Yuval Noah Harari – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) Review

21 lessons

Historian Yuval Noah Harari made a name for himself with his successful non-fiction book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. A very readable and easy to understand view of the rise of humanity, yet also brimming with fresh perspectives. Then Harari showed great interest in the future of our species and wrote Homo Deus, in which he conceived of new technologies, new politics and beliefs; the philosophies of the future. That book remained rather abstract; a bundle of educated guesses about what might or might not come to pass, and were hard to connect to the current age. Harari now connects the whole story with a book about our present times. 21 lessons for the 21st Century fills in the dots between Sapiens and Homo Deus and offers balanced ideas about what is happening in 2018, what might happen in the near future and how we can prepare ourselves.

I’d like to contrast this book with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, because Pinker is insistent that everything keeps going better and better and the world is getting saver and saver, all on average of course, with the occasional blips and not evenly spread around the planet. He points to the ideals of enlightenment thinking, which found its way into the politics of liberalism, and he maintains that as long as we hold fast to those enlightenment ideals, particularly rights and liberty, the world will continue to improve for everyone.

Harari starts his perspective from a different place. Looking at the political upheavals of the 20th century, he sees that liberalism came out as victorious against fascism and communism and seemed the only global political vision left in the 1990s, the “end of history”. But liberalism as it exists today seems unable to deal with two major crises of our current time: that of rapid technological disruptions and ecological collapse. Things went well as long as everyone could hope for a slice of an ever-expanding pie, but we have reached the limits of what the planet can handle, and technological disruption such as by IT is going to turn the world upside down. Harari addresses 21 challenges that our current political systems are not prepared for and argues that we need new beliefs, new movements, to deal with them.

A couple of challenges relate to technological disruptions. Imagine a world of automation and AI taking over millions or billions of jobs. Imagine that these millions or billions of people become economically irrelevant, and that algorithms can not only perfectly predict but mold and influence their opinions. And then every little tidbit of information about you, down to biological sensors, is collected. The main question then becomes: how will data, the power and currency of the future, be regulated? Will there be digital dictatorships, like China expanding its social control? And imagine that medical treatments for longevity and greater intelligence are available too, but expensive. Will the upper class, already in control of data, form a distinct biological caste, racing ahead from the masses of humanity in an ever-widening split?

The first chapters are full of doomsday scenarios, which is inevitable if your book is about “lessons”. IT and AI might lead to Big Brother scenarios; strong nationalism spells doom for dealing with nuclear and ecological challenges. These are not predictions but warnings, and I have a feeling that this is not such a balanced view of the future. In fact, I think the average person gets enough doomsday scenarios through daily reading on the internet and in that sense I am not sure how useful this book is, besides making us all even more depressed.

With some technological developments, I think Harari has his head in the clouds. For example, he makes a valid point that nationalism is not a useful framework to deal with world-spanning technological changes of the coming decades, but he contrasts nationalism with a cosmic view of the transformation and disappearance of our entire species, artificial life, Frankenstein creatures and technological singularities. Which may happen eventually, but are rather vague and unconvincing reasons today to push back against nationalist isolationism.

Overall, most of Harari’s chapters – the 21 lessons – are not as fresh and new as many of his ideas in Sapiens and Homo Deus. He repeats a lot, not only his own ideas but also those of many other writers working today, and his short essays on issues such as war, terrorism and religion are very general in outlook and even while his perspective is sometimes interesting – such as that it is so much harder today to wage a successful war – the essays resolve themselves to simple views such as “war exists because humans are stupid”. Many chapters feel like extended blog posts about barely connected topics, and hardly feel relevant for the focus of the book: the 21st century.

The second half of the book is stronger in quality. Once Harari starts tackling more abstract concepts such as truth, justice and finding meaning in your life, the book feels less scattered and the chapters are less like summaries. I finally begin to understand what he means with a cosmic perspective and why he keeps bringing it up, but I don’t fully share his starry-eyed expectations of singularity-style futurism with cyborgs and super smart AI. He sounds like a writer from the 50s saying that we will all live on Mars in the year 2000. And part of his discussion, the urgency behind some of his lessons, depend on you sharing his expectations. So, I didn’t always agree with him, but that’s all right.

