The Alchemist

The AlchemistLast week, I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which is an international bestseller about a journey of self-discovery. It’s also pretty short (~200 pages), so I blew through it.

Summary

The Alchemist is about the journey of a young shepherd as he travels from Spain to Egypt to fulfill his “Personal Legend.”

Review

I have family and friends who loved The Alchemist and encouraged me to read it, but I was left underwhelmed and uninspired.

The Alchemist reads like a fable. The writing is very simple, the characters lack depth, and Coelho beats you over the head by repeating the same themes and phrases over and over and over again. While the simplicity might make the book accessible to a broader spectrum of readers, it really turned me off.

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

Its initial message was essentially “follow your dream,” which is admirable. However, Coelho writes that one’s dream (“Personal Legend”) is some unchangeable, unquestionable thing which we can only see clearly in childhood. I didn’t buy that at all. Furthermore,  he says that if you want your dream to happen hard enough, the entire universe will conspire to fulfill your individual desire and it will help you along the way with things like beginner’s luck and omens. Then, he started throwing out concepts like “The Soul of the World” and “The Language of the World” and other nonsense. Uff da.

There’s also a ridiculous subplot involving Fatima, a young woman whom “the boy” (the main character is always referred to this way) meets while travelling in the desert. The two fall in love immediately upon meeting and when the boy leaves shortly thereafter to pursue his Personal Legend, she accepts that it is her role as a woman to wait behind while her man goes out to fulfill his dream. Oi.

Maybe The Alchemist is just very polarizing. I know a lot of people have found it inspiring and life-changing, but it really did nothing for me.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

The Book

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is another science-fiction classic. It was written by Philip K. Dick, published in 1968, and inspired the 1982 movie, Blade RunnerDADOES is only 250 pages long, so it’s a quick read, but it’s also full of great ideas.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic near future (in 2021), following World War Terminus. The nuclear war nearly destroyed life on Earth, with radiation poisoning wiping out most animal species. Because of how rare animals are, owning them is seen as a symbol of status and wealth. Most of the human race left Earth to emigrate to off-world colonies, but some humans have stayed behind to brave the radioactive dust and try to make lives for themselves in the ruined and decaying cities.

The story begins at the home of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who “retires” illegal androids in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re immediately introduced to an interesting device Rick owns called a mood organ, which lets the user pick any one of hundreds of preset moods to replace the user’s current mood. Rick then goes to tend to his electric sheep, which he’s ashamed of because it isn’t a “real” animal, even though they’re almost identical.

Humanoid androids are also practically indistinguishable from humans and a polygraph-like empathy test (the Voight-Kampff) is used to tell them apart. The androids can even be implanted with memories, so they don’t necessarily know they aren’t human. Rick is sent to Seattle to test the Voight-Kampff empathy test on the latest series of androids, the Nexus-6. After confirming that the test still works, Rick is given orders to retire a group of Nexus-6s that escaped from Mars… but he soon learns that retiring these “andys” is going to be harder than he thought.

DADOES poses some interesting questions like: What makes human beings human? How do you know you’re human? Could androids be capable of empathy or is that a unique human trait? What about humans who seem to be without empathy (like Phil Resch)? Is there value in all life, even artificial life? How do you distinguish between what is alive and what is not? Will we ever be able to consider androids as alive? As human?

In Rick’s world, humans take great care to protect and preserve the life of animals — they’re even willing to care for “fake” electric animals. No one thinks twice about killing humanoid androids, though. In the end, Rick learns to appreciate all life, even artificial.

The Movie

The 1982 movie, Blade Runner, was based on DADOES. Although the two shared the same basic skeleton, they were quite different. Spoilers below!

Blade RunnerFirst of all, the movie took place in Los Angeles rather than San Francisco and it was more futuristic than the book made it seem. There were also a lot more people than I was expecting. I pictured Earth as a much more deserted place, since most people had left for the off-world colonies.

Some of the characters were renamed (e.g. Rosen -> Tyrell), left out (e.g. Rick’s wife, Iran), or changed (e.g. the J. R. Isidore character, called J. F. Sebastian in the movie, was entirely different). Also, androids were called “replicants” or “skin jobs” in Blade Runner.

The movie dropped the animal empathy stuff that I thought was a pretty interesting aspect of DADOES. I doubt that the few references to electric animals in Blade Runner would really be understood by someone who hadn’t read the book and I don’t think World War Terminus was even mentioned in the movie. The religious themes (Mercerism vs. Buster Friendly) were also left out.

