Monday, 1 August 2016

Petals of Blood by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Petals of Blood is a novel by Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, author of The Wizard of the Crow. It was released in 1977 and was the last novel he wrote in English. I've earlier reviewed his later novel, Wizard of the Crow.

It begins with the murder of two businessmen and an educator in the fictional Kenyan city of Ilmorog. Four suspects are arrested for the murders. They are the local school principal Munira, the labour union activist Karega, the barmaid Wanja, and the shopkeeper and former Mau Mau rebel Abdulla.

The book tells of the friendship of these four characters and of their relationship to the murdered men. It is also the tale of Ilmorog's development in only a decade from pastoral village to modern city.

The story is a kind of microcosm of Kenya as an nation, especially post-independence. And it is not a pretty one. For Wa Thiong'o, the dream of a free, equal and independent Kenya is betrayed by it's leaders, such as president Jomo Kenyatta and his successors. Instead Kenyans got an unequal society in which the majority work in poverty while a small capitalist minority get rich by exploiting the working class. This elite does this by selling the products of the labour of the working class into the international capitalist system, just as the colonizers did before. Thus the system of exploitation established during English colonialism continues unbroken, just with native Kenyan leadership.

This leadership is thoroughly corrupt. When the citizens of Ilmorog suffer from famine, the main characters lead an exodus of most of the population to Nairobi to ask for help from their parliamentary representative. They walk the whole way, only to met a corrupt politician who gives them empty promises in return.

The government is not only corrupt, but is also authoritarian. People in opposition are either arrested or murdered. Of course, the Kenyan government proved Ngugi Wa Thiong'o right when they arrested him for his criticism of the regime shortly after this novel was published.

The book shows that the regime was right to fear him. This is powerful writing. The storytelling and prose are excellent in themselves, and show a novelist at the peak of his art. Yet they also tell the story of Kenya, as Wa Thiong'o sees it. Fiction, as a mirror to ugly reality. If the wrath of the author against injustice was canalized into satirical fantasy in the Wizard of the Crow, here that anger is served to the reader raw. The evils of life in modern Kenya are portrayed with utter realism, without any compromises.

Yet, as bleak as the novel is, it ends on an inspiring note of hope, not only for a better Kenya, but for a better world. This hope of course remains unfulfilled; Kenya and the world haven't really changed much since this book was written. Yet this only means that Petals of Blood remain as timely as when it was written, a true classic of world literature.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

V. by Thomas Pynchon

V. is the debut novel by Thomas Pynchon, first published in 1963.

As usual with Pynchon, the plot is complex to the point of confusion. The main plot is about Herbert Stencil, who is on a search for V, which is an abbreviation for something or someone, probably a woman. Stencil learned about V from his dead father, Sidney Stencil's notebooks. V appears in various places at various time periods, including Egypt in 1898, Florence in 1899, Paris in 1913, Southwest Africa in 1922, and several times in Valletta, Malta.

The novel also has sections which are heavily influenced by the Beat generation and describe the adventures of a group of bohemians called "The Whole Sick Crew" in 1950s New York. These center around a drifter called Benny Profane.

Despite this being a debut novel, in V. we met Pynchon fully formed, coming seemingly directly from the head of Zeus. Here we all of Pynchon's trademarks such as his absurdist humour, his labyrinthine plots, weird names (such as Rachel Owlglass or Kurt Mondaugen) or his musical prose. He blends together high and low culture, with V. having elements of the detective, science fiction, adventure and spy genres.

The meaning of the novel is, as always with Pynchon, obscure. He never answers the central question of the book: what does V. stand for? With each page, the answer seems to change. V might very well stand for Valletta, Venezuela, Botticelli's Venus or even a fictional place called Vheissu.

In the end, the most probable answer seems to be that V., at least the one mentioned in the notebooks, is a woman, with many names, but which all begin with V, such as Victoria Wren, Vera Meroving and Veronica Manganese. It's possible that she is Stencil's mother.

As said, she appears in various places at various times. The common denominator between these episodes seems to be that they are times of violence and crisis. Does she cause them in some way? Is  she somehow connected to the horrors of modern Western civilization, such as war, imperialism and genocide?

