Cosmos: a review 40 years later

I wish I could tell you I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when it was released but there was no “I” in 1980.

One day of January 2017, I bought Cosmos, the book written by Carl Sagan after he made the TV show, and decided to read it… in 2019

I wish I could tell you I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when it was released but there was no “I” in 1980. As many millenials, I discovered Cosmos through the 2014’s remake of Carl Sagan’s TV program by Neil de Grass Tyson. I loved this series when it was released and how accessible it made it for about anyone to understand the physics of our universe and why it’s important to care about it. I seldom knew about Carl Sagan and his work. I happened to know that he wrote Contact, and co-wrote the script of the film adaptation, and I wanted to watch his TV program, but never managed to find the time⁽¹⁾.

One day of January 2017, while visiting the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum of NYC⁽²⁾, as I was stumbling upon the space shuttle on the deck, I saw that they were selling Cosmos, the book written by Carl Sagan after he made the TV show. So I bought it, and decided to read it… in 2019 (remember, time, and stuff).

I’m not gonna go into the particular, because it is dense, and as NdGT’s show, it goes back and forth between the past and the future, the extremely small and the immensely big. This coming and going is necessary to understand one important aspect of the universe: everything is linked. As Carl Sagan talks about the immensity of the universe, he tells about the probability of sentient life somewhere else, and he argues, according to our propensity to fuck things up, whether other civilisations can go past the nuclear age or if any advanced society is doomed to annihilate itself in an instant.

And that’s the objective of this book/series: tell us to wake the fuck up. Especially in the late 1970s, when the nuclear apocalypse seemed closer than ever, that with the existing nuclear arsenal, all human life (and most life) could be sacrificed in an instant. Not because world leaders wanted to use it, but because they were afraid the other party would use it first. Today, this threat hasn’t disappeared, despite the apparent end of the cold war, but the danger isn’t as immediate as it used to be. Still, the problem is still relevant. We don’t know what conflict might come upon us, and the nuclear weapons are still here.

And he doesn’t shy himself from global warming and climate change either. The problem was forcibly silenced by politics of all sides in the 1980s but nowadays we all see the effects and it’s probably the most pressing matter that we have to tackle if we are to survive on this planet. Carl Sagan talks in a lot of details about this issue and what can be done to deal with it. No need to say that the relevance of his argument is ever more convincing now.

I wanted to talk specifically about one event related by Carl Sagan at the end of the book: the destruction of the Alexandrian library. Even though the world has changed a lot since then, we live in a time when there is a resurgence of obscurantism led by very powerful people. The Alexandrian scholars used to gather every piece of scientific and technological works in a single place, and that’s what doomed it all. Works that didn’t have a copy would be likely destroyed with the library and a huge portion of antique knowledge has been lost forever, only to be rediscovered centuries later when science was again possible.

Today it would be unlikely that all this knowledge would disappear, since our capacity to copy extensively (virtually infinite in the Internet era) in a decentralised system has made it impossible to destroy, but there are still places that could very well get cut from all this important knowledge and still cause problem to the rest of the world (looking at you, US of A). Such an event could have an impact on decades or centuries. Or we could just get nuked.

So I think that Cosmos is an important book to read, even though there are a few obsolete information, mainly mysteries that have been resolved or technological challenges that have been overcome in the last 40 years, but overall, the relevance of the subject is still, well, universal.

(1) Ok, I binge watched the entire Gilmore Girls, and Friends twice since then. Don’t judge me.

(2) That’s a museum on an aircraft carrier. Just the place is incredible. You should check it out if you go to NYC and like technological stuff.

Review: Cultist Simulator, or “confusion as a gameplay mecanism”

A few months ago, driven by reviews describing Cultist Simulator as a game with incredibly innovative gameplay, and although I’m usually not into computer card games, I gave it a try. It was on sale and it really intrigued me.

A few months ago, driven by reviews describing Cultist Simulator as a game with incredibly innovative gameplay, and although I’m usually not into computer card games, I gave it a try. It was on sale and it really intrigued me.

It was really hard to get into it. The game seems really undecipherable at first glance. Nothing is explained but a laconic “try stuffs, see how it turns out” (I’m paraphrasing). All we know is that we’re supposed to create a cult, get followers, discover the arcane mysteries, avoid investigation and authorities, and basically not die. We’ll come back to that last one later.

