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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Someone sent me a note about a post I wrote on the 4th Kingdom boards in 2005 (August 3, 2005, to be more precise). It was in a response to a thread about technology and consumer electronics trends, and the original poster gave two examples that were exploding at the times: "camera phones and iPods." This is what I wrote in response:
Heh, I think the next big thing will be the iPod camera phone. Or, on a more general level, mp3 player phones. There are already some nifty looking mp3 phones, most notably the Sony/Ericsson "Walkman" branded phones (most of which are not available here just yet). Current models are all based on flash memory, but it can't be long before someone releases something with a small hard drive (a la the iPod). I suspect that, in about a year, I'll be able to hit 3 birds with one stone and buy a new cell phone with an mp3 player and digital camera.

As for other trends, as you mention, I think we're goint to see a lot of hoopla about the next gen gaming consoles. The new Xbox comes out in time for Xmas this year and the new Playstation 3 hits early next year. The new playstation will probably have blue-ray DVD capability, which brings up another coming tech trend: the high capacity DVD war! It seems that Sony may actually be able to pull this one out (unlike Betamax), but I guess we'll have to wait and see...
For an off-the-cuff informal response, I think I did pretty well. Of course, I still got a lot of the specifics wrong. For instance, I'm pretty clearly talking about the iPhone, though that would have to wait about 2 years before it became a reality. I also didn't anticipate the expansion of flash memory to more usable sizes and prices. Though I was clearly talking about a convergence device, I didn't really say anything about what we now call "apps".

In terms of game consoles, I didn't really say much. My first thought upon reading this post was that I had completely missed the boat on the Wii, however, it appears that the Wii's new controller scheme wasn't shown until September 2005 (about a month after my post). I did manage to predict a winner in the HD video war though, even if I framed the prediction as a "high capacity DVD war" and spelled blu-ray wrong.

