January 13, 2005


Well, I spoke too soon -- the second half of the Battlestar Galactica miniseries somehow managed to overcome its promising first installment and recaptured almost everything I didn't like about the first series. I watched the whole thing, which reminded me of why I don't watch too much television anymore.

Because I wasted most of the night in front of the idiot box, I didn't have much time to spend with the item that came in today's post, Islam: The Misunderstood Religion by Mohammed Qutb, the Islamist nutball who taught Osama bin Laden. Flipping through it, we find that capitalism demands as a precondition of its success monopoly (never mind that Adam Smith insisted exactly the opposite); that it's simply an accident (presumably of schedulers) that someone decided to hold the industrial revolution in Europe before holding it in the Dar al Islam; that people who talk about freedom of conscience merely mean the freedom to promote atheism and deny Islam...

...and that's just opening it up to passages at random. I may or may not have a complete report on it soon, but first I have to finish 5 Qutb, then 4 Qutb. Although to be honest, of late, I've been far more interested in Sikhs, about whom I realized the other day that I don't know anything, and I also have a pile of books ranging from a collection of Lovecraft short stories to essays on anti-Semitism to a George Steiner book to a history of bacteria to a study of footnotes (I'm not kidding about the last one) that all seem more engaging than slogging through more of the unfailingly shallow ideas of the brothers Qutb.

Speaking of shallow ideas, I found the review of the Space 1999 mega bucket DVD set (yours for a cool $180 clams) pretty funny:

The tone of the show is one of scientific dispassion, setting it apart from its TV sci-fi predecessors such as Star Trek, whose mood was more convivial. Our heroes here are in dire circumstances that require cool heads as a survival trait. Those circumstances: the 311 crew members of Moonbase Alpha experience a cataclysm that causes the moon to break away from Earth's orbit and travel endlessly through space, turning our heroes into unintentional explorers. No TV series has created a more palpable feel of hard science fiction than this.

Of course the show is not without its detractors; it has been soundly lambasted for its many scientific errors. No less august a figure than Isaac Asimov criticized the show for its premise in the opening episode, "Breakaway," which had nuclear explosions on the "dark side of the moon" somehow propelling it out of Earth's orbit and flying through space without regard to any physical laws.

Right. Exactly. Just as what separates Warner Brothers cartoons from those of Disney is that the characters are rendered in a far more naturalistic way, except that rabbits aren't bipeds with opposable thumbs who, by the way, talk.

Posted by Ideofact at January 13, 2005 01:31 AM

Why Qutbs? You could be reading someone really original and thought-provoking like the late great Fazlur Rahman or Khalid Abou El Fadl's Conference of the Books

Posted by: Maryam at January 13, 2005 07:13 AM

So what was it about the second half of the Ron Moore Battlestar Galactica mini series that disappointed you? I found the two parts pretty much of a whole, love it or hate it, so I'm curious what you meant by that.

Posted by: Mitch H. at January 13, 2005 10:17 AM

Regarding the reading, it's rather like when I decided to start slogging through texts by and about totalitarians several years ago. It certainly isn't pleasant to slog through the works of someone as tendentious and unpleasant as Eric Hobbsbawm. In fact, it's not even pleasant to read Czeslaw Milosz or Robert Conquest on the totalitarian mindset -- one feels like beating one's head against the wall after a while.

Regarding Battlestar -- I think I started to get depressed around the moment that you could tell they weren't telling a story but rather trying to sell a television series. "Think of the adventures they can have as their ragtag fleet travels the universe searching for Earth while drawing behind them a far more numerous and technologically advanced foe bent on humanity's extinction!"

Not exactly the most hopeful or rousing scenario.

And all the new subplots don't seem much more promising than those in the old series (actually, I can't remember whether it had subplots). Take the ending, which was disturbing on so many levels. Your implacable enemy has just wiped out most of humanity, so of course it's important to maintain civilian government in the person of a woman who was 43d in succession and was a member of a government that proved an utter failure in the face of the worst catastrophe in history? If a population decline from billions to 50,000 isn't sufficient grounds for declaring martial law, I'm not sure what is...

