Thursday, December 24, 2015

5 x 5 Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

So, I guess this blog wouldn't be earning its keep if I didn't say something about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

1. I saw the original movie on the second day was released - I guess that would have been May 26, 1977 - and I can still remember the frisson of excitement I felt as a movie-loving college student and SF fan at the opening scene: man, those effects blew 2001 right out the water. I liked the movie a lot, but I never became a fan in the popular sense of the word. I saw the sequels as they came out, I saw the execrable Phantom Menace later, and skipped the rest, and have never more than dipped a toe in the Extended Universe.  I understand that there are apparently people who are wee bit more invested in the franchise than I am.

2. If the intent behind of this film was for Disney to let all the aging die-hard fans see that the original look and feel of the movies is back, that they can ignore those nasty prequels, wrap themselves in the familiar, and know that everything is going to be okay, then I imagine that they have succeeded. Almost the entire movie is a callback and/or a shout out: plot elements, comic relief, set pieces, all of it.

3. I might be too harsh a critic on that front, as I had similar issues with the second Star Trek reboot movie. But I think it a fair assessment to say that even accepting that context and approach, the film does not fully exploit what should have been the emotional climax of the film involving two main characters.

4. I also wonder how this nostalgia-based strategy plays with the fans of the extended universe, who are familiar from comics, books, cartoons, and web content with a vast array of characters and settings and circumstances far removed from the original trilogy. I guess it's working out, since the movie has already made a jillion space-dollars, but it seems counter-intuitive to me.

5. All that said, I will watch any movie that has Rey daringly doing some derring-do. Finn was cool and I liked him, but Rey is awesome.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How I sorta suck at some games

So, almost twenty years ago, I spent a Thanksgiving night transfixed by a computer game, so spellbound that I played all night and finally went to bed at 6 am Friday because it was crazy. The game was Sid Meier's Civilization; more accurately, CIV II, the second version of the game (which has since gone up to something like version Internet-6).

I was introduced to this turn-based simulation game by my pal Scott, who had no idea what rabbit hole he was leading me into. The premise behind the game is taking a civilization from an isolated tribe of villagers to a world-dominating empire by guiding them from 4000BCE to 2000CE. Your society grows through exploration, scientific advances, civic achievements, and, of course, conquest (every scientific advance brings access to new military units as well as more quotidian features). As the game-people learn more, they have access to different forms of government, each of which has different characteristics - one make people happier but be economically less inefficient, for example. The player has to balance finding scientific advances that provide material growth, keeping the population content, making peace with neighbors (or defeating them), and claiming and improving territory.

Game-time passes pretty slowly: it can take a while to span 6,000 of human development. Activity takes place on a macro-level - the player directs grand trends or research and building, for the most part. The exception is battle, which is a unit-on-unit conflict controlled directly by the layer. When a civilization spans a continent, with several dozen cities, each producing a different facility or unit, and there are workers building roads and irrigation networks, and maybe a war on a birder or two, there can be a lot to manage. Hence that all-nighter so many years ago, a product of "I'll  just play until this city has an aqueduct" which gets overlapped by "I need to play until this war in the east is over" and so on.

Well, I don't know if it was the season or what, but I decided to revisit CIV2 this year. I found a Mac OS9 emulator and downloaded a version of the old game and before I knew it, I was transported back to that duplex in Vancouver USA, ready to conquer the world.

Only it didn't quite turn out that way.

I started a game, and the computer generated the world map as usual. As my primitive tribe starting exploring, it became clear that we were on a small island. There was only room to create three cities - cities need farmland and such to support them, of course - and no more exploration to be done until we discovered seafaring.

But during that interim, the culture (the game called them the Sioux, but that's just an arbitrary label) took a different turn. The Sioux built up their cities, fortified them, and then turned inward - choosing to study and explore only those advances that would make them happy and keep them thriving materially. After the initial defense were built, almost no money was spent on the military - the Sioux suffered a few barbarian attacks, but they were easily repelled. No other civilizations made contact - no explorers, no warriors, no diplomats arrived from foreign shores. Cut off from the world and its sorry affairs, the Sioux blossomed. Millennia passed.

Here's the entire Sioux Empire in 1902:

Three metropolitan areas, connected by roads (you can see the nascent railway in the central plain). That's it. The game meta-updates were constantly ranking the Sioux lowest or near lowest on the scales of the largest, and most populous, and greatest empires. But I slipped into cheat mode for second to check out the important stats, and look:

Yes, the Sioux were small in area and population and GDP and manufactured goods, likely a result of having the worst productivity level on the planet.

But: 96% literacy and only 6% disease - the best in the world! The least pollution, longest life expectancy, highest per capita income, and least military service of anyone!

And as a result, the player (me) had the highest approval of any world leader.

So, I'm not sure I played the game the way Sid Meier wanted me to, but if those demographics don't represent winning, what does?

Of course, there's often a fly in the ointment. See those two ironclads off the southeast coast of the island in the picture above? They're not Sioux. They came out of nowhere and have been hanging around. So far, they haven't attacked or sent anyone ashore, but it might just be a matter of time before the great isolation is over and we'll see whether the Sioux lifestyle can survive contact with the rest if the world.

I am hopeful, but not optimistic.

Update: since I captured the images, we have made it to 1952 with no change to the status quo. Not a bad run, even if it does end badly.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Geek Girl Growing Up

So, same again, only different: Geek Girl Con was on, and I went to it, as I have done since the first one (this was the fifth). But now I don't live in Seattle, I live in Bellingham, so it was a one-day, blow-in, blow-out visit, bracketed by early breakfast with pal Margaret on one end and late supper with Super Sissy on the other; pals Karmin and Kate were boon companions for the event itself. (Wonder Wife couldn't make it, despite the big hit she was last year.)

