Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Irvine Welsh, Sam Harris and George Dyson.

Skagboys by Irvine Welsh

Skagboys examines how Welsh’s original Trainspotting anti-heroes - Renton/Rent Boy, Simon/Sick Boy, Danny/Spud, Frank/Begbie, Tommy et al - succumbed to heroin, or "skag". Theo Tait, writing in the Guardian, is critical of Welsh’s “rehashing” of his original masterpiece: “the reader has a vivid sense of a great talent tamely revisiting his glory days”. Moreover, “Skagboys is also just too long: it essentially goes over the same ground as Trainspotting, but it's about three times the size”. Yet, Tait concedes, “there are many unforgettable episodes, such as the visit to a squalid shooting gallery, where one large hospital syringe passes round the room from junky to junky, like the angel of death. Even at his weakest, Welsh performs the mysterious feat of making you think that his characters are real”.

The Telegraph’s Keith Miller is unconcerned by the repetitive nature of Welsh’s prequel: “With such a crew, anybody would be hard pressed not to repeat themselves a bit”. Likewise, Arifa Akbar writing in the Independent suggests, “the success of Skagboys comes from its similarities to Trainspotting. It offers more of the same, though excellently constructed more of the same”. “It can't have been easy”, he notes, “for Welsh to colour in the lives of characters created nearly two decades ago, and the endeavour could have resulted in unintentional pastiche. So it is an achievement that they retain a sense of authenticity”. He goes on to describe their stories, as “filled with pain, sadness, and the bewilderment of young lives going wrong”. However, Akbar, too, observes that several of the characters are undeveloped, that they are “characteristically themselves”, and “become nothing more, treading water in their roles rather than gaining dimension”.  He also acknowledges Skagboys' lack of “the political urgency [that characterises] its predecessor”. Instead, he praises its “absorbing, energetic writing”, concluding: “Its banter, outrage and razor wit sing off the page”.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In New Atheist Sam Harris’s latest book, now out in paperback, he attempts to apply science to morality arguing against the claim that the scientific worldview has nothing to say on moral questions. Jules Evans, writing in the Observer, describes the results as “mixed”: “It's a pity the book is so bull-headed, because Harris's topic is an interesting one, and he himself is an interesting figure who brings together the disciplines of science, moral philosophy and contemplative religion. Unfortunately, he seems to see this as a zero-sum game, in which the competition must be killed. In fact, as Harris must know, the great religious traditions have interesting things to tell us about wellbeing, if we stop trying to punch their lights out”.

In the New York Times Kwame Anthony Appiah, reviewing the hardback in 2010, was also unsure of Harris’s argument. “What he ends up endorsing,” Appiah concludes, “is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?”.  However, he praises Harris’s ideas regarding neuroscience: “He says much that is interesting and important: about the limits of functional magnetic resonance imaging as a tool for studying brain function; about the current understanding of psychopaths; about the similarities in the ways in which moral and nonmoral belief seem to be handled in the brain." However, he found himself “wishing for less of the polemic against religion”, and wanting “more of the illumination that comes from our increasing understanding of neuroscience”.

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

The Observer’s Evgeny Morozov gives a positive account of George Dyson’s history of the modern computer, which recalls an “important chapter in the convoluted history of 20th-century computing”. “Alas”, Morozov goes on, “the book is not perfect. Dyson ... bombards the reader with a mind-boggling stream of distracting information that adds little to his tale. We get to learn of the discrepancy between the British and Canadian war records of Jens Fredrick Larson, the architect of the institute's main hall; the price of oysters served at lunch meetings of its building committee; the price of nappies in Los Alamos hospitals in the 1950s”. He is also sceptical about the “slew of untenable generalisations” that result from Dyson's efforts to connect Von Neumann's cold war computing to today's Silicon Valley: “Is it really true,” he asks, “that "Facebook defines who we are, Amazon defines what we want, and Google defines what we think"?” Moreover, notes Morozov, “occasionally, Dyson makes mystical claims that no serious historian would endorse. What to make of his statement that "only the collective intelligence of computers could save us from the destructive powers of the weapons they had allowed us to invent"?”. Yet overall he praises Dyson’s effort as “engrossing and well-researched”.

In the Telegraph Manjit Kumar is also concerned about the amount of jargon in Dyson’s offering, “faced with the tricky task of balancing technical details with keeping the narrative accessible for the non-computer buff, Dyson ends up probably not giving enough detail to satisfy the aficionado but too much for the lay reader”. However, Kumar acknowledges the “years of research and writing have enabled him to bring to life a myriad cast of extraordinary characters each of whom contributed to ushering in today’s digital age”. “Dyson,” Kumar notes, “has done the difficult job of reminding us of how much we owe [Neumann and Turing] and how far we have come in such a short time”.
The jacket illustration for Irvine Welsh's Skagboys.
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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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