The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds

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The Educated Ape is a snickeringly amusing random entry point into the far-fetched fictive fun-fair that of Robert Rankin’s books.

I bought this book, completely without premeditation, at one of those warehouse book sales where you fill a cardboard box with books, and if you can close the box, you get all the books for a mean $50. As such, I went into it completely unaware of what would be in store or that it was actually the third in a series of loosely connected books in the same universe.

Fortunately, Educated Ape, despite the many peculiarities of worldbuilding that were foisted on me with barely any exposition, was well enough within the realm of comprehensibility that easing into the story was not particularly onerous. Sure, there’s the fact that this is set in an alternate 19th century in which Great Britain is a spacefaring power possessing Martian colonies, every other person of repute has a trained monkey companion, peers of the realm rub shoulders with Venusian ecclesiastics and jovial Jovians, and magic exists. But you get over all that culture shock quickly and take every weird facet of this brave new world in your stride.

Rankin creates out of this mishmash of literary and science-fictional references a surprisingly cohesive world; one that is strangely advanced in many ways but still assuredly Victorian in its manners; a civilisation at the pinnacle of its power and haughtiness, whose use of the English language is rather more florid than is strictly necessary (case in point: Rankin does this thing where he describes actions as ‘X did Y-ing of his Z’, as opposed to the usual ‘X Y’ed his Z’. Like, Bell did steeplings on his fingers rather than Bell steepled his fingers (not a real example)).

There are hijinks galore, all written with heaping doses of (sometimes ribald) humor but with an abiding humanity. All manner of interesting figures abound – the Pipwick-like master detective Cameron Bell, upon whose exploits Sherlock Holmes is (in the story) alleged to be based, his on-and-off monkey partner, Queen Victoria’s secret, evil cannibal twin, a gas-mask toting female vigilante known only as Lady Raygun, and a maid both spare and kempt. Historical figures, such as Ernest Rutherford and Nikola Tesla, feature as the scientific pioneers of the new age, as do time travel shenanigans, liberal use of dynamite as plot device, and the coming of the Antichrist, all layered together in one single twisting narrative but somehow still making sense.

Having read it nearly in its entirety during my annual in-camp training, I can say with confidence that The Educated Ape is precisely the sort of weird, humorous, but surprisingly easygoing tome that you’d want to while away the long boring hours of the day with nothing else to do.

I give this: 4 out of 5 bananas

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The Good Place (Season #1)

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***This has big spoilers.***

The Good Place is a crafty, smartly-written, and genuinely thought-provoking delight of a show.

Created by Brooklyn Nine Nine co-creator Michael Schur, The Good Place shares many of the virtues of that show – its hilarious and whip-smart writing, larger-than-life yet relatable characters, and its underlying humanity. But The Good Place goes a bit further and layers on a cohesive narrative arc that bookends the first season in a satisfying yet unexpected way, one that provides real payoffs and generates strong incentives to keep watching episode after episode.

It’s a high-concept premise for a sitcom – the protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop, dies and gets admitted into a pastelly paradise for people who’ve done many good deeds throughout their lives, called the Good Place. However, she realises from the start that she doesn’t belong there, by dint of her being a selfish ass in her previous life. She spills her secret to her assigned soulmate Chidi, a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and asks him to teach her how to be a better person so that she can earn her place in paradise, and avoid going to the Bad Place, and its penchant for eternal torture.

But it’s not so much that Chidi educates Eleanor to be a better person through academic study, although it helps her formalise these ethical concepts belying her actions. Eleanor’s growth is a function of her learning how to make genuine human connections, and through that process, learning how to care for others as much as herself. But it isn’t just about her, of course. The rest of the show’s big four Good Place inhabitants – the party-throwing socialite Tahani, the failed rapper Jason (also “mistakenly” sent to the Good Place), and Chidi himself – are also characters that change and evolve – both in the way they see themselves as well as the ways in which we see them – across the course of the show.

