Brain, n. That with which we think we think.
I first heard that joke when I was, I believe, ten years old. I first read Douglas Hofstader’s Gödel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid when I was about ten years old, too — and while I understood precious little of the book at the time, I definitely laughed at that joke. I was closer to the spirit of the book than I realized.
Nearly thirty years have passed. Since then I have read GEB cover-to-cover no less than five or maybe six times, each reading about five years apart. Very little, if anything, has been published since that approaches the creativity, the insight or the sheer joy of intellectual adventure radiated by this book. A professor of a friend of mine gave all his departing students a photocopied list of reading recommendations; GEB was at the top of the list in the category “SUPER INCREDIBLY MIND-BLOWING BOOKS”. It was #1 in a category of one.
“This is a book about how we think,” the professor’s blurb for GEB read, and that is as succinct a summary as I can devise on my own as well. It is an attempt to explain how thought, or maybe better to say sentience, is no one thing but a whole aggregate of things that interrelate. Any one of them alone is not thinking; but in the same way, all of them together do not constitute thinking either. It is the dance they execute when they are together that is thinking, and even that, too, falls apart when you look at it too closely. The serpent eats its tail, and thus the circle of the earth is borne. Read more
A book like this leaves me divided. Popular Hits of the Showa Era is black comedy of the kind that would have made Terry Southern proud, and is written in a wild, paintball-splatter style where most every sentence has something funny about it. I laughed harder while reading the first half or so of it than almost anything else I’ve run across in the last few months. And then it’s over, and you realize the whole thing was a giant shaggy-dog story, an extended metaphor for any number of things without ever being anything on its own.
This is both expected and weirdly disappointing for Ryū Murakami, who has made a career out of being a cultural critic of Japan through his bestselling mainstream fiction. Sometimes he does this by embedding his critiques within what appears to be a genre fiction exercise; In the Miso Soup and Audition had the form but not quite the content of horror thrillers. Sometimes, as with Coin Locker Babies — still his masterpiece, for my money — he jumps outside the confines of genre altogether and creates something entirely new and daring. But sometimes, as with Showa, he just shoots blanks. It explains why the film made from the book (Karaoke Terror) also felt like a misfire: they were simply being faithful to the source material, which really was that addled.Read more
Vertical’s continued English translation of Black Jack (we’re now at volume 13) is proof of two things. One: even when Osamu Tezuka was doing comparatively minor work, he was still beating the pants off his manga-creating contemporaries. Two: Even when featured in said comparatively minor work, renegade surgeon Black Jack was and still is one of Tezuka’s most compelling creations, and arguably one of the best in all of comics.
This volume, like all the others after volume 11, is collected from episodes that ran after the manga officially ended its original run. It’s a jumble, but a fun jumble. Among the adventures this time around is one where BJ serves as a sort of midwife for an E.T. (no, seriously); several clever uses of plastic surgery, including one where an entire body is re-used port-mortem in what amounts to a pre-CGI reincarnation of a dead actor on camera; a grim reappearance by euthanasia artist Dr. Kiriko, whom BJ uses to convince a patient to forsake dying; and even a bonus flip-movie version of Pinoco giving us her best “Acchonburike!” face. The best volumes in the series are probably behind us, but I’m still eternally grateful Vertical saw fit to commit to Black Jack for the long haul as part of their efforts to bring the too-long-underappreciated Tezuka to a worldwide audience.Read more
Gaspar (Irreversible) Noé’s death-trip film is a visually stupendous execution of, well, not much at all. American-born Tokyo slacker Oscar smokes DMT and hallucinates while his sister bumps and grinds for salarymen in a stripclub. When Oscar’s drug-dealing buddy sells him out to the cops, he's gunned down in a filthy toilet stall, and spends the rest of the movie floating between his past, present and possible future. It sounds great on paper — a CGI VR treatment of the Tibetan Book of the Dead! — and many of the individual effects sequences are indeed astonishing on both technical and aesthetic levels. But it’s all in the service of a deeply prosaic story (Oscar has sister and mommy issues), and the people in it are so fundamentally dull and unpleasant that following them for even twenty minutes is a chore. Two and a half hours? No thanks. At least Noé's Irreversible cast had charisma and sophistication. Also, watching a rendition of a drug trip eventually becomes as listless as just watching other people tripping. If death and rebirth is this boring, I’d hate to see Noé’s idea of nirvana.Read more
