Periscope Depth

rule britannia is out of bounds

WALL-E: Another touching and awesome Pixar spectacle. Pixar has mastered animation to the extent that a one-foot robot with only two words in its vocabulary can emote more effectively than most of the stars expected to carry a summer picture today. They’ve mastered comic timing on a level that puts 99% of comedies released today (Mike Myers films, the [Genre] Movie series) to shame. And I’m not the best barometer for tearjerkers, sensitive twit that I am, but very few human actors can move me like Pixar’s wooden toys, fuzzy monsters, colorful fish or rusting robots.

(No, I haven’t seen Up yet; planning on it)

Red Mars: I started this book when I was 14, maybe, got about 100 pages into it, and couldn’t sustain interest. Don’t know why I stuck to my initial judgment for so long – putting too high a premium on my adolescent judgments – but man, was I wrong. Red Mars works on all levels. As a compelling story of social orders in development, Red Mars tells the story of the first permanent colony on Mars – dedicated scientists at constant odds, each with their own vision of utopia that they seek to impose upon a lifeless planet. I also found myself able to follow the hard science aspects to a greater extent than in other sci-fi novels – I got the importance of aerobraking, and moholes, and the Phobos oscillation on the space elevator. So few engineers-turned-authors can make that work for an English major like me.

But above all else, Red Mars tells my favorite story: of how the war between institutions grinds humans in its wake. Red Mars lacks any overt villains. Though the United Nations and the megacorporations that run it draw no real sympathy, they do have a compelling case: they made a significant investment in Mars by getting the colony there, and they want to see that investment recouped. The environmentalists and the terraformers both make solid arguments for their points of view. Even the saboteurs draw the reader in, with their hokey Rousseauvian mysticism.

What else was I wrong about at age 14, I wonder?

Your Religion is False: Asked and answered, I suppose.

Atheists will never gain much traction in the public forum with the cranky attitude that people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers adopt in talking about faith. The ancient churches of the world have dealt with better (and better armed) vitriol for centuries. But gone are the years when joking about a holy man would get you exiled from your village, or burned at the stake, or eaten by bears. Laughter is a hard weapon to deflect.

Joel Grus puts humor to good use in Your Religion is False, by taking a John Hodgmann-esque look at all of the major world’s religions. He alternates between straight-faced looks at the absurdity of religious doctrine and exaggerations for comic effect:

Conservative Protestants strictly follow three universal principles, all of which revolve around the idea of “I’m sick of the Pope telling me what to do”:

  1. “If the Bible says it, I believe it. If the Bible doesn’t say it, I don’t believe it. If the Pope says it, for sure I don’t believe it, unless the Bible says it too, in which case I have to ask my pastor what I think.”
  2. “It doesn’t matter how good or evil you are – if you accept Jesus as your savior, you’re going to heaven, and if you don’t you’re going to hell.”
  3. “I’m sick of the Pope telling me what to do.”

The first causes all sorts of problems, as it forces Conservative Protestants to believe that the world is only 6000 years old, to disbelieve in all sorts of useful science, to insist that one man both built a boat capable of carrying and subsequently discovered two members of every species on Earth (including, apparently, all five million-plus species of beetles), and to assert that pi equals 3. The second causes all sorts of problems, as it has allowed a number of Nixon-era criminals to establish lucrative post-incarceration prison ministries. The third is actually an exceptionally sensible position.

And he devotes attention to just about every religion I’ve heard of, from the obscure (transcendental meditation, Jainism, giant stone head worship) to the institutional (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc). I think this is the book’s greatest strength and the key to its outreach. Every believer thinks that religions other than his own are silly, or false, or harmful, and wouldn’t mind a chance to poke fun at them. Maybe by seeing them juxtaposed with his own beliefs – equally silly in Grus’s eyes – he’ll have cause to rethink them.

Highly recommended. Buy a copy today.

(Disclosure: I advised Joel on certain portions of the book and provided some feedback on an early draft. However, I think you all know me well enough to know that, if I didn’t think this was a genuinely worthwhile book, I’d put off Joel’s persistent requests for a glowing review with a polite passive-aggression until he lost interest or took the hint. I’m that sort of asshole. But I haven’t; it’s legitimately funny)

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