This of course will be a source of conflict throughout the show, between the military mindset and the nurturer, but really -- say, if all the government and much of the U.S. population had been wiped out by an enemy attack, would you find it comforting to know that, say, Donna Shalala or Margaret Spellings was in charge of things?

Posted by: Bill at January 13, 2005 12:05 PM

Mind my asking what it is by Steiner you're about to read?

Posted by: DaveVH at January 13, 2005 04:44 PM

What I got from the second half of the story was that after an annihilating defeat like that suffered by the protagonists, a military government would be counterproductive - they can't do anything other than run, and fight if cornered. While the Secretary of Education wasn't particularly groomed for leadership, neither was Adama, a nominal, temporary commander of a literal museum piece. The idea of the show is that these aren't the best and the brightest - they're just the ones that get away. And that's the point of the show - run, and don't stop running until they can never find you.

Oh, well, you can't argue with taste. I'm just looking forward to more of this stuff. Apparently they've been playing it on British TV for the better part of a season.

Posted by: Mitch H. at January 13, 2005 05:12 PM

"It certainly isn't pleasant to slog through the works of someone as tendentious and unpleasant..."

Hehehe, seems rather masochistic to me. But then I have a spouse that watches Fox News.

Posted by: Maryam at January 13, 2005 11:09 PM

I can remember finding a copy of Gulag Archipelago, and after the first 10 chapters, setting it aside.

(I do wonder how the Nobel-Prize committee read the thing all the way through. )

Of course, I chalked part of this trouble up to Solzhenitsyn's "Russian-ness". The same personality trait that has Tolstoy write a mammoth work like War and Peace, or Dostoievsky write his apparently-interminable Crime and Punishment.

However, the "Russian-ness" of the stories was only one element. There was also the grinding sensation of continuous degradation, domination,and oppression of dissenters.

Posted by: steve h at January 14, 2005 12:08 AM

...also the grinding sensation of continuous degradation, domination,and oppression of dissenters.

Sounds just like my high school...

No, seriously, there are some horrible books which I just haven't been able to put down. I think George Steiner's work the Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. falls into that class -- incredibly painful to read at times and yet impossible to put down. (That's not the Steiner book on my "to read" list by the way -- it's Errata--An Examined Life).

I've never read Solzhenitsyn, although I think I have most of Gulag Archipelago in a box somewhere, but I have read a fair amount of Dostoevsky, and I found him an engaging (but Steve, you're right -- very Russian) writer. Steve, have you read any Nabokov? I'd be curious to see if his Russianness comes through to you or not.

Posted by: Bill at January 14, 2005 12:51 AM

Not having cable tv, I had to make do with the condensed 3-hour version of the HBO 2-part 4 hour version of the BS Galactica remake, but I found it surprisingly uncraptactular compared to the original. This is not high praise, given that I think the original is absolute junk, albeit with a few moments of amusement, on the level of any other written-downwards Glen Larson production, such as The A-Team; he did a number of productions that might have been okay if the view wasn't obviously taken to write them as if truly really stupid children were the primary audience.

But I found it made a significant difference when you put actors of a caliber such as Olmos and McConnell into the mix, and put the sort of effort Ronald D. Moore did into struggling to write some more intelligence back into the mix (again, one could only go up, here, but Moore had the sense to try to take the situation seriously, and make it more plausible and a bit more intellegence). If I had cable, I'd be at least checking out the first few regular episodes to see how it's going. I wouldn't expect Olmos to be staying around if the script-level started sinking to closely back to the original level of (un)-quality (frack that!)

"say, if all the government and much of the U.S. population had been wiped out by an enemy attack, would you find it comforting to know that, say, Donna Shalala or Margaret Spellings was in charge of things?"

It's a matter of degree; out of context, not so much, but in-context, possibly more so than the notion that my people were now living under the pure military dictatorship of some junior near-retired general I never heard of. And I'd expect, of course, people to be overwhelming focused on the shock of survival, and continuing to attempt to survive, for some time before most of them would find things calm enough to start worrying about their political rights and political system, but sooner or later, assuming things didn't go further into the toilet, such concerns would become paramount. And I think having the issue arise from the start is realistic as well as dramatically useful.

Posted by: Gary Farber at January 14, 2005 11:52 AM