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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Interruptions...

Oh, dear. Not since November?

Although I've been much too busy lately to post here, I have had several things I wanted to share. Some thoughts on the rather unremarkable Soylent Green (but the author of the original novel says all I wanted to say, and more). The very lovely novel Outback Stars (Sandra McDonald) and its slightly less interesting sequel The Stars Down Under.

Unfortunately I just haven't had the time. The problem is that my partner on this blog, the venerable Billy Goat, has started a very new (and I think very interesting) project. Somehow I got suckered into writing PHP code for his new project, and it's turned into a surprisingly devilish code-feast.

At any rate, I think it's time to link to the new blog: Iron & Ash. The first post will be up on January 1st. Billy Goat's ready to roll but he's on vacation in internetless climes, so it's up to me to finish debugging, testing, and do the launch. (Again, how do I get suckered into this?)

I'll be continuing to make behind-the-scenes contributions until it's really running steadily, so I'm afraid this blog may very well languish unattended. But I really think you're going to enjoy what we're up to. Please visit Iron & Ash in January, leave a comment for BG, and above all else, admire the lovely text formatting: drop-capitals, smart quotes, em-dashes, ellipses. (Yes, I'm fishing... I've earned it!)

See you there!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Recommended: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air contains guns, magic, card-punch computers, monsters, hot air balloons, and more. If you haven't seen anything like this before, then you've never seen Steam Punk. However, Hunt takes the already-flavorful magical-old-world-meets-old-tech blend of Steam Punk and cranks it up about three notches by adding in an intense political landscape and a religious movement that plays off the bloody rituals of the Aztecs. Hunt lays it all out, and stashes a crazy surprise for the reader around every corner. And it all works nicely, blending interesting ideas that might otherwise be found in Sci-Fi into an action-packed story.

The majority of The Court of the Air takes place in a kingdom called Jackals. Like England of our world, it's ruled by a parliament. However, sessions of parliament regularly devolve into brawls, and challenges of leadership are settled with duels using "debating sticks." The kingdom is protected by its legendary aerostatical navy, which is a fleet of airships that outclass the simpler hot air balloons used by rival countries. As if that wasn't protection enough, the navy is backed up by the King's Special Guard, a squad of soldiers with fantastical superhero-like powers. And Jackals is just the beginning of Hunt's world. Next door lies the Steamman Free State, a state populated by intelligent steam-powered robots. On another border lies the Caliphate, where womb-magery, a nasty (shudder-worthy in fact) form of magically-enhanced genetic engineering, is openly practiced. Underneath Jackals runs a vast underground populated by criminals, refugees, revolutionaries, and an ancient entity or two.

The Court of the Air features two protagonists. The first is Molly Templar, a poor-house girl with a knack for the mechanical. Her life changes abruptly when hired killers slaughter the poor house in search of her. The second is Oliver Brooks, a young man with a mysterious past. Through his uncle's friend, the disreputable Harry Stave, he becomes entangled in the intrigues of the secret society known as the Court of the Air. From here, the two protagonists travel their own unique paths to discover a threat that endangers not only Jackals, but the world as well.

I really enjoyed this book. Like most Steam Punk, fantastical contraptions and equally fantastical descriptions fill the book. For any fan of the genre, these are fun and expected. However, there's plenty that make this book stand on its own. Three things in particular hit me. The first was the world, which is dirty and grimy, and comes complete with a veritable Pandora's toolbox of problems. These problematic, mismatched tools of technology, magic, religion, and politics work together to make the world distraught and conflicted, and thus very interesting. The excellent world building has an added bonus of creating characters with a lot of depth. Many of the minor characters benefit from the complexities and contradictions of their world, including one of my favorites, the villainous yet genteel Count Vauxtion.

The inclusion of the Aztec-like religion was the second hit. Although the names of the insectoid god-things feels a little like Nahuatl syllable soup (take an Aztec name, mix up some syllables), the combination of the fearsome religion known best for its rituals of human sacrifice with the alien insect mind works very well. I have a strong interest in Mexican-American history and culture, so this was a bonus for me. However, I think that these potent villains should provide a menacing thrill for even the casual reader.

The final hit was the steammen. With their curious and stoic religion (religious robots!) and wide variety of design and personality, they steal the show. From the disgraced, gruff warrior Steamswipe, to the philosophical "slipthinker" (think: multiprocessor brain able to remotely control multiple bodies in parallel) Aliquot Coppertracks, to the abomination Silver Onestack, cobbled together from multiple dead steammen by meddling human wizards, to King Steam himself: I loved them all. Every time I read about a "soul board" or a mystical ritual such as "throwing the cogs" for a prophetic reading, or watched as Coppertracks controlled one of his many "mu bodies," I grinned. Really, it's just fun, enchanting stuff. If and when I reread this book, it will because Coppertracks and his buddies called me back.

In conclusion, if you want a ripping good read, grab this book. If you like Steam Punk, you're in for an added bonus. Stephen Hunt isn't one of the bigger names in the industry yet, but his talent deserves many more eyes. I'm eagerly anticipating Court's sequels, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and The Rise of the Iron Moon.

Some Extra Notes

I found a couple of traits of this book to be of particular interest, although perhaps not to people who don't share my hobbies. The first was the vocabulary. I'm a Gene Wolfe enthusiast, perhaps almost a Gene Wolfe scholar, and as such, I've read most of his works, as well as some works that are said to have inspired him. This includes Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth. I don't know if it's just my mind picking up on details and making connections that were not intended by the author, but I found Hunt's vocabulary in some circumstances to be reminiscent of Wolfe's and Vance's. In particular, the words "lictor" (Wolfe) and "animalcule" (Vance) bonked me on the head, and seemed almost homage-like. I also found the "womb-magery" to be similar in flavor to some of the practices of the colonists in Wolfe's Long Sun books. However, I realize that these are not new ideas, and any connection is probably coincidental.

Stephen Hunt runs SF Crow's Nest as well as the Hive Mind social network.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Some quick thoughts on science

Pop quiz! Let's test your science IQ.

Question 1: Scientists discover a correlation between rain (environmental factor) and autism in a few specific geographic locations. Should we conclude rain causes autism?

The first news article served up by The Google: "The public shouldn't jump to conclusions because these studies are valuable only after being repeatedly confirmed". Full credit to Mr. Paul Nyhan. Disturbingly, Scientific American offered no such disclaimer.

This kind of result is what I call hypothesis generation. We should not draw conclusions from this study, but the result is at best intriguing enough to suggest that perhaps we should now test the hypothesis that increased rainfall causes autism. For bonus credit: how would you test this hypothesis?

By the way, it's well known that autism is linked to genetics. Environmental triggers may also play a role, but scientists don't yet know what those triggers are (if they exist). Many environmental triggers have been suggested in the past. As far as rain goes, the news reports that I read mostly speculated about sunlight exposure. (I immediately questioned whether mold could be implicated, but this is pure speculation.)

Note that it is very important to read the original study to judge the scientific merits of any claims, as I've grumbled about elsewhere. In today's post, I refer solely to secondary literature (news on the interwebs).

Question 2: Health officials recommend pregnant women and children avoid eating game killed with lead bullets. Spot the logical errors in this news report.

The article as given on CNN has at least two leaps of logic that I see. (The original CDC report might include data that support the assertions made here, but unfortunately I can't seem to track it down to check.)

Final thoughts on vaccines, autism, and toxicity (or, blatantly trolling for the anti-vaccine crowd): I've read some internet rumors that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. might be asked to serve in the Obama administration. Great Humperdinck, no! Anyone who fails basic scientific literacy regarding vaccines and autism (try this or this for critiques) should not be serving in any high-level government role.

What's next, banning aluminum because it's "toxic"? Ooh, ooh -- iodine! Vitamin A! Iron! All poisons promoted by government conspiracies! We're poisoning the children!

Scientific literacy: It's Important.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Gremlins 2

At the recommendation of commenter, I checked out Gremlins 2. (See the original thread here.)

Yikes. Where to start... orientalism, stereotyping Asian tourists, transvestite jokes. My notes even mentioned child molestation, but thankfully I can't actually remember to what that referred!

(Yeah, I take notes during movies. You gotta problem with that?)

On the plus side: 80's hair and clothes, yoghurt bars, mad-scientist twins (twins!).

I still can't decide whether Hulk Hogan's cameo falls into the plus or minus category.

The movie was off to a promising start: it didn't take itself seriously. The kid tries to convince security guards about the thread of the gremlins, and the guards just laugh at him. "Hey kid, if we can't feed them after midnight, what happens if... you put one on a plane, and it crosses a timezone?" But the movie stopped being funny after that.

For example, the movie tried reference the first Gremlins movie and/or purchasable accessories as many times as possible. This is disgusting commercialism. Never mind that it was an attempt at irony; no. In fact, a cable show announcer tried ripping into the first movie. "It's just mindless violence perpetrated on innocent people; this is trash!" he proclaims. In fact, he spends quite a lot of time dwelling on how bad the first Gremlins movie is. Don't buy the VHS tape, he says.

