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"Alien: Covenant" Bursts with Pomposity

The New Yorker

In space, no one can hear you laugh. Ridley Scott's extraterrestrial adventure "Alien: Covenant" is deadly serious about matters that he takes deadly seriously, and the only things that he derides with any irony--muffled and sardonic though it may be--are the movie's snippets of art greater than his own, by artists greater than himself--starting with Richard Wagner, whose "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla" is heard in the first and last scene. The movie's lack of irony is all the more ironic since its subject is the recklessness of mankind in daring to synthesize humans androidally in order to extend our own control over the universe. The pleasure of classic low-budget science-fiction films--the threadbare apocalypses of the nineteen-fifties--is the fusion of authentic fear with the earnestness inherent in comic-book-like creatures and effects. They were movies that, in their exuberant exaggerations, wore their own absurdity with a fiercely straight face, even as they touched on underlying terrors--largely also focussed on the hubris of recklessly manipulating nature.


The Writer's Process

The New Yorker

Funny, I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before. I don't really have a "process," per se, just a simple routine that I meticulously follow every day like a disciplined genius robot. I usually wake up around 5 or 5:05 A.M., and get out of bed immediately. I do not press snooze. I do not start scrolling through Twitter so that the brightness of my phone's L.E.D. screen will force my eyes into awakeness, but then continue reading tweets for so long that my eyes adjust to the brightness and I get sleepy again.


James Mattis, a Warrior in Washington

The New Yorker

On January 22nd, two days after President Trump was inaugurated, he received a memo from his new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, recommending that the United States launch a military strike in Yemen. In a forty-year career, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had cultivated a reputation for being both deeply thoughtful and extremely aggressive. By law and by custom, the position of Defense Secretary is reserved for civilians, but Mattis was still a marine at heart. He had been out of the military for only three years (the rule is seven), and his appointment required Congress to pass a waiver. For the first time in his professional life, he was going to the Pentagon in a suit and tie. Mattis urged Trump to launch the raid swiftly: the operation, which was aimed at one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen, required a moonless night, and the window for action was approaching. Under previous Administrations, such attacks entailed ...


A Brilliant Return for a Talking Heads Album

The New Yorker

Twenty-six years after Talking Heads broke up, David Byrne remains one of New York's most recognizable people. There he is, about town, slim and white-haired--on his bicycle, at a just-opened restaurant, at the Public Theatre (his second musical, "Joan of Arc: Into the Fire," had a run there last month), or at a concert by an artist on his boutique record label, Luaka Bop. Before I took a seat at Carnegie Hall last Friday, then, I periscoped the room, wondering whether he was there and, if he was, whether he would wind up onstage. Angélique Kidjo, born in Benin, long based in Brooklyn, was performing "Remain in Light," and it seemed inevitable that Byrne would show, if only to see what another great artist would do with his strongest, strangest work. The band members strode out and took their places beneath the Stern Auditorium's broad arch: a dozen musicians, female and male, black and white, singers and instrumentalists.


Seeing with Your Tongue

The New Yorker

The climbers at Earth Treks gym, in Golden, Colorado, were warming up: stretching, strapping themselves into harnesses, and chalking their hands as they prepared to scale walls stippled with multicolored plastic holds. Seated off to one side, with a slim gray plastic band wrapped around his brow, Erik Weihenmayer was warming up, too--by reading flash cards. "I see an'E' at the end," he said, sweeping his head over the top card, from side to side and up and down. Weihenmayer moved triumphantly on to the next card. Erik Weihenmayer is the only blind person to have climbed Mt. He was born with juvenile retinoschisis, an inherited condition that caused his retinas to disintegrate completely by his freshman year of high school. Unable to play the ball games at which his father and his brothers excelled, he took to climbing after being introduced to it at a summer camp for the blind. He learned to pat the rock face with his hands or tap it with an ice axe to find his next hold, following the sound of a small bell worn by a guide, who also described the terrain ahead. With this technique, he has summited the tallest peaks on all seven continents.


Rod Dreher's Monastic Vision

The New Yorker

Rod Dreher was forty-four when his little sister died. At the time, he was living in Philadelphia with his wife and children. His sister, Ruthie, lived in their Louisiana home town, outside St. Francisville (pop. Dreher's family had been there for generations, but he had never fit in. As a teen-ager, when his father and sister went hunting he stayed in his room and listened to the Talking Heads; he read "A Moveable Feast" and dreamed of Paris. He left as soon as he could, becoming a television critic for the Washington Times and then a film critic for the New York Post. He was living in Cobble Hill on 9/11, and watched the South Tower fall. He walked with his wife in Central Park. He wrote a book, "Crunchy Cons," about how conservatives like him--"Birkenstocked Burkeans" and "hip homeschooling mamas"--might change America. She was a middle-school teacher, and her husband was a firefighter. She could give a damn about Edmund Burke and the New York Post. She was not a crunchy con, and she found her brother annoying. In truth, annoying wasn't the half of it--there was a rift between Dreher and his family. His father, a health inspector, had never forgiven him for moving away; his nieces found his urbanity condescending. During one New Year's visit, Dreher made bouillabaisse for his parents and his sister; they watched him cook the stew and let him serve it, then declined to eat any: they preferred meals made by a "country cook." Later, Dreher learned that Ruthie and her husband were struggling financially and resented the fact that he made twice their combined salaries for reviewing movies. His father considered him a "user"--someone who succeeded by flouting the rules. Dreher loved his father and sister for their rootedness and their vibrancy. On Mardi Gras, 2010, Ruthie was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.