And that is where the show really takes off. In a sense, there was always something slightly off about how the Good Place was portrayed – an idyllic township full of virtuous people, all of whom are assigned soulmates, their spiritual resumes bursting with the quantified records of the good deeds they did in their previous lives. But the ostensibly “good” characters – Tahani and Chidi – are not quite as angelic in their outlooks as they would first appear. And the Good Place is an elitist Joneses town admitting only the “top-scorers” while the rest of humanity burns in eternal torment.

At first, watching the show, one might take this as a sign of slightly sloppy writing – portraying the Good Place as just some satirical version of heaven for people whose good deeds are the only currency for admission – a consequentialist paradise for the moral elite. But as the show wears on, the show takes on a different bent – the concept of the Good Place is interrogated more and more. This comes to a head in a penultimate episode where Eleanor is trying to figure out how to earn her place in the Good Place by doing good deeds left and right to increase her karma score – but finding out that it doesn’t matter, because her motivations for these deeds are made inherently with self-preservation in mind. So the Good Place is more of a Kantian interpretation of morality – where intentions matter just as much as the results of those actions.

And then the final episode blows open the entire series by revealing that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place – a place designed to make four very different people torture each other via taking advantage of each of the things that makes them the most upset or stressed, and playing these quirks off each other for eternity. And the entire premise of the Good Place is revealed for what it actually is – a fake, self-contradictory version of ethical paradise – the failures of which are not a function of sloppy writing but clues that are used by Eleanor to figure everything out. And we find out that Chidi and Tahani are also in this pickle because ethical behavior is not just in actions or intentions, but both – Tahani’s actions were virtuous but coming from a desire to one-up her sister, and Chidi’s intentions were virtuous but his ethical rigidities ended up hurting everyone around him.

In terms of twist endings, this is one of the most bold and provocative reversals I’ve ever seen, and it mostly works – it elevates the show from just a slightly twee but hilariously-written comedy to one of the smartest, boldest, and most deliberately-written shows around. And it casts morality and ethics in a light that goes beyond initial stultified premise inherent in the surface attributes of the starting conditions of the so-called Good Place – but in a sense, how being a good person is inherent in the bonds of care that we form with other people in the face of adversity and in strife.

I give this show: 4.5/5 Janets

Parasite Rex

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This is an oldie but a goodie.

Parasite Rex is a broad overview, not just of its titular subject, but also of the ways that the notion of the parasite is evolving, and how it should be understood by people. It traces the genealogy of the study of parasitism from the origins of the word in Greek all the way to the 19th century disdain of such creatures as degenerate life forms and evolutionary dead ends that depend utterly upon their host and gave rise to the moral stigma associated with being called a parasite.

Zimmer’s project is to demonstrate just how complex and well-adapted parasites are as lifeforms, and the ways in which they play an important part in balancing their various ecosystems. Of course, the term parasite is a broad one; it can range from anything from a single celled organism to a large animal like a cuckoo that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.

Parasites are, to put it simply, organisms that are adapted to survive and reproduce at the partial expense of other creatures. Their playground is not the savannahs, hills and jungles of your typical animal, but the bodies of other organisms. In that respect they are as beautifully adapted to these environments as the gazelle is to the Serengeti.

The bodies of organisms are treacherous places that have evolved immune responses to foreign invaders. In that respect, parasites are resourceful creatures that constantly innovate (via evolutionary adaptations) creative responses to thrive amidst it, ranging from hiding in plain sight within red blood cells, or constantly changing forms so that T-cells can’t keep track of them.

Having infested their hapless hosts, parasites need to ensure they are able to propagate to the next stage of their life cycles. And it is in this where parasites get much of their well-deserved reputation as nature’s horrors – employing all sorts of creative but ghoulish ways to make their hosts serve their ends – from Sacculina turning male crabs into hapless castrated zombies, to toxoplasma gondii making rats more reckless to ensure they are eaten by cats, hence allowing the parasite to settle into its true feline home. Sometimes these adaptations allow the host to live relatively normal lives, albeit as unwitting Typhoid Marys; in other cases, the death of the host is the prerequisite of the flowering of the parasite into its succeeding life stage.