I'm not generally good at making predictions about this sort of thing, but it's nice to see when I do get things right. Of course, you could make the argument that I was just stating the obvious (which is basically what I did with my 2008 predictions). Then again, everything seems obvious in hindsight, so perhaps it is still a worthwhile exercise for me. If nothing else, it gets me to think in ways I'm not really used to... so here are a few predictions for the rest of this year:
  • Microsoft will release Natal this year, and it will be a massive failure. There will be a lot of neat talk about it and speculation about the future, but the fact is that gesture based interfaces and voice controls aren't especially great. I'll bet everyone says they'd like to use the Minority Report interface... but once they get to use it, I doubt people would actually find it more useful than current input methods. If it does attain success though, it will be because of the novelty of that sort of interaction. As a gaming platform, I think it will be a near total bust. The only way Microsoft would get Natal into homes is to bundle it with the XBox 360 (without raising the price)
  • Speaking of which, I think Sony's Playstation Move platform will be mildly more successful than Natal, which is to say that it will also be a failure. I don't see anything in their initial slate of games that makes me even want to try it out. All that being said, the PS3 will continue to gain ground against the Xbox 360, though not so much that it will overtake the other console.
  • While I'm at it, I might as well go out on a limb and say that the Wii will clobber both the PS3 and the Xbox 360. As of right now, their year in games seems relatively tame, so I don't see the Wii producing favorable year over year numbers (especially since I don't think they'll be able to replicate the success of New Super Mario Brothers Wii, which is selling obscenely well, even to this day). The one wildcard on the Wii right now is the Vitality Sensor. If Nintendo is able to put out the right software for that and if they're able to market it well, it could be a massive, audience-shifting blue ocean win for them. Coming up with a good "relaxation" game and marketing it to the proper audience is one hell of a challenge though. On the other hand, if anyone can pull that off, it's Nintendo.
  • Sony will also release some sort of 3D gaming and movie functionality for the home. It will also be a failure. In general, I think attitudes towards 3D are declining. I think it will take a high profile failure to really temper Hollywood's enthusiasm (and even then, the "3D bump" of sales seems to outweigh the risk in most cases). Nevertheless, I don't think 3D is here to stay. The next major 3D revolution will be when it becomes possible to do it without glasses (which, at that point, might be a completely different technology like holograms or something).
  • At first, I was going to predict that Hollywood would be seeing a dip in ticket sales, until I realized that Avatar was mostly a 2010 phenomenon, and that Alice in Wonderland has made about $1 billion worldwide already. Furthermore, this summer sees the release of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which could reach similar heights (for reference, New Moon did $700 million worldwide) and the next Harry Potter is coming in November (for reference, the last Potter film did around $930 million). Altogether, the film world seems to be doing well... in terms of sales. I have to say that from my perspective, things are not looking especially well when it comes to quality. I'm not even as interested in seeing a lot of the movies released so far this year (an informal look at my past few years indicates that I've normally seen about twice as many movies as I have this year - though part of that is due to the move of the Philly film fest to October).
  • I suppose I should also make some Apple predictions. The iPhone will continue to grow at a fast rate, though its growth will be tempered by Android phones. Right now, both of them are eviscerating the rest of the phone market. Once that is complete, we'll be left with a few relatively equal players, and I think that will lead to good options for us consumers. The iPhone has been taken to task more and more for Apple's control-freakism, but it's interesting that Android's open features are going to present more and more of a challenge to that as time goes on. Most recently, Google announced that the latest version of Android would feature the ability for your 3G/4G phone to act as a WiFi hotspot, which will most likely force Apple to do the same (apparently if you want to do this today, you have to jailbreak your iPhone). I don't think this spells the end of the iPhone anytime soon, but it does mean that they have some legitimate competition (and that competition is already challenging Apple with its feature-set, which is promising).
  • The iPad will continue to have modest success. Apple may be able to convert that to a huge success if they are able to bring down the price and iron out some of the software kinks (like multi-tasking, etc... something we already know is coming). The iPad has the potential to destroy the netbook market. Again, the biggest obstacle at this point is the price.
  • The Republicans will win more seats in the 2010 elections than the Democrats. I haven't looked close enough at the numbers to say whether or not they could take back either (or both) house of Congress, but they will gain ground. This is not a statement of political preference either way for me, and my reasons for making this prediction are less about ideology than simple voter disenfranchisement. People aren't happy with the government and that will manifest as votes against the incumbents. It's too far away from the 2012 elections to be sure, but I suspect Obama will hang on, if for no other reason than that he seems to be charismatic enough that people give him a pass on various mistakes or other bad news.
And I think that's good enough for now. In other news, I have started a couple of posts that are significantly more substantial than what I've been posting lately. Unfortunately, they're taking a while to produce, but at least there's some interesting stuff in the works.
Posted by Mark on May 30, 2010 at 09:00 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nanoha A's Ends
I finished Nanoha A's about a month ago, but have neglected to post about it until now. I don't have much to add to my previous posts on the subject, but I do want to comment on one thing that I wrote a while back:
Ultimately, I'm glad I'm watching this series, but I think I've discovered a strain of Anime that I know I want to avoid in the future. The whole lolicon business is frustrating, especially since you can go a few episodes without it and just when I'm getting used to a normal story, I get slapped in the face with a creepy transformation deck or something. I don't really have that much of a problem while watching the show, but I can already tell that this is the sort of series where my opinion will degrade over time because the most memorable part of it is something I find annoying and creepy.
A month after finishing the series, and I have to say that my opinion has indeed degraded over time for the reasons described above. Much of what I remember about the show are the creepy lolicon overtones and a bunch of nitpicky complaints.

The overall stories of both series are reasonably well done, and I do like the way stakes were raised in the second series. For a quasi-inanimate object, the Book of Darkness makes for a good villain, and I like how it meets its match in a young, crippled girl who has seemingly endless reserves of good will and optimism. The way the protectors bond with that girl is touching and further reinforces the "empathetic villain" motif of the series.

There's a twist later in the series which is reasonably satisfying, though not entirely unexpected. As soon as a second masked mystery man showed up, it was almost immediately obvious who they were and why they were helping the Book of Darkness.

The battles in the series are certainly bigger and our heroes' power certainly seems to be growing, but this does represent something of an issue with Magic. I had mentioned before that the series doesn't get too carried away with the Magic, but in hindsight, I think it might suffer from the typical magic trap of ever-escalating power. There don't appear to be much in the way of limitations to magic in the universe of this show, and that does begin to sap the show of some tension.

