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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.