But despite these macabre innovations, Carl Zimmer gives parasites their due as vital players in the diversity of life. Parasites may have played a role in accelerating the evolution of sexual reproduction, energy intensive as it might be, as a means of allowing animals to generate enough species diversity to throw off the pernicious effects of parasites.

And parasites play a bigger role in ecosystems than might first appear. Consider the relationship between a predator and prey. The usual narrative is that predators keep populations in check and increase the health of the herd, because usually the weakest prey is the meal of the predator. But perhaps this salutary vision is just an illusion, and it is the parasite that weakens the host to allow it to be captured by the predator, which is its next presumptive host. Parasites, though ghoulish at times, may be the signifiers of healthy, robust ecosystems.

Even human evolution has been shaped in large part because of the existence of parasites. We’ve evolved various responses to common parasites, so much so that in our modern industrialised society, the eradication of such parasites has indirectly led to the rise in new autoimmune diseases such as colitis, as well as an increase in allergies.

Zimmer writes in a dense but approachable style, peppering the narrative with interesting stories and examples of parasites and their behaviors, painting an erudite picture of how we should think about the broader role that parasites play in the web of life. Written in the early 2000s as it is, perhaps some of the facts and hypotheses described have been validated or disproven, but ultimately, Parasite Rex still remains a comprehensive and engaging starter guide on how we should think about parasites.

I give this: 4 out of 5 guinea worms

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Three Billboards isn’t Martin McDonaugh’s best work, and has some thematic issues that it fails to really grapple with, but it is nevertheless a harrowing, blackly funny film supported by a rash of extremely strong performances from Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson.

It’s set in the small town of Ebbing, seven months after the grisly rape and murder of a local girl. With her case still unsolved, her tough-as-nails, hard-bitten mother Mildred (McDormand) rents out the titular billboards to write a message accusing the local police department, and in particular its chief, Bill Willoughby (Harrelson), of neglecting the case. The billboards set off an hornet’s nest of anger, violence, and reprisals, notably instigated by Mildred and the strutting, violent momma’s-boy officer Dickson (Sam Rockwell).

Amidst the present climate in the US of police brutality, Three Billboards presents a twist to the common stereotype of feisty citizen standing up to a negligent but trigger-happy police force. Mildred is not precisely the heroine of this story – her anger and bitterness is not just the righteous rage against the machine, but an externalisation of her sorrow at the neglectfulness that led to her daughter’s death in the first place. Her actions, while frequently darkly funny in that classic McDonaugh fashion, are clearly meant to be read as perpetuating cycles of violence.

At the opposite side of the house, while the movie does poke fun at the classic caricature of the underworked police department staffed with undereducated weirdoes and dyed-in-the-wool racists, Chief Willoughby is portrayed sympathetically, one of the only sources of reasonableness and conciliation in the entire movie. That said, his admonitions initially don’t stop the troglodytic Officer Dickson from uncritically swinging his police baton at whatever he deems to be causing his tribe (i.e. the police department) distress.

The performances of these three characters are a testament to the power of effective acting; McDormand in particular carries her multi-layered, conflicted character with a sense of hard-bitten spunk and stubbornness that cascades through her expressions. She’s also very darkly funny when she goes off the handle and inveighs against anyone who might be threatening her mission. And Rockwell is almost unrecognisable in his rotundity, pulling off the strutting, inchoately angry police officer with a frightening authenticity.

As for the film itself, while it has some powerful moments of pathos, I feel like in terms of the McDonaugh penchant for marrying human drama with oddly slapstick moments of the blackest humour imaginable, the film falls far short of the heights that In Bruges reached, with many of the jokes not quite making the landing, like the oddly loquacious 19-year-old girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband, or McDonaugh’s strange penchant for setting up people with dwarfism as plot-moving comedic fall guys, which was used to much greater effect in In Bruges.