So, I get some boxes, in which I have to put cards to get an effect, and when I combine different cards in those boxes, I get various effects or, more often than not, not much effect. So I try different combinations, the game is nice enough to highlight the cards that can be combined with the boxes, I try to make a bit of money, I read a mysterious description, and oops, I just died. What happened? I died of hunger apparently. So I must attend work every day to get money to buy food. Geez, is this the real life?

I try again. Different career. This one is rich (yup, that’s a career), so I guess I can hold on longer with my money. I try looking into the library, I may find books that tell me about the arcane and WHAT? I DIED AGAIN? Of hunger again. Apparently, even when you’re rich, you have to do something to not run out of money. Who am I to know, I’ve never been rich.

And I start again. You see the pattern here? Because yes, if you plan on playing Cultist Simulator, you are going to die. A lot. There is no workaround, and somehow that’s the whole point of the game. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve been drawn to after 22 hours of playing (not straight, I’m not crazy, but maybe you need to be crazy to play it). See, the developers didn’t provide a tutorial with the game, and made it very confusing, like you would probably be if you were thrown into a world you knew nothing about (here the occult). So you have to decipher the information you get, order it in a way it makes sense, and then you can see a glimpse of how the gameplay works and how you can beat the game.

Haha. Just kidding. There is no beating the game. It’s so hard to beat it that people are actually bragging about it. But I don’t really think beating it is as rewarding as it’s time consuming. The problem being a pretty boring middle ground, after you understood the ropes and when you just spend time scrounging for lore and trying not to get caught by police for being a cultist (which is game over if you get prosecuted). The investigators provide a bit of welcomed stress in an overall repetitive task. But even investigators are easy to get rid off when you’re surrounded by the right people.

Yup! That’s my current game. And it’s carefully ordered so it makes sense (to me).

In my opinion, even if the struggle to win is real, the interest lies more in getting to the safe zone after the start of the game, which is actually pretty hard depending on the career, than actually going all the way. I have the same feeling when I play Civilization. I love the start when the party is burgeoning and vulnerable, but at some point, it becomes farming and keeping the status quo with the rest of the game until there is an opportunity to win. And in Civilization, I never felt rewarded to win, just relieved, and I feel that Cultist Simulator is the same, but I don’t want to just die after spending hours on a party and then losing everything to start over.

Actually, I won the game once. I won the police career. Meaning I got promoted in the rank to become the most powerful person in there with a stable job. Never touched the occult. Long story short, it didn’t feel like a win, and it’s not supposed too, either. The game draws you into the forbidden world of the occult, to be scared to get caught, but tempted to look further. And it wants you to DIE! Again and again. To be fair, it’s described as “Lovecraftian” ⁽¹⁾, I guess I should have seen this coming.

So I think the fun of the game was mostly to work around the confusion of the start and make my own organisation in this messy pile of card. But after I got the hang of it, it’s mostly about raking up hours trying to find obscure combinations that will open doors to go further, and maybe one day finish it. But I’m really wondering: will it be worth?

(1) The developers made Sunless Seas, and soon-to-be-release Sunless Skies, so there is a pretty coherent theme there I might say

Quick review: The Handmaid’s Tale (book)

In this review, I am talking about The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel written by Margaret Artwood and published in 1985, in which Offred, a young handmaid, is sent to a family to be the surrogate womb of a couple that can’t carry, in a society where women have no right anymore.

The Handmaid’s Tale is getting more popular now thanks to the recent Hulu series, but since I don’t subscribe to Hulu, I decided to read the novel instead. Written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, the Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the nation of Gilead, a post-USA theonomic state that is run through a very literal application of the bible. Basically the utopia of white christian (male) supremacists. In this wonderful new country, we follow Offred, who has fallen really low in the social hierarchy, first because she is a woman, and then because she tried to escape this magnificent paradise. The really wise men in power probably didn’t understand why on earth (which is flat obviously) she’d want to do that, so they placed her in the very charitable position of being the surrogate womb of an unlucky couple who can’t have kids, and that way, maybe God will forgive her for her sins. Or else she’s a useless eater, and she would get the rope treatment, 3rd Reich style.

