Stoner

I loved how simple and small this was. There's not some big important event, it's not grand and climactic. It's just one unremarkable man's small and familiar life. This might be thematic bias, since I've been wrapped up in thinking about how much of a role momentum plays in our lives, but I felt like momentum was a heavy theme. I felt it was about the current of life and the evolution of self, in contention with the pressures of relationships and occupation. But it's all so relatable and small. It's a moment of shame in leaving your parents behind, or a moment of nervous excitement on meeting your fiancees family, or a feeling of promise in a new career. All these little moments and feelings that build a life and shape a person.

It all felt so familiar. When moments and feelings that you recognize are given the deliberate consideration of a novel's introspection, it transfers the emotional perspective and growth so much more effectively because it's a life you already understand. In more grandiose or more contrived fiction, you can still garner values that apply to yourself, but the application is more abstract because of the disparity between your reality and the fictive reality. In this, it's all so grounded and familiar, that any philosophical or emotional revelation you have can map onto your life and person effortlessly. And because it's so grounded and true to life, it never feels forced or preachy. It just presents a piece of a normal unremarkable life, and tries to understand it.

On Bullshit

I actually really liked this. At first it's just fun how seriously it takes the subject, but the analysis itself is surprisingly deep and interesting. It's more than just finding a more discrete definition of the word, it also expands into it's cultural significance and it's relative values as compared to lying. It's explantation of the intent of bullshit, the reasons for it, who uses it and why we seem to generally accept it a certain level, I think says a lot about the cultural context in which the bullshit takes place and is allowed to take place. It's weird that the dumb little profanity of 'bullshit', and this strange little booklet dedicated to it, could explain so much of what makes me feel uncomfortable about the world at a large scale. 

It also has a surprise twist ending that totally caught me off guard. It carries all the momentum its built up against bullshit and at the very last second diverts it all against the idea of sincerity. The general conclusion about bullshit is that it is made with disregard for truth and reality (whereas lying is in opposition to truth) and is made solely to give some desired impression of the bullshitter. It then says that when confronted with the difficulty of maintaining an objective understanding of truth and reality, instead of trying to discover the reality, we remain "true to [ourselves]". But since we as individuals are fluid and changing and even harder still to know and understand, that holding to ourselves in this way is in itself a disregard for an objective truth and thus a form of bullshit. 

I admit that my initial reaction to this assertion was negative, but as is typically the case with writing these reports, the act of thinking about things more deliberately has moved my feelings about it. I think the issue is just the use of the word sincerity. I understand better what is being said, and I may even agree, but I don't think sincerity means, at least not to me, what is being described here. Or maybe sincerity is too large a word which both of our understandings is true. For me sincerity is the opposite of affectation, meaning that the impression given matches exactly the intent, whereas with affectation the intent is to give an impression. Using these meanings, sincerity stands in opposition to bullshit, with affectation being almost a synonym for it. I can't imagine how someone could sincerely bullshit, as the two very ideas are so opposed, so I can't agree with the closing statement that "sincerity itself is bullshit". I agree with the sentiment presented, but not with it's misappropriation to the virtue of sincerity.

The Glass Bead Game

This was less powerful than most other Hesse I've read so far, other than Demian I guess. It leans way more on the intellectual and the philosophical than it does the introspective and the personal, so while it was still super interesting, it didn't have the same impact.

It’s a fictional biography about a student and eventual master of this cloister-like super-school. You go to live there at a young age and never leave! There’s no real conflict to speak of, it’s just this nice little journey watching this guy grow and learn. Everything feels soft, everyone’s pretty nice, everything goes smoothly.

At the center of the school and book is the glass bead game, which isn't really a game and it doesn't really involve glass beads. The game itself isn't all that well defined. It’s left sort of vague and grandiose, but as I understand it, it’s based on finding and drawing connections between multiple fields and subjects. The primary examples were between music and math with some philosophy thrown in as well. So a game begins with some artistic or mathematical or philosophical prompt, maybe with a second separate idea that the player then has to tie those ideas together. That’s how I understood it at least. They never “show” a game being played so it’s not concrete at all. Not having a full understanding of the game felt limiting. I wonder if Hesse had a complete picture of the game in his own mind and decided not to get into it, or if he just wanted the core idea.

While this one gives way less cause to look inward than previous Hesse, it’s through line of all disciplines being connected is interesting, but I don’t know if it extends beyond interesting for me. It holds learning and academia in such high esteem and treats it with such reverence that’s a little contagious. I came out of this wishing I could dedicate myself to that concentrated almost monastic level of study.

The ending though, I don't know. It came out of nowhere. I really don't know what to think of it. I try to assume everything an author does is for a reason and then try to figure out what the reason was, but I don't know. The only things I can piece out don't really slot in thematically. 

The Lathe of Heaven

Typical spoiler warning. I want to work out the themes of the book which requires specific details from the book.

