Saturday, November 28, 2009

Abalone, Shark Fin and Bird's Nest - Not really all that good

Abalone, shark fin, and bird's nest soups are all way overrated.

For their last night in town I took my parents to Sumie, one of the nicer Japanese restaurants in Taipei. We all ordered different 7-course set menus, and overall the meal was delectable, with the fastidiously painstaking presentation and service that one would expect from a restaurant in this price range. It wasn't perfect, though - with 7 courses, there are bound to be some misses. One of them came in our first course, when my Dad and I were both served abalone soup.

Abalone is a mollusk that, like shark fin and bird's nest, is an extremely expensive ingredient and considered a delicacy in many different Asian cultures. If you've ever had one of these ingredients, it was probably in a soup, and probably at a meal in which the (Asian) host felt compelled to conspicuously advertise how much money he or she is spending - weddings (got to show the in-laws!), large family reunions (got to show the in-laws!), important business dinners (got to show the clients!), etc. The thing is, none of these three ingredients have any flavor of their own at all. The best thing that can be said about any of them is that much like potato, pasta, tofu, or crackers, their bland flavor makes them reasonably good at soaking up the flavor of whatever is around them. Now, I'm rather fond of tofu, crackers, and potato. They definitely fill an important role in composing a tasty soup. But they're also relatively cheap ingredients, unlike abalone, shark fin, or bird's nest.

Apologists for these ingredients usually assert that though they may be flavorless, they have unique textures which work well with flavorful dishes. To which I say: nonsense! Bird's nest is simply a thoroughly soaked cracker or crouton, and tofu of the right consistency is nearly indistinguishable from shark fin. As for abalone, it has the approximate consistency of rubber, so if you actually enjoy that sort of thing you can just drop some rubber into your soup. (Though I suppose octopus is a pretty close approximation too.) Yes, serving rubber in soup would be ridiculous. But it'd still be less ridiculous than using abalone, because at least you'd save quite a bit of cash.

There's a reason these vastly overpriced and utterly flavorless ingredients are pretty much only ever served in soup, people - all the other components that go into a rich, hearty broth work overtime to lend some flavor to the so-called "signature ingredient," which itself contributes nothing other than an additional zero or two to the end of the price. I'm confident that there is no such thing as a good shark fin, abalone, or bird's nest soup. There are simply good soups that happen to have shark fin, abalone, or bird's nest in them, and all of them would probably be much improved if you took out the obscenely expensive flavorless mass at their center and tossed in some tofu, tako, or crackers instead.

There's another reason abalone and its cousins in exorbitant blandlessness are often served in soup - in multi-course Asian meals, as in Western cooking, soup is an early course. The conspicuous extravagance of the soup advertises the cost of the entire meal and is intended to signal to the diner that all subsequent courses must be equally upscale.

At Sumie, where we had just ordered dinners that definitely fell within the potentially aneurysm-producing range, the restaurant no doubt placed abalone soup in front of us right away in hopes of assuaging any sticker shock. On me it had the opposite effect. The soup itself, aside from the rubbery mass of mollusk in the middle, was solid, if unexceptional. But I had started calculating how much of my check would be going to the soup - the soup - instead to the real meat of the meal, and it did not bode well.

Luckily, Sumie won me over with the second course, a truly delicious sashimi plate, followed by a solid third course for me (tempura) and a exquisite third course for my dad, which I sampled (grilled sea bass). Even so, after we left I remembered that the two real highlights of the meal - the sashimi and the sushi - were definitely both on the smaller side. I couldn't help but wonder how much larger the portions would have been if the chef had skipped the abalone and bought something actually tasty with that money instead.

Ultimately, these soups are culinary veblen goods - prized for their high price, and nothing more. Like designer handbags or Rolls-Royces, the mere fact of their high price lends them an exclusivity, and they actually would become less desirable if they were available more efficiently and cheaply.

Sumie delivered an extraordinary meal overall, and I would definitely go again at some point. But I've also had plenty of Asian meals that were utterly unremarkable, aside from the ostentatiously profligate soup course. Now that I'm living in Taiwan I know more truly "Asian" people, so to the one or two of you that can follow my English I beg of you this: I know it's tradition, but if you're hosting an important dinner, don't ever buy Bird's Nest, Shark Fin, or Abalone soup. Instead of spending money to impress me, spend the money on something I will actually enjoy eating instead.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Expat Politics

A few weeks ago I saw a DPP/Green protest march down Roosevelt Avenue. It was a scene that would be pretty familiar to anyone who lived in NY or SF during the Bush years: protesters dressed in elaborate, sometimes theatrically overwrought costumes (this one featured lots of folks dressed as "death," people with "blood" poured over their faces, etc. - again, reminiscent of US antiwar marches), lots of banners with provocative slogans unlikely to change any minds ("Stop the [President] Ma [Ying-Jeou] Death Toll"), annoyed locals upset to have their daily routine interrupted by all the traffic, and even a Code Pink-esque group of matronly older Taiwanese ladies leading a pretty raucous chant. I thought it was a pretty inspiring spectacle to see a 5' Asian grandmother stamp and shout with the energy of a college liberal, no matter what your politics are.