Again, the question is: what does V stand for? Maybe there are several answers, or none at all. It's possible that Stencil's search for V. is meaningless and ultimately is just one of mankind's attempts to give meaning and order to a chaotic universe, the futility of which is a theme also explored by Pynchon in his later books.

The novel also ask the big existential questions, that were so popular in the post-war era when the novel was written. It's made explicit that the search of V. is Stencil's way of giving meaning and purpose to an otherwise aimless life. It's his sisyphean task. The purposeless, drifting lives of Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew are of course also related to his existentialist musings.

But even if V. remains a mystery, it is an entertaining one. Even if you are not up to solving it's puzzles, one can always be swept along by Pynchon's humour or his prose. One can't help but be impressed that this is the work of someone who was only 26 years old.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Without Frontiers: the life and music of Peter Gabriel by Daryl Easlea

This book is a biography of Peter Gabriel, written by music journalist Daryl Easlea.

This book caught my interest as soon as I saw it in the library. I'm a big fan of Peter Gabriel's challenging and innovative music, both with and without Genesis.

The book focuses on Gabriel's music career, both Genesis and solo. It tells of the making of albums like Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel's unnamed third solo album and So. We also learn of his activism for human rights and against injustice like apartheid. In this, he has worked with organizations like Amnesty International and Witness, the latter which he co-founded. Gabriel has also brought attention to non-western forms of music by co-founding the WOMAD festival, which features musicians from all over the planet.

The book focuses on his work and largely ignores Gabriel's personal life. This is probably because Gabriel has always been a private man. And anyway, his home life has apparently been rather uneventful, with the exception of the collapse of his first marriage.

While Easlea hasn't interviewed the subject of the book himself, he has interviewed several of Gabriel's friends and collaborators. Easlea has also done extensive research and uncovered many articles and interviews. He has then synthesized this extensive source material into a coherent narrative.

Easlea is very thorough and has a remarkable eye for detail. He not only describes the creation of each album, but also the reception it got among fans, the public and the critics.  He even analyses each individual track of Gabriel's major albums. The book also comes with a comprehensive discography.

To his great credit, Easlea takes Gabriel's work with Genesis seriously. Far too many critics dismiss Genesis or even progressive rock in general as pretentious nonsense, while acclaiming Gabriel's solo career. Easlea doesn't do any of that and even emphasizes the continuities that exist between Gabriel's work with the band and his solo work.

The result is a good and very readable book about a remarkable man. A man who both in his music and activism is Without Frontiers.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Keith Emerson 1944-2016

Keith Emerson, keyboardist in the bands The Nice and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, has died.

He is usually regarded as one of the most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock music, a true virtuoso. He first came to notice as a member of a band called The Nice, that existed between 1967 and 1970. They were pioneers of progressive rock; one of the first bands to combine rock music with classical and jazz. A staple of their repertoire was rock interpretations of pre-existent classical and jazz pieces.

When their guitarist left the band, they did not replace him and continued on as a trio, with only drums, bass and keyboards. The Nice therefore became one of the rare rock bands to not have a electric guitarist, with the music relying instead on Emerson's considerable keyboard skills.
Important Albums by The Nice include The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Five Bridges

Here is a video of The Nice peforming America from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. It shows Emerson's energetic and distinctive performing style, which includes plunging knives into his organ keyboard to hold notes.

After The Nice broke up, Emerson formed a new progressive rock band: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, ELP continued in the same vein, doing without a lead guitarist and with plenty of classical "covers". They were one of the most successful rock bands of the 70s, selling albums by the truckload and playing to outsold arenas. It was in my opinion well-deserved, they produced a solid body of work in the period 1970 to 1974. Granted, their albums after that period were rather lacklustre. They took a long hiatus during the period 1974-1977 and were never the same afterwards.

Their best albums are probably their self-titled debut, Tarkus and Brain Salad SurgeryHere is The Three Fates, composed by Emerson, from their first album.

With Keith Emerson progressive rock music has lost of it's leading lights. Emerson was an innovator and keyboard virtuoso. May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy for 3DS

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy is a trilogy of video games, so-called visual novels, directed and written by Shu Takumi and developed by Capcom. It consists of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations.

