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Sunday, September 28, 2008

6WH: Week 2 - The Lycanthropic Edition
The Six Weeks of Halloween continues this week with a trio of movies featuring Werewolves, along with the usual spat of movie trailers and comedic shorts. Enjoy:
  • An American Werewolf in London (trailer)
  • The Wolf Man (1941) (trailer)
  • Futurama Episode: The Honking (sorry, vid not online)
  • The Howling: Director Joe Dante's tribute to the werewolf movie isn't the finest example of the genre (heck, it isn't even the finest werewolf movie of 1981, which is a distinction that belongs to An American Werewolf in London), but his obvious enthusiasm comes through during the proceedings, and it's hard to dislike the results. The story follows a TV reporter who takes a trip into the countryside after she has a disturbing experience with a serial killer. Werewolf-laden hijinks ensue. Again, it's quite entertaining, and the werwolf movie staple of the transformation scene is handled well by makeup expert Rob Bottin. Lots of references and visual puns, and the gorgeous Elisabeth Brooks make the film nice to look at, despite the low budget (Dante was a graduate of Roger Corman's low-budget school of filmmaking, so he knew how to stretch a buck). A solid, entertaining werewolf movie, but not fine cinema. What did I learn from this movie? When your vegetarian boyfriend starts tearing into some ribs with glee, he has most likely become a werewolf. ***
  • How to Make Yourself a Pinhead
  • Dracula (teaser)
  • Young Frankenstein (trailer)
  • The Monster Squad: A bunch of kids battle the classic Universal monsters in the suburbs. So this one is kinda cheating, as it's not primarily a werewolf movie, but it does feature a werewolf along with several other iconic monsters. Lead by Dracula, the monsters include the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Frankenstein monster, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. If The Howling was a tribute to werewolf movies, this is a tribute to the whole stable of Universal monster movies. This time, the filmmakers embrace their B-movie roots and the result is a fun and charming movie. This is a movie that sorta mixes 80s horror-comedy (stuff like Ghostbusters, Gremlins, etc...) with the kiddie adventure genre (Goonies, Explorers, Space Camp, etc...) to reasonable success (not sure why the kiddie adventure genre doesn't get more love these days - perhaps because the movies are so very unrealistic). It's great fun, if a little silly. What did I learn from this movie? Indeed, the most famous thing about the movie is the werewolf anatomy lesson. ***
  • The Wolf Man (1999) (cartoon short by Tim Hope)
  • Grindhouse: Werewolf Women Of The S.S. (fake trailer)
  • Teen Wolf (trailer)
  • The Company of Wolves: Neil Jordan's nightmare about wolves and deep, dark forests that evokes and explores the Little Red Riding Hood story. The film is stylish, dark and moody, with a rather strange narrative structure. The film is literally the dream of a modern-day girl, but within the dream, it features several stories centering around wolves (most of the stories are told by Granny in an apparent attempt to scare our heroine away from men). This winds up seeming a bit hokey, but the creepy atmosphere is undeniable and Jordan is a talented director. The werewolves in the film are interesting (and the transformations handled well) in that when the transformation is complete, the wolf looks like, well, a regular wolf (not a man-like wolf creature). The film does feature one of the most interesting werewolf moments that I've seen. The father character heads out into the woods with a mob to hunt down a wolf that's been terrorizing the village. Successful, the father cuts off one of the wolf's paws as a trophy... but when he returns home, the paw has transformed into a human hand. Spooky. A little more artistic than the other movies this week, but ultimately, this movie could have used a bit more focus. What did I learn from this movie? Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle (because, you know, he's probably a werewolf). **1/2
All in all, a pretty entertaining week. Perhaps sometime in the next four weeks, I can pull together a group large enough to play the Werewolf mind game. I'm not sure what next week's schedule will hold in store, but it will probably be more of a mixed bag, rather than the themed weeks I've been doing.

