Micro Review: The Road

I’ve watched a bunch of post-apocalyptic content when I was a kid.

I grew up with post-apocalyptic anime of the desert kind and of the non-desert kind (Italy in the ’80s was a weird place where everything animated was supposed to be for kids).

And post-apocalyptic movies were a staple in ’80s and ’90s: the Mad Max movies sure, but also The Salute of the Jugger, Waterworld, The Postman, 12 Monkeys

I think this was mostly related to the fact that film makers back then had been really, really scared of atomic bombs growing up.

I think my generation was afraid of ecological collapse of some kind, but not as much. Might be the reason why we didn’t get a nuclear war, but we are getting an ecological collapse.

Mild spoilers ahead!

Anyway, The Road by  Cormac McCarthy is the story of a man and his son living in a post-apocalyptic world, trying to go south hoping not to die of cold.

It’s incredibly bleak. If you watched any Mad Max movie, the world is generally fucked up, dried up, and life only survives in a few spots dominated by violence and such. But you see, life goes on, it’s our current world which is fucked. We don’t consider ourselves a post-apocalyptic dinosaur story§.

In this book, life does not go on. Everything is dead. There are no surviving trees, no animals, no fish. Mankind survives on tin cans, and you know those will run out too, and so do they.

This would be sad and depressing on its own, but the hardest thing of the book is that this is the story of a father and a small boy.

The father knows they’re going to die too, and so does the boy. They go through the motions of surviving, but they know (or, you do) that canned food won’t last forever. Maybe they’ll find a cache of some sort of nutrition). But then what happens when that is over?

They have a gun with two bullets, and they have to choose whether to use them to protect themselves or kill themselves when things get too bad. But as a father, what do you do? You can’t kill your kid while there’s hope he won’t die.

And there’s always hope. In Italian we say “la Speranza è l’ultima a morire” (~ “Hope dies last”), and one wonders who died before her. The answer is You. You die before Hope dies.

So the father goes through the motions of living, teaching the kid that they are The Good Guys, and they Carry The Fire. The father does not generally lie to the kid, but you can feel he’d like to.

Well, I‘d like to at least. Lies are bad, but what do you tell a kid when he cries at night? I’ll be there for you, I’ll protect you forever, I won’t let anything bad happen to you. But you don’t have the power to hold that promise.

By chance, I also happened to be reading a different book to my son yesterday, and it’s an amazingly good book§, with many good stories, and one had this bit:

– how much does a teardrop weight?

– it depends: the teardrop of a spoiled kid weighs less than the wind, the teardrop of a hungry kid weighs more than the whole Earth.

And we sometimes forget this, but it is true.

This is a perfect book. It’s short, it’s well written, the story is gripping, the characters are three dimensional and faceted. I believe it’s also part of the free library for Audible subscribers, so if you have a subscription go check it out.

Vote: 10/10, I wish I had read this before having kids.

Micro Review: Permutation City

This book by Greg Egan  had been on my todo list for years, I kept forgetting it and rediscovering it and thinking it sounded great, but then not reading it anyway.

In short, it’s a story about virtual worlds, uploaded minds, the meaning of consciousness, what it means to live in a simulation, and how to know if you do.

These are topics which are very fashionable in the 2020’s, but this book was written in 1994, the author was way ahead of his time.

It is not a super-easy read, but it will give you a lot to think about. Some of that lot is deeply tragic and depressing, but I guess it depends on how you read it.

Maybe don’t read it if you’re depressed.

I listened to this in audiobook form from Audible, and tbh I hated the narration. But hey, maybe it’s just me.

Vote: 7/10, read it before uploading your mind.

Micro review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I really enjoyed this book.

I like Neil Gaiman quite a bit, but this book felt somewhat different: it felt somehow like a Stephen King story.

Mild spoilers ahead.

The book is written as the main character, as an adult, visits the place where he grew up. There’s a pond there, but he knew, as a kid, that it was no pond, it was the ocean. And there was a girl, somewhat special. And a man, who killed himself.

See? Isn’t this your Kingesque coming-of-age/did-we-imagine-it-or-was-it-real plot?

It also feels pretty intimate, you are led to immediately visualize young Neil in the story, not a random kid. It’s a good book, well written, with a good story and characters.

