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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
First, before the spoilers, it's good. A dramatic improvement over the prequels, if perhaps not quite up to the legendary originals. But what could live up to that sort of hype? I tried my hardest to keep expectations in check, and as a result, found myself greatly enjoying this movie. Star Wars is a lot of fun again, which is something that was sorely lacking in the prequels. My biggest complaint, and it's a small one, is that it's too reliant on callbacks to the original trilogy. Everyone's freaking out about this, so spoilers ahead I guess (I'll try to be a little vague about it).

In the behind-the-scenes materials for the prequels (of which there is a lot of footage that was generously released), there's an infamous scene where George Lucas notes that he's trying to establish parallels between the prequels and the original trilogy, saying "You see the echo of where all is gonna go. It's like poetry, they rhyme" The problem here is that George Lucas is no Shakespeare, so much of his attempts at this sort of thing come off as hamfisted and clumsy. It doesn't help that the movies themselves aren't very good. Now, true, J.J. Abrams isn't Shakespeare either, but he's a lot better at this sort of thing. He may have gone to the well a little too often, but the result is that this movie captures a lot of what made the original movies so wonderful (and he did so much better than he did with Star Trek Into Darkness). Ironically, J.J. Abrams has evoked a more Lucas-esque feeling than Lucas managed in the prequels!

So there are lots and lots of callbacks. There's a bigger, badder Death Star. There's an assault on that Death Star that evokes the end of the original Star Wars. There's a dark, masked villain that is strong with the dark side of the force. He has a master that only appears in hologram. He also has a surprising familial relationship with someone. BB-8 is basically R2-D2, but he has that cool rolling propulsion. There's a cantina scene. Heck, Han Solo (and Chewbacca), General Leia, and Luke Skywalker all show up in varying degrees.

And it works. Again, there might be too many callbacks, but for the most part, they rhyme, like poetry. Where the movie really shines, though, is with the new characters. Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) is utterly fantastic, a scrappy badass and the best addition to the Star Wars universe since the original trilogy. Finn (John Boyega) is heroic and funny, hitting a note of almost childlike wonder. He's the most openly emotional, but still brave character in the film. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is charismatic and, well, not quite a rogue, but perhaps dashing. He's a straight arrow, right out of the serials. What's more, these three leads play off each other perfectly and the performances are spot on. One could quibble at the speed with which they develop their deep friendships, but this, too, rhymes with the original Star Wars trio of Luke, Leia, and Han. I love these three characters and cannot wait to see where they go next!

For his part, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is menacing and terrifying, reminiscent of Darth Vader, but by the end he's carved out a wholly different identity. One that's mysterious and vulnerable and intriguing, which softens the impossible comparison between the villains. I'm not quite sure what to make of this character, actually, especially where he ends up, but I'm really excited to see what happens here too. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is still in the shadows at this point, but he seems suitably menacing. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) gets almost nothing to do in this film except look really cool in her snazzy chrome armor. My guess is that some of her stuff wound up on the cutting room floor, but that she'll also get a chance to rebound and establish herself as a name villain in the next film. Nowhere to go but up for her.

Of the returning characters, Han Solo and Chewbacca get the most screentime, perhaps a little too much, but Abrams made it work. Princess (sorry, General) Leia is in the movie just about the right amount, and Luke is only teased a bit (he'll certainly have more time in the next film). I was wary of this, and in some ways, my worries were justified, but it works out well enough in the end.

All in all, this is an excellent return to form for Star Wars, evoking the best of the original trilogy and yet showing enough potential to carve out its own identity in the following films. This will be crucial because otherwise, this will play out like lesser Star Wars. It's all well and good for this film to recall the originals so much, but the sequels will need to do their own thing if this is to truly succeed. The good news is that all the pieces are on the board, and they've done a good job maneuvering so far. Episode VIII writer/director Rian Johnson is a Kaedrin favorite, and I'm guessing that he'll shepherd this series on well. He's also on board to write Episode IX, so I think we're in good hands (though I have more trepidation about Colin Trevorrow as director).

As a science fiction nerd, I should note that this film is perhaps the least plausible of them all. And that's actually wonderful! One of the worst, dumbest things Lucas managed in the prequels was the hackneyed attempt to explain the Force scientifically. This movie has no such pretensions, and that's actually what Star Wars is all about.

If I may go off on a tangent for a moment here, I feel like I should mention the books that I always thought would make a great sequel trilogy. Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy is still wonderful and worth checking out, even though it is no longer official canon material. Grand Admiral Thrawn was a wonderful villain, so different from what you might expect, and that worked really well (still holding out hope for a Thrawn cameo in these new movies - come on Rian, just throw a dude with blue skin and a white Admiral's uniform on screen somewhere). The heroes in that book were still primarily Luke, Leia, and Han, which wouldn't really be possible in movies these days without recasting, and the new characters weren't quite as lovable as the new trio we got in this film. Still, the series is worth checking out, and it's really the only Expanded Universe stuff that I've really enjoyed.

