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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hugo Awards: Novelettes
Novelettes! Good old novelettes! What do you call something that's longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel? A novella, of course, but that's too easy. Let's invent something between a short story and a novella, and call it a novelette! On the one hand, it is a bit odd that SF/F seems to be the only genre in literature that makes this distinction (something about a legacy of SF's pulpy magazine roots, where different sized works had different pay scales) and it seems rather pointless and confusing for no real reason. On the other hand, it just means we get to read more fiction, which is actually a pretty cool thing. Once again, none of my nominees made the final ballot, but such is the way of short fiction awards. Last year's Novelettes were pretty darn good (with one obvious and notable exception), and it looks like this years will rival that:
  1. "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale", Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014) - My clear favorite of the bunch, this tale of Exoplanetary Explorer cadets redeeming themselves after getting caught up in a bar fight is well written, well paced, and entertaining. It tells a full story, presents some interesting puzzles, and uses reason and logic to resolve the problems that arise. I don't know that it's particularly deep in terms of thematic heft, but it's deeply entertaining, which is usually enough for me (and so many other stories seem to forget that part) and this story struck the right chord. I feel like I should be saying more, but this is the one story on the ballot that I definitely would have put on my nominations if I had read it earlier.
  2. "Championship B'tok", Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014) - This one is a bit of an odd duck in that it feels kinda like a pilot episode of a TV show. In a colonized solar system, various unexplained breakdowns have been occurring with increasing frequency. This includes both human and alien settlements, and while the humans were able to weather the aliens' initial invasion 20 years ago, tensions are high. The aliens are hiding something, the mysterious sabotage is hitting everyone, and the humans are getting ready to launch a new interstellar starship. I actually quite enjoyed the setup, but then, that's mostly what this is: setup. It's got a lot of great storytelling elements in play. Intrigue, subterfuge, conspiracy, and so on, but this feels like one of those stories that is really just an excerpt from a larger work. This sort of thing is always weird to judge when it comes to awards like this. I think it says something that I do really want to follow up on this story at some point, because that speaks to how engaging it was. But how to judge an incomplete experience when it comes voting time? Also worth noting is that Lerner's prose style is a bit on the stilted side. I can see why some of the more literary Hugo voters are annoyed by a story like this. Often I read people's complaints about this sort of thing and shrug them off, but they may have a point here. For instance, this sentence appears in the text: "Something long dreaded was at long last at hand." Look, I'm not the most talented writer in the world, but even for me, this is a pretty obvious clunker. That said, it had some great ideas and the storytelling was on point, so it ends up falling higher on my list than lower (depending on how I feel, this may drop down a peg when voting time comes).
  3. "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium", Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014) - This feels almost like the inverse of Championship B'tok. In this scenario, aliens and humans clashed in the past, but this time the aliens won and are keeping the humans kinda bottled up in their colony. The story concerns a man who is dying. His last wish is to be buried, a practice that he thinks might throw their alien masters for a loop. It's a neat little puzzle and a complete story, but it's not quite as entertaining or fun as the above two.
  4. "The Journeyman: In the Stone House", Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014) - This is the weirdest of the bunch, a strange tale of various quasi-primitive clans coming together to train and set out on an expedition. Or something. This one is a bit light on plot. It's got some nice character moments and a couple of great one-liners (particularly Sammi o' th' Eagles), but it seems to be somewhat lacking in the realm of points. Flynn's style also threw me for a loop, as it's pretty ornate and detailed, but didn't really flow well for me (also annoying - the voters packet only had this on pdf, which has an annoying interface.) I did not hate it, but I never really got into it either.
  5. "The Day the World Turned Upside Down", Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014) - Remember above when I said that a lot of well written stories forget to be entertaining? Yeah, here's a good example of this. The premise is that one day, gravity reverses itself. Most everyone who is outside simply falls off the planet, while those inside are slammed up against their ceilings, and so on. Interesting, I guess, but don't go looking for explanations (fine) or even logical consistency (how are people still able to breath, why doesn't water in rivers, etc... fall, and so on...). It reminded me of last year's short story "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere", only this one is a little less coherent. There's a guy and his girlfriend just recently broke up with him, making this the second time the world turned upside down for him (zing!) and he makes a trek across the city to get to his girlfriend's apartment. Along the way, he meets a little girl and some other characters, but it's all pretty pointless, and pretty emphatically not my sort of story.
So there you have it. I'd say that this compares pretty favorably to last year's slate, and that it's maybe slightly better than this year's short story slate.