I'm not sure if these similarities are simply another example of how the left here often takes inspiration from the rhetoric of western democracy, evidence of a vast lefty communist conspiracy that pulls all the strings and organizes these protests - though why would a communist conspiracy be opposed to closer relations to China? - or perhaps most likely, simply the product of convergent evolution.

One thing that was different from your typical US protest march, of course, was all the Asian faces. In the States, Asian-Americans are usually too sensible to get involved in these kind of political frivolities. It's part of an Asian-American under-engagement with politics in general - lower even than the anemic American average - that Asian leaders sometimes decry, pointing out that politicians don't court an Asian voting bloc like the Hispanic or Black vote, because the Asian vote by and large doesn't exist.

That's the kind of political participation I'm used to, as an Asian-American, a generally lefty-liberaltarian thinker sympathetic with the ideology of US protesters but still annoyed at having to deal with them, and a Poli Sci major that's never personally voted. What? The math says that the odds my participation will affect the outcome of the election are nil. You can thank Poli 33, Voting Systems, for that stunning insight.

I also saw a bunch of foreigners in the protest march, which brings me to the putative point of this post: I'd say that expats, to the extent that they care about Taiwanese politics, skew very green here. I'm making this statistically unfounded estimation just based on expats I've talked to, blogs I've read, and political intuition. For one thing, there's the selection bias on who comes here in the first place. It's a very lefty, one-world impulse to go live and work in another country. Also, Westerners, especially Americans, both left and right are generally inclined to support small democracies their struggle for self-determination and human rights against totalitarian neighbors. The left likes the self-determination and human rights part, the right likes the stand up to China part. And perhaps most importantly, it's easier to make a stand on principle when you don't have to live with the consequences.

The messy truth is that Taiwan is one of those fascinating cases where ideology and political principle collides with the 400-lb gorilla that is reality. There are committed ideologues on both sides and the polling is very confused, but the vast majority of Taiwanese can generally be expected to support something along the lines of "No reunification, no independence, no war" as Ma Ying-Jeou put it in a brilliant bit of election sloganeering. Never mind that the empty phrase is a contradiction in terms and logically incoherent. If you aren't part of China, and you aren't independent, then what are you? Something much like Taiwan today, I guess, a fragile quasi-state perpetually teetering on the fulcrum between independence and annihilation.

In a concession to the reality that (1) China has a whole bunch of missiles pointed at Taiwan, (2) China and Taiwan have a trade relationship that is enormously mutually profitable, and (3) At this point no one honestly believes the ROC is, or really ever was past 1949, the legitimate government of all China, the Taiwanese people have concluded that the calculated ambiguity of the status quo is the best they can hope to live with. If you were to phrase a poll question to ask "If China would not object, would you support Taiwanese independence?" you'd have substantial agreement - which drops precipitously once that qualifier is removed from the question. So clearly sovereignty is an idea that has great support in the abstract, it's just not something that's perceived as achievable. Principle takes a backseat to pragmatism here, because pragmatism lets you keep making money and not be bombed.

Expats don't have to live with it, though, so it's easier to make a stand on principle. It's easier to support the righteous struggle for justice and liberty when you have a passport and can leave the country when the bombs start falling.

It'd be very interesting to me, purely academically, to learn how support for independence among overseas Taiwanese compares to the level of support within the country. On the one hand, you kind of have the reverse urban-rural divide here, with the rich urban north trending conservative, blue, and China-accommodating, and the poor rural south trending liberal, green, and nationalistic. (Yes, the "liberals" are nationalists here, while the "nationalist party" aren't... it's all very confusing.) Since it's generally the urban rich that have the opportunity to emigrate abroad, you'd expect selection bias to lean the (Taiwanese) expat community to the right. But based on the don't-have-to-deal-with-the-consequences theory of sovereignty support, you'd also expect it to be a little easier for Taiwanese emigres to advocate independence from the safe removes of California, Maryland, and Texas. My hypothesis is that once you control for income, there'd be a statistically significant increase in support for outright, no-qualifications independence among Taiwanese expats.

