14 January 2010

Avatar Review

I enjoyed reading my colleague Paul Watson's Avatar Review. See also the IMDB entry Avatar.

I too saw the movie and enjoyed it immensely, especially the full immersion in the 3D world that was so well realised. I too felt a bit let down by the black and white moral juxtaposition of the final third, that lacked all nuance. Would it not have been much more interesting if the military guys were real people too? or the if the plot had focused on another element of the rich world?

Strangely, as in no one else I have spoken to thought the same, I thought that the film was most like The Mission, essentially a recreation of the moral conflicts that arise with colonisation; for any American or European audience the main such example in our collective history was the discovery and exploitation of the "New World". Indeed the culture on the Avatar world does share many features of the native north American ethos. The Mission has a much more nuanced plot around the religious justification for joining the natives in resistance, and perhaps a more realistic ending where this resistance is doomed to failure against the might of European expansionism. I remember first hearing The Mission as a radio drama that dwelt even more on this debate, that was curtailed for the more visceral and visual movie. Avatar does include a sort of coming of age subplot that works quite well in terms of engaging the audience in the culture.

As for Paul's plea for a cinema that celebrates the science of exploration instead of the blockbuster military show down, perhaps I could direct him to the excellent Mars trilogy of books by Kim Stanley Robinson. If these are ever dramatised, they will need to preserve that focus to really reflect the books.

Also worth mentioning, for the most fully realised depiction of an alternative biology in science fiction is Brian W. Aldiss' Hellicona Trilogy Spring, Summer and Winter.

Despite its flaws, so well described by Paul, Avatar is one of the best science fiction movies of recent times. But really good science fiction is always better a book, as no director can ever capture what people can imagine in their own heads.

Posted by mofoghlu at 11:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

1 August 2009

Sailing from Byzantium

[Composed 1st August 2009, posted 9th August 2009 - connectivity issues when traveling.]

On summer holidays finally got around to reading Colin Wells' book Sailing from Byzantium. It is a very interesting look at Byzantium's contribution to preserving Greek learning for three cultural groups:

  • The Latin west, primarily via the Italian Renaissance;
  • The Islamic cultures of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain primarily via the Translation Movement ;
  • The Slavic peoples of Bulgaria, Russia and elsewhere primarily via the spreading of the Orthodox church.

This book isn't a good overview of Byzantine history itself, in fact it may be best to have read some of this first before reading this book. For the history I recommend the three volume history by John Julius Norwich (1, 2, 3), and the fantastic dramatisation of the fall of the empire in 1453 by Roger Crowley Constantinople, The Last Great Siege 1453.

Posted by mofoghlu at 11:55 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

17 March 2007

St Patrick's Day Musings: What Ish My Nation?

Famously, an Irish soldier, MacMorris, in Shakespeare's Henry V exclaims:

Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?

This quotation is often used in literary discussions of what it means to be Irish (particularly in the post-colonialist context e.g. 'What ish my nation?': Towards a Negative Definition of Irish Identity by Eugene O'Brien).

Traditionally the Irish media, on this day and indeed the rest of this week, 17th March St. Patrick's Day, we are often treated to discussions of what it means to be Irish. Whilst we are not yet as confused as the English/British seem to be (which is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way, and I personally can claim British citizenship as well as Irish though I choose not to). However, there is certainly an impression that we Irish are becoming more confused as to our national identity.

The truth is that, as a comparatively young nation, coming into existence in the early 20th century, we have a recent written tradition that defines the national identity. This "Irish literary revival," the flowering of literature and cultural activity at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries, is now seen in retrospect as a fundamental part of the process of creating an environment where independence became possible. Although some of the literature of this period may now seems idealistic and distant from "modern Ireland," it is still a rich tradition to draw on. In combination with this more recent literary and cultural heritage, we have a long oral and written history going back two thousand years and more; the Irish language being one of the oldest written languages in Europe. I find that most Irish people are not fully connected with this, and that Irish language enthusiasts often promoted the wrong parts of this tradition.