Posted by Mark on June 21, 2015 at 08:23 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on Game of Thrones
The fifth season of Game of Thrones just ended and it's been a doozy, so I figured it was time to peel off some disgruntled, freakish reflections on the show. In typical Kaedrin fashion, I've waited 5 seasons to do so, though I did once comment on the Red Wedding as it related to Joss Whedon. Major Spoilers for the entire show up until this point!
  • I enjoy the show a great deal, as evidenced by the fact that it is one of two shows that I actually watch live (the other? Silicon Valley, the show after GoT and coincidentally my favorite active comedy), a distinction that might be more due to its timeslot than anything else, but still. On the other hand, I've never really considered it more than a really violent, fun soap opera. Sure, you can read into it if you want, and the epic scope of the story is indeed impressive, but it feels a little on the bloated side, and I don't know that I'd ever really want to rewatch the show. Indeed, it took me a while to get into the show for that reason. It's a show that I watch to see what will happen next, not a show I generally obsess over. Nothing wrong with that, and the series ain't over yet, so maybe I'll change my tune on that in the future.
  • The first half of this season felt like setup and filler, but once things started happening, they came on fast and furious, and hot damn, the last three or four episodes were quite engaging. Cersei's short-sighted and petty attempt to get back at Margaery finally turns back on her, as everyone expected (doesn't make it any less satisfying when it happens!) Daenerys meets Tyrion! The Dorne thread doesn't entirely work, but it ends with a bang. And then there were the really big things.
  • The battle of Hardhome was fantastic and signals a shift from petty politicking to existential struggle. The TV series is called Game of Thrones, but it's worth noting that the book series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. The icy White walkers have been hinted at all throughout the series, but this appears to be the start of their campaign proper. Much is made in this episode about the ability of Dragonglass to kill them, and then we find out that John Snow's valyrian steel sword can also do the trick. Note that valyrian steel is also referred to as Dragonsteel, and who do we know that has access to firey Dragons? Yeah, I'd say the endgame of the series is coming into focus, which is interesting because as I mentioned earlier, it really did seem like more of a neverending soap opera than a complete narrative. This isn't to say that the series (book or TV) doesn't have their work cut out for them, as this will still be exceedingly difficult to pull off. The themes of the series so far just don't fit with Dany riding to the rescue on her dragons and then triumphantly taking the throne. Honor and righteousness is punished in this world, and though Dany has snuck by with her dignity, I don't think unambiguous triumph is in the cards. On the other hand, I don't know that anyone would be particularly satisfied by a cynical, nihilistic, and tragic ending either. There's a fine line to walk here. Fortunately, it seems possible that this could actually work, which is a good thing.
  • Stannis has always been a turd, and attempts to soften his image earlier this season really telegraphed some of his (horrendous) actions later in the series, and when he finally burns his daughter at the stake (in a scene that genuinely had me asking why I watch this show - seriously one of the two most brutal moments in the series, particularly because they linger on it for so long). This resolution has me wondering what the whole point of the Stannis storyline actually was. Did we really need Stannis at all? I mean, I like Davos and I guess Melisandre could do some interesting things now, but otherwise, Stannis really is the Pierce of this show (perhaps one of many, but still). Tick this in the GoT is just a soap opera column.
  • On the occasion of the Red Wedding, I had opined that "while the Red Wedding is the end of characters we like, it's also the beginning of a villain we're going to love to hate!" and in large part, one of the things that keeps people watching this show is that we want to see our villains get their comeuppance. But it's worth noting that this comeuppance is rarely as satisfying as we might think. Sometimes it's great, as in Joffrey's death. But it is often undercut in one way or another. Take Arya's final revenge on Meryn Trant in the finale. It was fantastic! Then Arya goes back to the house of black and white, gets scolded, and finds herself going blind. While the show's initial conceit was that honor and righeousness was a flaw that would get you killed, it seems that vengeance is also not all it's cracked up to be, which is an interesting turn for the series, and we've seen a fair amount of that in this season...
  • The finale was a bit odd in that so much happened, and so quickly, that much of it felt unresolved and unsatisfying. But then, that's kinda the point of a finale. Still, there were a lot of deaths, only some of which felt earned, and some of which might not actually be deaths? I mean, what happened to Sansa and Theon? Was that suicide, or were they jumping into a soft snowdrift or something? And whenever someone dies offscreen, it's hard to not succumb to pointless conspiracy mongering (did Stannis actually die?) And so on. John seems like the most substantial death, though I can't say as though I hadn't been expecting it. I mean, that whole Ollie character seemed to be telegraphic it, and the fact that John actually came into his own as an honorable leader means that his time was coming to an end. I can't say as though John was my favorite character though, and indeed, much of his misadventures north of the wall seemed kinda lame to me, though it was starting to turn around this season. Rumors abound that Melisandre might resurrect him, which feels kinda lame, but might come off ok if done well. Still, next season seems like a bit of a corker. As I understand it, we're now caught up with and even eclipsing the books at this point, though it does seem like the next installment might be out in early 2016.