It’s not a story of great heroes. It’s a story of survival and resilience. It’s the story of the people who end up living in a despotic government and keep their head down, accepting every humiliation hoping that some day they will see brighter days. People are not all ready to fight. Here, the resistants seem to exist, maybe, but they are in the background, while Offred is the narrator. It’s her story, her struggle to stay alive until she can find a way out. She tells it from the beginning: she intends to survive. She will do everything she’s asked to do, because she has no other choice. She tried her luck once and she was lucky she wasn’t executed or sent to a labour camp, thanks to being able to carry a child, so she will carry one again, for someone else, and maybe have a better opportunity later. But what opportunity? That’s the biggest question mark. She doesn’t know what would become of her after she gives them a child, especially since it’s the beginning of the new government and they don’t really have thorough regulations on the matter. But she only have hopes, hope that her daughter is fine, hope that maybe her husband has survived, and that’s the only thing that keeps her going.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a really great and frightening story. It’s great because the story is so well crafted that it seems all so plausible. And it’s frightening because, well, it seems so plausible, especially when we hear what some US officials say nowadays. This tale shows us what’s the worse that could happen if we let evangelists and christian extremists run a country, and the thought I couldn’t get out of my head all the time I was reading was that in this novel, the government falls after a coup d’état, but in my opinion this kind of situation is more likely to happen without a civil war. With years and years of carefully escalated despotism, until the time it becomes impossible to stop it without a fight, a theocratic government could be installed without a real struggle. Maybe they didn’t think that it was plausible back in the 80’s. After all, the only example they had of a new theocratic government was Iran, and it had to go through a violent revolution to put it in place, so I can imagine they didn’t think people would willingly vote for the same person who would gleefully take that right to vote away from them, even though it happened before.

I can only recommend this novel. It’s a cautionary tale in the same vein as 1984 and deserve the same appreciation, while we are still allowed to read.

Quick review: The Little Drummer Girl (TV series)

In this article, I talk about The Little Drummer Girl, an adaptation of the 1983 novel of the same name by John Le Carré, a famous British spy novelist. It follows an actor, Charlie, thrown into the world of spies and deception, that she can’t escape without scarring her mind.

The Little Drummer Girl is an adaptation of the 1983 novel of the same name by John Le Carré, a famous British spy novelist. Some recent adaptations of his works include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Film) and The Night Manager (TV series), both of which are very well crafted and brilliantly adapted. But something sets The Little Drummer Girl apart: the very subject of the story is the spies themselves. The mission is second to the psychology of the protagonists and what they have to go through to complete the mission¹.

 

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Charlie is a British actor. An more than that, she is the opportunity-of-a-lifetime for the Mossad to get to a Palestinian terrorist assassinating Israelis or “Zionists” across Europe. To get into the role, she has to become the life partner of the terrorist’s brother, without ever meeting him. She has to be so convincing in the role so that she survives all the obstacles to reach into the inner circle of the terrorist cell. She becomes so ingrained by the fiction that she has a hard time not falling into her own trap and becoming the enemy. Even the Mossad operatives can’t really tell whether she’s turning or remains loyal.

Directed by Park Chan-Wook, it’s superbly executed. I was particularly glad that he wasn’t showing off like he used to in his Korean productions². This time, he chose to be intimate with the characters, get very close to them, to capture all their emotions, to build empathy and make us feel like we’re in the story. Some POVs of Charlie are also perfectly timed, when she is talking to some influential characters, showing that they’re piercing into her shell. All those direction choices serve the story and the character without showing off.

So, I really loved that TV series. I really think it’s one of the best spy stories directed in recent years, on par with The Americans. I love a show that takes time to introduce their characters and build arcs so meaningful that you want to stay close to them until the end. I am so hooked now that I want to read the book, so I don’t have to leave them just yet.

The Little Drummer Girl is a 6-part TV series available on AMC/BBC One.

¹ The mission isn’t really special in the spy genre and goes pretty smoothly, considering how it affects the characters.

² I really love most of what he’s done in Korea, but to be honest, his art direction is often way over the top and unnecessary.