The Con itself seemed different this year as well, and I am not sure it was all me. I had heard that it was a sellout again, and a friend had even mentioned that she couldn't get tickets because she had delayed too long, but the convention center did not seem nearly as crowded or congested as it has in previous years. Maybe I am just confusing the experience with that at PAX or Emerald City Comic Con, or maybe the GGC organizers have just gotten better at managing the event, but whatever the cause, it was a pleasant surprise.

Beyond that, the con just felt, well, mature, for want of a better word. I mean, all the by-now familiar elements were there - the DIY Science Zone, the Geek Girl Connections space, the exhibitors, the place for cosplayers to have their photos taken - but it all felt practiced and established rather than new and experimental. Even the cosplay - and GGC is great for crossplay and and transplay - seemed to have a lot of standards and fewer oh-my-gosh innovations.

Which is not to say this isn't still a great event: the panels I attended (and those K&K reported on) were excellent, the gaming area was robust (I found two games I want to play again), and that special sense of inclusion and positivity still fills the convention center. The little girl at the end of the cosplay contest runway watching the costumed figures with wide eyes and a big smile, being swrpt along with everyone else - that's what the con is all about, I guess, and it's working as well as ever.

No cosplay photos to speak of this year, just a couple of miscellania:

In a wonderful display of its roots, 
GGC featured diverse and inclusive pathfinder signs on the gaming floor.

I offered to get this for Wonder Wife as a teaching outfit, but she passed.

Here are my archives of the event - check 'em out:

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Make a short story short

Here's another not-review of a book in the Summer Reading Program: under consideration is New Frontiers, a collection of stories by long-time, award-winning SF writer Ben Bova.

A golf tournament on the moon. An asteroid miner whose ship is under attack from pirates.  Cryogenically frozen billionaires. A road race on the moon. Virtual reality duels. Astronauts trapped on Mars. The aging leader of an interstellar empire considering the fate of Earth. It's like 1972 all over again - this one has enough nostalgie de la boue to fill a lunar landing module.
Maybe that's a little too much: some of the stories don't just echo with familiarity, but actually creak a little bit, as well. I mean, two guys fighting over which of them gets to take a woman to Aspen for the weekend? Women lawyers trying to desegregate the men-only bar at a private club? Isn't this stuff a little dated?

This summer's reading has comprised a lot of revisiting of old favorites and favorite styles in my favorite genres - as opposed to last summer, during which the reading list included almost exclusively non-fiction. There's a lot of fun to be had there - I don't need all or even most of my fiction to be "literary" - but I guess I don't want to just re-hash the past, either. Those were good times, but that was then and this is now. As much as we cherish what was good about the old stuff, we need to keep moving with times and freshen up the act.

(In a similar vein, I just read an excerpt from a Seven Soldiers of Victory comic published in 1941. As much as I would like to see more of that straightforward storytelling and art today, I certainly wouldn't want to reproduce its casual racism.)

In any case, this is a decent collection of short stories (with the emphasis on short) that come closer to what I used to read in high school than anything else I have encountered. Take that as an endorsement or warning or both.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

1. Another Summer Reading book, this one the fifth in the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross.  (This appears to be my summer for coming in late on book series.) The Rhesus Chart is the latest entry in the continuing escapades of The Laundry, the British intelligence agency chartered to combat supernatural threats in a particularly Lovecraftian world. You might think X-Files or Torchwood but not really close: this group fights elders gods and eldritch horrors that make most demons look like chumps. Even vampires (the antagonists of this book) are in the minor leagues in this world.

2. Stross has a great conceit for incorporating monsters and magic into the modern world: complex operations of higher math serve as spells or rituals for opening gateways to other, nastier dimensions. Just thinking hard about certain calculations or formulas can lead to Bad Things happening - and with computers increasing our capability for calculation, more Bad Things are happening more often. The Laundry are just the folks who can control the Bad Things better; the agents are mostly wizards of some kind or another. There's a character call the Eater of Souls - and he's one of the good guys.

3. After mashing up arcana and espionage, Stross spreads a layer of satire over the whole thing. The Laundry is an organization subject to committee meetings, expense vouchers, strategic plans, health & safety regulations and all the rest: bureaucracy at its most relentless. Our protagonist, Bob Howard, is subject to "matrix management" and has to divide his time between his work as an IT professional and as a field agent. In many ways, this is the most enjoyable aspect of the book, but it takes an awful lot of suspension of disbelief to think that the organization wouldn't be run along more military lines, given the nature and scale of the threats they face.

4. That bureaucratic milieu does give the book a feeling more like LeCarre or Deighton than Fleming - this book could have been called Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sorcerer for all the double-talking, double-dealing, and duplicity within the agency.

5. Overall, the biggest issue I have with book is not the setting or the characters or even the plot, which was a little plug-and-chug but all right in the end. It's that Stross just doesn't write with enough economy. Howard is very self-conscious narrator and Stross uses devices such as footnotes, digressions, and deliberate awareness of the story as a story, and these are tools that need finesse. A Pratchett or an Adams can handle them just fine; Stross often comes across as just too pleonastic and tedious. Still and all, it's not a bad diversion, if you like spies, horror, and bureaucracy and and can wade through fifty or sixty more pages than you need to.

Friday, August 21, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

1. So, once more the Summer Reading Program is featured on Thark. This work is John Scalzi's "reboot" of Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper's celebrated 1962 novel, which is now in the public domain. As might be inferred from my previous discussion of the beloved Bay Ridge library, I read the original work as a young man and have a dim memory of it. I recall that it was pretty good, but I daresay Fuzzy Nation is better.

2. In his author's note, Scalzi compares his re-imagining of the story to the recent Star Trek film reboot, and jokes that it should have better science. And he's right - the science part of this science-fiction story hits just the right notes. The technology pertinent to the story appears reasonable, plausible, and consistent, and to the extent that technological details matter to the plot, Scalzi always plays fair - there are no convenient rabbits out of hats. The bigger issues - interplanetary travel, for example - are hand-waved in a businesslike manner and don't distract from the main human story.