  • Speaking of the books, at the urging of a friend, I've taken to listening to the audiobooks of the series, so I may have more to say about that as I listen to them. My initial thought is that watching the TV show was actually good prep for the books, as the amount of detail and obscure characters packed into even the first few hours of the book would have been overwhelming or simply lost in the shuffle. But knowing who the Tyrells or Boltons are, right from the start, gives you a bit of a leg up on the books. As I mentioned earlier, I have no real desire to rewatch the series, and listing to the books makes me wonder if that's actually true because I'm enjoying them well enough. They are super long, but because of my familiarity with the general thrust of the story, it helps.
That's all for now. Will probably have more to say once I finish the first book...
Posted by Mark on June 17, 2015 at 10:30 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hugo Awards: The Dark Between the Stars
Hard as it may be to believe in these Star Wars saturated times, there was a period following Return of the Jedi in which the hallowed franchise faded from the pop culture consciousness. The trilogy had ended and nostalgia had yet to set in. In 1991, three new novels appeared, Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, which covered the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han, while peppering in some new folks for added flavor. Music to my teenage kid ears, and I loved those books. The three novels were a massive success and ushered in an age of what became known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. They were quickly followed by Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy, a not quite as successful continuation of Zahn's story. Anderson wrote many other Star Wars novels (notably the Young Jedi Knights series), but I was never particularly inspired to explore more because I didn't particularly care for the Jedi Academy books. They were fine, I guess, but lacked the thrilling pop of Zahn's initial entries, and while there were some memorable bits, it lacked the satisfaction I got out of initially rejoining my childhood heroes. I always wondered if that was a function of Anderson's writing, or whether it was because he was saddled with pre-existing conditions and unrealistic expectations... So Kevin J. Anderson is a hugely prolific author that has toiled away for years on licensed works for Star Wars, The X-Files, and Dune, though he occasionally puts forth some original novels as well. It is one of those novels that got nominated for the Hugo Awards this year.

From all outward appearances The Dark Between the Stars is a straightforward Space Opera, complete with requisite fancy starships and big explosions. The first of a planned trilogy (though set in a universe the author previously created), it delivers pretty much exactly what you'd expect: Space Opera comfort food, and little else. This is not meant to be belittling, as I tend to enjoy such exercises when done well (the aforementioned Zahn has long been my crutch for these purposes) and what we have here certainly fits the bill, if not perfectly.

It's filled with typical Space Opera tropes. A cast of thousands, quick chapters cutting back and forth between various plot elements, lots of spaceships, aliens, and explosions, an existential threat, and so on. I gather much of the worldbuilding has occurred in a previous series, but Anderson does a fine job establishing the key players. There's several Roamer clans who are basically industrious space gyspies, and we get a close look at several clans. There's a Confederation of several human factions (including Roamers), lead by a monarchy (we follow their family pretty closely). There's a bizarre mad scientist named Zoe Alakis who researches diseases and develops cures that she does not share with anyone for unknown reasons. There's the Ildirans, an older race of polymorphic aliens that is allied with the humans (not without tension, naturally) and whose history seems to drive much of the story. The Klikiss were an insectoid race that was apparently defeated in the previous series, though there remains a small cache of Klikiss robots that play a role here. The near extinct Verdani that are a telepathic network of trees that humans can use to communicate (among other things). So basically, a lot of plot threads here, and much in the way of history and worldbuilding.

During a joint exploration mission, a Human and Ildiran expedition uncovers hidden Klikiss robots and, more ominously, a dark nebula that appears to envelop and dissipate everything it touches. The Ildirans think this dark between the stars (ding ding!) are the Shana Rei, an ancient, legendary race that seem to personify entropy (the notion of order and thought appear to anger them and even cause them pain). The Shana Rei and Klikiss robots ally to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy. Ildirans and Humans struggle to find weapons with which to fight the chaotic force that seems to be popping up throughout the galaxy and destroying outposts, etc...