Anyway, this movie is great. I will grant that I'm not particularly objective about this whole thing. There's a lot of nostalgia and love in this series for me, so it's hard to separate this from that. If I really wanted to, I'm sure I could nitpick a ton of stuff, but I don't want to. In fact, much of what I could nitpick here is almost equally applicable to the original movie. There's no sense in that, I just want to revel in this for now. I enjoyed this a lot more than the prequels, and this movie shows a lot of promise for future Star Wars efforts. Only two more years until Episode VIII (though we'll get a Rogue One movie next year).
Posted by Mark on December 20, 2015 at 09:13 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, December 13, 2015

SF Book Review, Part 20
I've reviewed a bunch of individual books recently, but I am still way behind, so here's the first of several attempts to catch up. With some reservations, I've enjoyed following along with the Hugos the past few years, but I've also noticed that I really enjoy delving into the back catalog, and I'm hoping to do more of this in the near future (rather than desperately reading new releases in the hope that they'd be Hugo-worthy - that was not really that productive for me last year). Today, we'll cover a few books ranging from 10 to 50 or so years old...
  • Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (1962) - Frontier man Jack Holloway comes home from prospecting for sunstones one day to discover a, well, little fuzzy animal hanging around his house. As he gets to know the fuzzy (and his extended family, who also come to stay at "Pappy Jack's" house), he begins to suspect that these aren't just cute little animals, but actual sapient beings. Naturally, this spells trouble for the corporation who thinks they own the planet... if the fuzzies are people, that means the company loses out on property rights and the like. First published in 1962, this makes for a great introduction into the SF genre, tackling difficult questions like how to define sapience without getting too esoteric. I don't think you'd call this a novel of deep characterization, but it's short and sweet, with excellent pacing and plotting for a thoughtful exploration of consciousness. Plus, the fuzzies feel like the cutest race ever devised. The only flaw is that there are many subsequent works that build on this, and thus it might seem like it's treading familiar ground... My understanding is that Piper never quite got the respect he deserved in his lifetime, but he's certainly gained in that respect in recent years (despite some small outdated technological references to things like "tape", this seems like an example of the classics that would still be relevant to youngsters today). It helps that his works have lapsed into the public domain (this book is available for free on Project Gutenberg) A few years ago, John Scalzi wrote a snappy "reimagining" of this book with his Fuzzy Nation, which has a lot of the same beats, with some added complexity and slightly shifted priorities. It's also worth checking out, but I wish I had read the original first.
  • Quarantine by Greg Egan (1992) - In Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Duo, there is a planetary system that is surrounded by an impenetrable barrier, and humans go to investigate. In Quarantine, humans are the ones inside the barrier. At first, this just seems like a way to set up a backdrop of riots and weird religious cults for this neo-noir detective story, but it later becomes clear that Egan had a much deeper reason for use of that trope (one that is a lot more convincing and interesting than Hamilton's eventual explanation for his take - note also that Egan's novel predates Hamiltons by many moons). Egan is known for diamond-hard SF, but this is the most approachable novel of his that I've read, and he eases you into the mind-blowing stuff with a deft touch. Make no mistake, he gets into true sensawunda territory and this novel contains one of the better explorations of quantum mechanics, observer effects, collapsing wave functions, etc... that I've seen in fiction. It's a well balanced blend of trashy detective tropes and hard SF. The ending might leave some with lingering doubts, but I was so elated by the way Egan tied together the various oddities of setting and plot midway through the book that I didn't mind at all. Probably my favorite book of the year (blows anything nominated for a Hugo in the past few years out of the water, in my opinion), and highly recommended!
  • Sundiver by David Brin - I only really tackled this because I want to read the second novel in the series, Startide Rising, and wasn't sure if the first one was necessary or not (it is apparently not, but we'll see soon enough). In this series, humanity has met up with lots of other alien races, most of which were "Uplifted" by "patron" races. Humanity baffles everyone though, because there doesn't appear to be a patron race for us, and we've made our way to the starts by working through first principles (rather than being taught by someone else). Go Earthican exceptionalism! An expedition into the Sun is mounted to see if the mysterious creatures living there could provide an answer, but various mishaps along the way are cause for hijinks. This novel does a decent job setting up the idea of Uplift and how unbearably patronizing and frustrating the superior alien races can be, but I also found it a bit bloated and overlong. It eventually settles into a better groove later in the story, but it took a little too long to get going. The idea of luminous beings living in the sun is an interesting one that evokes Hal Clement's first published short story, Proof (which is excellent). This book doesn't quite approach Clement's level, but it's decent enough. I'm hoping for much better things from the sequel, which I hope to get to sometime early next year...
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke - This novel of two magicians, friends and later rivals, bringing magic back to England is an interesting one. Clocking in at over a thousand pages, it might seem forbidding, but it's not a difficult read at all. I certainly don't know that it needed to take quite so long, but it never feels like it stalled either, a neat little trick and a testament to the craft Clarke used in writing this book. On the other hand, it does end up feeling more episodic as an overall story (I have not seen the recent BBC series, but I can imagine it working well in that respect), which is not usually my favorite approach. It doesn't help that our main characters are, while not quite unlikable, they aren't really the most compelling people either. Mr Norrell is mildly competent, but also a complete turd about it. Jonathan Strange fares better, but is also fairly obtuse as a character. None of this prevents the story from being enjoyable and each "episode" is compelling in its own right. There are a lot of traditional English magic tropes, mischievous fairies and the like, and the novel hangs together well. I can see why it garnered the Hugo award about a decade ago, even if it probably wouldn't have been my favorite. In the end, I'm really glad I read this, even if it's also not really my type of book. Often in these situations, I think such an approach is valid but extremely difficult to pull off. I feel like a lot of people give works too much credit for ambition in works that don't fully realize the ambition. Not so here. Clarke accomplished exactly what she wanted with this, and it's worth reading because of that.
  • Agent of Change by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller - I read this almost a year ago, so details are getting a little fuzzy (pun intended?) for me, but this is the first in a long-running series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. This one covers the meeting of Val Con and Miri Robertson, thrust together by circumstances, but clearly having some form of attraction. It starts out as an action-adventure chase novel of sorts, and our two protagonists spar with each other while fending off throngs of enemy redshirts in an attempt to escape. Things slow down in the middle, and even though we meet a very fun race of alien Turtles, the story never quite resolves itself, ending on a sort of cliffhanger. I generally enjoyed this, though I also think it says something that I have not revisited the series. However, it's something I could definitely see myself doing in the nearish future. (Every time I start a series like this, I'm hoping to spark some sort of Bujoldesque Vorkosigan Series flame, but so far, I've not managed to get there... but then, it took a few books for the Vorkosiverse to really heat up for me too, so there's that.)
And that's all for now. Next time around, we'll tackle some newer releases...
Posted by Mark on December 13, 2015 at 02:11 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Mr. Dadier's Juvie-Ready, Tough-As-Nails Blackboard-Bustin' Back to School Movie Quiz
A couple months ago, Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog posted two of his infamous quizes. Given the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, I tackled the horror themed quiz first, but am only now returning to the more standard quiz. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Larry Gopnick, Professor Dewey Finn, Ms. Elizabeth Halsey, and Professor Abraham Setrakian are also available.

