zoroaster. The book is meant in a lot of ways as an inversion, refutation, parody, what have you, of the Bible, and Zarathustra is meant to be the prophet of all those refutations. Nietzsche chose Zarathustra as the one to spread his ideas about morals and religion because he considers Zoroaster to be the first of the lineage of religious leaders he wants to fight intellectually, so if he started everything he might as well end it too. Hopefully you are going to be reading a good annotated version because there are so many inverted, distorted and parodied quotes from the Bible you’re going to need as much help as you can get following what’s going on. Also you have to think that, as the subtitle says (A book for all and none) it’s very difficult to understand the whole of it. Some of the passages will resonate with you, and some won’t, but maybe will on a rereading, depending on your mood or experiences.

One of the most common misconceptions about Nietzsche is that he was somehow a cruel and brutal man, and I’m guessing that comes from the fact that he calls himself an immoralist through Zarathustra’s lips early on this book. Here you have to understand the very difference between morals and ethics. Ethics deal with telling good from evil using reason and objective arguments, as well as giving us tools to make good decisions and direct ourselves as decent human beings in our lives. Morals are simply behavioural codes societies are indoctrinated into by governing elites. They can overlap, but they don’t necessarily do. Ethics tell you that it’s evil to torture an animal because it’s a live being capable of pain. Morals tell you that people of the same sex can’t get married because the Bible says so. You can get yourself in really funny situations when trying to deal with more ambiguous ethical problems, like abortion and experiments on embryos, but I’ll give that to you as homework. The thing is Nietzsche calls himself an immoralist, but if you know his work it’s pretty obvious he’s not opposed to ethics, only to morals. Part of what he’s trying to convey in Zarathustra is that people should have their own ethical codes, constructed on their own judgement, and not just take good and evil as a given. Do you have a pair of Nineteenth Century goggles? Because you’re going to need them. Picture all these people in the 19th century, all being prudish, puritanical, going to church twice a day and getting upset about a woman accidentally showing some ankle. And now picture Nietzsche on his soapbox yelling at them: ‘Why are you so convinced that sex, and enjoying your body, and enjoying food, and the little pleasures of life, and so many other things are wrong? Just because they told you so? Use your brains, people! Life can be so much better!’

Here we’re getting at another interesting theme: vitalism and nihilism. In a very narrow and strict definition of nihilism Nietzsche can be thought of as a nihilist in the sense that be doesn’t believe in anything, namely god, or the afterlife, the soul or anything related to that. You are just an animal, and when you die you cease to be in every sense. But that doesn’t mean he’s a pessimist, or hopeless, or toxic, like people tend to picture nihilists. In fact he was one of the most optimistic people I can think of because he was ill most of his life, lost his sanity when he was only 45 and died ten years later and he never, ever retracted from his position that he loved life no matter what it brought him, and remained a vitalist until the end. More on that when we talk about eternal recurrence. He actually used the term nihilist to speak about his intellectual enemies, because they believed in nothing. To elaborate: picture this kind of religious zealot, very common in catholicism but also present in protestant sects. This person who never enjoys any material pleasure, spends their hours praying, withering, waiting for “the lord” to take them to heaven, and despising life as a valley of tears, where we come to suffer and pay for a ticket to paradise with as much misery as possible. This is who Nietzsche calls a nihilist, because they are despising the only thing that’s real, life itself, and torturing themselves with the hope of getting a reward in the afterlife. He attacks this kind of philosophy extensively in his work and for it he earned the label of vitalist. This is one aspect of his immoralism: why is it better regarded by (19th century) society to be a sickly, mean, peevish person just because you go to church regularly and pay the tithe than to be a free spirit and enjoy yourself, have sex and enjoy sensorial pleasures, which is normally considered as disruptive and detrimental to society?