So generally speaking Lathe of Heaven is about an unfortunate man who’s dreams have the power to change reality. He’s afraid of this power and this sends him on a drug induced downward spiral until he’s eventually forced into psychiatric help. The doctor then discovers this power and begins to manipulate the dreams via hypnotic suggestion, trying to change reality for the better. Which each new alteration, a benevolent intention often has some pretty terrible implementations. Think genie wish tricks.

This is one of those stories where I’m not sure what relevance the message has in real life. One of the things I like about certain sci-fi is that it can abstract an idea from life or some human characteristic and outline it with, or question it by, placing it in unfamiliar territory. You get to test the construction of some philosophies or beliefs that you’ve maybe taken for granted. With this book however, while it has some interesting questions you can ask yourself, I just haven’t been able to tie them into life.

The only real question I found was “Would you do it?” or “Is the doctor wrong?”. I’m sure I probably would. I’d at least give it a couple tries. Maybe if things didn’t work out so great I wouldn’t keep trying, but I don’t know why you wouldn’t try. The doctor isn’t really painted as a bad guy, just overly ambitious and maybe a bit farsighted (a lot farsighted I guess). The general attitude seems to be that you shouldn’t try to change things. Not like, you shouldn’t work towards change, but that you literally shouldn’t change the past or how things are. Which, I don’t know, I’m not sure I agree, but we can’t. Why have the conversation at all?

 

The Fabric of the Cosmos

I think I've gotten as far as I'm going to get with casually learning this stuff. The barriers to my understanding are getting pretty technical. Although this did get me over the hump on string theory (just conceptually) and blew the doors off of time. The physics of time seem surprisingly similar to the philosophy of Siddhartha. I still have trouble with a lot of quantum physics (again just conceptually). It just doesn't make sense!

There were a lot of pop culture references in this that felt out of place, but also dated the book in a weird way. There's also the obvious dating from some of this science having made progress in the intervening years. Most notably it kept referencing the large hadron collider, which was under construction at the time of it's writing, as the potential answer to several questions. I know some of those experiments have been run and I've seen some talk of their results and their implications, but my "casual understanding" of the science doesn't easily fit the new discoveries into the larger picture.

It's all still very staggering and enticing. I wish I'd kept up with a scientific education through school so I could dig deeper. The universe just seems increasingly crazy and amazing and I wish I spoke it's language.  

 

Never Let Me Go: Part 3

Well this got out of hand and way longer than anyone could ever be interested in reading. That’s more or less fine since the primary goal of these is as an exercise and to force me to think about the things I read more deliberately, but of course ideally I’d still like people to read these things so in the interest of not scaring people away, I've divided this into 3 sections. I’ll also take this opportunity to to warn you that in order to talk about the things I want to talk about, I’ll have to spoil pretty much everything, so reader beware. Literally the first sentence is going to spoil the entire book.

        Part 1
        Part 2

The third question I had, which I have less of a grasp on, is: Why do the clones put up with it? I feel like I know some of why. but it’s hard to understand. I think a lot of it has to do with information control. Since they are in the care of the system from day one, the information they have is highly controlled. They learn about themselves and their role very slowly, and in the books words “know without knowing” or learn about things in such a way that it “seems like [they’ve] always known”. They aren’t presented their life as an option, it’s just the way it is. Think of places like North Korea. I’ve caught myself thinking “Why don’t they just leave?”. But they largely don’t even know what the world is like outside of their borders. We, as humans, have an incredible ability to roll with it, and this is a kind of perversion of that virtue.

As they get older they do get a bigger picture of the state of things and their purpose, and yet they still follow the movements. Some of that I can accept as momentum, but I think some of it is fear of the outside world. Fear because it’s new and unknown and fear because of public perception of clones. They can’t exactly get jobs, or live normal lives. Not unless society is setup to allow them to, and it isn’t. They also do have some weird sense of purpose or duty. This is literally what they were made to do. Some of them want to be good at it. “Completing” (dying) after only a couple of donations is seen as almost shameful. It’s just troubling to me to think of being capable of that kind of rolling over. But honestly, when I think about the problems I have with my life and career right now, it’s not that different. I just keep going through the movements, out of momentum, out of fear of breaking out, and out of a sense of duty to the people I work with.

Man writing this stuff out is crazy. I literally did not make that parallel until right then. I’m always surprised how much there is once I start unpacking. I also feel much more strongly about the book after really giving it the time to fold out in my mind. I’m realizing even more now how critical doing this kind of dissection is, especially in a book like this where these these ideas are quietly backed into, so you almost don’t notice enough to take pause. Taking time to think! It’s magic!

Never Let Me Go: Part 2

Well this got out of hand and way longer than anyone could ever be interested in reading. That’s more or less fine since the primary goal of these is as an exercise and to force me to think about the things I read more deliberately, but of course ideally I’d still like people to read these things so in the interest of not scaring people away, I’ve divided this into 3 sections. I’ll also take this opportunity to to warn you that in order to talk about the things I want to talk about, I’ll have to spoil pretty much everything, so reader beware. Literally the first sentence is going to spoil the entire book.

