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Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

November 6, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philp K. DickSummary:
Earth is overcrowded and overheated but people still don’t want to become colonists to other planets.  The colonies on the other planets are so boring and depressing that the colonists spend all of their money on Can-D — a drug that lets them imagine themselves living in an idealistic version of Earth.  The only trick is they have to set up dioramas of Earth first.  The drug is illegal on Earth but the diorama parts are still created by a company there.  When the famous Palmer Eldritch returns from the far-flung reaches of space, he brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, that doesn’t require the dioramas.  What the people don’t know, but one of the manager of the Can-D company soon finds out, is that Chew-Z sends those who take it into an alternate illusion controlled by Palmer Eldritch.

Review:
I love Philip K. Dick, and I have since first reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So whenever I see his books come up on sale in ebook format, I snatch them up.  I picked this up a while ago for this reason, and then randomly selected it as my airplane read on my honeymoon.  Like many Dick novels the world of this book is insane, difficult to explain, and yet fun to visit and thought-provoking.

The world Dick has imagined is hilarious, although I’m not sure it was intended to be.  Presciently, Dick sets up a future suffering from overpopulation and global warming, given that this was published in 1965, I find it particularly interesting that his mind went to a planet that gets too hot.  Even though the planet is unbearably warm (people can only go outside at night and dusk/dawn), they still don’t want to colonize other planets.  Colonizing the other planets is just that bad.  So there’s a selective service by the UN, only instead of soldiers, those randomly selected are sent to be colonists.  The wealthy can generally get out of it by faking mental illness, as the mentally ill can’t be sent away.  This particular aspect of the book definitely reflects its era, as the 1960s was when the Vietnam War draft was so controversially going on.

I don’t think it’s going out on much a limb to say that drugs had a heavy influence on this book.  Much of the plot centers around two warring drugs, and how altered perceptions of reality impact our real lives.  One of the main characters starts out on Earth hearing about how the poor colonists have such a depressing environment that they have to turn to drugs to keep from committing suicide.  But when he later is sent to Mars himself as a colonists, his impression is that in fact the colony is this downtrodden because no one tries very hard because they’re so much more focused on getting their next hit of Can-D.  The Can-D has caused the lack of success on the planet, not the other way around.  Whether or not he is accurate in this impression is left up to the reader.

Then of course there’s the much more major plot revolving around the new drug, Chew-Z.  Without giving too much away, people think Chew-Z is a much better alternative to Can-D, but it turns out chewing it puts you under the control of Palmer Eldritch for the duration of your high, and if you overdose, you lose the ability to tell the difference between illusion and reality.  The main character (and others who help him) thus must try to convince the humans that Chew-Z is bad for them before they ever even chew it.  The main character has another side mission of getting people off of Can-D.

It sounds like a very anti-drugs book when summarized this way, but it felt like much more than that.  People chewing Chew-Z can come to have an experience that sounds religious – seeing the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (a stigmata in Christian tradition is when God shows his favor on someone by giving them the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion.  In this book, the three stigmata are three bodily aspects of Palmer that are unique to him).  However, the experience of seeing the stigmata is in fact terrifying, not enlightening.  The drugs thus represent more than drugs. They represent the idea that we could possibly know exactly what a higher power is thinking, and perhaps that it might be better to just go along as best we can, guessing, rather than asserting certainty.

All of this said, a few weaknesses of the 1960s are seen.  I can’t recall a non-white character off the top of my head.  Women characters exist, thank goodness, but they’re all secondary to the male ones, and they are divided pretty clearly into the virgin/whore dichotomy.  They are either self-centered, back-stabbing career women, or a demure missionary, or a stay-at-home wife who makes pots and does whatever her husband asks.  For the 1960s, this isn’t too bad. Women in the future are at least acknowledged and most of them work, but characterizations like this still do interfere with my ability to be able to 100% enjoy the read.  Also, let’s not forget the Nazi-like German scientist conducting experiments he probably shouldn’t.  For a book so forward-thinking on things like colonizing Mars and the weather, these remnants of its own time period were a bit disappointing.

Overall, though, this is a complex book that deals with human perception and ability.  Are we alone in space? Can we ever really be certain that what we are seeing is in fact reality? How do we live a good life? Is escapism ever justified? Is there a higher power and if there is how can we ever really know what they want from us?  A lot of big questions are asked but in the context of a mad-cap, drug-fueled dash around a scifi future full of an overheated planet and downtrodden Mars colonies.  It’s fun and thought-provoking in the best way possible.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Drugs For Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health by Joseph Dumit

Book Review: Drugs For Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health by Joseph Dumit Summary:
Written by a professor of Anthropology, this book explores the interaction of the cultures of medicine, pharmaceuticals, and public health and how they have impacted the modern Western perception of what constitutes health and what makes a person count as healthy.