And a big difference between King and Gaiman is that Stephen is not very good at endings, but Neil is great.

Vote: 8/10

Mini review: Bobiverse audiobooks 1-4

I am not sure how I got into these audiobooks, but I think it’s because the premise was pretty great: Bob is a software developer that gets his mind uploaded into a Von Neumann probe, a spacecraft that travels the universe replicating itself.

This poses a few interesting issues: how does such a human survive as disincorporated mind? How does he deal with the solitude of space? How does it deal with clones that have his exact thought process?

It also creates interesting issues for the writer: how do you write about traveling through the endless vacuum in an interesting way? How do you create contrast between copies of the same character? And if Bob is now just software, when it gets copied to another machine, is it the same?

Hic Sunt Spoilers

Well, the plot issues are handled easily: you Marty Sue the shit out of them. Bob builds its own virtual reality. Its own AIs. Its own faster than light communication and drives. He masters computer science, material science, physics, biology, agronomy, astronomy. He terraforms, creates life, alters solar systems.

Most problems boil down to being barely an inconvenience, except for the issue most males have struggled during the ages: getting the girl. Women, uh?

(This is ironic, don’t lynch me please)

The writing issues are often sidestepped: there is no void of space, Bob just never gets bored or just sleeps. There are never N copies of the same character, since there is always some drift. You can’t copy a Bob.

I liked the idea that you can never have two copies of the same personality (because “quantum“), but if you turn one off, then you can move it to another machine.

It’s a good enough solution for the well known issue that the teleportation is incompatibile with a unique soul, which I expect will be tackled by some future interstellar council (I hope the ensuing schismatics/heretics will be called Renziani, whatever their position).

Anyway, the books are entertaining, Bob acts as God to some creatures, screws up some stuff, fights battle, kills aliens, deals with conspiracies. The various incarnations of Bob are likeable, no doubt due to a good performance on part of the narrator.

There’s also a certain amount of “here’s a new chapter and a new issue, and here’s how I tackle with my smarts” which can either get on your nerves or entice you depending on how much you identify with the character.

The author winks a lot to a certain reader, filling the book with nerd references which can be nice, but it gets boring after a while. Not as bad as Ready Player One anyway.

My ending is better

I liked the fourth book the most. The Bobs go looking for a lost Bob and find a giant space structure where an alien civilization is kept in a permanent state of low-tech development. Not wanting for anything, but stagnating, ignorant of their status, and slowly devolving.

Here the Bobs go on an adventure and find a giant computer mind that manages the whole civilization for their own good. Having incarnated into robots, the Bobs travel the planet, meet people, do stuff, start revolutions and so on.

This is my favorite book as the author seems to have abandoned the somewhat gimmicky nature of the first three, and gives us a cool space adventure, interesting world building, characters with mode depth. I think it might have made a good standalone book even leaving the Bobiverse aside completely.

My only disappointment is that I really, really, really wanted the evil computer mind to be the lost Bob. This would have cast a shadow on previous choices the Bobs did, forcing the reader to face hard ethical choices. Alas, we just get a “everybody is happy” ending.

Still, it’s nice to have happy endings now and then, and I look forward to the next book.

Vote: 7/10

On Adaptations and Empathy

Recently Netflix aired the first season of their adaptation of The Sandman, and I finally got a chance to watch it.

I loved the original comics, it’s one of my favourite works. I also listened to the audible production and I liked that one too.

So, like everyone on the internet, I am going to share my opinion on the tv series, and also on other adaptations, geopolitics, and everything else.

I mean, it’s a blog.

For those that don’t know anything about The Sandman, feel free to skip this part. Be warned, spoilers ahead.

Netflix’s Sandman

The important thing to know about the Netflix adaptation is that it saw the direct involvement of Neil Gaiman, the original author of the comics. This is, in theory, great.

The problem is: usually, when a work is adapted to a different media you can be angry at whoever ruined the thing you loved, but in this case that would be the same person who created it!

In particular, people got angry for a few specific reasons, and I’ll try to review them.

Woke casting

People accused the produces of changing characters to fit recent diversity-satisfying trends. This is the “Death was a goth with pale skin, she can’t be a black girl!“. This is, generally speaking, a pretty stupid objection, even if it is true.