I imagine that Three Billboards is actually a film about reconciliation and the quest to short-circuit cycles of violence through a shared sense of mission. In that respect, the ending of the film sees Mildred and Dickson setting off to deliver justice to another potential rapist (who is subtly hinted to have done the deed as a soldier in Iraq, hence no reprisals – a throwaway reference to US war crimes in the Middle East), having reconciled but not knowing if their actions will start another cycle of violence. Is the film talking about a marriage of convenience between former adversaries, a creative redirection of their respective penchants for violence? And is that really the healthy way to manifest a reconciliation, even if it is in the form of reprisal against a suspected rapist?

Furthermore, I think that it’s also somewhat troubling in one respect – which is Dickson’s alleged racism and torture of a black man in police custody. The line is used as a cheap laugh and a way to quickly establish Dickson’s unsalutary bona fides, but even as we see his character “mature” in a way, the film never really addresses the question of whether it extends to his (alleged) racism as well. So you’re left kind of in the position of rooting for a character who has let go of his hatred towards the whites that he’s wronged, but it’s unclear if there’s been any resolution on that part of his personality.

In a sense, Three Billboards could have been a topical film, exploring themes of tribalism and reconciliation in an America fractured by divides. But in its small-town ethos, Three Billboards still plays it safe behind its irreverent and blackly funny veneer.

I give this: 4 out of 5 cups of orange juice

 

This Is What Inequality Looks Like

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While undoubtedly timely and important, This Is What Inequality Looks Like is written in such an unfocused, roundabout way that the message is diluted amidst the discursive dead-ends and pensive paeans.

Inequality is a reality in Singapore, but far from the popular narrative that no one in Singapore is poor and therefore there is no problem, inequality is a problem when it arises from the narrow meritocratic processes of the state and is codified into shamefulness by the state’s attitude towards it, as well as the sentiment that because they did not conform to a narrow and technocratic definition of merit, they are differentially deserving when it comes to receiving the rewards of the system.

The poor are people too, with their own aspirations, fears, and need for dignity, and the way the system is arranged against them to continually reinforce their so-called inadequacies through that differential, problem-centric, means-tested assistance, can one blame them for resenting it as it wears down their psyches?

Is it enough to tell them to have fewer kids, or not to have the flatscreen TV that they probably scrounged off a Salvation Army thrift store that is the only thing that provides them entertainment throughout the day, or to tell them that cold showers are good for you? When Singaporeans say these things, even in jest, they are merely reinforcing the notion that these people somehow deserve less, that their poor decision making puts them at fault, that since they own a TV they must be ok, then mentally regard the problem as an illusion of socialistic entitlement, mark it as resolved, and go into full-blown haranguing mode when others point out that their internalised narrative of Singapore-as-success-story leaves out the ways that it has failed some of its people. It creates a sense of us-vs-them, and wears down bonds of social trust.

When people read or hear about the acts of love, kindness and devotion that the poor have for each other as they face the adversities inherent in a hand-to-mouth existence, they nod smilingly to themselves, serene in the sentiment that poverty is ennobling, and can bring out the best in people. But this, too often, translates into believing that the kids will be alright. But the structural conditions of inequality that reverberate across generations remain. Those kids won’t be alright – the conditions they grow up in will more likely than not consign them into the ever-propagating cycle of poverty.

It is our self-contradictory system, one that promotes selfish and capitalistic self-reliance even as it exhorts us to come together as one Singapore, that propagates the psychosocial conditions of inequality. The individual social worker, compassionate and filled with the desire to help, is still part of a system that regimentalises assistance in a way that strips it of dignity. Some of these would-be recipients see the emptiness inherent in this, because individual kindnesses aren’t backed by commensurate institutional compassion. It is understandable why they would not be inclined to take the dole, to retain whatever shreds of dignity they have.