1) Favorite moment from a Coen Brothers movie

This is impossible. After careful consideration, I was able to narrow this down to ten moments.
  • Tracking shot across the bar and over the drunk in Blood Simple.
  • The diaper heist in Raising Arizona
  • "Look into your heart!" from Miller's Crossing (alternate: anything with Albert Finney)
  • "You know, for kids." from The Hudsucker Proxy (alternate: Jennifer Jason Leigh's Hepburn impression)
  • "Oh for Pete's sake, he's fleeing the interview! He's fleeing the interview!" from Fargo (alternate: almost every other Marge Gunderson scene)
  • "Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos." from The Big Lebowski
  • The scene where the dog is chasing Josh Brolin across the river from No Country for Old Men (alternate: anything with Javier Bardem)
  • The scenes where David Rasche attempts to explain what's going on to J.K. Simmons from Burn After Reading (alternate: anything with Brad Pitt)
  • The dream sequence fakeout from A Serious Man
  • "...wait a minute... are we trading again?" from True Grit
Also of note, about 10 moments from the Hail, Caesar! trailer.

2) Scratching The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy from consideration, what would now rate as your least-favorite Coen Brothers movie?

First, I resent the inclusion (er, exclusion) of The Hudsucker Proxy in this question. In my opinion, it's one of the more underrated Coen Brothers movies. Anyway, this might get me disbarred from movie nerddom, but I really didn't like Inside Llewyn Davis (and my runner up is another fan fave, Barton Fink). Just bounced right off of those movies.

3) Name the most underrated blockbuster of all time

This is hard, because if a film is actually a blockbuster, it's not really underrated. It was busting blocks, guys! But if you define it as something that people tend to ignore these days (as opposed to when it opened), it gets more manageable. My first thought was the original Rocky, a film that tends to get unfairly slagged because it won the Best Picture Oscar, beating out film nerd favorites like Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President's Men. It also suffers because most of what people know about Rocky comes from the sequels and not the film itself.