In an effort to further steal from kernunrex, I picked up a pack of Halloween Jones Soda this week... I chose the not-so-adventurous Blood Orange flavor, which I really liked a lot (though it's a pretty standard orange soda style flavor, it's still tasty). Up next will be the Candy Corn flavor.
Posted by Mark on September 28, 2008 at 12:15 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Moon
A few years ago, The Onion put out a book called Our Dumb Century. It was comprised of a series of newspaper front pages, one from each year. It was an interesting book, in part because of the events they chose to represent each year and also because The Onion writers are hilarious. The most brilliant entry in the book was from the 1969 edition of the paper:

Newspaper from 1969: Holy Shit, Man Walks on Fucking Moon

Utterly brilliant. You can't read it on that small copy, but there's a whole profanity-laden exchange between Houston and Tranquility Base that's also hysterically funny. As it turns out, The Onion folks went ahead and made a video, complete with archival footage and authentic sounding voices, beeps, static, etc... Incredibly funny. [video via Need Coffee]

Update: Weird, I tried to embed the video in this post, but when you click play it says it's no longer available... but if you go directly to youtube, you can get the video. I'm taking out the embedded video and putting in the link for now.
Posted by Mark on September 24, 2008 at 10:04 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 1 - The Friday the 13th Edition
I stumbled upon Kernunrex's annual six weeks of Halloween posts a bit late last year, so I only did four weeks myself. This year, I'm prepared. This is my favorite time of the year, and like Kernunrex, I think it's a great excuse to explore one of my favorite genres.
When else can you impersonate another person all day and not be arrested? On what other day would it be socially acceptable to decorate your yard with imitation corpses? Only during Halloween do hollow, burning fruit look good on your porch. Most of all, Halloween somehow makes most everyone in the country a fan of my favorite genre. One day just isn't enough for this type of fun; I make it six weeks.
Excellent. To start things off, I watched some Friday the 13th movies. I've seen most of them before, but mostly only in pieces. Last year, I revisted the original, this year, I've revisted the next three installments.

Friday the 13th
  • Friday the 13th (trailer)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (trailer)
  • Freddy vs. Jason (trailer)
  • Friday the 13th Part 2: Though he makes a surprise appearance in the original film, this film is the first to feature Jason Voorhees as the primary villain. Alas, he has not yet donned his trademark hockey mask, instead sticking with a pillowcase with an eye hole cut out (this is rather less menacing, but it works I guess). Years after the first movie, a new campground is set up as a camp counselor training school and a group of teens arrives to learn... and DIE! The movie features some nice bits, including the trademark POV shots, creepy music, a nice campfire story about the "legend" of Jason Voorhees, and many ominous shots of someone's legs as they approach. There's a little more T&A here, but the kills became a bit stale (perhaps because they were running out of things to steal from Mario Bava's Bay of Blood). Strangely, a lot of people seem to survive this film, never to be mentioned again in the series. Other plot holes abound as well, a rather neat trick considering the simple plot. I know, I know, what should I expect? Not much, and this film obliges. Still, it's reasonable fun if you're into this sort of thing. **
  • Halloween (trailer)
  • Grindhouse: Thanksgiving (fake trailer)
  • Scourge of the Undead (fake trailer)
  • Friday the 13th Part III: Yet another group of kids vacationing at Crystal Lake run afowl of Jason Vorhees (in 3-D!). This film takes place right after the second film. Lots of news reports about the murders from the night before, and more people keep piling up. This film marks the first appearance of Jason's iconic hockey mask as well as Jason's uncanny ability with a spear-gun (I mean, he hit her right in the eye!) I watched the film in 2-D, but you can obviously see the bits that were meant to be 3-D, many of which are just plain stupid (i.e. a shot of a kid holding a baseball bat, awkwardly pointed directly at the camera). There are a couple of shots that would probably have worked well (the aformentioned spear-gun thingy was pretty cool, as was a nice eye-popping incident). Structurally, the film resembles the original in most ways, right up to the crazy old man giving warnings and the "surprise" ending (which just begs for a sequel). Altogether a better film than the second, but not much and still a little sloppy. **

