Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thomas Hardy: The Darkling Thrush

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
…..When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
…..The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
…..Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
…..Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
…..The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
…..The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
…..Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
…..Seemed fervorless as I.
At once a voice arose among
…..The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
…..Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small
…..In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
…..Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
…..Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
…..Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
…..His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
…..And I was unaware.

-- Thomas Hardy --
December 31, 1900

 I know I've posted this poem before, but it so fits my mood today that I just had to post it again.  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Drew Magary: The Postmortal

Drew Magary
The Postmortal

Drew Magary's  The Postmortal is probably the best SF novel that explores the theme of an extended life span that I've read in decades, if not ever.  It attempts to realistically depict the effects of the development of an anti-aging medical treatment on society.

A researcher accidentally discovers a gene that controls aging and eventually comes up with a treatment that shuts down the gene.  Those given the cure (as it is popularly known) immediately stop aging and remain at whatever physical state they were in when given the treatment.  It is not immortality.  They can still die from accidents, disease, etc., but they will remain physically the same for an unknown length of time.

The opening paragraph from the novel's introduction:

"A Note about the Text: From the Department of Containment United North American Territories

"In March 2090, a worker for the Department of Containment named Anton Vyrin was conducting a routine sweep of an abandoned collectivist  compound in rural Virginia when he stumbled upon an eighth-generation  wireless-enabled projected screening device (WEPS.8) that was still functional after charging.  Stored inside the device's hard drive was a digital library containing sixty years' worth of text files written by a man who went by the screen name John  Farrell."

.     .     .

"In its entirety,the collection contains thousands of entries and several hundred thousand words, but for the sake of brevity and general readability, they have been edited and abridged into what we believe constitutes an essential narrative, and incontrovertible evidence that the cure for aging must never again be legalized."

The four time periods of the novel:

1  Prohibition:  June 2019
The news about the cure had appeared three years ago.  The US government, along with other governments, put a temporary ban on its use, saying it wished to study the effects of a drug that would have such an almost unthinkable effect on society.  While it is officially banned, it is available for those are willing to search for it and willing to pay for it.

John Farrell, a lawyer. locates a doctor who will administer the treatment.  At the same time, violent protests break out by both the pro-cure groups and the pro-death groups.  Many doctors who administer the cure are killed.

2  Spread:  June 2029
Societal changes appear.  The number of marriages has dropped.  In the past, "until death do us part" usually meant maybe 40 or 50 years or less, whereas now it could mean centuries.  Divorce is still possible, but people don't marry expecting to divorce.

Farrell tells Sonia, who is pregnant and wants him to marry her that "I could commit to you if we knew our lives were definite.  But they aren't.  I have no earthly idea what's coming next, and I can't promise you that from now until the end of time I'll always be by your side.  Because I don't know.  And you can't promise that either because you don't know."

Farrell, still working for the same legal firm, has helped to set up a new type of marriage, a "cycle marriage."  It lasts for forty years with heavy penalties applied in case of divorce.   At the end of the forty years, the marriage dissolves, as agreed upon by both parties at the beginning.  They may apply for a new 40 year cycle, but this is rare.   Ceremonies and parties are now the standard when an individual takes the cure.  The in-place for this is the Fountain of Youth in Las Vegas. 

Opposition groups to the cure have developed a wide variety of tactics, ranging from use of the courts to those who throw lye into the eyes of those who have taken the cure, condemning them perhaps to centuries of being blind.  These extremists are known as trolls.

Some who have taken the cure now regret it.  Farrell's father is one who wishes he hadn't because he misses his wife and is convinced that he will see her in heaven, once he dies.  Now, he doesn't know when that reunion will be; it could be centuries.

3  Saturation: 2059
Forty years have passed since the introduction of the cure.  The effects of the cure are now widespread and becoming clear to all--just too many people around.   One problem that I hadn't considered was human fertility.  Prior to the cure, humans were fertile for roughly 40 years, plus or minus a few years depending on the individual.  Now, humans are able to have children for as long as they live, which may be centuries, excluding such causes as accident or disease.  It's becoming a very  crowded and hostile world.