Review:
Since I work in an academic medical library, I was immediately drawn in by this anthropological exploration of what has impacted the modern perception of health and requested it on NetGalley.  Although the book can sometimes feel a bit long and repetitive, the information it contains is an even-handed look at the reasons behind so many people in the West being put on preventive prescription medication.

Since this is written by an Anthropologist, not a journalist or a doctor or pharmaceutical representative, it has neither an expose feeling to it nor a particular slant.  It’s clear that the author originally was just looking at the culture surrounding healthcare, and the evidence led him down this path.  Anyone who is familiar with Anthropology knows that Anthropologists are trained to attempt to avoid biases and just report what they see.  Of course, everyone is human, and I definitely think that by the time Dumit finished his research he has formed an opinion that the reader can observe, however he does quite a good job of just presenting the facts.

The book is divided into six chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion.  The six chapters are: responding to facts, pharmaceutical witnessing and direct-to-consumer advertising, having to grow medicine, mass health: illness is a line you cross, moving the lines: deciding on thresholds, and knowing your numbers: pharmaceutical lifestyles.  The book thus moves from the culture of facts and how we respond to them, to the business of pharmaceuticals, to how public health has impacted how we treat individual health, to how the individual health care consumer responds to the information they hear from all sides.  Again, all of this is presented from an anthropological perspective.  If a reader has not read an anthropology-research based book before, the way in which Dumit looks at the information may be a bit confusing or surprising at first, since it is more about culture, which may not be expected at first, given the title.  However, the second chapter helps this perspective make sense, so even a reader new to this perspective will most likely be able to get into it.

What inspired Dumit to conduct this cultural investigation is the sheer number of drugs the average American is prescribed.

The average American is prescribed and purchases somewhere between nine and thirteen prescription-only drugs per year, totaling over 4 billion prescriptions in 2011 and growing. The range is wide, however, and many people are prescribed few or no drugs each year. (loc 100)

What Dumit’s investigations revealed was a cultural shift from treating an illness after it negatively impacts a person’s life to attempting to prevent illness.  Whereas individual doctors may prefer prescribing lifestyle changes (work out more, eat differently, stress reduction), some doctors prefer being able to simply prescribe a drug and some groups of patients may prefer to keep their lifestyle and take a preventative drug.  Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry sees preventative drugs that are taken by large groups of people with risk factors as a more monetarily sound investment than generating drugs for an illness that would be taken one-time or simply for the duration of the illness or just from the time of diagnosis to the end of the person’s life.  Preventative drugs are prescribed to people who have risk factors for developing an illness, and they then must be taken every day.  At the same time as these situations have developed, public health, since the 1970s, has started looking at groups of people at risk for developing a disease that would have a negative public health impact and advising that people with these risk factors be treated to prevent the disease from ever occurring.  All of these factors have created the environment in which we now live in the United States where people who are not yet sick are still taking multiple prescription drugs to prevent their getting sick, often in spite of dealing with side effects.

I will now discuss the elements of this overarching concept that I found most interesting.  The book contains many more facts and information than this, and if you find any of this at all intriguing, I highly recommend you pick up and read the whole book.

First, there’s the fact that clinical trials are extremely expensive to produce.  Pharmaceutical companies thus are most invested in clinical trials whose results would indicate treating the largest number of people for the longest amount of time and, perhaps most importantly, only for those people who are able and willing to pay for these drugs.  (loc 145)  What this means is that illnesses that only a small percentage of people have are not getting clinical trials for drugs.  Similarly, illnesses that a lot of people have but most of those people cannot afford to pay for the drugs, such as tropical diseases prevalent in African countries, also are not getting clinical trials for drugs to treat them.  The pharmaceutical companies are businesses that are interested in making money, not in improving the quality of life for everyone on the planet.

Marketers want to maximize the number of prescriptions in order to maximize profits. They see clinical trials as investments whose purpose is to increase sales of medicines. (loc 1415)

I also found the question of what constitutes health and how that has changed over the years fascinating.  Originally, people generally only came to the doctor if they felt sick or as if something was off.  We are now encouraged to engage in preventative care.  How this impacts how we perceive of health is summed up well here:

We have a new mass health model in which you often have no experience of being ill and no symptoms your doctor can detect, but you or your doctor often discover that you are at risk via a screening test based on clinical trials that show some efficacy of a treatment in reducing that risk; you may therefore be prescribed a drug for life that will have no discernible effect on you, and by taking it you neither return to health nor are officially ill, only at risk. (loc 195)