Another common misconception about the man is that he was a nazi. It’s easy to debunk with just a basic fact: he died in 1900, over 15 years before nazis were even a thing. But he wasn’t a supremacist of any kind either. The idea of Übermensh lends itself to this misconception, for people who can’t fucking read. I dare you (I double dare you, motherfucker!) to find a single passage where he states that the overman is a specific race, ethnicity, nationality or even sex. Being the overman is a matter of attitude and there is nothing congenital to it. I have to stop here and admit that there are some passages in Zarathustra that are quite misogynistic, but please, put on your 19th century goggles again. His vision of women is quite stereotypical here, but probably he met no other kind of woman than those high-class ladies that were kept ignorant and silly by their families and social circles. He was genuinely fond of Lou Andreas-Salomé and Cosima Liszt until their eventual falling out and I’m sure if he had met any post-sexual revolution women he would consider us eligible to be Übermensch as well. But the thing is, the overman is more or less the incarnation of someone who has overcome imposed morals and nihilistic conceptions of life, and also someone who will embrace eternal recurrence. The overman is Nietzsche’s ideal human being and what he hopes is the future of humanity, and most of Zarathustra’s content focuses on describing what the overman has to overcome. Also it’s not a goal and ultimate end but just another milestone in the way of personal improvement. Nothing at all to do with racial or national supremacy so the next time someone mentions that as an argument to invalidate Nietzsche’s philosophy you punch them in the nose, okay?

Another thing that usually scares novice readers is the central role of conflict in his philosophy. He thought conflict, violence and tension were pivotal to the creative process and a central part of what life is about. That didn’t mean he wanted to stand up in the middle of the theatre and start shooting people, or that he condoned mindless violence. It’s not that at all. He’s recovering Heraclitus. One of that pre-socratic’s fragments goes ‘war is the lord and father of everything’ and then again that doesn’t mean that we should start killing each other. It means that life is constant movement and that movement is mostly of things moving against each other. Put on your 19th century goggles again and now tune them to Romanticism. Picture tempests and thunder, volcanoes, animals hunting each other, mating rituals, maggots feeding on corpses, plants growing in the most unexpected places, yourself trying to tackle a particularly difficult integral, and you will get the idea. When there is no conflict, no contradiction, no problem to solve, there is nothing, there is no life. Life’s nature is thriving, and it’s constantly overcoming adversity until its death, which is new life for other beings and so on. Conflict is essential to a creator. If you’re writing a story, you need a conflict for your characters. They need to go find the macguffin, or save the world, or defeat the big bad. If they’re just sitting on their asses blissfully you’ve got nothing. If you’re a scientist you need a problem to solve, or you need to understand something that you don’t now. It also, and most importantly, applies to your life. If you fall down, you stand up. If you’re sick, you get better. No matter what adversities come, you overcome them and you feel alive and powerful! Life is not a bed of roses and bad things happen to good people, so you can just lie there and wish to die or you can get your shit together and fight for your ephemeral glory. It’s like those motivational powerpoints your mom emails you, only more conceited.

The infamous will to power is mostly this, and tends to be misunderstood as well. You’re stating to see a pattern, right? This concept is especially driven against Schopenhauer, and indirectly against the Eastern philosophy Schopenhauer based some of his work on. Basically Schopenhauer has the opposite attitude towards lack and suffering, and will and desire: if I want anything at all I might be disappointed, or not get it, or get it but then find out that it’s not what I wanted, so the best course of action is to not want anything at all. The same reasoning is made in most Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and namely in Zen Buddhism the attaining of Satori and Nirvana later on is this in spades: first I convince myself that I don’t want anything, because desire equals suffering, then I convince myself that the world I’m experiencing is not actually real until I detach myself of my bodily experiences and functions and when I’m fully convinced of that I will have attained Nirvana, and I will suffer no more. Nor will you enjoy no more, is what good old Nietzsche has to say to this reasoning. This is another form of the nihilism we discussed earlier and even though these ideas are mentioned in the Zarathustra they are more thoroughly developed in On the genealogy of morals.