The original comic was “woke” before the expression existed, sporting trans and non-binary characters, gays and lesbians, mixed ethnicities…

Generally having that typical ’80/90s “we should love each other even if we’re different” brand of good sentiments that you may remember from We Are the World or successful ads.

So, Gaiman did more of the same, intentionally. I don’t feel it’s reasonable to be upset about this.

But personally: we didn’t get John Constantine! I don’t mind that we got a Johanna, but I do mind that we went from a loser kind of guy with bad hair and a shitty trench coat to a fancy lady with a white immaculate one. Still, I don’t think it matters much.

Also, I didn’t particularly like Lucifer’s casting, nor Dream itself, nor Lucien. I did like Death a lot, and Desire, and John Dee, so I hope I’m not just being an old fart.

Plot changes

This relates to changes small and large, such as Dr. Dee not killing the lady who gave him a ride, his mother helping him, Dream recovering part of his powers by uncreating Gregory, the diner episode being vastly different, the battle with Lucifer instead of Choronzon, the Burgess story being somewhat different etc.

Overall, I don’t think these changes matter nor do they bother me much, but I feel many of them share a common trait: this version of Sandman, both tale and character, is kinder.

As an example, consider the Calliope episode. The original story is a lot more harsh, showing her always(?) naked and making the rape and abuse feel very real. I can understand why that might not fly on general audience TV. Also, using raped women as props is not great anyway, so she got more characterization for TV, which is good.

But then, at the end of the TV episode, she goes “to inspire the world anew” while in the comics she just goes on to fade from the world, the era of greek muses long gone. I liked the old ending more.

More importantly, the relation between her and Dream differs. In the original story Dream is very cold to her, as essentially he’s a dick.

The same is true for the story of Nada, which was omitted from the TV show. That story is great, because it shows Dream falling in love, and being angry and unfair and egotistical.

This was great, because Dream needs to be a piece of shit at the beginning of the story, or it will not matter to us that he needs to change.

Gaiman famously summed up the comic with the line

The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.

But in the TV show he’s just.. grumpy? By making the character less unlikeable, we automatically get a less interesting development. I don’t understand what the producers were going for.

Missing DC references

The original comics were firmly set in the DC universe. This meant that there were a ton of DC characters all over the place, some you may not even have noticed (Cain, Abel, Eve , Lucien…).

Many important ones, like Batman and Joker have been omitted from the TV adaptation altogether. This seems more a case of avoiding legal trouble than anything else, and I honestly didn’t miss them at all.

Am I lost in Translation?

So, yeah, I think the Netflix Adaptation is ok, but I do have a few gripes with it. But one may wonder: am I just an old fart who hates change, and I would never be happy with any adaptation?

Dear Reader, I think I am not. In fact, I believe the Audible’s audio adaptation is almost perfect. It has incredible cast, great production and is 100% better than Netflix’s, and in some ways better than the comics.

It only has 3 defects

  • some of the background sound effects are too loud
  • some of the special effects on voices make them too hard to understand
  • for some reason they dubbed Death so it sounds like a 13yo who can’t speak properly

Maybe I have a specific issue with screen adaptations? Let’s review some.

A triptych of screen adaptations

As evidence that I do like screen adaptations even if they deviate from the source material, I will list 3 where I liked both the comic book version and the screen one, as I (re-)watched or (re-)read these recently.

V for Vendetta

The 2005 movie is quite faithful to the source comics, and I love it. There are some fundamental differences (e.g. the Leader in the movie is an a-dimensional bad guy; V in the comic is darker, crazier and less likeable) but it’s pretty great anyway! In fact, I think I enjoyed the movie more than I enjoyed the comics.

Bu I have seen the movie before the comic, maybe that tinted my opinion? Let’s try another one.

All you need is kill

Here, I read the manga after I watched the movie The Edge of Tomorrow. Interestingly, they are both adaptations, the original source being a light novel.

I think they are both good, but the manga has a better plot, with a nicer ending. The movie devolves into standard hollywood good-kill-bad happy ending, while the manga/light novel keeps you on your toes with an ethical conundrum and leaves you once that is solved, the ongoing alien invasion remaining in the background. Once the battle for the character’s soul is done, we don’t really need to care too much about aliens.

But ok, this was a manga, what about western stuff?

Watchmen

I loved the Watchmen graphic novel, including the squid bit. But I loved the movie too!