Quick review: Seveneves (Neil Stephenson)

In this review, I talk about Seveneves, a sci-fi novel by Neil Stephenson, about a cataclysm that makes humanity finds its survival in orbit, waiting to colonise the Earth again. Great story, burdened by too much technical jargon and an abrupt end that it’s just there begging to be continued.

I took time before writing this review. I was wondering if I was going to do it at all. See, I don’t have much time to talk about everything I read or watch, so I try to focus on the works that I really liked, that I can recommend. But I really don’t know what to think about Seveneves. It was so different from what I expected that I still don’t really know if I like it or not. It took me several months to make it to the end⁽¹⁾, just because I really didn’t see if there would be an end at all. And in a sense, there wasn’t.

The back cover says that it’s the story of people who lived in space for several thousands years while Earth recovered from a catastrophe, and were then trying to make it back to the surface. That sounded really interesting. Maybe they didn’t know, or didn’t remember, what happened to Earth and were about to find out while they make the first settlements.

But that’s actually not what it talks about. It starts now when the catastrophe happens, and humanity have two years to find a solutions to send as many people they can to orbit before Earth’s surface gets utterly destroyed by a several-thousand-year moon rain⁽²⁾. And that’s two thirds of the novel. The story advertised is only the last third, and feels so abrupt that it seems like there should be another book following. In some way, this end looks like the end of the Cryptonomicon, where the characters find the treasure and scene. But at least the “quest” of the heroes was finished. In Seveneves, they have just met a new civilization and it’s the conclusion? Seriously? I want to know more. How the fuck did they survive? It’s not explained. I want to know that. Also, right before the meeting, they were that close to going into war with their arch-enemies. How does that go? Is it over? Do they make peace?

I personally find that disappointing. Building up the suspense for 600 hundred pages, to end up on a cliffhanger. But if there is something you can’t take from Neil Stephenson, it’s that he really does his homework. And he really wants to show it off too. At some point it’s an overdose of technical details that are really hard to picture because no such devices or technologies currently exist. So it’s sometimes nauseous and other times plain boring, turning pages of technical details before any action happens… And I get it, it’s hard sci-fi, but does it have to be so much detailed to be categorised as such? If the technical side makes sense, then it’s hard sci-fi, whether it’s explained down to the atom or just enough to understand the concept.

And I really feel sad about this situation, because it’s a very good story but hundred of pages are just dedicated to technical jargon in a level of details that has little to no effect on the actual story. It’s just there for the author to show that he’s not making shit up⁽³⁾, when he could instead focus on detailing some element of story or characters.

So in the end, I really enjoyed the story. It’s really well thought of, with a nice bunch of well-explored characters, but all this is burdened by technical details that tend to make the book more boring than interesting. And the story’s end is so abrupt I’m still wondering if I wasn’t missing another hundred pages.

 

⁽¹⁾ It’s a 850-page novel, but still.

⁽²⁾ They call it the “Hard Rain”. Basically, an unknown event breaks the Moon down into several parts, that subsequently break down into smaller and smaller parts through collision until a million rocks surround the Earth and end up falling on the surface, burning everything. Shiny!

⁽³⁾ Well, he is making shit up though, since it’s science-fiction. It’s just a very-well-researched shit.

Quick review: Patriot (Amazon Prime)

Review of Patriot, an Amazon program where an American spy is tasked on an international mission and messes up at every steps because his depression always comes in the way. An original writing and interesting directing choices makes it a show well worth seeing.

With the release of the season 2 of Patriot (that I have thoroughly binge-watched this weekend), I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about this astonishing program that came well under the radar but is full of awesome ideas. It’s one of the best depictions of depression that I know, and you can’t fail to understand how the character thinks and feels after seeing it.

The story is about John Tavner, an American spy who is tasked by his boss (who is also his father) to give money to help the presidential campaign of an Iranian politician. To do that, he has to get hired under a fake identity in a construction company, and get sent to Luxembourg to meet a man who will in turn bring the money where it needs to go.

But John hate his job, although he can’t quit. Why, you might think? John feels his job is too important to be done wrong, or at least the job is more important than himself, and he has a duty to his father. So he has to do it. And he has to do things that makes him fall every time deeper in depression, especially when he messes up. And he messes up, a lot. Essentially because he is depressed. And nobody notices. NOBODY! Well, until his wife, to whom he can’t say a thing about his job, and his brother, start to see that he isn’t “pretty good”.