But all of that is beside the point. In the end, I simply can't deal with the creepy lolicon stuff. There isn't that much of it in the series, but it's about evenly spread throughout, so that every time I felt myself getting comfortable with the story, they'd throw a creepy transformation deck at me and I'd be right back where I started. It's a good series, but I find it hard to overcome the things I don't like about it. As I mentioned above, it's only really gotten worse over time, to the point where things I didn't mind much now feel like negatives. I'm glad I watched it, because I now know to steer clear of anything with even a whiff of lolicon, but that's a bit of a shame because I did enjoy some aspects of the series quite a bit. I'm a little comforted by the fact that the folks who recommended this series to me don't seem to like the whole lolicon business either, but while they were able to tune it out, I just wasn't able to do so... I'm told that the sequel to this series takes place when Nanoha and friends are in their late teens (something we get a glimpse of at the very end of this series... and I wish that's how the series had started), which sounds promising, but at the same time, I'm not exactly in the mood to chase down the series (which hasn't been released yet in the US).

Up next in the Anime queue are a pair of movies - Banner of the Stars III (technically an OAV) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (which I apparently had in my Netflix queue, probably added due to Otaku Kun and the rest of the Otakusphere).
Posted by Mark on May 26, 2010 at 07:34 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Murnau Stare
One of the films I forgot to include in my Greatest Movies I've Never Seen list was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. It's a 1927 silent film and it features a number of iconic shots - most notably a scene where a woman and man pass through a bustling street (see this clip, about 3:36 in). One of the things I always find interesting about the silent film era is how much of modern cinema is represented, even back then. While technology and budgets have certainly improved, much of the visual language of cinema was coined during the silent era. In particular, Sunrise has a number of impressive tracking shots and the composite special effects are much more effective than expected.

The shot that struck me the most, though, was this one:

Sunrise stare

In the film, a city girl vacations in the country and tempts a farm man into an affair. She suggests he drown his wife so that he could be free to run away to the city. It's a rather simple premise, but the man is conflicted, and when he takes his wife out for a boat ride, he stops and favors her with the above stare. Does it look familiar?

Maybe it's just me, but it bears a striking resemblance to what's called the Kubrick Stare. Head tilted downward, eyes tilted upward. It was a favorite shot of Kubrick, and he often employed it in his movies, perhaps most famously in the opening shot of A Clockwork Orange:

A Clockwork Orange stare
A Clockwork Orange

It turns out that the phrase "Kubrick Stare" was coined by cinematographer Doug Milsome, a frequent collaborator with Kubrick. It seems that Kubrick liked to use the look himself when he was feeling angry or mischievous, and it's rumored that his stare was more intense than anything in his films. This shot from a Playboy interview in 1969 captures it reasonably well:

A Clockwork Orange stare
Stanley Kubrick

Again, Kubrick is famous for using this shot, and you can see it in most of his films, often multiple times (see the extended entry for more shots from The Shining and Full Metal Jacket) and being a big Kubrick fan, I was kinda surprised to see it, full formed, in Sunrise.

Of course, neither Murnau or Kubrick have trademarked that stare. In fact, it's a rather common human expression (indeed, my nieces frequently make that face whenever their crazy uncle Marky does something silly). Filmmakers of the stature of Kubrick or Murnau just managed to capture well enough that it stands out. Kubrick's consistent use of that image made it iconic enough that he sorta made it his own. Now, whenever someone uses a shot like that, it's considered an homage to Kubrick... but watching Sunrise is interesting in that light (seeing as though that film was made a solid 30 years before Kubrick even started making movies). More screenshots below the fold... Jack Nicholson flashes the expression numerous times throughout The Shining:

Jack Nicholson can stare real good

Jack Nicholson can stare real good
The Shining

Vincent D'Onofrio seems to be using the Kubrick Stare by way of the Thousand Yard Stare (or vice versa?) in Full Metal Jacket:


Full Metal Jacket

There are lots of other examples I could use, but I'll leave it at that for now...
Posted by Mark on May 23, 2010 at 08:06 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Yet Another Link Dump
Sorry for all the link dumps, but I've not been feeling especially inspired as of late. Anyway, some interesting stuff I've seen recently:
  • The Enemy Within by Mark Bowden: You wouldn't think that the story of a computer worm would be this interesting, but it is.
    The struggle against this remarkable worm is a sort of chess match unfolding in the esoteric world of computer security. It pits the cleverest attackers in the world, the bad guys, against the cleverest defenders in the world, the good guys (who have been dubbed the “Conficker Cabal”). It has prompted the first truly concerted global effort to kill a computer virus, extraordinary feats of international cooperation, and the deployment of state-of-the-art decryption techniques—moves and countermoves at the highest level of programming. The good guys have gone to unprecedented lengths, and have had successes beyond anything they would have thought possible when they started. But a year and a half into the battle, here’s the bottom line:

    The worm is winning.
  • And I, for one, welcome our new printer overlords.
  • Mann Co. - Form letter from a company of awesome people.
  • Periodic Table of Fictional Elements - Sometimes I think I'm a nerd, and then someone goes and makes something like this..
  • "Adam? ...is there a reason your laptop is in the fridge?" - Heroic tale of refrigeration and data recovery. "I share this experience with you, the internet, in the hopes that it is useful."
Posted by Mark on May 19, 2010 at 09:48 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Top 5 Most Anticipated Summer Movies
Playing along with Filmspotting's latest podcast, here's a list of my top 5 most anticipated summer movies. Like the Filmspotting hosts, I'm going to avoid the big name blockbusters and try to find some smaller films that I'm interested in... Movies like Inception, Toy Story 3, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Last Airbender are all well and good, but we've all heard about them... What are the surprise hits, the genre pics, and the just plain weird movies we can look forward to?