Sounds like a thesis. Who wants to go write it?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Greatest Sentence Ever

Or maybe that even the mere possibility of expressing any of this childish heartbreak to someone else seemed impossible except in the context of the mystery of true marriage, meaning not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls, and Schmidt now lately felt he was coming to understand why the Church all through his childhood catechism and pre-Con referred to it as the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, for it seemed every bit as miraculous and transrational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life as the crucifixion and resurrection and transubstantiation did, which is to say it appeared not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star, as in in the sky, something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful in the sort of distant way that reminded you always of how ordinary and unbeautiful and incapable of miracles you your own self were, which was another reason why Schmidt had stopped looking at the sky or going out at night or even usually ever opening the lightproof curtains of his condominium’s picture window when he got home at night and instead sat with his satellite TV’s channel-changer in his left hand switching rapidly from channel to channel to channel out of fear that something better was going to come on suddenly on another of the cable provider’s 220 regular and premium channels and that he was going to miss it, spending three nightly hours this way before it was time to stare with drumming heart at the telephone that wholly unbeknownst to her had Darlene Lilley’s home number on Speed Dial so that it would take only one moment of the courage to risk looking prurient or creepy to use just one finger to push just one gray button to invite for one cocktail or even just a soft drink over which he could take off his public mask and open his heart to her before quailing and deferring the call one more night and waddling into the bathroom and/or then the cream-and-tan bedroom to lay out the next day’s crisp shirt and tie and say his nightly dekate and then masturbate himself to sleep again once more.

-David Foster Wallace “Mister Squishy”


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Joyce Carol Oates is not a hack.

I have to admit that for quite a while, I was under the impression that Joyce Carol Oates is a hack. I came to this conclusion without having actually read any of her work, but from observing her sheer rate of Stephen King-esque output - a new novel each and every year, on top of numerous essays, short fiction, and the occasional play. Surely a writer that prodigious, my thinking went, must be hack. It defies reason for someone to write that quickly, and write well. That Oates regularly rakes in the literary prizes and has her work reprinted in a variety of end-of-year collections, in both "literary" and "genre" anthologies, was insufficient to persuade me - indeed, I am ashamed to say that when I saw her name prominently headlining fantasy and horror anthologies, I was further convinced that Oates must be a hack. Pshaw, genre work! Hack, hack, hack!

This summer, I actually found time between sneering at the voluminous "Oates section" at bookstores - as I liked to think of them - to actually pick up one of her books. I read "The Falls," Oates' 2004 novel (no, I am not exaggerating about the one novel a year thing. Check her wikipedia page if you don't believe me.) "The Falls" won the French Prix Femina prize in the "foreign category," but in that it's hardly unique among Oates' work, as it seems each of her novels garners some kind of recognition or another. And I expected to hate it, but I realized that it was an incredible book. In fact, it's kind of genius. "The Falls" has a ambitiously sprawling plot, vivid depictions of decidedly unpredictable characters, a meticulously captured historical setting, and academically hip intertextuality - including an inspired nod to James Joyce's "Yes she said yes" passage from Ulysses that may even surpass the original. It manages to be formally innovative while doing all this, employing both a conventional third-person narrator and a sort of tributaries-of-consciousness style that briefly follows individual characters.

So, Joyce Carol Oates is not a hack. She's just some kind of literary savant capable of superhuman achievement in writing. That, or she knows how to compress time.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Christopher Hitchens and Mark Daily

Hitchens has always been one of the most eloquent writers in support of the war. He supported the Iraq invasion from a leftist humanitarian perspective, and it helps that he's an incredibly erudite and widely read writer. Like most war supporters, he's since had to rethink his opinions - not that "I told you so" is much comfort for the doves in this country.

I found this piece in Vanity Fair by Hitchens about meeting the family of Mark Daily, a soldier who was inspired by his writing to enlist and then later died in Iraq, incredibly poignant.

Daily was 23. He was about a year older than I am now.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Self-Criticism, and Media Saturation

So the whole point of this blog was to get me writing regularly, but it turns out that was more difficult than it seemed, for a few reasons:
(1) My consumption of culture seems to leave little time for writing about culture. Of course, any time I devote to writing about culture takes away from my time experiencing culture, thus diminishing the repository of material I have to write about. It's a vicious cycle!
(2) I write "long", as any of you who actually read my mammoth posts in their entirety probably know. I also edit pretty compulsively, and even then I'm rarely satisfied with the result. I kind of want to go back and rewrite half of that Medieval 2 post, for example - I know it's kind of a mess in some places.