So what is will to power? It’s not stomping others, or destroying the weak, or rising above others like a tyrant. It’s, partly, having the opposite attitude as a described from Zen above. Yes, if I want things I might suffer, but I don’t care. I like to want things, it makes me feel alive, it gives me goals, it gives me a creative drive and when I finally attain my objective the victory tastes so sweet. Also Nietzsche is genuinely disgusted by pity, compassion, indulgence and mercy, in the way that these focus more on taking pleasure on the victim’s suffering and the observation of the carer’s virtue than in actually empowering the victim and help them recover. Look at me! I’m pious and have mercy of this pitiful person who’s ill, or poor, or helpless, and let them know how miserable they are. Instead of, you know, helping them up.

Which brings us to the crown jewel of the Zarathustra: eternal recurrence. See, the great thing about eternal recurrence is that you can interpret it in a lot of different ways. It’s a very rich and powerful metaphor. You can take it at face value: one interpretation at the time was that if matter is finite and time is infinite, it is necessary that the exact same configuration of atoms repeats itself over a humongous amount of time. But that’s not really interesting as a philosophical idea. You can take it a bit less at face value: the idea of time as a linear structure is quite new (you can trace its origin back to the Middle Ages at most), but for almost every culture up to then time was cyclical: seasons, years, generations, glaciations. Nothing is new under the sun, every single archetype is already invented: we will be born, become brides and grooms, mothers and fathers, crones and old men, just like every person who came before and the ones that will come after us. The most relevant emotions and ideas, such as love, hate, guilt and pride will come back over and over for us to experience them. A very interesting exploring of the idea of circular time, family histories and cultural archetypes happens in A hundred years of solitude, which is an indisputable must-read for all of you. This metaphorical but straightforward reading of eternal recurrence is more interesting, but what if you take it as a mind experiment? You say you love life. But would you still love it if you had to live it over and over again, with every good and bad thing that happened to you, including deep bliss and insufferable illness? Nietzsche likes the Sisyphean metaphor a lot. You carry the rock uphill and when you’re done you have to start over. And over. And over. But hey, having to repeat everything eternally is not that bad, at least you get to live forever! You could pass it as a new, alternative religion. Except you’re not going to live forever. You’re going to die one day, and there is no god or afterlife, and everything you do you’re going to do it only once. In this sense, eternal recurrence is used as a device to emphasise how heavy and important your every action is. It has a huge impact in eternity because human beings are defined by mortality, which means a single lifespan is all the time we’ve got before we cease to be at all, and the closest thing we have to tasting eternity. You have to bear something in mind: when Nietzsche wrote this he was ill and he knew his death was close. The passages where Zarathustra wrestles with eternal recurrence are actually Nietzsche’s author avatar trying to face his own imminent death, and for that I find them unspeakably beautiful. And here is when compassion ties in with eternal recurrence: Zarathustra despised compassion on a theoretical level earlier, but now, faced with the unbearable certainty that he’s going to die soon, he’s strongly tempted to pity himself– but fights the urge in order to be coherent with his own teachings and ideals, calling compassion his last sin and temptation. A lot of passages at the end of the third part and the beginning of the fourth are devoted to this idea and he has conversations with other characters to portray this inner conflict of his.

The last important idea is reflected in the last chapters of the book, and it’s Nietzsche’s criticism of dogmatic thought. Zarathustra finds a bunch of disciples and he’s happy with their progress until he turns his back on them and they start worshipping a donkey. They excuse themselves in different ways, including that they need someone to worship, or that God can’t stay dead. This is meant to signify that Nietzsche’s criticism is not limited to religious beliefs, but also to all dogmatic systems of thought. Some people might declare themselves atheists but still have a believer’s mindset because in their system of thought some other entity, such as science, a political party, a corporation or the establishment has taken the place of god and it’s performing the same task as him in their system of beliefs. For these people, god is not dead either. So what should be done to avoid dogmatic beliefs? Examine the evidence. Be impartial. Be critical with yourself and everyone else. And most importantly: hold beliefs because you have examined them and found evidence of their truth, not just because you want them to be true, they’re more convenient or someone told you that’s the truth and offered no evidence.