Farrell is job-hunting.  He retired from his position at the law firm and partied for a decade or two, and now he's broke.  The job turns out to be an end specialist.  In the film Soylent Green, the character played by Edward G. Robinson, decides to end it all.  He goes to a government facility and assisted by the staff arranges for his death, surrounded by pictures and music of his choice.  In The Postmortal, the government has subcontracted this function to various independent firms (always doing their part to support small businesses).  On an assignment, Farrell and his partner visit the individual, make sure all the formalities and paperwork are in order, and then provide that person with an end to the cure.  Farrell insists he is only a clerk and is there to handle the legalities and paperwork:  his partner is the terminator.

Correction: 2079
Society is, essentially, at war with itself.  Farrell is still an end specialist, but he frequently works alone.  One of his tasks is to do a sweep.  He is given a territory, and his task is cover the area and find those who are suffering from sheep flu, which is invariably fatal.  He has two vials of medicine. One is free, the one that kills painlessly and quickly.  Those who have access to $5000 can buy the cure for sheep flu.  Most do not, otherwise they would have gotten it already.  Farrell no longer insists on being just a clerk: he has become a full-fledged end specialist.  Then he gets an assignment to kill a woman whose only crime is that she's old.

Interspersed among the narrative of Farrell's life, Magary has also provided news headlines and articles that provide a fascinating picture of the effect of the cure on society, its laws, its mores, and reactions of various people in the US, as well as some information about the rest of the world.

--The Vatican threatens cure seekers with excommunication.

--"I'm always gonna get my period."

--Cigarette sales are now at an all-time low.

--Sales of adult incontinence undergarments (you know them as Depends) have fallen 46 percent since 2016.

--Suicide bombings in the Middle East  are down nearly 70 percent over the past decade while nonsuicide bombings are up 220 percent.

--In an interview, Russian president Boris Solovyev vigorously denied numerous reports of police executing any Russian citizen over the cure age of fifty.

--Mia Burkhart is 44 years old with a cure age of 29.  She's divorced, and her two sons have gone off on their own.  She decides she wants another child to raise on her own and contacts the local sperm bank.  All goes well.  Emilia is a beautiful child, and Mia is supremely happy.

After the child is about 18 months old, neighbors, friends, and relatives begin to notice something strange:  Emily is not growing.  Concerned, they investigate to find that Emily has been given the cure at age ten months.  She will be a ten month infant for as long as she lives, which may be centuries.

--Two large cities in China have been hit by nuclear explosions.   The official government story is sabotage.  However, rumors persist that China has nuked two of its own cities as art of a radical population control program.

The above is only a small part of the novel.  There's so much more.

Overall Rating:  Read it.  It's the most underrated SF novel, or perhaps just novel, of the decade. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Edward Thomas: The Unknown Bird

I must admit I know little about Edward Thomas, except that he was a friend of Robert Frost, which definitely is a plus for him.  I was only exposed to him in the past few years because of Stephen Pentz whose blog is First Known When Lost.    His blog focuses on poetry and art that corresponds to or illuminates the poem(s) that he presents.  You can easily find his blog by checking the right side of this blog and moving down to the section that contains blogs I follow.   I would very highly recommend a visit to First Known When Lost, which happens to be the title of a poem by Edward Thomas.

I guess my way of going through a book of poetry is a bit unusual.  I can't start at page one and slowly work my way through the poems one-by-one.  Instead,  I skim through the poems, looking for one that jumps out at me.  I stop there and read it several times.  I then let it simmer in my unconscious for awhile and then go back to it.  Sometimes I can figure out why this one or that one moves me, but frequently I can't: it just grabs me.  This is the first one that jumped out at me.

The Unknown Bird

Three lovely notes he whistled, too softly to be heard
If others sang; but others never sang
In the great beech-wood all that May and June.
No one saw him: I alone could hear him
Though many listened.  Was it but four years
Ago?  or five?  He never came again.

Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,
Nor could I ever make another hear.
La-la-la! he called, seeming far-off --
As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if the bird or I were in a dream.
Yet that he traveled through the trees and sometimes
Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still
He sounded.  All the proof is -- I told men
What I had heard.

                            I never knew a voice,
Man, beast, or bird, better than this.  I told
The naturalists; but neither had they heard
Anything like the notes that did so haunt me,
I had them clear by heart, and have them still.
Four years, or five, have made no difference.  Then
As now that La-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or the other, but if sad
'Twas sad only with joy too, too far off
For me to taste it.   But I cannot tell
If truly anything but fair
The days were when he sang, as now they seem.
This surely I know, that I who listened then,
Happy sometimes, sometimes suffering
A heavy body and a heavy heart,
Now straightaway, if I think of it, become
Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore.