There's not much I can do about (1) especially now that I have more class. With regards to (2), I'm going to start making some of my posts very brief. I will deliberately lower my standards on these posts so that they don't need to reach any sort of meaningful insight. I'll still do longer posts as well.

So, the first of these briefs (and a pretty good indication of the [minimal] level of thought you can expect these brief posts to demonstrate in the future):

From time to time I hear social pundits either lauding or lamenting the volume of media in our culture, as well as the ever-increasing avenues by which we can consume this media. Sorry, I don't have any links handy and you'll just have to take my word for it that pundits do talk about this. The idea is that technology has lowered the cost of publication so much that there is so much sheer quantity of media and other "stuff" out there that it's impossible for any one individual to apprehend and make sense of it all. I have so many MP3s on my hard drive I don't even recognize half of them, some people have so many digital photos its hard for them to remember the significance of any particular shot, and others have so many Facebook friends they write self-satisfied articles in Slate about rejecting people, and so on. (Bitter? Me? Nooooo.) As a related consequence, "culture," or at least mainstream culture, is less coherent and more fragmented.

I'm not sure what I think about all that, but I do know that an hour ago I was playing the Aztec campaign in Medieval 2 while streaming a NPR debate about privacy and security and listening to Bach's Partita in d for Solo Violin. I'm immersed in media. It is glorious. One of these days I'll write about the convergences between David Frum's argument for a surveillance state and Cortes' conquest of the Yucatan peninsula.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sympathy for the Pixels

Something very bizarre and wonderful happened to me while playing Medieval 2 Total War the other night.

I should perhaps describe this game. The year is 1428 and playing as the Sicilians, I've conquered a good deal of the known world. Having pacified North Africa, I conclude that the next logical step is to retrace the steps of the Moors (a faction I had recently wiped off the map) and invade the Iberian peninsula from the south. This meant war with Spain, a minor power in my game. Through politics, tribute, and the occasional assassination I had the Catholic Church in my pocket, so most of the college of cardinals were Sicilian, as was the pope himself. Naturally inclined to see things my way, the pope excommunicated the Spanish king, isolating the Spaniards from the other kingdoms of Europe. Then at my behest a Crusade was declared against the Spanish heretics. My army, battle-tested from the campaign in North Africa and bolstered by crusading warriors hoping to absolve their sins by helping me kill some Spaniards - a Crusade can be terribly convenient for an expansionist power - crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and left devastated, scorched farmlands in their wake as they marched on Madrid.

In other words, I've been playing as a scheming manipulative bastard that would make Machiavelli proud, because that's how you win in this game. Through its flavor-setting loading screen quotations, Medieval 2 openly acknowledges its Machiavellian game mechanics. It is a depiction of a Hobbesian international order where one must conquer or be conquered. The simple imperative is expand or perish: either I acquire more territory, more taxable citizens and thus a larger army or I will become prey to my more acquisitive neighbors.

But something strange happened when the armies met at the banks of the Tagus. The two armies formed into lines and I held my men back as cannon and mortar bombarded the Spanish defensive position atop a hill. Lacking cannon of their own, the Spanish could do nothing but hold their position as my guns softened their lines in preparation for an assault. Now, some more relevant context about the game: one of the cool things about Medieval 2 is its impressive battle engine - a fully 3D depiction of a middle-ages battlefield that is capable of rendering thousands of units onscreen at once from an aerial perspective but also allows you to zoom in and see the action in all its glorious hand-to-hand detail.

The thing is, the distant, godlike aerial view is the one that's far more practical for actual command, as when in the trenches it's easy to miss broader developments on the battlefield. For this reason I hadn't actually spent much time "on the ground," which I suppose could be some kind of metaphor for the comparative wartime experience of the generals and the actual grunts. In any case, there was little else to do while my cannonballs rained down on the Spanish so I zoomed in, with some glee, to see the devastation my guns were visiting upon the enemy. This is when the bizarre event occurred.

As I watched, a mortar shell landed in the midst of the Spanish lines, throwing soldiers in all directions. Then, a few of the fallen men staggered up, shook the stars from their eyes, and found their feet. In defiance of all sane human instinct for self-preservation, the entire line formed ranks to close the gap my mortar had just created in their battle lines, stepping atop the bodies of their just-fallen comrades to do so, even as shells continued to rain down around them. Another shell landed in their ranks not far away. Again the survivors picked themselves up and closed ranks over bloodied corpses.