No, no, no. This isn't irony. These movies are mindless trash. Wrecking a skyscraper, mindlessly killing and maiming people -- not funny. Pointing out what the movies are -- also not funny. Not irony.

Please, folks. Do me a favour. Don't buy the VHS tape.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Pilgrim

A recent find from the used bookstore: Way of the Pilgrim by Gordon Dickson, an author I'd not actually heard of before.

It's very easy to summarize: aliens have invaded earth, and the resistance movement seeks a leader.

In many ways, this was a great book. The aliens, the Aalaag, are shown to be different from humans -- most sci-fi has aliens that act like humans wearing funny suits. Not so in this novel; every time the main character, Shane Evert, thinks he understands his master, he suddenly learns that he didn't understand them at all. And Shane is by far the most able to understand the aliens: as a natural polyglot, he speaks the Aalaag language almost fluently. The rest of the humans, and particularly the resistance movement, are laughably ignorant about the Aalaag's intentions and motivations.

That interplay between what-is-human and what-is-alien was really neat to see.

I also enjoyed the slow process by which Shane was drawn into the fight against the Aalaag. He, more than any other human, understands that such a fight cannot be won, and only slowly does he decide that the fight is worth making.

In other ways, the novel was a bit flat. The personalities are... dull. Dickson's treatment of women characters was juvenile; this was written in 1999? It reads more like a 1950's novel -- we can overlook subtle (or not) misogyny in novels from less-enlightened times (Heinlein, anyone?), but for a novel published less than a decade ago? Baffling.

I enjoyed the novel, but I'd recommend it mostly for light reading.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

What makes a good children's story?

I've been musing lately on what makes a good children's story. There are, of course, as many styles of stories as authors, but in particular I've been thinking about the typical "zany" story.

Harry Potter, for example--although I'm not personally a big fan--is based largely around characters stumbling through really loopy situations. The Sorting Hat, Platform 9 and three-quarters, the utterly bizarre rules of Quidditch. (Think about it--would you really put your life on the line for a game in which only one member of your team gets to score beaucoup points? This game would not be fun.)

For an example that I like, how about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland? I hardly need to point out how bizarre the story is, but darn it, it's so fun!

Maybe the key to a children's story is hyperbole? It's the difference between a bowl of vanilla ice cream and a double-heaping waffle cone of rocky road ice cream with an extra scoop of mint chocolate chip, with whipped cream, hot fudge, and a cherry on top. (Mmm... actually, that sounds good!) Anyway, my point is: a "typical" children's story (if there is such a thing) paints with bold colours.

How about the The Hobbit? It does have long stretches of serious, but these are always broken by the bumbling antics of hobbits or dwarves. The dishes consumed at the introductory feast, for example, is pure hyperbole. The trolls--surely we're meant to laugh at both the trolls and the dwarves?

Let's consider the Lemony Snicket stories: An Interminable Series of Events (something like that, I think). These stories are all based around bizarre situations. Yet... Lemony Snicket just doesn't have the sparkle of a good story. And what's the difference?

I don't know.

It's not the melancholy--I would hardly object to that. It's not really the length, although certainly one does suspect the stories were split into so many volumes in order to maximize profits. The characters of the children ought to be endearing--and they just aren't.

I also deliberately picked this example, because opinions are of course so subjective. There are quite a lot of fans of Lemony Snicket out there, who would vehemently disagree with my opinion! (I'd take on Harry Potter instead, but I value my life.)

I started thinking about this issue because I recently read The Wind Singer (William Nicholson), which had all the promise of a lovely story. Two children (twins!) are exiled from the authoritarian city of Aramanth. They decide to go on a journey to rescue the key to the "wind singer", a legendary device that will purportedly bring happiness to the city. Naturally (because that's just how this works) the key to the wind singer is kept by the all-powerful Morah, some sort of evil overlord who lives off in some vague direction.

I thought for sure this was going to be a good story. Charming characters, charming background, the possibility for fun situations. And oh, oh, no, it was not.

Lessons for budding authors out there. Unless you are Victor Hugo (and you aren't), don't send your characters fleeing through the sewage of a major city. Eww! That's not fun! I don't care if they do meet friendly sewage dwellers, who eat the stuff--eww! And also, you shouldn't have any disgusting characters tag along for the ride. The, err, intellectually challenged classmate Mumpo turns out to also be a major character (surprise!). He's repulsive, generally covered in snot and drool, in love with one of the twins, and he has no redeeming qualities. Awkward. Not just for the twins, but for the readers. Is this supposed to be funny? It just made me uncomfortable.

The story is an utter flop--yet how do I say it's so different from other children's stories? How is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland genius, and The Wind Singer utter crap? At least Lewis Carroll avoided sexual harassment and potty jokes, but... there's no plot, none of the characters have redeeming qualities (not even Alice, who's an idiot! Though in fairness, she did grow a spine at the end).

And ultimately I'm still left with the question: what makes a good children's story?

I don't know.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Blob

Finally! I had promised myself (and our readers) to watch... The Blob.

The quick summary (but really, who doesn't know?): some blobby alien thing lands on earth and starts oozing around, eating up people. (Obviously a winner with this plot!)

Great movie! It was clearly a low-budget movie, but that often helps. The focus isn't on the special effects, but actually a bit on the plot. A couple of teenage kids, and occasionally their friends, run about town at night. They try to help an old stranger; they drag-race with their friends; they meekly submit to the police -- and then of course sneak out of the house later at night. After a while, the kids realize what's going on, and they try to warn the sleepy little town. Alas, the blob has already grown in size; a horrible death for the love interest's little brother is imminent!

True, at the end of the movie, the special effects did get a bit strained. And the acting... well, we're not graced with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Hey, we'll settle for Steve McQueen.

And who doesn't want to spend an evening reveling in 50's suburban icons? Poodle dresses, bobby socks, and saddle shoes... midnight showings of horror movies at the theater... the classic diner! And space paranoia*!

I was totally born in the wrong decade. Sigh.

(For an excellent review, see here.)


* No communists, though, that I recall. And I don't quite remember whether I caught a glimpse of a nuclear fallout shelter in town... maybe I'm confusing that with another movie. So it's true this movie didn't hit quite all the icons of the 50's, alas.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

A short, lovely book. Eddie is a maintenance worker at a seaside theme park, and is killed in an accident. In heaven he meets five people, some strangers, some not, who changed his life, and who were changed by his. Eddie's life was sad, and his epiphanies are also sad.

Very worthwhile. I particularly approve of how short this book is! A similar novel is The Time Traveller's Wife, which is just wonderfully incredible, but this latter novel is better reserved for those with spare time on their hands (i.e., not me).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Wheels within wheels, bluffs within bluffs

After enjoying the not-very-serious Call to Arms (Alan Dean Foster), I thought I might as check out the sequels, the last two novels in the trilogy known as The Damned. I was of course expecting the sequels to be worse, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. In fact, the sequels showed quite a bit more depth than their progenitor (note "more depth" is speaking in relative terms).

In The False Mirror, the Weave alliance has finally begun to make progress against the implacable Amplitur and their telepathically-enslaved allies. Humans, the species equivalent of galactic psychopaths, have been fully integrated into the war effort, although not the political structure of the Weave. (Not surprisingly, civilized races, who can barely contemplate violence, are wary of granting full status to their bloodthirsty allies.) In order to turn the tide, the Amplitur breed genetically-modified Ashregan troops, equals to humans in stature, strength, and capacity for violence. The newly-unleashed forces devastate the unprepared Weave troops, but one of the new soldiers is captured and shown the extent of the Amplitur modification. Ranji is troubled by the revelation that the Ashregan race is not, in fact, a willing partner of the allegedly benevolent Amplitur. And even if he believes the Weave scientists, what should he do about it?

The war nears its end in book three, The Spoils of War. The Wais are the most culturally sophisticated and least able to tolerate violence. It is no wonder that Wais scholars have large ignored studying the barbarous and inferior humans. However, Lalelelelang wonders what will happen when the humans no longer have an outlet for their aggression; she suspects they will turn against the remaining Weave civilizations. Lalelelang develops unique meditational and pharmacological interventions to enable her to study the humans, and ultimately she begins to study interspecies relationships even on the battlefield. In time she befriends a human soldier, one Colonel Straat-ien, but he begins to wonder whether Lalelelang must be eliminated in order to preserve the human race.

I still think all the books in the series are quite pulpy, in a pejorative sense, but definitely there is much more sophistication in these latter two. For starters, they question seriously the nature of humanity (are we as a species inherently violent?), and true science-fiction should always be anthropologically reflexive in this way. (Alas, expect no answer from Mr. Foster.) The opening novel, A Call to Arms, largely avoided this kind of analysis in favour of merely developing the humorous conceit of humans as hell-world denizens.