I hope you enjoyed this little essay and it helped you understand a deeply misunderstood book and thinker. Any feedback will be greatly appreciated.

Cyptonomicon (Neal Stephenson, 1999)

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Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson (1999).

Score: Toooo daaaaamn looooong.

I know I implied on my review of Illium/Olympos that Stephenson didn’t digress as much as Simmons. I do apologise for that now. I have a tendency to like this kind of books, with pointlessly intricate plots, and all their flaws. As far as my taste is concerned, more is more. And I kind of liked he first half of Cryptonomicon, but finishing it was torture.

Stephenson suffers, with the likes of Connie Willis, Dan Simmons or GRRM, from the doorstopper syndrome. Writer produces doorstopper: it’s quite long and dense, but the descriptions are colourful and enjoyable. The plot takes its time to develop, but you’re rewarded with good character development. It might take longer to finish but it’s a great book nonetheless. People like the book, laugh at the joke. Then writer, encouraged with the results, decides that the original doorstopper was only an appetiser and now they must write their magnum opus. The second generation doorstopper is even longer and even slower to develop. Everything is described in annoying detail, with long passages of character development that make the reader forget they were actually reading a novel where there’s a main arc and not only side arcs. You keep reading because the style is actually good. You’re enjoying the filler. But it’s still filler, at least compared to the primordial doorstopper. Writer is at greater and greater risk of boring their readership.

This is what happens with Cryptonomicon when compared to Snow Crash and The diamond age, to the point that it’s almost unreadable. I was enjoying the adventures of Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe and Randy, but I was left wondering until quite far along the book what I was being told all of this for (spoiler alert: for nothing). I knew it had something to do with cryptography and conspiracies mostly because it says so on the dust jacket, not because the story implies it at all. In fact, the goal in Randy and Avi’s arc is only revealed a good 250 pages in, and you have to wait until almost the very end to glimpse the links between the plot arches.

The characters are not especially likable, except for Lawrence Waterhouse, who is a truth-in-TV, might-have-Asperger’s so clichéd it’s not even funny. The others are just borderline stupid and insipid, Randy being the major offender. While on the topic of Randy, it’s hard to dismiss Stephenson’s fixation with Liberal Arts majors. People like that exist, and I should know because I’m a Liberal Arts major, and I studied with them, but the whole book is polarised between religious, saintly scientists and heralds of truth and exactitude and uptight, arrogant, ignorant and morally corrupt humanists. To say nothing of the portrayal of the Japanese and New Guinea natives. As the Spanish saying goes, it was worthy of confession and communion. Look, I’ve never cared about writer’s religions, but in this case it comes out of the territory of the subtle. The big examples are the passages where it’s explained that the only ones who actually weren’t a shitstain of human beings to Randy during his pseudo-divorce are a couple of scientists who have been keeping as a secret the fact that their children are baptised and and go to church every Sunday and the passage where Avi’s family life is described as his wife being perpetually pregnant and his never masturbating to keep his devotion for her. That sounds as alien to me as if someone said they never watch TV alone in order to keep their devotion to their spouse when they can watch TV together. Does not compute. The mention of honour goes to the bigoted and disgusting portrayal of Japanese culture and sense of honour and duty, crowned by ***SPOILERS*** Goto Dengo’s christening. “Are you feeling like shit and coming from an inferior and stupid culture? Have you considered becoming a Christian? This shit solves your every problem!” Gross. ***END SPOILERS***

If I had to say something good and that actually helped me finish this nightmare of a doorstopper is the narrating style. In quite a lot of passages the choice of words is simply staggering. I saved a couple of gems:

“Over in that Casbah, starved-looking, shave-needing ragheads lean out of spindly towers yodeling out of key.”

“Inside, a tiny anteroom is dominated by a sculpture: two nymphets in diaphanous veils kicking the crap out of a scurrying hag, entitled Fortitude and Adaptability Driving Out Adversity.”

”[…] and he accelerates up the throat of a nightmare, like the butt of a half-digested corn dog being reverse-peristalted from the body of an addict.”