As a villain and existential threat, the Shana Rei are interesting at first, though I do believe that Anderson perhaps gives us too much of a glimpse into their world. For creatures that personify entropy and chaos, they seem to spend a fair amount of time talking to the Klikiss robots or creating ships to attack other sentient life (i.e. things that rely on order and sentience in itself). They also don't seem to be successful enough in this book to be truly terrifying. They may have been more effective had we known less about them or their motivations. Similarly, many of the distinct plotlines seem rather tangential to the story. Some do start to converge towards the end of the book, but much is left open ended, leaving this feeling a bit incomplete. As the first in a series, that's not too unexpected, but it also makes this difficult to judge this for the awards.

The biggest problem with this novel is that it reminds much of similar exercises that were just executed better. In particular, I kept thinking of Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Duo, a pair of books I certainly had problems with (notably with their excessive length), but which were far better at creating a truly alien threat and delivering on the terror such a thing represents. Indeed, I think I'd call this book Hamilton-lite. It's not as long (which is good!) and the plot is slightly tighter (not saying much given Hamilton's bloat, but fine!), but the ideas and storytelling aren't quite as big or bold either (that's bad!).

When I was in college, I spent one of my two free electives on a film class. One of the subjects we covered was the Auteur theory, basically the idea that a film's director is the primary author of a movie and that it's their distinct creative vision that we're seeing on screen. For some reason, we watched Thelma & Louise, and my teacher dismissed director Ridley Scott as a mere "craftsman" rather than a true Auteur. But what about Alien, we all ask. She responds by mentioning the other creative talent involved, and mentions that just because Scott is a craftsman doesn't mean he can't produce a brilliant work, just that its brilliance can't be traced back mostly to him. Given that filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor, that's probably a much better way of viewing things anyway. It was an interesting discussion, but I don't want to belabor the point. The idea of a distinction between a true Auteur and a craftsman is what keeps coming to mind when I think of Kevin J. Anderson. I mean, books aren't collaborative in the way movies are, but the distinction between a craftsman and, let's say, a master, is what I'm falling back on here. He's a fine author, his prose gets the job done, and the books I've read by him are enjoyable. I still find them a little too diffuse, a little too derivative. So Anderson is a fine craftsman, and honestly, I could see myself revisiting this universe because I had a decent enough time with it. But he's not a master, and while this represents good old-fashioned SF comfort food, I'm not sure it's well executed enough to be worth the stretch.

The question now becomes where to rank this on my ballot. It's certainly a fun adventure, even if it's not really doing anything new or particularly notable. On the other hand, while something like The Goblin Emperor set its sights high, I don't think it delivered on its potential and was a bit of a slog to get through. I feel similarly to Ancillary Sword, a novel that might be fine on its own, but represents a baffling way to continue a series that started off in a fascinating way. I don't think The Dark Between the Stars is better written that either of those novels, but I did enjoy it more than them and could see myself revisiting the series at some point. At this point, I'm at a loss as to where to place this novel on my ballot. I'm pretty certain that The Three Body Problem will end up at the top, but after that, who knows? I'll just have to see how I feel when the time comes to finalize the ballot, I guess. Up next: Jim Butcher's Skin Game... the 15th in a series of novels where I've only read 3. I obviously don't have time to catch up, but maybe the novel will be standalone enough that I can get through it... In the meantime, those novelettes and novellas won't read themselves.
Posted by Mark on June 14, 2015 at 11:48 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Hugo Awards: Short Stories
My feelings on short stories are decidedly mixed, because most of the short fiction I read is from collections that are, by their very nature, uneven. As with Anthology Films, I generally find myself exhausted by the inconsistency. Also, as someone who tends to gravitate towards actual storytelling rather than character sketches or tone poems (or similar exercises in style), a short story can be quite difficult to execute. A lot must be accomplished in a short time, and a certain economy of language is needed to make it all work. There are some people who are great at this sort of thing, but I find them few and far between, so collections of short stories tend to fall short even if they include stories I love. In my experience, the exceptions tend to be collections from a single author, like Asimov's I, Robot or Barker's Books of Blood. That being said, I've been reading significantly more short fiction lately, primarily because of my participation in the Hugo Awards. I found myself quite disappointed with last year's nominated slate, so I actually went the extra mile this year and read a bunch of stuff so that I could participate in the nomination portion of the process. Of course, none of my nominees actually made the final ballot. Such is the way of the short story award (with so many options, the votes tend to be pretty widely spread out, hence all the consternation about the Puppy slates which probably gave their recommendations undue influence this year). But is the ballot any better this year? Only one way to find out, and here are the results, in handy voting order:
  1. Totaled by Kary English - Told from the perspective of a brain that has been separated from its body (courtesy of a car accident) and subsequently preserved in a device that presumably resembles that which was used to preserve Walt Disney's head or something. In the story, this is new technology, so the process is imperfect and while the brain can be kept alive for a significant amount of time, it still only amounts to around 6 months or so. Fortunately, the disembodied brain in question was the woman leading the project, so she's able to quickly set up a rudimentary communication scheme with her lab partner. Interfaces for sound and visuals are ginned up and successful, but by that point the brain's deterioration has begun. This could have been one of those pointless tone poems I mentioned earlier, but English keeps things approachable, taking things step by step. The portrayal of a brain separated from the majority of its inputs (and outputs, for that matter), and slowly regaining some measure of them as time goes on, is well done and seems realistic enough. One could view some of the things portrayed here as pessimistic, but I didn't really read it that way. When the brain deteriorates, she eventually asks to be disconnected before she loses all sense of lucidity (the end of the story starts to lilt into an Algernon-like devolution of language into simplistic quasi-stream of consciousness prose). I suppose this is a form of suicide, but it was inevitable at that point, and the experimental brain-in-a-jar technology allowed for a closure (both in terms of completing some of her research and even seeing her kids again) that would have otherwise been impossible. I found that touching and effective enough that this was a clear winner in the category.