His strongest arguments are about trying to rise above the stories that divide peoples, mainly nationalism and religions, and about calls for self knowledge and emotional resilience in the face of a constantly and quickly changing world. We might need to keep learning and keep reinventing ourselves throughout our lives just to stay economically and socially relevant.

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The Handmaiden (2016) Review

the handmaiden

9/10

If you’ve seen the crazy Korean film Oldboy (2003) then you know that director Park Chan-Wook can direct emotionally-heavy, disturbing, twisted yet beautiful films. His newest, The Handmaiden, is just like that and a long, heavy, stunningly directed masterwork at that. A full course meal of a film, with beautiful locations and costumes, expert camera work, great acting and storytelling.

The Handmaiden is about a young Korean woman, Sook-Hee, who enters the employ of a rich Japanese lord and lady as a handmaiden. Set during the second world war, Japan has control of the Korean peninsula, and local Korean women enter these services. Sook-Hee is more than she seems, however. She is part of a cunning plan to bedazzle the Lady Hideko in a get-rich-quick scheme. Sook-Hee’s fellow conspirator Count Fujiwara is there to win the hand of Lady Hideko and so inherit her great fortune and it is the handmaiden’s job to talk Lady Hideko into falling in love with the fake Count.

Soon, however, Sook-Hee starts feeling rather fond of Lady Hideko herself. One might say, a romantic attraction, and starts feeling quite jealous when Lady Hideko starts answering the affections of her fellow conspirator the fake Count. It is a dangerous love triangle, but in a form we have never seen before. The mysterious lady, unsure of her own feelings, is a play doll between the arguing conspirators and slowly goes mad. But that is only the start of it.

handmaiden2

The movie is, besides a love story, also an intricate psychological and erotic thriller, a violent bloody revenge story and a historical costume drama. While the story is quite slow, the emotional gestures and puzzling twists always enter our sudden awareness as sharp twists, and there is all the time a dazzling cinematography that makes the whole film feel like some dream state. It is, perhaps, a mannered Korean version of Crimson Peak, but with more fully realized characters and a psychologically more twisted storyline. It has that same fairy-tale-like quality in its cinematography and music, and that same focus on forbidden love, dangerous secrets and betrayals.

Deep into the film, we realize that everything we have seen so far is not quite what we thought it was, and that realization occurs more than just once. Whole stretches of the film tell the story only from a single perspective, only for the film to flip around and change everything again. The story has many surprises in store to keep you glued to the screen, wondering what could possibly happen next. I was mesmerized and occasionally filled with trepidation.

One of the best films of 2016 and can easily measure up to the other oscar contenders for foreigns films of that year (such as Toni Erdmann) and to Chan-Wook’s other great films. It has a certain sad, thoughtful, dangerous mood to it that stays with you afterwards.

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Frank Herbert – Heretics of Dune (1984) Review

heretics of dune2

Another giant leap into the future; another 1500 years. The Worm may be long gone, but his impact upon the universe still reverberates through the ages. The Tyrant is still a daily topic of conversation; at least among the Bene Gesserit, who have been sidelined for all those millennia but still exist as one of the most sturdy, enduring societies. With the Worm gone, they see themselves as the only protectors left of humanity’s future.

Two Sisters of the old BG, Lucilla and Odrade, are ordered to accompany a new Duncan Idaho ghola to the planet Rakis, which used to be called Arrakis. On Rakis, it is said, giant worms live again and they carry the pearl of the God Emperor’s consciousness in them, and, what’s more, someone learned how to ride them. How the Duncan ghola will feature in this scheme, is a mystery to himself too.