It does get boring, though. The description of Randy eating Cap’n Crunch was obnoxious and I have to admit I have skipped over full paragraphs of descriptions, especially towards the end.

Final verdict: as much as I enjoyed The diamond age and Snow Crash, don’t waste your time with this.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (Bioware, 2014)

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Dragon age: Inquisition, developed by Bioware and published by EA, for PS4 (2014).

Score: Impressive tour de force.

Dragon age: Inquisition is longer, vaster and unabridged. It is also proof that not only Bioware knows what its fanbase wants, but also how to deliver it, which makes it even more unlikely that I will ever forgive them for Mass Effect 3.

Dragon age: Inquisition takes place after the events of Dragon Age II. A meeting between mages and templars goes horribly wrong, you’re the only survivor and don’t remember a thing. You popped out of the Fade after the deed helped by a feminine figure, which makes people start calling you the Herald of Andraste. So Cassandra and Leliana decide to rebuild what was called the Inquisition, to try to restore some order and sanity to Thedas. Oh, and you come in really handy because you’re the only one who can close a series if breaches in the Fade that have been appearing lately. So off you go, to undo wrongs, stop catfights and become insanely powerful in the way.

Dragon age: Inquisition takes the best of the previous installments (namely, Dragon age: Origins’ gameplay and Dragon Age II’s storyline) and then adds open-world exploring and an insane amount of side quests and collectibles. It is fanservice on so many levels, not only the kinky one (boobs on the sex scenes, fuck yeah!), but also the most memorable characters make comebacks and cameos, and so many other areas, races and cultures that were previously mentioned and discussed finally make an appearance, expanding the fascinating world of Dragon Age even further. And this, coming from someone who doesn’t particularly care for medieval fantasy, is a big compliment.

It is much longer than any of the previous two, especially if you aim for a high ratio of completion (for me, about 70 hours for over 90%). You have exploring à la Elder Scrolls, equipment customization à la Diablo, quests and mini quests like on the previous installments and the fucking collectibles. Of course, you’ve got the trademark dialogue from Bioware, and at a whooping nine companions, three advisors and some other special characters there’s no way you’ll feel there’s little dialogue or character development.

By the way, dialogue has become significantly more difficult. Especially in Mass Effect, you could just bore your way through the game by choosing always the paragon or renegade options and those would always be correct. In fact, choosing the middle option was detrimental because you ended up being too bland and dull and the NPCs didn’t respect you. Here it’s not like that at all. A lot of times the middle option will be the best option to please NPCs, and sometimes the bottom option is optimal for a paragon character. Different characters like different branches of the menu, and a rebellious character will hate you for choosing the paragon options, while a solemn one will scorn you for being sarcastic. And I just love that. I did stop using the paragon option always because it sounded too stiff and uptight, like: “oh, sir, I can see there’s a demon sprouting from your ass and you’re going to die, I’ll do my best to solve the issue”. It felt like the bullshit I have to say at work.

I quite liked the gameplay and combat system. No more button mashing! The ability trees are interesting and lend themselves to fun combinations in combat, though I missed more varied builds, such as healers or bards. The automatic mode works fine at lower difficulties, but though I haven’t used it much it looks weird if you need to use it extensively (e. g. while using a double-wielding rogue and trying to focus to kill off archers the other characters will insist in abandoning the current target and attacking the boss, despite the orders you gave them).

Also, kudos to the Spanish translator for a superb work, like in the previous games. I could play the game the way I like it (English voices with Spanish menus and text) but I guess for people who like dubbed games they could have at least dubbed it and given the option, though I’m not gonna miss a Spanish dub because you all know by know how much I hate them.

So now to the bad parts. Graphically, it’s much worse than anything coming out these days. It looks modeled in shiny plastic and the textures and objects will often collide with each other or not fit together correctly. I can understand this is very difficult code to write but it’s clearly under what other developers are offering now regarding quality. Also the bugs. It can be so enervating at times, but I hope that will be dealt with soon.

And to speak of the plot and ending I need the ***SPOILER TAG***

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