Also, interspecies relationships are less cluttered and therefore more sensible. A Call to Arms had far too many species working together on one ship, and the author, I think, struggled to coherently and plausibly deal with such a complicated premise. Mr. Foster took a few steps back in the latter novels and succeeded all the better for it.

Finally, the readers begin to see the larger picture, as the time frame skips forward several hundred years with each novel. In The False Mirror, we begin to wonder whether the Ashregan soldiers were intended to be captured and de-programmed by the Weave; are they pawns in a far more subtle plot by the inexpressibly patient Amplitur? And in The Spoils of War we find several of the Weave species engaged in subtle conspiracies, even treason, for reasons unique to their temperaments. "Wheels within wheels" -- a cliche repeated by one of the conspirators, but very appropriate.

I still cannot take these books too seriously; the writing is not masterful. But in fairness to Mr. Foster, writing from the point of view of aliens is certainly extraordinarily difficult (although one asks: should it even be attempted?). But even with the obvious flaws, there is depth and intricacy. If you find the premise at all interesting, I should think that you will find The False Mirror and The Spoils of War to be worthy sequels.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Nighty-night



This is a baby quilt.

I briefly considered posting the photo with some babies on it. Billy Goat sets the example here by shamelessly pandering to the public's baby interest by mentioning little Baby Goat every so often. (Anyways, extra traffic is a good thing, so keep up the good work, B.G.!)

But let's not get distracted by the babies.

I have spent a lot of time staring at this quilt. It's really quite fascinating. (Mrs. Troll thinks I've lost my mind. Let's not discuss that point here.)

One of the reasons I find it so interesting is the literary perspective. Literary, you say? Yes, science-fiction. And fantasy, too!

The blanket depicts a certain view of the world. On the surface, it's calm and relaxing. "Make a wish," the blanket urges, "and all will be well."



But look closer...







The night sky is held together by stitching? The stars are held in place by mere thread?



The stitching is unraveling?

And oh, look here.



The night sky -- the night sky -- is peeling off. Underneath is... what? Batting?

In case I'm being unclear, this is not the actual quilt that is coming apart. The quilt itself is perfectly fine. The picture that is printed on the quilt depicts the unravelling of the universe.

The quilt creeps me out. Everything is fake; nothing is real. Sure, you can wish upon a star, if it makes you feel better... but even the stars aren't real. The true world underneath... is nothing-ness.

It's not quite Lovecraft-ian -- no, in that case, tentacles would be reaching up through the stitching (that would be an awesome quilt!).

Perhaps it reminds me most of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea novels. The world is so vibrant and beautiful, but the afterlife is wholly empty. Souls go not to a heaven or hell, but to a dark, waterless land, where one stands for eternity in silent cities of stone. Shivers.

That's what this quilt says. Life is beautiful now, but beyond lies Void.

A lovely message to send to babies. (Isn't raising children fun?)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gremlins

This seems to be turning into a mini-series of posts on movies... That's fine with me. I have some time for watching movies (brainless), and almost none for reading.

So I snagged a copy of Gremlins (alas, The Blob will have to wait).

Never saw it before -- I really missed out on pop culture as a child. So it came out in the 80s, of course -- in elementary school, that was the decade of Swatches and Transformer lunchboxes. Actually, I think I may even have had a Gremlins lunchbox, but my memory is a bit foggy on this point.

I love catching up on these missed pieces of collective culture, so I was ready to enjoy even a bad movie.

Oh boy, was it bad. (At least the special effects were still bearable, even after a few decades. Impressive!)

Let me just share a few random thoughts... if it jogs your recollection, please share in the comments.

Summary: boy meets cute but mysterious critter, keeps critter in bedroom. Accidental exposure to water leads to more sinister generation. Sinister generation spawns horde of demon-kind, lay waste to town. Viewers don't care; someone saves the day.

Brain-exploding logic: if water makes the Gremlins reproduce, and each generation is more sinister... what generation made the cute-and-nice creature? Is there some other method of reproduction? How come jumping in a pool bypasses the apparently-normal chrysalis stage? If water is so bad, why the heck would anyone keep these things as pets in the first place? (Like, if they ever escaped, the planet is toast.) What kind of water is OK? Isn't there water in all food? Humidity in the air? Why do the Gremlins like Snow White? And how can they watch the movie if they destroy the projector?

Ethnic moments: hello, Orientalism (thank you, Mrs. Troll, for pointing this out). What, Spielberg makes movies with inappropriate ethnic stereotypes? Couldn't be.

Most fun scene: Mom find several of the Gremlins in her kitchen; goes beserk and chops, mashes, blends, and nukes interlopers. Awesomely gory! Go, Mom!

Pointless moral: "you might just have gremlins in your misbehaving equipment..." Uh, yeah, nowhere in the movie did anyone try to make this point. The Gremlins did not act in subtle ways. They destroyed things. Generally in large, unmistakable hordes. If your oven is a little flaky, it's not a friggin' Gremlin unless some scaly, be-teethed horror jumps out and aims for the jugular.

Movie I haven't seen but that totally has to be better: Critters.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Geek is Mainstream

I've been thinking a lot about geeks and geekiness lately. The term "geek" is sometimes used as a pejorative, sometimes as a badge of pride. Different people have different definitions. Is a geek better than a nerd? And how are the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres affected by the "geek" label, a label that seems to gravitate to them and the people who enjoy them?

The Guardian's Book Blog was kind enough to link to our Sci-Fi and Religion series a few months back. Sam Jordison is the writer who linked us, and it was one of his posts that got me thinking about geekiness.

Sam's post is titled My night in the new world of SF, but it was one of the comments that really made me think. I found this comment by TerryStern to be particularly interesting:


I took the link back to your original post about SF and it would seem that you have been on an interesting journey. I think the real question is raised in both this post and the original. Why does SF present itself in such a geeky way?

The Dr Who books, the Star wars/trek books and so forth in mainstream bookstores is one thing, but why are they letting one of their main awards be tarred with the Star Wars brush as you so outlined? It will only cause ridicule, parody and a reinforcement of stereotypes in the literary community.

If the SF publishers want 'others' to see the genius of SF authors like Delaney, Dick and M John Harrison, they need to start taking themselves a bit more seriously and distancing themselves from the trekkie/geeky personas which have so successfully become embedded in the common psyche.
This sort of talk gets my hackles up. For all my high ideas about Sci-Fi and Fantasy, I realize that for some people there's a stigma attached. The funny thing is that it's visited most visibly on the most mainstream of Sci-Fi, Star Wars and Star Trek. However, the idea that associating with people who like to dress up in costume somehow degrades Sci-Fi, and that the publishers need to "take themselves a bit more seriously" is nonsense. Is Sci-Fi, and more importantly good Sci-Fi, having trouble in the current state of popular culture? And how is this "geekiness" thing affecting the genre?

The answer to these questions is pretty simple in my mind: Geek is mainstream, and therefore benefiting Sci-Fi. Look at the percentage of movies and television shows arriving each season that have Sci-Fi themes (or even comic-book themes, which fits into this conversation as well). How many of them are wildly successful? How many of them are great, or have some seriously great moments to them? I could name off a bunch of my favorite examples, but I think you get my point.

The big counterexample to this is the continuing categorization of Sci-Fi and Fantasy as separate from "serious" literature. If it's "serious," like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, then it's no longer considered Sci-Fi. This idea is not new, and while searching around on this subject, I chanced upon Ursula K. Leguin's riff on this supposed separation between genre fiction and "serious" fiction. It's a pretty annoying distinction for those of us who like "genre" fiction such as Sci-Fi and Fantasy. However, I think we are seeing this difference fade away over time as people continue to talk about it. The presence of the internet is also changing this view as well, allowing more "fringe" types of Sci-Fi and Fantasy to get readership.

So, is this increasing popularity of "geeky" material a good thing? Unequivocally, yes. Sure, this popularity also brings more crap, which can make identifying worthwhile media harder. Also, for some of us, this growth takes away that special feeling of "I'm different, I'm counterculture." However, more is better in this case, especially when there are reviewers and friends to help us find the good stuff. And that "counterculture" attitude is a bad habit, far too similar to the snobbishness of the quoted post above and the "serious" literature folks. It's best to just grow out of this attitude.

In conclusion, geek is indeed mainstream. It's time for the "serious" to get used to the fact, and it's time for those who can't let go of their counterculture specialness to move on to something new. And for the rest of us, it's a great time to enjoy the ride on the continually expanding wave of media that caters to our tastes.

As a side note, people who disparage Sci-Fi because of trekkies and costume-bedecked Sci-Fi fans really need to get over themselves. Similarly, those of us who enjoy Sci-Fi have no reason to be embarrassed. This behavior is no different than that displayed by Rocky Horror Picture Show players, painted and foam-finger-pointing sports fans, historical reenactment societies, adult Halloweeners, and the pope. If wearing a silly costume makes you a social outcast, then I'd argue that a whole lot of socially-conscious people need to be worried.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Thing

Saw a cool movie recently while babysitting.