Part of the reason I wanted to write this post is that I stumbled upon news of IFC Films' VOD program and their plans to brand a genre label, IFC Midnight. It turns out that their lineup for the summer is pretty interesting, and unlike a lot of small, independent films, you can view these in the comfort of your own home (assuming you have access to their VOD service through Comcast and the like) right around the time they come out in theaters (theaters which usually aren't near you, etc...). Not all the films below are going to be available this way, but some is better than none! Anyway, without further ado (and in no particular order):
  • The Human Centipede: The less said about the plot, the better (I think - though the title pretty much gets at it, I think - a madman connecting a bunch of humans so that they literally become the titular human centipede). This has been garnering a lot of buzz on the horror film fest circuit (i.e. Fantastic Fest, etc...) and has EW wondering if it's “the most disgusting horror movie of all time”... From what I've heard, it sounds like a blast. Apparently, this is in limited release right now, and it's already available on VOD as well...
  • Doghouse: At first glance, this didn't interest me much. It seems like a bromance zombie battle-of-the-sexes movie, which sounds kinda lame (for reference, I'm not a huge fan of zombie movies and I think bromances are beginning to become a bit tired). However, it's made by British director Jake West, who also made Kaedrin favorite Evil Aliens (which, to be sure, isn't exactly fine cinema - but it's fantastically fun, it calls to mind the classic Sam Raimi/Peter Jackson splatstick horror films, and features a few... unique... sequences unlike anything I'd ever seen). If Doghouse is half as much fun, it'd be worth seeing. Available on VOD in June.
  • Vengeance: Director Johnny To is another Kaedrin favorite, and I've found his movies are always worth checking out. Here, he's making his English language directing debut, though the story takes place in France and features many of the To regulars. The subject matter of vengeance puts it up against some stiff competition in Chan-wook Park's brilliant, layered Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), but I'm betting that To will come up with something great here... This one comes out in theaters and VOD in August.
  • Best Worst Movie: This is a documentary about the making of Troll 2 and the subsequent response. Troll 2 is a frequent contender for the honor of being the worst movie of all time (judging from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, etc...) I love these types of documentaries, but this one is a bit disappointing in that it doesn't appear to be available anywhere (it's not on VOD, nor does there seem to be any screenings near me).
  • Splice: Probably the "biggest" release of the movies on this list, this one is about two scientists who splice together human and animal DNA to create... a monster? Not sure, but it's got a solid cast and some good film festival buzz. It also appears to be getting a semi-wide release, which should make it easy to find in theaters.
And just for the heck of it, 5 movies I want to see even though I know they'll suck (a yearly tradition here at Kaedrin):
  • Piranha 3-D: The Pirhana series of movies has a shockingly good pedigree when it comes to the filmmakers involved. The first Piranha was directed by Joe Dante (who would go on to direct Gremlins, among other things) and written by John Sayles (a legend in the inde movie community). Piranha Part Two: The Spawning was directed by none other than James Cameron (he of Terminator, Aliens, and Avatar fame). Now, Alexandre Aja is already an established director, but hey, he's following a pretty good lineage here... I don't expect this movie to be any good, but hopefully Aja will settle down and knock something out of the park next...
  • Predators: What can I say, I have a soft spot for this series of movies, and now that they're done ruining AvP, I guess they've set their sights on the Predators themselves (divide and conquer?), but hey, there's some potential for good fun here, so I'll probably go and see it...Still, nothing I've seen about this movie is even remotely comforting. I expect disaster.
  • The Expendables: Starring every action star ever to appear in an action movie, I really don't know what to expect from this. Will it be riotous fun in the vein of the traditional 80s action movie? Or will it be a a boring snoozefest in the vein of the traditional 80s action movie? Only time will tell, I guess.
  • The A-Team: Yeah, I don't really need to explain this one. Hollywood continues to mine my childhood...
  • The Last Exorcism: I have to admit being a bit interested in this one due to the involvement of Eli Roth and controversial director Daniel Stamm. Unfortunately, I have to admit, it's being made by Eli Roth and controversial director Daniel Stamm. Which is to say, this movie could suck, hardcore. Or it could be maniacal genius. I guess we'll find out...
And that about covers it for the summer. Or not. You never know. For instance, last year's August shocked me in how many good movies were coming out (well, not all of them were good, but still)...
Posted by Mark on May 16, 2010 at 08:03 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Link Dump
Stuff I've found interesting lately: That's all for now!
Posted by Mark on May 12, 2010 at 07:00 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Killzone 2
When I first got my PS3 it seemed like every game I played was a gritty shooter (i.e. the Resistance games, Call of Duty 4, and so on). I tend to enjoy shooters, so that wasn't necessarily a terrible thing, but I did get burnt out on them for a while... so when the PS3 exclusive Killzone 2 came out, I passed on it while moving on to other types of games. Sony recently added it to it's list of Greatest Hits, which means it was now pretty cheap, so I figured I'd check it out. It's a decent game, but I'm glad that I didn't pay full price when it came out.

Killzone 2 is basically a competent FPS game with high production values and no real innovation. Depending on your temperament, this could be a good thing. There's something to be said for a game that does what it does really well, even if there's nothing really new there. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Killzone 2 really reached that level for me. It's got a lot of components of successful games, some of which I like, some of which I don't. For instance, they've adopted the 2 weapon limitation (which is something that I dislike more and more in FPS games - yeah, it's more realistic, but it's also less fun), the lack of a health bar (which is a convention I actually do like a lot), a cover mechanic (which can be good, but which kinda sucks in this game), and so on.

The single player campaign has lots of splashy sequences and the cutscenes are filled with stereotypical tough-guy bravado, cliched dialogue, and the typical brown/grey/blue color scheme of these types of games. But then, you don't play games like this for their story (which makes me wonder why they bother even having one). What you end up with is a series of killboxes, and the progression through them is more difficult than I'm accustomed to with FPS games. One thing I didn't like was the infinitely respawning enemies, which basically forces you to always be moving forward. This makes for a more chaotic game and I found myself dying often. This is something COD games sometimes do, but those games seem to be much better balanced than this one. Maybe it's just because I stink, but during a few standout sequences, I found myself dying so often that the game ceased being any fun at all.

Part of the trouble I had was that I never really had a good feel for my surroundings or where incoming fire was coming from. I would be progressing through an area and suddenly find myself dead because an enemy started shooting at me and I couldn't figure out where they were. This isn't something I had trouble with in any other PS3 shooters, so I'm not exactly sure what the issue was. The blurred vision effect when you're hurt may have something to do with it, as sometimes I could tell where the damage was coming from, other times I couldn't.