It was a poignant sight, the fatal drama of these hopelessly outnumbered soldiers doing their duty and constantly reforming their continually diminishing lines. With some guilt I realized that my extended artillery bombardment wasn't even necessary. My army was vastly better-trained, better-equipped, and better-manned than the Spanish citizen militia fighting to defend their homes, but I subjected them to a full barrage of guns because I am the sort of perfectionist gamer and Machiavellian schemer that seizes every possible advantage - and I wanted to watch some explosions, too. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation from too many M2TW all-nighters, but I actually felt sorry for these little polygonal warriors. Pity swelled in my chest and my shriveled Machiavellian heart ached in sympathy for the pixels.

This experience was in part so unlikely, so alien, because empathy for the enemy is such a rare experience in video games in general, and indeed may even be anathema to the whole gaming experience. It's hard to have much "fun" - which is what most people expect from a game, though I think it's an awfully limiting metric for evaluating aesthetic merit - if you're killing a whole bunch of people that you sympathize with. Instead, a game needs to create a firm boundary between "The Self" and what intellectuals like to call "The Other," which is a pithy and pretentious way of saying "something that is not at all like me and is in fact something I can define myself against (in the case of most video games, by killing lots of Them)."

When game graphics were primitive this was all relatively straightforward. Whether you were hopping on turtles in Super Mario or shooting at aliens in Space Invaders the "enemy" was pretty clearly an abstraction, a pixelated representation of something else. As game graphics have improved and the distance between the representation and the actual object collapsed, though the depersonalization becomes increasingly complicated. In Wolfenstein 3D the Nazis were crude, cartoonish and clearly not "human," in Call of Duty 3 the distinction becomes much finer.

To resolve this predicament first-person games typically rely on the same tricks to dehumanize the waves of enemies that the player kills over the course of a typical game: make them aliens, or zombies, or Nazis, or robots, or best of all some combination of the four: alien zombies (Doom 3, Halo), alien Nazis (Half-Life 2), alien zombie robots (Quake 4). Perhaps the purest manifestation of this phenomenon is Return to Castle Wolfenstein's final boss, an alien/zombie/robot/Nazi. Strategy games haven't even had to employ these conceits. Simply set the player above the battle and the little units scurrying about in response to your every will, lobotomized peons without agency, become more insect than human.

I was thinking about some of this as I watched my artillery tear apart the Spanish. I thought about my long-suffering soldiers, who had campaigned for a decade beneath the scorching skies of North Africa only to be told that the road back home to Italy led through Spain, and oh by the way could conquer it for me while you're in the neighborhood? I thought about the deluded religious fanatics in my army, who fought and died for the cross without realizing that their beloved pope was my puppet and this entire "Spanish Crusade" was but a pretext for my avaricious lust for conquest. I thought about how by letting me abandon the omnipotent perspective of most RTS games for a grunts-eye view, Medieval 2 Total War was enabling a sort of empathy, a communion, with the poor souls on both sides of the battle line.

I was thinking about some of this as I watched my artillery tear apart the Spanish. I thought about my long-suffering soldiers, who had campaigned for a decade beneath the scorching skies of North Africa only to be told that the road back home to Italy led through a hostile Spain. I thought about the deluded religious fanatics in my army, who fought and died for the cross without realizing that their beloved pope was my puppet and the "Spanish Crusade" was but a pretext for an invasion to sate my avaricious lust for conquest. I thought about how by letting me abandon the omnipotent perspective of most RTS games for a grunts-eye view, Medieval 2 Total War was enabling a sort of empathy, a communion, with the poor souls on both sides of the battle line.

Then my artillery ran out of ammunition, so I advanced my lines, executed a textbook-perfect double envelopment, sent their entire army fleeing, ran down the panicked Spanish beneath the iron-shod hooves of my cavalry so they couldn't regroup to defend Madrid, and executed all the prisoners captured in battle rather than release them to fight another day.

But I did feel kind of bad about it afterwards.

Appendix (AKA the ungainly paragraph that didn't fit gracefully anywhere else so I'm sticking here at the end):

To give full credit to the developers, Medieval 2 also has something of an antiwar - or at least a war-is-terrible - sentiment, even as its very mechanics encourage constant expansion and conquest. Quotations from the likes of Erasmus or Martin Luther on the horror of war are displayed in place of Machiavelli in some of the loading screens.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How SciFi missed the point

Ray Bradbury once said that he didn't own a computer, "because I already own a typewriter, and I don't need another one." This sentiment from one of sci-fi's canonical masters, of a computer as a glorified typewriter and calculating machine, perfectly illustrates just how blind and short-sighted so much of science fiction was. To see why one needs to look no farther than Britney Spears.