They were orignally developed for the Gameboy Advance 2001- 2004, but were first translated into English when re-released for the Nintendo DS. In 2014 the entire trilogy were released in a single package for the Nintendo 3DS. It can be bought and downloaded from the e-shop.

Visual novels is a video game genre mainly developed in Japan, that place a heavy emphasis on story and text, rather than gameplay. The experience is like reading an interactive novel. They are most similar to the western genre of adventure games, but are even more story-focused. I've previously covered another game in that genre: Hotel Dusk

You play Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney. Though, in the third game, you get to play briefly as other defense attorneys. Phoenix, like Perry Mason, only takes on cases in which the defendant, his client is innocent. They are always cases of murder (one is reminded of Van Dine's seventh rule.) Phoenix does not only prove his clients not guilty in court, but also acts as a detective and solves the case, revealing the true murderer.

You help him do this through two modes of gameplay. The first in Investigation. You investigate the crime scene and other places of interest. This plays like traditional point-and-click adventure games. You examine everything that seems interesting (using the DS touchscreen) and talk to everyone about everything. This way you gather evidence about the case. Everything in the game revolves around this evidence.  When you gathered sufficient evidence, you move onto the Trial mode of gameplay.

During the trial, you have to prove your clients innocence in court, using the evidence you gathered. The Prosecution calls up witnesses, which give testimony in favour of the prosecution's point of view that the client is guilty. However, this testimony nearly always conflicts with the evidence you gathered. The witness is lying or mistaken. It's the player job to point out these contradictions, by matching up ("presenting") the evidence with the statement in the testimony that it contradicts with.

Phoenix then uses that very evidence to figure out the solution to the murder mystery and prove the guilt of the real murderer. During this, he is asked questions by the judge and prosecution, which the player must answer by choosing the evidence that supports Phoenix's claims or the right answer from multiple choices. If the player makes a mistake during all this, you get a penalty from the Judge. Get enough penalties, and it's game over.

This is more exciting than it sounds. No description can capture the feel of actually playing the games. It's tremendously fun to point out these contradictions and you feel very smart when you figure something out and pick the right evidence.  The cases are well thought-out murder mysteries, which are satisfying to solve. It's an stimulating intellectual challenge,

And while it is a challenge, it isn't too difficult either.  The games moves from investigating the crime scene to the trial only when you have all the evidence you need. The deductions you have to do are all within reason. Phoenix himself does the real difficult stuff. So you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to play this game.
Of course, the legal system in these games don't correspond to any legal system in reality. It would be an article of it's own to point all the inaccuracies.  One of the most basic must be that the defense must prove the innocence of the defendant, rather than the prosecution prove their guilt. Though I have read an article that argues the the games are a satire of the Japanese legal system, in which prosecutors have inordinate power and nearly every trial ends with a conviction.
The games are very storydriven. They are not called visual novels for nothing. The majority of the experience is reading text. Thankfully, the games are well written. Shu Takumi can write. They are thankfully well translated into English too.

Their tone is generally comedic, often wacky to the point of absurdity.  Characters often act in a bombastic manner, which is deliberately meant to be funny. Phoenix Wright himself, for example, has unrealistic spiky hair, tends to shout, bang his hands on the table and literally point his finger at those he is accusing. And he is rather restrained compared to most of the people he meets during the cases, who are often rather colourful characters, to put it mildly. Character names tend to be puns or otherwise meaningful.

Thankfully, this is actually rather funny. I often found myself laughing at some clever turn of words or some clever name. A good example of the latter is a narcissistic man whose name is Luke Atmey.

And all this comedy doesn't mean that the game lacks a serious side. Phoenix deals with cases of murder, after all. There's plenty of drama to be had, which somewhat surprisingly works. The game are not only funny, but moving. Character reveals depths beyond their funny quirks. The game not only has bombastic humour, but dramatic subtlety. The player is given serious messages of the necessity of trusting other people and the importance of accepting the truth, no matter how horrible it may seem.  It's a sign of how well-written the games are that the balance between the absurd comedy and serious drama seems rather natural.