    Jason finally finds his iconic mask
    Jason Voorhees

  • Jason Vorhees cameo on Family Guy
  • A Scooby Friday (Robot Chicken)
  • Horror Movie Big Brother (Robot Chicken)
  • Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter: The fourth film in the series is far from the titular "final" chapter, but it's also perhaps the most enjoyable and best produced installment since the original. This one picks up right after the third film, with the police carting off all the bodies, including the supposedly dead Jason. Obviously, havoc is wreaked at the morgue and Jason makes his way back to camp Crystal Lake, just in time for a new group of kids to arrive at their rented house for fun... and death! Unlike the no-name actors in the first three films (not counting Kevin Bacon), this one features two (count 'em) bona-fide C-list stars: a young Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover (just before his breakout role as George McFly - I don't know how I didn't put this together before now)! Visually, this film seemed to be more polished and less sloppy than the others. Of course, the film basically covers the same ground as the others. Lotsa dead kids, mostly dispatched in unimaginitive ways, and all the standard horror cliches. Oh, I guess the "shadow-death" (where a stabbing is shown with shadows thrown by lightning) is pretty cool, and it also has the scariest moment of the series so far: Crispin Glover dancing to some horrible 80s song (it's too insane to describe - watch the video)! Also worth noting is the truly epic amount of damage Jason sustains during the proceedings. Weasello recaps:
    Jason actually dies twice in this movie. Well, to be more precise, he begins dead as the last movie (sorta) ended. He comes alive in the morgue, however, and proceeds to: Get his hand sliced three times by a machette, get his hand cut nearly in half (between the fingers) by a machette, a machette slash/embedded into his chest under the left armpit, 16 hammer bashes to the head, 1 hammer claw embedded in the back of the neck, a computer monitor bashed onto head (and as a result, a few seconds of electrocution, even though the monitor wasn't plugged in), then... to trump all other injuries.. the trusty machette nearly cleaves Jason's head in twain, horizontally. It enters the left side of his head, stopping at about the nose, cutting right through the eyeball. Jason then collapses to the ground, and the knife gets pushed slowly through his head as it hits the floor. Jason then twitches a few times before being hacked at an additional 15 times with the machette. I fear he has finally "died."
    Of course, despite the title of this movie, the ending screams sequel. Ok, so not fine cincema, but one of the better installments of this series so far. **1/2
One of the most interesting things about the series so far is the surprising restraint that has been shown. Sure, the series is more violent and gory than, say, the original Halloween, but Jason barely appears in the first 30-40 minutes of most installments (and thus the kill count is surprisingly low), and you often don't see his mask or face until even later in the movie (in part IV, you don't see the mast until 1 hour and 9 minutes into the movie). Another interesting bit: there don't appear to be much in the way of guns in these movies. There are some projectile weapons, but it's mostly bladed stuff. Of course, later installments have lots of guns, but I'm surprised by the lack of guns in the first few installments. I've quite enjoyed revisiting the series so far, though I think I'll take a break to get some variety into the SWoH. Or maybe I'll just check out Sleepaway Camp. Heh. In any case, if you're a fan of the series, I highly recommend Weasello's fun writeups on E2. Well, that about wraps up week 1. Stay tuned next weekend for some Werewolf fuelled fun.

Also, since we're pretty early in the season, feel free to leave some recommendations in the comments. I have a bunch of movies in my queue, but nothing I consider very essential, so recommendations are welcome.
Posted by Mark on September 21, 2008 at 07:22 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Probing Video Games
Clive Thompson's latest video game article is about how players of online video games collaborate, analyze and develop strategies for beating difficult bosses. One example he gives is a game called Lineage, where groups of 150 players stage assaults on fiendishly difficult enemies. Constance Steinkuehler, a game academic at the University of Wisconsin, was fascinated with the game and how the players were able to quickly identify and exploit weanesses in the bosses. She eventually figured out how her teenage compatriots were accomplishing the feat:
A group of them were building Excel spreadsheets into which they’d dump all the information they’d gathered about how each boss behaved: What potions affected it, what attacks it would use, with what damage, and when. Then they’d develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked — and to predict how to beat it.

Often, the first model wouldn’t work very well, so the group would argue about how to strengthen it. Some would offer up new data they’d collected, and suggest tweaks to the model.
Sound familiar? I've often mentioned Steven Berlin Johnson's book, Everything Bad is Good For You on this blog, with particular focus on the concepts of probing, telescoping and decision-making. The process of probing a game (or in this case, an enemy), developing a hypothesis, reprobing, and then rethinking the hypothesis is essentially the same thing as the scientific method or the hermenutic circle.

