I see from my blog stats for the past week or so that a lot of people were attracted to my book reviews and discussion of Hugo and Nebula Awards.

For those people, HERE is the list of the 2014 Hugo Nominees, courtesy of John Scalzi’s Whatever Blog, the earliest listing I came across.

I was really happy to see Parasite by Mira Grant on the list.  It is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  But I really have liked everything Mira Grant has written.

I’m hoping that Wheel of Time doesn’t take it as it is there mostly as a technicality.  If the newest book by Sanderson was nominated alone it would make more sense.  But nominating the whole series is like going to a county pie contest and finding a whole bakery competing.

I’m currently reading Michael Dowd’s Thank God For Evolution. As I’ve stated before, Dowd is trying to build a bridge between the traditional religious ideas of pre-rational, mythic beliefs (Red and Amber in Integral Theory) and a rational theism (applicable to those at the Orange level). I’m about one third of the way through the book and I’ve noticed a pattern. I would say that I have no problem connecting with about 80% of the book. I am very satisfied with the central thrust of the book, which is that evolution, the wonders of modern science, and the understanding of brain research are the modern ways in which “God” is expressing itself. Down says that his concept of a divine figure is the universe and doesn’t stand outside of it. There is a Taoist or Deist (or Zen) interpretation of that which I can appreciate.

But every once in a while he throws in a paragraph that undoubtedly comes from his old evangelical preaching days, talking about “being blessed” or “living in God’s light”. He introduces the Epilogue with “I didn’t write this book. God did.” As someone who is coming at the book from a more atheistic or agnostic perspective (Orange or Green), I often cringe when I get to those parts. I understand what he’s getting at and can even stretch myself to understand how someone else would experience it that way, but it is very clear that Down is building his bridge from the traditional, pre-rational theist to what he hopes will be the modernist or even post-modern, rational theist. It is a bridge worth building. Ken Wilber has stated that if non-theist rationalists completely deny and ridicule any form of rational theism, it is effectively cutting off the possibility of personal evolution for many people. Including these rather traditionally religious expressions in his book may be designed to ease the transition and frame some of the “new” concepts in “old” speak. This is not hypocritical. New levels of development subsume the earlier ones, retaining many of the old concepts in a transcended form. I would not want to begrudge religious people that bridge.

As I said, I’ve only read the first third. At least to this point Dowd has not attempted to build a bridge from the rational non-theist to the rational theist. Many rationalists (Orange) who are also Atheists have placed science and scientific method on an alter of their own. Empiricism and materialism trump any sort of theism, and if it cannot be proven empirically or scientifically then they regard it as unnecessary and untrue. When you look at Atheist forums on the Internet or on Facebook, you often find passionate attacks against traditional religious beliefs. Some contain so much venom that it is clear they are driven by shadow issues. Rationality is attained, and for some the attainment came at a cost of rejecting their pre-rational values. Disowned beliefs still gnaw at some of them, creating Shadows and the need to lash out at the thing that they, themselves, have transcended. Dawkins often falls into this corner.

Even for those with no or few Shadow issues of this sort, there still tends to be a defensive stance against subjective metaphysics rather than the objective materialism that they trust. They would tend to look at many of Dowd’s preacher statements and say, “Well that sounds very nice, but why do I need God in the first place?” And that is the precise argument that has to be made if you are going to build that particular bridge.

Dowd wants us to see a version of God in scientific wonder. As we unravel the universe, he claims that this is God revealing itself. Again the question, “So what?” Well, as Einstein said, “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.”

Science tells us that we are a perhaps solitary speck of life in a mechanistic universe. Understanding that, we can become Nihilists and despair, or we can appreciate the wonder and possibly unique (at least rare) status that we enjoy. In the latter, we recognise the preciousness of our planet, and it translates in to reverence, respect and caring about the environment.

