Sunday, July 23, 2017

Six times nine = Forty-two

I rewatched the six half-hour episodes of the old 1981 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC TV show, inspired by this article. I hadn’t seen it in 20 years or so.

It was better than I remembered. Why did I remember any part of this less than fondly? I think it's because the last time I really paid attention to this story in any form, I was immersed in an adolescent smart-alecky culture which so overused lines and gags from the Hitchhiker's Guide that they became stale. The cure for this turned out to be a decade of not revisiting Douglas Adams's work, which gave the old gags new freshness.

The basic storyline by the late Douglas Adams is well-known: middle-class Englishman Arthur Dent survives the destruction of Earth at the hands of dull interstellar bureaucrats due to his friendship with alien Ford Prefect. He and Ford eventually fall in with celebrity criminal Zaphod Beeblebrox, who happens to be vaguely related to Ford ("We share three of the same mothers"), and fellow Earthling Trillian, a woman he not only once knew but had something of a romantic interest towards. The utter improbability of their meeting again is lampshaded to perhaps the most epic degree I have ever seen in fiction. In the following episodic storyline, Arthur learns some highly disquieting things about the Earth, the Universe, and the origins of the human race.

The TV show was based on an original radio series from 1978; this radio series was also adapted into a series of novels, which is probably how most people nowadays get introduced to the story. From a book reader's perspective, the plot of the six TV episodes roughly corresponds to most of the first book (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and about half of the second (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).

The special effects of the TV show get criticized a lot. I think this is unfair. Yes, Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head is one of the all-time great special effects failures, made worse if you know that apparently they had genuinely hoped it would look cool. But apart from that, the special effects actually stand up rather well, when you remember that we’re talking about 1981 effects technology on a TV budget. And the Guide ‘animations’ are a triumph of design. I particularly liked how an epic space battle between vast fleets of warships was represented as an early-1980s video game.

It’s also true that Trillian was played as a ditz and dressed in Space Cheerleader uniforms. But hell, if we're going to be honest, if anything it’s even worse than that. Remember the original Star Wars trilogy’s infamous three female characters with dialogue? (Apart from Leia, Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma were the only women who got to say anything in the three movies.) Well, I just realized for the first time that apart from Trillian, the only woman with any lines at all is that female Golgafrinchan nincompoop in the final episode. Both are played by Americans, so we’ve got the oddity that we never hear a woman with a British accent.

But of the show’s massively male-dominated cast, I have to say they generally did a good job, with David Dixon’s performance as Ford Prefect as the standout. (That said, I also liked Mos Def’s very different interpretation in the 2005 movie, so maybe I’m just a Ford fan.) Simon Jones makes Arthur Dent more assertive than I remember him, which is hilarious given that he has no control over anything that happens to him at any point. Marvin’s silly robot suit kinda grew on me, and I even came to like the goofy, generic sci-fi look of the background aliens. Lots of silver reflective clothing and gratuitous goatees.

In the end, I appreciated the dark nihilistic black comedy of the whole thing. Other media -- the novels and the radio series -- continue the story, but as far as the TV show is concerned we’ve got these six episodes and that’s it. So we have no reason to believe Marvin survives his fatal plunge into the sun. Arthur and Ford are going to spend the rest of their lives on prehistoric Earth, and are not too happy about it. We’ve met a whale that gained self-awareness just in time to die tragically and messily, and a sentient head of livestock (played by the Doctor!) who cheerfully offered himself up as meat and then committed suicide off-screen. This universe is bleak and that is wonderful.

All in all, a solid 3 hours or so of retro British TV.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yerevan and Tbilisi: One Tourist's Superficial Impressions

We visited Armenia and Georgia this year. Prior to our trip, I didn’t have too many preconceived notions of life on the ground there, except for stereotypes about post-Soviet states. This was my first-ever time in the old Eastern Bloc of the Cold War. (I’d been to China and Vietnam, but they don’t really count -- Beijing and Hanoi never marched to the beat of Moscow’s drum.) I expected crumbling 20th-century factories and wonderfully ugly 20th-century Soviet architecture. And yes, I saw examples of both of those.

But both of these countries are also busily remaking themselves in the post-Soviet era. Now, I’m not going to say anything about either nation’s contemporary culture, because I don’t have the knowledge. I was just a tourist in both countries, drinking wine and visiting grand old stone buildings in the countryside. I’m so ignorant I still don’t even know how much I don’t know.

But what I can do is compare and contrast the two capital cities. Even to a casual visitor like myself, Yerevan, Armenia and Tbilisi, Georgia present very different images.

I liked both cities. I would happily spend a few more days in either city. And they look very different.