Steinkuehler also studied a popular World of Warcraft message board to see what the folks there were talking about. It turns out that people there are mostly doing science!
Only a minority of the postings were “banter” or idle chat. In contrast, a majority — 86 percent — were aimed specifically at analyzing the hidden ruleset of games.

More than half the gamers used “systems-based reasoning” — analyzing the game as a complex, dynamic system. And one-tenth actually constructed specific models to explain the behavior of a monster or situation; they would often use their model to generate predictions. Meanwhile, one-quarter of the commentors would build on someone else’s previous argument, and another quarter would issue rebuttals of previous arguments and models.
I've never actually played WoW, but I find this behavior fascinating. Towards the end of the article, Thompson talks about education:
And here’s the thing: The (mostly) young people engaging in these sciencelike conversations are precisely the same ones who are, more and more, tuning out of science in the classroom. Every study shows science literacy in school is plummeting, with barely one-fifth of students graduating with any sort of sense of how the scientific method works. The situation is far worse for boys than girls.

Steinkuehler thinks videogames are the way to reverse this sorry trend. She argues that schools ought to be embracing games as places to show kids the value of scientific scrutiny — the way it helps us make sense of the world.
That would certainly make for an interesting class. As I've noted before, it should be interesting to see if video games ever really catch on as learning tools. There have been a lot of attempts at this sort of thing, but they're often stifled by the reputation of video games being a "colossal waste of time" (in recent years, the benefits of gaming are being acknowledged more and more, though not usually as dramatically as Johnson does in his book).
Posted by Mark on September 17, 2008 at 08:47 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Clone Wars & Context
Not too long ago, I mentioned that George Lucas' involvement in a project usually does not bode well for that project. I admit to a certain amount of bandwagon-jumping there, but at the same time, I think it's justified. Jeff Jenson at EW thinks otherwise:
But the haters got it wrong — about The Clone Wars, about Lucas (''Sellout''? What does that even mean these days?), and about the current state of Star Wars in general. Missing from much of the overheated bashing of The Clone Wars was the crucial point that it was made for kids, not the grown-ups for whom the original trilogy remains (ridiculously) sacred. Several reviews simply revisited and rehashed the bitter disdain many adult Star Wars fans have for the prequel trilogy. I get that bitterness. But my young Star Wars-loving children don't, nor do the kids who were raised on the prequels and (heresy!) actually liked them.
Now, I was one of the few who plunked down their $10 to see the latest Clone Wars movie, and I do think that hyperbolic response of movie critics was unjustified. The movie is nothing special, but it does not deserve to be among the worst movies of the year. For all its failings, it's still well made and it contains a coherent story (albeit, not much of one). So why the disproportionate response? I think the answer is context.

First, everyone heard the story behind the release of this film. Namely that Lucasfilm was putting together a TV series for Cartoon Network, and that after producing the Pilot episode, they decided to put it in the theaters to see if they could rake in some more cash from mopes like myself. Jenson wonders in his article what "sellout" even means these days, and it's a fair point I guess, but it's pretty obvious that this is a pure money grab on Lucasfilms' part. I'm reminded once again of David Foster Wallace's1 brilliant essay, F/X Porn, where he discusses some of the business decisions that drove the plot of T2:
The studio backing for "T2'''s wildly sophisticated and digital F/X therefore depends on Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreeing to reprise his Terminator role. Now the ironies start to stack, though, because it turns out that Schwarzenegger -- or perhaps more accurately "Schwarzenegger, Inc.," or "Ahnodyne" -- has decided that playing any more malevolent cyborgs would compromise the Leading Man image his elite and bankable record of ROI entails. He will do the film only if "T2"'s script is somehow engineered to make the Terminator the Good Guy. Not only is this vain and stupid and shockingly ungrateful [12], it is also common popular knowledge, duly reported in both the trade and the popular entertainment media before "T2" even goes into production. There's consequently a weird postmodern tension to the way we watch the film; we're aware of what the bankable star's demands were, and we're also aware of how much the movie cost and how important bankable stars are to a big-budget movie; and so one of the few things that keeps us on the edge of our seats during the movie is our suspense about whether James Cameron can possibly weave a plausible, non-cheesy narrative that meets Schwarzenegger's career needs without betraying "T1"'s precedent.
(emphasis mine) Like T2, the production and financial situation of The Clone Wars was duly reported and common knowledge among the public before the film's release. We know what we're watching is simply an episode in a TV series, which automatically knocks it down a peg due to the negative connotations of TV. Add on the perceived greed of releasing it in theaters and marketing it to the traditional Star Wars fanbase (while it may certainly be more suitable for children, as Jenson notes, I don't remember it being marketed that way), and it goes down another peg or two.