There was a ridiculous scene (below) in Blade Runner in which Rick Deckard spent almost 3 minutes “enhancing” an image like 8 times. According to a quick internet search, this was the original scene from which the countless “zoom! enhance!” photo manipulation scenes have gotten their inspiration. Uff da.

In both the movie and the book, androids had a short lifespan. In DADOES it wasn’t really an issue, but in the movie, it was an important motivating force for the replicants. They (violently) sought out ways to ways to extend their lives, culminating with Roy Baty killing his “maker,” Dr. Eldon Tyrell.

The ending was probably the biggest difference between Blade Runner and DADOES. Roy Baty was made to be a much bigger antagonist in the movie than he was in the book. There was a long scene with Roy hunting down Rick that ended with Roy saving Rick’s life instead of killing him. The replicants in Blade Runner were “more human than human” and taught Roy compassion and love.

In DADOES, Roy had a much more minor role and Rick killed him relatively easily in Isidore’s apartment. In the end, the android Rachael kicked Roy’s prized, real goat off the roof, killing it. Rachael (android) hurt Roy and his wife (human) comforted him. In spite of this, Roy learned to have empathy for androids and electric animals; he saw the value in all life, even “paltry” artificial life.

Blade Runner was worth watching, but don’t expect it to follow the book. It has its own, unique interpretation that made it an interesting movie to see.

Slaughterhouse-Five

This week, I read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which was #15 on my book list. I knew it was a war novel, but I wasn’t expecting science fiction. Because of this, my interpretation of the book might from others.
Slaughterhouse-Five

Plot Summary

The story of Billy Pilgrim (the book’s protagonist) doesn’t actually start until Chapter 2. Vonnegut used the first chapter as more of a preface, written in his own voice to introduce the the story that follows. Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist who finds himself thrust into World War II in Germany. Billy is a flawed and pathetic character who gets captured by the Germans and taken to a slaughterhouse in Dresden, along with other prisoners. Shortly after arriving in Dresden, there is a bombing and ensuing firestorm that destroys the city. Billy and the other prisoners survive, but 135,000 of Dresden’s residents were killed (the actual number is estimated to be around 25,000). So it goes.

What makes Billy unique is that he can (or believes he can) travel through time. He is abducted by aliens from the planet of Tralfamadore, where he is put in a zoo to entertain the Tralfamadorians. The Tralfamadorians don’t see time as linear, like humans do; instead, they see all moments in time simultaneously. They are fatalists, cognizant of what we perceive as the past, present, and future, but powerless to change it. Billy adopts their philosophy and, eventually, the Tralfamadorians return him to earth.

Although I’ve written the plot summary linearly, in the book, it’s told entirely out of sequence because of Billy’s frequent jumps through time. He experiences pre-war, war, and post-war events out of order, without having control over the jumps.

My Thoughts

Who knows if Billy Pilgrim really experienced time travel or if it was all in his head. It seems likely to me that it was a coping mechanism. Billy experienced some very traumatic events in his life, most notably during the war (especially the bombing of Dresden), but also outside of the war, in events like the plane crash. I think Billy was driven mad by the trauma and unconsciously used the Tralfamadorians and time travel as a way to comfort himself, especially because aspects of his delusions (if that’s what they were) seemed to echo things he saw or experienced in real life.

Billy’s new way of looking at life was to see it as something timeless, with moments from the past just as alive as moments in the present and future. He learns to accept the things he can’t change, even when they’re senseless tragedies like the Dresden bombing.

My favorite part of Slaughterhouse-Five was when Billy was watching a movie backwards about American bombers in World War II:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.

Understanding the Origins of Morality

I saw a really interesting segment on 60 Minutes tonight about using babies to understand the origins of morality. Researchers enacted various scenarios using “good guy” puppets and “bad guy” puppets and then let the babies choose one of the two puppets. Researchers also experimented with punishing “bad guy” puppets and introducing puppets who were like and unlike the babies to see how they reacted.

Another interesting experiment involved older children and the concepts of greed and generosity. The children were faced with two options; in each, the child would receive a certain number of tokens and “some other kid” would receive a certain amount of coins. Given the options of 1. One coin for themselves & no coins for the other kid and 2. Two coins for each of the kids, young kids consistently picked the first option, even though they got fewer coins. The study showed that as children get older, they learn to be more generous and less selfish.

I’m not sure if the researchers’ results are conclusive. The “good guy” and “bad guy” puppets wore different colored shirts. It could be that the babies just favor one color over the other. Or maybe the babies tend to favor puppets on the right instead of the left. There wasn’t enough information about the experiments to see if the researchers considered factors like these. Nevertheless, I found it interesting to watch.

Click the image below to watch the 60 Minutes segment:

Babies help unlock the origins of morality