Building the bridge that connects the intricacies of objective science to a sense of wonder and reverence is desperately needed. Religions carry much baggage with them, but there are several things that they do well.

They provide a context for meaning, leading to a sense of purpose rather than a sense of despair.

They provide passion and impetus to turn beliefs into action and routine.

They provide symbolic and ceremonial subtexts which are capable of transcending purely logical thought and gives access to deeper and profound parts of our mind.

They (at their best) ground us in a common goal with other people.

Secular Humanism tries hard to accomplish these things, but has mixed and inconsistent results. I believe this is because it lacks these things that something akin to a religious or spiritual belief brings to human nature. Environmentalism will never be a successful social movement until it takes on the power of a religious-like force. Wonder, love and reverence are not logical. Dowd’s book hints at the kind of bridge that could be built from rational secularism to rational theism; from the Objective to the Subjective, without losing the integrity of science and reason. Within the things that science is disclosing about itself, we should be able to find the context, the passion and the common goal. The symbols and ceremonial subtexts need a little work. But as each level of conceptual development transcends the last, retaining and amalgamating with it those things that can still add value at the new level. The spirit of creativity, scientifically iterated in evolution, can be one of those transcending concepts. The sanctity of life, also connected to evolution, can be another. This requires a little thought on our part. It is easy to point to fundamentalist religions, whether Christian or Muslim, and see the flaws. It is harder to allow them to evolve into something more positive. There needs to be a space created for that evolution.

AFTERTHOUGHT:  After posting this I see that it appears right above my post about the novel, Dune.  I found this interesting because the Bene Gesserit “religion” or order depicted in the book is very much the kind of secular theism that I’m talking about here.  It has all the benefits of a “religion”, and yet never mentions God. 

Two events have coincided to produce this post.

The first was visiting the Philosophy section of a book store with a friend and noticing that there was a whole section devoted to “The Philosophy of …”, the usual things including stuff like Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Walking Dead, Ender’s Game …  You get the idea.  Oddly there was no “Philosophy of Hamlet or Wurthering Heights”, although Sinefeld and The Simpsons made it.  I find that there is often a philosophical connotation attached to Science Fiction and Fantasy/Horror.  This is probably because these genres challenge human nature in ways that bring forward philosophical ideas and speculations moreso than will Mystery or straight Fiction.  That’s not to sideline Hamlet or War & Peace, or even more current authors like Marquez or Rushdie, but I find that speculative fiction is often more conducive to a popular treatment of philosophy.

The second thing was starting to read Mentats of Dune, the new contribution to the epic Dune series.  The current releases are written by the original author’s son, Brian Herbert (along with Kevin Anderson), but the original work by Frank Herbert, simply titled Dune, is arguably one of the best Science Fiction books ever written.  I think it holds its own quite well among Fiction books in general.

And so I wondered whether there was a “Philosophy of Dune” book out there anywhere.  Turns out that there is, but glancing through the table of contents it just doesn’t seem to concern itself with the same topics that I’d be likely to emphasize.

Frank Herbert’s Dune (1966) undoubtedly was one of the most profound influences on me in my teenage years, and that influence has stuck.  As I’ve reread the novel in later years I was genuinely surprised to recognize the themes that were an integral part of my outlook, and how so many new ideas dovetailed nicely into the old ones.  To properly explain the full range of philosophical ideas present in Dune would easily take 40 or 50 pages.  Maybe one day I’ll do, but right now I just want to touch on them

Dune is very much about trying to define what it means to be human.  At the very beginning of the story the main character, Paul, is given a test to see whether he is a human or an animal.  The Bene Gesserit represent the definition, having mastered themselves through self discipline on all of the levels of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.  Other special groups within the book exemplify each level separately.   The Swordsmen have the perfect physical control and discipline of warriors.  The Mentats have the intellectual discipline and skill.  All struggle with a mastery over emotion, although the B.G. are most proficient at using it.  Awareness and transcendent forms of consciousness are important parts of the definition as well.