First, it has gorgeous photography and great casting.

Second, it has one of the best intro ever made for a movie, managing to sum up an entire backstory in 5 minutes of stunning imagery and perfect soundtrack.

Third, the changes from the original material are there and not always good (Rorschach becomes a positive character, the sex scene is far too long, the lack of squids disappointing), but they don’t really impact the plot.

Is it the same as the original graphic novel? Nope, but it’s still good.

The problem with people

So, I don’t think I’m particularly biased against adaptations, but I just don’t think The Sandman on Netflix was very good. I would watch another season, but heck, I watched the Cuphead show too.

But the whole kerfuffle was interesting to me. A lot of people got pissed off by the adaptation, and Neil Gaiman has been kind of a dick to some of them, much like they were being dicks to him.

I have seen people get upset at adaptations for a long time, and I have been upset myself. When the revolution comes, people who produced The Dark Tower movie will be the first against the wall.

But why do people get upset? Some of the people who make noise about media products do it out of general politicking: they don’t care about the material, and are just looking for an excuse to spew their favorite opinions. Shit there’s people arguing about a homosexual couple in Peppa Pig these days.

Some others get upset because they love the material, and feel betrayed. It’s easy to frame everyone who got upset about Death being black as being a racist bigot, but I think some of them genuinely just loved the specific representation of the character and wanted to see that.

Did you notice it? I did the same about the audio version of Death.

If you spent a bunch of time with anything it becomes part of your identity, and when someone makes an adaptation which does not match your interpretation you perceive it as an attack on you.

This is essentially the reason why italians get mad at foreigners’ faux italian food.

Fans are people

And the thing is, it doesn’t really matter if the consumer of a work is aligned with the author. Alan Moore famously said

[Rorschach] is what Batman would be in the real world.

But I have forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans, ‘smelling’, ‘not having a girlfriend’, these are actually kind of heroic!

So Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I made him to be a bad example. But I have people come up to me in the street and saying: ‘I AM Rorschach. That is MY story’.

And I’d be thinking: Yeah, great. Could you just, like, keep away from me, never come anywhere near me again as long as I live?

For those people, Rorschach is good, and he’s part of their identity. Changing it would upset them.

Dear Reader, I know what you’re thinking: but Gabriele, these are idiots, and we should tell them to fuck off.

Well, I agree in part. But I think it’s worth exercising some empathy anyway. Yes, some people hold opinions that I find reproachable, but I think we should try to be compassionate. It’s easy to be nice to those you like, but we should be nice to those we don’t.

As the saying goes, do not judge someone until you walked a mile in their shoes.

Authors are people too

At the same time, fans should try to show empathy to authors too. Yes, maybe an adaptation is not a good as the original, but have you considered the author’s reason?

This could be the best they could do, and you would have done the same.

Or maybe the author changed over time? I’m pretty sure Gaiman@2020 is very different from Gaiman@1980.

Or maybe, they were trying to stick to a theme, and they have just produced a different representation of the same message.

Yes, sometimes people just make money-grab adaptations of something, which basically only share a name with the original (looking at you, I Robot).

In those cases, i recommend keeping your hopes up, and just consider this stuff as random productions you don’t care about.

Understand this does not damage your self. The thing you loved is still there. They made a shit job, but they also had reasons, you just don’t know why.

The problem with geopolitics

I am too incompetent to discuss about big themes, but I wanted to share a last thought: in Europe, a lot of attention in 2022 went to the Russia-Ukraine war. Maybe now we will now start paying attention to the Azerbaijan-Armenia war.

Wars are a terrible thing, we should help the people who are being attacked in every way, and condemn the attackers. There is no argument about this.

I just have a thought on talking about the war. You may unintentionally upset someone, and be hurt in return. Try to be tolerant and empathic, you don’t know what the others experienced.

A lot of good things start from empathy, maybe peace too, in the very long term.

Summer readings 2021, part 1 (audiobooks)

It’s been so long since I wrote a blog post, and I’m feeling pretty rusty. But there’s no other way to remember how to do something than practice it, so I’m going to attempt to write a new post every week, until the end of the year.