4) Ida Lupino or Sylvia Sidney?

Sylvia Sidney's had a long career, and I've actually seen stuff all throughout, including Beetlejuice (which she is fantastic in!) and Hitchcock's Sabotage (which is great).

5) Edwards Scissorhands - yes or no?

Yes! It is a bit indicative of the indulgent excess that would sink a lot of Burton's later work, but here it is still fresh and interesting.

6) The movie you think most bastardizes, misinterprets or does a disservice to the history or historical event it tires to represent

The thing with this is, is that most bastardizations generally make for a better movie. No one gets on The Inglorious Bastards for being inaccurate. Indeed, that's the whole damn point. So the trick here is to find a movie that is bad, which thus does much more of a disservice to history. As such, a couple that come to mind are Pearl Harbor and The Patriot.

7) Favorite Aardman animation

This is pretty simple: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

8) Second-favorite Olivier Assayas movie

I haven't seen enough Assayas to comment on this one, so here's my first mulligan.

9) Neville Brand or Mike Mazurki?

I've seen more things with Mike Mazurki, but guys, Neville Brand is in Killdozer.
10) Name the movie you would cite to a nonbeliever as the best evidence toward convincing them of the potential greatness of a favorite genre

I always feel like a cheat when I answer The Godfather, because it's so universal and can be the answer for such a wide variety of questions, but then, here we are. Gangster movies can be trashy, but this is anything but...

11) Name any director and one aspect of his/her style or career, for good or bad, that sets her/him apart from any other director

Too many answers to count here, but the first to come to mind is the weaponized quirk of Wes Anderson.

12) Best car chase

There are so many iconic car chases in film that it's hard to narrow down, so I think I'll try to highlight some more obscure personal favorites. I guess The Blues Brothers isn't that obscure, but it's an unexpected source for great car chases. Death Proof is notable because it's a practical effect in an era of CGI. I've always enjoyed the care chase in Running Scared. But of course, the answer to this is The Road Warrior (and, I suppose, Mad Max: Fury Road).

13) Favorite moment directed by Robert Aldrich

Opening the box at the end of Kiss Me Deadly...
Kiss Me Deadly
14) The last movie you saw in a theater? On home video?

In the theater, it was Krampus, a delightfully mean-spirited Christmas horror movie that nevertheless generated a few laughs. On streaming, it was Barely Lethal, a weirdly fluffy child assassin goes to high school movie that is more successful than, say, Kick-Ass 2, but that's not saying much. And on BD, it was Magic Mike XXL, also fluffier than expected, and more episodic than the first film, oddly weightless... but maybe better for that.

15) Jane Greer or Joan Bennett?

Jane Greer because Out of the Past.

16) Second-favorite Paul Verhoeven movie

Total Recall behind favorite RoboCop. "Consider that a divorce!"

17) Your nominee for best/most important political or social documentary you've seen

Can it be anything other than The Thin Blue Line? That's the answer, right? Alright, there's lots of worthy answers to this, but Errol Morris' masterwork is my pick.

18) Favorite movie twins

It's corny and the movie is not that good, but the pairing of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in Twins is goofy and fun by itself. On a more serious note, the Jeromy Irons twins in Dead Ringers are haunting.

19) Best movie or movie moment about or involving radio

The two that leapt out at me are Samuel L. Jackson's Radio DJ from Do the Right Thing and the backdrop of "K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies Weekend" (DJed by the deadpan Steven Wright) from Reservoir Dogs.

20) Eugene Pallette or William Demarest?

I will go with the "Gargantuan-bellied, frog-voiced character actor" Eugene Pallette, a memorable presence for sure.

21) Favorite moment directed by Ken Russell

William Hurt's psychedelic journeys into the isolation chamberAltered States

22) All-time best movie cat

My first thought ran to Jonesy from Alien, but that's more indicative of my love for that movie and all its minutiae than because of the cat itself. Similarly, Elliot Gould's cat in The Long Goodbye is more memorable because of the movie it's in than because it's a cat. Finally, I settled on Irena from Cat People, because she's a giant cat.

23) Your nominee for best movie about teaching and learning, followed by the worst

Real Genius is one of my favorite movies and while the teaching and learning are not direct, I've found that the most valuable stuff I learned in college was not in the classroom, so there is that. Plus, all the other answers I could think of had similar flaws.

24) Name an actor/actress currently associated primarily with TV who you'd like to see on the big screen

Krysten Ritter has been in several TV shows and is always a memorable presence, even when she's not the lead like in Jessica Jones, where she's still awesome and proves she could totally headline a big screen film.

25) Stanley Baker or David Farrar

I've seen a few movies from each filmography, but to be honest, I don't have a preference, so another mulligan for me.