The controls of the game are also a bit unusual, especially given they way it plunders other games for various concepts. In particular, the way they use the R3 button to bring up the targeting mode seems awkward (and the fact that it snaps to that mode seems kinda strange). Also, the melee attacks seem ridiculously overpowered (in single player, a single melee attack with the butt of your gun or with the knife will kill most enemies - or you, if you get to close), but this is a common enough feature in FPS games. I think the best illustration of the wonky and unpolished control scheme is this hilarious photo-tutorial on how to use the sniper rifle.

Speaking of the weaponry, what we get here is mostly a series of machine guns. There isn't really a ton of differentiation between them, but they do feel good when you're using them. There are some nice other weapons, like the shotgun or the grenade launcher, but the limitation of only being able to carry 1 main weapon at a time usually discourages playing around with some of those other weapons (though I think the shotgun works pretty well). The one notable exception to all this is the Electricity Gun, which is incredibly fun to play with and imparts an amazing sense of power to the player (unfortunately, that weapon is only available to be used during one relatively short sequence in the game).

Visually the game is gorgeous, and despite the typical color scheme of this type of game, the production design is very well done. The Helghast have these great helmets with glowing red eyes, which I found to be a pleasing design (and it kinda helped in picking them out of the landscapes - evidence that no military in their right mind would ever use such a thing). And I have to admit that the orchestral music is really fantastic for this game. The single player campaign is something that grew on me once I got used to the controls. I managed to have fun with it, even though I occasionally got stuck at a section where I kept dying. Again, I'm not sure if that's just because I'm bad at this kind of shooter or if it's really a balance issue, but I don't find that sort of difficulty to be fun.

Interestingly, I've found myself much more impressed with the multiplayer mode than the single player campaign. This is unusual, since I generally dislike online multiplayer games and never really got into COD4 or Resistance, etc... (though I did enjoy Resistance 2's online co-op) Of course, I've only played a few hours, but there are a bunch of things I really like about the way it works.

From what I can tell, the multiplayer mode is extremely deep and customizable. There are several character classes and the weaponry seems better suited to this type of play too. But what I think is really interesting is that for the first time ever in a multiplayer shooter, I've found myself doing reasonably well right from the start. There are a few big reasons for this, all of which have to do with the way the game is structured. When you start the multiplayer, you only have one character class to choose from: infantryman. As you score points, you move up in military rank and get more choices for weaponry and some additional abilites. Since the game's default matchmaking pits you against other players of similar rank, you end up with a reasonably well balanced match.

Then there's the way the various multiplayer modes are packaged together into matches. There are several types of multiplayer game: there's a free-for-all type mode, a capture the flag type mode, a defend the base mode, an attack the base mode, and there's the assassination mode. Whenever you play multiplayer, you play a match that consists of 4-7 of these modes and whichever team wins the most wins the match. The thing I like about this is that I can actually get comfortable with the level designs. In COD4, for example, I found myself constantly being thrown from one map to another and I never got too familiar with any one map. With Killzone 2, by the end of a match, I found myself in pretty good shape. I knew the important locations and the alternate routes to get there, etc...

Now, this isn't to say that the multiplayer mode is perfect, just that I was able to get up to speed reasonably quickly and am actually looking forward to playing the game some more (which, again, is somewhat unprecedented for me). I'm only at Sergeant First Class, so it's quite possible the game will fall apart later, but I'm having fun. Of course, it does seem like the various upgrades and whatnot will come pretty slow. I'll probably have to play another 3-5 hours to even get the ability to play as another class (the medic). This is one thing I think COD does better, which is to impart the feeling that you're constantly achieving something new. I guess we'll see, but I feel like being slowly introduced to the new character classes will allow me to play the game without being overwhelmed (which I sometimes got when playing COD4 online).

