Some of what I’ve been reading and watching lately:
- The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, by B. R. Myers
This was a fascinating read. I never was able to shake the awareness that I was seeing North Korea through the filter of one person, though. (For instance, there are several places where Myers writes, essentially, All other Western North Korea experts think that X, because they’re deceived by Y, but I know that Z.) And some of the contrasts he tries to make between the North Korean personality cult and (say) those of Stalin’s USSR or Ceauşescu’s Romania seem somewhat contrived — sure, North Korea is really an authoritarian rightist state with a very thin Marxist veneer, and lots of other layers, rather than a socialist state organized along Marxist principles. But the same is true to varying degrees of the Soviet Union, China, and so on, and to say that North Korea is different from Stalin’s USSR because it’s not really Marxist is a bit unconvincing. But it was certainly a fascinating read, and maybe any book about North Korea is going to feel like that just because there’s so little information available in English about North Korea.
- We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (Wikipedia link with spoilers), by Phillip K. Dick.
This is the novella that the movie Total Recall (which I haven’t yet seen) was loosely based on. The premise is that memories are malleable, and can be implanted and removed or covered over. There’s a bit of an industry in giving people fake memories of things they want to do but can’t afford, like a vacation to Mars, or memories that are essentially fantasy fulfilment, like having been a secret agent. Of course, in the novella, things eventually go wrong...
- Rogue Moon (Wikipedia link with spoilers) by Algis Budrys.
Part of the premise of this short novel is that the Americans (still in the throes of the space race with the Soviets) have developed a sort of teleportation along the lines of Star Trek’s transporter: your body is taken apart here by a scanning beam that records the position and motion of every atom in it (in the novel’s decidedly non-quantum physics), and then recreated from raw materials at the receiving site. (In fact, I have no evidence of this but I suspect this novel was the inspiration for the transporter; the novel was published in 1960 and won a Hugo in 1961, so it’s easy to imagine that Roddenberry or one of his colleagues might have remembered it while they sat around a table trying to figure out a plausible way to avoid having to do expensive and time-consuming planet-landing shots.) But the novel makes quite a lot of the fact that the original body is destroyed, and the person who appears at the receiving site is a replica, albeit with all of the original’s memories. This was a good read despite, or perhaps because of, being so dated; it was fascinating to read hard science fiction with extremely futuristic technology set in the Cold-War early 1960s, with the social expectations and prejudices of the time.
- And I’m not nearly through it, but I’ve recently started The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, which is fascinating so far. It tells the story of how Lucretius’ philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, lost for centuries, was discovered in the early 15th century, and of its huge impact on the course of Western intellectual history.
And I’ve already mentioned that plumtreeblossom
and I watched King Corn
the other day, and that we’ve been watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War
I think the juxtaposition of We Can Remember It for You Wholesale
, Rogue Moon
, and Moon
, which plumtreeblossom
and I watched a few weeks ago, was a particularly good one; they all muse on identity, consciousness, and personhood in very similar ways. I’m glad I happened to encounter them around the same time.