Zombies and Bloggers and Politics. So fun.

Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy #1)Feed by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Feed far more than I thought I would. I mean, okay, there are zombies. That’s definitely a plus, though I suspect that the current wave of zombie books/movies/shows might already have peaked. At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do with zombies, right?

That said, Grant manages to put two novel spins on the genre. First, she depicts a society not in the days immediately following the zombie outbreak, but rather one that has learned to accept the zombie menace as a way of life. We see civilization carrying on. Business carries on, democracy marches forward, testing for the zombie virus is routine, and humans are still the scariest monsters there are.

Grant’s second original spin is to place bloggers front-and-center in the post-zombie society. It’s an odd conceit, but it is a more-or-less plausible outgrowth of our reality-TV obsessed world.

In all, I thought that this was great fun, and the book actually had what was (to me) a perfect ending. Honestly, my main disappointment is that there is a sequel. That may sound odd. But I fear that trying to carry on with a sequel is going to end up a little bit like season 6 of Buffy: It sounds like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect, it really just makes everything that came before it a little bit worse.

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Adventures in Neocon Land

I am currently plowing my way through the fourth installment of David Weber’s Safehold series. For those of you not already involved in this particular method of wasting time and brain cells in equal measure, the basic plot…doesn’t really matter. It’s mostly all a setup to allow Weber to stage elaborate 18th-century naval battles (though maybe it’s early 19th? I’m not enough of a naval historian to know) in a universe that also contains androids, BEMs, FTL travel, and semi-intelligent AIs. Like Weber’s Honor Harrington stories, the Safehold series is more-or-less an ode to Horatio Hornblower, only this time with actual sailing vessels and cannons.

The novels bounce back and forth between details about the political and religious climate of Safehold and ripping great naval battles. Those reading just for the latter can safely skip about 60% of the pages (and pretty much pass on vol. 4 entirely), but for those few of us who actually enjoy the world-building, the other stuff is interesting if for no other reason than that it shines such a light on Weber’s own political beliefs. Let’s just say that “subtle” is not a word that a sane person would use in describing Weber. And, like most of the writers who found stardom writing for Jim Baen, Weber leans decidedly rightward.

For starters, the omnipresent bogeyman in the series – one who is referenced on nearly every page, but who appears only rarely – is one Zhaspahr Clyntahn. Meanwhile, Weber’s great conquering general is Hauwyl Chermyn. The fourth volume revolves around an ever-larger collection of protagonists who are (a) living in what is pretty clearly the analogue of the British Isles and who (b) fight off an oppressive universal (dare one say catholic?) church by forming its very own, modestly reformed version, while (c) using their navy and marines to dominate the seas and conquer pretty much everyone whom they perceive to be a threat.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “You’re on volume four of that?” To which I can only say: Did I mention that Weber writes really ripping naval battles?

But all of this got me to thinking about what looks to be a pretty significant trend in adventure-oriented stories: Pretty much all of them (and certainly the best of them) seem to embrace a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with what we might think of as a liberal worldview. I’m talking about people like Forester, O’Brien, Kipling, Burroughs (the Tarzan one, not the Beat one), Tolkien, Heinlein, Lucas, Rowling – or we can skip modern(ish) examples and go all the way back to people like Homer and Mallory. In every case, there’s a single theme: All you really need to triumph over the forces of evil are a few heroic individuals and a band of ragtag but faithful followers who can be turned into a disciplined (and generally unstoppable) army. Our heroes win a battle (or, more often, a big-ass war), and then happily end their days engaging in a bit of benevolent despotism over the conquered barbarians. For the villains are nearly always barbarians – or, worse, decent people who are easily duped by a few truly evil leaders and who will require more benevolent despotism “for their own good.” In really extreme cases (see Tolkien and everyone who writes fantasy afterward. Also maybe Kipling.) a little bit of ethnic cleansing is necessary before we can get down to the really serious business of glorious absolute monarchy.

Even when our adventure stories take on what looks like a more quintessentially “liberal” worldview, these more traditional – conservative? neoconservative? – attitudes persist. I’m thinking here of Dances With Wolves and its three sequels (The Last Samurai, Avatar and District 9). Yes, you might be fighting against the forces of colonialism or racism (or a little of both), but in the end, you triumph by aligning the natives with the Power of Western Male Individualism. (Yes, sometimes there are technically females involved. But they are typically Heinlein-style Men With Perfect Breasts. I’ll leave the deconstructing of gender stereotypes to people who are better at it, though. The same goes for critiquing the trope of the surprisingly-Western “natives.” I’m self-aware enough to recognize the white male-centricness of the adventure genre, but am probably also too deeply steeped in that culture to have anything useful to say about it.)