  2. Turncoat by Steve Rzasa - This was the only nominated story that I'd actually read before the slate was announced, and it nearly made my ballot, though it was knocked off as I read other stories. This tale of an AI that inhabits a ship is certainly covering well tread ground, with stories like The Ship Who Sang or last year's Hugo Award winning novel Ancillary Justice going deeper into the subject. However, the thing that's really stuck with me in this story is the role and actions of the "uploaded" humans. I'd love to believe that such a thing would be possible in the long run, but how would we ever know the exact relationship between an uploaded human and its original, biological brain? What is lost and gained in the transition, and this story gets at some of the more troubling aspects of such suppositions. This is all world-building, of course, as the story itself is a fairly effective military campaign where an AI, disturbed by its uploaded masters, defects to the opposing side to try and save biological humans. I can see why this approach would rankle folks not into MilSF, but that's a sub-genre that generally works for me, so here we are.
  3. On a Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli - A spiritual and heartfelt tale of humans discovering that the soul is actually a real, quantifiable thing, thanks to an alien planet's strange magnetic fields. There is less of a story here, though there are some similarities to Totaled, where someone dies but is given a temporary reprieve so that they can glean some sense of closure. That closure is less effectively portrayed here, perhaps because this story is not told from the ghost's perspective, but it is certainly implied. This actually reminded me of Timothy Zahn's Conquerors trilogy, though Antonelli seems much more taken with the more spiritual implications than Zahn (who used a similar device for a more story driven purpose). There are some oddities about this that left me scratching my head, though I guess it makes sense from a more thematic perspective. Still, this is supposed to be SF, and I would have expected less of a rush to allow the ghost to pass on... In the end, it's a decent story and I enjoyed it well enough, not too far behind Turncoat, but clearly inferior to Totaled.
  4. A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond - The tale of a single samurai taking on a mountain-sized Kaiju monster, this has stuck with me surprisingly well, even if there are a bunch of things that don't quite jive with me. There are, for instance, a bunch of stylistic affectations that don't really work for me at all. The story being told is effective enough though, and is what lets me enjoy it for what it is. There's a decent sense of scale, and our protagonist is a man of honor who, while not perfect, manages to figure out how to defeat the monster. Could perhaps swap places with On a Spiritual Plain, though those stylistic affectations bother me for some reason (note: that usually doesn't stop me if I think the story in question is interesting enough, which I guess isn't enough in this case).
  5. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C. Wright - Yeah, I don't really get it. I guess there's some interesting stuff in here somewhere ("the poopflinger has a point"), but there's little story here. If the stylistic affectations of A Single Samurai bothered me, the affectations here downright bored me. It's about a bunch of animals talking to each other in the wake of the Twilight of Man, trying to decide who will lead, or something like that. There are lots of Bibilical intonations, but the whole thing feels more poetic than story-like, and I did not particularly care for that. As part of the Puppy coterie complaining about the lack of good ol' fashioned storytelling (a sentiment I admit that I have sympathy for), I have to wonder what's up with this piece. As much of the Puppy slate has been derided, I have enjoyed a fair amount of it for its back-to-basics approach, but this does not fit there, and feels more like last year's slate (albeit with a more Religious slant than last year's stories). It's fine for what it is, but it is pretty emphatically not my thing.