Britney Spears made a sorry spectacle of herself a few days ago at the VMAs, and what's worse, she did it in front of a net-savvy, plugged-in audience, which meant an incident that a few years ago might have blown over after momentary embarrassment within a certain audience - how many people actually watch the VMAs, anyway? - becomes a broader cultural event. There is no greater evidence for this than the remarkable fact that I, who must be about the last person to be interested in what happens in Britney Spears' life, have not only seen the spectacle myself, I've also seen that video where a sobbing Britney fan comes to her passionate defense. Sure, my exposure to the whole fracas only comes out to about 10 minute of video at most, but this is still far, far, far more Britney than I thought I would ever encounter in a 24-hour span.

This is hardly a unique insight. Political pundits have already observed how the Internet has the effect of magnifying a politician's gaffes - former senator George Allen's "macaca" moment being the oft-referenced example of this - and it's long been accepted that the convergence of cell-phone cameras, a rabid audience, and YouTube has brightened the spotlight on celebrities to a blinding glare. Nor is, I think, my broader point at all novel - that the Internet has, in fact, changed everything. It allows incredibly niche, tiny subcultures to network and form communities and harnesses the long tail of consumer demand. At the same time it gives the "mainstream" culture a pervasive vehicle of transmission so that even individuals who are doing their best to tune out have difficulty escaping its presence. (I skimmed thread titles about Britney in the off-topic forums at some sites I lurk, and was formally introduced to the entire affair via an article at Salon.)

Nevertheless, I bring up this admittedly not very original point that "The Internet Changes Everything" for a reason. For one thing, I think it is frequently underestimated just how much information and communications technology has Changed Everything. In terms of cultural impact, the Internet is equal to radio and greater than television, the telephone, and the telegraph. It has completely reshaped how an entire generation interacts with each other and the broader culture, and by doing so, it has changed the lives even for those who might have little use for the Internet at all. An elderly Virginia citizen who has never touched a computer, for example, has nevertheless been directly affected by YouTube and the role it played in George Allen's re-election failure. (I could perhaps even point to Bill Clinton's impeachment, which certainly altered the trajectory of this country and the world, as a product of the information age - it's questionable just how big the Lewinsky Affair would have been had Drudge not trumpeted the story early, as it's precisely the sort of story that the "respectable" media of the time was hesitant to publish.)

From time to time people have wondered what exactly happened to "the future" - by this they mean the wonderful technological advances promised by futurologists and science fiction writers decades ago. Where is the life promised by the Jetsons? Where are our moon bases, our flying cars, or personal robot servants? But these are mere trappings, fetishes of technology. The astounding advances in communications technology has already ushered in a completely different world. But our science fiction writers have almost entirely missed the point. Science fiction has largely been what I call "industrial" science, by which I mean it is fixated on technology you can see and touch - lasers, spaceships, robots - while failing to realize just how significant this electronic-mail thing was going to become. But the first world is post-industrial. A better car, a faster spaceship, would hardly affect our lives the same way that the Internet has.

Ultimately I think the problem was that the canonical science fiction writers, and certainly "hard" sci-fi writers, were and are pretty terrible sociologists - it is a "soft" science after all. The Isaac Asimovs, Raymond Bradburys, and Phillip K. Dicks of the world were far more interested in the gee-whiz technological wizardry of their futures than in the social impact that advancing technology would have. In fact, going back and reading their work it's often amusing just how anachronistic their "future" societies seem: if it weren't for the cool technology laying around, many of those stories could just as well be set in the pre-feminist and pre-counterculture postwar decade.

I don't mean to indict an entire genre, of course, just the amusing failings of the older, stodgier, "I don't need a fancier typewriter" Bradburys of sci-fi. Cyberpunk certainly suggested that there was more to the future than jetcars and moon bases, and Cory Doctorow, probably the most important sci-fi writer today, is almost entirely a child of the Internet. My point is that any science fiction that claims to be relevant today must, like Doctorow, account for how information and communications technology has and will affect our lives. Otherwise you're just playing with spaceships and lasers.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Casino Royale - Blunt Instruments

I think that Casino Royale may be the first Bond film that I am not the least bit embarrassed to say that I enjoyed, possibly even loved. It could have been disastrous to abandon the Bond series' self-conscious wink-wink camp in favor of a more serious, somber tone, yet somehow Casino Royale manages to pull off a somber, not at all tongue-in-cheek James Bond without straining credulity. I like Casino Royale so much that I think I'm going to write two posts on it.

