Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Month That Was - February 2017

It was a fairly productive month. Or at least it felt like it, but only because I made progress towards actually doing things in the future. I made strides toward getting the house painted, made progress on taxes, made arrangements for getting my second ever colonoscopy (joy). I also had a productive month at work, although that is not a topic for discussion.

I'm slowly zeroing in on travel plans, too, and being a good boy about staying fit over the winter -- the unseasonably warm weather has made that easier. So, as usual, I have no complaints.

Two more book reviews this month. I've been doing a lot of reading lately. I don't know what meaning to assign to that.

[Books] Book Look: Crazy Rich Asians
[Books] Book Look: How Much For Just the Planet?
[Movies] Flick Check: Dr. Strange
[Rant, Good Links] Irrational Follow-up

[Books] Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

If you were to ask what the perfect beach read is, Crazy Rich Asians might be my answer. It's a well worn story -- actually parallel stories. A woman is shocked by how rich her boyfriend is and how his rich and predatory relatives conspire to break them up. This goes hand in hand with an identical sub-plot but in this case the girl is the rich one. Along the way we are treated to excess in all things; an entertaining litany of lurid commercial voyeurism. The rich folks consistently exceed all limits of spending and one-upmanship, behaving in the way rich people do in the fevered dreams of envious poor folks. It all sounds a bit Jackie Collins-ish, and it is. Furthermore, it is amped up a bit because the moneyed folks are all Asians from Singapore, because that's where the rich still behave like "The Rich" of a glitzy bygone era in the West.

Nothing terrible happens, beyond standard issue rom-com tragedy; nice for a change not to have everything be of urgent importance to mankind. Within the scope of the trashy nature of the story, Kwan keeps the quality high. The prose is clear and smooth. Humorous relief is plentiful and well-timed. Even the Hollywood happy ending fits well. And Kwan does a good job of making it seem completely natural how the characters are trapped and threatened by their wealth -- that is to say, little seems emotionally contrived, which gives it an authentic feel.

How authentic it actually is with respect to Singaporean culture I couldn't say, but it feels realistic and Kwan is, after all, from Singapore. The influence of the West ripples throughout, from the characters names, to the fact that they attend a Methodist Church, to pop culture references, to the academies and educational institutions they value. That was of interest to me. In many ways these characters do not much care about staying in touch with their Chinese roots. It almost seems as though Singapore is an outpost of the Anglosphere.

Should you read Crazy Rich Asians. Unless you are dead set against reading for entertainment as opposed to enlightenment, I can't see why not. Get a copy for you next vacation. You may want to read it before it becomes a major motion picture, though. You can be ahead of the curve.

[Books] Book Look: How Much For Just the Planet?, by John M. Ford

Well, that was interesting. This is a Star Trek book, which I know from adolescence to be pretty much pure pulp and would normally never hit my radar, but I had it from informed sources that it was something special. And special it certainly is.

Occasionally, in the course of a long running TV series, the writers are given the opportunity to have some fun with an episode. Often this takes the form of a musical or a comedic farce in the middle of a season full of drama. Examples would be the Buffy musical, or any X-files episode written by Darin Morgan, or in a Star Trek vein: The Trouble With Tribbles (which was also the source of a similar episode on Deep Space Nine). How Much For Just the Planet is the equivalent of such an episode in the form of a book.

To wit: The inhabitants of dilithium-rich planet tend to break into Gilbert and Sullivan musical numbers. Kirk and a Klingon counterpart get involved in a slapstick set piece. Scotty gets in a duel of honor with a Klingon officer in a game of golf, played in the middle of a battle. Uhura and a Klingon fan of Earth noir movies practically re-enact The Maltese Falcon. And naturally, it all ends in a pie fight. It's utterly silly, but rollicking good fun.

The book itself could use some structural refinements. It's very easy to lose track of threads and who's who and in what manic situation, and as the madness runs on it also runs a bit thin (this is often the problem with three act farces). Still, considering the sad state of the Star Trek efforts at the moment, what with the Abrams movies getting increasingly ham-fisted and the upcoming series engulfed in production chaos, it might be an energizing idea to do a special event based on this book. Joss Whedon could make it a masterpiece (if he can stop freaking out about Trump). Outside the box would be Seth MacFarlane. Yet further outside would be Trey Parker and Matt Stone. All of them understand musical comedy. It might add a little life to an increasingly stultified franchise.

So should you read How Much For Just The Planet? Probably not. It's a good book, almost poetic in places, but it is clearly meant as a novelization of a musical farce yet to be made. Still, high points for doing a Star Trek book that isn't space opera pulp, and for having some fun with it.

[Movies] Flick Check: Dr. Strange

Probably among the weaker efforts in the Marvel MCU, it's still a cut above any most non-MCU superhero movies (note: have not seen Logan yet.). Dr. Strange gets points for trying to stay true to the original comic book by angling for a hippie/spiritual/psychedelic head trip vibe and it succeeds to some extent. One critique is in tone. It was clearly a struggle to find the right balance between the sincere, reverent tone that characterizes most spiritual journey-type plots with the wisecracking irony so essential to the charm of the MCU. Dr. Strange is played by Frumious Bandersnatch Benedict Cumberbatch employing an American accent which, given his ubiquity in his normal voice, is quite dissonant. Perhaps this is part of the reason that snappy dialogue isn't all that effective here: there is not much of it and what there is is given solely to Cumberbatch, everyone else gets standard sci-fi/action movie words and roles. It's a moment of happy relief when the post credits tag brings Thor into the mix, if only for a few seconds.

Overall I'd guess it was a struggle to make Dr. Strange as formulated carry a film on his own. He needs a foil like Sherlock needs his John. Unfortunately, Martin Freeman already has another role in the MCU. To live on, Strange needs a partner to bring out the best in Cumberbatch, and a villain and supporting cast who are more than dire drones.

This review turned more negative than I had hoped. I don't want to scare you off of Dr. Strange. It's a solid entry in the MCU and a good couple of hours of entertainment but don't look for anything too special. It's mostly just a plot advancer for Infinity War.

[Rant, Good Links] Irrational Follow-up

The last couple of months I discussed my sense of depression over the realization of how emotional, willfully closed-minded, and immune to reason the human race is. Allow me to present some relevant links on the sad topic.
  • Last month I mentioned a possible evolutionary source of this irrational behavior was something called Coalitional Instinct. At the time all I could find on it was a speculative post on The Edge, but now the New Yorker has taken it up so I suppose that means it's officially mainstream.
  • My longtime fave Robin Hanson has a bit less meta take on the issue, pointing out the contrast of facts and values in influencing behavior and decision-making, staying away from the strict irrationality angle.
  • And then along comes Cracked to go in the opposite direction and come right out and call the fashionably outraged a bunch of Dopamine Puppets. Bless.
Of course, all this is pointless unless you realize it applies to you, not just the Other Side.