My point (and yes, there really is one, buried under all the digressions) is that I wonder whether or not the myth of the heroic individual isn’t necessary to make a really good adventure story work. Maybe all good adventure stories need to turn on the existence of a small group of people with the courage/brains/grit/etc whose possession of said characteristics is the very thing that allows them to save the day. Maybe only a hero straight out of The Book of Virtues can really sustain an adventure worth reading/watching. I mean, what would a truly liberal cosmopolitan adventure story even look like? Goblins who realize that their life prospects are way better if they unionize and then collectively refuse to a (very brief) career of catching Legolas’ arrows for the (Saru)Man? Martians who engage John Carter to open up trade routes between Earth and Mars rather than perpetually stealing the princess he wants to marry? Stories of leaders who come to power because the citizens are really annoyed at high unemployment rates? That all sounds rather boring.

Or, rather, it sounds a bit like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Which is something that I hugely enjoy reading, but which is also (a) not adventure-like at all and (b) essentially unfilmable. Because, of course, pretty much nothing happens in any of the books. Or, rather, stuff happens, but it all happens off-screen while the protagonists have long conversations during the months it takes to travel between planets. And even the action that does happen is not the result of the heroic actions of a few rugged individuals. It’s generally the product of the forces of sociology and economics and basic human nature. That closer to a liberal account of how the world works.

But it makes for a pretty boring adventure story.

Flashforward and Circular Logic

So, Caroline and I finally got around to watching Flashforward. We’d been TiVOing since ep. 2, but we missed the first episode. And ep. 1 disappeared from Hulu before either of us watched it. So we collected about 7 episodes before we actually started the season. Since then, we’ve watched almost all of them in short order. Actually, it’s probably fair to say that I’ve been watching it obsessively, and Caroline has agreed to come along for the ride. I’m going to toss out a few thoughts about the show below the fold, so if you’re trying to remain spoiler-free, you should go read something else now.

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Reason on House

At Hit & Run, Reason’s Jacob Sullum takes issue with the first three episodes of season 6 of House. Now some of you probably already know of my unabashed love for House. Well, Jacob also manages to hit on another of my hobby-horses, namely, the stupid way in which Americans stigmatize drug use. (To be clear, I think that it’s pretty stupid to abuse drugs, but I also think that it’s pretty stupid to jump out of non-crashing airplanes. I think, however, that you should be free to do either, if you please.) Unfortunately, in this case, I think that Jacob’s assessment is a bit wide-of-the-mark in this case. Here’s a snippet (warning: spoilers):

In this week’s episode, House, on the advice of his psychiatrist after he’s released from the hospital, quits his job and tries to find a “hobby” to distract himself from the leg pain, which is so severe that it prevents him from sleeping. He and his psychiatrist ultimately conclude that what he really needs is to go back to work, even though the stress and drug-associated surroundings may increase his risk of “using,” because that is the only thing that will engage his mind enough to make the leg pain bearable.

This plot is stupid in several ways. First, unless House plans to diagnose disease 24 hours a day, going back to work is not a solution to the pain that keeps him up at night. Second, if all House needed to relieve his pain was his work, why was he taking the Vicodin to begin with? Third, we never get a clear explanation of why House is forever forbidden to use painkillers, no matter how much he is suffering, especially since he managed to do his job brilliantly while he was taking them.

Jacob’s questions are meant to be rhetorical, but I think that there are actually some pretty decent answers to most of them.

First, the show has pretty much always indicated that House’s use (abuse?) of Vicodin increases when he’s bored. That’s a plot device lifted straight from Sherlock Holmes, on whom, if you didn’t already know, House is very much based. Holmes’ drug of choice is cocaine, which he uses between cases. “Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis,” he tells Watson, “and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”

We’ve seen evidence of House having the same issues. In the S2 episode, “Skin Deep,” House begs Cuddy for a spinal injection of morphine to combat his rising leg pain. Cuddy complies reluctantly, and House improves. Or he improves as long as he’s working on his case. She notes later that his pain came back — surprise — just an hour after he completed the case. And, even bigger surprise, his previous injection was saline.

What’s more, House has been Vicodin free once before. In between S2 and S3, House is completely free of the drug. An experimental medical procedure has eliminated House’s pain. S3 begins with a scene of House jogging apparently pain free. The Vicodin begins again not because of physical pain, but because of House’s depression at (apparently) failing to solve a case.

IOW, House’s writers have offered ample evidence that House is psychologically dependent on painkillers. Yes, there is real physical pain. But there is also a far more troubling psychological addiction to the drug, one that transcends it’s palliative properties. And that, of course, is at least part of the answer to Jacob’s second question. House takes the drug even when working because he is dependent on it, even when he doesn’t need it to combat the pain (as, for example, when he’s working).

It’s also the answer to why House’s new psychiatrist calls him an addict and keeps him away from painkillers. Remember, this is the same House who, after a bad day, ends up in a stupor on the floor, covered in his own vomit, having downed the better part of a bottle of oxycodone. House is labeled an addict because he’s an addict. House is not simply a chronic pain-sufferer who responsibly takes pain medication under a doctor’s supervision. He’s a guy who steals his best friend’s prescription pad to get more Vicodin, who hides pills inside Lupus textbooks and sneakers and the like, who pops pills because he’s bored or stressed or just had a bad day.