The Thing: shipwrecked, shape-shifting, blood-thirsty aliens rampaging through an isolated Antarctic science station in the middle of winter. And a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

Hells, yeah!

I'm fairly sure I've read the story it's based on ("Who Goes There"), but I didn't know that until I watched the movie. It was one of those cultural icons I missed growing up. Sort of like Star Wars, although I've since managed to catch up on that score. (Next up: The Blob!)

Is anyone here not familiar with Ennio Morricone? He wrote the score for, oh, a zillion westerns, including all the Sergio Leone movies you've heard of. Remember The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? The Mission? The Untouchables? Red Sonja? (Possibly my favourite theme song; actually, I haven't seen the movie. It's bound to be good, right? *snicker*)

So, in addition to enjoying the ass-kicking soundtrack, I also learned a few things:

1) Aliens are invariably slimy and love to bellow in victory. rrrar-RAWRRGH! (Serious, aliens are never cute by mammalian standards.)

2) Scientists at remote Antarctic research stations are invariably supplied with thermite, dynamite, grenades, assorted blasting charges, remote detonators, pistols, and not one -- but two -- kerosene-fueled flamethrowers.

I *love* being a scientist.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Recommended: The Blue Sword (Robin McKinley)

Angharad -- Harry -- is sent to an outpust on the Darian continent, a young woman who never really fit back in the Homeland, but who is lost among her new family and friends.

Harry is filled with the loneliness of youth. Is it surprising, then, that when she is kidnapped by the impetuous native king, Corlath, Harry is not really upset? In time she learns the customs of the Damarians, their language, learns to ride their horses, and even wields her sword in their defence.

A troll-king, Thurra, has raised an army of nightmares to conquer the native country of Damar. Corlath must rely on Harry to bridge the mistrust between the Damarians and the hapless Homelanders to defend both countries.

The feel of this story is wonderful. The Homeland, the outpost on the Darian continent... surely this is reminiscent of colonial India? But then the Victorian flavour is mixed with the nomadism of the Damarians, and here we surely feel an Arabic influence. Kipling meets Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps (to inappropriately mix fiction with history).

Better than even the feel of the story is the love for the desert. Harsh, stark, but beautiful -- even a kind of emptiness can be welcoming. The descriptions are wonderfully genuine; Damar is a land that must be real, and we too could ride in the desert with Corlath and the other heroes of Damar.

(A little nit-picking. I just saw on Amazon.com that the current book cover looks like a cross between Black Beauty and some torrid romance novel. Oh, puh-lease!)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Dragon Queen (Alice Borchardt)

This was one of my more-or-less random picks at the used book store. Usually they end up being bad (for example, In the Wrong Hands by Edward Gibson. Written by a real! astronaut! Better to have books written by real authors...), but it's those once-in-a-whiles that make it all worth it.

The Dragon Queen is a Guinevere story, hardly unique at that. Still, the thousand-year-old fairy tales are often the ones that are best. I'd compare it with The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley) -- except I haven't read it. (I also remember liking The Crystal Cave [Mary Stewart] quite a lot, but it's been many, many years. Anyways, that series focuses largely on Merlin, so it's not quite relevant here.)

The novel is lovely. The writing is lush and delightful. The characters are fresh and unique, yet still familiar.

And yet... some complaints.

First, this novel is the first in a series. I'm really fed up with fantasy series -- doesn't brevity sell anymore?

Second, the historical context is... confusing. I can't possibly keep track of all the various tribes and nobles and such. They're all in the background, so I didn't have to... but still.

Third, the plot is limited. We know Guinevere is going to grow up. We know she's going to marry Arthur. And everyone in the book knows it, too. So the plot follows the gift-gathering trope: the major obstacles result in the main characters gaining some bit of knowledge, or magical item, or adding a little piece to their personality.

(It's almost a bit like those video games: you have to run around, solve the puzzles, defeat the henchmen, fight the boss, and then you get the Magical Boots of Wonderment. Or the Pearlescent Orb of Perceptive Observation. And eventually, when you've got all the little toys, you win.)

Now, this gift-gathering trope, as I'm calling it, is certainly a very important part of the fantasy canon. I can't criticize that, per se, but there are really few surprises left in the plot when you know exactly what the characters will grow up to be.

Having offered these criticisms, I must soften them somewhat. The situations, the traps and monsters, the little jaunts to hell and other worlds, the magical gifts, they are so wonderfully creative, that I was in awe. Ms. Borchardt has done a fantastic job.

And my final verdict? I enjoyed reading it... but I feel no special pull to read the sequels.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Latest Readings, Life, and Other News

Since my move to California, life has started to settle down. I'm co-renting a house with some friends, which is working out spectacularly. Baby Gruff loves having a yard to explore and an outside filled with new and exciting things. He walks to the door and says, "Woof woof" (I want to go see Cuchiq, the little dog next door), or makes the baby sign for "tree" or "outside" to indicate to me his intentions. Outside, he points at Cuchiq and again says, "Woof woof," and as we walk by the car he say, "vvvrrrrrrrrooo." Obliging, I let him sit on my lap in the front seat and he pretends to drive, complete with baby driving noises ("vvvrrrrrooo"), interrupted by "push push" when he sees all the buttons he wants to push. When he gets bored of the unresponsive car, we stroll into the back yard and pick up a bunch of little rocks, and I learn just how many times someone can say, "ball" in the span of ten minutes. A peach - ball. A ball - ball (duh). A round light fixture - ball, etc. Until you've walked around a grocery store with a baby who's favorite word is "ball," you don't know just how many balls surround you in this life (and there are many).

The weather here is great, almost always sunny, with temperatures ranging in the high 70's or low 80's on most days. I haven't seen a rain shower in the two months I've been here, which is a little sad because I enjoy the occasional rainy day. However, mornings are often pleasantly foggy and lightly overcast, which almost makes up for it. The evenings are cool, which is awesome for running. Baby Gruff enjoys the runs in his jogging stroller, and one neighbor enjoyed joking with me about how the baby will soon be holding a stopwatch and telling me to, "Pick up the pace, Dad!"

A Deepness in the Sky

I take the train to work, and so I have a nice block of reading time every day. This is something I would recommend to anyone who likes to read and has a day job. Lately, I've been reading A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. So far, it's a good read filled with lots of fun ideas. This shouldn't be too surprising, considering it's a Hugo award winner for best novel. It's a space opera involving two advanced human civilizations competing to exploit a world just entering the technological age. The twist is that the world is populated by intelligent spiders, and has a sun that stays lit only 30 years at a time, then "turns off" for 200 years. The ramifications of this strange setup are detailed nicely, and the spiders are one of the most lovable and well-described characters in the book. Yes, this caught me by surprise, too: spiders are lovable.

My First Review Copy - The Court of the Air

I received my first free review copy of a book a couple of days ago. Stephen Hunt sent me his novel, The Court of the Air. It's steampunk, which has me excited already. Strangely, I have read almost no steampunk works, even though I really like any kind of fusion between Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction. My experience of the genre basically boils down to Final Fantasy VII, Thief II, the Eberron D&D setting, and a few brief glances at Girl Genius.

Actually, I'm so excited about getting this book, that The Court of the Air has moved to the top of my To-Be-Read pile. I'll be sure to post a review after I read it.

Other News

In other news, a computer finally beat a master-level Go player, albeit with a huge handicap. It was an 800-core supercomputer. Wow. As an avid Go player (although I haven't played much recently), I thought this was pretty cool.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Damned

I recently snagged a copy of A Call to Arms (Alan Dean Foster) from the local library (with thanks to Drek). The basic idea in the novel is neat:

The Weave is a loose confederation of vertebrate alien races engaged in permanent war against the Amplitur (telepathic slug-like slavers). So far the Weave is holding its own, but it's not easy conducting a war when evolution has suppressed the ability to kill others (only a few species in the Weave are even capable of actual fighting, though the rest do what they can to support the war effort*).

What the Weave would really like is to be allied with aliens who are actually good at killing. So off they go in search of such allies. They manage to locate what is frankly a hell-world: a world wracked with active geology, brutal weather, and vicious competition for any ecological niches. The dominant sentient species on this world is strong and violent, just the sort of ass-kicking uber-soldier the Weave needs (not to mention the Amplitur).

By this point you won't be surprised when I reveal that the particular hell-world in question is more commonly known as Earth. Nor will you will be surprised that some might regret hiring the galaxy's psychopaths as mercenaries...

It's a very cute conceit. Obviously similar examples have been done before (Dune, for instance, has a similar hell-world), but I can't recall any other author arguing that Earth is such a horrible place.

I can't wholeheartedly recommend this novel -- many of the interesting ideas aren't terribly well developed -- but it's such a neat idea that I wanted to share it with you. The series continues with The False Mirror and The Spoils of War (which I have also read and may share with you in a future post).