I think that the book does not intend to strip the poor of all culpability or responsibility for their own poverty, to reify them as blameless victims of institutional heartlessness. Certainly there are the lazy and inept among us. But I do think that what it is saying is that there are certain structural conditions that aggravate the problem by pushing the concept of differential deservedness based on how well you can navigate the narrow meritocratic pathways to success. When people don’t fit into that mould, or they fall off the wayside, they are much more vulnerable to the effects of that inequality, and their children suffer the consequences. And is it necessarily better to build filters into the system to weed out the bad eggs from receiving government dole, or to make the assistance more universal in order to try to ameliorate these underappreciated systemic effects of structural inequality?

While I think I got most of that from the book, I do feel that the essays could have been much sharper. In wilfully abandoning the academic mode for these essays, Prof Teo unfortunately swings to the other end of the spectrum, dealing out meandering essays that at times read like streams of consciousness. In it, she tries very hard to situate herself into the narrative, talking about her fieldwork, of how she has become aware of the differential frames that people accord to her because of her status as opposed to a poor person. While I think this is important to a degree, she tends to overdo it in a way that comes dangerously close to platitudinous.

It’s not really a surprise, then, that I happen to think that the essay on Differentiated Deservedness, which was consciously written in a more structurally coherent and academic register, was the best of the essays in terms of clarity and message. Followed closely by the last two essays on Airing Dirty Laundry and Now What, because of a clear call to action, and a brave and surprisingly convincing reckoning of the reasons why Singaporeans seem to resent it so much when people point out the flaws in our system, and attempt to shut down discourse by accusing reformers of copying other countries like Sweden.

It is here where, I think, the book comes into its own, after the earlier, somewhat over-introspective essays – inequality is not just a problem with the unequal, but for everyone; part of a larger dysfunction in society that values people largely as economic resources, and loses sight of the bigger picture of the state as a system for human betterment. In changing, we do not desire, or need, to turn into another Sweden, because that would be counterproductive – what she says we must do is to become a better version of ourselves – to look at inequality for what it is and to refuse to bend to its logic.

I give this book: 3.5/5 flatscreen TVs

 

Ready Player One

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I honestly didn’t think I was going to like this one as much as I did.

I suppose it’s quite fashionable amongst the geek set to criticise the book and the ensuing movie for what it is – a transparent attempt to commoditize loads of pop culture references by cramming them artlessly and in absurd densities into the space of a single, wish-fulfilling geek fantasy.

But it’s also true that people crave that sort of thing – easter eggs, references, the like – something about that intertextuality, those sly nods to the existence of other universes in one story, appeals to people. They’re like the hidden prizes in egg-hunting games, and later on people can excitedly talk about what they saw and bond over that shared act of discovery.

It was in that spirit that I went to watch Ready Player One – that, and the visual spectacle. I was quite surprised by the fact that not only did I enjoy the film for those things, it also felt fresh and engaging in a way that many contemporary genre films don’t. While the film tells a simple, rather by-the-numbers story, there is also that undercurrent of humanity present in the film, from its understated treatment of James Halliday’s life, to the bonds that form between the lead characters, despite them being known to each other (at least at the start) as anonymous avatars of their real selves. In other words, the film does have something valid to say about people mediated through the medium of games – that games can bring people together in meaningful ways, even if it does ultimately play lip service to the notion that we should all also get out once in a while.

The references, I think, were for the most part extremely fun; while I did catch a bevy of classic video game and film characters, the most surprising and gratifying reference was the entire The Shining section of the film, which I won’t go into the details of but was essentially a giant, faithfully-recreated set-piece of the Overlook Hotel, as well as a reproduction of some of that film’s most iconic moments, all of which were hilariously (and to them upsettingly) experienced for the first time by Aech. There was also a mecha-Godzilla vs Gundam battle near the end of the film which was no doubt somewhat culturally-tone deaf (cause it was summoned by a samurai called Daito) but was nevertheless very gratifying to watch.