26) Critic Manny Farber once said of Frank Capra that he was "an old-time movie craftsman, the master of every trick in the bag, and in many ways he is more at home with the medium than any other Hollywood director, but all the details give the impression of a contrived effect."

What is the Capra movie that best proves or disproves Farber's assertion? And who else in Hollywood history might just as easily fit his description?

I think the second question betrays the difficulty of the first. There are tons of old-time craftsmen out there, and most film is contrived. That being said, even if It's a Wonderful Life gives the impression of a contrived effect, we should all strive to be so contrived. The other director who might fit this description? Alfred Hitchcock, naturally.
Posted by Mark on December 06, 2015 at 11:29 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Adventures in Brewing - Beer #17: Crom Approved Rebrew
I've been woefully neglectful of my homebrewing hobby of late, and recently decided that I must rebrew my recent failed IPA. As you probably do not recall, I made an IPA using copious amounts of my favorite hops and fermented with the infamous Conan yeast (aka Vermont Ale yeast), then dry hopped with more of my favorite hops. It turned out fantastic, but when I kegged it, I was a little careless and allowed too much dry hop sediment into the keg, which clogged the whole thing up. I tried to salvage the beer by transferring to another keg, but that only served to oxidize the whole thing and basically ruin the batch. Which is a terrible shame, because the limited amout of the stuff I got to try when fresh was fantastic and exactly what I was going for. I mean, perhaps not Heady Topper good, but in the same league as the Alchemist, Hill Farmstead, and Tired Hands IPAs that I love so much. Drinking the oxidized remnants was a major disappointment, so I thought I should do something I almost never do and rebrew the original recipe. For posterity, here it is, in all it's glory:

Beer #16: Crom Approved Double IPA
Full-Batch (5 gallons)
November 28, 2015

12 oz. CaraPils (specialty grain)
8 oz. Crystal 20 (specialty grain)
6 lb. Muntons Extra Light DME
1 lb. Muntons Wheat DME
8 oz. Turbinado Sugar
1 oz. Simcoe (bittering @11.1 AA)
1 oz. Amarillo (flavor)
1 oz. Amarillo (aroma)
1 oz. Citra (aroma)
1 oz. Citra (first addition dry hop)
1 oz. Galaxy (first addition dry hop)
1 oz. Amarillo (second addition dry hop)
1 oz. Citra (second addition dry hop)
GigaYeast GY054 Vermont IPA Yeast

Crom Approved DIPA Ingredients
(Click to embiggen)

This is basically identical to the previous batch. Minor differences include the fact that the Simcoe hops I procured for the bittering addition were slightly lower in alpha acids, but that only resulted in a dip of about 2 IBUs, which I judge to be fine. Indeed, the original goal with this brew was to produce something light and aromatic, not something punishingly bitter. Also, my turbinado sugar addition was slightly different this time due to the fact that I did not have as much in the pantry as I thought, so I had to compensate with a bottle of liquid sugar that I had laying around. I'm pretty sure I got that amount right, but my guess is that there's slightly less simple sugar added in this batch. Otherwise, the recipe is the same, and the key component is really the Conan yeast.

As with the last batch, the target is an aromatic 8% ABV Double IPA with attenuation in the 75-80% range (maybe slightly less). The specialty grains and wheat addition will provide a nice malt backbone and platform for the hops, while not being too bitter. IBUs are targeted for slightly less than 50, which is a little low for the BJCP guidelines, but I'm shooting for that newfangled juicy, bright, and citrusy IPA rather than the old school dank and bitter IPA.

Original Gravity: 17.1 Bx, or 1.071, which is slightly lower than the target 1.074. This is not at all troubling since the last batch attenuated higher than expected and got us to something higher than 8%. This batch might hit closer to that target, assuming the yeast does its work.

Once again, I have high hopes for this batch, though I am cautiously optimistic. The last batch turned out great, but I will admit the fermentation of this batch started slow. I brewed this on Saturday, and the airlock was essentially inactive until Monday. It's bubbling away now, which is heartening, but now that I think about it, I did have the yeast in the fridge for a while, and perhaps it was not as viable as the last batch. Fingers crossed! Dry hopping will commence after this weekend, and this sucker will be kegged by 12/13. It will be a nice Christmas present, I think.

Next up? I'm not sure. I was thinking about making a small batch of wild ale (not sure what exactly I'll patter that after, but I'm looking at a full Brett/bacteria fermentation, rather than my previous mixed fermentation approach), but I've also been planning a Scotch Ale (which will, of course, be partially aged on bourbon soaked oak cubes). Only time will tell. Since both of those are time intensive, I might even get to brewing them sooner rather than later, even though they won't be ready for a few months (at which time, I'm sure the keg will be clear of Crom Approved!) At this point, I'm leaning towards Scotch Ale, because we're heading into winter, and that boozy, malty style is probably better suited for the season... We shall see. In the meantime, may Crom bless my current batch of beer. I'm sure the god of steel would appreciate such a brew!

