Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges, 1941-1956)

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Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges (1941-1956).

Score: Exceptional.

The Spanish education system gets worse each day but even if you suffered LOGSE you still get to study Jorge Luis Borges at school. As a teenager he sounds intimidating and boring as hell to you. Painted as erudite, obscure, full of symbolism and difficult to read in general, the portrayal from my textbook didn’t look very inviting, so I kept ignoring him in my literary journeys.

Ten years later, my self-taught roaming brought me repeatedly to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote” and I said, why the hell not. I feel I wouldn’t have liked him before, but this is the moment of my life where I’m a screaming fangirl of Borges.

Borges writes in the prologue to The garden of forking paths: “It is a laborious and impoverishing nonsense to compose vast books; to expound on five hundred pages one idea of which the perfect oral exposition takes a few minutes. It is a better procedure to pretend that those books already exist and offer a summary, a comment on them.” (All translations in the review are my own.) The longest story in this anthology is about fifteen pages. And there is not one single word missing or in excess in any of them. Borges never wrote a full-length novel, and he never was interested in it. You sometimes wish he had, like in “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”, where he describes “a novel with nine different beginnings, trifurcating backwards in time” (1). The novels diverge so much that one is symbolic, another, supernatural, other two are communist and anti-communist, respectively… But well, you have to admit that anyone who tried to write such a novel would probably botch it. Even Borges.

Books are extremely important in almost every story in Ficciones, and sometimes even an identity between books and reality is presented, like in “The Library of Babel”, about a world that is an infinite library populated by librarians and books which contain every possible combination of the symbols that make up written language. “The garden of forking paths” is a story about a book that is a labyrinth… and also about spies. Other stories are completely serious reviews or comments on books that don’t actually exist (he did mean it). He uses these as an opportunity to play with concepts of literary theory and criticism.

Borges doesn’t give two shits about your literary ghettos and snobbism. “Flaubert and Henry James have got us used to supposing that works of art are infrequent and of a laborious execution; the Sixteenth Century (let us remember Journey to Parnassus, let us remember Shakespeare’s fate) did not share that inconsolable opinion”. Every story in Ficciones is either a fantastic, crime or spy story. Not exactly what scholars usually consider high literature. Still, he’s one of the most extraordinary writers of the Twentieth Century and apparently the only reason he didn’t get the Nobel was that he was too fond of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He’s incredibly erudite and well-read; he was the director of the Argentinian National Library for decades for a reason. That’s probably why he doesn’t care about what other critics considered “good literature”, or what is fancy to consider good literature. He just went and wrote exceptional literature.

Because underneath the fantastic and the crime novel tropes there is a deep understanding of philosophy and a desire to inquire life about its secrets. He has not only read classical and contemporary philosophers but has also developed his own philosophical questions in the form of fiction. It’s not a wonder that he appeals to scientists, mathematicians, people of letters and casual readers alike: his writing shows puzzlement towards a world that is infinitely rich, and not always makes any sense, and a playful willingness to explore its limits and contradictions.

This is a classic, and not a boring-classic. It’s an enjoy-every-page-of-it-classic. If you want to be challenged, baffled and charmed, this book is for you.

Little brother (Cory Doctorow, 2008)

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Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (2008).

Score: interesting.

Little Brother tells the story of Marcus Yallow, white teen engineering geek and hacker living in San Francisco, and how his life is changed forever after he is held and interrogated illegally by the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

Little Brother is easy to dismiss as an YA light adventure that, to add insult to injury, tries to actually teach you about cryptography and cybersecurity. I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Rabkin that the book manages to transmit an insane amount of information and does it, at least for my taste, in a very entertaining way. I’ve actually recommended it to several of my friends who are interested in cryptography.

I was very enthusiastic about the book from the beginning, partly because the other book about cryptography that I have read was quite disappointing, but don’t get me wrong, there’s some good writing going on here. Some people have noted that Marcus speaks not like a teenager from 2008 but like what a thirty-something thought teenagers spoke back in 2008. I have no fucking idea how anyone spoke English in 2008 so it really flew over my head.

The main character is quite likable, the plot is quite straightforward and easy to understand. It’s an easy ride. Like Frank Sinatra or Steve Vai, there’s genius in making something difficult look like a piece of cake, and I think Doctorow achieves that. There are some clear YA elements, such as the teenage protagonist that saves the world (that this is the case is already arguable but whatever) and a whole bunch of idealism and a hunger to make a better world of this one we live in.

And you know what, there are some points in your life, no matter how old you are, when you need to feel like you’re seventeen again and our battle can be won, or you are completely lost. “My name is Trudy Doo and you’re an idiot if you trust me. I’m thirty-two and it’s too late for me”, Trudy rallies an illegal concert of thousands. “You’re young enough and stupid enough not to know that you can’t possibly win, so you’re the only ones who can lead us to victory!” Moments later the crowd is dispersed with pepper gas. Thank goodness the events in the book are entirely fictional.

I don’t care if an editor slapped YA on this to sell more copies or to appeal to someone’s sense of what is appropriate for an adult and what isn’t, but I needed to be told that. That it’s still worth fighting in a world that’s pretty fucked up for an everyperson like you or me. That it’s okay if I’m twenty-seven and I still think that we can win.

Little Brother is available for download under a Creative Commons license here.

Bridge of spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

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Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (2015).

Score: Technically impeccable, horribly written.

Bridge of Spies is loosely based on James B. Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) negotiation, at the height of the Cold War, of the release of US pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), shot down in USSR territory while taking pictures, in exchange for KGB spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), incarcerated by the USA. The film follows Donovan’s defence of Abel in court, his plea for incarceration instead of death penalty and finally the exchange of prisoners at the Glienecke Bridge.