What I find strange is how in 1500 years, so little has in fact changed in Herbert’s universe. The previous novel God Emperor of Dune ended with the promise of a great flowering, a great diaspora of humanity, which I suppose happened, yet here we are 1500 years later and Herbert still talks of Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu, Suk doctors, Mentats and more Duncan Idaho clones. Either the societies of the future are extraordinarily sluggish, or Herbert didn’t want to change his universe so much that it wouldn’t feel like a Dune novel anymore.

heretics of dune

In Heretics of Dune we see, like the turning of a wheel, old things happening again, such as the worms on Arrakis, which again turned into a desert. This time the threat comes from far away, in the form of the Honored Matres, some kind of wayward Reverent Mothers who rely on sex to achieve dominance. This is an odd point in the novel. Herbert suddenly talks a lot about sex, especially since in both the Bene Gesserit and the Honored Matres, the women all use sex for manipulation, and these are incidentally the only societies in the semi-feudal Dune universe in which women seem to have any political power and they are all inhuman schemers. I found all the sex talk an unexpected, unwelcome addition to the Dune universe and it took me out of the story. It didn’t seem part of the same spirit of the rest of the series.

The main characters are Bene Gesserit and they are portrayed as some kind of superhuman Jedi nuns. They are always smarter than everyone else and beating everyone, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. They are a bit repulsive. Every power in the Dune universe is a bit repulsive in fact. Herbert wants to make some argument about love, because the Bene Gesserit do not allow themselves to feel it, and neither do the Bene Tleilax. They cut off part of their humanity and it is, in the end, their great flaw. Only Leto II embarked on the Golden Path.

The whole Dune series up to and including part 4, God Emperor of Dune, feels like a finished work that tried to explain a single vision – raised arguments and examples and then addressed them. With Heretics of Dune, at first I missed that feeling of continuity, of being part of that same vision. Only halfway into the book when more callbacks to God Emperor are made, did that feeling finally return. That’s because it takes a long while for the story to get going – around 150 pages if not more – and it left me floundering for a while. But this is no different from the other Dune novels and once it gets going, it’s actually quite good. Herbert knows how to construct memorable scenes and how to write characters – notably Miles Teg and Odrade.

Still, this felt like a novel in search of a point. Less focused than the previous novels and with some odd additions to the Dune universe, it is not as inspiring or as profound as what came before.

8/10

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Hotel Artemis (2018) Review

hotel artemis


Ten years into the future. The world has turned violent; riots in the streets of Los Angeles. Is there any safe place in the city? We see a bank heist go wrong and the criminals go to that one safe space: Hotel Artemis. This special luxurious hotel in the city center comes with medical room service, a standard assortment of pills, high security, everything a criminal down on his luck needs to recuperate. It is a blatant rip-off of an idea from the John Wick movies, which we saw the Continental Hotel perform the same function.

This time, though, we follow the proprietor of the place who has been running the hotel for 22 years, played by Jodie Foster. Her hotel is full of criminals who are all having their sinister plans. The film is colorful to look at and fast paced. It feels slick and relies a lot on production design and tough talk by the characters.

Jodie Foster of course sticks out terribly as an old frail lady tough talking with the criminals, but that is the joke. She and her henchman Dave Bautista steal the show, and speaking of big stars, Sofia Boutella, Charlie Day and even Jeff Goldblum make appearances. In other words: this is a film designed for popularity, with big stars on the poster and a central idea that was already proven to be likeable by the John Wick movies. Still, Hotel Artemis was not all that successful. How come?

Maybe it is because this movie has a whole lot of setup and buildup and tension and… potential for excitement, but it never really materializes. A whole hotel full of criminals, but the story steadily chugs along from one thing to another, making a small character study of Jodie Foster’s character. A good thing therefore that the characters are quite interesting to follow, because the mystery and excitement is a bit of letdown. Foster is believable as a den mother full of old pains, Bautista is frequently funny and his care of Foster is cute. Goldblum is always entertaining.

Of course, all the “rules” that have kept this place going for 22 years all end up broken in a single night. Storylines like that always leave me a bit sad, probably because they are overused. It’s the same story with criminals who show loyalty at surprising moments, but none of it really feels surprising at all. The film just doesn’t have much substance beyond such common tropes and it will fade quickly from memory.