In the end, I have some mixed feelings about this game. There are a bunch of things I don't like about it, but it did grow on me a bit as I played it, and I'm rather surprised at my response to the multiplayer. I will probably continue to play the multiplayer and will hopefully not be overwhelmed by the progression of complexity.
Posted by Mark on May 09, 2010 at 04:33 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Book Queue
I recently mentioned that I'm working my way through a backlog of book purchases. This is actually somewhat unusual for me. I've always had a long list of books I wanted to read, but I usually only had a few unread books waiting on my shelf. But lately, I've been building up a large library of books I haven't read. Sitting on my shelf right now: Don't you just love how non-fiction almost always has a long, descriptive subhead? The only one that doesn't in this list is How We Decide, and that's perhaps because Lehrer chose a self-explanatory title. The others have fluffy titles that need some sort of explanation. Except Boyd. That's a biography of a guy named John Boyd. But I suppose he's more exciting when you know that he's a "Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War". Then again, GEB has a subhead that's more mysterious than the title. So I'm just babbling now and should probably stop (and then read these books). Interestingly, I thought I had more books to put on this list, but I've made relatively good progress the last few months...
Posted by Mark on May 05, 2010 at 08:08 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

SF Book Review, Part 4
It's been a while since I posted one of these. Some of the below aren't quite SF, but they're close enough. For more SF, check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin: Because of the recommendation of long-time Kaedrin friend Sovawanea, I picked up two Le Guin books. The first was The Left Hand of Darkness, which I really enjoyed. In The Dispossessed, Le Guin covers much of the same thematic ground, but in a much more blatant way.

    The book is set on the planet Urras and its moon Anarres. About 200 years before the events of the book, a group of anarchists lead by a woman on Urras named Odo were given the right to colonize the moon. The Odonians made their way to the moon and cut themselves off from the rest of the universe. Theoretically, it's a non-authoritarian communist society, with no property and no formal government. In practice, things are a little more complicated. The story follows a physicist named Shevek. He's working on a General Temporal Theory, but no one on Anerres understands his work and indeed, many stand in his way. So he makes the choice to travel to Urras. The physicists there understand his work and are also in touch with alien societies like the Terrans and the Hainish. Urras is pretty clearly supposed to represent Earth during the 1960s and early 1970s, even if the technology is more advanced. There are two main powers on Urras. A-Io represents the United States and Thu represents the Soviet Union. During the course of the story, there's even a proxy war in Benbili, which is clearly meant to be Vietnam.

