Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sunday readings

A few brief comments about some relatively random things I've noted in the last week:

1. An excellent article by Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker about Philip K. Dick. I had enjoyed a few of Dick's books and stories over the years, but I didn't really know that much about him. Gopnik packs a lot of insight into a relatively small space. I noticed myself nodding at a few bits in particular, such as that on Dick's shortcomings as a writer:

The trouble isn’t that Dick suffers by some school-marmish standard of fine writing. It’s that the absence of any life within the writing on the page ends up robbing the books of the vital force that pushes you past pages. As an adult reader coming back to Dick, you start off in a state of renewed wonder and then find yourself thumbing ahead to see how much farther you are going to have to go. At the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences.
When I re-read Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep and Minority Report a few years ago, I had exactly this experience. Dick was full of amazing concepts, which is perhaps why his work has been so adaptable to film. Whatever weaknesses he had, though, he remains a compelling author, and Gopnik nicely puts his finger on what it is in the Dickian universe that appeals to me:
Although “Blade Runner,” with its rainy, ruined Los Angeles, got Dick’s antic tone wrong, making it too noirish and romantic, it got the central idea right: the future will be like the past, in the sense that, no matter how amazing or technologically advanced a society becomes, the basic human rhythm of petty malevolence, sordid moneygrubbing, and official violence, illuminated by occasional bursts of loyalty or desire or tenderness, will go on. Dick’s future worlds are rarely evil and oppressive, exactly; they are banal and a little sordid, run by a demoralized élite at the expense of a deluded population. No matter how mad life gets, it will first of all be life.

2. An article at Stern (in German) made me aware of the somehow appalling Bible-themed toys available from one2believe. There are the slightly bizarre 'Messengers of Faith' action figures, for example, or the rather predictable 'Jesus Loves Me Bear'. There are also the 'Tales of Glory' figurine sets which allow your child, I suppose, to re-enact favoured stories from the bible such as 'Jesus walks on water' or 'Daniel and the lion's den'.

As ever, there is something very selective about this. What, no Sodom and Gomorrah playset? No 'Lot and his daughters' amongst the 'Messengers of Faith'? Where's the edifying tale of Abraham and Isaac? No figures for depicting the genocidal massacre of the Canaanites?

Of course, I suppose the violent religious action figure market has already been captured by the fine people at Jesus Christ Superstore ('Putting the fun back into fundamentalism and the laughter into sectarian slaughter').

But what should we make of the 'P31' dolls 'based on the biblical teaching of Proverbs 31' and designed 'to encourage young girls to pursue biblical womanhood'?

I don't imagine that this refers to the bit of Proverbs 31 which commands 'Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.' Nope, no 'Hooters' girls among these dolls.

No, they're aimed at the more Good Housekeeping aspects of said proverb, the ones that propose the proper role of women as their manly men's helpmeet and such.

(But there's also just bizarre stuff in that proverb, like this: 'When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.' Uh huh... nothing like red clothes to keep you warm....)

However...the first thing I notice about them is that their heads are rather too big for their bodies. They seem...seriously ill somehow.

God's will, I suppose.

3. An interesting but somehow disappointing essay by Freeman Dyson at

I agree with Dyson that there is plenty of need for those willing to think 'heretical' thoughts about the world, but I'm not so sure about his elevation of heresy into a value in itself. I mean...this seems to give comfort to creationism or to flat-Earthism. I'm not convinced that simply being contrarian is a valuable way of interacting with the world.

His scientific points are well taken in some ways, but when he moves beyond that he says some rather silly things:

There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better. I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans, not to mention easy problems such as the timely construction of adequate dikes around the city of New Orleans.

Now, debates about the specifics of global warming here or there, nobody can argue that American investment in fighting poverty or infrastructure has suffered mainly because of all that money going to fight global warming.

Dyson may be well meaning here, but I think he's very misguided.

There has been, I see, a more recent response to Dyson by Alun Anderson.

OK, I suppose that's enough for one Sabbath. Keep it holy, people.

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