A spiritual and intellectual sequel to Stephen King’s Firestarter; it picks up where that book left off in more ways than one. Junko Aoki, born with the power of pyrokinesis, lives a compulsively anonymous life while using her powers to render the kind of justice the authorities seem incapable of. Her power soon draws the attention of not only the police but the “Guardians”, an underground network of other people with inhuman capabilities. Any initial comparisons to King’s book quickly get put aside: this is its own story, with its own ideas and its own troubling implications. Those who are familiar with Miyabe from her young-adult epic Brave Story may be thrown for a bit of a loop, but those who come in from her mystery and crime titles (e.g, All She Was Worth) will see many familiar threads: the close observance of domestic details, or the way she probes most every situation for its ethical quandaries. And if you’ve read nothing by her at all, this is as good a place to start as any. The live-action film adaptation, Pyrokinesis, follows most of the original plot but suffers from embarrassing inconsistencies of tone; it’s best if you’ve already read the book and don’t mind having the story trashed by some really patchy direction.Read more
The author of The Woman in the Dunes and The Box Man was not nominally thought of as a “science-fiction author”, but this 1970 novel is science fiction by every other name. A professor has invented a supercomputer with remarkable predictive capacity, which at first is used for prosaic things like weather and economic analysis. Then they use it to analyze the brain of a corpse to determine the identity of a murderer, and from there the good professor is drawn into one ever-widening set of circumstances after another, the largest of which encompasses the fate of the human race on a rapidly-warming planet. The way each link in Abé's chain of invention leads to the next is ingenious; if you ignore the flap copy (although the title is a semi-giveaway), it’s nigh-impossible to predict where his story is heading or to what end. His storytelling is also cleverly indirect — he never just comes out and tells you things, but spirals inwards towards them via their implications. Fans of Stanisław Lem’s brainier, less openly satirical work like Solaris or His Master’s Voice should pick this one up. It’s literary SF without the boorish taint the word “literary” typically implies.Read more
Billed as a “documentary novel”, this book uses as its inspiration a true incident from Japan’s military history. In 1902, two platoons of Japanese soldiers competed to see who could cross the snowy wastelands of Japan’s far-north Mount Hakkōda. The whole exercise was seen as a prelude to a possible Russian invasion of the Japanese peninsula from that region, and was regarded as a pre-emptive way to determine what measures to take to fend off such an assault. At first the whole march seems like little more than a grueling exercise, but one problem after another is compounded by the bull-headed stubbornness of the commanders in charge, and almost everyone involved in the mission freezes to death. The few that live are compelled to keep their silence about their superior officers’ bungling, and feel unworthy of being fêted as heroes when they return home — just as the Russo-Japanese War begins. The whole thing is told in the kind of spare, unpretentious language used by other Japanese historical writers (the great Yasushi Inoue comes to mind); Nitta lets the facts speak for themselves, and only embellishes with poetic and dramatic license as a way to comment on the issues at hand (mostly at the start and end of the story). A grim footnote to Japan’s military history, but as revealing in its own way as many more broadly-documented incidents, and without the nostalgic sentimentality that usually clouds such retellings.Read more
Tokyo nightlife tour guide Kenji, who has made an art form out of letting the sleaze he witnesses slide off his back, finds himself with something he can't shrug off when an American tourist named Frank turns out to be a serial killer. Despite the dodgy-sounding outward premise — and some truly vile moments of violence that are too emotionally loaded to be mere horror-movie gore — this is one of Ryū Murakami's best books in English, and in the end a downright elegiac one. The seedy underworld landscape is an obvious selling point, but the real value of the book is in how it sees Frank not as a Nietzschean Übermensch but rather an unfocused damage case. He's a killer and there's no ducking away from that, but Murakami takes the time to think about him as a character and not simply use him (or Kenji) as a mouthpiece for his sociology. Not easy reading, and not the most accessible of Murakami’s work (for that my vote goes with 69), but rewarding for those with the stomach.Read more