It's difficult to pique your interest without offering spoilers. I was particularly amused by the scenes in A Call to Arms when the scouting party of the Weave manages to locate the human world. What follows can only be described as SPOILERS, so feel free to break off here. (Sorry, Billy Goat.)

First, when the Weave locates Earth, they send down an unmanned probe. After some time, they lose contact with it. What happened? It's all very puzzling -- a few individuals suggest the probe may even have been shot down. But that's impossible -- no one would shoot before investigating. Obviously the best thing is to send another probe. Several hours later, they lose contact with that probe. Huh? I love the confusion shown by the Weave soldiers (soldiers!) who simply cannot conceive of an immediate, violent response.

Not long after, the aliens resolve to send a scouting party to interrogate a human. They locate a yacht with one inhabitant, a burnt-out musician bumming around the Caribbean. One of the more bad-ass soldiers sneaks up behind the human and grabs him by the shoulder. The human, startled, lashes out and breaks the soldier's arm. Modest chaos ensues (keep in mind that no one would have expected an immediate violent response). Eventually things calm down - everyone is impressed, including the poor fellow whose arm has been broken. They try to communicate, but -- oh, crap! he's running, how the hell can he move that fast -- the human jumps ship. Priceless. Highly trained soldiers engaged in a thousand-year war, shown up by one of the more pathetic examples of humanity.

As I said, it's cute. Great? No. Entertaining? Sure.



* I suppose that means buying war bonds**?

** Asterisks used in honour of Drek.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reviewer Blogs Vs. Amazon.com Reviewers

Avidbookreader.com has a post about Amazon's new Vine early reviewer program. You sign up and you get early releases of books to review! For free! It sounds like a neat idea, but it turns out to have lots of problems caused by the basic human urge to hoard free stuff. One of the big problems was that people would write a review before receiving their book so they could quickly request another one.

On one hand, I'm disappointed that Amazon's reviews are getting padded with more junk. I occasionally read the reviews for a book that I'm interested in. However, bad book reviews are not a new thing. At Amazon I've learned to cultivate a caution, so that I can quickly recognize and skip over reviews that I think will annoy me or ruin the book. There are also fake, glowing reviews written by publicists, which can sometimes be harder to detect, and seem to growing in frequency.

However, on the other hand, a part of me is happy to see the further ghettoization of Amazon's book reviews. They make book review blogs, including this blog, more valuable to you, our readers. This assumes that you continue to believe that we have not been bought off. This shouldn't be too hard if you look at our traffic, our posting frequency, and the many old old books we've recommended. If we'd sold out, we'd be making much more money than the five dollars a year we're currently netting from Google ads (woo, I'll be 50 when we get our first $100 check!), we'd quit our day jobs, and we'd be living our own fantasies of literature-reviewing hedonism.

Early on, Amazon.com actually made me wonder why I was bothering to blog about books. Why not just write up my recommendations over there? Did I seriously need my own blog, to set myself apart, to stroke my own ego, that much? Well, you know the answer to that!

However, there's more to it. When Mister Troll asked me to create this blog with him, I wanted to provide something more than just a clump of reviews. I think Gabe at Penny Arcade said it best when he wrote, albeit about video games instead of books:


The first thing you do is get rid if the numbers or percentages or stars or monkeys or whatever the fuck it is your site uses to review games. Then you get together a group of five or six guys and you give me some background on each of them. Tell me what kind of games this cat likes to play. Did he like Halo? Did he enjoy REZ? I need to know if my tastes match up at all with this guy. Then you have him write an article about a game he just played. No bullshit though, I just want to know if you had a good time. What did you like, what didn't you like? In the end I want you to tell me if it's something you think I should pick up. Once this has been going on for a while people will be able to identify with certain reviewers. If after six or seven games Steve and I seem to agree on pretty much everything I'll know that I can trust Steve's choices in the future. You need to make them people though, not just names at the end of a review.
I think the big value of a book blog is that the reader gets to know the blog author's tastes, and how those tastes match up with his. That's the bonus we provide with our recommendations and reviews. If I had not thought we could provide something that Amazon.com can't, I would not be doing this.

Of course, there's plenty of other content to set us apart, too, like our half-baked rants, controversial pronouncements, goofy lists, and silly stories.

Ethics and A.I. (via Uncertain Principles)

Over at Uncertain Principles, a request for sci-fi literature that deals with ethics and A.I.

Quite a number of stories mentioned in the comments.

Monday, July 28, 2008

R.I.P., old friend

For several weeks, I've been putting off the inevitable: buying a new calculator.

In case you weren't aware, my day job may be goat-eating bridgekeeper, but by night I moonlight as a scientist. (It's tough to make ends meet, what with our little horde of troll-lings.)

It's my trusty TI-85. Actually, it's been dying for a long time; the screen dims within weeks of putting in new batteries. It's not quite dead yet, but I've admitted to myself that it's destined for the trash heap.

I've had this calculator about fifteen years. At the time it came out, the TI-85 and its cousins were really impressive. It could graph basic equations (very useful for pre-calculus) and do symbolic arithmetic. Nothing terribly revolutionary, but to be able to do this on an affordadable handheld tool... very cool. Of course at the time I mostly used it to play Tron in government class.

I used this calculator in university (engineering: advanced bridge design), graduate school (economics: modeling income flow as coupled differential equations describing populations of toll-paying goats), and in my work as a Real Scientist.

I really like this calculator. I'm not ready to give it up.

But being made of stern stuff, I decided to go calculator shopping. I remember it cost more than $100 when I first bought it (or rather, the Bank of Parents bought it). So I figured, Moore's Law, something similarly powerful should only cost a few dollars.

OK, maybe not that low: the price of a calculator isn't all in its transistors. But let's say, a regular scientific calculator might be $35. No way a graphing calculator could be more than $60, unless it has so much horsepower that it's practically sentient.

When I lumbered over to Ye Olde Staples, a wee tear in my eye, and found to surprise that they still sell the same calculator. Actually, I saw the TI-85+ (oooh, "plus") and a few other similar models, along with some crappy knockoff graphing calculators. As near as I can tell, it's the same calculator, with a slight style re-design. (Possibly there are some improvements in memory, speed and screen resolution?)

The asking price was about $150.

Shock! Consternation! It's been 15 years, and the price hasn't dropped! (!!)

There are some differences, but it sure looks like basically the same calculator. The profit margin must be obscene.

Did I buy it?

Well, the interesting thing is: I don't actually need a graphing calculator. A high-school student might still find a graphing calculator to be useful. The rest of us have better tools on our computers. If I want to do graphing, I'll use Kaleidagraph on my computer (Kaleidagraph is the best graphing program out there; sorry, Igor fans). Symbolic mathematics and calculus: hello, Mathematica (although Mathematica is fiendishly difficult to use).

In fact, I haven't used TI-85 to do any graphing in many years. A calculator is just not the right tool for the job. What I did use it for was entering long sums; you can write out many lines of your calculation all at once and double-check. Complicated mathematics is tough to do with a regular scientific calculator; if you make a typo, it's very hard to notice.

That's the real reason I hung onto my TI-85: the multi-line screen. Amazingly, I couldn't find anything usefully similar in the store. There was one four-line-screen calculator, but entering a long calculation on one line just ended up having it scroll to the right (instead of wrapping to the next line). Oh, that's so helpful folks; I just love doing calculations when I can't see all the bloody terms on the screen.

No, I didn't buy a replacement. The price was too high. Offensively high. Texas Instruments should feel free to envision me saying something rude in their direction.

Sigh.

I have other calculators. But they can never take the place of my TI-85.

Sniff.

Anyone who can suggest a replacement (impossible!), please leave a comment. (If your suggestion mentions Reverse Polish Notation, your comment will be ruthlessly deleted; let's not mock the dead.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Depressing Reads and The Road

Another of the three books my friend Dana lent me was The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

The Road tells the story of a man and his son, neither of which are named. The country in which they live (perhaps America), and perhaps the world, has been ravaged by an unnamed holocaust. Society has decayed, and the land has been picked over by refugees that have wandered since the disaster. Little remains except trash and the people ruthless enough to survive in such a wasteland. Fall is fading, and the man and his son do not have the resources to survive another winter. They must set out for the coast, a warmer place in which they will hopefully be able to create a new home for themselves.

The style of this book caught me off guard at first. It is written as if the finer points of English grammar and punctuation don't matter. Sentence fragments are common, apostrophes are nonexistent, and speech is not quoted. I found this off-putting at first, but rationalized it as mimicking the fundamentally broken, post-apocalyptic world in which the story is set.