One standout (which I thought was one of the more inspired characters) was the mercenary i-R0k, who is not only hilariously and self-referentially meta in the way he fashions his appearance (I mean, his entire torso is a giant metal skull with eyeholes) but the way in which his character is basically just a giant parody of the portentous Warcraft-esque fantasy villain with the cowl that activates powerful artifacts by way of ponderous incantation. An example of a reference of a video game trope, rather than just a character, that shows a certain degree of engagement with the source material of popular games.

The vision of a dystopian world of increasing corporate excess, with IOI portrayed as your typical, profit maximising company that doesn’t care about its customers or content (and would kill to get what they want) is also in all probability also a veiled reference to many of the vilified gaming/ISP juggernauts of today – the EAs, Comcasts and everything in between – price discriminating access to the OASIS, plastering ads all over your field of vision, even setting up giant gaming farms and forcing debt-laden folks into indentured servitude earning coins for the company.

I guess the vision poses its own interesting questions – like how is it possible for the in-game currency to be the most stable currency in the world, when so much of it is liable to disappear in an instant with an in-game bomb blast – or why the penalty for “zeroing out” is so severe that your entire share value disappears. If RPO were to deign to answer some of these questions, it might actually be a pretty good science fiction property in its own right and not just the vastly entertaining (though simple) self-referential sf adventure that it currently is.

There are some plotholes and odd plot choices – like how the haptic feedback can possibly allow people to feel like they’re floating, or to deceive a certain character into thinking that they’ve already taken off their goggles. There’s also a wedged in romance between Wade and Artemis that is full-on teenage awkward and which I can’t abide at the moment for unrelated reasons. But I suppose these are minor impediments that mar what is essentially a very entertaining movie that somehow works much better as a film than I expected – far from the random and shallow collection of gratuitous pop culture tropes that I expected it to be at first blush.

I give this: 4 out of 5 X-1 haptic suits

 

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Fantastic Beasts ain’t that fantastic.

Fantastic Beasts is an exercise in expanding the narrative confines of the Wizarding World beyond the original Harry Potter books – both in terms of space and time, as well as from the realm of children to the world of adults.

It takes place in a vastly different milieu – pre-Depression New York, and features wizards in the prime of their magical prowess – doing things with their magic that seem beyond the ken of our half-trained protagonists of the Potter books. It also takes place in the spectre of the Grindelwald era, averred to briefly in the books but never really elaborated on until this came along.

As a piece of worldbuilding, Fantastic Beasts aims high and delivers in some respects, but falters too in some areas. It tries to be resplendent in the wonders of its titular beasts that Newt keeps in his all-too-big briefcase, but much of it is lost in the CGI. It portrays the way witches and wizards might live and operate within the confines of a city, but doesn’t really explicate how they are supposed to maintain their isolation from no-maj humanity. MACUSA is also an organisation in abstraction – a bureaucracy that doesn’t appear to be doing very much in the day to day to regulate the affairs of the magical community in the US – except for obliviating unsuspecting no-majs on occasion.

Also, how barbaric is MACUSA really, allowing people to be summarily executed without a proper trial process? I found that detail extremely jarring. Surely they’d get on with the times, no matter how crazy the fear of exposure?

The story is serviceable but oddly paced; with, I think, some plot treads that could be construed by a general audience as confusing – i.e. the entire disturbing list of events at Credences’ abode. Though the main protagonists – Newt, Queenie, Tina and Jacob – are quite an appealing group of heroes. Jacob (Dan Fogler) in particular is just so utterly enraptured by the magic he’s encountering, forming a solid basis for his future baking muse – it’s rather endearing.

The dialogue is also quite patchy, with some of the worst lines mouthed by the pompous but ineffectual President Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), whose stiffness in delivery made me cringe every time.

It’s Rowling’s first screenwriting credit – I’m not sure how much that factored into the lumpiness of the script and dialogue, but perhaps someone with her clout need not fear an excess of editorial control.

Overall, therefore, Fantastic Beasts might not really have satisfied me in terms of its worth as a film, but it does provide an interesting dose of worldbuilding, and I suppose is one crucial element in the long term longevity of the franchise.

I give this 3.5 out of 5 briefcases