For me Ireland now shares most aspects of a wider trans-national European culture. When I travel in Europe I always learn new things about its rich cultural heritage, but I still feel strangely comfortable in countries where I cannot speak a word of the native language (most recently for me Slovenia); but when I travel outside of Europe I definitely feel like a foreigner (for me most recently South Korea).

One could muse about how this common European culture was formed. Obviously the Roman Empire united much of what is now Europe (but not Ireland). Subsequently the Christian Church (particularly though its adoption as the state religion of the Roman Empire) provided a pan-European cultural norm that lasted until the end of the Middle Ages, and the Reformation introduced a new paradigm. Since then a common membership of a scientific and modernising culture, linked to the 19th century European empires (such as the British and the French) and finally the integrated European project that is the EU, has bound Europe together culturally. Indeed most European legal systems derive from Napoleonic models. Ireland, on the fringe of Europe, but part of the largest world empire of all, the British, was the first part of that empire to break away. This was a complete political schism in the end, neutrality during the second world war, rejecting the Commonwealth, whilst maintaining unique political and cultural links. In a way Ireland has much in common with Canada, Australia (and to a lesser extent India), all parts of the old British empire.

We effectively rejected our own language in the period of our greatest austerity after the great hunger (the Famine of the mid 19th century); Irish speaking families brought up their children speaking English in the hopes of enabling emigration to English speaking Britain, America, Canada and Australia - an implicit emigration for opportunity policy (a default mode of operation for Ireland up to the 1990s) that could be argued has worked given the strength of the resultant Irish diaspora. In the census' taken since 2000 the Irish population is increasing for the first time since the huge blow of the famine when nearly half of either died or emigrated.

Now Ireland is the poster child of the EU - look what we can do - transform an agriculturally dominant stagnant economy with most of its children leaving to work abroad (Ireland in the 1980s) into a globalised economy leading the world in terms of ICT and biotechnological innovation (with the help of our American friends) - a bridge between Boston and Berlin, a model of the 21st century state, in balance with the external forces that threaten to rip many counties apart. And of course the EU has prevented further war in EU (except for the fall-out in Yugoslavia, and that was before it was partially absorbed into the EU).

Of course, if you actually count the unbroken years of operation of a democratically elected government Ireland is actually one of the older nations in Europe, but we think of ourselves as young, perhaps this is the anthropomorphic use of the American cultural ideal of the teenager and the young?

So, to help those lost souls searching for the core of Irish identity, in the honourable tradition of weblog listings, I offer up this list of books and poems that each have something to say on the topic, whether directly or indirectly. In no particular order, and each with some personal musings, I give you:

  • [<1000-1300 Old and Middle Irish] The Táin translated by Thomas Kinsella (These are the stories of Cu Cuchulain, the Ulster Cycle of old Irish poetry, fantastic, and exotic, a must read. It is hard to give a date for this as some of the original poems passed through the oral tradition from periods potentially BC. The two primary manuscripts we have date from the 11th and 14th centuries, c.f. Wikipedia Entry:
    The Táin Bó Cúailnge has survived in two main recensions. The first consists of a partial text in the Lebor na hUidre (the "Book of the Dun Cow"), a late 11th/early 12th century manuscript compiled in the monastery at Clonmacnoise, and another partial text of the same version in the 14th century manuscript called the Yellow Book of Lecan. These two sources overlap, and a complete text can be reconstructed by combining them.
    Well, you just have to read that don't you?)
  • [1729 - English] A Modest Proposal Jonathan Swift (Swift's satirical argument that the solution to the Irish famine was to eat some of the children was taken as a serious proposal by some readers at the time.)
  • [1911 - English] The Crock of Gold, James Stephens (A fantastic tale set in rural Ireland, that pokes fun at the traditional elements of Irishness whilst honouring them).
  • [1914 - English] Dubliners, James Joyce (I've included this as you have to read Joyce, but Ulysses, or Finnegan's Wake, can be a daunting task! So instead dip into this collection of short stories, or just read the last one, "The Dead". It is hailed by many as the best collection of short stories ever. I love the incidental details such as bottles of Guinness being placed by the fire so that the cork can raise out by itself and bring the drink to the right temperature in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" - a healthy antidote to modern chilled stout).
  • [1916 (1889-1939) - English] Easter 1916, William Butler Yates (This is a single poem Yeats wrote at the time of abortive uprising in Dublin in Easter 1916, arguably the defining moment politically for modern Ireland. If you want this in a bigger volume try Selected Poems and Four Plays of William Butler Yeats that contains selected poems and four verse plays including "Words on a Windowpane". Some of this stuff can still bring one to tears, it is woven into our cultural fabric in so deep a fashion.)
  • [1939 - English] At Swim-two-birds, Flann O'Brien (A really funny book. One part is based on a translation of a Middle Irish text, Buille Suibhne, The Madness of Sweeney; another on the legendary Finn McCool, or Fionn mac Cumhaill.)
  • [1975 - English] North Seamus Heaney (Heaney, a Nobel laureate, has always focused on what it means to be Irish, and is perhaps more gut trustingly honest about it in the earlier poems such as those in this volume.)
  • [1981 - English] Translations, Brian Friel (A colleague of Heaney's on the Field Day project, Friel is perhaps Ireland's best playwright of the 20th century, and this play is a masterpiece. It's best to actually go an see it performed if possible, but the script is good to read too - though you do need a bit of practice to enjoy reading plays in my experience. It is set at the period when British army forces are preparing an ordinance survey map of of an Irish-speaking part of Ireland.)
  • [1990 - English] Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society, Joseph J. Lee (A very influential recent history of Ireland.)
And hey, I know I haven't mentioned any Shaw, Beckett, and original Middle Irish material, and so on. This wasn't designed to be comprehensive, more personal.

In researching this post I found this excellent site: Island Ireland. This an excellent resource for Irish literature, with many useful links. Note that I've updated this entry over 17th and 18th March, as I filled in the details of why I like each text...

Posted by mofoghlu at 11:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

22 November 2006

science fiction book meme

Thanks to Elizabeth Lane Lawley and Paul Watson....

"Below is a Science Fiction Book Club list most significant SF novels between 1953-2006. The meme part of this works like so: Bold the ones you have read, strike through the ones you read and hated, italicize those you started but never finished and put a star next to the ones you love."

  1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien * (yep, it is a classic as is The Hobbit, I enjoyed reading the latter to secondary school children when I was training as an English teacher)
  2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (I love the broad scope and breadth of this series)
  3. Dune, Frank Herbert ** (The ambiance of the original book in this series is hard to beat, not really captured by any film adaptation I've seen yet)
  4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein * (I did like this as a teenager)
  5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin ** (although a Children's book, I really like this one still)
  6. Neuromancer, William Gibson (okay in parts)
  7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke (don't remember this one, though I loved a lot of his stuff)
  8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick * (fantastic, though is it this high just because of Blade Runner the film adaptation?)
  9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley (I have this but never got around to reading it)
  10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (a classic, prefer some of his short stories though)
  11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe * (was fresh when it came out, I like it less now looking back)
  12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. *** (a beautiful story)
  13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (I do remember this one!)
  14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras (umm, heard of this but never read it)
  15. Cities in Flight, James Blish ** (an often overlooked classic)
  16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett (first head this serialised on BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour before it became a cult classic, love the spoof of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser!)
  17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison * (a very good anthology of short stories)
  18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison (must have missed this one)
  19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester (not memorable for me)
  20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany (preferred his Neveryon series and Babel 17)
  21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey * (read many in this series as a teenager)
  22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card (only one I didn't really like at all)
  23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson (steered clear of this as it was over hyped, might be worth revisiting now)
  24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman * (only a Vietnam veteran author could have brought the real pointlessness of war to this story)
  25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl (liked some of his short stories more)
  26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling (yes and I have the kids' cover)
  27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams * (A true believer I prefer the original BBC radio series, and have it on my iPod)
  28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson (known as a classic, didn't do much for me)
  29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice (saw the film and enjoyed it)
  30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin * (Really brilliant)
  31. Little, Big, John Crowley (umm, heard of this too)
  32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny (really liked his Amber series)
  33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick * (loved the mood of this one, like all of Dick's stuff)
  34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement (passed me by)
  35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon (not a big hit with me)
  36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith (read some other stuff by him)
  37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute (famous, but haven't read it)
  38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (I liked this one)
  39. Ringworld, Larry Niven (loved this in a lightweight sort of way)
  40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys (fine)
  41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien (not so hot on this)
  42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut * (loved this)
  43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (missed this, though I know the author)
  44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner (took me two goes to read it, but I did like it)
  45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (quite liked this)
  46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein (a good kids' story)
  47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock * (I loved this as a teenager, read loads of Moorcock)
  48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks (nah)
  49. Timescape, Gregory Benford (nah)
  50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer *** (A fantastic concept - bring back to life every human being who ever lived and put them in one place, great choice of heros: Sam Clemens, the author known as Mark Twain, and Richard Burton, the English explorer)