Second, the stakes of the film are rather low. This is most likely the result of its TV heritage, as it would have been fine as a pilot episode for a series that will most likely continue to develop the various strands that were introduced in the movie. But when you put it in the theaters, you're begging to compare it to the other 6 films. While the prequels tend to be a bit muddled in terms of plot, the stakes are clearly high. And the original trilogy has even higher stakes. Furthermore, the movie can't even approach the stakes of the first Clone Wars series (more on this later).

Third, the tension is non-existent because the film takes place between Episode II and Episode III. In addition, the grand majority of the characters in the movie are also in Episode III, so, for instance, we know that the duel between Anakin and Count Dooku will result in a draw. Ah, but how can I say that when I also like the original Clone Wars series? It's easy. That series came out before Episode III. Furthermore, while that series featured many of the same characters as the movies, it also featured a whole slew of Jedi who were not main characters in the movies. So when these normally peripheral Jedi are placed in the spotlight and cornered by General Grievous, there is a genuine feeling of suspense (incidentally, Grievous was a great, menacing character in the series - making him a total letdown in Episode III, where he turned out to be an incompetent, cowardly weenie).

Yes, many of these complaints have very little to do with the craft or skill that went into the movie, but context matters. Whether it's expectations, innovation or the crowd you saw a film with, it's clear that context makes a big difference. For a movie that takes place in a beloved SF universe with a grand tradition, context matters even more, which is why I think you can see a lot of exaggerated complaints in reviews. To be sure, it's not a great film, but it's not one of the year's worst either.

1 - Surprisingly, it seems that David Foster Wallace was found dead recently. I guess I should dust off my unread copy of Infinite Jest and give it a read sometime. Perhaps after I finish Anathem.
Posted by Mark on September 14, 2008 at 08:40 PM .: link :.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Goodbye, Trackbacks
So while I am able to write a post now, the problem of the mysterious core dumps is still apparently not solved. I logged into my account last night to find that I had a nice 2 gb of core dumps in my movable type directory. These files must have accumulated during the past few weeks, and it's obvious that my original posting problem wasn't the only malfunction that was creating core dumps. In any case, I checked the system again tonight and found about 600 mb of files in my account. Great. At least that narrows it down a little, as I haven't logged in to MT since last night. So if it's not something I'm doing in MT, it's got to be something that is accessible to everyone, like comments or trackbacks. After some halfassed troubleshooting, I was able to cause a core dump by sending a legitimate trackback to my site. Somehow I doubt that's the only thing causing a problem, but clearly, it needs to go.

Trackbacks were a nice idea, but in reality, they've gone down as something of a debacle. The general concept is to provide a way for one blogger to notify another blogger when they've linked to their blog. So I write a post that links to another blog, and I can "ping" that blog to let the author of that blog know that I've linked to them. In addition, a link back to my post appears on their post. Sounds nice, right? And it is... when it works. The problem is that the system is completely open, so the spammers had a field day. And the trackback management functionality (including anti-spam measures) has always lagged behind comment functionality, so there always seemed to be problems. In other words, trackbacks basically became useless, and a maintenance nightmare. Also, the implementations of the trackback protocol on different blogging engines tended to be a bit strange (Wordpress blogs can never seem to ping my blog successfully.)

The general concept still exists in other forms. Aggregators like Technorati are partially driven by Pings. They deal with spam too (among other issues), but again, the concept remains valid. Six Apart and others are attempting to rework the concept, at which point it might prove useful again.

Alas, it will not exist on this blog anymore. Of course it's not a big loss. During the 8 year tenure of this blog, I've received exactly 11 legitimate trackbacks. I have no idea how many spam trackbacks I've received, but it's somewhere around way too fucking many.

All of which is to say that I'm mucking around with my blog's templates, so things might appear wonky for a bit. If you're having problems, feel free to email me (or post a comment, as that seems to work fine).