3. I'd put Scalzi up there with Arthur C. Clarke for his presentation of humans in space acting like real humans: they all have jobs with organizations or corporations, and work with bosses and colleagues, and deal with rules and regulations. They even pay bills. Scalzi creates a realistic versions of the bureaucratic infrastructure, political and commercial, that would both result from and be necessary for humanity's off-planet expansion.

4. Scalzi does a great job with the individual characters as well, in particular with the protagonist Jack Halloway. He keeps the reader guessing until the very end just exactly what kind of man he is and what his motivations are, while making him engaging and identifiable.

5. The oddest bit about this book is that in the end, it is really a legal thriller, like something that John Grisham might write if he tried his hand at SF. The protagonist is a disbarred lawyer and legal niceties play an integral role in the plot - the first precedent-setting court case is cited on page 23, and it's not the last. Climactic scenes take place in front of a judge. It's a fascinating bit of genre-blending, and not something I remember from the original. But perhaps I should go back and check.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Just like old times

So, although this post is part of the Summer Reading Program, it is less a book review than a rumination, because reading Old Venus was less a literary experience than an evocation of times gone by.

Concept anthologies are pretty common in science fiction - those collections of stories written to meet particular specifications in theme or conceit. Carmen Miranda's Ghost Is Haunting Space Station 3 is one such collection - every story had to include that titular sentence. In the case of Old Venus, the unifying concept is a bit broader: authors were asked to write stories set on the Venus we "knew" before Mariner 2 took all the fun out of it: that perpetually cloudy, perpetually rainy, many-oceaned, deeply-swamped planet of mystery. that we know now was never more than a fiction. And the anthology delivers, in spades.

I think I know whereof I speak. When I was a kid, I basically read out the sci-fi section of the Bay Ridge branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, a collection comprising mostly material from before the New Wave era, Golden Age greats and material from that period one critic calls the Radium Age. I read Carson of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs and "The Long Rain" by Ray Bradbury and everything else between and around them. Venus was a popular spot for science fiction. Sword & planet stories as they call them now, or space operas, or speculative fiction, or hard SF - all varieties of narrative could be told there.

And the there was key: Venus was not just another generic backdrop. There was something about the relentless, remorseless dreariness of the planet that added a dimension to whatever story was being spun. In the best tales, Venus itself became another character in the narrative. And in this new collection of Old Venus, most of the stories more than meet that bar.

There is a great variety in the presentation -  a former Buffalo Soldier surviving the Titanic sinking only to be swept into a conflict between blue people and birdmen, hard-bitten mercenaries versus forgotten Venusian gods, scientists and poachers and adventuresses exploring the planet, Russian communists and Nazis, and even a Bertie and Jeeves pastiche. In only a couple of cases did I feel the author just took an already-begun story and set it on Venus to meet the criterion; in just about all of the contributions, the Venus we wished we'd known is evoked in glorious damp detail and becomes an integral part of the story.

Just like the old days.

Whether you're a long-time reader of SF who wants to revisit the wonder, or a newer reader who wants to know what it was like Back in the Day, this is the collection for you. Apparently there's an Old Mars, as well; I need to seek that one out.

Last note: This is listed as "edited by" George R.R. Martin as well as Gardner Dozois. Dozois wrote the introduction and, as near as I can tell, the biographical notes; I have no idea what Martin did besides get his name on the cover to sell copies.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Just Cos

So, there's a complex post on the Taxonomy of Cosplay™ in the pipeline, but here's my idea for my own cosplay at the next con I attend.

Wonfer Wife and I have been watching The Finder, another cancelled one-season wonder, a sort-of spin-off from Bones but based on a different series of books. It qualifies as sci-fi in a half-baked way: the titular protagonist, Walter Sherman, suffered a brain injury while serving in Iraq and gained the ability to see patterns and connections that others can't. He uses this preternatural ability to help people find things - missing evidence, stolen goods, and so on. Whatever. Anyway, his sidekick and attorney is Leo Knox, played by the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan and it's a cosplay made in heaven: I already have the wardrobe.

See what I mean? Now, admittedly, the series is set in Florida, so Leo's color palette skews a little bit lighter than my Seattle basic black, but given the new-normal, warmer summer we are having up here, I have already filled my closet with some more beige and taupe shirts, so that's covered.

All I really need are some black sleeveless t-shirts, which Leo always wears underneath. Oh yeah - and much bigger guns.

For the record: I am 86% of Duncan's height, 67% of his weight, and my biceps are 59% his size. Close enough for cosplay - look out con!

Bonus coolness:  MCD was a vegetarian!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Small wonder

So, Wonder Wife and I needed to buy a third-birthday gift for the daughter of some friends and thought it would be cool to get her some Wonder Woman-themed clothes. We took ourselves down to the local discount department store and rummaged among the toddler apparel. We didn't find anything Amazonian, but there were several items with some sort of superhero design. Unfortunately, they all had once characteristic in common:


We talk about this stuff all the time - the gendering of children's toys and clothes and the subtle socialization that comes along with that. Sadly, it seems to be getting worse instead of better, perhaps due at least in part to the rise of Princess Culture. In any event, it's one thing to talk about it in the blogosphere and another to come face-to-face with it when you just wanted to buy a cool present. All we wanted was a star-spangled outfit - sweats, a t-shirt, a hoodie, whatever - in the Wonder Woman red, blue, and gold motif. (Wonder Wife did say it would be great if we could find something that came with silver bracelets.) Instead, what we found was nothing but girlied-up versions of superhero logos and images - nothing that resembled the actual characters or their actual design elements.

So, we out together a punk-rock tutu outfit instead, and she will be an awesome power grrl (even though we couldn't find little Doc Martens). But I lost an opportunity to spread my geek culture to the newest generation.