I definitely found this list an improvement over last year's slate, which again, I did not particularly enjoy. With the possible exception of Totaled, I generally prefer the stuff I nominated to the finalists above, but then, I would think that, wouldn't I? I don't see the need to deploy No Award in this category, though I would not be surprised to see Wright's story fall below that threshold (and we'll see how I feel when the time comes to actually finalize my ballot, I guess).
Posted by Mark on June 07, 2015 at 10:48 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Link Dump
Just got back from vacation, so here's just a few links to tide you over until I recover:
  • The Ingenious Design of the Aluminum Beverage Can - A great example of the unglamorous march of technology that fascinates us here at Kaedrin. The number of steps it takes just to shape the can is probably more than you think, and that stay-on pull tab on top is truly ingenious.
  • Tomorrow's Advance Man - Interesting profile of the Conehead looking Marc Andreessen. I found this graph interesting in light of my recent viewing of Tomorrowland:
    Over the past thirty years, the level of income throughout the developing world is rising, the number of people in poverty is shrinking, health outcomes are improving, birth rates are falling. And it'll be even better in ten years. Pessimism always sounds more sophisticated than optimism-it's the Eden-collapse myth over and over again-and then you look at G.D.P. per capita worldwide, and it's up and to the right. If this is collapse, let's have more of it!
    Emphasis mine, because that's a sentiment I see all the time in different spaces and it always bugs me. To take a more innocuous example, why are unhappy endings in vogue? Why do they seem so much more sophisticated than a happy ending? A lot of people will give a movie or book a pass simply for the fact that it has a downer ending (go to any film festival and you'll find an unending parade of misery porn), and I've never understood that. Happy or sad endings aren't inherently good or bad, and yes, both need to be earned, but for some reason, critics in particular are much more forgiving for the sad endings than they are for happy endings. I've always thought it's a matter of execution, and when your goal is to make the audience feel bad, that's usually a more difficult sell, so you better do it really, really well. Few do, and yet critics fawn all over them anyway. Perhaps a topic for another time.
  • The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence - An excellent (long) read, especially since we seem to be mired in a summer of AI villains and what have you. There are some very scary things about AI, but it's not quite what we're seeing at the movies. The thing that troubles me is the speed with which AI will go from a research project to genuine superintelligence:
    It takes decades for the first AI system to reach low-level general intelligence, but it finally happens. A computer is able to understand the world around it as well as a human four-year-old. Suddenly, within an hour of hitting that milestone, the system pumps out the grand theory of physics that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics, something no human has been able to definitively do. 90 minutes after that, the AI has become an ASI, 170,000 times more intelligent than a human.
    At that speed, we'll have little to no control over what happens... unless we're super careful ahead of time, and even then, anyone who has worked with computers knows what kinds of inadvertent outcomes can happen, and that's a little terrifying when we start talking about a superintelligence. On the other hand, AI could be our salvation and a path to immortality. Something is bound to happen within our lifetimes, and it will be interesting for sure (in the Chinese curse sense, for sure).
And that's all for now!
Posted by Mark on May 31, 2015 at 08:07 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Moving Pictures
Thoughts on movies, big and small, that I've seen recently:
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron - Last year, I fully bought into the whole Marvel mania. Cap 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy were wonderful, and after the dozenth rewatch of the first Avengers, I have to admit that it does some extraordinary things. But that's the thing with the first Avengers. It does some things very poorly. It has low lows. But it dos some things so well, the highs are so very high, that the lows are drowned out by the awesomeness of a single, perfectly placed line of dialog ("Hulk... Smash!" or a dozen other high points). Age of Ultron, by contrast, is a more even movie. The lows aren't as low, but the highs aren't as high either. It remains to be seen whether or not this will be as compulsively rewatchable as the first Avengers, but I suspect it will improve on further rewatching... and as Marvel continues their run through phase 3.

    Here's the thing with these movies: they're really leaning into the comic-bookness of it all. Where phase 1 and most of phase 2 were mostly isolated, standalone movies with some connective tissue weaved in, this movie seems more intertwined and less independent. The never-ending serialized nature of comic books are coming to the screen, fraught with all the attendant baggage that entails. Age of Ultron has a core thread, but dozens of other threads are weaved in, some so blatantly unnecessary that they must have been mandated as setup (see Thor's incomprehensible little detour to some weird underground memory lake), some more seemlessly incorporated. These movies have been going on long enough that many of the things people complain about with comics are starting to emerge. Characters die, but does anyone ever really die in the comics? How does that impact the stakes of the movie you're currently watching? For now, I'm going with the flow, but I can see the strain. How long can they keep this up? Only time will tell.