Anyway, I’m sort of short of arguments, but I was lucky enough to be able to have long holidays this summer, so in the footsteps of more successful writers, I’m going to make a short list of the things I read this summer, in the hope they will be useful to other people. But I read a lot! so I’m going to split it. This is the first instalment, talking about stuff I listened to as audiobooks.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

The humble shipping container might not seem like an interesting topic, but it is! The invention/adoption/perfection of the container changed society in a way that few other things did. For example, a whole category of jobs (dockworkers) has been more or less wiped out. Entire cities that relied on people working on interchange traffic lost their income. Worldwide production chains become possible, which in turn enabled “globalization” and all the good and bad that comes with it.

Plus, the book contains pretty fascinating stories of the people who pioneered this, how they succeeded, how they failed. And of those who resisted or embraced the change. And of course, that marvel of human nature: the standardization committee!

There is something to criticize in the book, and it’s the fact that it is, for all its interesting content, far too rich of details. Honestly, it seems like it could have been 6 or 7 blog posts and still be just as informative.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

I’ve been recommended this book a million times but always put it off. But I recently found out it’s included in the basic Audible membership I have, so I decided to finally listen to it.

Oh, I am so happy I did it. Feynman is hilarious, the list of anecdotes and odd situations which he experience is mindbogglingly, his insights on human nature are pretty enjoyable.

Also, it’s clear he sort of identifies himself as “anti-intellectual” which kinda resonates with my own education, although I think what he really should identify himself as “anti-pomp” (I think he mentions this at some point). It’s easy to mix up the two.

I cannot recommend this book enough. While reading it tho I couldn’t shake the feeling that, had the book been written today, people would have showed up with pitchforks; Feynman is a womanizer of the extreme kind, and plenty of the adventures (e.g. the one that starts with his regular hanging out at some topless diner (!!)) might not mix well with modern sensitivities.

The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

This is another of the free books on Audible. The premise is pretty good: a guy who worked for a big corporation tells his story, explaining how there is a corrupt and ever increasing powerful force of “economic hit men”.

Such people in cooperation with the IMF, World Bank, and USAID, manage to bribe, threaten, and coax politicians and government offices from developing countries so that they get loans, the invest money in projects that promise to have grand returns for the population, but end up being realized by the same foreign corporations, which this way manage to syphon back the money, leaving the countries in deeper debt and without having achieved much. Rich people get richer, poor people get poorer, rinse and repeat.

If the people do not cooperate, then “the jackals” enter the scene, and get rid of the non-complying figures through violent means. If that fails too, there’s always war.

This is not a global conspiracy, but a modus operandi that has been initially used by the US and then by other countries, and effectively constitutes a new form of imperialism.

So far, so good. This, is honestly quite familiar to anyone who read a book or newspaper in the last 50 years, but the idea of reading a first person account is intriguing.

Sadly, the book does not hold up. It’s basically a collection of random stories which are so transparently fake that it’s incredible someone thought to write them down. Like, the guy gets recruited by the NSA be a spy. But the NSA is a code-breaking organization, it does not do that?

Then he meets this woman who explains him of the economic hit man concept Then she obviously tells him “if someone does not play by the rule <throat slash sign>“. Other than obvious corniness, I kinda think this gesture was not popular until much more recent times.

Or, the guy shows up after 9/11 in New York, and obviously meets an old muslim dude who gives him life lessons. He goes to Iran, and also meet people who give him life lessons and tell him how the West is killing their traditional Bedouin culture of leaving in the desert, “a true Persian would not allow that“. But Bedouins are like 1% of the population of Iran?

Anyway, you might say, sure, he’s embellished a story, but there will be some meat in it.

Nope, nothing. He spends an inordinate amount of time describing some situations were the US overturned a government, which you can trivially read on wikipedia, and that in all cases do not show the pattern of the countries being highly indebted, or not even match his own timeline (I.e. they predate the existence of IMF/WB). His first example, the one where he “sells his soul for the first time”, is Indonesia, which still has a debt/GDP ratio of 30-40% (compare: Italy has 130%, Germany 80%) and the poverty rate fell from >60% to 15% in the ’80s, after they started to take on debt (yes, correlation is not causation).

The even more embarrassing thing is that examples of the issue that he wants to talk about would be easy to find! He just doesn’t bother!

It’s a terrible book. But, if you never heard of any of this, it might be interesting, and the last part, basically a “what can I do“, is probably valuable. Caveat emptor.