I guess it's Pinterest and Etsy now!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Due respect

So, Wonder Wife and I needed to mail in some primary election ballots the other day. Ever since Wonder Wife wound down her in-home business, things like stamps aren't as readily accessible as they once were. After a little digging, we found a leftover sheet of Batman Forever Stamps - as in Forever Stamps honoring Batman, not stamps honoring the movie.

Of the 20 stamps on the sheet, 16 had been regular rectangle stamps with images of Batman, but the only two that were left were from the four circular Bat-signal stamps. I'm not sure I ever used a circular postage stamp before, and for a second Wonder Wife thought they were just decorative stickers, until we looked closely at them and she remembered using the other two.

After using the last stamps on the sheet, I took a look at the back:

So, is Jim Lee's version to go-to marketing image for Batman now? I remember when just about everything from stickers to pajamas had a Dick Giordano drawing. I guess Lee does do a good job of presenting a Batman recognizable to older fans but still in line with the more current, armor-y version.

Besides the image, the back has a bunch of text. In describing the images on the stamps, the text mentions how the depictions move through the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Ages, but it really only talks about Batman's origin in the thirties. There's no specific mention of the TV show or any of the various cartoons or any of the movies - it takes three paragraphs to move from Action #1 in 1938 to Detective #27 in 1939.

And the most impressive thing about this obscure little text is its matter-of-fact recognition of the contribution of Bill Finger:

Wow - has this battle actually been won? It was heartening to see Finger get the recognition that he so richly deserves, even in such an ephemeral genre as the postage stamp sheet.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

1. So, once again this is part of the Summer Reading Program but is showing up here on Thark instead of Epicurus because, well, this is where it belongs (as I sort of made clear here.) Raising Steam is the last Discworld book published before author Terry Pratchett's death earlier this year; one more volume is due out later this month, but that will apparently be the end of the series, at least for contributions from its originator. The world that Pratchett created is so rich and detailed that I would be surprised if there weren't more books to come from other authors, perhaps even in some sort of shared-world deal.

2. The idea of other authors writing Pratchett's characters came up for me when I was reading Raising Steam, because honestly, it didn't have the same crackle and spark usually marks Pratchett's writing. His struggle with early-onset Alzheimer's was widely publicized, and it is sad to think that his last works might have been marred by the effects of the disease, or by Pratchett's need for collaboration from lesser lights. I guess we'll never know for sure under what conditions the book was written, and I'll definitely be curious about The Shepherd's Crown, the posthumous novel.

3. Much of the flatness of the story lies in the narrative. While the stakes are enormous - the plot centers on a coup within the dwarf nation by fundamentalist terrorists, a not-very-subtle allegory - the protagonists never seem to be at very much risk or to suffer any serious setback. In fact, in neither the political situation nor the technological challenge of bringing steam locomotion to Discworld does   failure ever seem to be a threat at all: terrorists, physical adversities, and railway accidents are all dealt with summarily and successfully, and the body count (except for Bad Guys) is really quite low, all things considered.

4. I think that Pratchett also fell victim to something I saw in the later films of Christopher Guest. I felt Guest started to like his characters too much: Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind are progressively less edgy and dark (although For Your Consideration get a lot of that juice back). Similarly, I think Pratchett grew a little too fond of Vetinari, Vimes, Moist, and the others; they shine a little too brightly and achieve a little too easily, their flaws plastered over. I liked the the Moist who was always a step away from cutting and running; he was someone not to be entirely trusted instead of a happily married hero, and that made him more interesting.

5. All that said, there is enough good stuff in the book to make it worth the read - and I still did laugh out loud while reading it. Reading even a lesser effort from Sir Terry is excellent way to pass the time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A little bit of my soul asplodes...

So, I have chronicled how Wonder Wife and I have been dipping from the well of disaster mivies on Netflix with Exploding Sun and Ring of Fire, and we tried again last night with CAT. 8 starring the often very good Matthew Modine. The quality curve dipped downward sharply.

A secret government project to harness solar energy and use it to alter the Earth's magnetosphere to combat global warming gets weaponized in an even secreter government project. The initial test of the weapon goes awry and spits some solar energy back into the sun. For some reason, this causes solar flares, falling satellites, and eventually a coronal mass ejection so colossal that it will strike Earth, cause a Category 8 event - the destruction of planet.

The film's title conceit encapsulates how bad it is. It is announced in the White House situation room as the threat rises from a Category 5 (major loss of life disaster) to 6 (breakdown of fabric of society and technological infrastructure) to 7 (loss of all human life) and so on, but we never feel it. The global catastrophe is presented by people reading reading emails and a few wide matte shots of cities. That's it. Even the local disaster (the film is centered in Boston) takes place off-screen and only the aftermath is shown. This is the most boring disaster film since The Swarm in 1978, which had South American killer bees destroy a nuclear power plant and the audience didn't get to see it explode.

Modine sleepwalks through his role as a disgraced solar physicist who can somehow deduce a solar flare from a small earthquake and spotty cell phone coverage and who is the only one with the know-how to Put Things Right (because he developed the program before it was weaponized and he left it because he is a bit of a peacenik). He seems to convey only one attitude, whether dealing with his ex-wife's new husband, his daughter's boyfriend, or the end of life on earth: mild annoyance, with a bit of peevishness thrown in. The rest of the cast might have been recruited from a high school drama society, for all the emotion and authenticity that they invest their roles with.

After an exciting stint sitting in a cell for a good third of the movie and some pulse-pounding cable-attaching (really, that's the climactic set piece), the scientist and the boyfriend save the world. But is it over? The daughter's heirloom compass is going crazy and the Secretary of Defense, angry that the scientist has saved the world and made him look bad, has the scientist kidnaped by special ops guys. Looks like we'll have to watch the second half of this mini-series to find out how the story ends!

I am trying to convince Wonder Wife that that's not going happen. This movie was beyond enjoyably bad and well into life is too short to watch bad Matthew Modine pictures territory.