Now I’ll gladly join with Jacob in saying that we vilify narcotic use badly enough that many who are in chronic pain are unable to get the relief that it is possible to give them. Prosecuting physicians who provide high levels of painkillers to their patients who are actually in high levels of pain is beyond dumb. It’s even dumber when we’re talking about terminally ill patients who are left to suffer needlessly lest they * gasp * end up addicted to morphine. I’m just not at all convinced that Greg House is the ideal posterchild for the Why Are We Taking Their Pills Away? movement.

Everybody Lies

I’ve acquired a new vice over the holiday period. It’s been both wonderful and (at least in some abstract purely intellectual way) a tad distressing. You see, I’ve managed to become completely addicted. When I get my fix, it’s all good. Unfortunately, I find my thoughts drifting throughout the day, looking forward to my next chance, worrying about what will happen when I run out. It’s awful. And it’s a great rush. Like Vicodin. Only a lot funnier.

I’m talking, of course, about “House,” another in a line of very good shows from a network with a (somewhat deserved) reputation for trashy TV. Personally, I’m not usually much of a TV junkie. In fact, I haven’t actually had TV service since last spring. And my only TV was the one I got back in grad school. The one with the picture that was always sort of red thanks to the failing picture tube. Divorces are fun that way. Missy, however, has been raving about what a good show “House” really is. And Peter King has been talking about it for three years now. I figured that if a show appeals both to my very intellectual, philosophy major gf and to a SI football columnist, then it’s gotta be doing something right. So I watched a couple of episodes at my brother’s house this fall. And I was hooked. So much so that I bought the first two seasons on DVD. Presents for Missy. Really. It’s for my friend.

Now you all have to understand that I’m a philosopher by long training. Moreover, I’m a philosopher who has a thing for linking philosophy with pop culture. So naturally I’ve begun to turn my philosopher’s eye (it’s the left one, in case you’re wondering) to “House.” There’s rather a lot of interesting material, much of which is (or can be, anyway) philosophically interesting, especially if your philosophical interests incline toward ethics. Perhaps most obvious of these is House’s rather casual relationship with truth.

For those of you who don’t regularly watch the show (come on, try it. just this once. everybody else is.), the central premise is that Dr. House is the kind of doc who actually tells patients all the snarky things that doctors usually just think about their patients. Except that House is brilliant enough that he gets away with it. And he mostly gets away with it by pretty much refusing to have anything at all to do with his patients, preferring instead to send his team of impossibly attractive, brilliant (if not nearly as brilliant as House himself), 20-something doctors to interact with the patients. Meanwhile House sits back in his office waiting for reports from his team, at which point, to paraphrase, House gets their theories, mocks them, then embraces his own. The treatment for which pretty frequently is hugely dangerous, a problem that House avoids by lying to the patients. Or by sending a member of his team to lie to the patient. And, this being television (and House being brilliant), the hugely dangerous treatment based on the hugely unlikely diagnosis (eventually) turns out to be exactly right.

So why the disdain for patients? Because House’s guiding principle is that everybody lies. Patients lie about symptoms (I swear I didn’t induce my seizures). They lie about their past (Of course this is my biological child). They lie about their actions (Of course I didn’t sleep with my daughter the supermodel). You just can’t trust patients to tell you the truth. If patients are going to lie, House reasons, then they don’t necessarily deserve the truth in return.

In this respect, House’s reasoning is very strangely Kantian. Yes, Kant, the guy who famously claims that we have to tell the truth even to the murderer at the door. Kant himself would claim that House can’t lie to his patients whatever they might do to him first. Yet there is a Kantian argument for lying back to lying patients. Consider Kant’s arguments for capital punishment. Here Kant claims that, in murdering someone, I have said, in effect, that I am okay with the maxim, “I can kill someone who doesn’t consent to being killed.” In acting on that maxim, I have said that I am okay with treating that maxim as a universal law of nature. And since I’ve consented to the maxim (that is, since I’ve accepted that it is okay to treat people in this way), you are merely showing me the respect my autonomy deserves when you treat me in the way that I have said it’s okay to be treated. It’s strange reasoning, I’ll admit. But it’s Kant’s reasoning.

So let’s apply Kant’s reasoning to House’s lying to patients. If the patient lies to the doctor, then the patient is saying, in effect, that it’s okay to lie. So when House lies about the treatment, he respects the patient’s autonomy by treating the patient exactly as the patient has consented to be treated.

Obviously there is much more to be said here. House’s relationship with the truth is actually far more complicated — after all, much of what makes the show so amusing is House’s tendency to alternate lies with brutal, unvarnished truth. But that’s a topic for another post. Right after I watch just one more episode. Stop looking at me like that. I don’t have a problem. I can quit anytime. I just don’t want to.