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August 29, 2005

Kevin J. Anderson: Hack

Warning: This entry contains spoilers about the Dune prequels. If you haven't read them yet and intend to, don't read the rest of this entry.

This weekend I finally had a chance to do some recreational reading. I chose to finish out the "Legends of Dune" trilogy that started with The Butlerian Jihad with the two I hadn't read, The Machine Crusade and The Battle of Corrin. The books are co-written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.

I'll admit, I already had a very low opinion of Anderson as a writer. While his output may be prodigious, the quality of that writing fails to meet even sci-fi's regrettably low standards. He seems to subsist entirely on his ability to quickly generate derivative, stop-gap books for popular SF series that have an unquenchable demand (particularly Star Wars). I know his books always consist of an audacious storyline, a handful of static, inexpertly developed characters, hordes of one-or-no-dimensional extras, and prose that reads like an autopsy. Yet I was enamored enough with the Dune universe that I decided to gloss over these deficiencies. After all, Brian Herbert had shown himself to be a welcome counterbalance to Anderson in the "Prelude to Dune" series. There had also been rumors of notes left behind from the original author, Frank Herbert, about how things were to play out. How would the famed Jihad begin? What was the desert planet Arrakis like in those days? Who would discover foldspace? And why did the Harkonnen betray the Atreides at the "bridge of Corrin"? These were mysteries hinted at but never answered in Dune, and I was hoping to learn the answers to those questions. Sadly, the trilogy largely disappoints.

The Butlerian Jihad, with its ultimate dictum "thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind," clearly had to have religious undercurrents. But Anderson (and B. Herbert has to take equal blame as co-author) portrays the jihadis as mindless, irrational followers of inept, equally irrational leaders, all of whom were unwitting tools for Machaivellian politicians and military men. The Jihad is a simplistic Luddite mob which should have burned out in a decade, yet its legend lives... because humans are too stupid to discard religious fervor. Is that really what the elder Herbert would have wanted? At its core, the mystique of Dune is Arrakis, a spartan place where no sane persion would be irreligious. Religion subsumed the science, with visions and prophecy guiding the actions and values of the main character, the Kwisatz Haderach. By the end of the book, those who had trusted to their own insights and mere technology were found wanting.

But in this series, religion serves no higher purpose than to insanely propel the plot to something approaching an origin. By the end we're left with the distinct notion that many aspects of the later Dune universe so esteemed by its characters (and the fans) is outright fiction, irrevocably distorted by the passage of time. Arrakis is an afterthought; the founder of the Fremen sacrificed himself for a monastic dream his own people didn't want and, in fact, seems to contradict the behavior of his descendants. The Bene Gesserit embark upon their massive breeding program for apparently no reason apart from arrogance. The beginnings of Mentats and Swordmasters, though rich in pages, are starved subplots, providing only enough to provide shallow "Aha" moments for readers looking for connections to the later books. Only the genesis of the Guild, a rare bright spot, is good storytelling.

Most damning of all is the coverage of the Battle of Corrin, consisting of some 60 pages. This is the title of the final book in the series, for crying out loud! Vorian Atreides, patriarch of the nascent Great House, is an absentee father whose own children ignore him. When he isn't off achieving great military feats all by his lonesome, he is sparring with his friend Xavier Harkonnen... and later, after a cowardly speed-up by Anderson et al kills off characters through the passage of time, Xavier's grandson Abulurd. Vorian is more interested in Abulurd than in his own children. The characters age, but do not develop at more than a glacial pace. And then suddenly, at the start of the Battle of Corrin, there's a moral dilemma: is the destruction of the machines worth the lives of millions of slaves? The Atreides says yes and the Harkonnen says no -- in fact, Abulurd disables the firing mechanism until the commander comes to his senses. Through writer's convenience, Vorien gets his way, the slaves inexplicably survive, and Abulurd is exiled, his family stained forever.

That was what I slogged through over 2,000 pages for? Anderson is infamous for writing static, all-good or all-bad characters; why did he have to get all subtle at the pivotal moment of conflict in the whole Dune universe? The epic conflict between the noble Atreides and the evil Harkonnen was not based on real treachery but on a difference of opinion?! I'm speechless. Somebody help me out here.