I think I'm done.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Six of one: Walaka buys comics

So, the night I went to see the Ant-Man movie started at a comic shop in my area, and I thought I would actually buy some new comics in honor of the event. Actually, I had my eye in finding the new Prez, but I was in an expansive mood and picked up a half-dozen titles, looking for number ones. Here they are in alphabetical order:

Ant-Man Annual: I bought an Ant-Man special about a year or so ago, I believe, but I could not lay my hands on it for this post. If I recall correctly, in that one Janet Pym was dead, and Hank Pym had taken on the Wasp persona, and he teamed up with the Eric O'Grady Ant-Man, and it ended at a Women's Shelter Pym was funding (that for some reason allowed O'Grady to volunteer there!). In this one, it seems that Pym is dead, and in flashback he teams up with the Scott Lang Ant-Man, and Janet is alive, and in the end Scott quits being Ant-Man to let a new guy take on the job. Scott Lang seems to be acting a lot like Eric O'Grady in this - I thought he was more the rough-around-the-edges, heart-of-gold type, but I missed most of the Lang era. Anyway, other than totally confusing me on continuity, this was a mediocre, pedestrian comic in both art and story.

Convergence Blue Beetle #2: This was a mistake, as I thought I was buying #1, but it probably didn't make a difference. Other than the joy of seeing the Charlton versions of Blue Beetle, Captain Atom (in his multicolored outfit), and the Question, this was another bland offering. I guess in The Convergence Event a bunch of cities from various continuities are jumbled together and the heroes from each city have to fight the heroes from the other cities to see which city survives? Do I have that right? Because it sounds a lot like the little I have seen of Marvel's Battleworld, in which it seems a lot of different continuities are jumbled together and the heroes and villains are fighting each other. Plus Dr. Doom. Anyway, in this comic, the Hub City heroes sort-of defeat and sort-of cooperate with some version of the Legion of Super-heroes that I have never seen before to resolve their combat to the satisfaction of the Looming Bad Guy. But Question fritzes Brainiac 5's brain just by asking a metaphorical, um, question - does that work? And Ted Kord is smart enough to have the Bug teleport? Nice cover, though.

Looking for Group #1: This book aims to join the "D&D adventurers who are self-aware they're in a game" genre of comics that is done so well by The Order of the Stick. It's not a bad effort - the characters are mildly engaging, if a bit predictable, and the story is more complex that might be expected. The art is fun to look at, but the biggest flaw in the work is that the sequencing of the panels is herky-jerky or incoherent much of the time: what happens in the gutter winds up being unclear or indecipherable, and that ruins much of the flow of the story. The artist's reach just exceeds his grasp - he's really trying to cram a lot of characterization, plot, and sight gags onto every page, but the seams really do show.  And there's only so many D&D jokes, really.

Martian Manhunter #1 and #2: Got it for J'onn versus Superman, shown here on the cover for #2. I feel totally cheated. I wade through 21 pages of some rescue action seasoned with angst, some gangly green guy named Mr. Biscuits, a cat burglar from the UAE, and some nasty White Martians in issue one, and then some more of the same in issue 2 before we get to telepathic-illusion J'onn v. the JLA. But when Superman shows up, J'onn disappears (dies?) in a burst of white light. Is Mr. Biscuits the new Martian Manhunter? This comic couldn't make me care about my favorite character. Here's a palate cleanser.

Prez  #1: I really think that writers need to think about starting in media res a lot more. I had high hopes for this comic, as it came highly recommended, and there's a lot to like about it. Its vision of America twenty years hence provides a great backdrop for some cutting social commentary - besides the usual targets, there's a real edge to some of the elements. The art is wonderful to look at and carries the narrative through a variety of modes. The main character - The Girl who Would be Prez - is delightful. But the issue ends before the election is decided, so, the cover notwithstanding, we never get to actually see the Prez in this issue. I'll be back for #2 (first time I have said that in long time!) but I do feel a little disappointed.

Where Monsters Dwell #1 thru #3: Okay, take an old-school Marvel title and make it the brand for new stuff: Nice. Do a modern (read: dickish) update on an old, obscure character - in this case, the Phantom Eagle: check. Biplanes versus dinosaurs: always cool. Gorgeous artwork: always a plus. Narrative that subtly explores gender and power politics by setting the story in a female-dominated society: uhhh... if you've seen the 1974 Gene Roddenberry TV-movie Genesis II (with Alex Cord and Mariette Hartley), you've got it covered.

Friday, July 24, 2015

It was a small world, after all

So, Wonder Wife and I once again went to the mini-series well for our cancelled-show fix. This time it was Ascension, a 2014 Syfy network six-parter. Note: SPOILERS AHEAD but really, you don't care, because you're not going to watch it.

The style of the show is very much Mad Men meets The Right Stuff.  We're dropped in media res onto a generation ship. Ascension is a spacecraft secretly launched during the Kennedy administration (when everyone was distracted by the Gemini program) in order to preserve the human race in the face of atomic Armageddon. It will take100 years to get to the nearest star-sytem, Proxima Centauri and carries a complement of 600 scheming, bickering, feeding, copulating, reproducing souls -and at least one Lena Horne album. The captain is John Glenn type who's lost his moral compass; his wife is the head of the stewardesses, who trade in sexual favors and secrets like jet-set geishas. We meet the captain's XO, who is a "decker"- someone from the lower-class lower decks, and there's a noble young decker, a faithless wife of the head cop, a plucky young girl, and a weird little girl. All kinds of shenanigans ensue, as you can likely imagine, in sets that look like the spaceship was built from parts of the 1964 New York World's Fair and with styles to match. And that's all in the first episode.

In the second episode (or second half of the first episode, depending on how you count), we get the Big Reveal. (If you really think you're going to watch this, drop down to the last paragraph.) What we find out is that the Ascension spacecraft never left Earth - it is one giant set hidden in a building, with projected star fields outside the windows and hidden cameras all throughout the ship. Some Shadowy Government Outfit operating on a black budget has been running an experiment on the crew for 51 years  - observing them, learning from their innovations, and waiting for Something Extraordinary to happen. Over the next five segments we jump back and forth between the ship and real world, where the folks running the experiment are (of course) Having a Falling Out.