In this first post I want to examine one of the most exhilarating chase sequences in recent memory, when Bond chases bomb-maker Mollaka through the streets of Madagascar and into a construction site full of conveniently placed obstacles. Mollaka is played by Frenchman Sebastian Foucan, who co-founded the modern sport of "free-running," which is also known as "parkour" or "l'art du deplacément." In the footchase Mollaka demonstrates a breathtaking, almost superhuman agility. The limber Mollaka vaults over obstacles, kicks off of walls, and bounds through the construction site like a coiled spring. Daniel Craig's Bond, meanwhile, doesn't hold stock with any of this French "deplacément" nonsense. With substantially less grace Bond stumbles through obstacles and seems to keep up merely through a dogged persistence. When the chase leads to a sheer, three-story fall, Mollaka drops and executes a perfect tuck-and-roll. Bond takes the elevator. At one point Mollaka leaps through a small gap in a half-completed thin wooden wall, bending and touching his toes as he sails through in order to condense his flying form. Bond simply puts his head down and runs through the wall, breaking it apart.

It's a thrilling sequence, both in a holy-shit-did-he-just-do-that way as simple spectacle and in a more cerebral way as a study in contrasts. Indeed, in the chase Bond is so outclassed physically by Mollaka that it hardly seems possible for him to keep up, yet somehow, through sheer tenacity, he does. What Casino Royale seeks to do with the visual metaphors in this opening action sequence, of course, is establish the "new" Bond: more thuggish, less experienced, and without an arsenal of esoteric gadgets to fall back upon. As M puts it, he is a "blunt instrument," and smashing through walls is what he is good at.

Still, I think in this sequence Casino Royale may have stumbled across something more significant and meaningful, and it may be why this particular chase sequence has remained so memorable to me. For one thing, the sequence is an inversion of action-movie convention: typically, it is the bad guy's hapless henchmen who are the lumbering brutes, and our heroes defeat them through skill, finesse, and ingenuity. Previous Bond movies are particularly good examples of this: Bond always has a fancy gadget or death-defying stunt with which to get the upper hand on the adversary. But in Casino Royale, Bond is the one that lumbers and the bad guy is the one with all the skill and finesse. The mere novelty of a role reversal between hero and baddie is enough raise this chase sequence above stale action-movie clichés.

What gives this inversion a particular frisson, though, is that the Western audience - particularly the American audience - desperately wants to identify with the lumbering brutes, the blunt instruments of the world. As the global hegemon it is long past the time when America can conceive of itself as the scrappy underdog of the world stage, and in this current conflict against terrorism (which the Bond movie is at least tangentially about), it is the terrorists - whether operating as isolated cells in our homes, or as insurgent guerrillas using "asymmetric" tactics - that rely on agility, luck, and stealth to survive against the better-armed, better-equipped, better-trained US (and to some extent Western) military machine. The sources of Western military pride may be awe-inspiring, but they lack a certain finesse. What is a M1 Abrams tank, a 2000-pound bomb dropped from a $50 million strike fighter, a 100-thousand ton nuclear-powered supercarrier, if not a blunt instrument?

In this context then, the action-movie convention of a wily, clever, and graceful hero outfoxing the blundering bad-guy thugs becomes deeply unsatisfying, even unnerving. It would be an unwelcome reminder of the limitations and fallibility of sheer power. Small wonder, then, that the sight of James Bond putting his head down and running through a wall thrills us so. It's a comfort to be told that sometimes, when facing an enemy that confounds you at every turn, it is possible to say to hell with looking graceful and just smash through that wall.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Jodi Picoult - My Sister's Keeper

As a way to get myself in the habit of writing regularly, I'm going to try to post regularly to this blog over the next month or so. I've done a lot of media consumption (and subsequent reflection) this summer, so there's plenty of material percolating: stray thoughts on a book I just read, responses to what I see on TV, pretentious ideas occupying my higher brain functions as I distract myself with a video game. Having a rather high opinion of myself, my natural impulse is to turn to someone and share these stunning insights aloud, but all too often there is no audience readily available to witness my piercing observations. So I'll write them down instead.