Much of the drama comes from a single story arc, which develops over the course of the three games and comes to a satisfying conclusion in the final case of the third game. Phoenix is accompanied and assisted in his quest by a girl named Maya Fey who is a spirit medium. Her power is very much real. This larger story arc revolves around Maya and her family, who nearly all are spirit mediums.

The games are focused on the text, but they have visuals, graphics. And they are a case of making the most of what little you have. All the visuals in this game are handdrawn, not computer-generated. The backgrounds are static, while the characters are traditionally animated. The games mostly lack cutscenes, the few that exist are all very short and simply animated. The games instead rely on still images to illustrate events.

This system, admittedly, doesn't look slick at all. You can see the limitations of time and data space. Each character has only a limited set of expressions and poses, which they constantly reuse. The character animations are very simple. Switches in animation can be very obvious and clunky. When a character enters or leaves the scene, they simply fade in or out.

But the hand-drawn graphics are very charming. The experience of playing these games is more like reading an illustrated book, than playing a typical video game, which is rather pleasant. And the visuals are well drawn. The backgrounds are gorgeously detailed. The characters are very expressive; the amount of expressions are limited, but they manage to say so much with them, that it all works.

The games also of course have sound. Mainly sound effects and music. The amount of music is like the character animations rather limited. But most of it is rather good, especially the exciting tracks that play when Phoenix is having a winning streak with his deductions (like this track from the first game and this from the third).  The games also have minor voice acting. It's just some phrases, such as "Objection" and some others. It's not much, but it adds some atmosphere to the proceedings.

In the end, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has become one of my favourite game series of all time because it's excellent writing and exciting gameplay. If you like reading and intellectual challenges and don't mind the humorous tone of the games, be sure to play them. It can easily be found on the Nintendo 3DS e-shop.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere is a very traditional fantasy story. The protagonist lives an ordinary, mundane, even boring life, but is content with it. But he (it's traditionally a boy or a man and this is also the case in Neverwhere) is drawn into a world of magic and adventure. He ends up join a quest to oppose great evil. This is at first all against his will. He resents being denied the comforts of his ordinary life and finds this new world disagreeable. But during the course of the story his character grows and adapts to his environment, to the adventure. He learns new things and finds aspects within himself that he is unaware of. He matures and becomes a capable hero. His efforts are crucial for the quest to come to a happy end. The hero then returns home a changed man. The End.

This is a common story in Fantasy fiction. The classic example is of course The Hobbit by Tolkien.
Even one of the major lessons that the hero in Neverwhere learns is pretty traditional: Appearances deceive. Those who at first seem trustworthy may very well betray you and those who seem devious at first might turn to be dependable friends.

Then what new does Gaiman bring to the table, you might ask. Pretty much, actually. What's original in Neverwhere is the setting: The book takes pretty much entirely in London, in the 1990s.

The ordinary life that the protagonist, Richard Mayhew, leaves is that of an office worker. And the magical world that he enters is that of "London Below", a magical city which exists underneath the mundane London, "London Above". This London Below is a world full of magic, but one which exists mainly in sewers and subway tunnels. It's inhabitants are those who fall between the cracks in the world above: those who are lacks homes and employment in the world above take refuge here.

This is a world that is very well fleshed out. It's simply good worldbuilding. The urban setting means that Gaiman can twist familiar fantasy ideas in original and interesting ways. Though, I must make the reservation that I haven't really read any urban fantasy novels before this, so I don't know how original Gaiman really is. But the genre first became popular after the turn of millenium and Neverwhere was first publiced in 1996, so Gaiman was bit of an early bird.

Gaiman uses his setting to make some social criticism. The ordinary life as an office worker in London Above that Richard Mayhew lives is depicted as cold and meaningless. It's inhumane and uncaring. It's highly meaningful that it is an act of kindness and empathy that pulls Richard into London Below. And once he returns to London Above, changed, he can no longer be content with it

The lack of caring shows itself in a major aspect of Gaiman's fantasy world. This mundane world is wholly unaware of magic and that London Below exists. Most importantly, those in London Above can't even see the people who belong to London Below. This becomes almost Kafkaesque for Richard, who once he enters London Below can't be seen by anyone in mundane world, not even his old friends.