The story itself had a profound effect on me. The picture it paints is bleak and horrible, the man and his son continually pushed to the edge of survival, slowly starving, overcome with fear of everyone they meet, only getting by through caution, ingenuity, and luck. There were times as I read this book that I had to set it down. One such scene involved the duo's exploration of house containing a locked basement full of naked people, wasted by hunger, and kept imprisoned as a sick sort of livestock. Of course, the homeowners return and the situation intensifies. Although the slave owners are barely described, they seem so alien, so evil . . . and yet, making their terrible choices to survive. A recurring dialog between the man and his son amounts to, "Are we going to become like them? How far will we go to survive?" It is scary, depressing, and a burden, especially when you attempt to identify with it.

Now, reading the above, you might say, "Why would I read such a depressing book?" I described The Road to my friends Jamie and Rachel over dinner a few weeks back, and that was the question they asked (after giving me the "We're not going to read it" go-ahead to drop spoilers for further discussion). I don't doubt that they will never read it, and that's understandable. This book is certainly not for everyone. But I find the question interesting: Why would a person read a depressing book?

I thought about this for a while. I think that there is an obvious category of books that you should not read: bad books. Depressing books with nihilistic messages fall into this category for me. Why would I want to read a book with a primary message of, "life is worthless," "people are evil," etc? However, I find some depressing books can be worthwhile to read. A worthwhile book needs to have an idea, a theme, a character--something--that grabs hold and keeps my attention despite the waterfall of terrible events pouring over me. And I have to admit that there's a part of me that enjoys some melancholy on occasion. Unlike a real-life tragedy, it's a caress of the sadness nerve clusters that I can put away with the book, and escape back into real life (reverse escapism?).

At first glance, The Road may seem like it fits into the "bad message" category, but there is definitely more there. There are themes dealing with fatherhood, perseverance, and the nature of good and evil in a hostile world. There are also pieces that are wide open for literary interpretation, if you like that (which I do). For those willing to wade through its darkness, I'd say there's a good chance you will find The Road worthwhile, too.

P. S. -- I have some theories about the ending that I won't put here due to spoilers, but I'd be happy to discuss them in the comments (with appropriate spoiler warnings of course).

Monday, July 21, 2008

Musings on Mars

There's something interesting in science-fiction. Go back to the 50s or 60s, and you'll see that Mars was generally populated by an alien race: the little green men of yore. The Martian civilization was perceived as ancient and noble, dessicated and dying.

But life on Mars had appeared much earlier in modern science-fiction. The earliest I know of would be H.G. Well's classic, The War of the Worlds (1898). The Martians launch an invasion of earth, in massive tripod-like machines armed with devastating heat-rays. Earth gets its ass kicked. (Let's be honest; you were rooting for the Martians, weren't you?) Of course, and you probably could guess this even if you haven't read the original, some kind of microbe ultimately kills off the invaders. And what happens to Mars? Alas, the war effort consumed its last resources: Mars is a dead world.

Not long after came the pulpy, misogynistic Barsoom series (1912-1943): Edward Rice Burroughs. He hit a literary gold mine: the ultra-manly (naked, because, why not?) John Carter rescuing the (naked, because, why not?) Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, from the hordes of four-armed, green Tharks. If these stories don't make you puke, you'll love 'em.

The War of the Worlds was re-done for a radio show, the infamous broadcast of Orson Welles (1938). The program was a kind of early mockumentary, with breaking “news reports” describing the Martian onslaught. Accounts of what happened are conflicting, but it does appear that a number of people across the US did actually head for the hills, somehow believing that the Martian invasion was happening. (Later the program was billed as a “hoax.” My understanding is that regular announcements were made that a particular show was being broadcast, so it seems rather many viewers just didn't connect the dots.)

I'd love to get my hands on a recording of that show.

Later writers emphasized the pathos of a dying civilization. Witness, for example, the tender Martian Chronicles (1950), a set of short stories by Ray Bradbury. Flower power led to the odd Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; Robert A. Heinlein), in which messianistic foundling returns to Earth with the power and wisdom of the Old Ones of Mars, best described as ghosts.

More recent writers have agreed that there isn't any life on Mars (and perhaps wasn't any in the first place). These stories focus on the colonization of Mars. The decent Red Mars (1992; Kim Stanley Robinson), for example, launches a series in which Mars is “terraformed”-made habitable for human life (I'd link to the Wikipedia article on terraforming, but it's skip-worthy). All that I've read recently is along the same vein; the only life on Mars is the kind that we (or others) would bring to it.

Mars in science

Let's take an overview of the science of Mars over the same time. We must begin with Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer who, in the late 1800s, made observations of Martian “seas” and canali (translated into English as “canals”). Percival Lowell subsequently founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona (lovely night skies in Flagstaff) for the purpose of studying the civilization on Mars. Lowell's detailed reports of canals and oases led to the idea that a Martian civilization struggled against an imminent demise.

No one really knows what Percival Lowell and Giovannia Schiaparelli actually saw, but the best guess is that the canals and oases were due to common visual error. Stare at a red dot for a minute, and look away. You'll see green. An amateur can see the same thing happen the first time he or she looks through a telescope at Mars. An experienced observer should have no difficulty accounting for this, but perhaps a little subconscious wishful thinking affected Schiaparelli and Lowell's observations.

(Mars is quite beautiful through a decent telescope. The planet is quite red, with perhaps an ice cap visible if you're looking at the right time, and a variety of darkish markings across the surface of the planet. These marks shift around with the massive dust storms, and in no way should a professional astronomer conclude these are canals.)

Finally in the 1960s, exploration of Mars began. Mariner 4 flew past Mars (1964). The Viking 2 mission included a lander (1976), which was intended to study (among other things) the possibility of whether life might be present on Mars.

One of the experiments involved the introduction of organic materials into a sample of Martian soil. It was found that the organics were converted into carbon dioxide. This is a chemical hallmark of life. The results were, nonetheless, somewhat puzzling (I won't go into detail here), and ultimately when combined with other data, virtually every scientist believes that the Martian tested negative for the presence of life. Just this one particular experiment was tantalizing.

(As an aside, please, please don't believe anything you read on Wikipedia regarding the proven existence of life on Mars. It hasn't been proven. The discussion of “Gillevinia strata”, a putative Martian microorganism, by the Viking lander article is outright lunacy.)

Mars is not a hospitable world. It is dry, dusty, wracked with storms, very cold, essentially without oxygen (what little atmosphere there is, is 95% carbon dioxide, a poison to us but food for plants and many microorganisms), and bathed in strong ultraviolet radiation. Still, we now know that Mars is perhaps not so inhospitable as it seems. Water existed on Mars, in the form of rivers, gullies, river deltas, oceans. Liquid water! This is truly the elixir of life; it is the chemical foundation on which all known life depends. If liquid water existed on Mars, then perhaps, just perhaps, life had arisen on Mars as well. (This is why there is such excitement this month about finding water ice on Mars. This is Big News.)

If life ever did exist on Mars, it could very well have adapted to the conditions now present. Bacteria have been found in a variety of incredibly hostile environments on earth: the extremophiles. Bacteria can thrive in the cold, in extremely dry conditions, and even inside rocks (no, really). It's still tantalizingly possibly that some kind of life might still be present on Mars, perhaps near as-yet-undiscovered underground deposits of frozen water.

Several years ago, researchers reported the presence of fossil life in a Martian meteorite. This was later debunked: the same “fossils” (structures many times smaller than the smallest microorganisms known on Earth) can be produced in the lab through purely non-living reactions. More intriguingly, the same meteorite yielded magnetic minerals that are known on Earth to be formed only by microorganisms. Could this be evidence of (ancient) life on Mars? Hmm...

Well, maybe there was life on Mars billions of years ago, when Mars was warmer and wetter. Of course no one knows whether life forms easily or extremely rarely. If life forms very easily and rapidly, well, then likely Mars did have life... and if it did, then maybe it still has life now. If life is unlikely to form, well, the odds are against it having been on Mars in the first place.

(I have absolutely no space to discuss the possible transition between a planetary chemical bath and living, eating, breathing, reproducing life, but please follow the link in this sentence. On Earth, life seems to have arisen after several hundred million years and then it took another three billion years of evolution to produce multi-cellular organisms. Let's be humble, however: microorganisms are the dominant form of life on this planet. Multicellular living creatures, while familiar to us, are squatters in a world owned by bacteria.)

Of course, if life evolved according to a chemical basis that we are not familiar with... well, then, perhaps life is there all along, but we haven't managed to recognize it. This is unlikely: the periodic table imposes pretty rigid constraints on chemistry. It's very unlikely that life could exist without liquid water. (Chemists would have figured out that possibility.) Still, scientists wouldn't be scientists if they didn't want to be surprised, and who knows? Maybe there is a kind of life on Mars based on chemical cycles essentially unfamiliar to us here on Earth. We are, perhaps, liquid-water-loving, DNA-and-RNA-bigots.

Gaia and Martian chemistry

We can approach this discussion even more simply. We ask the question, “On which of these planets can we recognize life?”