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s: technical aspects are impressive. Artistic direction, costume, lighting, photography, editing. All of those are best of the best. But that’s not the only thing that makes a good movie.

The greatest flaw of Bridge of spies is the mischaracterisation of Donovan. Real life Donovan had been General Counsel of the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor of CIA. He was highly prepared in intelligence and negotiations. He was not the goofball the movie makes him, a regular insurance lawyer who is given a case no one wants and takes it to himself to become a damn hero. Jim Donovan knew his shit, and I’m sure the negotiations were not like what we see in the movie: “We will trade one for one!”, “No! I want two for one!”, “No! One for one!”, “No! Two for one!”, “Damn, this man sure knows how to negotiate!” Tom Hanks’ acting technique is pretty much squinting, grimacing and trying to hide his top chin under the other two. Mark Rylance has Tom Hanks for breakfast every time they’re together in a scene. Apparently his funny accent is really accurate and his calmness contrasts Hanks’ quirky performance. Donovan’s negotiations are reduced to awkward sneezing, “I have a cold” and “you guys should find shorter names for your countries”. If you ask me, that gets you shot in the back and thrown into a ditch. He’s more annoying than me playing paragon Shepard, really.

The movie makes the mistake of trying to bring a black and white aesop from one of the darkest eras of recent history. Donovan didn’t bring those men home by being Lawful Stupid, don’t let them convince you of that. The truth is always much more complicated, and dirtier. The final scene made me squirm in my cinema chair: “These kids are jumping over a fence but they’re not going to be shot to death because we are in AMURICA!” If you’re writing about something as fucked up as the Cold War, you can’t pretend that if you’re faultless, fair and follow your ideals to the end everything will be all right and the good guys will win. It’s just not fair.

Push (Paul McGuigan, 2009)

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Push, directed by Paul McGuigan (2009).

Score: Fun and entertaining.

Push is based on real-life experiments held during the Cold War to create super soldiers. In this universe, The Division, a shady governmental organization, have created Watchers, who can see the future; Movers, who have telekinectic powers; Pushers, who can plant ideas in other people’s minds, and some other kinds of psychics. The plot is kickstarted when Kira Hudson (Camilla Belle) is the first person ever to survive a new psychic-enhancing drug. She flees the Division to Hong Kong with a dose of the drug and is hunted by Division officer Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou). Meanwhile, Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning), a Watcher and the daughter of one of the most powerful Watchers in the world, seeks the help of Nick (Chris Evans), a Mover hiding from the Division in Hong Kong as well.

The film is divided in two halves. The first half establishes the context, presents the characters, their alignment and their psychic powers and sets everything up for the heist to steal the macguffin. The second half is the heist. The first half is clearly inferior and its writing is sometimes sloppy. It’s intended as a setup for the overly complicated and exciting heist, but it fails particularly at characterisation. Nick is willing to help Cassie only because she has lied to him about the content of the suitcase, but he sticks around later for no reason and being basically useless. The recruiting of some other characters is awkward as hell too: “I’m not gonna help you!” “You will in a minute, look!” *Shows her a picture of a clock and the woman helping them* “Well, I wouldn’t want to make your drawing look bad, so I’ll help you.” And so on and so forth.

But the part with the heist is great! It’s clever and confusing and exciting and mindfucky and the reason this movie is worth watching. The rest of the movie exists for this moment and it’s so much fun. For me, there’s no such thing as too complicated. I’m guessing the reason this flopped was because the kind of people who wanted to munch popcorn to an action flick was lost in the chaos and confusion, and the people who could have enjoyed it were taken aback for the sloppiness it shows at times. I don’t think it’s that bad, give it a try. Also, it’s set in Hong Kong and everyone knows that the best science fiction is set in South-East Asia. [citation needed]

The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, 1950)

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The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury (1950).

Score: Right in the feels.

I first read this when I was seventeen and still studying English. What a brat I was then. Like with so many books you reread over the years, time and memory distort everything a little but in this case it was not all my fault: not all the editions of the book include the same stories. Some of them replace “The fire balloons” with “Way in the middle of the air”, so you might want to look out for the stories your edition is missing.

The Martian Chronicles is a novel built out of a series of short stories Bradbury published in pulps along the 1940s that follows the colonisation and later abandonment of Mars.

While it’s considered a landmark in science fiction, one of the important books that brought science fiction to the mainstream from the pulps and that, after the decimation of science fiction pulp magazines, brought the genre to novel form, it is quite soft science fiction. It’s quite closer to magical realism than to what a modern reader would consider science-fiction (not in vain Jorge Luis Borges wrote a prologue for the Spanish edition), but that’s not a demerit at all.

You can find many themes in this book, including colonisation and frontier imagery. But the most powerful for me this time around was loneliness. We go to Mars and Martians basically ignore us, then they kill us until we kill them of chicken-pox. We’re left alone in an empty planet fleeing nuclear war trying to make a new start, until the ones we left behind call us back home. The last man on Mars craves for feminine company until he finds out the last woman on Mars is ugly. The other last man on Mars makes himself a robotic family his rescuers cannot bring themselves to kill because they feel human. A fully-automated house keeps making breakfast for a family of four that was killed by nuclear fallout. Finally, a family with three sons expects a family with three daughters to start over, this time cutting all ties from Earth.

We’re lonely because we’re selfish, and we prefer to be lonely than to stop being selfish. We ruin everything we love because we cannot be at peace with each other, and so we are our own worst enemy.

Should you read it? Absolutely.

References: Coursera’s Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, our Modern World.