Update: Author comments. It's funny, I really should have removed trackbacks a long time ago. I guess I'm just lazy. Let's just call it blog template inertia. Oh, and there was also at least 2 occasions where I thought to myself, I should remove trackbacks! They're useless!, at which point I would receive a few trackbacks in the next couple days. But the last one was well over a year, and the core dumps provided a convenient excuse. Incidentally, only 160 mb of core dumps in the past day since I removed trackbacks. Hurm.
Posted by Mark on September 11, 2008 at 09:10 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Link to Someone New
Just another set of blogs I have never linked to before. Enjoy. That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on September 10, 2008 at 07:49 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Zoe's Tale
At the risk of greatly simplifying my reading process, it's possible to categorize books into two categories: page turners and slow burners. Page turners are incredibly easy and entertaining reads, while slow burners require a little more effort to digest (and usually take longer to read). Both types have their plusses and minuses, and naturally, most books fall somewhere between the two types, with certain rare and extreme exceptions. For instance, Gravity's Rainbow is a typical slow burner - packed densely with fascinating ideas and esoteric concepts and beautifully written, it is also a very slow read that requires full attention (i.e. not something you'd want to read at the beach or on a plane). On the other hand, the books of John Scalzi would be best characterized as page turners.

Since discovering Scalzi a few years ago, I've quickly devoured most of his books. The first and most notable is Old Man's War, an entertaining military SF book with a twist: the soldiers in this novel begin their service at 75 years old. Scalzi hits all the military SF tropes while retaining an entertaining and page turning feel. Not terribly original, but it featured likeable characters and a fun overall arc. He followed that up with a sequel, The Ghost Brigades, which follows a different branch of the military (the special forces). Once again, it was an entertaining page turner, though in my opinion, it did not reach the heights of Old Man's War mostly because of the galactic-sized plot hole that the story hinges on. His next novel, The Android's Dream (which, contrary to its title, doesn't feature much in the way of androids or dreams), is independent of what has now become the Old Man's War Universe, and is probably my second favorite of Scalzi's novels. Scalzi then returned to the OMW Universe and wrote The Last Colony. Where the first two novels in the series focused on the military aspects of the universe, this novel focuses on the colonies. The heroes from the first two books, John Perry and Jane Sagan, head up an expedition to colonize a new planet, much to the chagrin of a collective of alien races. Once again, I breezed through the book in no time and thoroughly enjoyed it, despite a few seemingly loose ends or abrupt plot maneuvers.

Which brings us to Scalzi's latest novel, Zoe's Tale. The story is set in parallel with The Last Colony and depicts mostly the same events, but from the perspective of Zoe Boutin Perry, the 16 year old adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan (the heroes of the first two novels). This is actually a tricky proposition, for a number of reasons. First, while retelling the same story from a different perspective has been done before (Scalzi himself mentions the two most obvious examples in his acknowledgements: Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow (Which retells Ender's Game from the perspective of Bean) and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which takes minor characters from Hamlet and makes them the focus)), it is by no means a simple matter to portray the same events in a new and exciting light. Second, the character of Zoe, a teenage girl with rough childhood, presents something of a challenge because the book is written in first person and I'm pretty sure John Scalzi is not a teenage girl (he is, in fact, a 38 year old man). If he couldn't manage to find Zoe's voice, the book simply couldn't have worked.

Overall, I think he managed to clear both hurdles, but not by a ton. Like his other novels, I blew through this book in just a few days, and it was indeed quite entertaining. However, there were a few things that didn't quite work for me. As I mentioned before, the story takes place in parallel with the events of The Last Colony, and for a good portion of this book, the concept doesn't really play that well. As a teenage girl, Zoe doesn't really have much to do during a good portion of the story. Events are happening around her, but she's not really driving or even responding much to them. Much time is spent building relationships with a small group of friends, while her parents are dealing with bigger and more exciting problems. Luckily, the loose ends in Colony that I mentioned above give Scalzi what he needs to empower Zoe, and the last third or so of the novel really kicks into gear. In particular, we get a little more on the indiginous life form on the colony's planet (which are described as similar to werewolves). In Colony, the situation with the werewolves escalates to nowhere. Some things happen, and then that subplot is basically dropped in favor of another, more dangerous threat. To be honest, I still don't think Scalzi has weaved the werewolves subplot into the story that well, but Zoe's encounter with them does add some more perspective, and actually plays more of a part in this novel than it does in Colony. The other major event that is only briefly mentioned in Colony is Zoe's diplomatic mission to the Conclave (which was essentially a deus ex machina maneuver on Scalzi's part). This represents the climax of Zoe's story and is handled well.