There is clear political and moral point made here, because the people of London Below are those who fall between the cracks in London Above. As said, they are people who lost all connection to the world above, such as homes or employment. Gaiman is with this criticizing how society ignores people who are homeless and in extreme poverty.

Gaiman's gender politics are also interesting. The form of fantasy coming-of-age novel that Gaiman is writing here tends to a rather masculine genre. It's often about a boy becoming a man, either figuratively or literally. It's telling that there are no women in The Hobbit.

Gaiman, of course, keeps that bildungsroman form and the main character is still male.  But there are two prominent female characters and they are both quite capable. One of them is a princess (figuratively) that Richard saves, but during the course of the book she ends up saving him. Her actions are also crucial in the climax, more so than Richard's.

This is Gaiman's way of lightly updating this type of fantastic coming of age novel for a modern, more feminist world. It's still about the character growth of a man, but this doesn't exclude female characters being important and capable.

All interpretation aside, this is a rather well-written book. As said, the worldbuilding is excellent. The characters are on the whole rather interesting and memorable people. Gaiman is a decent prose stylist. The book is filled with dry and very British humour, in the vein of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, most of which I found rather funny.

Neverwhere is an excellent fantasy novel, that manages to be both traditional and original at the same time.

Why I am no longer part of the sceptic and atheist movements.

In my teens, I was a passive member of the atheist and sceptic movements. But as I have become older, I have grown out of these movements. This is not because I found God or realized the benefits of homeopathy. I remain a non-believer in supernatural Gods and sceptical of paranormal phenomena. But I have become sceptical of the sceptic and atheist movements. This essay is my attempt at explaining why.

The basic problem I have with the sceptic and atheist movements is that they are so limited in their scepticism. For them, the height of critical thinking is disbelieving in God or debunking trivial, marginal beliefs like Bigfoot. It doesn't extend to being sceptical of the society in which they live in. Indeed, such thoughts are anathema for many "sceptics"

This is because most members in the atheist and sceptic community are middle-class liberals or libertarians. Organized scepticism and atheist tends to have unexamined liberal assumptions. Liberal democratic capitalism is basically accepted as being a good thing.

In fact, many movement atheists are so fanatical about liberalism that they are willing to spread it by force and thus supported the wars in Afganistan and Iraq, often using their antipathy to religion to justify this. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are prominent and popular examples of this tendency in the atheist movement. Harris in particular is fanatical about this and has argued that the use of torture and nuclear warfare is justifiable in "the war on terror".

This liberalism shows itself in the optimism of the sceptic and atheist movements. Optimism in this case means believing not only that the world can get better, but that the world is already a good place. The central message is that reality in the liberal capitalist system is a wonderful place to be and therefore you don't need false beliefs. In fact, they argue, it's those false beliefs which are the cause of of most problems in the world  and if we got rid of them we would basically reach utopia. As the British Humanist Association puts it: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

This optimism often takes the form of a kind of "whig" history, in history consists of steady, if not teleological, progress towards liberty and enlightenment, towards liberalism, away from superstition and religion. A.C Grayling's book Towards the Light is a self-admitted example of this.

The problem with this optimism is obvious: Our planet is not a good place to live on, precisely because of the liberal capitalism most sceptics defend. As for "progress", it has also led to the development of technology which causes massive environmental destruction, a threat to civilisation itself. If you don't realize this, you are either seriously deluded or seriously privileged. The vast majority of human beings are oppressed, exploited and alienated in every country on Earth.

Indeed, this fact is probably the main reason why people are religious or believe in other kinds of paranormal beliefs. It's a way for those who are poor and disadvantaged to cope with the horrors and alienation of their existence. It's no coincidence that poverty and religion is often correlated. It's a form of comfort for a awful reality. This is what Marx meant when he said that "religion is the opium of the people" (opium was a common medical painkiller at the time). When life before death is unbearable, a "vale of tears", often the only hope is for a good life after death. Religion and paranormal beliefs also have a major social function. They offer the individual a form of community in an increasingly atomized society,

This is why there is not much point for sceptics and atheists to preach the wonders of objective reality and try to convince people through argument to abandon their false beliefs. For most believers, reality is a horrible place to be in and their beliefs are often the only comfort they have. They won't abandon them because of mere arguments and ideas, no matter how rational.