Cormac McCarthy Explains the Unconscious

The New Yorker

This past week, the novelist Cormac McCarthy published the first nonfiction piece of his career, a three-thousand-word essay titled "The Kekulé Problem," in the popular science magazine Nautilus. It is studded with suggestive details about the anatomy of the human larynx, what happens to dolphins under anesthesia, and the origins of the click sounds in Khoisan languages, all marshalled to illuminate aspects of a profound pair of questions: Why did human language originate, and how is it related to the unconscious mind? Five years ago, I interviewed McCarthy for Newsweek at the Santa Fe Institute, a theoretical-research center where he is a trustee and has spent a considerable portion of the last two decades. The institute is devoted to understanding the fundamental principles of complex systems at a variety of scales, from cell biology to human societies. McCarthy's essay emerged from conversations with its current president, David Krakauer, a computational biologist, and from exchanges with many others colleagues and scientists there over the years.


Polar Expressed

The New Yorker

In February of 1880, the whaling ship Hope sailed north from Peterhead, Scotland, and headed for the Arctic. Her crew included a highly regarded captain, an illiterate but gifted first mate, and the usual roster of harpooners, sailors, and able-bodied seamen--but not the intended ship's surgeon. That gentleman having been unexpectedly called away on family matters, a last-minute substitute was found, in the form of a middling third-year medical student making his maiden voyage: a young man by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was twenty when he left Peterhead and twenty-one when he returned. On Saturday, May 22nd, in the meticulous diary he kept during that journey, he wrote, "A heavy swell all day. I came of age today. Rather a funny sort of place to do it in, only 600 miles or so from the North Pole." Funny indeed, for a man who would come to be associated with distinctly un-Arctic environments: the gas-lit glow of Victorian London, the famous chambers at 221B Baker Street, and--further afield, but not much--the gabled manors and foggy moors where Sherlock Holmes tracked bloody footprints and dogs failed to bark in the night. Shortly after returning from the north, and long before writing any of the stories that made him famous, Conan Doyle told two tales about the Arctic--one fictional, the other putatively true. The first, in 1883, was "The Captain of the Pole-Star," one of his earliest published short stories. In it, a young medical student serving as the surgeon on a whaling ship watches, first in disbelief and then in dread, as his captain goes mad. Although winter is closing in, the captain sails northward into the Arctic until his ship is stuck fast.


Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia

The New Yorker

The ritualized procreation in the novel--effectively, state-sanctioned rape--is extrapolated from the Bible. " 'Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her,' " Atwood recited. "Obviously, they stuck the two together and out came the baby, and it was given to Rachel.


Learning Arabic from Egypt's Revolution

The New Yorker

When you move to another country as an adult, the language flows around you like a river. Perhaps a child can immediately abandon himself to the current, but most older people will begin by picking out the words and phrases that seem to matter most, which is what I did after my family moved to Cairo, in October of 2011. It was the first fall after the Arab Spring; Hosni Mubarak, the former President, had been forced to resign the previous February. Every weekday, my wife, Leslie, and I met with a tutor for two hours at a language school called Kalimat, where we studied Egyptian Arabic. At the end of each session, we made a vocabulary list. In early December, following the first round of the nation's parliamentary elections, which had been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, my language notebook read: On many days, I went to Tahrir Square, to report on the ongoing revolution. If I heard unfamiliar words or phrases, I brought them back to class. The following month, I learned "tear gas," "slaughter," and "Can you speak more slowly?" "Conspiracy theory" appeared in my notebook on the same day as "fried potatoes." Sometimes I wondered about the strangeness of Tahrir-speak, and what my Arabic would have been like if I had arrived ten years earlier. But it would have been different at any time, in any place: you can never step into the same language twice. Even eternal phrases took on a new texture in the light of the revolution. After I could understand some of the radio talk shows that cabbies played, I realized that callers and hosts exchanged Islamic greetings for a full half minute before settling down to heated arguments about the new regime. Our textbook was entitled "Dardasha"--"Chatter"--and it outlined set conversations that I soon carried out with neighbors, using phrases that would never be touched by Tahrir: "May peace, mercy, and the blessings of God be upon you." One of our teachers, Rifaat Amin, prepared a five-page handout entitled "Arabic Expressions of Social Etiquette." This supplemented "Dardasha," which also featured some lessons about social traditions, including the evil eye, the belief that envy can cause misfortune. In "Dardasha," icons of little bombs with burning fuses had been printed next to the kind of phrase that, even during a revolution, qualified as explosive: "Your son is really smart, Madame Fathiya."