As for Zoe's voice, I think Scalzi certainly does well enough. Speaking as someone who has never been a teenage girl myself, I can't say this with authority, but I didn't have many problems with the character. I think Scalzi did go a bit overboard with the themes of friendship and love, which are repeated over and over as the story progresses, but it works reasonably well within the story. After several books, it's also worth noting that Scalzi's main characters all seem to engage in witty, rapid-fire dialogue, but I'm not really complaining about that yet. It's part of what turns the pages, after all.

In the end, I don't think this is Scalzi's best work, though maybe teenage girls will get more of a kick out of it than I did (and I think it could work as a standalone novel as well, which would might make it even better). On the other hand, I devoured this novel just as quickly as the others, and enjoyed it almost as much. While I very much enjoy these characters and the OMW Universe in general, I do hope the Scalzi moves on to something else, at least for a novel or two. He has a done a good job in mining his universe for interesting stories, and each novel has a very distinct feel (the first two give different flavors of military service, while the next two give different perspectives on the colonization process), but I'd hate for new novels to become tired retreads of the existing material. In any case, I do recommend Zoe's Tale to anyone who enjoyed the first three, and I also highly recommend Old Man's War for any SF fans out there (and The Android's Dream is also quite good!)
Posted by Mark on September 07, 2008 at 07:48 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Link Dump and Quick Hits
Just a few links that have caught my interest lately.
  • Denise Jones, Super Booker by John Scalzi: The idea of superheroes and the legal system has been done before, from Watchmen to The Incredibles, but Scalzi takes it a step further here in this short story. It basically takes the form of an interview, and is quite funny:
    Q: So you’re saying that if Chicago were attacked by a sewer monster or something, the mayor would have to go through you to get help from ArachnoLad.
    A: No, Chicago keeps ArachnoLad on a retainer. The Evening Stalker, too. Most large cities have one or two super beings under contract.
    Heh. Also amusing is the story behind the story, which apparently took 13 minutes from completion to publication. Speaking of Scalzi, I'll probably be writing some reviews of his novels at some point in the near future, including his latest, Zoe's Tale (which I just finished and liked, though perhaps not as much as his other novels).
  • They're Made Out of Meat by Terry Bisson: Another short story. It's been floating around the web for a long time, but it's brilliant, so if you haven't read it, check it out.
  • Kids: Neptunus Lex has a conversation with one of his daughter's friends. The highpoint is when they talk about Top Gun. Heh.
  • Like everyone else, I've been messing around with Google's new browser Chrome. It's nice and everything, but I'm not sure it will catch on, and I don't know if Google even really cares if it does. They built the browser on top of Webkit (which is the same open source rendering engine that powers Safari, which is itself based off of the KHTML engine that powers Konqueror), and their biggest development push seems to be with their Javascript interpreter (named V8). Indeed, after playing around on some Ajax heavy sites, it does appear to make web applications run a lot faster. I suspect Google just got sick of folks saying that Gmail was slow or that Google Apps are buggy, so they wanted to drive other browsers to improve their Javascript capabilities. So by creating a new browser, Google is hoping to spark a new competition based around Javascript interpreters. Or, since Chrome is open source, why not just incorporate their JS code into other browsers (I'm sure it's not that easy, but still)? Oh, and sure, Chrome has lots of other dohickeys that are neat - the multiprocessing thing is cool, as is incognito and a bunch of other features. But none of those things is really unique or gives Chrome the leg up on other browsers. To me, their biggest selling point is the fast JS interpreting. If Chrome becomes popular or if other browsers take the hint and improve their JS implementations, the end result is that things get a little easier for web app developers, who no longer have to worry about slow, unresponsive browsers and can shoot for the moon.
Posted by Mark on September 03, 2008 at 08:11 PM .: link :.

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