    I really loved the opening of this movie, with the Avengers already assembled and taking on a Hydra base, followed by an absolutely delightful party at Tony Stark's apartment (where, among other things, several heroes try and fail to lift Thor's hammer - a seemingly throwaway bit that is actually called back later in the film to tremendous effect, a very Whedony thing). Hawkeye, of all people, gets a great little spotlight this movie (it's about time) and that's just another one of those comic bookey things - a character who seems superfluous in the extreme, but turns out great when you give him something to do. Some of the other character stuff is not as fleshed out or contianed. Then things devolve a bit, and we get conflict within the team (seemingly the seeds of Civil War) and a sorta muddled climax. In the end, I still had a ton of fun with this movie, and I suspect it will only get better upon rewatching, and as various unfinished plot threads get resolved or expanded upon in future movies. Some may complain about the comic bookeyness of all this, but they'd be missing the point. The reason Marvel has been so successful is that they've really leaned into that and created something we haven't really seen on film before. I'm looking forward to seeing more.
  • Maggie - An Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie that entails approximately nothing like you'd actually expect from such a description. There aren't really any action scenes, no hoards of zombies (only a handful are really seen), no explosions or histrionics. Instead, we get a father/daughter relationship piece. The daughter (Abigail Breslin) has been infected and will inevitably become a zombie, and the father stands by her side during the transformation, torn by impossible choices (Deliver her to quarantine? Give her painful medical treatment that will only delay the inevitable? Put her out of her misery?). It's something that we've seen as a beat in a lot of zombie movies, stretched out to feature length. Unfortunately, while an admirable approach, it's perhaps a little too dour and drawn out. Still, it's artful and well done, and Arnold gives a surprisingly tender and effective performance. It's funny, I was reminded of the opening scenes of Commando... if Alyssa Milano was turning into a zombie. Or something. It is otherwise nothing like Commando, of course, so I probably shouldn't have brought that up. It's certainly worth a watch, but don't expect anything too exciting.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road - Holy hell, I need a cigarette or something. This is the most propulsive action film of the year, and probably the past few years. There's not much explicit plot, and the dialogue is functional at best, but who cares, the pursuing hoard has something called the Doof Wagon, a giant truck that has a bunch of stacked speakers and a guitarist who is bungie corded to it so that he can provide a diegetic heavy metal soundtrack for the militia's attacks. His guitar doubles as a flame thrower. If that sort of thing appeals to you, you will love this movie. It's one of the more visually impressive films of the year as well, relying primarily on practical effects and communicating more through action and visual cues than dialogue or exposition (which is why the dialogue and exposition that does make its way into the film feels a bit stunted). It could almost work as a silent movie... if it wasn't for the impact and bombast of all the revving cars and explosions. The world is so detailed that the visual approach works shockingly well, and it also means that the film can support many readings in terms of thematic depth. I mean, it's an action movie, through and through, and it works perfectly on that level, but many have searched for and found deeper meaning, from the simple plot of women attempting to escape their sexual slavery, to redemption and survival, to the way Charlize Theron's Furiosa relates to Tom Hardy's Max, and more. Whatever, the action is so engrossing and so intense that it scarcely matters. As long as you care about our intrepid heroes, and how could you not, you'll have fun going along for a ride. And what a lovely ride it is! See this on the largest screen possible, as soon as you can.
  • What We Do in the Shadows - I almost don't want to say anything about this movie because it's possible that you could have a great blind viewing of it. It's about a group of vampire roommates in New Zealand, but it's a comedic faux documentary. It works really well and is definitely recommended!
  • Tomorrowland - Not to cop out on you here, but Matt Singer wrote a great intro that nails my feelings on the movie:
    The best argument for Tomorrowland is its release date; one week after Mad Max: Fury Road, a film about a world destroyed by an oil war, and a week before San Andreas, in which an apocalyptic earthquake destroys half of North America. Less a blockbuster action film than a stern but well-intentioned lecture accompanied by an elaborate audiovisual presentation, Tomorrowland argues that rampant cynicism is actively poisoning our future. People become so convinced by movies like Mad Max and San Andreas that the world is doomed that they start to believe it really is. So they give up, and dystopia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tomorrowland tries, through sheer force of will and a heaping helping of bright, shiny special effects, to reverse that trend; to convince people that there’s hope for tomorrow. It doesn’t want to entertain; its goal is nothing less than to inspire an entire generation. But it might have been easier to achieve the latter if it had worked a little harder to accomplish the former.