The city of Yerevan is built on an incline. South is downhill, north is uphill, consistently across the entire city center. At the “bottom” you’ve got Republic Square; at the “top” you’ve got the massive statue of Mother Armenia holding her sword and glaring across the valley at Mount Ararat in the distance. And she is standing next to a kiddie amusement park with rides and cotton candy, but you can’t see that from the downtown, you can only see Mother Armenia up there on the hill.

Yerevan is a city of big solid stone buildings, often adorned with plaques that tell you which government agency is located inside. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many big solid stone buildings taking up entire city blocks outside of Washington DC. Say what you will about the Soviet Union -- and there’s a lot you can say -- they were very good at large-scale stone architecture.

There’s not much that is old in Yerevan. There are a very few historic buildings in the city center. The tiny, ancient church known as the Katoghike is an exception, but its singular existence just makes the lack of other pre-20th century buildings even more noticeable. Just outside of the city center is a neighborhood called Kond, where old houses still exist, but next to the monumental architecture elsewhere, Kond looks almost like a neglected slum by comparison.

Yerevan's downtown was built, for all practical purposes, in the Soviet era and later. A map of the city center has a strong “planned community” feel to it, and with good reason: architect Alexander Tamanyan planned it in the 1920s. According to Lonely Planet, he deliberately oriented the grid system so that major avenues pointed to Mt. Ararat.

I am thoroughly unqualified to make more than the most superficial observations of Armenia. But as someone who makes a living from Taiwanese students’ need to improve their English in order to study abroad, I have to say it was a welcome knock to my worldview to come to a country where English isn’t the primary foreign language. Russian can be seen and heard everywhere in Yerevan, and I’m sure the majority of Yerevanites are perfectly capable of having a conversation in it. English is spoken by some, but we faced much more of a language barrier than monolingual Russian visitors would.

It makes me wonder what it’s like to be part of a small linguistic community. The total population of Armenia (even if you add Nagorno-Karabakh) is no more than the combined population of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. When we went to the supermarket, a few packaged food labels were in Armenian, but the vast majority were in Russian (plus some English). The washing machine in our accommodation was all in Russian, because why would a multinational company bother manufacturing and selling appliances with Armenian writing on them? I wonder if it’s possible to even live a modern lifestyle in Armenia if one only knows Armenian. There’s so much that we speakers of dominant languages take for granted.


Because we visited Yerevan first, my impressions of Tbilisi tend to be in contrast to Yerevan.

While Yerevan has very few pre-20th Century buildings, Tbilisi has loads of them, particularly south of the modern city center (in the “Old Town”). Tbilisi seems to have been a much more prominent city prior to World War I; back then, when it was known as Tiflis to non-Georgians, it was an important regional city of the Russian Empire and seems to have been known to internationally-minded people around the world.

While Yerevan has a very cohesive, well-defined city center. Tbilisi is more spread out, despite the two cities having comparable populations. As tourists in Yerevan, we only took the subway once (partly to see what it was like, and partly to reach the northern half of downtown without walking back up the incline). By contrast, in Tbilisi we took the subway rather more often, as stuff to do was dispersed over a larger geographical area. A map of Yerevan has a “planned community” look to it, but no one would ever get that impression from a map of Tbilisi.

I mentioned Mother Armenia standing atop a hill above Yerevan's city center, holding a sword. Well, Tbilisi has a Mother Georgia statue atop the hill overlooking the Old Town. She's holding a sword in one hand and a wine glass in the other.

While Yerevan doesn’t show signs of a major tourist industry, other than a couple of tour company offices in the city center, Tbilisi's Old Town is full of foreign tourists and companies catering to them (and I’m not making any judgements -- I myself was a tourist!). That is in addition to the extensive 19th and 20th-century city center, north of the Old Town on both sides of the river, which is full of not only photographable buildings, but also cafes and shops making their tourist-friendly nature clear through English signage. (Russian signage also exists, as in Yerevan.)

Visitors to Tbilisi see the streets full of cafes with tourists dining alfresco, hosts using English to beckon passers-by to come eat, and shops selling tourist souvenirs. This is common in many touristy cities in the world, but not in Yerevan (although Yerevan's got a miniature version near the bottom of the Cascade Complex). Georgia is putting a lot of effort into developing its tourist industry, and Tbilisi shows it.