Tied into this idea of risk factors being treated as illnesses and thus healthy people being treated as not healthy is the idea that outliers, variations, and things that are simply socially undesirable can often be reclassified as illness, particularly if doing so means that the pharmaceutical companies will make more money. (loc 1079)

Third, I was intrigued by the discussion on the public health model.  Public health seeks to reduce illness in the population as a whole by treating those with risk factors, but also by treating however many it takes to reduce the occurrence of illness.  An example of a community-wide public health intervention is adding fluoride to the public drinking water.  This is done to everyone in the hopes that it will help prevent cavities, regardless of the actual individual risk factor for developing cavities.  A public health intervention that is done only to those with a risk factor is taking statins to lower cholesterol.  This is recommended for individuals whose cholesterol falls in a certain range, but there is no exact science in creating that range.  In fact, the cholesterol range is frequently lowered, putting more and more people on statins, even if only a small percent (less than 10%) of people are actually helped by being on these statins.  The question Dumit raises in this discussion is:

At what point are public health officials justified in intervening on a community-wide basis to protect a group of people who are not all equally at risk and who might not want to be protected? The push and pull of paternalism versus autonomy is a constant refrain in the field. (loc 1667)

Of course, the pharmaceutical companies want more and more people included in the risk factor, they even would probably be fine with everyone being on statins as a community-wide public health intervention, since this increases their sales.

Finally, I was also interested in how the book examines how the average patient population responds to all of this information about risk factors and preventative drugs and medicine and constant flow of health information.  Dumit divides the response to this into three general groups: “expert patienthood, fearful subject of duties, and better living through chemistry.” (loc 2842)  The expert patient is like the teacher’s pet.  They know all their health numbers and risk factors, listen to their doctors, take anything prescribed, and advise others to do the same.  These guys are the health seekers.  The second category, fearful subject of duties, is motivated by avoiding illness, not by seeking health.  The final category of patient is the one I alluded to earlier.  These folks won’t change their lifestyle in response to risk factors, but will instead request a pill so that they can continue living how they prefer.  Which category do you think you fall into?

I think the book in general could be a bit better organized.  My notes, although taken linearly, read as a bit disjointed, with some jumping around among different ideas.  The overarching concepts are not laid out as clearly and succinctly in the book as they are in my review.  Similarly, some concepts can be repeated a bit too often, leaving the reader feeling like they’ve read this before.  Also, sometimes the book delves a bit too deeply into anthropological concepts and methods, given the fact that it is presented as a book for a layman.  Finally, I feel the title of the book is a bit too click-baity.  It reads as if it was written to sound much more controversial and attacking of the pharmaceutical industry than the book itself actually is.  The title reads like the book will be a heavy-hitting expose, when really it is an even-handed piece of anthropology work.

Overall, this book will appeal to anyone interested in how the United States health care culture has evolved to the point it is currently at in regards to prescribing so many drugs.  The reader does not have to be a scientist or involved in medicine to understand the book, although portions of it may feel a bit repetitive or overly technical at times.  Although the book could be a bit better organized, overall it presents a clear look into the culture of drug prescription in the United States, and I recommend it to anyone interested in that topic.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Series, #1)

Gray book cover.Summary:
Science is moving forward to and through transhumanism to posthumanism, and no society seems to quite know how to handle it.  China is using the tech in their armies, Thailand is interested in its use to enhance meditation and zen, and the US government banned many of the different treatments and drugs after they were used by cults to make cloned children into killing machines.  Kaden Lane knows about the potential dangers, but he and his lab partners are still invested in making their brain nanotechnology drug, Nexus, work.  It makes minds meld together, able to feel others’ suffering, and they think it will lead to world peace.  Samantha Cataranes was a victim of a transhumanist mind control cult as a child, now she fights on the side of the FBI putting a stop to any science deemed too dangerous.  When Samantha and Kaden meet, their worlds and worldviews start colliding.

Review:
I had honestly kind of forgotten what this book was about, beyond it being scifi, by the time I picked it up to read it.  I thus was able to experience most of it as a surprise.  It’s a book that’s a modern twist on cyberpunk with plenty of action to boot.

Jumping far enough ahead that some transhumanist elements already exist is a smart move.  It lets the book think forward further than the initial transhumanist elements that it’s generally easy to see the advantages of, like fully functional robotic hands, into the grayer areas with things like cloning and mind control and making soldiers who are super-soldiers.  This is a more interesting ethical dilemma, and the book doesn’t take very long to set up the world and get into it.

Nexus itself is a fascinating drug that combines nanotech and drugs.  It’s easy to see that the author knows his science and has extrapolated into a possible future with a lot of logic based on current science.  That’s part of what makes reading the book so fascinating and slightly frightening.  It feels like an actual possibility.