    A lot of people are kinda down on the movie, and it's true that it's too didactic in its execution, but it is still a Brad Bird movie, and there are bits when you can see his personality come through. Not as much as, say, his animated work (and I was never as much of a fan of MI4 as everyone else either), but there are some isolated moments here and there that hit really well. It's funny though, this movie has a sorta dystopic premise... one that is subverted, to be sure, but it's still not all that different from, say, Mad Max - a bunch of characters are just trying to survive. Tomorrowland certainly engages the problem with more optimism, but it does so in such a direct manner that it almost opposes itself. Still, it's very much worth watching, despite what all the haters are saying about it.
That's a pretty fantastic run of movies, even the ones that I don't love are things that are trying new and adventurous things and are always interesting to watch and discuss.
Posted by Mark on May 24, 2015 at 10:11 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Link Dump
The usual roundup of interesting things from the depths of the internets, because Mad Max won't watch itself later tonight and I'd like to be around for that.
  • "I Am Not Backing Off Anything I Said" - This interview with Seymour Hersh (about his questioning of the Bin Laden story) is utterly weird:
    Chotiner: OK but here is my question about journalism, since you have been doing this longer than I have-

    Hersh: Oh poor you, you don't know anything. It is amazing you can speak the God's English.
    It's not the Onion, I swears, and this is pretty indicative of Hersh's crankiness level throughout the interview.
  • Anne Hathaway will meet a Kaiju in Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal - If you don't know who Nacho Vigalondo is, you should (though I still haven't seen Open Windows, because I'm the worst). This new effort is described as "Godzilla meets Lost in Translation". Sold!
  • What Is Your Dog Telling You? - Pretty interesting read about dogs' body language:
    For the same reason that Eskimos purportedly have 50 different words for snow, dogs have a vast repertoire of gestures for appeasement and propitiation. The Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas has identified some 30 "calming signals" - movements offered to deflect trouble (which may also relieve stress in both giver and receiver). Supremely subtle, sometimes so quick we don't notice them, these appeasing signals include a flick of the tongue; turning the head or gaze away; suddenly sniffing the ground or sitting; yawning; shaking off; or approaching on a curve.
    We're pretty bad at interpreting doggie language...
  • Marty McFly is a diabetic - A strangely fitting fan theory for Back to the Future.
  • Why can't we read anymore? - I didn't really finish the article because it was too long. Just kidding, of course, and I'm not sure I even really buy into this notion that digital media makes us want to read less. Even the author admits that when he forced himself to sit down and read, it was surprisingly easy to do so. As with a lot of things, it's getting started that's the difficult part.
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on May 17, 2015 at 08:18 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Non-Hugo Book Queue
As I wind my way through this year's Hugo nominees, I've realized that there are several books coming in the near future that I really, really want to read. It's almost enough to want to opt out of the Hugos (what with all the lame controversy), though I suppose there's a fair chance that two of these will be eligible next year (and one the following year). There's also the fact that I've already read 3 of the Hugo novels and am halfway through another, so I guess that's still on the table. Still, These 4 books make me want to drop everything and read them first:
  • Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (May 19, 2015) - So close I can almost taste it, this is coming in the mail next Tuesday. Stephenson is my favorite author, so I don't even really need to know what it's about, but if you do want to know, I posted the official synopsis a while back.
  • Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold (February 2016) - Just recently announced, this is most exciting news. Bujold is my other favorite author, so this is another almost blind buy. Details are sparse, but Bujold has stated that the main protagonist is Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, which is most exciting. She's also stated that "It is not a war story. It is about grownups." which doesn't really narrow it down much, though it may suggest that this novel takes place long after Cordelia's previous entries in the series (Shards of Honor and Barrayar, both great) and perhaps during her stint as Vicereine of Sergyar (will Aral be there?) Honestly, this one is probably the most exciting on the list to me, if only because I have so much already invested in the series.
  • The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (May 19, 2015) - Finally! Barker has been talking about this story since 1993. 1993! I know he doesn't owe his fans anything, but it's been 20+ years, which is a bit excessive... It supposedly features Harry D'Amour (from The Last Illusion and Everville) and Pinhead (from The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser). This gets on the list simply because it's been so damn long, but since it comes out on the same day as Seveneves, it will have to wait!
  • The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Serial, August 11, 2015)- I was a huge fan of The Human Division... right up until it ended on a cliffhanger. Well Scalzi's finally gotten around to publishing the second volume (which supposedly will finish off the overarching story), which is supposed to happen in serial form over the next few months, but I'll probably wait until the full collection is released in August.
There are tons of other books in the queue, but these are some of my favorite authors and they deserve special attention. Can't wait for some of these!
Posted by Mark on May 13, 2015 at 09:23 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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