6.5/10

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Hunter Killer (2018) Review

hunter killer

Imagine that you are a Russian submarine captain and you are stranded on the ocean floor. Then you get rescued by an American submarine and thrown into the brig, and the American captain who looks like Gerard Butler visits you and says: “Look, I know you speak English. I need you to tell me how to enter a Russian military harbor because we need to save the Russian president. He’s kidnapped by traitors, yeah. So think about it”, and then leaves. What would your reaction be? I would guess that your reaction would not be to swallow this story immediately and at the crucial time to show up on the bridge to guide the Americans through the Russian minefields, no questions asked.

This is, however, that kind of movie.

This scene illustrates everything that is wrong with the movie’s idea of reality. It is, essentially, a completely nonsensical action thriller in which the only elements of importance are (1) the American military, (2) the Russian adversary and (3) Gerard Butler’s desired status as action hero. Especially that last point is rather divorced from reality, even more so than its geopolitics. Butler tries so hard, in Gods of Egypt (2016) and London has Fallen (2016) and Geostorm (2017) and now this. He doesn’t have the charisma and his movies suck.

Captain Glass (Butler) is introduced to us in a scene that should just say it all. Butler is walking through the Scottish Highlands with a sniper rifle, and he is ready to shoot a beautiful innocent deer right in the face. But then he sees that the deer has little babies walking behind it, so he refrains. Thus illustrating that Butler is a hard-ass with a heart of gold, who only feels empathy when his deer victim has baby deer. I cannot watch scenes like these with any feeling of immersion. I can just see the writers superimposed on the screen, thinking “how should we illustrate Butler’s character? Oh right, I got it.” Then a helicopter picks him up and dumps him next to a submarine. He takes command and 5 seconds later they are suddenly 2000 miles away.

Submarines do speak to the imagination, though, and the underwater scenes look nice. But the film feels really long and feels like PR material for the American military and Butler’s ego. After two hours, world war III is about to break out and more and more military hardware is shoved onto the screen. Many of the Russian ships are clearly computer generated, but the shots from American fighters and ships must have all been made in an agreement between Hollywood and the military. Meanwhile, American snipers in what is supposed to be northern Russia keep on making headshot after headshot while the Russians miss. The Russian president addresses his countrymen in fluent English at the end.

So, if you like nonstop action and are not bothered by very transparent moral grandstanding, lack of political realism and possible external reasons behind the production of the movie, you might still have a good time.

5/10

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Stephen Fry – Mythos (2017) Review

mythos


Seeing as I went to Greece on a holiday for the first time, wanting to see the old Greek temples and landscapes, I thought that that was a good excuse to pick up Stephen Fry’s latest book, Mythos. Fry, surely having had what they call a ‘classical education’ as a British intellectual, held the Greek myths close to his heart all these years. He assures readers that no one needs such an ‘education’ to appreciate the myths. They are, after all, simply stories well told and that is a pleasure all on its own.

Fry’s Mythos, with the subtitle The Greek Myths Retold, is limited in scope compared to the sprawling body of work that is Greek mythology. He does not talk about many well-known myths: does not touch upon the Odyssey and Iliad, nor upon Oedipus, Perseus, Theseus, Jason and the Golden Fleece, nor Heracles and many others. Nor does he say anything about what the myths were meant to represent as social or psychological lessons or their historical roots. He simply, like a grandfather reading a bedtime story, retells some of his own favorites in his own words.

You might wonder what is left, after the list of dismissed characters I just summed up. Well, quite a lot actually, mainly from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid chronicled the origin of the world and the Gods and talked about, well, a lot of garden variety myths. Fry just starts with the beginning of the universe and it’s a complete mystery where he will go next. I could have done with an index, here, but we’ll just have to read and find out.