After what amounts to a really long pilot episode has run its course and we have had plenty of sex and double-crossing, we wind up with several murders, both on the ship and within the spooks; a fairly prominent character in a coma; an Ascension crew person loose in the real world; a crewman beginning to suspect everything is not all as it seems; somebody teleported to what appears to be Proxima Centauri, a girl with ESP powers who makes Carrie look like an amateur; and the only character in the whole show to exhibit any moral courage shot dead through the eye, another victim of the Vast Conspiracy. What the what?

Ascension was not picked up as an ongoing series. Syfy said that had "so much high profile development in the works" that there wasn't room at the table for Ascension; I think that really it was the result of the show trying to do too many things too soon and not doing any of them well, along with the lack of any character for the audience to care about. Ascension really failed to get off the ground.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Persephone's spouse gets a visitor

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So, everybody's talking about Pluto, now that the New Horizons spacecraft has gotten close enough to get great pictures like this one. More and more details about surface features are streaming in every day as the decade-old technology in the ship gathers, processes, and transmits information. Once again, the runt of the solar system captures the public's imagination gets some love.

We at WalakaNet have worked the Pluto beat before: in 2006 when the whole deplanetization controversy reached its peak and was resolved, and in 2008 when the International Astronomical Union threw Pluto a bone. Really, we knew so little about the planet that in the recent past astronomical politics comprised most of the coverage. Now that we are actually doing some scientific exploration in Pluto's neighborhood, big-timers like Stephen Colbert are covering the show:

Colbert gives Neil deGrasse Tyson some well-deserved flack for his role in Pluto's demotion - it's a credit to Tyson's charisma that his popularity is so great even with that stain on his record. And as James Thurber said, you could look it up:
Pluto's orbit is so elongated that it crosses the orbit of another planet. Now that's... you've got no business doing that if you want to call yourself a planet. Come on, now! There's something especially transgressive about that. ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
Transgressive, Neil? You don't know from transgressive.  Let poet Fatimah Asghar explain it to you:
Pluto Shits on the Universe
By Fatimah Asghar

On February 7, 1979, Pluto crossed over Neptune’s orbit and became the eighth planet from the sun for twenty years. A study in 1988 determined that Pluto’s path of orbit could never be accurately predicted. Labeled as “chaotic,” Pluto was later discredited from planet status in 2006.

Today, I broke your solar system. Oops.
My bad. Your graph said I was supposed
to make a nice little loop around the sun.


I chaos like a motherfucker. Ain’t no one can
chart me. All the other planets, they think
I’m annoying. They think I’m an escaped
moon, running free.

Fuck your moon. Fuck your solar system.
Fuck your time. Your year? Your year ain’t
shit but a day to me. I could spend your
whole year turning the winds in my bed. Thinking
about rings and how Jupiter should just pussy
on up and marry me by now. Your day?

That’s an asswipe. A sniffle. Your whole day
is barely the start of my sunset.

My name means hell, bitch. I am hell, bitch. All the cold
you have yet to feel. Chaos like a motherfucker.
And you tried to order me. Called me ninth.
Somewhere in the mess of graphs and math and compass
you tried to make me follow rules. Rules? Fuck your
rules. Neptune, that bitch slow. And I deserve all the sun
I can get, and all the blue-gold sky I want around me.

It is February 7th, 1979 and my skin is more
copper than any sky will ever be. More metal.
Neptune is bitch-sobbing in my rearview,
and I got my running shoes on and all this sky that’s all mine.

Fuck your order. Fuck your time. I realigned the cosmos.
I chaosed all the hell you have yet to feel. Now all your kids
in the classrooms, they confused. All their clocks:
wrong. They don’t even know what the fuck to do.
They gotta memorize new songs and shit. And the other
planets, I fucked their orbits. I shook the sky. Chaos like
a motherfucker.

It is February 7th, 1979. The sky is blue-gold:
the freedom of possibility.

Today, I broke your solar system. Oops. My bad.
But bygones are bygones and this is a big moment for NASA: a chance to add to our knowledge of the solar system and an opportunity to recapture public backing for space exploration. All the hullabaloo and fun has a serious underpinning that we would do well to remember - and support.

New Horizons has actually completed its Plutonian investigation by now - it has sped past the furthest suburb of the Sol system and it heading out through the Kuiper Belt in the general direction of Sagittarius. It's cold and lonely out there: thanks, little rocketship, for helping out a little planet.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

5 x 5 Movie Review: Ant-Man

1. So, I gotta say: I thought this was going to be the one where Marvel tripped, but it's not. My movie-going buddy said he liked it better than the latest Avengers movie, and truth to tell, I probably did too, and I didn't expect to like it very much at all. I liked that it was a smaller movie (no pun intended) in the sense that the scope of the conflict was much more contained and focused. It's not a great film, but Rudd is engaging and funny, the effects are fun, and like all Marvel movies it gets the job done.

2. One strong criticism: the mentor/protege - Ant-Man/Yellowjacket dynamic was a little too similar to the protege/mentor - Iron Man/Iron Monger relationship from the first Iron Man movie. Has Marvel made so many movies we're recycling plots already?

3. The shared-universe integration of these movies is really picking up steam. The common knowledge of the Avengers as a force in the world, the "guest appearance" by Falcon, the flashbacks to the early days of SHIELD - all this stuff reinforces the sense of connection. I appreciate that as part of this shared universe, the intelligence community has always been shown as a mixed blessing. From its beginnings as the Strategic Science Reserve, SHIELD is shown to be as much a danger as it is a force for good. This approach has added a layer of complexity to a lot of formulaic stories.