-- Edward Thomas --
The Annotated Collected Poems

"As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,"
"Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore."

Does this suggest some sort of mystical experience? No one else could hear the bird sing, nor could any naturalist identify it.

"bodiless sweet"

There, but not there?   Insubstantial?

Perhaps it is best to forget the analysis and to simply experience and enjoy the poem.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: The Last Quatrain

I've stalled around a bit in posting on this quatrain: it's the last one for all editions.  I started this project on September 26, 2008 and never realized that it would last for over five years.  In fact, I'm also surprised that I did finish it for I tend to lose interest when nearing the end and find reasons for not completing a project.

The second and third editions are longer, at least twenty-five quatrains longer, than the first edition.  I did not post on quatrains that first appeared in the second edition, but only those that appeared in the first edition.  I haven't decided yet what I will do with those ignored quatrains.  Perhaps some time in the future, I may post on those also.

But, here we are--the last quatrain.

First Edition: Quatrain LXXV 

And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one--turn down an empty Glass!

                        TAMAM SHUD

Second Edition:  Quatrain CX

And when Yourself with silver Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!


Fifth Edition:  Quatrain CI

And when like her, oh, Saki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!


Fitzgerald made only minor changes over the five editions, and most of them occurred in the first line.  In the first edition we see  "Thyself" which becomes the less poetic  "Yourself" in the second edition.  Also, "shining foot" is changed to "silver Foot" in the second edition.  "Silver" is much more specific in that it denotes a white foot more clearly than does "shining."

In the fifth edition, we find the most drastic change to the first line.  The references to her personal appearance disappear and she is named Saki.  In addition, we find a reference--"like her"-- to the previous quatrain where the Moon is depicted as shining down on those in the garden.  The tie to the previous quatrain is much stronger in this edition than in the earlier versions in which the quatrain began with "And," which also ties this quatrain to previous one.  In other words, he substitutes a direct reference for a conjunction.

The second, third, and fourth lines of the various editions are identical except for a change that occurs in the second edition, when "thy" becomes "your" to match a similar change in the first line.

The sense of the quatrain seems quite clear--remember me with an empty glass, which refers back to earlier quatrains concerning the scene in the pottery shop in which a pot suggests that filling it with wine might restore it.  However, there seems to be no possibility of that happening here, for death is the final emptying of the glass.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

12 Angry Men: three versions of this film

12 Angry Men, US Film  (1957)

This film appeared in the theaters in 1957 and, while a critical success, did not attract an audience and disappeared from the theaters.  Since then, however, it has steadily grown in critical estimation and audience appeal.

The plot is simple:  a young boy has been tried for killing his abusive father.  He claims he did not kill him.   The film opens with the judge's instructions to the jury, which then retires to the jury room.  The film then never leaves the jury room.  Once there, several of the jurors (this is 1957 so the jurors are all white males) are convinced it's an open-and-shut case and call for an immediate vote without having any discussion.  Several of the jurors are in a hurry:  one has tickets for a baseball game that night and another has to catch a flight for an important business meeting.  The vote comes out 11 for guilty and 1 not guilty.  The lone dissenting vote is cast by Henry Fonda's character, Juror 8.  When pressed for his reasons for voting "not guilty," he says he doesn't know whether the boy is innocent or guilty, but he does feel that, since a guilty verdict mandates execution, there should some discussion about the case.

"Beyond reasonable doubt"  is the troublesome criterion facing the jury.  A guilty verdict can only be rendered if the prosecution has proved its case beyond reasonable doubt, and this is the point that Juror 8 focuses on.  Is the evidence strong enough to move a person to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt.  If not, then they must render a verdict of not guilty.

The deliberation concentrates on the evidence.  Is it strong enough to convict him of murder, thus resulting in his execution?  Juror 8 and the other jurors spend considerable time discussing, attacking, defending, interpreting the evidence.  Occasionally a juror will say something that involves a personal issue as a way of making a point, but this is rare.  The issue is the evidence: is it strong enough to justify his execution?

Juror 8, the Henry Fonda character, is clearly the central character.  He is the leader of the gradually increasing group that argues for a "not guilty" verdict.  Juror 8 is a familiar character--strong, plain-spoken, confident, calm, measured, determined in behavior-- in other words, Henry Fonda as he has been seen in many roles.