Does the world need a retelling of these myths? Probably not, but Fry is a very eloquent, clever and funny person. The key word with this book is accessibility. Fry makes the myths easy reading. He makes the story of Eros and Psyche sound like a retelling of Cinderella and others, like one about Phaeton, bring to mind all the well-known fairy tales about foolish teenagers. He gives the gods personalities that shine through in little parts of dialogue that he spins out for them. He even makes puns and pop culture references.

Fry sneaks in little history lessons as well, some as footnotes but the general sequence of stories cleverly guides us from the origin of the world to the establishment of the Greek kingdoms. He adds many side-notes about how many of our own words found their origin in old Greek.

I greatly enjoyed getting reacquainted with these myths. One of my favorites is the story of Prometheus, who, even though he is not one of the twelve true Olympians, has a key role in the creation of humankind. His story is full of echoes of other mythologies. It concerns the first humans, a great flood, getting forbidden knowledge and a divine sacrifice for humankind. That not only sounds Biblical, but probably channels Sumerian and Egyptian stories as well. In the story, we humans are in the end the direct descendants of Prometheus (Greek word for foresight), his brother Epimetheus (impulsiveness), Pandora (many-gifted) and Gaia (mother Earth) and so we carry parts of all these gods/goddesses in ourselves. That’s bloody poetic how the story comes together.

Halfway through the book, the myths all start to sound the same, though. They all involve beautiful maidens or beautiful boys, and at one point they all say: “Zeus, promise me that you will fulfil one wish” and then he promises and it always ends in tears and then someone’s transformed into a tree or a snake. The narrative of the book starts to fragment towards the end when the whole extended family of gods and half-gods all have their own little adventures. It all started with grand cosmology but ends with lessons such as “and that’s how the peacock got its tail.” I lost some excitement along the way.

What’s most important of all is that Fry sounds like he has the time of his life. He full well knows that these myths can be both strange and poetic at the same time, and he treats them fairly: with fascination and love.

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Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) Review

bad times at the el royale


This is a strange one, if you’d ask me. On the face of it, Bad Times at the El Royale is a very entertaining film, even admirable, and lovely to look at. At the same time, it relies so heavily on a certain aesthetic that the form threatens to overpower the film in a way that is a bit of a shame.

To be short, director Drew Goddard seems to have wanted to film a Quentin Tarantino movie. It has many of the same characteristics: a focus on elaborate monologues, prodigious use of music from specific eras, a mystery in which nobody is who they seem and which ends in a lot of bloody violence. And since the whole film takes place in a single hotel, Bad Times especially seems to ape The Hateful Eight. It even stars Jeff Bridges as an old badass and the story also has a murderous woman, so the similarities keep on coming.

Still, Bad Times has its own brilliant moments. What’s particularly interesting is how the storyline jumps around a bit chronologically, so we see the same events from the viewpoints of different characters, and each time take the next character to move the story forwards. That makes the film feel fresh and exciting, and gives us little surprises each time. Another unique selling point of this movie is that it shows off the actress and singer Cynthia Erivo. Many scenes actually play out with her singing in the background, and the first time this happens during a rather striking scene in which no one talks, the film is lifted up in a strange, haunting mood.

But then, the director started to fall in love too much with his own film and the whole thing became just a bit too self-indulgent. The monologues and posturing began to drag; particularly when a new character suddenly enters the scene in the second half. Cynthia Erivo sings just one or two times too often, in my opinion, so that my mind started wandering while waiting for the film to continue.

Overall, this was still quite the positive experience. Jeff Bridges does some very effective grimacing and I liked seeing Dakota Johnson in something other than a Fifty Shades of Grey film. Hopefully she can shrug off that image and keep building her acting career.

What may be challenging at the start of the film is just how much mystery is maintained in the story and how little we are told what is going on. We learn about this strange hotel and then we see four guests arrive, one after the other, and through some dialogues we learn a bit about who they are, but why they are all at this hotel is not explained yet. And when they all start behaving strangely, many viewers may wonder what the heck they are looking at, but for others that is part of the fun of letting a story unfold in a very controlled manner and keeping up the mystery and tension.

8/10

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