4. Science: the movie hand-waves in much the same way as the comics did why an atomic physicist would also be an expert in telepathic communication with insects. Fake science: I do quibble with Ant-Man being able to shrink to atomic levels; that shtick was always The Atom's territory.

5. As much as I liked Rudd's Scott Lang Ant-Man, I would really liked to have seen the Hank Pym/Janet Van Dyne Ant-Man/Wasp team in action. Marvel could have made it a period piece set in the early sixties and had Wasp is a different outfit (civilian or heroic) in every scene : Mad Men meets superheroes.

Bonus: Go read Will Shetterly's takes on the movie: the spoiler-free one and the spoilery one.

Friday, July 17, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

1. Even though this is part of the Summer Reading Program, I figured it belonged here on He is a Thark because it's technically science fiction. I say technically because I guess it's since in the future and since the ion thruster drive that the Hermes spacecraft uses appears to be more advanced than actual models in service, it gets shoved into that category. But the science in this fiction is so hard that it's practically adamantine: it's really just science-filled-fiction. Delicious crunchy fiction with a thick, chewy science center.

2.  Randall Munroe hit the nail on the head with this summary of the story, but what that leaves out is how downright funny the book is - or rather how funny the main character Mark Watley is, since most of the book is in his voice. The narrative establishes that Watley's coping mechanism is humor, and being stranded on Mars gives him a lot to cope with, so that humor comes through strong, leavening both the tech-talk and the life-and-death drama.

3. Because the movie trailer came out and got so much play just before I started the book, I could only hear Watley in Matt Damon's voice. That's not so bad, really.

4. Writing that contains a lot of detail and concrete description and writing that appears to be demonstrating how and how well the prose could be turned into a film: am I making a distinction without real difference? Some of the scenes - Earthbound episodes, primarily - read a lot like a novelization of a movie - you can almost see the blocking and the cuts. Scenes in offices are written even more visually than descriptions of Watley's activities on Mars. Some of that results from the change of narrative voice (from Watley's diaries to third-person narration) but some of it seems a little calculated.

5. Overall this was a very satisfying read, and only because under the tech-love, the melodrama, and the funny, Weir occasionally gets to a kernel of very real human emotion and experience, and the reader forgets that it is a book or a wannabe movie and gets lost in the people.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Your Earth Asplodes!

So, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Okay, I'm ashamed.

Once again, Wonder Wife and I were seduced by the SE1: EP1 designation on the Netflix offering Ring of Fire. In our defense, I have talked before about our penchant for cancelled one-season sci-fi series, and this apparent volcano story did star Terry O'Quinn (whom I like) from Lost and Michael Vartan from Alias (which Wonder Wife loved). But about 40 minutes in and with no resolution imminent, I checked Netflix on my phone and saw that it was another mini-series shown in two parts, each 88 minutes. What is up with this stuff, anyway?

 At least this one was (a) not quite as bad as Exploding Sun  - but close! - and (b) a bit shorter.

Ring of Fire hits all the right beats for a disaster movie. First, the characters are typically "complex": the plucky eco-activist heroine is the bad-guy oil executive's estranged daughter; the savvy geologist hero has a lurking brain aneurism; the morally-torn drilling engineer lost a child in a mine accident that was the result of his brother's negligence; the drill-site guard and the loud protester went to high school together; and so on. And, in a typical disaster movie plot, all of these characters and threads cross as we advance towards volcanic doom.

That doom is one of the biggest flaws of the film. It's not enough anymore to riff on the Mt. St. Helen's eruption and threaten an entire city or region with annihilation: this movie says that disturbing the pool of magma that the oil company sneakily and mistakenly drills into (hoping to put Saudi Arabia out of business) somehow ignites eruptions in previously dormant volcanoes all across the Pacific Rim, enough to bring about the End of the World (or as the geologist likes to say, an ELE - Extinction Level Event). Do the filmmakers think we wouldn't care enough if it was just a town that was threatened?

Of course, the science is still laughable. If we buy the ELE threat, we also have to buy that it is prevented by releasing a bit of the pressure in the first magma pool through exploding a "sonic bomb" delivered by a re-purposed manned Venus probe vehicle piloted by a geologist instead of, say, a test pilot or astronaut. Okay.

Still and all, it's not that bad. Unlike Exploding Sun, some of the players turn in creditable performances that come close to redeeming the material, although Vartan seems to be phoning it in. I have to single out Agam Darshi for her performance as Audrey, the hero's sidekick: she imbues what could have been a cardboard character with real humanity at every turn. But really, if volcanic hijinks are your thing, check out Dante's Peak, starring James Bond and Sarah Conner.

Spoiler alert: the Earth doesn't explode.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Your sun asplodes!

So,  I imagine it went something like this:

"Guys, we just finished this movie. A spaceship with an experimental drive crashes into the sun and sets off a chain reaction that threatens all life on Earth. We need a killer science-fiction disaster movie title. What do you have for us?"

"The space ship makes the sun explode? How is that even possible?"

"Well, it's an experimental quantum scalar mumble mumble, polarity atomic mumble mumble."

"Cool. Okay - let's call it Exploding Sun!"

"Well, the sun doesn't actually explode -- it kinda gets all stirred up and emits cosmic rays and microwaves and EMPs and mumble mumble."

"So it's more like Cosmic-Ray-Emitting Sun? How about Energetically-Active Sun? Or Sub-Atomically-Excited Sun?"

"Okay then, Exploding Sun it is!


I'm still not quite sure why Wonder Wife and I sat through all of this disaster of a disaster movie. We thought it was a television series, since it was listed on Netflix as SE1:EP1 when we were browsing, but it turns out the film has just been packaged to be shown as either one two-hour movie (on DVD) or a two-part three-hour version (what Netflix has). On any case, after sitting through the first half, we thought we'd watch the second half to see if it got any better (as it couldn't get any worse).

Starring Not-Greg Kinnear, Not-Summer Glau, and Not-Patrick Warburton.