        Part 1

Does it matter? In the book, the advent of cloning effectively becomes the panacea of most fatal illness and injury. Major and vital organs become widely available to the population at large. They specifically mention that cancer is essentially no longer an issue. So knowing how high the bar for quality of life is raised, and how many lives can be saved, do you even ask the question? The society in Never Let Me Go answers the question by basically ignoring it. They recognized the value of cloning so strongly that they can’t even bring themselves to really consider that these people might have souls. The protagonists are actually unwittingly taking part in a sort of experiment to see if maybe they do have souls, and should be treated differently. The organization running the experiment eventually falls apart and things carry on as they had been.

I can’t see it actually happening this way in the real world. There’s so much baggage around allowing cloning to happen as it is, that even breaking the seal is hard to imagine. But even if we do cross that bridge, I just can’t fathom us turning cloned humans into organ farms. The human rights implications are enormous. I suppose it’s worth mentioning that in the story, the cloning breakthrough happens in the 40s or 50s, and I don’t have a real historical context for what human rights were like at that time, but maybe it seems more believable through that lens.

Oh I guess I haven’t said where I stand. The specific question of souls is a little off base for me, as I've said, but I do think that a cloned person is as much a person as you or I, and thus farming out people for their organs is not ok. Yes it could be of invaluable use and save many lives, but so could harvesting peoples organs now. If you just sectioned of a segment of the population and reserved them for organ donations, then you would get the same result. Obviously that sounds awful, but it’s no different than doing the same thing to clones. Cloned people are still people and people are people too.

To return to the book itself briefly, the presentation of all of this is smooth and light handed. You've been following these characters and identifying with them for a while before they drop that they are clones. Which means you already see them as people by default, you’re already on their side. So once the line is drawn, you immediately put them on your side, our side. It’s like when your mom makes you eat something without telling you what’s in it, and then once you say that you really like it: “Surprise, it was vegetables!” It’s an interesting way to make you answer the question before they ask it. Of course, since it’s a book, it’s really the author answering the question and then asking it, because in the world of the book, the clones very clearly do have souls.

Part 3

Never Let Me Go: Part 1

Well this got out of hand and way longer than anyone could ever be interested in reading. That’s more or less fine since the primary goal of these is an exercise and to force me to think about the things I read more deliberately, but of course ideally I’d still like people to read these things so in the interest of not scaring people away, I’ve divided this into 3 sections. I’ll also take this opportunity to to warn you that in order to talk about the things I want to talk about, I’ll have to spoil pretty much everything, so reader beware. Literally the first sentence is going to spoil the entire book.

Never Let Me Go is about the lives of these clones who are created for organ donation. Those details are slowly revealed and hinted at as the story progresses, the slow revealing was pretty natural and didn't really ever feel contrived. It’s presented as if you are also living in the same world as the book, so it assumes you know all this stuff because that's just the way it is. There’s no need from the narrator’s perspective to be explicit about the cloning and donations because we, as inhabitants of this same world, already know all about them.

There are 3 main philosophical questions, 2 which the book deals with directly and 1 which I started wondering about as I was reading. The first is: Do clones have souls? It’s a little murky since the “answer” depends so much on how you define souls and your religious stance. It’s still worth considering since there’s no hard barrier to human cloning. We haven’t done it yet, but that’s largely due to the fact that we’re not allowed to. So imagine that we do, imagine that someone 100% successfully clones a human and now we have this cloned human. They are in every way indistinguishable from a non-cloned person. If you did not already know they were a clone, you would not be able to tell. I suppose my saying that suggests where I stand. So I guess let’s step back and talk about what you and I consider to be a “soul”.

Obviously I don’t know where you stand on souls, and again, I imagine it largely hinges on where you hang your religion hat. If I ever refer to someone’s soul (and why would I), I’m referring to, like, their whole deal. Their … personness. That’s vague I guess but I don’t really know how to be more specific about something abstract like this. I can tell you what I don’t think a soul is. I don’t think a soul is the ghost that lives in your body and drives it around. I guess I’m dancing around saying that I don’t think the soul is a thing. It’s at most an abstraction of a person’s personality, emotions, history and mind. So going back to our clone there, by my interpretation of a soul, sure this dude’s got as much soul as anyone. If you lean more to the spiritual interpretation, you still might not be sure how you feel. You might even take issue with my statement that the clone would be no different from anyone else and that we wouldn't even be able to tell. It might be your stance that if God didn't put a ghost captain in this people ship, then it would just be catatonic and empty, or maybe it just wouldn't work at all. I’m going to move forward with my line of thinking, because I am me. If you completely disagree, the following questions won’t really matter to you too much, but if you’re not really sure, for the time being operate under the heading “what if they did?” because the next question asks...

Does it matter?