Posted by The Greatness at 09:55 AM | Comments (0)

August 22, 2005

Changes and stats

As you can see, I've changed the color scheme here at TG.com. I've also added one of those favicons that all the kiddies are talking about. It's hideous, true, but it's at least high-tech. (Can I say that about a 16x16 bitmap?)

Stats for August so far show very little difference from any other month. Most people are still largely viewing my site because of the donair page, though the rotary haiku has jumped in popularity. This might be partially due to my stirring rendition of the poem on CBC Radio 1, but maybe not; we're not talking large numbers here. The vast majority of visitors come via Google, 5 of which by searching for "лещен". I don't remember writing anything about that...

Posted by The Greatness at 01:02 PM | Comments (1)

August 16, 2005

After the wedding

Well, I've been photographed, weighed, and prodded. I've had a chest X-ray (actually two, because I have "really long lungs" according to the examiner -- you can read into that what you wish, dear reader). I've peed in a cup. I've been fingerprinted several times to get police certificates for the FBI and two states. Now all I have to do for Canada immigration is cough up C$1,700 and fill out the amusing questionaire, which reads something like this:

  1. When did you meet your wife? (day/month/year)

  2. Did anyone introduce you two?

  3. Do you and your wife go on trips together? If so, describe the trips on a separate piece of paper and attach photos if any.

  4. Is your relationship known to close friends and family?

  5. Please attach photographs of your wedding ceremony.

... and so on. I could make a cynical crack about how they wanted me to attach a blood sample except that, actually, they already got a blood sample, ostensibly to check for syphilis and HIV. So apparently I still have to treat some bored government employees to a heartwarming retelling of our definitely-bona-fide love story in photos. But I've decided to treat y'all to some of this first as we now have WEDDING PICTURES! (courtesy of Bryan ReddingTM)

Go to the inside page if you want to see 'em...

Posted by The Greatness at 11:49 AM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2005

Disjunct afterlife

... that was the subject heading on a spam message I got today. As it happens, it dovetails nicely with my topic.

Philosophers, especially epistemologists, in discussing matters of human behavior generally assume that they are dealing with a "rational agent". Such an entity is presumed to operate in a manner consistent with its beliefs so as to achieve maximum benefit. People are not generally rational all the time, but when articulating principles of ethics or knowledge it's useful to pretend so. In arguing for the notion of justification, such a line of thought is used to construct sophisticated arguments that, in the end, too often reduce to "if only an irrational person would believe that, then believing it isn't justified." The end of that philosophical rainbow is unsatisfying, but we'll let it pass.

I'm more interested in how that assumption relates to a further assumption often made by philosophers: that such rational agents cannot live (or not for very long, anyway, lest they become, shudder, irrational) in a conscious yet undecided state with respect to any proposition. This flavor of argument usually starts at fundamental scales of life, as in perception, though it can be generalized further. For example, Plantinga says in Warrant and Proper Function -- I'm paraphrasing -- that if somebody sees a red apple, he can't help but perceive it as being red. If that person believed all apples were green, this "being appeared to redly" requires that he quickly act to change his noetic system in some way, for it would be strange indeed for someone to long remain in a state of abeyance as to the truth of "all apples are green" after being subjected to such a perception. That it would be strange is the important thing. Strange by definition is unexpected behavior, which is generally taken to also be irrational. Thus, according to this assumption, our rational agents should never be involved in such behavior.

I suspect this principle of non-abeyance often does hold for perception, due to its visceral and strongly manifesting attributes. How am I going to pretend the apple isn't red? It's a tough job to ignore such a thing as it hangs outside my window; I could try all week but still fail at it, slowly going mad in the process. And there's another reason, stemming from a similar question: Why am I going to pretend the apple isn't red? Even if somebody showed me a turquoise apple, I might suspect some funny business but it wouldn't faze me to accept that some apples are turquoise. The color distribution of apples holds no purchase on my psyche.