And while believers may be rejecting reality, I honestly can't blame them. Everybody rejects reality in some way, whether through delusions or escapism. Something that I will write more about later in another essay.

This will not change until reality changes, until the world is a good place for practically everybody who is born into it. When all people, not only a select few, are able to feed themselves, sleep under roofs and educate themselves. First then will people be able to live without delusions. I hope that day will come, but that may very well be a delusion itself. Hopefully it isn't.

Not that the atheist and sceptic movements will help create such a world. As said, most of their members are liberals, wholly accepting of the western status quo that is liberal democratic capitalism.

This is because most movement atheist and sceptics are economically comfortable people who went to university. Such people are usually able to do without the comforts of religion or other traditional superstitions.

This points to the problem with the often smug, contemptuous, even bullying tone towards believers in religion or other paranormal beliefs that is common in the atheist and sceptic movements. Besides being unpleasant in itself, it often amounts to university graduates looking down on people who lack such education, contempt for people of a lower social class.

Such contempt is also often hypocritical. For most members of the atheist and sceptic movement are fervent believers of the most prevalent and dangerous religion in the Western world today.  It is the worship of the market. The central article of faith in this religion is that some all-powerful entity called the invisible hand of the market should determine practically all economic decisions, for it's decisions are always the best ones. Other articles of faith include the absurd belief that infinite economic growth is possible on an finite planet. The belief in progress already mentioned is another example.

For many atheists, the only reason they are able to do without the old-fashioned comfort of gods is because they replaced them with a modern and secular object of worship, like the market. They have no reason to feel superior to the religious or superstitious masses. The certainties of marxism-leninism is another example of such a modern secular irrational belief system.

Indeed, one suspects that opposition to traditional religion is often rooted in a belief in these secular religions. It's resentment of the competition for believers more than anything else.

Granted, much of traditional religion deserves to be opposed. While I have nothing against people's personal beliefs, criticism of religion is something that is often needed. No one can deny that religion has justified and been complicit in all kinds of oppression and atrocities.

But this doesn't excuse the atheist movement's tendency to simplify the subject of religion, towards black and white thinking. Many in the atheist movement lump moderate religious believers together with fanatics and paint religion's influence on the world as wholly evil, when the reality is more complex. Most religious people are basically decent people. They are in general not better or worse than atheists.

And while religion in general has often justified oppression, there have been many religious movements and figures that has opposed that very oppression and worked for justice and equality. To name a few examples: John Ball, Gerrad Winstanley and the Diggers, Thomas M√ľntzer, William Blake, Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers movement, Martin Luther King, The Social Gospel movement, Oscar Romero and Liberation theology. (The fact that the examples are all Christian is probably the fault of my Northern European bias).

Otherwise, this essay has already touched on the main problem with the atheist movement's approach to religion. The problem is that their approach treats religion merely as false ideas and beliefs, that believers can be compelled to abandon with rational argument. But as said, this ignores the socio-economic context of religion, it's origin as a form of consolation for the horrors of our material reality, a consolation few would abandon because of mere arguments.

This approach to religion is a symptom of the tendency of the sceptic and atheist movements to dismiss false beliefs as mere nonsense, instead of trying to understand why people believe the things they do. This shows itself in how ignorant the atheist movement is of the scholarly research on religion done in the fields of sociology and history.

In fact, the atheist and sceptic movements are in general ignorant of the social sciences and humanities, if not directly rejecting them as no better than psuedoscience. Needless to say, such rejection is just an expression of that ignorance.

Often such rejection is based in a kind of positivism (though not known as such), the view that only the natural sciences create valuable knowledge. Positivism was rejected decades ago by all serious philosophers, for the simple reason that it is self-refuting. The notion that only the findings of natural science are valid is itself not a scientific statement and therefore contradicts itself.

After rejecting the humanities and social sciences, the sceptic and atheist movements often accept poor substitutes for them. Often it's rubbish that serious scholars rejected decades ago. Positivism itself is a good example, as is the whig history already mentioned. Or they develop new rubbish to replace good scholarship. Memetics, developed by Richard Dawkins is an example of this, a poor man's semiotics.