It soon becomes clear that the evidence is only part of what moves many of the jurors to insist on a "guilty" verdict.  The other part, which emerges much more strongly as the evidence becomes more and more questionable, is prejudice; however, the target is never really specified.  It is always "them."  Typical references are "You know what they are like..."  I thought that was an interesting tactic as it allows the viewers to plug in whatever group is on the receiving end in their personal experience and doesn't limit the references to prejudice or bigotry aimed at any special group.  The optimistic viewpoint of the film seems to be that as the jurors become aware of their prejudices, they are more able to see clearly that the evidence is not strong enough to convict the boy. 

In spite of Perry Mason and countless other legal thrillers, finding the "real" murderer does not play a role here.  One of the jurors belligerently demands to know who killed the father if the boy didn't.  Juror 8 (Fonda) responds that the issue for them is determining the son's guilt and only that, nothing else. 

Overall Rating:  a superb film, the issues raised back in 1957 are still with us, but not brought out as clearly now as it was then.  The attitudes are still here, just more subtly put forward.

--highly recommended.

12,  Russian version  (2007)
While the basic idea of the film had not been changed, the Russian version contains much more about the back story of the way the boy and the Russian soldier met and how the soldier adopted the him.  Some of this was confusing, and I wonder if scenes had been left out.  In this version, the boy is a Chechen orphan who was adopted by a Russian soldier and brought to Moscow.  Contrary to the US film, there was no suggestion here that the father had been abusive. 

While watching the film, I felt that I was missing something.  Russians are good at burying unacceptable (to the government, regardless of the type it is) ideas and issues in their poetry, stories, and films that are critical of the official line of thinking in order to get them by the official censors.   I suspect that a Russian would have gotten much more out of the film then I did.

Juror 8, as in the US film, is the only one who voted "not guilty" in the first ballot taken shortly after retiring to the jury room.  However, he did not appear to play a strong role in what followed.  In fact, he was silent much of the time.  It was much more of a communal effort with various individuals taking control throughout the deliberations.  Again, I may have missed something here--something that suggested he was playing a central role but that in my ignorance of the Russian culture I missed the cues.

Another significant difference was the roles played by individual experience on the one hand and on the other hand  the focus on the evidence during the deliberations.  Jurors told stories about their experiences and past that did not appear in the US version and sometimes it was hard for me to see the relevance although they appeared to be significant to the other jurors.  There was discussion of the evidence, but it seemed to  play a lesser role here than it did in the US version.

Another difference between this film and the US version comes up briefly when Juror 8 is asked who else might be the murderer if the boy isn't.  Juror 8 responds that determining the boy's guilt is the issue, not the identity of the real killer.  However, one of the other jurors offers a theory as to whom the killer might be, but when asked where he got this information, he just smiles and refuses to answer.  This comment has an interesting effect at the end of the film, something which does not happen in the US version.

The issue of prejudice and bigotry was also raised in this film but again the treatment differed from the US version in that two groups were brought forward in the Russian film as the targets--Jews and Chechens.  Since the defendant was a Chechen, the relevance is obvious.  What escaped me though was that the first expression of prejudice was directed at the Jews.  Again, perhaps I'm missing something here.

Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, Hindi language version (1986)
In spite of the wretched subtitles, it seems clear that this version is very close to the US version.  Some minor changes have been made, but it is a very close remake.  I would guess that the US script had been translated into Hindi.   Then the subtitles had been created from the Hindi language script as I could frequently recognize dialogue from the US version. The sequence of events was also the same or at least as far as I could tell.

Juror 8, as in the US version, played the central role in the deliberations.  Again, while there were some personal issues and stories brought out, the focus for the most part was on the evidence as in the US film.  The problem of prejudice also appeared as a significant issue, but its treatment was almost identical to its handling in the US film.   No particular group, aside from vague references to the lower social classes--the poor and the destitute--was named. 

The question of who the real killer might be comes up also, but again it is handled the same way as in the US version.  The jury's concern is the guilt of the boy, not determining the identity of someone else who might be the killer.

I would recommend viewing all three versions; however, if you don't have that much time, then I would suggest seeing at least the US and the Russian versions, since the Hindi version is very close to the US film.