(Cross Posted to Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on December 02, 2015 at 08:41 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The 2013 Egg Nog Tasting
Family Holiday traditions are very weird, like how my family does an Egg Nog tasting every Thanksgiving... after dinner. You know, because we're still hungry and it's not like Egg Nog is filling at all. In fairness, it was a tradition born by accident. One year, literally everyone thought they were in charge of bringing egg nog, so they brought a couple and we ended up with, like, 15 of them. Since then, we've intentionally started doing this. Sometimes, this gets super complicated and involves blind tastings and whatnot, but the last couple years have been pretty informal. Check out some previous recaps: [2013 | 2012 | 2010 | 2008].

The past few years have represented an attempt to find different egg nogs instead of crowning the same two every year (usually local mainstays Wawa or Swiss Farms). This has been fine, but I don't think any of those actually beats our normal champions. This year, we returned to previous champions, and went for some new things too. Not a crazy number of entries this year though:
2015 Egg Nogs
For posterity, the Egg Nogs pictured here are (from left to right):
  • Swiss Farms Premium Egg Nog
  • Southern Comfort Traditional Egg Nog
  • Wawa Egg Nog
  • Turkey Hill Egg Nog
  • Organic Valley Eggnog
  • International Delight Classic Nog
  • Upstate Farms Premium Egg Nog
So we've got three former winners (Swiss Farms, Wawa, Upstate Farms), two standard, middle of the pack entrants (Southern Comfort and Turkey Hill), one I don't remember having before (but which I apparently have), and one that isn't even Egg Nog. It's always amusing how these weirdos try to trick people into drinking this stuff. The giveaway is the use of the word "Nog" without the corresponding "Egg". That International Delight nog is described as a "Festive Dairy Beverage" whatever that means. You might think this would be a shoe-in for "Worst in Show", but in reality, it was kinda just like milk with some cinnamon and nutmeg or something. Not bad at all, but not really anything like an egg nog either.

In an odd turn of events, Upstate Farms got under some people's skin and ended up taking the award for worst egg nog. I didn't think it was that bad, but it was clearly inferior to the top two, Wawa and Swiss Farms. Someone mentioned that Upstate had a sorta artificial, chemically character to it. I didn't really get it, but whatever! Swiss Farms took first place, and at this point, remains undefeated. Personally, I still go for Wawa, but that's just me.

It was fun, as usual, but it was a pretty low key year. Perhaps next year will be the year we finally break down and make our own egg nog. If we can get over our fear of making everyone sick, which seems likely? I feel like it should be simple enough, but we'll see. Otherwise, I want to find something I can bring to rival Swiss Farms. It's good, but I don't know that it's quite as dominant as its performance the past few years indicates. Until next year!
Posted by Mark on November 29, 2015 at 03:10 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ancillary Mercy
With Ancillary Mercy, Anne Leckie has completed a trilogy that began with a lot of promise which was almost immediately squandered with the middle installment in favor of, I don't know, let's just say tea. This is perhaps more harsh than necessary, but I do think this series is indicative of much of the strife going on in SF fandom these days.

The first book in the series, Ancillary Justice, had a lot going for it. A complex, non-linear narrative that deftly employed indirect exposition to establish its worldbuilding (instead of tedious info-dumps). A heady mix of hard and soft SF, including an ambitious exploration of hive minds or shared consciousness. Galaxy-spanning empires, mysterious aliens, all the Space Opera tropes you could ever want. It was distinctly lacking in plot and storytelling, but as the first in a series, it established a lot of potential. Potential which the second book, Ancillary Sword, almost completely jettisoned in favor of a small scale, colonialism parable. This was so unexpected that you kind of have to respect the reversal. The problem for me is that nearly everything I enjoyed about the first book was gone. Instead, we had lots of interpersonal relationships, petty politics, and lots and lots of tea. Endless drinking of tea, the intricacies of good and bad china, even the exploitation of tea plantations.

This third and final book of the trilogy aims to complete the story, and despite hewing much closer to the second book's small-scale approach, it actually manages to stick the landing. But to continue the gymnastics analogy, the series as a whole feels like a routine that started off with ambitious, high-difficulty release moves, flips and twists and whatever, then moved on to boring filler, and finishing with the simplest dismount possible. Again, this might be too harsh, as this book does comport itself quite well, it's just so different than what the first book seemed to promise that I can't help but feel disappointed.