One interesting thing about the writing is the atmosphere that gets even more absurd as the story goes. The script doesn’t care about a specific credibility of events. The point is not to make the investigation or the situations realistic, or to have logical dialogues between background characters, but to show that John goes more into madness as he commits crimes. But somehow he retains some form of sanity, he has this drive to see his mission to the end, even if the absurdity of the situation overwhelms him completely. Will he see the light in the darkness? Will his wife come to save him from his mission and his father?

So, if you have some time to kill and a Prime subscription, I would really recommend seeing this series, especially if you like some dark humour. Plus the main actor is incredibly good.

Manga review: The Bride Was a Boy

Follow up on my manga review, here I talk about The Bride Was a Boy, by Chii, who tells us how she managed to find a boyfriend and marry him after she was raised as a boy. All the while explaining what a gender transition is.

As mentioned in my previous article, I will be dedicating a full page on The Bride Was a Boy, a Japanese comic book about a transgender woman, Chii (the author) who is finally getting married, despite all the obstacles that she had to overcome to make it possible. Obviously, being a transgender woman, I deeply relate to the author, even though I live in a country where such barriers don’t exist. We’ll get to that in a moment.

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At first, I was surprised by the title. “The Bride was a Boy” seemed like a weird way to make people understand that transgender women are women and where not actually boys, and I was genuinely scared that it would just make fun of us. But the author clears that up in the very first page: “The Bride was a Boy” is an oversimplification or, as she says “I was a boy, or at least, I looked like one”, and goes on to describe how her life unfolded from growing up as a boy in the eyes of society.

It is a personal account, and like any other personal account (see my review of First Year Out, by Sabrina Symington), the experience differs greatly from person to person. Chii makes a good case of pointing that out. Which is where her manga isn’t just a nice and funny account of a person’s life,

IT IS A PUBLIC SERVICE!

And I don’t mean it lightly. It’s very rare to read an author who wants to be as inclusive and comprehensive as it can, going beyond their own experience. To go into this, we need to look at the structure of the book. The story is divided in 9 chapters, each talking about a significant period in her life. Some overlap (hormone therapy and legal gender change, for example), but overall, it’s mostly chronological. And where this work isn’t just a life story and becomes actually educational, it’s in the fact that between every chapter, Chii explains a transition step or a an issue that can’t put into images because they are quite complex and she wants to make sure it is well understood by anyone who read it.

And it’s very accurate. Where the comic strips tell her life, the educational texts go into a lot of educational details (1), that are still explained in such a simple way anyone will understand, including, and especially, children. She also acknowledge where she lacks the knowledge to explain further, especially when something differs between countries. The most obvious example is the legal name change. She explains how it’s done in Japan, but she can’t possibly tell how other countries deal with it, since there is no two countries that share the same laws and regulations on the matter. But she explains all the important notions necessary to understand the situation for trans people, and she even cites scientific sources at the end of the book.

Finally, I should talk a bit about the art and the tone in itself, because not only it is a great romance in a super cute style,

IT’S ALSO SUPER FUNNY!

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The back cover cracked me up. That’s totally the kind of cute humour the story is full of.

It’s super refreshing. It is a love story that ends well about a transgender woman who gets married with her quirky and funny boyfriend who never at any point doubted she was a woman. Let me say that again.

IT’S A STORY ABOUT A TRANSGENDER WOMAN WHO LIVES A HAPPY LIFE.

And we need that. We need stories where it’s not just about being harassed, assaulted or killed, but where it is possible to actually be happy when and after transitioning. That we can have the same things than any other people, that it’s normal, and that no one comes to take it from us because they don’t like the idea of us.

So, I think you understand now that I totally recommend this book. Read it, give it to your friends and family, because it’s really a comic book for everyone. No question about it. Why are you even still here?

 

(1) She even go as far as talking about the DSM and the difference between Gender Identity Disorder and Gender Dysphoria, and why now GD is preferred by the scientific society but Japan still uses GID. She also points out that any information regarding medical regulation and laws on gender change are true in 2016 when the book is released but may change later.