Forget Star Trek technobabble; this movie operates on Flash Gordon levels of scientific accuracy to send its small crew of civilian astronauts (including the First Lady) on the inaugural trip of a space clipper: a nine-hour trip the moon and back. (It's a really fast ship.) While we thought we were going to watch the exploits of this small group of survivors when disaster (naturally) strikes, they are summarily killed to get the plot moving. What we thought was too little time spent on them turns out to be too much time, since their identities never factor into the plot or character development of those left behind in any meaningful way, but only as links to the various scenarios that comprise the film.

The movie seems to have been shot by several units who never worked together or even corresponded via email. Besides the main scientists-vs-sun action featuring our heroic trio above, we have White House situation room shenanigans, a small town coping with disaster, the callous arbitrager stuck in his high-rise, and the plucky medicos of the refugee camp in Afghanistan fighting warlorlds as well as solar flares.

And this really is Julia Ormand stuck in this turkey. 
(I think she filmed all her scenes in two or three days while on vacation in Morocco 
and nobody told her the plot of the actual movie.)

The disaster movie recipe isn't a difficult one to follow, and somehow this movie managed to hit all the beats without creating emotional resonance with any of the characters or any narrative coherence in the plot. It almost seems like a first draft, with seeds of some interesting character development or conflict (an over-zealous White House Chief-of-Staff, a potential polygamous relationship among the three leads, an It Can't Happen Here vibe in the small town) but without more than the slightest realization of those notions. The guy in the high rise seems to have no narrative purpose whatsoever.

But Wonder Wife and I stuck it out to the end, I guess optimistic that something would rise from the morass. It didn't, but at least we saved you the mistake of watching Exploding Sun.

Spoiler alert: the sun doesn't explode.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

40, 41, maybe...

So,  in my pursuit of summer reading, I picked up And Another Thing, the post-mortem continuation of Douglas Adams's great Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series by one Eoin Colfer. The book isn't going to get the 5x5 review treatment because I doubt that I will finish it. (I am off on a five-day work trip right now and I didn't even bother to bring it.)

I am a big fan of Adams's writing. It was not just in Hitchhiker's Guide and the Dirk Gently stories that his drollery and wit shone, but even in his more peripheral work, such as the video games he wrote way back when and his non-fiction book about endangered species, Last Chance to See. He had a voice as distinctive as that of P.G. Wodehouse; Colfer had quite a task before him, following Adams and using his same characters and milieu.

It turned out to be an impossible charge to fill. All the moves are there, but none of the magic shines through. I imagine it was like this when Bud Abbott teamed with Candy Candido late in his career: while they got some decent reviews, it's hard to imagine Who's On First? being done by anyone other than Abbott & Costello. Not to say that Colfer doesn't give it a good try; I am not familiar with his other work, but he clearly has made a yeoman's effort to recreate Adams's deft touch. His faux-Adams is not nearly as bad as David Soul playing Rick Blaine in the TV series based on Casablanca or Josh Mostel's valiant effort as Blotto Blutarsky in Delta House. It's more like you tuned in to see Larry, Moe, and Curly and got Larry, Moe and Joe DeRita: close, but no cigar.

It's not like this this sort of thing can't be done: Spider Robinson did a creditable job of channeling Robert Heinlein on Variable Star, for example. It's just that Colfer didn't do it here. No shame in the effort, but not enough results to get me to finish.

Friday, June 26, 2015

5x5 Graphic Novel(s): The Parker adaptations by Darwyn Cooke

1. A few years back (2009), Darwyn Cooke made a big splash with his graphic novel adaptation of famed crime writer Donald Westlake's The Hunter (written under the pen name Richard Stark), and I gobbled it up eagerly. When I was a young man, I read all the Stark books - the Parker series and the (much smaller) Grofield collection - and I had anticipated that Cooke's sensibility would be a perfect match for the series: that sort of Mad Men meets Goodfellas feeling. I was right.

2. The first book ended with a tease that there would be more Parker adaptations coming. Apparently I missed a memo or two - because there have been three more books already! I only tipped to the series after I ran across Books Two and Three at the library. The library copies still have the dust jackets (cellophaned, of course), but I removed the one on my copy of Book One because I like the retro flavor the binding so much.

3. Packaging aside, the quality of the books hold up across the series (or at least the 75% of it I have seen so far), and it's not just a matter of matching the art style to the subject matter. Cooke is not just a great cartoonist; he's also a good writer, who knows how to make an adaptation work. The pacing of the stories and the unfolding of the plots (including complex action) is flawless; Cooke knows when to use text and when to let the images alone carry the narrative.

4. A note from a formalist perspective, since this is me: Book Two diverges from its focus on Parker to show the activities of some of his criminal cronies as they rob syndicate operations. Each account is in a different style: an illustrated magazine article (with a lot of prose); fifties PSA cartooning; New Yorker-style cartoons; and what I can only call illustration sketchwork. The flavor these choices create move us out of the reality of the main story in the same way italics or margins or typeface might set off a secondary narrative within a prose book, but with many more layers of meaning added thanks to the art. Well-played, Mr. Cooke.

5. All that being said, after reading through a bunch of these in a row, I come up feeling a little bit empty. It isn't for want of content or execution, either in the original story or in the graphic adaptation. It's just that Parker is such a relentlessly amoral, brutal character that it is hard for me to sustain any sympathy for him, and without that identification, the books become nothing more than a series of beautifully rendered, grisly encounters. I read somewhere that Westlake wrote the anti-hero Parker stories on rainy days and the relatively light-hearted Grofield stories (and I'd guess the comic Dortmunder capers) on sunny days. I guess I would like to see a Darwyn Cooke take on a sunny day story.

Bonus: when I was describing Cooke's ability to visually capture early sixties motifs, a friend said "You mean like those big clocks with the spines and balls!" Precisely. And while there isn't actually one of those in any of the Parker books, we do get this

 and that's pretty close.