The Space Guild Navigators bring into the story the nature of cosmic reality and it’s relationship to consciousness.  Given the new discoveries and theories in Quantum Cosmology, these ideas were well ahead of their time.

Many questions of political philosophy are raised in Dune, such as the merits of an aristocratic vs a democratic government.  It also demonstrates clearly the different styles of leadership, which can find correspondence to different levels of social evolution as described in Spiral Dynamics.  The egocentric style of the Harkonnens (Red) is opposed to the more pluralistic or even “Integral” style of the Atreides.  A lot of the characterization around the Atriedes characteristics revolve around the nature of being honorable and what that means.

The spice in the novel is a metaphor for oil in our own world situation.  The scarcity of a critical substance translates into power.  Related to that are the many environmental lessons of Dune.  I’m sure that reading Dune fostered my own environmental leanings.  The importance of the environment, maintaining its balance, and the life lessons which can be learned from a close connection and love of the land are all central to the novel, personified in the form of the Freemen.

The Butlerian Jihad was one of the first treatments of the dangers of AI domination over humanity. Skynet and all of the other paranoid scenarios around AI didn’t arise for another two decades.

The idea of cellular memory in both the Mother Superiors of the B.G. and in the Tleilax gholas is particularly interesting giving some of the recent genetic research which is starting to demonstrate a strong relationship between environmental events and genetic transference.  This isn’t going to lead to memory of past genetic lives or anything like what the B.G. experience in the novel, but the idea is still a fascinating idea.

Getting back to and ending with the idea of the definition of human nature, Paul Ateides to me was a hero who combined fine breeding with excellent training, a challenging and fulfilling relationship with his environment, a family that valued the highest ideals of character, and a mystical experience that allowed him to transcend and integrate it all.  To me Philosophy is essentially examining the nature of reality and determining how to use that in order to best live our lives.  Dune was, to me, a powerful force in developing both of those things.

NOTE:  Both Dune movies don’t come anywhere close to offering the same thinks as the novel does.  Do not try to infer anything about the book from the films. 

It’s that time of year again when Hugo and Nebula Award nominees are published in preparation for the conventions that will decide the winners, to be held shortly.  The Hugo nominees are listed and the Nebula nominees should come out shortly, but there is lots of speculation on the list.  Traditionally that means that I start some informed reading, although I’m not really eligible or, for that matter, inclined to vote on them.  It’s just a good “recommended reading” list.

The Hugos and Nebulas have come to encompass Fantasy as much as Science Fiction novels in recent years, with the whole Game of Thrones / Lord of the Rings spotlights shifting attention to the Fantasy genre.  Personally, I’m not nearly as fond of Fantasy as I am of Science Fiction, so I’m a little disappointed to see this shift.  It can be seen in the bookstores as well (those that are left) in the amount of shelf space delegated to Sci Fi and to Fantasy.  Where once the latter held a distinct secondary ranking, it is now crowding out the Sci Fi. 

Two Sci Fi books that appear on several lists for this year’s best are Fire With Fire, by Charles Gannon and Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, both of which happen to be initial offerings in a series. 

Fire With Fire almost lost me in the first third of the book.  It starts off strongly, introducing a mystery on  a newly settled planet, but then shifts over to a whole different plot line with a series of disjointed action scenes.  It actually never returns to the original mystery.  Fortunately I stuck with it as about 40% of the way through it the novel takes another sharp turns and gets down to the main business of the story.  It becomes quite fascinating , looking at interspecies diplomacy peppered with action and intrigue.  Long sections are kind of cerebral, but it’s interesting speculation and, for me at least, unique and worthwhile.  I particularly liked the main character whose ability to analyze and evaluate situations was kind of like a cross between a Mentat from Dune and Holmes from TV’s Elementary (without the heroin addiction). 

I did enjoy it and am looking forward to the next installment.  Largely because of it’s slow parts I would rate it a B+ rather than an A.