Yerevan’s not a boring city. Far from it! I’m just saying it’s not obviously touristy. No matter where you are in the city, you get a local experience. You can get a local experience in Tbilisi too, but you just have to get away from the touristy bits.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Things I've Read: May-June 2017 Edition

I read a bunch of books in May and June while traveling outside of Taiwan. I dipped a bit into non-fiction, including two by Bill Bryson. (Summary: Bill Bryson travels around and does a fair bit of complaining, sometimes unfairly, but he’s funny and entertaining so all is forgiven.) But when it comes to fiction, I read:

1 um, fantasy? Urban fantasy? Magic realist?
1 space opera SF
1 near-future techno-thriller
1 absurdist comedy romance
1 hard SF horror

The Gray House
by Mariam Petrosyan
Translated by Yuri Machkasov

The Gray House was first published in Russian in 2007 and it became a cult classic in the Russian-speaking world long before the English translation I read was published in 2017. Mariam Petrosyan is Armenian, and I read her book as I traveled in Armenia and Georgia. The Gray House is not explicitly set in any specific country, but it seemed fitting to read it in the author’s homeland.

The eponymous House is a boarding school for physically disabled children and teenagers. These young people are isolated from the wider world and neglected by the system, and so they have developed their own miniature society within the walls of the House. Petrosyan’s 734-page epic exploration of this world was not only engaging, it practically colonized my brain during the two weeks or so I spent reading it, as my mind would keep working through the complexity and to try and untangle the plot long after I put the book down. The worldbuilding of this quirky little community is intricate, and it is very gradually revealed to us readers. Once we’re comfortable in this little world, we begin to get hints that something supernatural is going on. This thread gradually grows to become the main element of the story. We’re in full-on fantasy territory by the novel’s latter chapters.

The story switches between “present” and “past” chapters. The novel kicks off in the present when a disgruntled boy called Smoker leaves his conformist dorm in the House for more freewheeling surroundings down the hall where eccentricity is tolerated, but Smoker’s place at the center of the narrative is soon overtaken by his oddball classmates. They are all known by nicknames: Sphynx, Tabaqui, Vulture, Noble, and so on. (I write “classmates”, but I’ll be damned if I know what, if anything, these kids are taught in their classes.)

There are also chapters that take place half a dozen or so years before the main story, setting up the present-day situation. As the story moves back and forth in time, the elusive details of the House, its inhabitants and its history gradually come into focus.

The plot meanders and takes its time to unfold, and much must be inferred by the reader, but I was eager to delve deeper into the mysteries of the House and its inhabitants, to figure out how things worked. This is one of the very few novels I was tempted to begin rereading immediately: I felt I could get just as much out of it the second time.

A Google search of the book’s Russian title, «Дом, в котором...», reveals a devoted fan community, comparable to that of Harry Potter, which was in place well before the novel ever penetrated the Anglosphere. Linguistically I can’t comprehend what these fans are saying without the unreliable help of Google Translate, but the gorgeous fan-made artwork helps me see how it all came across to those readers who experienced the story in the original language. Obscure in the English-speaking world but not so elsewhere, The Gray House not only provided me with a rich, original world to explore, but also made me thankful for translators who help literature cross boundaries.

The Player of Games
by Iain M. Banks

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a celebrity player of strategy board games, said to be one of the finest in the galaxy. Because he lives in the Culture, an immensely wealthy and powerful interstellar anarcho-socialist state, he has the luxury of living a life of leisure, surrounded by material comforts. But Jernau is dissatisfied with his life; he feels ennui. Seems like the right person for the Culture’s ruthless, shadowy Special Circumstances division to recruit for a mission that requires mad board game skills…

This was my second of Iain M. Banks’ exceptionally well-regarded Culture novels, after Consider Phlebas. I am stubbornly determined to read the Culture books in order, even though most Banks fans don’t recommend it. I think I see why. Consider Phlebas, the first one published, had lots of neat ideas, and there wasn’t anything wrong with the storytelling. But I felt worn down by page after page of action scenes that I think would have worked much better on a movie screen, or perhaps in a cable TV miniseries.

By contrast, The Player of Games had me utterly enthralled from beginning to end. It actually made me think “Perhaps I don’t play enough board games” -- I don’t know if Banks himself was into strategy gaming, but his descriptions of Jernau’s experience as he put his whole self into games not only seemed plausible enough as the way a master gamer thinks, but also presented board games as a fun intellectual challenge.