I'll start with a book I read this past week, Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper. Picoult has found one of those subjects both very relevant to real life yet fertile with dramatic potential that all writers and wannabe writers (like myself) wish they had thought of themselves. Anna Fitzgerald is conceived for the express purpose of serving as a marrow donor for her leukemic older sister, Kate. Prior to implantation, her embryo is genetically screened from a batch to be a perfect bone marrow match. Moments after her birth Anna's precious umbilical stem cells are whisked away to reinforce Kate's beleaguered immune system, and as she grows up Anna undergoes numerous operations, shots, and transfusions to prevent the lethal relapse of Kate's leukemia. Her parents love her and don't like to call her a "designer baby" but that is, effectively, what she is: Anna was selected and born for a purpose.

This scenario has in fact been seen in a number of families with a leukemic young child, which is part of what makes My Sister's Keeper such a potent novel. Picoult gives the narrative a jolt by opening with Anna, age 13 and unwilling to serve as a kidney donor for Kate, filing legal papers for medical emancipation from her parents. The subsequent legal controversy and family dysfunction propel the rest of the plot.

My Sister's Keeper was a enjoyable and brisk read - I might even go so far as to call it a "page-turner" if that phrase didn't have vaguely pejorative connotations - but still, I can't say I'm entirely satisfied with it. Ultimately I believe my disenchantment can be traced to the central emancipation plot. Picoult takes a scenario of enormous emotional complexity and dimension only to reduce it in order to make it fit a rather facile legal controversy. The life of a "typical" family with a designer donor baby is quite fascinating enough; there's no need for the author to contrive a rather outlandish legal gesture to inject some drama into the family dynamic. A more understated exploration of the unarticulated pity, obligation, and even occasional resentment of a typical donor/recipient relationship would probably have been far more provocative than what Picoult gives us here. Indeed, the overt recrimination and conflict the Fitzgerald family experiences as a consequence of Anna's dramatic decision is, if anything, quite familiar to us from other stories or own lives.

This impulse to "add the drama" is sadly evident throughout the book. Like many Picoult novels, My Sister's Keeper is resolved with a court case in the fourth act, but along the way it acquires one overwrought, contrived subplot after another. The older brother acts out by committing acts of arson which are then investigated by the fireman father. Anna's lawyer has a service dog for some unnamed disability that he's too proud to voice aloud. The court-appointed guardian ad litem still bears emotional wounds from a tumultuous high school romance with Anna's lawyer. Anna's mother is also an attorney and represents herself in court, cross-examining the father when Anna's lawyer calls him as a witness. (This produces perhaps the most cringe-inducing moment in the novel when the mother plaintively asks the estranged father, "When are you coming home?") These subplots leaden and encrust what is actually a very well-conceived relationship between Anna and Kate, who engage in movingly familiar rituals of sibling affection and bickering even as they together confront their extraordinary and unfamiliar challenges.

Unfortunately the relationship between Anna and Kate receives perhaps the least attention in the book as Picoult abandons it in order to pursue her many dramatic contrivances, and also to withhold information from the reader for a big reveal in the fourth act that is nevertheless rather predictable. There's also a second heavy-handed twist in the final pages that resolves everything a bit too neatly. My Sister's Keeper is being adapted into film - Nick Cassavetes, of The Notebook, is attached to direct - which does not surprise me; with its many twists, reversals, and romantic entanglements it is an exceedingly theatrical book - which is to say, unlike our less dramatic actual lives.

None of this is necessarily to imply that My Sister's Keeper is a bad book; it's far too well-written for that. The book brought me close to tears more than once - though on those occasions I couldn't shake the impression that I was being manipulated, as when a film produces a baby in peril or turns up the melancholy violin soundtrack. I might wish that Picoult treated her subject with a lighter touch and restrained herself to a purer, smaller story, but I must concede that she demonstrates tremendous craft with the story that she does choose to tell. I should also concede that I have the sort of jaded pomo taste that sees authorial contrivance everywhere and is predisposed to dislike Picoult's grander treatment of this subject in favor of a sparser, more minimalist approach.

In the end I guess my feelings about the book come down to this: my copy of the book came in a very effete teal-and-peach pastel, with a cover photo of two tank top-wearing girls leaning against each other that resembles something from one of those faddish tween chick-lit "Gossip Girl" books. I like to pride myself the kind of progressive, educated person who is above arbitrary social constructions of gender and superficial masculine vanity, but I have to confess that when I was reading at the coffee shop I surreptitiously kept the book flat against the table surface, or read from underneath the table like a guilty elementary student. If, like me, you can't quite get past the cover, then the florid melodrama that obscures the fascinating central dilemma in My Sister's Keeper will probably prove an equally discouraging obstacle. Whether that's a failing of the book or of myself, I don't think I'm in a position to say.

Monday, July 12, 2004


What was once here is now here.