During this year's whole Sad Puppy kerfluffle, I ran across some non-puppy lamenting the puppy line and proclaiming that science fiction was primarily about the "exploration of the human condition", which is funny because I think that is indeed the whole crux of the matter. With this Ancillary series, Leckie is clearly fascinated by the "exploration of the human condition". And of course, there's nothing wrong with that! Much of science fiction does this, and it's a wonderful, time-honored part of the genre. The problem is that the grand majority of art ever produced is about the "exploration of the human condition". That's not what makes science fiction unique, and while Leckie managed to channel some of SF's unique sense of wonder and conceptual breakthrough in the first book, she basically abandoned that pretense in the succeeding novels. Lots of Puppies complained about Ancillary Justice, but I know for a fact that a lot of them enjoyed the novel. I doubt any of them appreciated the sequels. (NB: while I have some leanings towards the type of works Puppies prefer, I am not and have never been a Puppy!)

So what we end up with is a series with some fascinating worldbuilding and SF ideas that are established but not really explored. What seemed like promising lines of thought in the first book come off like window dressing in this final novel. Leckie even acknowledges this shift in-story. In the first book, we find out that the shared consciousness tyrant that rules an empire had actually fragmented into two factions that were secretly at war with one another. Great idea! In Ancillary Mercy, our protagonist Breq flatly opines that she doesn't care what happens, and thus we get no real exploration of what this civil war amidst a hive mind would entail (and no clarification as to how these hive minds actually work, and how such a situation hasn't happened thousands of years earlier). Another example? A mysterious alien race called the Presger have been hinted at throughout the series. It's suggested that they may be the force behind our Tyrant's little civil war. There's this extra-super-fantastic gun that, at first, is simply undetectable. In this final book, it can destroy entire spaceships with a single shot. As deus ex machina, it works, I guess, but it's pretty indicative of how Leckie treats the Presger. They're there for convenience, not for actual insight.

So I've blathered on for several paragraphs and I haven't even talked much about this book. It picks up where the last one left off, with Breq trying to effect repairs of a space station while overseeing the planet's transition from tyranny to more self-determined government or somesuch. She knows that Anaander Mianaai is going to visit to re-establish her rule, and she will probably have to also deal with the Presger, who will no doubt be a little upset that their translator/ambassador was killed in the previous book's shenanigans. Meanwhile, everyone drinks tea out of cheap china because the good china was destroyed in the previous book, but hey, tea is needed.

I know it sounds like I'm being dismissive of the tea stuff, and to a certain extent, I feel justified in that, but it actually doesn't bother me that much. I enjoy the tea minutia more than I would have thought, and as a beverage nerd who enjoys a cup of tea every now and again, it's got its charms.

Anyway, the plot of this one actually works a good deal better than the second book. It's not as episodic, and hangs together better. If you can go with the deus ex machina of the Presger, the story actually works really well. The pacing is still off, and too much time is spent on the seemingly endless parade of officers that have severe emotional problems (seriously, this is the culture that conquered most of the galaxy? How?) For instance, at one point a mysterious ship shows up out of nowhere. It's the new Presger translator/ambassador! She will no doubt be a little miffed that the previous translator was killed! Whatever shall we do? Apparently, we need to sit down and discuss how microagressions make a member of the crew feel. And look, I'm not predisposed to hate that sort of thing, but it kills plot momentum and is one of several such instances. On the other hand, the new Presger translator is, by far, my favorite part of the book. She has a very weird affect about her, coming off as nonplussed and yet somehow wise, and primarily acting as comic relief. Her disaffected demeanor fits well, and is used to good effect throughout the novel, almost making up for contrived role the Presger play in the series.

The conclusion actually works, too. It is, of course, not a conclusion to all that was set up in the first novel and again relies on the deus ex machina of the Presger, but it does resolve the smaller-conflict at the heart of the book in a surprisingly satisfying fashion. At the start, I thought Leckie had written herself into a corner, but she manages a couple of twists and turns that make sense. I left the book feeling pretty happy that I read the series, even if I have my fair share of complaints.

Despite my reservations, this book has been well received critically and fans of the series seem to love it. I have no doubt that it will make next year's Hugo ballot (indeed, even the Sad Puppies are talking about it), even if it will probably not make my ballot. I am actually curious to see if Leckie will revisit this universe, maybe even tackle some of the unrealized potential she so ably established in the first book. I would like to read that, actually.
Posted by Mark on November 22, 2015 at 01:32 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Whither the SF Classics
A couple weeks ago, author Jason Sanford kicked up a fuss about the "fossilization of science fiction and fantasy literature", suggesting amongst other things that "No one still discovers the SF/F genre by reading Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, or Tolkien." Needless to say, this caused a lot of consternation in some quarters, though my guess is that the medium of delivery had a lot to do with the response. Sanford posted all this in a series of Tweets, which by necessity are brief and thus come off as pompous and dismissive. Sanford later posted a clarification on his blog in a much more friendly tone, even if the weight of his argument is the same. Others have taken up the call as well, notably John Scalzi who notes:
The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this.
And indeed, I'm not surprised by this notion, but it does represent a difference in the SF/F world. I was a teen in the 1990s and read all sorts of stuff from the 1930s-1960s corridor that generally represents the Golden Age, the same way (near as I can tell), teens in the 70s and 80s did. This is literally the first time in history when readers weren't introduced to SF/F via Golden Age authors like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein (as Scalzi notes, Tolkien probably still reigns in Fantasy). What has changed?