Ancillary Justice is a far future, Star Wars like, space opera, combining some interesting ideas about AI with interstellar political intrigue.  There are lots of fast paced action sequences, although I found the flashback format a little tedious at times, and the characters are not highly compelling.  There’s a kind of impartial and unemotional quality to the characters, which is probably quite appropriate to the story and scenario, but still makes things seem a little flat.  In spite of that, it has lots of excellent points and I would also give it a B+, …although I think I’d rate it a rung or two higher than Fire With Fire

Looking forward to Neptune’s Brood by Charlie Stross next on the list, …but not till I’m done with the newest release in the Dune series. 

I don’t usually read Horror, but this one attracted me. As a youth group leader teaching survival skills, the idea of a Scout Troop stranded on an island, confronted with an epidemic of ravenous worms, was somewhat appealing.

To say that the book is intense is a bit of an understatement. Once it gets rolling, which is pretty quickly, it often makes Walking Dead look like a romp in the park, although it doesn’t depart from the credible. The idea of a biological weapon gone bad is convincing. The writing is vivid and wincingly detailed. The characters are masterfully done, with very candid glimpses inside their minds to see how these young characters interpret their fear. You get to know them very well, which, of course is critical to good horror writing. You have to feel the pain. The author has captured the essence of the young teenage mind and the characters’ confusion over how the “adults” could just leave them to suffer and fend for themselves. One main character realizes that adults thinking that they have it figured out and under control is just a sham. He sees that adults are not that different from kids, and is not impressed with the ways in which they are different.

Nick Cutter is a pen name for successful author Craig Davidson of Toronto. When I picked up the book I didn’t realize it was a local author.

I really enjoyed the novel, finding it extreme and severe. It is a harsh book, full of grotesque and monstrous imagery, and lots of twists and turns. I suppose that is the sign of good Horror. But it also has class and sophistication, with real depth and insight into human nature. Using it in a High School literature class would be unlikely, but it would be an excellent choice. There’s lots of meat. In several ways.

I would give The Troop an A-.

If I read the book I generally see the movie, …sometimes regrettably.

The book, Divergent, is a YA book in the same vein as The Hunger Games. When I started the book I thought, “Oh, here we go again.” Teenage female heroine forced to fight against a corrupt government. However I was pleasantly surprised by the originality of Divergent, which presents a surprisingly mature examination of the theme of conformity. Also, the initiation into the exhilarating warrior class of her society, called the Dauntless, is exciting and really challenges a lot of traditional values. I enjoyed the book, although the two sequels tend to devolve into something resembling Twilight Teen Romance to a larger degree. (I’ve noticed that a lot in YA books. For example, the Mortal Instrument books start out strongly, but then shift to a more romantic theme in the later books. The Hunger Games books avoid that to a greater extent.)

The movie does a good job of following the book on a plot level, but the theme of conformity is less successfully communicated. It is there superficially, but the book, not surprisingly, does a far better job. It is not as hard hitting as it could be and as, for example, is more successfully achieved in the Catching Fire film. As I said, the plot of the film is mostly faithful to the novel, with the action scenes and those that reflect the mental fears, are well done. The acting is fair to good, – not amazing, but not distracting.

Read the book first. I would give the film a B.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a grand caricature of a movie.  It is entertaining.  It is funny in everything from a subtle to  a slapstick sort of way.  It has beautiful cinematography, like a gourmet meal.  And it has a cast that does a remarkable job.  The list of stars in the movie include Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum and many others, although a lot of them are smaller parts.

Wes Anderson always has a way of sculpting a movie rather than filming it, and in this case it is obviously deliberately crafted and formed to match his wonderful vision.  That of a concierge and a lobby boy, and their adventures in a famous, lavish, European hotel, involving the theft of a priceless piece of art, a jail break and the romance of many elderly ladies.

I would give this movie a solid A.