(“Blue Marble” image courtesy Visible Planet and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Mars image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Let's use the Gaia Hypothesis (Lovelock and Margulis) to give us a little perspective. The idea is contentious, and not necessarily correct, but still gives us a simple point of view: consider the planet as a single organism. (This is similar to the fact that you are composed of cells, yet somehow all these little bits of life make up one organism.) The planetary “organism” (Gaia) regulates itself, in terms of temperature and chemistry, and that regulation leads to conditions conducive to life.

In other words, life has already changed our planet to make conditions better for itself. (We don't need to explore this in detail, but anyone who lives on or near limestone should appreciate that all of this rock, the rocks on which your houses are built, were produced by microorganisms. I hope that makes you blink for a second; the ground you walk on, the air you breathe, and the water you drink are all intimately connected with life.)

If we examine Earth from a distance, we find that it is not in chemical equilibrium. Most dramatically, the atmosphere contains a hefty amount of oxygen. Oxygen?! That's just not possible; oxygen is highly reactive and couldn't possibly last as an atmospheric component. Something must be driving the production of oxygen, and the only reasonable chemical explanation is life.

Now when we examine Mars from a distance, we do find that it is in chemical equilibrium. The atmosphere is largely carbon dioxide. If there were life on Mars, then Mars wouldn't look like Mars: Mars would look like Earth.

That is the inevitable conclusion you reach, if you accept the Gaia Hypothesis. Mars would have been regulated: it would be warmer, wetter, and more Earth-like. Life would have produced more carbon dioxide, which would have warmed the planet (greenhouse effect), which would have released frozen carbon dioxide at the poles, which would have warmed the planet, which would have helped more life grow, which... Mars can only look the way it does, because it is not alive. (This very simple argument was made, far more eloquently, by Dr. Lynn Margulis in a talk I once attended.)

Of course this is just a very simple analysis, too simple to be conclusive. As I said, this is just for a little perspective.

Is there no hope for sci-fi?

But let's say we want to allow for life on Mars. What is a science-fiction writer to do?

Well, I think there is one big unknown regarding the chemistry of Mars. Over millions and billions of years, meteorites would have “seeded” Mars with organic carbon (yes, there's plenty of organic material in Outer Space). But there's no organic carbon on Mars.

Where'd it go?

Something must be reacting with the organic carbon. On Earth, that would be oxygen, which would form carbon dioxide. But Mars doesn't have oxygen.

So what is oxidizing the organic carbon? And remember that Viking experiment? The one that showed that something in the Martian soil was reacting with organic molecules?

The most likely explanation is that the fairly intense ultraviolet light on Mars directly produces the superoxide radical (O2-, a negatively-charged oxygen molecule; the extra electron makes oxygen even more reactive) in the Martian soil. The superoxide radical is extremely reactive, and would immediately oxidize organic carbon into carbon dioxide. Thus, any incoming organic carbon won't last on Mars.

To make this sci-fi, let's assume that the superoxide radical is not produced inorganically from Martian soil. We'll just pretend that it is a result of Martian life-microorganisms that are ubiquitous in the Martian soil. And we reject the Gaia Hypothesis.

Instead of a rich and plentiful source of energy as on Earth (light, carbon dioxide, oxygen), life on Mars is limited by a scarce resource: meteoritic organic carbon (with plenty of UV light to drive the conversion of carbon to carbon dioxide). Life is rare-and slow. Growth and reproduction would always be limited by an essentially unavailable resource (imagine a planet-wide algal bloom constantly held in check by an unending lack of key nutrients).

This scenario is relatively plausible, largely fits with the known science of Mars, and I think, interesting. Life on Mars is not little green men; it's little starving microorganisms spread throughout the Martian soil.

This is just the merest hint of a sketch of an idea. Please, add to it in your own imagination. (I do not claim to be the first or only person to have come up with this idea--certainly I am not--but I am not aware of any author who has developed something similar. Please comment if you are.)

Do you wonder, though, just what would happen when humans arrive?

(Edited for grammar and clarity. Gotta remember to proofread, sheesh.--Mister Troll)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

TBR Day: Lullaby (Chuck Palahniuk)

Five months have passed, and I have yet to participate in Avid Book Reader's monthly To Be Read (TBR) Day. Well, today that's changing.

I have a bad history of borrowing books and not returning them. Mister Troll is well aware of this (and yet still lends me stuff). I have another friend, Dana, who has yet to learn of my tendencies. She recently lent me three books, all of which I immediately placed at the top of my TBR pile in the high hopes of actually reading and returning them in a decent time frame.

One of these books is Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk. He's the guy who wrote Fight Club, which was made into a movie that I really enjoyed. I thought this would be an equally fun read, so I dug in.

Set in modern time, the story follows Carl Streator, who inadvertently learns a lullaby that kills whoever it is sung to. Reproduced in an obscure book of international children's songs, the ancient African "culling song," is a magic spell originally created to be sung to malnourished infants or dying warriors to ease them into death.

Through his investigations of the song, Carl meets Helen Hoover Boyle, a real-estate agent specializing in haunted houses. She knows the spell, which she uses in a number of unique, if not completely ethical, ways. Carl, being the hero, confronts her about it. However, he learns that having the power to kill anyone at will is a dangerously seductive ability, and one not easily controlled, especially after you have internalized it enough that you can do it by just thinking someone dead.

The main plot of the book focuses on unraveling how this spell works and its ramifications, followed by a cross-country hunt for all remaining copies of the book containing it, as well as the original book of spells in which it was found. A couple more minor characters join in to assist the search and add some dramatic tension: Mona, Helen's employee and witch/occultist, and Mona's naturalist anti-society witch boyfriend, Oyster.

I found that I enjoyed much of the beginning. The culling song is a very simple, yet interesting idea. The tragedy of the song being distributed incorrectly as a lullaby, and thus read inadvertently by parents to their loved ones, really resonated with me, and worked to alternately horrify and sadden me (and I consider anything that can move me in such a way to be a good thing). Carl and Helen are both usually likable despite their deep character flaws. I found it interesting, albeit a little disturbing, to imagine myself in their positions.

However, the book has some big problems. There are many sections that try to be clever or trendily shallow (or just plain weird) and they feel forced. This gets annoying quickly, and even though I smirked a few times, I often found myself tempted to skip ahead. Then there are Oyster's preachy anti-society screeds. Basically, anything he says can be counted on to grate. The funny thing is that some parts of Oyster's message make sense, but the whole thing is so overdone that it induces eye rolls. And my annoyance only increased as the main character grudgingly accepted and repeated the message as if it was the author's.

Continuing the bad, later in the book some of the motivations, especially those of the minor characters, seem unrealistic. There's one bizarre scene at the end that I can only describe as garbage. Not only was the antagonist's motivation implausible, but the scene really reinforced the character's smarmy know-it-all jackass image. It did not help that the antagonist's method was so over-the-top and physically improbable that I said out loud, "This is stupid."

I enjoyed Fight Club. This book made me reevaluate the movie, as I saw similarities in the message and style. How much of my enjoyment of Fight Club hinged on me being an angsty, "nonconformist" teenager, more open to anti-establishment ideals and trendy shallowness (the backlash against a previous "deep" phase)? Maybe I'll have to go re-watch it and find out.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

B.G. is going to be pissed...

But before I explain why... apologies again for the horribly delayed posting. We'll keep trying to stay updated. Thanks for checking back with us.

And now to the crux of the matter:

Pirate Freedom (Gene Wolfe)

I must disabuse you of any idea that this might be a recommendation. Rather, this is quite the opposite. Which is sort of against the whole point of this blog. Neither of us wants to rip on books that are bad (see here). We really just want to chat about some books we liked (not review them, just chat), occasionally recommend books we think are fantastic, that sort of thing. There are lots of other places you can go read about books that sucked (but seriously, who wants to?).

However, Billy Goat likes Mr. Wolfe's works too much for me to pass on this. And I also have not found any of Mr. Wolfe's novels to be less than good (until now). This is a clear demonstration of Rule Number One: no author is ceaselessly brilliant.

So. Gene Wolfe:

The Book of the New Sun, a series of four novels about Severian, the Torturer's Apprentice, set in the distant future. Ex-cell-ent! Wonderfully turgid.

The Book of the Long Sun, a kind of companion quartet, set in the same universe. The writing is a little more clear, but with Mr. Wolfe's typically cryptic and convoluted plot. I actually never finished the series, but it contains some of the most wonderful writing in science-fiction.

Not as good is The Urth of the New Sun, but it still has such amazing creativity that I can't honestly criticize.

And on the fantasy side: Soldier of the Mist and its two sequels. These are novels set in the ancient Mediterranean, narrated by a man with no memory (the opposite of Severian, I suppose). The setting, the history, the characters -- brilliant. Billy Goat tells me these novels are semi-obscure; I urge you check them out.