    The book's prose has an artistry lacking in a lot of SF of the era, yet it remains straightforward enough to remain accessible. I also found the structure of the book interesting. Each chapter alternates between Shevek's experiences on Urras and the events on Anarres leading up to his trip. Interestingly, this non-linear structure reinforces the physics of time that Shevek is attempting to work out (i.e. his theories eschew the common notion of time being linear). Unfortunately, I found the clear allusions to the US vs Soviet Union to be a bit too bald for my tastes. A good portion of the book consists of various lectures on the nature of government and property and communism, which I found a bit grating. On the one hand, I found most of the specifics of A-Io and Anarres to be unconvincing. On the other hand, I have a certain respect for thought experiments in this vein (for example, Heinlein's Starship Troopers literally contains lecturing on various political stances). I don't think Anarres is a place that could ever exist in reality, for instance. By the end of the novel though, this feeling was not nearly as pronounced as it was throughout. The big issue here, though, is that I didn't really care that much about Shevek. There were times I was rooting for him, but I mostly didn't care and in one particular instance, I really despised what he was doing (even if he was drunk at the time). In the end, it's an interesting book, but not really my thing. I don't think it's soured me on Le Guin, though it has tempered my enthusiasm. In a lot of ways, The Left Hand of Darkness explores similar territory with respect to societal structures, government and even sexuality, but it does so with much more subtlety and depth. One thing I can say about The Dispossessed is that it made me appreciate The Left Hand of Darkness more... and I would certainly recommend that novel over The Dispossessed.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick: I'd actually never read a Philip K. Dick novel before this one, which I found to be quite interesting, if a little inconclusive. It's an alternate history novel (a subject that's come up recently here) but what really sets it apart from the others I've seen is the notion of recursion. In this novel, the Axis powers won WWII and have occupied the United States. The story mostly takes place on the West Coast, where the Japanese run things. There are references to the Nazi occupied East Coast, but we don't really see anything there. The most interesting thing about the book, though, is the recursive book-within-abook. There's a man in this novel who has written an alternate history book of his own - one in which the Allies won WWII (that book does not match our reality though). That author is the titular man in the High Castle, and several of the characters in the book have read his novel-within-the-novel, driving various plots forward. The notion being explored here is that there isn't a singular reality, but many, and that we'd all be better for considering more than our own conception of reality. Dick writes with a lot of soul here. Like Le Guin, there's more artistry in his prose than in a lot of other SF, and the storytelling isn't quite as straightforward either. This novel contains a lot of interesting elements, including assassination attempts, love affairs, nuclear war plots, antiques forgery, spies and espionage, and yet, the book does not feel like a story that contains those elements. It seems much more concerned with the way various characters cope with living in a totalitarian regime, and much of the novel focuses on the tone and atmosphere of a Japanese occupied America. I have to admit, it's a convincing portrait. Dick doesn't go to cartoonish lengths to demonstrate the world and as a result, it seems oddly realistic. There's not much closure in the end, but there are some interesting happeneings and it was an intriguing read nonetheless.
  • Angelmass by Timothy Zahn: Another page-turner from Zahn, and I have to admit that he's become a standard fallback for me. Whenever I get burnt out on the thematic complexities of various novels and want something more entertaining that will turn the pages fast, I know I can count on Zahn. In this story, we get something a little different than the typical Space Opera story that Zahn seemingly specializes in... There's a scientist who is enlisted as a spy and a con girl and a nice cast of supporting characters, all focussed around a stable black hole which emits particles dubbed as Angels. When placed in proximity to humans, these Angels seem to induce calm, reasonable feelings. They even seem capable of rendering humans incapable of lying. Of course, there are two major governments in the story. One has embraced the Angels, requiring its members to carry an Angel at all times. The other sees the Angels as an alien plot to control humanity. I have to admit that I didn't find this to be a very compelling idea at first, but Zahn has a knack for page turning stories, and this is no exception. About 15 years ago, I read Zahn's Conqueror's Trilogy, which I remember really enjoying - and I think I'm going to revisit that series again next.
  • John Dies at the End by David Wong: You might recognize the name David Wong from his work as the editor of cracked.com and his brilliant articles like The Ultimate War Simulation Game, Life after the Video Game Crash, and Was 9/11 an Inside Job?. In this novel, Wong is in fine form, though it is far from a perfect effort. It's really more of a horror/comedy novel than anything else, but it does skirt the boundaries of SF and explore some SF ideas. The plot would be tough to describe in a short space, but there's a number of funny and entertaining set pieces, my favorite being an encounter in a shopping mall where the titular John intuits that they are basically living in an FPS video game, thus finding health packs and shotgun ammo in various crates, etc... It's a great sequence, and there are a bunch of them throughout the novel, but at the same time, there's a distinctive lack of connective tissue here. The book reads more like a semi-connected series of one-off stories, and there's not really a conclusive ending, though despite the book's title, I found myself quite surprised at what happened to John. It's all good fun and I enjoyed it for what it was, but it isn't really anchored by anything and it doesn't really go anywhere in the end. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing, and Wong's humor certainly keeps the pages turning, so it does have a lot going for it (it's got a certain cult sensibility), but I was expecting more.
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: It's been many years since I read this, and I have to wonder if most of it didn't just fly over my head the first time. There isn't much of a story to either book - they're really just a series of encounters with strange and fantastical creatures that give Caroll, a mathematician, the chance to play word games and explore things like formal logic, philosophy, and history. What we end up with is a series of non sequiturs that can be entertaining at times but which can also be a little hard to read. That being said, I can see why it's so influential. The reason I wanted to reread this book was Tim Burton's film version, a movie I never got around to seeing (more because I'm not a big fan of Burton than for any other reason). It's not one of my favorite books, but it certainly has its moments.
That wraps things up for now. Currently reading Zahn's Conqueror's Trilogy and working my way through my backlog of book purchases (I've built up a stack of unread novels and non-fiction that I've resolved to finish reading before purchasing anything new). I've only gotten through about half the books I've posted about wanting to read, but I've got many of them sitting on my shelf right now, so hopefully I can work my way through them pretty quickly.
Posted by Mark on May 02, 2010 at 10:37 AM .: link :.

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