The book was fun enough that it didn’t matter that the board-game-centric culture of the alien Azad race, the novel's antagonists, didn’t strike me as terribly believable. I think I subscribe to the theory that Azad was meant to be a satire on us Earthlings, and their weird alien biology was thrown in there as a red herring (note that for all the attention paid to their tripartite sex differentiation, when all was said and done it was irrelevant to the plot). Whether you believe that or not, one book is exactly as long as the Empire of Azad need to stick around to be a foil for the Culture, and not to overstay their welcome.

by Genevieve Valentine

Near-future technothriller. Our heroine Suyana Supaki is a Face. As far as we schlubs sitting on the couch in front of the TV are concerned, she is the living embodiment of her country, and its main representative on the world stage. In this world, geopolitics has just gone ahead and adopted all the vapid, shiny aspects of celebrity culture. Viewers at home know the countries of the world through their Faces: beautiful, stylish young people who hobnob at trendy bars and clubs, working out international alliances. No presidents or prime ministers even rate a mention; I suppose no one pays attention to them anymore. Meanwhile, the paparazzi lurk outside, hoping to capture some unauthorized images of Faces, possibly causing great diplomatic embarrassment and making big bucks.

One of these paparazzi is Daniel, who manages to snap some pictures of Suyana in central Paris just as she’s wounded in an assassination attempt. Despite his clearly muddled ethical situation, he throws his lot in with Suyana, getting her medical attention while hustling her away from those who would cause her harm. Suyana is no damsel in distress: even as she’s bleeding across half of central Paris, she remains the main decision-maker and driver of the plot. She herself does not have squeaky-clean hands, as not even the government she represents (the “United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation”) is aware that she owes allegiance to a shadowy radical environmental group.

Persona is the first volume in a trilogy, so I don’t know how the story eventually turns out. I can say that it’s a very fast read: I polished it off in a few hours.

Still Life with Woodpecker
by Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins is an oddball. It’s not just his knack for appearing half his actual age in all photographs taken this century, but also writing oddball books.

Still Life with Woodpecker is the earliest Robbins novel I’ve read -- it’s as old as I am, and full of fun dated 1980 details (though it’s good to know satirical takes on left-wing activism haven’t changed much in nearly 40 years). It is a love story between a radical anarchist-eco-terrorist and an heir to a deposed European royal family, and it’s full of odd takes on sex, bits of goofy humor, and long asides on whatever Robbins happened to be thinking about at the time (these three things are not always distinct from each other).

You’re not going to read this for the plot; you’re going to read it for Robbins’ authorial voice and style. I read Robbins whenever one of his books happens to cross my path (which works out to about once a decade), and whenever that happens I find I appreciate it greatly.

by Peter Watts

Peter Watts’ brand of science fictional horror is ruthless. He makes George R. R. Martin’s reputation for killing off main characters seem naive and adorable. His Rifters trilogy probably overdid the darkness, despair and death at the expense of the cool, mindblowing ideas, but his 2006 novel Blindsight achieved a perfect balance and won a well-deserved reputation as one of the best SF novels of the decade.

Echopraxia takes place in the same universe as Blindsight, with a different cast of characters. Daniel Brüks, who is probably the most psychologically normal and well-adjusted protagonist Watts has ever created, is a field biologist who gets caught up in a conflict between rival groups of posthumans which he can barely begin to comprehend. He soon finds himself in space with a motley assortment of humans and near-humans who treat him with varying degrees of contempt and condescension. Many people die. This is a harsh universe. Along the way, Watts works in a ton of ideas taken from cutting-edge science; many of these are elaborated on in the book’s lengthy Afterword.

In the late 21st-century world of Blindsight and Echopraxia, we humans have been forcibly made aware that powerful extraterrestrials are monitoring Earth. We don’t know what they want, we can’t do a damn thing about them, and their existence has given the human race a collective neurosis that we really can’t afford as political instability and climate change are wreaking planetary havoc. Also, vampires are real. Yes, literal vampires are actually real. In Blindsight’s best and most well-known bit of worldbuilding, Watts made vampires scientifically plausible, and the result is even more horrifying than the supernatural creatures of legend.

Echopraxia expands on Blindsight’s worldbuilding. We learn far more about this word’s posthuman societies that have modified themselves to dramatically boost their brainpower. We normals can’t comprehend them, let alone compete with them! Vampires are expanded upon as well. It’s true that Valerie the Vampire in Echopraxia seems much weirder than Sarasti the Vampire in Blindsight, but my explanation is that our narrative is filtered through our point-of-view characters’ impressions, and since Daniel Brüks is much more of a normal human than the posthuman cyborg who narrated Blindsight, it’s not surprising that he’s far more weirded out. (Or maybe Sarasti just worked harder to acquire human social skills.)

When all is said and done, the theme of this book is manipulation. Everybody is being manipulated by powers they cannot comprehend, to fulfill agendas they do not understand. (You can go look up the dictionary definition of "echopraxia" if you like.) Watts definitely likes to put cheerful nihilism into his fiction, and while I wouldn’t want to read a steady diet of it, it makes for a fine bracing occasional read.