I thought for sure Mr. Wolfe would finally succumb to Rule Number One with Free Live Free. This is sci-fi in the near-modern day, much grittier and almost like "real" fiction. Hardly my favorite, but Mr. Wolfe pulls it off with a stunningly creative ending. Alas, to explain why I like the novel would be give you unforgivable spoilers.

And finally (though I have not yet exhausted the Wolfish canon), I came to Pirate Freedom. It's a novel, quite simply, set in the Spanish Main. Pirates! Ships! Guns! What's not to love? And yet, somehow... there's not much there. It's such a quiet novel, admittedly with some intriguing plot twists (very typical of Mr. Wolfe), but a decided lack of swashbuckling-ness. It's almost as if Mr. Wolfe tried too hard to be faithful to the historical period--which was interesting in its own right, but hardly anything like the piratical archetypes that one would long for in a novel.

Worst of all, the novel ends up being narrated from the modern-day, by a priest who somehow ends up back in time (Mr. Wolfe's notions of cyclical time are always present in his novels, but this one compares quite well with Free Live Free. Just in case you've read it.)

OK, OK, I don't mind if the main character is translated back in time to start things off. Works for Mark Twain, works for me. But do we have to spend part of every chapter back in the modern day youth center? Like, really? 'Cause I'm just here for the pirates.

I think perhaps Mr. Wolfe would have been better off just writing a novel set in the Spanish Main. Skip the sci-fi aspect, keep the characters true to the time period -- I think he could have done a fantastic job. But alas, this novel is the inevitable result... of Rule Number One.

That's it, folks, rant over! I hope Billy Goat will offer an indignant defense of his main man in the comments. And let's all encourage him to offer us a series of posts on the good novels of Gene Wolfe (of which there are many).

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The End of Mr. Y (Scarlett Thomas)

The End of Mr. Y is quite an odd book, but it is refreshing to read something new and different. (The closest thing that I have read is Goedel, Escher, Bach by Mr. Douglas Hofstadter.)

It's been reviewed already, and I am afraid that I really have nothing else to add. Check it out!

(Very short: both Billy Goat and I--independently--have rather important things swirling around offline.)

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Lord of the Rings (Ralph Bakshi, director)

No, not the book. The movie.

No, not that movie!! This one.

I never had a chance to see the animated LOTR -- until recently, when I decided to catch up on some animated adaptations of movies (see my post on Watership Down). So I eagerly put it in the video cassette video player VCR (I can't even remember what it's called. And I really can't believe we still have a remote that operates it. Anyone under the age of 25 is encouraged not to continue reading this post).

Where was I? Oh, yes, LOTR, the movie.

Well, certainly it doesn't compare to Peter Jackson's version -- that was big and sweeping, and this is small and earnest. Cutting down movies to bare-bones animation can sometimes enhance the quality of the production. The animated version is surprisingly dark and gory, yet also chirpy. Still, Tolkien's story comes through clearly.

What I enjoy most about this kind of exercise is seeing a different interpretation of Tolkien. Surely everyone has a different vision for how to "do" the movie? I have quibbles with Jackson, and I have quibbles with Bakshi, but I also found much to enjoy and appreciate.

The animation is a bit odd. Apparently (according to the Source of All Knowledge) several scenes were filmed with live action, and then traced into animation. Although not a new technique, Bakshi uses this to create a very stark, harsh mood, well-suited to armies and battles. But this technique jars with the cartoon-y cell animation. Jackson preferred a consistent realism, but Bakshi's approach (though unsettling) would seem to suit the novels more.

Unfortunately, though, the movie is but a reflection of the novel. Imperfect, incomplete -- but it adds nothing. The best movie adaptations should add. It's the difference between reading a play and watching a performance. Characters, performance, production... you should get something new.

If we compare with Jackson, we find he added songs and music. Yes! How important these are to the novels, and how little the music shines through the pages of the books. (How reviled the songs were, too, but alas, the unwashed masses simply didn't understand.) Jackson expanded the roles and depth of female characters. Good for him! Jackson gave us sweeping and realistic armies; he gave us hordes. And whoa. Those took your breath away.

There were a few nice touches in the animated version (the going-away party, the Ring-wraith's assault in Bree). Intriguingly, all these "nice touches" were re-done exactly the same way in Jackson's movie (shame on him). But nice touches aren't enough to add true depth to an adaptation. In the end, I can only recommend this film for the curious. I don't think it stands on its own; you'd have to be a Tolkien fan, and you'd have to think, "Oooh, an animated film? Would that be any good?" If your curiosity is piqued, then satisfy it.

A warning, for those moved by curiosity: the movie ends abruptly, after the Battle at Helm's Deep (clearly some people are still bitter about this!). It is the first of a two-part series. The second part was not made. There are, however, animated versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King, which the Source of All Knowledge tells me are linked as prequel/sequel. Huh? At any rate, you've been warned: the ending is abrupt, and the sequel may not exist.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Master of the Five Magics

Recommended: Master of the Five Magics (Lyndon Hardy)

As the airplane bumped and wiggled ever higher, I saw it again: "loose." I flipped back a few pages; there it was again. "You paid too much for your editor," I said to an imaginary Lyndon Hardy (the author). Every instance of "lose" I had come across in the book had been misspelled as "loose." I had forgiven the occasional typos I'd found in the book, as it was a first-edition copy of Master of the Five Magics, but I had not expected to see one of the most common spelling errors on the internet replicated persistently in a book published in 1984. This was weird, but I'm glad I didn't let this little issue ruin my enjoyment of an otherwise great book.

The story is about a young man named Alodar, son of a nobleman who was stripped of his wealth and status. Alodar seeks to regain his father's lost legacy by becoming the Queen's Champion, but this goal can only be reached if he can somehow prove his worth to her (by saving her life or her kingdom, for example). As the story opens, we find him practicing the art of Thaumaturgy, one of the "Five Magics" of the title, in this effort. Enemies of the Queen have besieged her, and if Alodar can change the tide of the battle, perhaps he can win her favor.

Of course, nothing ever works out as nicely as the protagonist wishes, and Alodar's attempt at recognition is thwarted. Instead, he finds himself defeated and alone, but with a scrap of paper holding an alchemical formula of unknown worth. With the formula in hand, he decides to learn Alchemy. Perhaps with the potion or salve the formula creates, he can somehow impress the Queen. The story continues like this, with circumstance and Alodar's quest for recognition causing him to learn each of the Five Magics in turn, and taking him through many perilous and strange situations.

This was another nostalgia purchase at Book Buyers on my latest visit to California. Despite the editorial problems, I enjoyed the book even more than I did as a kid. I noticed some more weaknesses than I did then, an occasional line of stilted dialog and a predictable theme or two, but I caught and understood concepts and references that went over my high-school head (there is one particular physics-related reference that I found especially enjoyable on this read-through).

One thing that stands out in this book, and it is something that's advertised broadly on the jacket of my copy, is the "logical" magic system. The author put some work into the nuts and bolts of his magic system, giving each type of spellcasting some simple rules that define it. These rules thankfully aren't fleshed out in gory detail, but they give enough crunchy substance to the story's events to let the reader reason out how the magic works. I particularly enjoyed seeing the main character mix and match the different magical systems to solve his problems.

Lastly, I found the plot to be quite compelling. I read it during my interview trip to Colorado, and it kept me up late the night before my interview, repeatedly luring me away from important interview preparation. Thankfully, despite my lack of willpower, my interview still went well, so I could enjoy the rest of the book as my plane carried me homeward. And the book really delivered, ending in a spectacular fashion. There's a particular phrase uttered in the last 20 pages (you'll know it when you see it) that made me pump my fist and chuckle heartily, and garnered me at least one sideways glance from a fellow airline traveler.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Interviews and Nostalgia

I've been busy lately. Over the last two weeks, I interviewed with three software companies, one in Washington, one in California, and one in Colorado. I'm pretty sick of traveling, but at least all of the flying gave me time to read.

I tried to focus for my interviews, so I packed only reading materials that would help me prepare for my interviews: review material on algorithms, concurrency in Java, and testing methodology. By day two I was slavering for something juicy to read, something non-technical. Thankfully, my friends in San Jose were eager to help, and took me to a neat used bookstore in Mountain View, Book Buyers.

What a selection! Actually, the selection wasn't perfect. There were a number of books on my list that I couldn't find (admittedly, they're oddball books), but I did stumble across some nostalgia pieces that I hadn't thought of since grade school. These books included some of the old Endless Quest, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Lone Wolf books. I had to pick some of my favorites up. And I didn't care if people saw me reading them later on the plane and thought I had a fifth-grade reading level. As I flipped through Return to Brookmere in the airport lobby, I thought, "Nostalgia deserves its due every once in a while."

What books do you look back on with nostalgia?

Update: Poster Pythor tells us that the Lone Wolf books are available legally and for free online at Project Aon, and that they may be back in print again. Project Aon has the books in multiple formats, including appropriately-linked HTML pages that make for easy reading and navigation (and backtracking in case your character dies). Awesome find!