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Arrival and the possibility of conversation

Arrival, the film adaption of the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, has been recognised as one of the most intelligent sci-fi films of recent years, as concerned with helping us see our own world anew as with what might exist beyond it.

It is especially poignant, perhaps, that Denis Villeneuve’s movie was released only days after a bitter US Presidential race, whose outcome was only the most shocking upset of a year that has exposed seemingly irresolvable political and cultural divisions. For essentially it is a story about the possibility of communication, of bridging the abysmal gulfs that stop us talking to each other.

An alien civilisation visits Earth, their opaque, ovoid spacecraft – monumental structures recalling 2001’s monoliths – materialising one day at various locations across the world: the Indian Ocean, the Siberian tundra, the plains of Montana – twelve in all. Their portals hover a few metres from the ground, inviting entry.

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Discerning the light

Former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway, whose complex relationship with his own Christian tradition has made him perhaps the quintessential sceptical Scot, widens his focus to the world’s religions in a new book exploring the history of faith.

A Little History of Religion follows in the footsteps of Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions in offering a popular introduction to this most intricate of subjects from a questioning, though not unsympathetic perspective.

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Zionism, anti-Semitism and the Left

How can political progressives who have dedicated their careers to principled opposition to racism possibly be guilty of anti-Semitism, one of history’s darkest and most ancient forms of discrimination?

The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism by Dave Rich is a lucid and sensitive exploration of how well-intentioned anti-racism can nonetheless generate specifically left-wing expressions of this most protean of prejudices.

The book could not be more timely. Dozens of Labour members have been suspended in the course of the party’s ongoing anti-Semitism row, including prominent figures such as Ken Livingstone, MP Naz Shah and Momentum Vice-Chair Jackie Walker. The long-standing association of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell with anti-Zionist movements continues to be subject to forensic scrutiny, and Jewish support for the party has plummeted.

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Another look at The Man Who Fell To Earth

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

Those enigmatic lines from Hart Crane’s The Broken Tower preface Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, a sci-fi classic that has been somewhat overshadowed by Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film adaptation, currently being replayed in British cinemas.

That’s unfortunate. Roeg’s interpretation has many memorable scenes and images that entangle themselves in the mind, and is electrified by a charismatic lead performance by David Bowie, an elegant alien presence. But while the film captures something of the book’s strangeness, Roeg’s habitual desire to shock through the shoehorning of several gratuitous scenes into his movie adds nothing to Tevis’ subtle tale. Since the film has gathered so much attention I thought it worth writing a few lines about the novel.

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Charlie Chaplin: hero of the Soviet avant-garde

Just as Marx praises capitalism in the most extravagant terms in The Communist Manifesto, the early Soviet avant-garde was entranced by the idea of America.

The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde by Owen Hatherley explores the Soviet intelligentia’s fascination with the America of the early 20th century, a mythic land of technological wonders, vast mechanised industries, spectacular cityscapes and the startling new medium of cinema.

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