But what if it did? Isn't it possible that other, more important aspects of my noetic system might depend so much upon the proposition that I would work mightily at ignoring the allegedly red apple? Human beings (in fact, perhaps all living beings, to lesser degrees) operate on a hierarchy which probably looks a lot like Maslow's famous hierachy of needs. Physiological (food), Safety (shelter, work), Community, Esteem, and Self-Actualization (being, thinking) drive us from the bottom up. Like the anvil of a thunderstorm pointing the way, self-actualization decides what we appreciate, where we live, what we do, and what (or whether) we eat. But just like in a thunderstorm, if our anvils of higher thought get too far from the lower, denser clouds of more primitive needs, we will fall apart. Let's take the most dramatic possibility. Suppose my day-to-day thoughts, morals, actions, choice of career, choice of spouse, even diet, were dependent on the notion that God exists, but learning that some apples are red decisively undercuts that notion (perhaps my theology declares that the merciful Lord declared all apples to be green, for green is a holy color). There is ample documentary evidence to suggest that when believing people lose faith, their lives are completely upended, rearranged to fit their new belief system. Such a rearrangement would have a significant cost to me; perhaps I would choose a wider diet, a flashier job, a more liberal morality, and lose current job, friends, even spouse in the process. Life would be totally different.

I submit that in such a situation it would not be strange for me to ignore the red apple. Indeed, I might even be irrational in accepting this apple, as obvious as it appears to be; maybe I decide it is a false apple sent by the deceiver. Living in consonance with absolute truth has a price that is too high to ever recover, so I would choose to believe something that could be true (but isn't) instead in order, ironically, to achieve maximize benefit. Shades of Pascal's wager here, and of every other ideological struggle we have to face.

Ed. note: I asked a real epistemologist about this, and he thinks I'm right. Actually, he thinks I'm recapitulating an argument by Quine. I'll have to check that out.

Posted by The Greatness at 09:33 AM | Comments (0)

August 03, 2005

The Greatness Weds

Okay, so it's August, and I promised my readers a weekly update starting this month. Obviously we have to start with the big news: The Greatness is now married. Sorry girls, I'm taken, so please stop sending me your tearful entreaties. Besides, The Sweetness is probably taller than you -- she will kick your ass if you try to mess with our marital bliss.

I don't have any wedding pics yet, but I'll put some up as soon as I get them. In the meantime I will attempt to give my perspective on the festivities. Simply put: they ruled. Here are some random observations I made about the occasion.

Thanks to everyone who could make it. I don't think I could have imagined a more delightful wedding day than the one y'all treated me too. For everybody else, don't worry: I should have some pics soon.

Hmm, and I guess some honeymoon details are in order. Here goes. Jen and I had a very nice time in Montreal. The city is actually annoyingly easy to get around in English. Virtually everyone either speaks it or can go find somebody in the shop who does (the teenage flunky usually). I bought her a bunch of clothes in the ginormous mall that is the Underground City. We only saw half of the thing but I still counted 7 food courts. She bought me an atlas, which I've wanted for some time so that was very cool. Remote, totally unimportant Pacific islands depicted in glorious National Geographic detail! As for sights, we saw the Notre Dame cathedral, the Biodome (it's got an indoor rainforest, temperate, and a polar environment with penguins), the hotel that Ben Franklin stayed in when he was trying to get Canada to join the rebellion, the old port, Six Flags La Ronde and its spectacular fireworks festival (so many incendaries! probably an Innsbrook-July-4 every minute, the soot was in our hair and everything), and Ikea (we live in Halifax, after all; it's not like we get a chance to browse big stores too much). We also took a horse-drawn tour of Quebec City on the way back home. As for the hotel.. The Ritz was not as opulent as you might think, but the room had everything you might have wanted if you were old-world rich read: no DVD). The maid service cleaned the room twice a day, we had two full-size A/Cs, there were 2 robes that they brought new with the sheets daily, the bathroom had 3 sizes of mirrors and a scale, etc. And every time we picked up the phone to make something happen, it actually did. Good service shouldn't be surprising given the price, but it's nice to see it is still available somewhere.

Posted by The Greatness at 03:36 PM | Comments (1)