The world building is done smoothly, incorporating both in-plot mentions and newspaper clippings and internal briefings to establish what is going on in the greater world around Kaden and Samantha.

The characterizations are fairly strong.  Even if some of the secondary characters can seem two-dimensional, the primary characters definitely are not.  Seeing a woman as the world-wise, transhuman strong fighter, and the man as the physically weaker brains was a nice change of pace.  Additionally, the book embraces the existence of gray areas. “Bad guy” characters aren’t necessarily bad, and “good guys” aren’t necessarily good.  This characterization helps tell the nuanced gray area story of the overarching plot.

The beginning of the book was weaker than the middle and the end.  The first chapter that has a character testing out Nexus by using it to land sex with a hot woman almost made me stop reading the book entirely.  It felt like some pick-up artist douchebro was imagining a future where tech would make him irresistible to women.  Frankly, that whole first chapter still feels extremely out of place to me now.  It doesn’t fit into the rest of the presentation of the character throughout the book.  It feels like an entirely separate story altogether.  I would encourage potential readers to skim it, since it barely belongs, then get to the rest of the book.

After the first chapter, the next few chapters feel a bit overly rose-colored lenses at first.  Almost as if the author sees no gray areas and only the potential good in humans.  Thankfully, this is mostly the rose-colored lenses of a main character that quickly fall away for the more nuanced storytelling of the rest of the book.  But it did induce a few eye-rolls before I got further along.

The middle and end of the book look at human potential for both good and evil within the context of both science and Buddhism.  It’s fascinating stuff, and makes a lot of sense since quite a bit of modern psychiatry is working hand-in-hand with ideas from Buddhism, particularly about meditation.  This is where the more interesting insights occurred, and also where I felt I could embrace the book a bit more.

Each of us must walk our own ethical path. And together, men and women of ethics can curb the damage of those without. But for you…if you keep vital knowledge from others, then you are robbing them of their freedom, of their potential. If you keep knowledge to yourself, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. (loc 5597)

Overall, this cyberpunk scifi that mixes transhumanism and posthumanism with nanotechnology, fighting big governments, and Buddhism tells a fascinating tale full of gray areas that will appeal to scifi fans.  Some may be turned off by the first few chapters that lack the nuance and likeable and strong characterization of the rest of the book, but it’s worth it to skim through the first few chapters to get to the juicier middle and end.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Movie Review: Shrooms (2006)

August 3, 2010 6 comments

Skull in the forest.Summary:
Five Americans–two straight couples and one single gal–go to Ireland with two sole purposes: take shrooms and land their Irish pal as a boyfriend for the single gal.  Their friend takes them into the forest and aids them in gathering the shrooms.  As they are making the tea, the Irishman tells them the tale of the Black Brother and the Lonely Twin, an evil priest and the boy he tortured at a now abandoned school for troubled youth nearby.  As the night wears on the next day comes, the friends are left wondering if the horrors they are now seeing are the result of an open portal to the supernatural or just a bad trip.

Review:
This was a fun twist on the slasher flick norms, obviously not too heavy on characterizations as I can’t remember most of the character’s names.  I do know the annoying jock guy was named Bluto, because that’s just a hilarious name.  Anyway, the story is told from the perspective of the member of the group who ate a bad shroom and is now having premonitions about people’s deaths.  That part is rather like Final Destination, only in this case we know the person having the premonitions is high, so her believability is even more questionable.

The Black Brother is deliciously creepy.  He alternates between moving on what appear to be broken feet, floating, and crawling down from the trees.  His face is always obscured by his monk-like robe.  The cinematography is pretty good for a B-level horror flick.  The premonition and supernatural bits are just wobbly enough to give the viewer a bit of a high feeling themselves without being too distracting from the story.

The acting is typical of what you find in B level movies.  The actors all have their shrieking down to a science.  They’re good at being scared, which is all that really matters.  Unfortunately, the actor who plays the Irish guy is completely incapable of an Irish accent and manages to just sound British the entire time.  That’s a bit distracting, but oh well.

There is one scene early in the movie that sold it to me right away as a slightly laughable but still creepy slasher flick.  It involves a hallucinated cow who warns Bluto that he’s about to become a “dead fucker.”  I mean, a creepy talking cow?  Total B-movie win!

What really moved Shrooms up from a 3 star to a 4 star level for me though was the ending.  I can’t tell you what it is, obviously, but I can tell you that I didn’t figure it out, and it was legitimately creepy.

If you enjoy B-level slasher flicks with a sense of humor, such as Final Destination, you’ll definitely enjoy Shrooms.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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