I think a big part of it might have something to do with the on-demand nature of our current media environment. To take an example from another medium, kids growing up in the 70s didn't have much choice as to what movies they watched. It was whatever was playing on TV or the local theater, and a lot of what played was in the public domain. In other words, film nerds in the 70s saw a lot of silent movies by default. I grew up in the 80s, and with the advent of cable, I didn't really see any silent movies until I started actually studying film. I did, however, watch lots of black and white movies or movies from long before I was born, simply because that's what was showing on Cinemax or whatever. You can really see the difference in film critics who grew up in an earlier era, they have a much broader base to draw from when discussing current movies. Nowadays, it's all about what's on Netflix.

Bringing it back to SF/F, I think this is a big part of it. Many folks hit up the classics of SF/F back in the day because they were basically the only thing available. Book stores had tiny SF/F sections and primarily stocked the classics with the occasional new release. These days, kids can snag an ebook or even an audio-book on-demand, and their available choices have exploded in the past couple of decades. SF/F has sorta conquered the world, and is widely available everywhere. Thus the classics, while still available, are getting dwarved by other books.

And this is before you get to all the other options kids have to occupy their attention these days (video games, anime, internet stuff, etc...) There seems to be a dismissive streak running through fandom these days. Perhaps its because there's so much new SF/F flooding the market. There's too much to keep up with; you don't have a choice but to filter in some way.

One thing a lot of people mention when it comes to this is that kids don't like the classics because they can't relate, which seems kind of silly to me. Sure, old books were written in a different context, and there's a lot of weird stuff people were exploring. But for crying out loud, this is Science Fiction we're talking about here! The whole point is to explore alien ideas and blow your mind within the confines of a rationally knowable universe. When people are pining for the Golden Age of science fiction, they're craving that Sense of Wonder we got from Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Lots of great science fiction is being written these days, but a surprising amount is dystopian misery porn or boring character studies with a veneer of SF Tropes. This is especially rampant in YA fiction, which is so melancholy that I'm wondering why we're so excited by it. Maybe the reason people keep recommending Heinlein juveniles is because so much of YA fiction is dedicated to gloomy settings and grim despair. There's nothing wrong with that type of story, but is it really surprising that some of us crave Golden Age throwbacks like, say, The Martian?

I suppose the worry is that this represents another cultural battleground where kids don't read the classics because they're trying to establish a "safe space" or some other such nonsense. Again, I find that odd considering the whole point of speculative fiction is to expand your horizons. To a lot of people, reading is a passive activity, but it really isn't. If you're not interrogating what you're reading, you're doing it wrong. This gets us into strange territory though, and we'd have to go about discussing what really makes the SF genre work, which is probably better served in its own post someday.

None of this is malicious or necessarily dangerous, but it is different, and for the first time in 70ish years, kids aren't reading the "classics". One can't help but wonder what that will mean, but I'm not too worried. People like what they like. I don't like the idea of dismissing the classics out of hand, but I wouldn't be surprised or upset if someone got into SF by reading, say, Scalzi or Weir. For instance, I don't think Fantasy is anything but strengthened by the popularity of Harry Potter. The same is probably true with SF, even if I'm not a huge fan of dystopian YA...
Posted by Mark on November 15, 2015 at 11:27 AM .: Comments (4) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Weird Book of the Week
Last time on Weird Book of the Week, we fell in love with giant pink space bunnies who shoot laser beams out of their nose. This time, we amp up the weirdness with something that is 100% chosen because of it's title. Behold: I Don't Care if My Best Friend's Mom is a Sasquatch, She's Hot and I'm Taking a Shower With Her. I think that pretty much says it all. Probably a good companion piece to a former Weird Movie of the Week, Yeti: A Gay Love Story.

It appears the author, one Lacey Noonan, has quite a back catalog of raunchily titled books, including A Gronking to Remember (first in a series of Rob Gronkowski themed erotica novels), Seduced by the Dad Bod, and The Babysitter Only Rings Once. Quite prolific.
Posted by Mark on November 11, 2015 at 08:13 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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