Cannot beleive that Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series isn't listed - but it does say post 1953! See my previous posting on this....

Posted by mofoghlu at 1:30 PM | Comments (0)

18 September 2006

Whio Controls the Internet (link to book review)

Looks like an excellent book:

Who controls the Internet? A book review at kierenmccarthy.co.uk

Posted by mofoghlu at 11:06 AM | Comments (0)

17 April 2005

Edgar Rice Burroughs: Barsoom

Front cover of 1st edition dust jacket by St.John from 
collection of  Phantom Bookshop see http://www.johncarterofmars.com

I have recently been re-reading a seminal science fiction series that I first read in my early teens. It is always interesting to revist such books. Now, I know that these pulp fiction books, originally written (and often published in serialised form) in the period 1911-1943 have been critiqued for their implicit sexism and racism, and for naive views of politics. I will certainly not seek to defend them against such charges! Nevertheless, I associate them with my childhood pleasure of reading a good action yarn, a real page turner. Now the first three books in the Martian (or Barsoom as Burrogh's natives call it) series have very simple "rescue the girl" plots, all involving the hero John Carter of Mars, who becomes Warlord of Mars by the end of the third book. The fourth features his son, and the fifth (the one I'm just about to start) I remember as having the most satisfying plot, involving an early version of a live chess match where the pieces must fight for control of the square. Burroughs of course invents his own version of chess for this, called jetan, played on a board with 100 squares coloured yellow and black. Anyone interested in the history of science fiction or fantasy should read at least this one book in the series, if not all 11 books!

The Internet seems to have a good few resources on Barsoom, the coolest being a Barsoom Map mapping Burroughs' locations to modern maps of Mars:

Here are links to the 11 books in the series at Amazon.co.uk (various paperback editions):

The WikiPedia entry on Barsoom usefully points out "The American copyright of the five earliest novels has expired, and they can be found on a number of free e-text sites. The Australian copyright of the remainder, not including John Carter of Mars (1964), has also expired and they too can be found online."

Posted by mofoghlu at 2:01 PM | TrackBack

20 February 2005

The History of Western Christianity

I am reading The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity A.D. 200-1000

This is a period of history that really facinates me and includes: on Europe's western shores the Christianisation of Ireland, and the subsequent Irish missions to Britain and the rest of Europe; in Britain the rise of Anglo-Saxon dominance in England and its missions to Europe; and in the east the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, in continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, and its battles with encroaching the Persians and others. This book covers all of these issues through the lens of how the practice of Christianity in Europe developed and formalised after the fall of the Roman Empire (i.e. the Western Roman Empire).

Posted by mofoghlu at 12:07 PM | TrackBack