Archives de Catégorie: Books

Beware the Eye of Mordor, er, sorry, of the NSA

This is cool: in a recent Slate-hosted blog post, two professors of English literature make the case that J.R.R. Tolkien, not Orwell, made the best literary depiction of the modern surveillance state. (Hat tip: Patrick Nielsen Hayden, of Making Light.)

« Tolkien’s most potent and intimidating image of centralized surveillance, the Eye of Sauron atop a tower, taking in the whole world, has resonated with those who are paranoid about government monitoring. But it’s Sauron’s vulnerability that has the most relevance for America today. »

And for any country in the world that cares about actual, effective safety for its citizens, not the appearance of such. Because we all know how the book ended: Sauron’s near-absolute surveillance was defeated in the end, by « a small group of dedicated subversives willing to sacrifice their lives », who

« slip in under the surveillance system of a great power, blend in with [its] population, and deliver a devastating blow […]. Far from being covert, much of this operation is conducted in plain sight, with the great power aware of its enemies’ existence, if not their intent. » (The Eye of Sauron is the modern surveillance state », by David Rosen and Aaron Santesso)

My emphasis. Because in our world as on Middle-earth, all seeing is not all knowing. In fact, the more information you amass, the harder it is to parse through it. Meta-data may contain enough information to pinpoint an individual in time and space, to reveal their politics and their sex life, but how do you know which set of data is relevant to national security in the first place? In the book, Frodo and Sam rely on their very insignificance, this state of « visible anonymity » of the needle in the haystack, to travel through Mordor, and even when they encounter a patrol of Orcs, they are seen but not discovered, because they look like just two more denizens of Sauron’s empire. As long as they don’t use the Ring, they are in effect invisible.

J.R.R. Tolkien's cover design for The Fellowship of the Ring, first part of The Lord of the Rings: the Eye of Sauron, within his Ring of Power

Tolkien’s cover design for his Fellowship of the Ring: the Eye of Sauron and the Rings of Power. (Source; Wikimedia)

By an interesting little coincidence, J.R.R. Tolkien effectively finished the redaction of The Lord of the Rings in 1949, the same year as George Orwell published his 1984. Both authors lived in an era marked by the rise of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, and both had experience of war-time censorship within England itself. The same generation produced also such writers as Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and Arthur Koestler. Not to mention Russian author Yevgueny Zamyatin, whose science fiction novel We closely prefigures 1984.

But when it came out in 1954, Tolkien’s book looked at first glance like escapist fantasy, a book for adolescents and dreamers. Too bad: he used his « secondary creation » (a phrase he coined, by the way) as a means to explore the same phenomenon: the accumulation of power into the hands of a tyrant, on a scale never ever achieved before in the history of humanity, thanks to technology. And his depiction of Sauron’s evil empire captures both the terror of living under a totalitarian regime, and the inherent flaws of such a regime, where paranoia at the top breeds distrust and inefficiency all down the line. It’s a very human nightmare, for all the Orcs and trolls and evil wizards and giant spiders that inhabit it!

Proof you can apply Tolkien geekery to almost anything

Even word processing, apparently. Behold the “Text editors in the LOTR”! (Via Making Light.) MS Word, TextMate, emacs…

The Dark Tower, Barad-dûr, in the land of Mordor (art by Alan Lee)

For instance, emacs is Fangorn:

Vast, ancient, gnarled and mostly impenetrable, tended by a small band of ancient shepherds old as the world itself, under the command of their leader, Neckbeard. They possess unbelievable strength, are infuriatingly slow, and their land is entirely devoid of women. It takes forever to say anything in their strange, rumbling language.

Oh, and before vi fans start smirking, be aware that in this universe, vi is the Moria!

: xwhat

The Wizard translates: “We cannot get out! We cannot get out! They are coming!”

(But where’s OpenOffice/Libre Office, MS Word’s competitor, eh? Is that Saruman’s Orthanc, the Barad-dûr wanabee? Hmm. Not going to say anything about this one…)

Harry Potter and the Opportunity for Science Education

A whole generation grew up on the Harry Potter books and the films adapted from these books. So, what does it mean? Everybody and their little sister is going to pay attention if you use dear Harry as a teaching prop!

For zoologists, both books and movies are a mine of educational opportunities. All those owls flitting to and fro, bringing wizards messages — oops! The species mentioned in the books are not always the same as those used in the films. In part because, for instance, it would be difficult, and quite dangerous, to have a huge eagle owl landing on the tender shoulders of a school-age kid… (Yes, even Draco.)

Harry Potter and the PSA, by lyosha

Now, if you are a botanist, how about telling us what a real willow looks like? Not like the films’ poor angry Whomping Willow, in any case!

And then, there’s genetics. This is straight from book canon, and basic knowledge about how wizards can be born from Muggles stock. (Hat tip: @SLSingh).

That’s creativity for you, people! Yes, creativity. Science can has it too.

Ursula K. Le Guin: « I am a man »

Inspired by the latest kerfuffle-brouhaha-thingy that doesn’t want to die, but also something that has been lurking on my mind from some time…

The Wave in the Mind, essays by Ursula K. Le Guin (cover)

Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote an essay beginning like this:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter. If we have anything to learn from politicians it’s that details don’t matter. I am a man, and I want you to believe and accept this fact, just as I did for many years.

You see, when I was growing up at the time of the Wars of the Medes and the Persians and when I went to college just after the Hundred Years War and when I was bringing up my children during the Korean, Cold and Vietnam Wars, there were no women. Women are a very recent invention. I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. […] Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was too far ahead of its time.

So when I was born, there actually were only men. People were men. They all had one pronoun, his pronoun; that’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, « If anybody needs to have an abortion he will have to go to another state, » or « A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on. » That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. […]

« Introducing Myself, » © 1992 by U. K. Le Guin, in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (2004).

And so on.

(Question for the attentive reader: who is « I » in the above quoted text? And is it the same « I » throughout? I’ll leave the unraveling of that one to your sagacity…)

On the realism of fantasy

When a literary critic and scholar of fantastic literature takes on the bestseller suspense novel (think Dan Brown, James Patterson and their ilk), it gives this:

« There is in fact more genuine realism in genuine works of literary fantasy (as in the writings of Lord Dunsany or J. R. R. Tolkien) than in these popular suspense novels, for in the former a certain self-consistency, either in topography or in psychological motivation, must at least be maintained to render an imaginary world plausible, whereas in the latter virtually all notions of how human beings actually behave and what events can actually occur are thrown out the window merely to generate the adrenalin rush that readers are evidently seeking. »

(S.T. Joshi, Junk Fiction, WildSide Press, 2009)

My emphasis, of course.