I think one of the main reasons the atheist and sceptic movements reject the humanities and social sciences is the fact that such disciplines often involve thinking critically about the society in which we live in. And as mentioned, this is unacceptable for many self-declared sceptics.

It is this limitation to their scepticism that remains the basic problem of these movements and lies behind their inability to put the beliefs they deride in a socio-political context. It was when I realized these limitations, their implicit liberalism, that I abandoned the sceptic and atheist movements. In the end, the reason I abandoned the sceptic movement is not because I became less sceptical, it's because I became more sceptical.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Paul Kantner 1941-2016

Paul Kantner has died. He was a founding member and rythm guitarist of the band Jefferson Airplane. The group were originally a folk rock band and several of the members, including Kantner had a background in folk music. But eventually they became pioneers of psychedelic rock, though folk music remained an important influence. Other important members included singer Grace Slick and bassist Marty Balin.

Their most important albums, which are central to the genre and the 60s hippie culture as a whole, are Surrealistic Pillow (their most accessible album) After Bathing at Baxter's, Crown of Creation and Volunteers

The music Kantner created with Jefferson Airplane is, despite the often sloppy technical execution, very exciting; the band could really rock. And as said, the band broke new ground and was important for the development of psychedelic rock. The band had some good songwriters, of which Kantner was one (he was also a good rythm guitarist). He was an avid reader of science fiction, which influenced his lyrics. His left wing radical politics were also a source of inspiration.

These two influences eventually culminated in Blows against the Empire, his first and best album made outside of Jefferson Airplane. This was a science fiction concept album in which a group of hippies hijack a starship and escape an increasingly repressive  Earth.

Kantner's music made after that album, with a group called Jefferson Starship, isn't as interesting. The music slowly degenerated into arena rock. In his favour, Kantner realised this and left Jefferson Starship for this very reason in the mid 1980s.

And the albums mentioned above are all very good and leave Kantner with a strong legacy. He was one of the few remaining connection with the hippie era of the 1960s and an important person in rock history. It's a pity to lose him.


                                          Jefferson Airplane - Crown of Creation
                                          (written by Paul Kantner)

                                          Jefferson Airplane - We Can be Together
                                          (written by Paul Kantner)
 

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams

Tailchaser's Song is a fantasy novel by Tad Williams.

It is about anthropomorphic cats. They live with humans, but are sentient and therefore have their own society and culture, with a language, customs, mythology and even cities. Think Watership Down with cats, instead of rabbits.

The story is about a young male cat named Fritti Tailchaser. His best friend is the young female cat Hushpad. But one day, Hushpad disappears without a trace. She is only one of a series of mysterious disappearances of cats. Something strange is happening. Fritti decides to set out on a quest to find Hushpad and find out why cats are disappearing. He is accompanied by a another friend, the kitten Pouncequick.

The big inspiration for this book is, as mentioned, Watership Down by Richard Adams. It is the model for how Williams anthropomorphizes his cats in this book. Williams other major inspiration is Tolkien. The story of the book is a quest fantasy, very much in the style of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.

One could certainly dismiss this book as a mere imitation of Tolkien and Adams. But that would be unfair.

Firstly, the anthropomorphication of the cats is really well-done, especially the mythology. Tad Williams understands cats and their psychology, in particular their pride. This understanding often reveals itself in small, subtle touches. Personally, this book connected with me far more than Watership Down, simply because I grew up with and know cats well. I have a connection with them which I don't have with rabbits.

Secondly Tailchaser's Song is in general simply well-written. Williams is a decent prose stylist. He is no Thomas Pynchon, but far better than the norm. The characters have some real depth to them. And Williams most importantly knows how to tell a story. While reading, I constantly found myself wanting to know what happens next. Reading this book is often a suspenseful experience.

For this book is not as cute as it may first appear. The latter parts of the book are very dark, violent and gruesome. This is not a complaint, but simply a warning for anyone interested in the book. And it makes up for it with a lyrical and uplifting ending.

While Tailchaser's Song is not the most original of stories, it is very well told. It made me interested in reading more books by Tad Williams.